Aimee Interrupter: “I’ve suffered, I’ve had to fight for survival… but it’s all been worth it”

The Interrupters vocalist Aimee reflects on a journey of trauma, risk-taking and why she’ll always be a lifer…

Aimee Interrupter: “I’ve suffered, I’ve had to fight for survival… but it’s all been worth it”
Jimmy Fontaine

Hollywood should consider making a biopic of Aimee Interrupter’s life some day. Because hers is a story of tremendous suffering, sacrifice, resilience, and salvation.

To hear her tell it, granting Kerrang! a rare solo interview, it’s hard to believe that it’s real at times, so fanciful are some of the twists and turns. Yet we barely even scratch the surface. But if things keep going the way they have been of late for her band, The Interrupters, movie producers may indeed come calling. Right now, the vocalist is in the midst of what appears to be a happy ending to her story, or at least the first part of it, anyway – something that for the longest time looked decidedly unlikely.

As we speak, the Los Angeles ska gang are relaxing after their meteoric rise in the whirlwind two years since breakout third record Fight The Good Fight made them the hottest name in punk. Aimee is also fresh from two weeks of hyperbaric oxygen therapy – a treatment that helps with her recovery and management of brain injuries sustained as the result of a random assault 12 years ago. It’s one of many dark things from her past, as we’ll soon learn, that put the light and success of the present into sharp focus. Even if it does mean her own focus can be somewhat compromised on occasion.

“I’ve prepared some notes for the interview, to help remind me of things,” she begins as we sit down for a lengthy, frank and often heartbreaking chat about her life and journey in music thus far. “Because I get confused and it’s a long story. There’s a lot of mess in there!”

Time to try untangling some of that, then…

You had a tumultuous upbringing. What can you tell us about it?
“I grew up in Missoula, Montana, and I was a weird kid. My dad left when I was two months old, so my mom was on her own raising four children. I’m the youngest out of my brother and two sisters. My mom was a school teacher on an Indian reservation, so she really struggled to raise us. Life was tough, and she raised us all by herself until I was eight years old. Then she married my stepdad and my life became… Well, he was a monster.”

How so?
“He was just awful. I eventually ended up in a foster home, but there were a lot of years of suffering under his rule. Finally, the government stepped in and took my siblings and me away. My mother was a victim of domestic abuse and she couldn’t escape. She had battered woman syndrome, so she was just as much a victim as we were. And I’m really close to my mom – we’re best friends – so it was very traumatic being ripped away from her. When she married my stepdad, I started pulling out my eyelashes, my eyebrows and my head hair [an obsessive-compulsive disorder known as trichotillomania]. So I looked weird, too. I just felt so ugly and out of place. I felt like an alien on this planet. The running theme in my life is that I never felt like I fit in.”

When did music come into your life?
“We didn’t watch a lot of TV, so we played music around the house and my mom played the accordion a lot. One of my earliest memories was all of us kids crowding around the accordion and singing together – I think that that feeling of all of us as a family singing together, I’ve really brought with me to our shows today. Later, when I was eight, I discovered Joan Jett for the first time. I had some allowance money, so I went to the record store on my bike and her cassette was the first thing I bought. I really felt like I wasn’t alone when I heard Joan. But around the same time, as punishment, my stepdad would take my tape away, because he knew it was my favourite thing in the world.”

That sounds rather cruel…
“It was very cruel. But I had learned all the lyrics and I knew how to sing, so as an act of rebellion, I would sing really loudly. I’d get spanked for it, but it was like the only power I had was my voice. The only way I could fight back was by singing. I learned that at a young age. It was like, ‘You can’t break my spirit!’ He was a Vietnam vet, so he was really strict. Music was my salvation. Music has saved me my whole life.”

Before you even recognised it as such, was this the first spark of an inner punk spirit?
“Well, I’ve always loved rebel music. My mom had a jukebox with all these boxes of records and I discovered a lot from that. In middle school, I discovered grunge, rap and reggae. And in high school I discovered Green Day, Rancid, Bad Religion, NOFX, No Doubt and Save Ferris. It was in high school when I saw The Specials live for the first time, and I realised, ‘This is what I want to do, this is the music I want to make. This is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.’ It changed my life.”

Was that when you started writing songs?
“I actually wrote my first song when I was eight. I remember crying my eyes out because I didn’t have any money to buy my mom a birthday present, so I wrote her a song called Happy Birthday, and I sang it for her. To this day, it’s a family tradition.”

Presumably you don’t mean the happy birthday song, right?
“No, this was my own. It goes (sings): ‘Happy, happy birthday from all of me to you. Happy, happy birthday, may all your dreams come true. Happy, happy birthday, God bless you. Happy, happy birthday, we love you. Forever more, forever more, happy birthday forever more.’ Writing songs at that early age helped me. I had diaries of them that helped me get through my life, helped me through my pain and helped me make sense of the world.”

When you left foster care your biological father became your legal guardian in Billings, Montana, eight hours away. It was there where your love of music grew deeper. What are your memories of that time?
“My dad is a football coach, but he also liked to drink, and he loved to go to the karaoke bar. One stipulation of my allowance was that I’d come to the bar and sing karaoke for his friends. He didn’t want to leave me home by myself, I guess, so it became part of our routine, me singing in these bars. For a few years of my life, every week I’d be down at the karaoke bar until all hours. And because he’s a coach, he would yell at me to sing louder and harder – in a positive, loving way. There were a lot of drunk, grown men, there was a lot of cigarette smoke, and a lot of shouting at me. It was a tough environment. In a weird way, I grew up performing in bars.”

Given the challenges you faced in your youth, did performing onstage empower you and instil a sense of confidence?
“Yeah, I think it did. To this day, I still hear my father shouting in my head when I sing. I wanted to impress him. I wanted to make him proud.”

Was it always music or bust, or were you into other stuff, too?
“I was also really into wrestling. My uncle was a wrestling coach and my first cousins were all boys, who were state champions, so I really wanted to be like them and compete, but because I was a girl, I couldn’t. I wanted to play football, but I couldn’t do that either, once again, because I was a girl. And I wanted to be in a band ever since I can remember, but finding other eight-year-olds to start a band with is hard (laughs).”

How frustrating was it not being able to pursue your passions?
“It really pissed me off that I couldn’t do stuff just because I was a girl. So when I discovered punk, I was so sick of people telling me I couldn’t do things that it was like, ‘No, I’m doing this.’ Rebel music is my soul. Punk was the perfect thing for me. Seeing The Specials, then No Doubt and Save Ferris around the same time, was this perfect storm. It was like, ‘Okay, girls are invited to this party!’ I felt like I had found my calling. I knew what kind of music I wanted to do, but I couldn’t find the band. I actually ran away from home when I was a senior because I had a boyfriend back in Missoula, where I was originally from. So I moved back in with my mom and I finished high school there. That’s when I first got a band together. I had a couple of bands there in the end. Then I went to college for a year, I studied Women’s Studies, I wanted to be a DJ and I played shows. I even recorded a demo, and it wasn’t what I wanted, but it was as good as I could find and it was a step in the right direction. Then I decided that I needed to move to LA when I was 18. So I drove my car to the Hollywood sign, I parked up and then I was like, ‘Oh, damn, now what?!’ I didn’t know anybody.”

That’s a huge leap of faith. Was it a scary move?
“Well, anything was better than where I was from. I felt like I had nothing to lose, and this was my life’s dream. So I walked into restaurants with my resume and ultimately got a job waiting tables, working 10pm ‘til six in the morning, which was perfect for me because I can’t sleep anyway. For tips I would sing songs. When I had days off, I would walk Sunset Boulevard, asking people if they wanted to start a band because I wasn’t yet old enough to get into the bars as I was only 19. I eventually found the members of the band No Motiv, we played a show that Randy Jackson [American Idol judge and music entrepreneur] was at and he was like, ‘I’m gonna help you get a record deal.’ Long story short, I ended up signing a record deal in New York with Elektra, because No Motiv were tied to another contract.”

To cut another, well-documented long story short, you eventually found The Interrupters after an aborted stint as a solo songwriter. Those days of trying to catch a break must feel like a lifetime ago now, though, right?
“I feel like I’ve lived 1,000 lifetimes. And I’m glad. I’m glad that I’ve suffered. It makes me appreciate what I have now, so much. I appreciate what I have with such a richness, fullness and deep, deep gratitude that I’m not sure I would if it was all just handed to me. I’ve had to fight for survival.”

In the summer of 2018, things seemed to come full circle when you finally met your idol, Joan Jett. What was that experience like?
“I didn’t think I would react the way that I did. My whole body was shaking and I was sobbing. She was like my best friend when I was a kid – nobody understood me like her. She got me through so many tough times, she helped shape me – I wanted to be her. So when I met her it was such a Twilight Zone moment. I kind of left my body for a moment. She gave me the longest, best hug and whispered some things in my ear that inspired me to keep going. She was everything that I ever dreamed she would be.”

Have you had fans react like that to you?
“It’s happened a few times since then. So I try to pass on the hug. I try to pay that hug forward!”

You’ve spoken candidly about your past. Given the opportunities you now have thanks to The Interrupters’ success, what are your ambitions for the future?
“The greatest gift would be for me to be a voice for others who also feel like they’re alone in the world, who feel outside, disconnected, or like they’re an alien on the planet, like I did. If they could listen to my music and go, ‘I’m not alone. I feel heard and I feel seen.’ That’s the greatest gift, because I know what it’s like to receive it. It’s gotten me through this world and this journey. Music is just so beautiful, it’s like my best friend, and I’d be dead without it, for sure. Even as a child it was like this voice for my deep rage when I couldn’t find the words. I just want to make great records that help leave the world better than how I found it; to keep making music that I’m proud of that helps people and brings them together; to continue making unity music with my family.”

So you’re in this for life?
“If people will have me. I don’t have a backup plan. I don’t know what else I would do, because I’m awful at everything else. Every day that I get to do this is a huge blessing. As long as people keep coming to shows, I’ll be there.”

Do you have any ambitions outside of music?
“Honestly? I’ve had trichotillomania my whole life and it’s something that I manage, but I’ve also had serious anxiety, I’ve been plagued with severe panic attacks and depression, and I spent a lot of years trying to run from my pain, self medicating with alcohol or whatever. So I feel like my ambition now is health, particularly mental health. Whether it’s acupuncture, getting the right vitamins, exercise, hyperbaric oxygen treatment, aromatherapy… I guess when I’m not doing music, I’m trying to figure out how to be happy, stable and not anxious. I am making some great strides. I wouldn’t say I don’t pull my hair out anymore, but it’s rare. The hyperbaric therapy I just did got a lot of oxygen to my brain, and it helped calm me down. I like learning about stuff that can help me and then telling other people about it. I’m trying to put myself and my health first. It’s been a journey, but I’m just getting started.”

Your past is marked with a lot of pain and trauma. Are you finding your way towards happiness now?
“I feel, mentally, the healthiest I’ve ever been. I’m not sure what that says, but for me, I’m in a good place. Music saved me from my desperate loneliness and isolation. I had a restless spirit. In wrestling and football, girls were not allowed. I was treated as less because I was a girl. I was called a tomboy by everyone growing up, and was picked on because of it. I was running from my pain, drinking heavily, yelling at people in the streets about the injustices of the world, getting ‘revolution’ tattooed on my arm and screaming at the sky. But I realised that the most subversive revolutionary thing of all was to show up for my life, to be my authentic self without the whiskey filter. The punkest thing of all was to raw-dog reality, to be compassionate to myself, and try to sort through some of my heavy emotional wreckage – to start to heal my complex trauma and severe depression, instead of staying in my sweet protective shell of anger all the time. For years, I was running from that pain and pushing it down, smothering true reality. Now I want to be a conduit of love, compassion and forgiveness with my music – to use my voice for positivity and to dare to step into the light.”

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