This year, Chicago’s Riot Fest boasted a particularly triumphant lineup. From the Cure to AFI, Ani DiFranco to Insane Clown Posse, it was three days that felt like an alt fever dream I would’ve been as excited to experience in middle school as I was today. And the benefit of living through it today was the inclusion of emerging alternative outfits like the Aquadolls, California’s bright punk trio, who, despite starting the festival off with the very first Friday afternoon slot, played one of the weekend’s most memorable sets.
For punk bands throughout history, it’s been proven that an alt attitude and strong, self-assured sense of style are as important as sound and lyricism. Some of the genre’s most beloved and influential artists, from Kim Gordon to Courtney Love, have held their own as timeless fashion tastemakers. This weekend, we saw this in real time, with artists on the bill demonstrating boundless style on and offstage.
Read more: Every the Cure album ranked: From worst to best
Knowing all too well the intersection between alternative fashion and music cultures, beloved brand ROMWE held an activation on-site at the festival, a space for fans and artists alike to come, engage, and accessorize. To kick off the long and eventful weekend, AltPress got the chance to experience its first hours with none other than the Aquadolls, following Melissa Brooks, Jackie Proctor, and Keilah Nina around festival grounds while they got show-ready looks together and toured the ROMWE Garage, chatting about all things alt-girl style, before soaking in their spunky, powerful set.
What does alternative mean to you?
MELISSA BROOKS: Alternative is anything against the grain that pushes boundaries of social norms.
JACKIE PROCTOR: Alternative to me is not necessarily being completely different in whatever that is, whether that’s art, music, or fashion, but it’s pulling from different influences and spitting it out into the world through your own personal lens. It’s relatable, but also eye-opening! It can be one thing or both things. I don’t think there have to be rules. It’s just going a different route than the one before!
KEILAH NINA: Anything out of the norm/mainstream.
Who was your first idol? Who did you see or hear that made you want to play music?
BROOKS: Britney Spears was my first music crush, as I would spend hours every day in elementary school singing and dancing along to her music videos. No Doubt and Gwen Stefani inspired me to want to sing in a band in my earliest years, and Paramore made me realize that I wanted to do music as a career at the ripe age of 15.
NINA: Strawberry Shortcake was probably my first idol ever. I worshiped the ground her cartoon feet walked on! But for real-life musicians, I would say Hannah Montana and Demi Lovato are the very first musicians I ever was really obsessed with.
PROCTOR: My first idol was probably Dave Grohl or Hilary Duff. I’ve always played music since I was younger, but when I saw Dave Grohl play “Walk” on MTV, that’s when I knew I wasn’t going to do anything else but music.
Who would you say has had the best style and the best stage presence of all time?
BROOKS: My first thought goes straight to Cherie Currie of the Runaways! She always pushed boundaries in her performances, wearing badass outfits decked in leather, lace, and platform boots, all while being an absolute powerhouse onstage.
NINA: This is a tough one for me, as I feel like it changes so much during each era of
music. One of my favorites would probably be the Lunachicks. They have such a distinct style and stage presence that I could never get tired of.
PROCTOR: I think Lady Gaga is up there for me, but there’s so many amazing artists who could just wear a black T-shirt and win a crowd over with the way they hold themselves and look at the crowd. Mazzy Star has a really cool presence. It’s the vulnerability in her voice and face that can really draw someone in.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
PROCTOR: I like to put on some pump-up jams to get our energy up and maybe some push-ups, drumstick warm-ups, and vocal warm-ups.
NINA: Honestly, I don’t have any specific rituals that I do before a set, but I really love when Jackie plays pump-up music before we go on. A huge one on our summer tour last year with Incubus was blasting Turnstile before every performance to get us hype.
BROOKS: I chug lots of water, make sure my guitar is tuned up, do a vibe-check with my bandmates, and play some fun tunes to get the party started before hitting the stage!
Who are you most excited to be sharing the stage with/seeing at Riot Fest?
BROOKS: It is an absolute honor to share the stage with Kim Gordon, as well as Tegan and Sara! Growing up listening to them and fawning over their music videos, I am just tickled to be in the same air as them. I am also very excited for 100 gecs and Death Grips!
PROCTOR: Definitely Foo Fighters and Turnstile! Oh, and Pinkshift!
NINA: It’s so great to be sharing the stage with Pinkshift. I’ve been following their music for a while now, and so it was great to finally hear their songs live!
What are you wearing now — can you describe your outfits?
NINA: I’m wearing a green plaid slip-style dress with some comfy chunky sneakers and a rosette choker, all from ROMWE! I feel like it’s giving French tutor who isn’t very good at tutoring, but loves a good accessory.
BROOKS: Today I am wearing this little pleather bondage black top with red laces, some wide-legged, red-and-black duality pants, a spider chain, and platform boots, all from ROMWE! I feel like today I am serving emo jester realness.
PROCTOR: I have a loose collared shirt over a white tank with baggy cargo pants, accessorized with a spiked leash choker and trucker hat from ROMWE.
What draws you to styles like ROMWE? How do you pick your show outfits and makeup?
BROOKS: I love alternative fashion and being able to have a broad range in my day-to-day style, and ROMWE has lots of aesthetic options, so it made perfect sense! I like to base my outfits on my mood or vibe for the day, and then I base my makeup on the mood’s color palette!
PROCTOR: ROMWE is a fun brand because they have a lot of fun accessories that we like. They have a lot of nostalgic kind of ’90s punk-rock pieces right now, which was perfect for Riot Fest and our love for ’90s pop and punk fashion!
NINA: I definitely think the accessibility is a really cool factor that draws me to them. Being able to find cute clothes in my size is pretty difficult in general, so it’s nice to be able to find unique pieces in my size that are affordable! The stage is a place I’m really comfortable, so I really like to experiment with fun outfits and makeup that I don’t have the chance to wear in my day-to-day life.
What are the challenges you’ve had to navigate as young women in the music industry, and how does your music approach that very real struggle?
NINA: Not being taken seriously is something that is really frustrating to me, having to go the extra mile to prove that we can handle the pressure of being in the music industry. It gets really annoying that our emotions are used as weapons against us until it has monetary value in the form of a streamable song.
BROOKS: It’s also frustrating not being taken as seriously as our male counterparts. It also can be disheartening to see the lack of femme representation in the music scene, and I will continue to fight that struggle daily with our music and platform to give more femmes and non-men spotlight in the industry! Festivals, mainstream bands, and radio stations, please hear me out: Book more femmes and queers. Please! There are so many of us out there. They just need to be seen and heard.
PROCTOR: Big dogs bite back — that’s all I have to say. No, but really, just bite back with a song and hit hard onstage!
The way you talk about your band really makes it seem like it’s a super cathartic project for you. What would you say to someone who is trying to overcome the fear of self-expression and get to that place?
BROOKS: I feel that at the end of the day, you are your own worst critic. Do not let fear of judgment from others stop you from pursuing your dreams. Instead, let that fuel your fire, to prove anyone who doubted you wrong, and be your most authentic self. It can be scary, but push yourself, and you can make your dreams come true!
NINA: Take baby steps! It’s really hard to jump straight into something that you aren’t familiar with, but if you start off experimenting little by little and day by day, it gets so much easier! I feel really lucky to have gotten to a point where I don’t really care about what others think or say about the way I dress. Once you let go of that fear of judgment, it is so freeing.
PROCTOR: Tune in with music. Connect to your inner child. There is really no wrong way to self-express. It’s a journey that I think we are all currently still on and will always be on. Scream when you want to scream, dance when you want to dance, and be the energy you want to attract!