Babes In Toyland: A Fête Worse Than Death

Rumble rumble rumble… whizz “WHAAAAHH!”And that’s just listening to the new BABES IN TOYLAND album, long before EDWIN POUNCEY went anywhere near a rollercoaster with them. All in a day’s death defying for the Minneapolis muthas, however.

NEW BABES IN Toyland bass player Maureen Herman looks up, somewhat unimpressed at the Looping Star rollercoaster, the pride of Margate’s Dreamland ‘White Knuckle Ride’ park.

It turns out that Maureen is a rollercoaster connoisseur of sorts, having ridden the mighty American Eagle ‘coaster back home at Great America where, before she got the call from the Babes, she used to work. The way Maureen describes that particular ride is enough to make me break out in a cold sweat. I’ve never been on a rollercoaster in my life and the prospect of climbing aboard the “pathetic” Looping Star is something I am secretly dreading. If the truth be told…I’M TERRIFIED!

So how many points out of ten would you give this one, Maureen?

“About three,” she sighs, as we wait in line to board the thing. “It’s just not big enough.”

“These rides are for babies,” sneers guitarist Kat Bjelland. “It’s really small, I like ’em when they go straight up and straight down. You’ve got to feel like you’re gonna die otherwise they’re not exciting.”

As the queue edges nearer to the front I feel like I’m going to die any minute. So Kat, I blubber, what in your opinion should a good rollercoaster ride supply?

“Practically a heart attack,” she laughs. “At Great America you just go from rollercoaster to rollercoaster… It’s unbelievable!”

My torment is prolonged because we have to wait until we are at the very front of the queues so we can grab the back seats, the only position from which photographer Kevin Cummins can manage to shoot the picture he has in mind without a bunch of unwanted heads getting in the way. This means I have to watch, dry-mouthed and full of terror as the Looping Star goes through its mechanical motions.

It climbs, teeters, falls from a ridiculously precarious looking summit, takes several dangerous curves at whiplash speed and, horror of horrors, does a complete crazy loop and for one agonising second, the entire contraption turns upside-down to twist your innards inside-out. Before I have time to protest or change my mind I’m being bundled on board by the gals, into a seat where an unshiftable safety bar prevents my escape.

“Are you OK, Edwin?” I hear drummer Lori Barbero chortle behind me, as the car makes its painfully slow ascent to that first brain-chilling drop into empty space. The Margate landscape stretches out below me for an instant, frozen still in time as though somebody had just flashed a scenic postcard of the place under my nose. After that, I don’t really remember anything…

Everything flashes by in a blur of speed, colour and screaming. “MUTHAF***ERRRRRRR!!!” I yell at the top of my lungs, convinced that I’m going to die any second and am already on an express train to eternal damnation. Less than a minute later, wobbly but still alive, I manage to stagger away from the Looping Star and admit to all that I had actually enjoyed the experience.

“Yeah, it was pretty good for a small one,” admits Maureen, upping her original rating a couple of notches.

“It was better than it looked,” agrees Kat. “It was a fooler. That’s carnival talk from way back when I was a carny.”

“YAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! That was fun, I loved it!” roars Lori. “It makes me do the loopy loop!”

THAT’S ONE way of describing it, I guess. But having my rollercoaster cherry popped reminded me more of listening to the Babes’ fab new Fontanelle LP, which is to be released simultaneously by major Reprise and old faithful indie Southern. The full adrenalin/speed rush and colour blur is all on there, without having to kiss goodbye to terra firma. Plus… It’s the kind of record that makes you wanna scream out “MUTHAF***ERRRRRRR!!!” with the sheer unadulterated thrill of it all. We’ll sit down and discuss the joys of Fontanelle in detail later, but for now let’s take a well earned donut break and soak up some of Margate’s seaside splendour.

“I’ve been here before,” groans Lori through a mouthful of greasy donut which, we all agree, looks like a fried rat’s butthole. “I can’t remember what ride I was on, but it snapped and one of the seats hit the gate thing and they had to stop it. It was pretty scary.”

While Lori was telling us this horror story, a nearby tannoy suddenly bursts into life and blares out some sandblasted circus tune which Kat immediately recognises.

“Now that’s pretty scary. That song goes through my head like all the time,” she shudders.

We flee in search of the Mary Rose, Dreamland’s (only) other main attraction that looks even deadlier than the Looping Star. Mary Rose is a galleon-shaped ride which swings like a pendulum and completes a full circle as part of its coronary-inducing cycle. It’s the kind of ride wild horses couldn’t drag me on, but Kat, Lori and lensman Kevin seem keen to give it a go. They climb aboard while the rest of us look on from the safety of the shore.

Mary Rose does its thang and out stumble the intrepid trio looking decidedly green about the gills. Kevin is particularly shaken by the voyage. “It was horrible,” he complains. “You’d have hated it, Edwin. Somebody pissed themselves with fright and it went down my neck!”

Kat complains of feeling slightly seasick while Lori appears to be unaffected and eager to search out some further amusement. “Wow, they’re going really fast on that planet thing,” she kids, pointing to Heatwave, a stupid looking giant orange asteroid shaped swing ride, on top of which a couple of crows have decided to roost.

“C’mon, you’re a swinger,” joshes Lori. “I wanna orbit around yer-anus.”

BY NOW, the glamour of Dreamland has begun to pall and our collective hunger pangs are urging us on to explore the joys of Margate’s legendary international cuisine.

We head for the exit, but on our way out I espy one of those ‘A Prize Every Time’ machines, a crudely decorated glass cabinet in which a tatty looking mechanical chicken squats and squawks over her clutch of imitation eggs. I drop my 10p into the slot of the chicken’s lair and out rolls a single plastic-shelled egg. Inside rattles my ‘prize’, which I duly present to

She pops it open eagerly and holds up the sad, cheap trinket It’s a heart ring, so small that only a doll’s finger would fit it but (particularly pathetic and symbolic) the plastic stone is missing from the setting. No single object could possibly sum up our day out at Dreamland better than the chicken’s hollow gift. Kat agrees.

“It’s kinda like the way I feel about carnivals,” she sighs sadly. “They’re supposed to be happy places but they’re not really. They’re kinda demented the way alcoholic clowns are. Have you ever known a clown?”

I confess that I have never had that dubious pleasure. Circus clowns tend to give me the creeps and I try to steer clear of their company.

“My grandparents were clowns for a while,” continues Kat, “and it was the scariest f***in’ thing ever!

“They went to kids parties and entertained there. It was horrible, and they were alcoholics as well, which goes hand-in-hand with being a clown.”

Kat looks again at her empty ring in its plastic half-shell and smiles a secret little smile. “Can you believe I got this?”

The rest of Margate is equally unbelievable as we trudge along the streets in near desperation, looking for a place that will serve us both food and beer. Along the way we keep bumping into numerous reminders of where we are, the Great British Holiday Resort where everybody seems content with what God and John Major has given them as they loll on deckchairs under a sky the colour of concrete.

Amusement arcades with deformed looking furry Bart Simpson dolls as the bait to hook you in. Seaside rock stalls that offer lurid coloured lollipops with such Carry On quips as ‘I’m Rock Hard’, ‘Hold My Stick’ and ‘Suck Me For Pleasure’ written on them in tooth-rotting white icing sugar.

Seedy seafront pubs which hammer out the latest jukebox jive or the legless cacophony of ‘Jack At The Piano’. Margate is certainly no Eldorado.

We eventually discover a watering hole that (almost) supplies what we’ve been searching for. A dingy basement restaurant that is run by a couple of Italian gents whose speciality is standard British fare with very little imagination. We perch on rickety, hard seated chairs, our elbows sticking to the red plastic tablecloth, and scour the flyblown menu for something that doesn’t come served with chips and ‘G-peas’.

Maureen takes a brave step into the unknown by asking if the spaghetti could possibly be served with a sauce that doesn’t have any meat in it. Our host steps back a couple of paces, in order to give his tower jaw plenty of room to hit the floor.

“Without the meat,” he explains somewhat flustered, “there can be no sauce!” Vegetarianism is obviously a taboo subject here.

Despite his further offer of “opening up a tin of tomato soup”, Maureen declines and reluctantly goes for a plate of chips and a glass of milk. The rest of us order fried plaice, chips, peas, a bottle of Pils and a glass of water. When my water arrives I plunk in a Solpadine which fizzes soothingly in its glass and instantly attracts Kat’s attention.

“What’s that got in it?” she wants to know, keen to share my growing interest and experimentation with across-the-counter pain-killing remedies. She gets even more interested when I tell her it has codeine in it, a drug that is apparently unobtainable in American pharmacies. Have a sip Kat, I offer.

It is while we are locked in this intriguing conversation that Maureen unexpectedly sends her water glass flying with her elbow. Water cascades everywhere, flooding the table and pouring into Kat’s lap. She shrieks and calls out for the waiter to bring her a cloth to staunch the flow. Maureen sits apologetic, unflustered and bone dry. Seeing as she is currently the centre of attention, I ask her about the circumstances which led up to her replacing former bass Babe Michelle Leon (whose departure, I am reliably informed, was completely amicable).

“I’ve known Kat and Lori for years, I saw their first show in Minneapolis. I was playing in various bands in Minneapolis and Chicago, really terrible one-show bands. So, when Michelle quit, Lori called me at work and asked if I wanted to do it. I thought about it and decided to do it.”

Tell me about the first time you saw Babes In Toyland in action, presumably as a four-piece without Kat singing yet?

“The first one, yeah. I remember after I saw it that I told Kat she should sing, because they were using another singer. I said, ‘You should sing, you’ve got a much better voice.’ A few times after that she was singing and the other girl was out. Then they went to a trio.”

“Trios are great,” cuts in Lori. “No-one can slack whatsoever, it makes for a stronger band.”

“You have to fill up a lot of space, guitar-wise,” adds Kat.

“If I slip up I just turn the volume down,” Maureen confesses.

Tell me how it feels, though, Maureen, to be a part of the band you once used to be a fan of?

“It’s strange,” she smiles, “I wish I could go see them like I used to, but I can’t. I sometimes imagine myself in the audience wondering what it must be like to see me instead of Michelle up there. But it’s fun, I’m glad it happened.”

Maureen’s first important assignment as an official Babe was to follow Kat and Lori into the studio with producer Lee Ranaldo to record the band’s third LP, their first for Reprise, a task that proved to be more strenuous than first envisioned. While Spanking Machine and To Mother (BiT’s LPs for Minneapolis independent Twin/Tone Records) were cranked out successfully on low budgets and minimal studio time, the recording of Fontanelle demanded considerable output from all concerned. Lori chomps on a chip and spills the beans.

“We started in New York at Sorcerer Sounds Studios, we were on tour with Lush for a couple of weeks and Maureen had only just joined the band. We went on tour with Lush to get the songs tight for the album. Then we went back to New York and recorded at Sorcerer Sounds with Lee Ranaldo and engineer Brian Paulson. We did all the songs there, then we ended up going to Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota (home of The Wedding Present’s Seamonster album) because that studio sounded better.

“But it took 14 hours a day for a week to mix… It used to make me nauseous every day.”

THE BLOOD, sweat and tears of recording and producing Fontanelle has, to these ears anyway, been well worth the agony. Babes In Toyland’s third LP may not stray too far from the sentiments that dominated the mood of their first two records. But this time round their combined power flips head-over-heels to land feet first on an even higher, near transcendental, plane. A rung up their own creative ladder where Kat’s vocal scream comes close to being an amplified prayer to some invisible electric deity.

“I started screaming because the PA didn’t work very well,” Kat explains. “It’s similar to the way I play guitar, I just open up my mouth and whatever’s in there comes out. It’s like controlled chaos, like feedback. Feedback comes from out of your amp and you can kinda control it. That’s how my voice is, like here it comes and I’ve got to try and make it go into a melody.”

The song that best showcases Kat’s vocal technique is ‘Jungle Train’, which just happened to be the first number on Fontanelle that Kim and Lori wrestled with together in the studio.

“It was one of those songs where you just build up on it,” leaks Kat, “that’s why working in the studio is pretty cool. That was made up in there. It’s like musical weather, it sounds just like weather with all that screaming.”

Ask Kat about the secret meanings behind some of the other songs on Fontanelle, however, and she is less revealing. When I suggest that such song titles as ‘Bruise Violet’, ‘Blue Bell’, ‘Magic Flute’ and ‘Handsome And Gretel’ have a hint of fractured fairy tale worming through them, she flatly denies having any interest in the brudders Grimm.

“I haven’t read too many fairy tales,” she admits. “This psychologist was asking me this the other day and I just said that I didn’t think about it that hard. She was picking our brains and it was… difficult. Most of our songs are about people f***ing around. Lying to you and not being honest. Relationships…”

Of the 15 songs on Fontanelle, there are revisions of already released material, updated by Maureen’s presence. ‘Quiet Room’ (a charmingly out-of-character instrumental) was first heard on To Mother, while ‘Pearl’ and ‘Handsome And Gretel’ were previewed on a limited collector’s 45 that was released by obscure Aussie indie Insipid, That particular item boasted a beautiful/ugly full colour photo-sleeve that Kat is still purring with pleasure over. On the ‘Pearl’ side of the sleeve, Lori is pictured sporting a Batman T-shirt and a broken nose, an injury that she still nurses to this day.

“It was on Halloween and I was Batman,” Lori explains. “I was living with this guy for five years and he broke my nose. We were going to get married and everything but I dumped him. The guy who took that picture is now in prison doing life for a drug bust, which is really sad.”

The ‘Handsome And Gretel’ side of the same cover illustrates another true story that is even more bizarre. The Polaroid photo shows a dazed, bruised and bloody Kat being helped out of her wrecked vehicle by a highway patrol officer. Her crimson lace dress perfectly matches the flesh wounds on her legs that were caused by flying glass when the windshield exploded. It’s a long story that Lori is only too pleased to tell.

“We were driving along the Arizona freeway, looking for Superstition Highway, Kat was in the front and Michelle was asleep in the back. I was thinking about how we had been in every disaster possible and how great it would be to get artist Robert Williams to do our next album cover, showing all the different scrapes we had gone through together. In Kansas we’d had tornadoes when our van broke down, we were in an earthquake in San Francisco, a huge freeze storm in Texas and we were robbed in New York. I thought, God! The only thing we haven’t been in yet is a car accident!

“There’s no-one for miles, but then I took over to see this tyre fall off this truck that’s travelling on the other side of the freeway. There’s a block-wide stretch of grass that divides the two lanes; the tyre hits a gully, kinda went downhill, then uphill and gained speed.

“All of a sudden the tyre was flying through the air, 40 feet off the ground. I screamed, ‘Oh my f***in’ God!’ and Kat just ducked in time. I stopped the van, in the middle of this desert, and the tyre landed right in front of the windshield, tore the roof off and continued rolling for about a mile or so. The windshield shattered. If Kat and I hadn’t been wearing sunglasses, we’d both have been blinded.”

“I said, ‘Lori! Get your Polaroid, I’m bleeding!'” butts in Kat.

“I took a picture,” continues Lori, “and the police went and caught the guy responsible, going the other way. This 40-year-old, one-eyed Mexican in his mom’s truck with absolutely no insurance. They caught up with him a mile-and-a-half down the road driving with three wheels!”

If I hadn’t seen the photographic evidence already, I’d be tempted to say that Lori’s tale of fear and loathing on the Arizona freeway was about as hard to swallow as the piece of pre-Cambrian plaice that I’ve been chasing round my plate for the last half-hour. What’s more, you ain’t heard nothing yet!

“Our van was totalled so we were stuck in Arizona for a few days,” continues Lori. “We rented a van from Rent-A-Wreck and we were wondering how much it would be to buy, because it was ugly but reliable. We called up the lady we were renting it from and asked her if she’d be prepared to sell. She said we would have to ask the owner, who would be back the next day. We took another half-day to look around some more, then called back in the afternoon. Right when I’m on the phone the lady goes ‘Oh my God! Quick, turn the news channel on!’ So we turned on the TV and it was a report using live footage. It turned out that the woman who owned the van had a lover who had walked out on her and she was leaving Phoenix with her husband. The lover had driven the woman and her husband off the road, held the husband at gunpoint, shot him in the head and killed him, and tried to take the woman out to the desert with him. But the cops got there first.”

And the moral of this story, Lori?

“We got the van really cheap. AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!”

AFTER BRUSHING shoulders with death in the American desert, after recording what has to be one of the best records of ’92, Babes In Toyland are back on the road and ready to rock out with a vengeance. If they survive their day out at Margate first that is.

“That food made me sick,” moans Kat, clutching her stomach.

“The peas are a funny colour and the tomato ketchup tastes really weird here.”

“That’s because the bottle is dated 1972!” points out Kevin helpfully.

“If it’s a vintage bottle then shouldn’t it taste really good?” she scowls.

Fresh, vital, all-powerful and rippling with wild ideas (Lori’s own Spanish Fly 45s label being one of them), it will be a long time before Babes In Toyland are past their sell-by date.

© Edwin PounceyNew Musical Express, 15 August 1992

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