Babes In Toyland: Rock And Roll Babes

Deposit your ‘feminist rock’ preconceptions at the door, pigeonhole fans. Babes In Toyland were playing raucous licks long before the Riot Grrrls left finishing school…

IT RAINS NINE months of the year in Seattle. Even so, more sunglasses are sold here than in any other American city. The northern skyline is dominated by the Space Needle, a retro-futuristic Jetsons-style edifice erected for the 1962 World Fair. The town’s reputation is dominated by the legend of local indie label Sub Pop; Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam all erupted from this white-hot smelting pot of premium-grade grunge.

Close up, Seattle is a sleepy seaport, all coffee bars and art galleries packed with clean-cut collegiate types, picturesque streets scrubbed every morning and empty by midnight. Young couples flock here to sip an alluring cocktail of city sophistication and small-town tranquillity. Babes In Toyland singer Kat Bjelland and her new husband, Stuart Grey of Australian band Lubricated Goat, are one such young couple.

When Kat settled here six months ago, rumours flew about a Babes split. Fellow founder member and drummer Lori Barbero stayed behind in their native Minneapolis, while bassist Maureen Herman hunkered down in her Chicago hometown. The trio seemed to be fragmenting on the crest of their success, having just supported Faith No More, engaged their first proper manager Debbie Gordon, signed to Warner Bros and released their widely-lauded third album, Fontanelle. The press ran obituaries.

From their inception five years ago – long before the matter became a political issue – the Babes were raucous female rockers who wilfully underplayed cheap gender-based gestures. Winning influential friends like Sonic Youth with its gnarled fury, their 1990 debut album Spanking Machine arrived months before patronising journalists yoked the Babes together with peers such as L7 and Hole under the “Foxcore” banner, and years before similar straitjackets were buckled around the “Riot Grrrl” scene.

Babes In Toyland could have been serious rock’n’roll martyrs. But this month finds them releasing their bizarre fourth album, Painkillers – five studio tracks, plus a live slam through most of Fontanelle recorded at New York’s CBGB’s – while they climb aboard the first leg of the latest Lollapalooza jamboree.

“Did anyone cry?” mocks Kat when reminded of her band’s alleged suicide. The spectrally-pale singer arrives for our interview in her orange Volkswagen Karmann, the quintessential Seattle car, spilling out onto hot tarmac like some doomed ’50s starlet. A rare window of blazing sunshine has opened, so naturally we huddle into a darkened hotel bar with Lori and Maureen, newly-arrived in town to begin rehearsals.

“Four to five months ago, we took a break to do little projects on our own,” Kat sighs. These little projects include two bands with husband Stuart – the up-and-running Crunt and the still-embryonic KatStu – while Lori started her well-regarded Minneapolis indie label, Spanish Fly. Kat denies that a split was ever mooted. Not even in a temporary fit of post-tour exhaustion? (Pregnant pause.) “It doesn’t matter, we’re together now,” she concludes curtly. Lori, a warrior goddess with tribal tattoos around each arm, breaks into screeching buffalo laughter at Kat’s reserve.

“Thank you, I love ambiguity.” Indeed, which might explain her inconsistent comments to the Minneapolis Alternative Weekly last Christmas, when she stated: “I loved being in Babes In Toyland and the music’s really cool, but I just feel like it’s run its course. We promised each other that when it stopped being fun, we’d stop. And for me, it stopped being fun.” We all change our minds, of course, but cynics might suspect things started being fun again only after the Lollapalooza cash machine beckoned. Kat is adamant. “No, we like each other, we just wanted a rest because we’d been touring since we got together.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that Painkillers, comprising two thirds live tracks, is being released with unseemly haste. “We wanted to have something out with Lollapalooza happening and we didn’t have time to write the next record,” Kat concedes.

The trio have made a habit of updating tracks – like ‘Quiet Room’ from their second album, To Mother, which resurfaced in beefed-up form on Fontanelle; or a searing update of ‘He’s My Thing’ (from Spanking Machine), which sneaks its way onto Painkillers.

“We don’t always do that,” snaps Kat petulantly. “You know why we do it? Because we’re not talented enough to write new songs. Is that what you want to hear? I won’t do it any more though, because I hate that people keep asking about it. Jeez!

THE BABES HAVE had to justify their existence on a regular basis for the last three years, mainly because of their sex, and usually to male journalists keen on demonstrating their own political correctness at all costs – a situation which would make anyone defensive. “People look at every move we make as a consciously feminist thing – as making a political statement,” yawns Maureen, the quietest Babe, who replaced original bassist Michelle Leon early last year. “They just read way too much into it because we’re women.”

The unsavoury dilemma remains that female musicians will bear the burden of significance as long as rock is male-dominated. Perhaps the best assessment thus far of Babes In Toyland’s non-aligned but unavoidably political import comes from Utensil guitarist Ira Robbins, dissecting the Lollapalooza generation in US magazine Pulse. The Babes, he contends, “are establishing a sexually-conscious aesthetic based neither on male fantasy nor doctrinaire feminist canon… progressing towards an ideal situation in which women can assume any musical role and image without being stigmatized.”

Kat agrees. “I read in one interview that Kat Bjelland thinks of her sex as incidental. Well, I kinda do! Sorry. I used to think I was a boy anyway, I wanted to be one so bad when I was little.”

Lori winces. “I’m glad I’m not a boy, I really like being a woman. If I was a boy, I’d probably jump off a bridge or something.” More buffalo laughter.

What of male pundits who slammed former single ‘Handsome And Gretel’ for deviating from party-line feminism, viciously laying into the promiscuous “cunthole bitch” who “talks to all the cocks” across “12 city blocks”! Kat calls the criticism “the stupidest thing I ever heard,” and bristles at oft-aired, oft-denied rumours that the song was a put-down to Courtney Love; part of a long-running public slugging match between one-time musical partners whose friendship soured into bitter rivalry.

However, she also dismisses recent reports of an imminent kiss-and-make-up collaboration between herself and Mrs Cobain. “Me and Courtney jammed together twice, ever” Kat sighs. “But we’ve got things semi-worked out between us, and I talk to her on the ‘phone once in a while.”

Some observers attribute the emotional extremes of Babes In Toyland songs to serious drug abuse. Others look to Kat Bjelland’s unhappy relationship with her stepmother, documented on the harrowing ‘To Mother’, which documents childhood innocence soiled and defiled into a perverted parody of itself. But maybe it’s just her recurring stomach ulcer, a picture of which hangs on her kitchen fridge, which gives these songs their weeping-sore rawness.

Kat thinks “walking around with hate in my stomach” caused the ulcer and is currently undergoing acupuncture treatment. She recommends a similar cure for Lori’s “shy sphincter”.

“I have a bad time going to the bathroom,” reveals Lori. “I can go for months at a time without, err… it could be psychological, but I think it’s physical too.

“I think our music is probably pretty much like our personalities,” she continues. “Really aggressive and…” Constipated? “Sure! We have a lot of stops in our songs.”

And loads of sudden, messy, wrenching eruptions too. Babes In Toyland flush out your system with a scouring freshness few bands can match. Perhaps volatile personalities and outside commitments will mean they never fulfil their seven-album contract for Warners, and Lollapalooza might just be their swansong after all. But for now, at least, the Babes are back in town.

© Stephen DaltonVox, August 1993

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