Thanks to Some Google Guys, Babes in Toyland Is Back
By Jaime Lees
Kat Bjelland is everything you want her to be and nothing that you’d expect. As the lead singer of Babes in Toyland, Bjelland is known to music fans as the howling, relentlessly powerful voice of one of her generation’s most caustic bands. She seems feral and possessed behind a microphone, presenting a bone-chilling caterwaul that is as raw as it is thrilling.
Though onstage she’s all churning bile and lurching aggression, during our interview she is quiet and kind. Her speaking voice is sweetly gentle and gives no hint of her unholy growling. “I tried to sing softly the other day because my throat hurt,” Bjelland says. “But I couldn’t do it. I don’t even know how!”
Inaccurately lumped in with the riot grrrl feminist punk scene of the early 1990s, Babes in Toyland was always a little less political and a little more hesher than the bands that were counted among its contemporaries. While those artists addressed socio-political issues and demanded a revolution, Babes in Toyland was all about threatening violence while banging heads.
Formed in Minneapolis in 1987, Babes put out an album on acclaimed Minnesota label Twin/Tone Records and earned praise from tastemakers such as John Peel long before Nirvana’s release of Nevermind triggered the alternative-rock gold rush. With the lineup of Bjelland, bassist Maureen Herman and drummer Lori Barbero set in place by 1992, Babes in Toyland released two acclaimed albums in the next few years (Fontanelle in 1992 and Nemesisters in 1995) before disbanding in 2001. Each member went her own way.
With band members scattered around the country and various major life dramas to overcome, a reunion seemed extremely unlikely. Bjelland never stopped working on music and releasing albums, but she also had to take time to address her mental illness. Bjelland says she spent some time in a psych ward (she was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder), and at one point was homeless in Austin, Texas.
In a strange twist of events, today’s new, highly anticipated reunion of Babes in Toyland can be credited to Google. Some years back, Babes bassist Herman worked at a company with some early employees of Google (read: guys with money to burn), and they repeatedly offered to bankroll a reunion. Herman finally agreed. The tech guys formed a limited liability company, Powersniff, and Herman rounded up the band to started practicing in Los Angeles.
So would the reunion have happened without Powersniff?
“No way,” says Bjelland. “We couldn’t have done it without them. They’re like angels. They’re kind of musician people. They’ve got money, but we’re paying them back, so it’s not a totally philanthropic venture for them. But still, they’re very, very kind.”
Bjelland seems to melt and go giggly when she talks about the scattered shows the band has played so far. She rattles off some concert highlights, including playing with younger bands including Skating Polly (“fucking awesome”) and watching Le Butcherettes (“exceptionally good”) cover Bikini Kill’s anthemic “Rebel Girl” with the Melvins.
One of Bjelland’s main motivations for bringing the band back together was to allow her sixteen-year-old son, Henry, see it play live.
“I had no idea that he knew the words to the songs,” she proudly explains. “He knew every word to every song.”
Bjelland adds that most of her exposure to new music comes through Henry.
“Here’s one thing that my son got me into, which everyone thinks is ridiculous, that I love,” she begins dramatically. “I really like Skrillex. Sorry. I really like it because he seems like he’s trying to bring everyone together, and for some reason, some of those sounds really get me going. I put it on my headphones in the morning. I like the energy and the weird sounds. Plus he looks a little like my son. It’s just, like, the whole thing, the whole package. I don’t know what it is. I can’t really explain it. I just know when I like something, it gives me shivers. I can’t explain why.”
Bjelland and Babes in Toyland have written new songs together, but she doesn’t feel that they are show-ready yet because the band hasn’t been able to practice them sufficiently. That means that every song the group will be playing on this tour is a fan favorite.
“If it’s a reformation, I think fans want to hear old songs,” she says. “I used to hate it when I’d go see the Rolling Stones and they added those long endings and they changed the words of the songs. I was like, ‘That’s not what it’s supposed to be. I’m trying to sing along here!'”
When asked if she is really as pissed off as she seems in her songs, Bjelland describes the process as therapeutic.
“Uh, yes,” she says. “But I’m not pissed off after I sing because it’s like my therapy. When I don’t sing, then I’m really not in a good way. But no, I’m not an angry person, I’m really nice! I don’t think it’s anger, I think it’s just passion, and it gets misconstrued as anger.”
Bjelland is enjoying playing her old songs for new audiences again, too.
“Aww, it’s so fun. It’s really fun. It’s, like, this weird split of old friends and a young new crowd. It’s so nice,” she gushes.
“All the reactions have been really good and celebratory. And we get along better than we ever have, and I think we sound better. I think it sounds really good. I’m really proud of our band right now.”
8 p.m. Thursday, August 27. The Firebird, 2706 Olive Street. $22 to $25. 314-535-0353.
link: Riverfront Times
About twenty years ago, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore asked his friend, filmmaker Dave Markey, to document the band’s short European tour, including its performance at the massive Reading Festival.
Markey (best known for his underground classic Desperate Teenage Lovedolls) left with his passport, a camera and a suitcase full of Super 8 film. When he returned he had nine hours of raw footage and the makings of the best visual documentary of 1990s indie rock before the grunge explosion. The film features many indie bands in their prime, including Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr and Babes in Toyland. It’s sort of the video companion to Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life.
1991: The Year Punk Broke existed for years as an out-of-print VHS with a cult following, but it was finally released on DVD last week. The DVD release contains the original documentary and a shit-load of extra features, including more than an hour of interviews, bonus footage and rough edits.
Lovingly described by Moore as a “home movie,” TYPB is gritty, shaky and absolutely perfect. Live concert footage is spliced with scenes of the bands shopping, eating, exploring various cities and just kind of hanging out. Sonic Youth serves as the main subject of the documentary, with Moore emerging as particularly hammy and entertaining. (See: Thurstonitis)
To truly understand TYPB, viewers must first watch Madonna’s Truth or Dare. Madge’s classic black and white tour doc had just been released at the time and it was a major moment in pop culture. There are many skits and inside jokes included in TYPB that reference Truth or Dare. (Including a brilliant scene where Kurt Cobain plays the role of Kevin Costner.)
In the two decades that have passed since 1991, grunge took over and indie stopped meaning anything. But what has all this change wrought on the specific bands featured in 1991: The Year Punk Broke? We check in on some of the featured personalities below:
The doc was filmed one year after the release of Goo, but still before the release of Dirty. In the film, the members of Sonic Youth come off as just a little bit older, cooler and more harder-working than their peers. This has never changed. Sonic Youth will forever be populated with people that seem like cool older brother/sister-types. And they’ve become even more prolific: the band has released nine studio albums since the documentary, and the members have embarked on countless solo projects ranging from music to books to photography to art to fashion. Sonic Youth has always been a band that stood on a well-earned mountain of cred, and this has only become more true over time. Still, it is totally shocking that the band is still as well-respected and, well, as good as it was twenty years ago.
Babes in Toyland
The Babes were fresh off of a tour with Sonic Youth and seemed to be extra feisty. The band only had one song featured on the video, but it was the tribal and violent “Dustcake Boy.” This song is one of the better examples of singer Kat Bjelland’s trademark angry leopard-like yelps. Babes released its biggest album, Fontanelle, in 1992 and had a couple more albums after that before calling it quits. There have been a few reunion shows, but the most interesting story to come out of the demise of Babes in Toyland is what happened to Kat Bjelland. Anyone familiar with Bjelland’s work would should not be surprised to find out that she began to suffer from multiple personalities and was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 2007. She spent a year under medical mental care and came out just as stubborn and creative and badass, releasing albums with her new band, Katastrophy Wife.
Mr. Cole was not in a band included in TYPB, but it is fitting that he was included in the film. Cole was known as a roadie for Black Flag, the best friend of Henry Rollins and was a cheerleader for seemingly every band on the SST roster. He can be seen in the background many times, and there is one long shot of his face, watching a band from the side of the stage, radiantly happy with his arms around his girlfriend, Michelle Leon of Babes in Toyland. Tragically, Cole was shot and killed just a few months after this summer in a random act of violence in Los Angeles. Sonic Youth, Henry Rollins and Hole all dedicated future works to his memory.
We all know what happened with Nirvana. Mere milliseconds after Markey wrapped filming, the whole world fell into Nirvanamania. The little band would soon eclipse its heroes, becoming the biggest thing that happened to popular music that decade. Amazingly, Markey manages to capture a side of Nirvana that the general public would never know: the happy side. In TYPB, the band members are still relatively unknown. They are wide-eyed and playful, with frequent smiles and passionate stage show. But that levity was lost when the fame came along. The band would only release one more studio album, In Utero, before singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Drummer Dave Grohl went on to form the ultra-successful Foo Fighters and bassist Krist Novoselic expanded his interests from music to politics, even running for office in his home state of Washington.
Miss Love can be seen in the original doc (and in the extra footage) trying to get the attention of cameraman Markey. Her role in the video is very small- she wasn’t performing, she was in England to hang out with Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins. Of course, she went on to marry Cobain of Nirvana and the two became the Sid & Nancy of the ’90s. Love’s band Hole was also on the verge of fame, having released its debut album, Pretty on the Inside, in August of ’91. Hole went on to release a few more albums, including the highly successful Live Through This in 1994. Love went on to become a famous disaster and the topic of much tabloid speculation.
Dinosaur Jr was always bigger in Europe, due to constant touring of the Continent. This is most apparent during on of the most beautiful, chill-inducing moments of the film. The band is playing “Freak Scene” and at the very end of the song, the whole dang audience sings along to the all-important line “Cause when I need a friend it’s still you.” Dino went on to release five more studio albums and the band is still active today (with years of breaks in between). The members have also put out solo albums and they remain some of the mostly highly respected individuals in indie rock.
Though his band, Mudhoney, wasn’t featured in the film, Mark Arm can be seen in several scenes in TYPB. His little blond mop is always bopping around, accenting a goofy smile. Mudhoney was kind of Nirvana before Nirvana was Nirvana, and it certainly had a longer career. The band has put out ten studio albums in its career and is still active (and awesome) today, mostly playing large international festivals.
The Ramones were included in The Year Punk Broke, but the band’s time in the film was so short and so stiff that it seemed like the Ramones were more included as a tribute to punk elders than as a viable band. Still, the Ramones had one of the most interesting careers in music history. In 1991 the band was already 27 years into its career and it would be another five years before it officially disbanded. After TYPB the band put out three more studio albums, but it didn’t much matter. The Ramones were already considered the greatest American punk band.
Gumball is the only band included in TYPB that never quite achieved any level of mainstream success. Despite releasing 1991’s Special Kiss (featuring both Thurston Moore and members of Teenage Fanclub), Gumball never really caught on with indie audiences and was dropped from its label in 1994 due to disappointing sales. Gumball disbanded shortly after that, but the band members went on to have very successful individual careers. For example, frontman Don Fleming is a noted producer and participated in many other musical indie ventures, including Half Japanese, Dim Stars and The Backbeat Band.