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