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.
Charles Manson-Autographed Guitars for Sale in Town & Country
By Jaime Lees
Sat., Aug. 15 2015
Some rather unusual music memorabilia is up for sale today in St. Louis county. Three guitars, all hand-signed by notorious serial killer Charles Manson are available for purchase.
Manson may be a vile human, but by all accounts he was a gifted songwriter who had worked with a number of prominent musicians — including the Beach Boys, who recorded at least one of his songs. Before he became the most notorious crazy-eyed killer in U.S. history, Manson was very involved with the southern California music scene and could count people like Neil Young among his close friends.
Brandi Shufeldt, estate sales manager at Lindstrom & McKenney, Inc., says her company is selling these guitars on behalf of an older man who lives in Chesterfield and is in the process of downsizing. Shufeldt won’t give up his name, but says that he acquired the guitars because he’s an author with an interest in researching serial killers.
Shufeldt explains, “He was writing a biography on Charles Manson. He was visiting the prison and having visits and getting stories and information. And in that exchange of time, in visiting the prison, they became quite good friends and he [Manson] autographed the guitars for him, in addition to many other things.”
And that’s not all. Shufeldt says that this mystery man has apparently worked with ten to twenty different serial killers during his research, but has not yet published his book. She points to an unmarked clock high on a shelf and says that it was made by controversial serial killer Henry Lee Lucas and given to our mystery writer.
Lindstrom & McKenney is a classic type of estate business, clearly more comfortable in dealing with sterling serving platters than items of this odd pedigree. They have not yet seemed to realize the market for these types of one-of-a-kinds.
“I first listed them as ‘autographed guitars,’ without saying who had signed them,” Shufeldt explained. “I had about ten to fifteen people the first morning of the sale wanting to come in to buy the guitars, but then when they saw who signed them and they backed off. So then I thought, ‘Maybe I’d better go with full disclosure.’ So many people just don’t even want to touch them. Somebody said that we should take some paint thinner to them and get rid of the inscriptions entirely.”
Here is the information on the guitars:
The black Les Paul:
– “Old Gibsons never die, they just catch on fire with your soul.”
– priced at $2,000
The two acoustics:
– “Let’s do some rhapsody for our TV show Ghost Dancer”
– “This box is a good box with a lot more miles to go. It’s like a good friend to me and I give it up only because I must.”
– priced at $1,000 each
Two of the three are signed:
So if you’re the special kind of buyer who is searching for just the right piece of serial killer memorabilia to complete your weird little collection, get to Lindstrom & McKenney. The sale ends today at 2 p.m. Information is here. More photos below:
Blondie’s Chris Stein Still Making Waves 40 Years Later
By Jaime Lees
Tue., Jun. 30 2015
For Chris Stein, music and photography have always been married. When he attended the School of Visual Arts in New York during the late ’60s, he made it his mission to document downtown culture. As luck would have it, that culture just happened to include a music scene that was on the brink of an international explosion.
“What I tell friends now, or photographers: Just take pictures of your friends, because you never know what’s going to happen,” he says.
It’s fitting that the Brooklyn native and icon of the CBGB scene is speaking to us about his body of work while walking the noisy streets of New York. As the guitarist for Blondie, Stein is often credited with bringing a fresh take to the city’s burgeoning ’70s punk scene. His musical instincts propelled the band well past its hybrid new-wave beginnings, and together the group explored elements of rap, disco, reggae and even saccharine girl-group sounds. The result was a genre-busting mixture of oddly seductive, delightfully bratty and distinctly catchy pop songs that still defy classification.
“I don’t know if we thought of ourselves as Renaissance people back then, but that was part of the equation, somewhat,” Stein says. “Everybody was just doing more than one thing pretty consistently. I guess some of the people were just doing music, but a lot of people I knew were doing more than one thing.”
Stein does more than one thing, too. Most recently he has received high praise for his photography book, Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk. Released late last year, Negative shows how Stein’s keen eye, coupled with unfettered access, made him one of the most celebrated and consistently reliable custodians of the era. The book contains hundreds of photos that archive the scene and people Stein encountered, focusing heavily on the undeniably photogenic Debbie Harry — singer for Blondie and Stein’s then-girlfriend.
The son of painter mother and a “frustrated writer” father, Stein describes his parents as “very supportive.”
“It was kind of a lower-middle-class artistic upbringing,” he says. “They got me my first guitar when I was twelve, and that was it.”
It’s been more than 40 years since CBGB opened and almost nine years since it closed. The Lower East Side has been scrubbed clean and Stein’s hair is now Andy Warhol silver, but the man retains the same spongelike attributes that helped to make him a world-famous musician. Though the 65-year-old admits to spending “too much time sitting around and watching TV” (Game of Thrones is a favorite), he still finds plenty of time to explore new projects. He claims that his creative drive comes in spurts, but it seems that something inside of him is always taking notes for future artistic purposes.
Stein credits his constant curiosity and energy to his young daughters.
“I have the same inner conflicts as everybody else,” he says. “I have to force myself to get motivated and move forward. I have two little kids now — it’s a whole different thing dealing with those guys. They definitely keep me in a younger frame of mind because I have to deal with them physically all the time.”
He keeps up with newer trends, too.
“I really like Instagram. I deal with that a lot, and there is a lot of amazing photography on there,” he says. “That’s always inspiring. A lot of street photography. And it’s really coming up now with the ease of taking sneaky pictures of people. Everybody wanders around staring at their phones and taking pictures of people at the same time.”
While he concedes he isn’t as active hunting for new music as he is with photography — “It’s just too much shit to plow through. It’s kind of overwhelming to go out seeking stuff,” he explains — Stein has found a new obsession in today’s Latin music, including reggaeton, cumbia and Latin electronica. He confesses that his Spanish is pretty lousy but says that he responds to “the musicality of it. The melodies and stuff. It’s beautiful. Reggaeton is really hard-edged — it’s a great combination of the hard-edged dance music with these beautiful melodies.”
Stein rejects his generation’s tradition of writing off all modern music.
“You hear it all the time: ‘There’s no good music now.’ But there is,” he insists. “It’s 50 percent garbage, but it was always 50 percent garbage. In the ’60s…nobody remembers the crap; they just remember the good stuff.”
Blondie at Fair St. Louis
6:30 p.m. Friday, July 3. The Budweiser Stage in Forest Park, 5595 Grand Drive. Free.
Vintage Vinyl Partners Split; Lew Prince Moving On
By Jaime Lees
Tue., Jun. 16 2015 at 7:15 AM
Tom “Papa” Ray is now the sole owner of Vintage Vinyl. After more than three decades of sharing duties with co-founder Lew Prince, Ray assumed full ownership yesterday, as Prince moves on to new adventures. Both men talked to the Riverfront Times, sharing their pride in the store. The reason for the split? As Prince says, “I did this for 35 years. My kids graduated from college and it’s paid for. My house is paid for. Now I get to do something different. It’s just that simple.”
The store was recently named as one of the ten best record stores in the U.S., which only confirmed what locals already knew. Vintage Vinyl has long served as a hub of St. Louis music culture. In addition to the expected music store wares, Vintage is also a friend of the local scene: it stocks tons of local music, frequently hosts local bands for in-store performances and boasts a thriving paper fliers section just inside the front door, internet be damned.
“I’m looking forward to continue working with the best staff that we’ve ever had in the 35-year history of the store,” Ray tells us. “And being a part of the musical community in St. Louis as well as the record store mothership in the Delmar Loop.”
Vintage Vinyl ownership isn’t the only musical venture in the life of Tom Ray. He’s also a long-time DJ at KDHX who currently hosts the Monday drive-time slot with his show the Soul Selector. He was also recently tapped to curate a compilation released by Trojan Records and is known to play a bit of harmonica with blues acts around town and on tour with Los Angeles band Vintage Trouble.
Ray credits the shop’s success to the rich musical history in St. Louis.
“I would say that we started with the knowledge that we saw that there was a responsibility to not only serve our customers but to understand how important of a foundation city St. Louis is in American music — which is something that I often saw ignored by other store owners,” he says. “It was almost like they were oblivious to the fact that, you know, we have musical greatness in our DNA here in St. Louis.”
And though the Soul Selector is now the sole owner of Vintage Vinyl, co-founder (and White House award-winning) Lew Prince was kind enough to grant us a jovial exit interview of sorts late last night. (Prince is also a former RFT writer.) Here, he walks us through his history with Vintage Vinyl, his political views and his plans for the future.
Will you please explain to me your current situation?
It basically is: Tom and I started this company 35 years ago. I did this for 35 years. My kids graduated from college and it’s paid for. My house is paid for. Now I get to do something different. It’s just that simple. I don’t know what it is yet, but something different!
Until then, maybe you get a couple of naps in?
[laughs] You know, I am going to take the next month or two off. I love to travel. One of the benefits of the job that I had was the way that Tom and I structured the company. It wasn’t something that was going to make us a bunch of money, but [it did] give us free time to do the things that we want. I mean, you see Tom go on the road with Vintage Trouble, the band he plays with. You see Tom go off on the road opening for bands as their DJ.
And over the years the two things that I’ve done is, first, pretty much every year or so I take a month or two off and go hiking in the Himalayas, go hiking in the Andes. I go up a river in Thailand. I spent months and months walking around China in the late ’80s. I spent months walking around Tibet in the early ’90s.
Oh my god.
Yeah! And this job is what freed me to do that. I think I’m headed to the Himalayas for August and part of September. There’s a little former kingdom up there called Sikkim that’s between Nepal and Bhutan, that used to be a separate country but now it’s part of India. It’s one of the places in the Himalayas that I haven’t walked so I’m going up there, I think. When I get back I’m hoping to find a job.
So, I don’t get paid for any of that. But it sort of frees me to be part of the political process in a really interesting way. So maybe I’ll do something with that.
I really think that you’re a local hero when it comes to stuff like that.
[laughs heartily] You know, I totally backed into that stuff. I was really pissed off when dumbass George W. Bush kept talking about “job creators” and all of these backwards things. So I thought, well, through Vintage Vinyl I’ve created a couple of dozen jobs. I had about 25 employees. And I just thought that he was wrong. Most small business owners that I know really want their people to be able to earn a decent wage and understand that national health care or some form of healthcare for everyone is really important. And I’ve always done issues that, like, essentially have a moral center.
Yeah, it seems like employees who are well taken care of are better employees, too, right?
Absolutely. I think as Americans we sign this deal that we’re going to take care of each other. That this is a country that is constructed to be — at its root — classless. That is to say: anyone from one class can move to any other class if the system is working correctly. But it’s not working correctly right now. And simple things like a basic wage and safe working conditions and reasonable health care are how we help each other in this country.
I’m interested how you build on your interests. You built Vintage Vinyl so clearly you can do things and get them done, and now that applies to your political interests, too.
I’m really good at organizing certain things and motivating people to accomplish things together. The structure at Vintage Vinyl has never been top-down. It’s always been sort-of like an amoeba. [laughs] We’re all pushing against the wall and we’re all pushing in the same direction. And that’s sort of how I do what I do.
Well, Vintage Vinyl is a retail store but it’s also a community center.
Yeah, Tom and I very much wanted it to be the musical center in St. Louis. We wanted it to be a place where people who were interested in a certain kind of American music or world music could find each other. Because Tom and I found each other at college, you know? We have known each other since 1970. I was a sophomore and he was a freshman at Webster University. I was playing guitar and he was playing harmonica and we hit it off musically. We had very broad, broad tastes. The range of the things that we liked was really similar. And in the days before the internet, the way that you learned about music was going through each other’s record collections. And he and I both had pretty vast ones, even then, and we discovered things. Like, “Oh, you like that! Wait until you hear this guy!” You know? That kind of stuff. That’s how Tom and I bonded. And, you know, here we are getting close to 45 years later.
You’ve been riffin’ off of each other for a long time.
Exactly, exactly, exactly. Between us both, I think it’s three wives and five kids later. [laughs]
Tell me about, maybe, your best moment as far as organizing the store or tell me a story about something that really sticks out that really touched you.
Somebody sent me a column that some young woman wrote on the internet a couple of months ago. And it was a woman that I absolutely remember. I think she was a high school kid. What she wrote was that she came into Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis and she described to the guy working there — and she described me as the guy: bearded old guy with a t-shirt — she’d told me what kind of music she was interested in. And I suggested some things to her and she chose a Led Zeppelin record. And I told her it was good choice and why. She took it home and she loved it, of course.
And since then, she said most of the time when she goes to a record store and describes her taste, that people laugh at her. You know, there’s kind of a music snobbery that goes with some record stores and she was really appreciative that the first time she went into Vintage Vinyl that nobody did that to her. She wrote that it made her feel brave and the whole thing was kind of a thank-you note to me.
I always felt like that what’s we’re supposed to do and that’s what we try to teach the employees. And in the beginning it was hard. In the beginning Tom and I were really bad at hiring people. The store got better when Tom and I quit hiring people because we hired people that we thought would be really entertaining, as opposed to people who might be good for the job. [laughs]
So, once we handed over the hiring and said, ”Look, what we want are people who are evangelical about music — people who are going to take the sound that someone is describing and find it for them. And the next time they come in maybe the employee says to them, “If you like that sound, here’s the next one. If you like ZZ Top, maybe you wanna hear Muddy Waters.”‘ And that’s kind of the theory.
That’s very sweet. Then you guys get to kind of go on a journey together.
Yep! And I’ve gotten to do that with thousands and thousands of people. You wouldn’t believe just the nice things that people have done for me and said to me over the years. I’m at the point now where people who I turned onto music as teenagers are now working for me. They became managers at my store. And it’s pretty cool.
But the thing to really get into this article is that I’m looking for a job! Because what I got for Vintage Vinyl won’t support me until I collect Social Security. So anyone out there who is looking for somebody who can run something or organize people or who has a nice slightly-unpopular charity [laughs], I’d be really good at that. So this is my job application. I’m hoping to get about five or six of these interviews so that I can use them all as my job applications, I gotta tell you.
I do have pretty good skills at building an effective value-based organization. Vintage Vinyl is built much more on a value system than on a commercial notion or I’d have some fuckin’ money! [laughs]
I am bizarrely selfish about how I spend my time. Basically, in life, you’re just trying to keep yourself entertained. And I’m desperately trying to keep myself entertained by doing things that please me. But at the same time, what pleases me involves both my aesthetics and my value system. And that’s really all there is. If you spend your life that way, I don’t think you get to have many regrets in the end. I’m inside of twenty years from the end. Eh. And it’s part of the reason that I don’t want to go to work everyday doing retail. I want to do something else. I don’t know what it is yet, but I’ll find it.
Full disclosure: this writer volunteers at Vintage Vinyl one day a year to distribute free Schlafly Beer to music lovers on Record Store Day.
The Blue Pearl, New Bar/Music Venue, to Open on Cherokee This Summer
By Jaime Lees
Tue., May 26 2015
At 2926 Cherokee Street, owner/manager Julie Sommer is getting close to opening a different kind of Cherokee bar — one she hopes will appeal to an older, more sophisticated clientele. The Blue Pearl plans to feature roots music and light food offerings.
The business has already had its hearing for a liquor license. While Sommer needs to apply for occupancy and health department permits before her license can be finalized, her goal is to open within the next few months.
Sommer explains, “Part of the idea for the space was to appeal to an older, working crowd. Basically, I still love to hear live music, but I am older and work a lot, so I don’t want to go out to see a band that doesn’t even start until 11 p.m. or midnight. … I think a lot of ‘non-traditional’ folks in the Cherokee neighborhood and St. Louis generally might welcome the idea of early live music. There are many contractors, artists, and other self-employed entrepreneurs who I believe would appreciate the opportunity to go to a nice place to hear music in the late afternoon or early evening.”
The hours aren’t yet set, but Sommer expects to be open to the public four days per week. In addition to a full bar, she plans to serve salads and simple snacks — dried fruits, pickled beets and marinated olives.
Even before its opening, the bar has already become part of the Cherokee Street scene. Local film maker Bill Streeter used The Blue Pearl as one of many locations for his Lo-Fi Cherokee music video series, with the soon-to-open venue hosting the performance of local “hyperactive synth and guitar rock band” Whoa Thunder. [The Lo-Fi series premieres this Friday, May 29 on Jefferson Avenue near Cherokee Street. Event information here.]
We caught up with Sommer via email to get the details: link
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 18
Christopher the Conquered
w/ Googolplexia, Patrick Eagan
Wednesday, February 18
Foam Coffee & Beer
8 p.m. | free
By Jaime Lees
As Christopher the Conquered, Chris Ford has a remarkable ability to silence any room as soon as he sings the first word. Ford’s breathy and passionate vocal delivery make comparisons to Jeff Buckley unavoidable but not entirely accurate. Sure, Ford is young and handsome and sings hauntingly beautiful piano songs, but he eschews all of Buckley’s wispy tragic-poet-posing and replaces it with strong, soulful confidence. Even in his lyrics, Ford’s personal despair usually cycles into tentative, but sturdy, optimism. Christopher the Conquered will shoot you right in the heart, and then you’ll pull yourself up off of the floor and thank him for his good aim.
Halloween 2014 Covers Show Friday, October 31, 2014
By Jaime Lees
Halloween is all about dressing up and pretending to be something else, so fittingly, this All Hallows’ Eve will see entire bands dressing up and pretending to be completely different groups. The annual event always brings out a big crowd, and this year it will attempt to fit a large chunk of the south-city music scene (and their costumes) into Melt. The lineup features sets from So Many Dynamos as Devo, Demonlover as Prince, Trauma Harness as Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, the Humanoids as the Damned, Shaved Women as Rudimentary Peni and Mark Willey and friends as Roxy Music. The show also promises unannounced surprise performances and guest stars (including Escalade as an unknown performer). It’s a free show, but just like last year, organizers will be accepting donations for a charity cause at the door.
Sunday, October 5
@ Off Broadway
8 p.m. | $20-$23
By Jaime Lees
Touring in support of his new solo album Tied to a Star, Dinosaur Jr frontman J. Mascis steps away from the crushing volume of his main gig to embrace a softer, gentler sound. His new songs are lo-fi — but not quite simple — mostly acoustic adventures with just a few guitar solo slips. Infused with both sweetness and sadness, these songs bring to mind other classics like Big Star’s beloved “Thirteen.” Mascis has always written about love and heartbreak, but the message is usually buried in in the overwhelming sensory explosion that is Dinosaur Jr. Here, his compositions are unadorned, bare for the world to see. They’re raw and heavyhearted, but in the best way.
Pü Fest Kickoff Party
w/ Tone Rodent, Jack Grelle, Pizza Boys, Black Panties
by Jaime Lees
9:00 p.m. September 5
2712 Cherokee Street St. Louis, MO
LouFest has been gaining a reputation as a solid destination festival, but this year it has also accidentally inspired a rival underground music concert with a tounge-in-cheek name: Pü Fest. The organizers aren’t billing it as an anti-LouFest party, but as a DIY alternative to the mega-mainstream acts that LouFest offers. Pü Fest also will run throughout the weekend, hosting tons of local talent and crowd-favorite touring bands. The kickoff party is this Friday at Melt, and features Tone Rodent, Jack Grelle, Pizza Boys and Black Panties. The event is free and is your last chance to buy a discounted weekend pass before the festival starts.