Long time friend of Babes in Toyland (and Louder Than War scribe) Harry Mulligan caught up with the band on their recent UK tour for a lengthy chat about the good old days, the future and how they think the music industry has changed for women over the years – if at all!
Much has been said about the silent benefactors that Babes in Toyland have at Google, and speculation that their reformation, reunion tour and general restoration as a Band has been bankrolled by these well meaning friends of the band. However, lets not be diverted by any smokescreen-like diversions as to what the real story is. The Byline might be that all works of art, stationary in a gallery or performance based with real living human beings – may benefit from some restoration, whether its a Jackson Pollock Painting or Babes in Toyland, the band. Its incidental to the story that their friends at Google have gotten behind the band. However, the real story is about Maureen Herman, Lori Barbero and Kat Bjelland, their individual and collective journeys through adversity, their inter-personal relationships, and how reflexive that experience becomes in the reinterpretation of the material from their first three seminal albums. This is about redemption and rising like the Phoenix from the ashes!
Of course Louder Than War is grateful that individuals and Corporate parties are interested enough to see the efficacy of investing in the liberal and performing arts. Its what they should be doing; ensuring that the practitioners thereof have the financial support they require to breath new life into their particular art form, enabling them to bring that said art form to old and new generations alike. Bully for them!
Kat and I go back. I was a British immigrant kid in Portland, Oregon, the ninth out of ten kids, who’d bailed out of Britain with his parents and siblings during the Winter of Discontent. The Universe conspired, as it does, to see that we arrived at the same time, myself from Glasgow, her from her hometown of Woodburn, Oregon. We invariably met, brimming to the gills with teenage existential angst, and became friends, eye-balling each other curiously, chasing thrills and the rest. Our meandering paths crossed and recrossed sporadically down through the decades. At the time, we were part of an emerging cohort of creative kids, urchins, and artists (piss-artists), that would later be labelled the ‘Grunge’ movement, which I’ve never really liked because my mum taught me to scrub my neck diligently when it was dirty. The rest, as they say is his-story, or more to the point, her-story! Lets get it right, there’s no room for patriarchal bullshit in this narrative!
For me Grunge is synonymous with an authenticity that some wrongly say is over-rated. Authenticity is never over-rated, when so many people are cardboard cut-outs and it was honest, and had a perverted integrity which I know sounds like a bit of a misnomer. It was real, celebrated the flaws and dysfunction and was a fairly orgasmic, pulsating aftershock of Punk and the New Wave.
The context was still post-WWII and propriety, the stiff upper lip, big boys and girls don’t cry were all the norms of the day. We were the generation that made it okay for kids today to color their hair, cut it how the fuck they want to, get snake-bite piercings, and say no to the Protestant work ethic and Cult of the Human Doing (not the human being).
We insisted on expressing ourselves as noisily as we did, and some still do, myself included, mercy, mercy! I’m proud that we asserted those rights and brought about small landmarks of societal progress that were so offensive to many at the time, and stand by them still today, one hundred per cent! Lets leave the rest to the musings of sociologists and other social scientists in the tutorials of the future; the story is till unfolding.
Kat went from The Venarays in Portland, which wasn’t all female, to Sugar Babylon in San Francisco with sometimes member Courtney Love, to the power trio formation with final line-up, Maureen Herman on bass and Lori Barbero on drums, in what is endearingly and lovingly known as Babes in Toyland Despite the mistaken belief that Courtney played in Babes In Toyland, she didn’t.
Side project, Katastrophy Wife (Kat as Trophy Wife) preceded the growling, howling riot girl, Ms Bjelland becoming a mum, and then came the protracted hiatus of raising young Henry, before the fullness and ripeness of time demanded that ‘Babes’ be resurrected and flex those LIVE muscles again.
This is just a snapshot from one day in Glasgow; the testimony of a sporadic witness, nothing more and nothing less. I’ve been there to watch some of the journey unfold, missing the Lolapalooza highlights, and regaled tour with Sonic Youth. Sometimes I was close to the eye of the storm, sometimes I stood on the periphery and watched from a safe distance, but always alongside in spirit these ballsy gals that had the courage to be who they were and are, and myself proud to consider them friends.
I sprung a surprise on Kat and the rest of them on a quaint Spring day in Glasgow’s West End, happy to still be alive to tell the tale, and spoke with the three lassies as they blew through Bonny Scotland on their recent whirlwind tour of Europe.
One of the sisters from very young American support act, Skating Molly, was taken to hospital at the end of their set due to collapsing onstage at Oran Mor, where she departed in an ambulance to heartfelt and rapturous applause from the Weegie crowd.
Here’s what Babes and myself talked about:
Harry Mulligan: I’m sitting here with Babes in Toyland (Photo right, Maureen Herman and Kat Bjelland). I think the last time I was sitting with you all was something like eighteen years ago in the Bierkellor in Bristol, but I may be wrong; you had dreadlocks Lori. What’s it like being back in Blighty as a band?
Kat Bjelland: Blighty, ha!
Lori Barbero: Eighteen, it had to be more?
Harry Mulligan: More?
Lori Barbero: Yep, it had to be more because the last show we did, our Last Sho was at First Avenue, and that was with a bass player that we never played with again after that. Hmmm, so yeah, I guess it had to be eighteen…
Harry Mulligan: My son was three at the time, so that’s how I figured…
Kat Bjelland: Awww
LB: …and now he’s legal. Is he here? is he single?
KB: Is he coming to the show?
HM: No, he lives in Manchester.
KB: Oh, where we were yesterday.
MH: I always love coming here because it’s so pretty. When you get over the border to Scotland the scenery is more beautiful, things kind of calm down. It’s a friendlier vibe in Scotland. I like it!
LB: It’s really old and architectural, and the landscaping, the history, its breath-taking! If I had a fucking room like this in in my house, I’d never leave.
HM: Right now we have this ‘ME’ generation, but we all had the ‘More’ generation! Does the Road of Excess really lead to the Palace of Wisdom?
KB: I don’t think so! Oh, that’s a dumb question Hank, you’re so funny!
MH: No! I wouldn’t advise it. Enjoy it!
KB, LB & MH – in unison: NO!
MH: There’s no need to suffer, you know, it’s real life, you’re meant to enjoy it!
KB: I like the ‘Me’ generation, I don’t like people that are all: ‘I’ve got all my family’ and are ‘me, me, me’ on the internet. It’s all: ‘Selfie! Selfie! Selfie!’, but if it’s about: ‘Me’ – take care of yourself – that makes sense!
LB: Yeah, entitlement is the most horrible trait. As far as personality traits are concerned, I think entitlement is probably the worse one, but I’ve noticed though that in Europe, it’s way different from the States. Way, way different.
MH: Oh, The Millenials, I know what you mean …
KB: Oh what, what is it? What is he saying? What is it, I don’t know?
MH: In the States, there’s no work ethic, or basic etiquette.
KB: What is it?
MH: Like, for instance, let’s say you’re producing a documentary and you need to get into the parking lot, the people your filming need to get into the parking lot, and so you ask them to take care of it (the employees), and they say: ‘Well they’re getting their hair cut, they can’t make the call… and it’s their day off! It’s really fucked up and pervades everything you do: Millenials – is that what you call them?
KB: Wow, I didn’t know about that.
LB: I don’t know what it is, they’re really spoiled.
MH: Sorry, ha ha ha ha…
LB: America and Europe are WAY different, it’s like night and day. Americans are spoiled fucking brats filled with: Me, me, me, my, mine, me!
MB: I’ll send you an article, its this really funny comic link about a Millenial at Work.
KB: Ah, the ‘Me’ generation.
HM: (To Kat) Is there still a Kinderwhore aesthetic in 2015?
KB: There never really was! That’s a gross term anyway; child whore. I mean no, it’s to put clothes in the Stores!
NB: (a Kinderwhore look or aesthetic is often associated with female grunge artists and the innocent babydoll look which Kat Bjelland donned, juxtaposed with her powerful howling, screeching voice. For many, male and female, this is a highly charged, eroticized contrast that has seered itself on people’s imagination, Embedded and impregnated therein is the tacit notion that this should not be fetishised as a commodity, or so Kat seems to be pointing towards. However, it is more likely to have been more of a fashion / image conscious Courtney Love’s doing than Kat Bjellands. That’s why I considered it essential to seek clarity on this issue, which for the record, Kat kindly provided, leaving very little room for speculation as to whether or not she and the rest of Babes in Toyland found it distasteful).
HM: Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth reckons that there is enough youthful energy in Rock and Roll, and he harkens for a more mature, geriatric energy from Babes in Toyland. What do Babes in Toyland think of those apples?
LB: I read that. I want to see the Pop Group, which is one group that I want to see Live, but I don’t want to see their geriatric songs, I want to see: ‘We are Time (Rough Trade, 1990) and We are all Prostitutes (the Single hailed by Nick Cave as a Masterpiece). That’s not geriatric unless they’re playing in wheelchairs.
I mean, as far as coming back together, all three of us are in such better places; we’ve matured! We haven’t been together for so long, we’ve learned to re-love each other and love ourselves over this time because I certainly didn’t love myself as much as I do now, fourteen fifteen weeks ago.
LB: You learn how to respect your maturity and care about yourself, and care about the people that are around you. We’re grown up and are respectful and…
KB: Highly reflective – without changing the songs.
LB: So I’m guessing that’s what Thurston means. He also called us: the Grandmothers of Grunge!
KB: OH NO !
MH: Oh there can be a spectrum. It’s not like he was saying: ‘Oh Rocking’s just for young people, and now you have to stop playing.’ There’s room for bands of all ages.
LB: Yeah, it’s the way that he wrote it. In that article he wants us to write a new album and kind of wants it to be geriatric or something. It’s not happening!
KB: Oh, I got it!
LB: I think what he means is that we were just young and we were just didn’t give a fuck and maybe it’s just different, but I’m not going to play a fucking drum machine and push buttons.
KB: Just be how you are and just play the music, apparently.
HM: Speculate as we may, what can you tell me about any impending album; a Magnum Opus perhaps?
LB: That’s what it’s called, that’s really weird you fucking said that. Magnum Opus!
HM: Really? (Duh)
KB: Ahhhh – Harry!
LB: Ha ha ha ha ha, oh you’re so cute! Mo! We got an Em Oh!
KB: The Mo generation! No Mo, Mo Generation! We might record, but were just trying to play.
MH: One step at a time.
LB: Yeah I think it would be fun
KB: We’re going to the west coast.
LB: I think for the reunion tour it’s kind of important for the TONS of people who never get to see us, who only get to hear the records, to remeber that they don’t want to hear any new songs, they get to see us play our old songs Live. After we do our first Bout of shows and everyone has got to get a taste of our old shit, then we can throw in some new stuff, one or two songs would be okay.
There’s a couple of bands that we’ve seen who’ve reformed, and they just played completely new songs – you release it, and I know you’re trying to get money for your new record but really people want, especially the people we haven’t seen for a while, a decade, a decade and a half, who never got to see us, or have never been to see us as they’re 18 or 19, to see our old stuff. Then there’s the babies, and their mothers and fathers came to see us or they’re older siblings. It’s really important for them to hear what we played then, what they want to hear.
MH: There were a few mothers and daughters at the show last night. Their mums brought their daughters, that had been fans, their teenage daughters, it was like: Cool!
HM: Lori, what do you have to say to any female tub thumpers out there?
LB: Tub thumpers – thump harder, thump faster and just get thumping. If you’re not thumping at least 5 times a week, then thump more. I mean I know it’s very therapeutic. I’m in such a better place now that I’m back in Minneapolis. I’m in my home where I’ve been most of my life – I went to high school in New York but you know what, I like playing again, and being in touch with everyone – being myself, I didn’t realise how much I missed it and how important a part of my life it is.
LB: Therapeutically and mentally it’s just so fucking unbelievable how great it is to play drums and be with people you really love, and travel, and do what you did and go: ‘I just wrote some Postcards and Oh my God, you don’t know how great this is, to play, this is better than anything I thought it could be.
KB: Yeah it’s awesome!
HM: Maureen, what was the last book you read?
MH: Journal of Solitude by May Sarton
KB: Really, oh, you’ve read that a few times!
HM: How much has changed for women in music since Spanking Machine (1990), Fontanelle (1992) and Nemesisters (1995)?
KB: Oh there’s a lot more women in music.
LB: The masses are joining! I mean, even last night at the show, literally the first five rows were women and girls. I don’t know … maybe in New York, no, but they are like … respectful, it’s great, they’re just: Power in Numbers. It’s a true little quip …
KB: Its really obvious when I look off stage and there’s the people right there. . .
LB: I think it’s been like that. I honestly don’t look but last night I did, I’m so far away. I looked off the stage last night, and there were the people right there, mostly women. In 2015, it’s just baby steps, I don’t think it’s equal with equal pay and stuff, you don’t get enough women musicians.
MH: In the Press, I don’t think much has changed. The actual music scene has changed but the Press keep grabbing it and dragging it back ten years again. Every time they write an article about a band with a woman in it, it’s sad because they have the power to kind of move past that. Not that they should just ignore people’s gender but they shouldn’t focus on it so exclusively.
KB: I notice when it’s not mentioned – that we’re all female. That’s how bad its become. . .
HM: So what’s the plan for the rest of 2015?
MH: Can dream!
KB: A lot of touring.
LB: They just announced yesterday for this huge festival that’s in three different cities; It’s in Toronto, Canada, Denver, Colorado, Chicago, Illinois – Riot fest! I know that there are going be a lot of really great bands there with Iggy Pop and Motorhead and all kinds of stuff like that. Then we’re going to play another huge festival in Austin, Texas. We’re going to be going on the road and doing more shows.
HM: Do you think you’ll be back to do any festivals in the UK?
KB: Well we’re doing Europe now then we’re going to the West coast.
MH: It will be good fun.
LB: We have Alex at the CODA agency in London, and Rob and Tina, they’re our booking agents, and this is their second bout with Babes. We’ve worked with them before and they are really great, and we’re going to try and do a reprieve of all the places we didn’t get to go this time…
HM: Would you like to speak to anything I haven’t asked you about, any of you?
LB: I think it’s really important that we really appreciate our fans, and that we really appreciate the personal side of it. You know, there are so many bands and they walk into a place and they run into a place. They have body guards coming to the door to meet them.
LB: People want to see them too! We’re not any better or any worse – we’re all people, we’re musicians. Some bands get paid a lot more. Oh they’re famous, sold a million records, sold ten million records, but you know what? If it wasn’t for those people, you wouldn’t be where you are! I think there is just a lot of people who really just don’t pay attention to the people who got them where they are.
KB: We’re really good about our fans, I think.
LB: And it really bums me out.
MH: We’re kind of known for that.
LB: It’s really a drag and these people… I’m like (mimicking): ‘I’m just untouchable, I’m so great!’ It’s really ‘kin boring! I mean like right now, we’re doing this interview and we just had a fan ask if they could be in our Soundcheck and stuff, so we just have to have some boundaries; it’s that whole entitlement thing, no boundaries. Honestly, if we could hear every story that people had. I respect that, and am really grateful for Our fans. Without the people who come to our shows, we wouldn’t be doing this, selling out these shows – and it’s not all about money. It’s all about being able to do it, and money is great – but at the end of the day this IS about our fans.
KB: That really just killed me last night because we were saying: ‘I can’t believe how many people know the words to our songs.’
HM: Multi – generational?
KB: Younger, and older, all mixed in and really respectful to each other.
MH: There’s been a lot of grey in the mosh pit, it’s really cool.
LB: You bring people together that would never even talk – or have anything in common, or would never think they would, and they’re right there in the same room, all of them, moshing! It’s really great, I’m Uber sentimental and I cry at the drop of a hat.
KB: That’s true! It is, it’s so great!
MH: It really means a lot. I just wish people would realize, if you’re a musician or whatever you do, where you came from, and who’s around you, and be happy about it!
KB: Be grateful.
HM: (to Kat) I was just looking at pictures (from this tour) yesterday, of you playing an SG, and then I’ve just been looking at pictures that I took years ago of your Rickenbacker and the neck is snapped off it onstage (with Katastrophy Wife). Do you still have it.
KB: I’ve kind of retired it, that’s geriatric. It’s all glued together and everything. I bought it from this girl who needed rent money really bad, I needed a guitar that actually worked, really bad, and she didn’t buy it back, but yeah! If I play it, and hit it, and bend it, I’m afraid, it’s going to break. Its broke.
HM: Is Henry at home in Minnesota?
KB: Yeah, he’s doing really good.
LB: He lives a few blocks from my house, literally, probably a two minute walk from my house.
KB: Isn’t that weird?
HM: Any more kids on the Firm?
MH: I have a twelve year old!
HM: Boy or a girl?
MH: A girl, Anna!
LB: I have a dog, a Boxer!
HM: You guys, thank-you so much for taking the time, that was great!
All words by Harry Mulligan. More writing by Harry on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.