By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
By Jena Ardell
By Mary Willson
By Bree Davies
By Tom Murphy
By Tom Murphy
By A.H. Goldstein
Kat Bjelland, the leader of the post-punk threesome Babes in Toyland, is paying for her good times.
The previous weekend, at the end of a two-week tour of Australia, Bjelland, Babes bassist Maureen Herman and the Toyland crew had thrown a surprise birthday party in honor of drummer Lori Barbero. "We had an extra day," explains Bjelland, "so we rented a limo for her and had a lot of champagne." Then, still reeling from their various indulgences, the Babes boarded a plane for a sixteen-hour flight to Seattle. The sojourn wasn't what you'd call refreshing ("I took a bunch of sleeping pills, but I couldn't sleep," Bjelland notes), and upon arriving on U.S. soil, Bjelland and Herman immediately initiated another surprise party for Barbero. Bjelland was pleased with the results--"Lori was really surprised the second time," she says--but two days later, her voice is shot, her body is racked with tendinitis, and she's suffering from an advanced case of jet lag that shows no sign of ebbing. In short, she announces, "We're all fried. We've been touring too much. This tour has been going on for, like, eight years."
Chronologists, or people with access to calculators, will have no problem figuring out that Bjelland is referencing 1987, when Babes in Toyland was formed in Minneapolis. The lineup went through frequent permutations in the early years; the most famous ex-Babe is Hole's Courtney Love, with whom Bjelland still scraps on occasion (at present, the pair are at peace, relatively speaking). By 1990, though, the cast of characters had settled down to Bjelland, Barbero and bassist Michelle Leon, who together cut a pair of energetic, sloppy platters for the Twin/Tone imprint: 1990's Spanking Machine and the 1991 EP To Mother. The discs established Bjelland as a fearless vocalist (on them, she shrieks more often than she sings) and a phrasemaker par excellence. Easy listening they aren't, but the offerings proved gripping enough to attract the attention of both Reprise Records, which signed the players, and journalist Neal Karlen, who wrote a book about them called Babes in Toyland: The Making and Selling of a Rock And Roll Band. If you bring up the latter in conversation with Bjelland, however, be prepared to duck.
"He just paraphrased, made up quotes, pretended he was somewhere when he wasn't. It was just a big lie, a big horror," Bjelland rasps. "And it was all our mistake. He hung out with us for a while, and he seemed pretty nice and we got to trust him. But I think what happened was he got this big advance for the book, and he bought a car--but then he had to get the book done really quickly. And he'd lost all his notes and stuff, so he had to kind of make it up. Seriously, that's what happened. The book is fictitious; it's like the National Enquirer. It was so weird to see my name in something like that." She acknowledges that Karlen's opus hasn't hurt her reputation with those she cares about most but adds, "I try to explain to each and every new person that I meet about how bad the book is. Stupid piece of shit waste of wood."
In some ways, the timing of the book was advantageous; it corresponded with the arrival of Herman and the appearance of the 1992 long-player Fontanelle, which became a pleasant sales surprise after a Babes video was lauded on an episode of Beavis and Butt-head (according to Bjelland, she's considerably more irritated by questions about these cartoon nimrods than she is by Love-related queries). The Babes subsequently appeared on the main stage at Lollapalooza 1993, but Bjelland hated the experience. Her most incisive comment about the festival is an exasperated "Ugh."
The latest Babes effort, this year's Nemesisters, was released without the hoopla that accompanied the iffy 1993 EP Painkillers, and is a considerable improvement over it. Some of the tracks can be described as sound and fury that doesn't signify much, but "Sweet '69" is one of the season's guiltiest pleasures, a single that manages to balance Bjelland's trademark rage with a clever arrangement and juicy hooks. (Predictably, the same radio types frightened by Anthrax--see page 81--have given "Sweet '69" a wide berth). Also on the CD is an unexpectedly lighthearted cover of the Sister Sledge disco-era smash "We Are Family" and a considerably more sordid take on "All By Myself," the 1976 weeper by former Raspberry frontman Eric Carmen.
"That was a song I heard on AM radio when I was a little kid," Bjelland recalls. "I'd get grounded all the time; I'd have to listen under the covers really quietly. And I'd hear that song and feel so sad--like, `Oh, this record is about me!' So I'm kind of making fun of me by doing it." At the mention of another song of this ilk, the 1972 Gilbert O'Sullivan's moper "Alone Again (Naturally)," Bjelland is struck by an inspiration: "We should do that one, too. We should do an album of all the most fucking morose, pathetic hits of the Seventies. We'd call it The Loner Guy Songs."