By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Inkoo Kang
By Dave Herrerra
By Josiah M. Hesse
By Britt Chester
By Noah Hubbell
Carla Bozulich, lead singer and primary songwriter for Los Angeles's Geraldine Fibbers, is in a drab New York City hotel room, waiting to cut Kevin Fitzgerald's hair. Fitzgerald, the Fibbers' drummer, is not the only bandmember whose noggin Bozulich trims on a regular basis; she's also sheared the follicles of bassist William Tutton, guitarist Nels Cline and anyone else in her orbit who does not become hysterical at the thought of a vitriolic musician with a sharp object in her hand. "I even cut our roadie's hair," she notes. "She had really long hair, and she wanted it cut off. But when I started working on it, she freaked out. She was like, 'There's eight inches of hair on the floor!' And I said, 'Well, that's what you wanted.'"
This anecdote does not wholly encapsulate Bozulich's approach to life and art, but it'll do in a pinch. Plenty of performers appear willing to go to extremes in order to reach creative pinnacles, but when it comes time to stop short of the brink or jump beyond it, they dig in their heels. Bozulich, however, is quite another story. On the Fibbers' two full-lengths, 1995's Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home and this year's moving Butch, she does not hesitate to fling herself into the void. The combination of her primeval voice, a throaty instrument whose roars and barks knock traditional views of femininity on their behinds, and the chaotic swirl of notes whipped together by Fitzgerald, Tutton, Cline and violinist Jessy Greene (who recently left the Fibbers to join the Jayhawks) will be music to the ears of PJ Harvey aficionados, but it may well have meeker types cowering in fear. Bozulich doesn't mind. She has no interest in being all things to all listeners.
"I only write about topics that touch me or people I know personally," she remarks. "Now, I like a lot of music by people who don't explore intimate parts of themselves artistically. I think that's just fine as a style. I don't want everybody to be like me. As a matter of fact, I'm damn grateful they're not like me. That's not the way I do it, but if it works for them, good." Not that she has any interest in emulating such tunesmiths. When she's asked if there are times that she writes simple, innocuous pop songs rather than rooting around in her soul for material, she gives a reply that's eloquent in its brevity: "No."
Of course, Bozulich pays a price for her honesty. On Lost, she drew upon the mid-Eighties period when she worked as a prostitute and abused addictive drugs. These experiences certainly made for vivid material: Witness "A Song About Walls," which included the quasi-autobiographical lines "She loved her junkie boyfriend/ Tried to help his heart mend/Asshole with an appetite/Living under an elevator shaft can be cold at night." But even though the tune ends with the couplet "Yeah, he died with a needle in his eye/But she was clean, clean, clean," many journalists treated Bozulich as if she were still a regular consumer of state-supplied methadone. In self-defense, she eventually declared this part of her life off-limits to scribes. "I'm really not into talking about that at all, because I feel like I've been exploited by a number of publications," she announces. "I've never asked anybody to write about it, and I'm not a person who's capitalizing on my history. All that stuff was a long time ago. I've been clean and highly functional for ten years. We're talking about stuff from my childhood, and I'm sick of it."
After clambering out of her personal hell, Bozulich became the frontwoman for Ethyl Meatplow, a sort of industrial band whose edgy manner never caught on with more than a cult-sized following. ("Devil's Johnson," a song about the dangers of crack that highlighted Happy Days, Sweetheart, the act's 1993 long-player, came closer than any of the combo's other efforts to making an impact.) But more frustrating to Bozulich than the Meatplow's relative lack of success was her difficulty in stretching it to accommodate all of her musical tastes. Left with a choice between frustration and freedom, she embraced the latter and headed into the big, bad world by herself.
The tack taken by the Fibbers, whose first singles began appearing on the Sympathy for the Record Industry imprint in 1994, was quite unlike the one that characterized Ethyl Meatplow. The band covered such country classics as George Jones's "He Stopped Loving Her" and Dolly Parton's "Jolene" using basic, bare-bones instrumentation that leaned more toward abrasion than prettification. Bozulich ripped into the material with an almost Appalachian passion that commercial C&W has long since abandoned, and her team of associates (including since-departed guitarist Daniel Keenan) matched her, emotion for emotion. The tag hung on Lost was country punk, and as a descriptor, it was not wholly inappropriate: "Get Thee Gone," accented by plunks from Fitzgerald's banjo, juxtaposes escalating guitar squawks with a lyrical lament ("I emptied out your bag of toys/And let them spin their web/But oddly, as I watch them turn/My love begins to ebb") that Bozulich delivers with Nick Cave-meets-the-Carter Family zeal. But "The Small Song," "House Is Falling" and others deftly transcend genre labels. There's a certain amount of affectation going on, but Bozulich's tales of woe and heartbreak prove strong enough to stand on their own.