Seeing Red

The Red Aunts have no relation to punk cliches.

Red Aunts guitarist Kerry Davis yawns into the phone, then promptly offers a polite apology. "I'm sorry," she says. "I'm really tired today, and I just can't wake up. I'm a waitress, and I just started working nights recently, getting home at like four in the morning. People think that when you're in a band and on a label that they've heard of, you don't have to work and stuff. It's like, 'God, I wish!'"

The lives of Davis and her fellow Aunts (guitarist Terri Wahl, bassist Debi Martini and drummer Lesley Noelle) certainly can't be described as leisurely. For the past seven years they've balanced regular jobs with a rock-and-roll existence that's paid off not in riches, but in great music. The players have made a slew of fine CDs for the Epitaph imprint, including 1995's #1 Chicken and this year's Ghetto Blaster. Just as important, the band has its own sonic signature, unlike so many of its punk peers. Once you've heard the Red Aunts, you won't be able to mistake them for anyone else.

Predictably, the group's individuality hasn't made the task of getting noticed any easier. In the Aunts' hometown of Los Angeles, Davis notes, "we never really became popular or anything, because we were never picked up by a scene; we just never really hooked. And no bigger band has come along and taken us on tour. We've just been on our own. Plus, we're on this weird label where we don't sound anything at all like the rest of the bands. You know what I mean?

"We used to be upset about it," she concedes. "It was like, 'Why don't all these cool bands like us? Why doesn't anyone give a shit about us?' But now we're kind of proud of it, because everything we've done and earned we've gotten ourselves."

The quartet has come a long way from its humble beginnings. The band was conceived in 1991, when Wahl and Kerry decided to form a combo even though neither of them had prior musical experience. They subsequently borrowed some instruments, recruited Martini and Noelle and began gigging with a vengeance. Some observers wrote them off as exuberant amateurs, and even today, nitpickers have been known to grouse about the coarseness of their approach. But Davis says such barbs no longer bother her. "When people tell you for so long that you can't do it, that you can't play, you're just kind of like, 'So?' And you know what? Actually, we can play--and we write really interesting songs that have interesting arrangements and song structures. So now we don't even care what people say anymore. We've been doing it for so long now that we just do whatever we want--and we stopped trying to be professional and practice and all that. We've always just cut loose the moment we walked on stage anyway, so no matter how much we practice, everything freaks out when we're playing live. We realize it's all a fun thing, and that's what's going to make our show good, even if we're hitting bad notes and hitting the wrong strings."

She's right: What the Aunts may lack in technique, they make up for in enthusiasm. But there's more to their joyously raging, mosh-pit-ready brand of music than clamor and crunch. Beneath the surface pandemonium, the Aunts' tunes can be surprisingly intricate. "On some songs we'll all come in with a part and we'll just stick them all together," Davis says. "That accounts for it moving all over the place. But we also have whole songs written by one person that move all over, so I think that's become our style. I think of it almost like hip-hop records, where there are layers of sound and layers of different beats and noises going in and out of each other. A bass line will come up, and then there'll be a guitar bouncing off it somewhere and then a lead and a drum thing, and another part will overlap it. Slowly the whole thing will turn into the next part of the song.

"I've always wanted someone to try and sit down and transcribe our music, because it takes me a really long time to write songs, and I don't think they're simple," she goes on. "They're not just these little punk-rock songs. It takes a lot of work to make them. It's like math or something--take this part out and put it back in here so it all ends up as this. That's why I think we write rad songs."

They also perform them with aplomb--the Aunts are widely regarded as a blistering live act. But this reputation has its drawbacks, too. "People are always defining us as this hot-rod girl band from hell, screaming and punking out, and it's frustrating," she says. "Just for my own interest, I would like someone to critique our songs musically instead of saying, 'These chicks are screaming, and boy, are they mad, and they're gonna kick your ass when they roll into town.' People don't really pay attention to us musically, or they never write about our band in musical terms; they focus on the female thing or the screaming thing. It's so funny, because anyone who meets us sees we're totally nice girls. Yeah, there's the bad side of us that for some reason comes out in the music, but that's what music and art is for--to just let it all hang out."

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