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Before there was a band of the same name, the Hemi Cuda was an automobile that Chrysler manufactured in the mid-Fifties. At first the car's appeal lay in simple economics: A new engine design offered jacked-up power but didn't require fancy gas. By the early Seventies, though, the car had morphed into something altogether different: It became a prized muscle car, a dragster -- the kind of machine guys in too-tight pants souped up, tricked out and cruised in, baby, stopping only to show off at the drive-in or the disco. The grill of the late models resembles the grin of a wicked chrome monster; side vents seem more like gills than ventilators, and the sleek frame curves sensually like that of a horse or some other creature fit for riding. Bumper to bumper, the car oozes macho energy. If the Cuda is alive -- and many enthusiasts will tell you that it is -- it is most certainly a male. Happily, no one seems to have told any of this to the women behind Hemi Cuda, an ensemble that has more in common with the auto than a simple title. Hemi Cuda the car is fast, flashy, sexual, with a helluva pickup and an exhaust kick that assaults the senses like a shotgun blast. Just like Hemi Cuda the band.
In a perfect world, Hemi Cuda would be offered a regular slot as the house band down at the auto track. Against a dizzying backdrop of cars whizzing by at breakneck speed and fans downing beers and inhaling Slim Jims with no less momentum, its music would blend well in gearhead culture. Hemi Cuda revs and purrs like a well-maintained Super 8, bridging the raunchy rock of groups like Nashville Pussy with the sleazy punk of Babes in Toyland and the Dickless. Ask guitarist/vocalist Anika Zappe if a bunch of chicks are capable of pulling off such a hybrid, and she might politely ask you to kiss her ass before Cuda's music kicks yours.
"A lot of the music I like is real cock-rock stuff. It's really kind of blatant in its sexuality. I think that girls can do that same kind of thing," Zappe says, adding that she prefers the delicate term "clit rock" when describing her own band. While that may be a tough label for some to bandy around, it's a fairly accurate one, since two of the band's three members are female.
Assembled from salvaged parts of local slop-rock acts, Hemi Cuda began as a four-piece nearly a year ago. Zappe and fellow guitarist/ vocalist Juli McClurg first played together in the Hectics, one of the most unusual acts on the scene, since its two-guitars-and-drums approach bypassed the bass altogether. The band dissolved after releasing one disc, Everything I Need,on the defunct 360 Twist! label in 1997. Zappe describes the breakup as "a weird falling-out," but once things cooled, she and McClurg couldn't resist the voices that beckoned them to resume rocking, and the two began brainstorming ideas for Hemi Cuda. Lifting the ban on bassists, they recruited Karen Exley, formerly of Self Service. Drummer Scott Padawer joined after befriending Zappe at the gloriously ramshackle P.S. Lounge on East Colfax, where she worked as a bartender. Of Padawer's precise and pounding style, Zappe says simply, "Scott's a monster, a real monster." Truly, the addition of Exley and Padawer gave the band a fuller overall low-end sound, which lent a discernible growl to the music. Playing with the girls was a welcome change for Padawer, who seems undaunted or unconcerned with the gender imbalance in Hemi Cuda. In fact, he views it as a welcome change to the occasional testosterone-fueled conflicts of previous bands. "It's nice," he says. "I'm used to people trying to beat the shit out of each other at band practice. Women communicate better than men do. There's not an aggro-ego thing going on. It's not Mr. 'I'm going to go get laid tonight.'" Far from it, agrees Exley: "Now it's Miss 'I'm going to go get laid tonight.'"
In many ways, Hemi Cuda has stumbled on a brilliant formula: The gals know what boys like (rock, cars, sex; the band combines all three with almost equal fervor), but their unapologetic girlishness has endeared them to female fans. "I think chicks are down with it," Zappe says, citing a recent fan encounter after opening for Bay Area band the Donnas. "There were these two teenage girls we met, Lindy and Rhiannon. They were like twelve and fourteen, and they waited on the stairs to talk to us. They were just cool. We even got paid that night, but I could have been paid five dollars and that still would have been the best thing that happened."
Hemi Cuda's live performances often parody girl groups of the early Sixties and the badly acted bad-girl films of the Sixties and Seventies; think the Ronnettes starring in Russ Meyer's Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. The fusion works on stage, where Zappe and Exley exude a certain found glamour that is at once flirtatious and alluring but too damn tough to care about anyone's approval. It's all in the attitude -- and, possibly, the clothes. Zappe and Exley are notorious fashion victims whose tastes were cultivated in unlikely places. What's a girl to do, after all, when she has a headlining gig and not a thing to wear? She looks to the most obvious source of feminine inspiration: the drag queen. "I think our love for drag queens is pretty important. We're wannabe drag queens," Zappe says wistfully. Some of the area's most divine she-males have lent them tips on everything from makeup to how to apply false eyelashes. The girls have caught on quickly: Whether donning platform boots, stiletto heels, multi-hued wigs or naughty miniskirts, they have modified a common macho mantra to accommodate their fetish: They rock out with their frocks out.