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It's been a struggle to get over the hump of being a quote-unquote girl band," declares Hemi Cuda's Karen Exley. "With our costumes and everything, it's been hard for people to see the substance. It's like, 'Fuck that! I can fucking rock!' I think being in Nashville Pussy has helped me in that regard. I'm respected a lot more as a musician than as a spectacle."
Exley's a looker, man, real easy on the eyes. And so is Anika Zappe, her partner in crime. Both could stop traffic on the interstate. To ignore this would be seriously remiss. But it would be even worse to discount Hemi Cuda as some quote-unquote girl anything.
Exley and Zappe are bona fide badasses, players who've been in the scene for well over a decade. Prior to forming Hemi Cuda in 1997, Exley was a member of Self Service, and Zappe played with the Hectics. The pair went through a succession of drummers before conscripting current timekeeper Ryan Klassen, who plays on Hemi's new album, Thick Riffs 'n Tasty Licks, due for release at the Bluebird Theater this Friday, July 20 — and certain to raise the bar a couple of notches for power pop in this town.
A rambunctious sing-a-long that's fun as hell to listen to, Riffs comes roaring out of the gate like the finely tuned muscle car the group is named for. "There's a maturity behind our music," Exley points out. "It started when we were approached by a producer a few years ago. It was one of the first times I worked with anyone from the outside. But he really helped us learn how to trim the fat."
While the act's previous outing, 2000's Classics for Lovers, was tuneful enough, it was a little rougher around the edges; Riffs is sleeker and remarkably more refined. It's such a leap, in fact, that it's hard to believe that the members sat on these recordings for almost two years. But it's been at least that long, says Zappe, who remembers finishing the vocals for the record just eight days before she gave birth to her son, in August 2005. The delay is understandable, though. Zappe has been busy experiencing the joys of parenthood, and Exley, better known around here as Karen Cuda, has been holding down the low end for Nashville Pussy.
"We haven't had anything new out in a while," Exley acknowledges, "so it's been hard to keep that momentum going, to where we're more than just a name."
She's also had to adjust to doing her own bidding again. "I get really spoiled with Nashville Pussy," she admits, "not having to do anything, just show up and play. So having to promote the band, do press and handle things like licensing cover songs for the new record has taken some time."
But being a member of Pussy has made spreading the word quite a bit easier. Not only have her bandmates — Blaine Cartwright, Ruyter Suys and Jeremy Thompson — been incredibly supportive, but fans have yelled out Hemi Cuda's name during sets. "It floors me to think about the crossover," Exley marvels, "since they're such different styles of music. It's affected the band positively, in that our name has really gotten out there. With my nickname being Cuda, a lot of people are curious where that came from. But it's also been hard at times in the sense that I'm not around a lot."
But absence, as they say, makes the heart grow fonder — and over the years, Exley and Zappe have fostered an unshakable sense of sisterhood, which is beyond evident on songs such as "Birthday Song for My Rock N' Roll Bitch," which was originally penned as a birthday ode to Zappe from Exley: "Making me laugh you make me cry/Before I puke, you pull the hair out of my eyes/You make me smart and you make me scream/Without you I couldn't live this dream."
"Anika and I almost broke up once," Exley recalls. "It was after a show with Twizted — a shitty Insane Clown Posse protegé — in Fort Collins. We're so close and dependent on each other, like sisters. It was like, 'Fuck you! No, fuck you! Fuck Hemi Cuda!' And then the next day, I looked around my place at all my wigs and stuff, and I was like, 'We can't break up Hemi Cuda. Who else am I going to find that's on the same page as me?'"
So while Exley's having a blast with Nashville Pussy, her heart has never been far from Zappe or Hemi Cuda. "The older you get," she adds, "the more your priorities start changing. I really have to love what I'm doing to be doing it, you know? I'm not in my twenties anymore. It's not all about raging all the time."
Nor is it about falling all over yourself for the almighty record deal. Although Chatterbox Records released Riffs in Australia this past May, Hemi Cuda opted to issue the disc on its own here in the States.
"I have a vast network of people who'd be interested in listening to what we have to offer," Exley explains. "So we'll see where it goes from here. I'd definitely like to see it grow from more than just a local thing that I do when I'm not on the road. That's one of the reasons I joined Nashville Pussy — to give Hemi Cuda a leg up. It would be nice to have someone to take over the tedious bullshit so we could focus on making music."
And make those knuckle-dragging naysayers eat their words.
Upbeats and beatdowns: I've always thought the old adage that death comes in threes didn't apply to music. Shows what I know. Because it's my great displeasure to inform you that Planes Mistaken for Stars, another one of my favorite acts, has announced plans to come in for a final landing. According to Gared O'Donnell, the boys will do one last tour and come to a rest this fall. Godspeed, gentlemen.
In much more heartening news, DeVotchKa has reportedly reached an agreement with Anti- Records, which will issue How It Ends in Europe on August 6. Congrats to Nick Urata and company. This has been a long time coming.
Finally, check out all the extra content we crammed into Backbeat Online this week, including overnight reviews and slide shows, more of our conversations with Ice-T and Leo Kottke, and an exclusive Q&A with Keller Williams.