Early this decade, feminism birthed the riot grrrl, a bastard child whose foster home was the punk-rock stage. This new generation of women fought not only to reintegrate sugar-and-spice girlishness into music, but to give expression to the dirty side of being female, as well--the shrill, pissed-off, bawdy side. These ax- wielding performers were equally apt to toss teddy bears or sordid tampons into their audiences, thereby providing youth culture with images of femininity unforeseen.
Aside from its stunts and its fashions, the movement was underpinned by the fundamental fact that an unprecedented number of women were picking up instruments and rocking unabashedly. But rather than focusing upon this specific, the press and the music industry broke the riot-grrrl wave into separately named subsets, perhaps in an effort to delegitimize the revolution as a mere trend.
Cub, an all-female outfit from Vancouver, British Columbia, was relegated to novelty status right from the start; the tag slapped upon it was "cuddlecore." Recounts bassist Lisa Marr, who plays alongside guitarist Robin Iwata and drummer Lisa G in the group: "The cuddlecore thing had started as a kind of a joke that a friend of ours had come up with--a media joke, because there was all of this 'foxcore,' 'queercore,' etc. So he said, 'Oh, you guys should be cuddlecore!' And we were throwing it around, thinking, 'Isn't this funny?' But then people really started taking it seriously, and there was a label in Chicago saying, 'No, we came up with the term first' and people saying, 'This cuddlecore stuff is great' or 'This cuddlecore stuff is terrible,' and it was being mentioned in reviews as some sort of genre. So we felt it was going way too far."
In an attempt to counteract the cuddlecore badge (and the dismissals it provoked), Marr, who was already a college graduate in her late twenties when Cub was formed, participated in an interview that lumped her with teenage acts such as Emily's Sassy Lime and Tummy Ache. "I thought that article would expand on the whole thing and show it for what it was," she notes. "The important thing about cuddlecore was that people were picking up instruments that hadn't much musical experience and just singing and playing because they love to do it. Instead, the article turned out to be me licking a big lollipop and looking silly and saying, 'I love my guitar'--this after an hour's worth of conversation talking about women in music."
Though some acts that willingly or unwillingly appeared under the cuddlecore banner embraced adolescent themes, Marr refutes the suggestion that hers fetishized childhood; the fact that one of Cub's first gigs (in 1992) was a pajama party reflected DIY opportunism more than anything else. "Cub was never meant to be this 'cute' thing," she says. "Our older stuff was pegged as being cute because the music was really minimalist, because Robin had never played before and because we hadn't been a band for very long."
To Marr, cuddlecore was simply an untended gateway through which anyone could climb into the spotlight. "With punk rock, it's, 'This is raw, exciting.' With us it was, 'This is cute, innocent, naive.' But it's really the same stuff.
"Our music was pretty upbeat because the songs were all very short," she goes on. "The music was a bit more melodic and sort of straightahead because the songs were simple. People would mistake that as meaning that all the songs were about happy things when they really weren't. Or, if they seemed to be about happy things, they were subversively not about happy things. But people didn't seem to want to look below the surface, which I found interesting. Not necessarily a problem, but interesting." Similar responses greeted the music of the Buzzcocks, a combo that mapped out the same cuddlecore territory in which Cub operates nearly twenty years ago--albeit as toms, not tabbies.
Three albums, over two dozen contributions to compilations and split singles and approximately 400 shows later, Cub has expanded its sound well beyond its origins. Box of Hair, the band's latest recording on the Mint imprint, epitomizes its progress; the disc is as polymorphous as one of Sebadoh's variety shows. Coincidentally, Cub has toured with Sebadoh, as well as with the Muffs, Hole, Guided by Voices, Yo La Tengo, Pansy Division, Seam, the Coctails and Southern Culture on the Skids and is currently touring with the Queers. The roster bears testimony to the performers' ability to transcend the faux genre that bore them. "It's a pretty good mixture," Marr says of the audiences that attend Cub shows. "I've always been happy with the fact that it hasn't been any one kind of people.
"I actually like playing punk shows," she confesses. "There's not much point in always playing to the converted. Last time we played in Denver, we played on a punk bill that had two ska bands and three hardcore-punk bands, and we got thrown on at the last minute. And it actually went over really well. We were the only female band that played. I don't think any of the other bands had any women in them at all. It was crazy mohawks and leather and moshing--which sometimes can be really fun, because you can be real aggressive, and people are excited to hear something new. You have to give these new kids credit, because they are pretty embracing of stuff as long as you can hold your own. They're not going to tolerate somebody who's getting up there and can't put on a show, but that's always been one of our favorite things to do--to completely wow an audience that is not expecting us. We played with Rancid and had a great show."
To their surprise, the members of Cub have encountered concertgoers in the South who have somehow never managed to see an all-girl band before. For the most part, these greenhorns have been gracious--but there have been exceptions. "Someone did give us some trouble one time in Houston," Marr remembers. "The drummer that was playing with us at that point just got off the stage at the end of the show and punched him out. You show that you can take care of yourself and that women do belong up there as much as any guy."
The three Cubs haven't needed to engage in fisticuffs in British Columbia; their home base has been a genuine haven from both a fan and a financial perspective. "The Canadian music scene is self-protective to some degree," Marr points out. "There is a lot more government funding for the arts in general. Specifically for music, you can get grants to tour, record, make videos, advertise, press--all this stuff. It's kind of a double bind, though, because you are getting all this attention because there are laws that have to be upheld: 20 percent Canadian content on the radio all the time, every day. But I think it's good, because it does nurture a supportive atmosphere. We were really well-embraced in Canada early on. Now it's starting to change; most of the people joining our fan club and most of the positive response we're getting is from the States."
Government subsidies have hardly engendered laziness in this case--Cub has crossed the border swinging. "We're pretty ambitious and well-organized. We do everything ourselves: We book our own tours and we do our own merchandise and our own accounting, so we don't expect to get anything and we know it's going to take a lot of work. We've been really lucky in the States; U.S. college radio has always been great to us. In fact, the new album hit number six on the CMJ [College Music Journal], which is pretty incredible for an independent band. There are a million bands in America, and sometimes you have to push a little harder."
These efforts have helped force marketing monikers and sexist condescension into obsolescence, leaving the members of Cub time to concentrate on other matters--such as making a living. Besides working day jobs, they've been known to answer the phones at Mint, which is run by Lisa G's ex-boyfriend and Iwata's brother. "Sometimes we get really tired of having to do everything ourselves and not being recognized in the industry," Marr sighs. "But the tradeoff is that we've always done everything the way we've wanted to do it, and that's a real luxury you don't realize until you give it up." Still, Marr concedes with a laugh, they'd hardly turn down a hand-up from a certain female record-company mogul.
"We'd like to go to Maverick," she says. "We want the big money. We want to hang with Madonna. We want to get flown to New York, wined and dined. Now that's what we need."
Cub, with the Queers and Smugglers. 8:30 p.m. Saturday, September 21, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $6-$7, 443-3399 or 830-
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