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."
On Ghetto Blaster, the women do just that. The disc delivers a twelve-pack of deliriously raw-boned, careening compositions that crash against walls of hook-filled chaos with an intensity that can be measured on the Richter scale. "I'm Crying," the platter's opening track, is a case in point. The song's sixty-second, one-chord opening gradually thickens with layers of gooey guitar squalls before exploding into a jarring mid-section. A Stooges-esque bridge and two and a half minutes of mayhem later, the Aunts' braying call-and-response vocals crest, and the tune collapses into a glorious, speaker-shaking heap. The story's the same throughout the rest of this delicious disc, with the band trading fancy licks for venom, invention and mountains of moxie. Add up the pissy snarl of Alanis Morissette and her radio-friendly counterparts, and the sum doesn't come close to equaling the vigor and volatility whipped up by the Red Aunts.
Davis is reluctant to stick a handle on the Aunts' music. "I guess it is punk rock," she acknowledges. "But I don't want to call it that, because I'd hate for it to get lumped in with all that other Foo Fighters kind of pop punk or anything like that. I hate that--I hate all of that music. I don't listen to any indie rock or punk or anything. I listen to pretty much all old music--people just rockin' and rollin' and screaming their heads off." These influences match up well with the players' primitivity. "We just don't play our instruments well enough to play what we want to play," Davis allows. "I'd love to play with a drummer and a tambourine, an acoustic guitar and a slide, but the minute you plug in with all your friends and you start shredding, it's like, 'Yeah, let's go kill everyone.' It just happens."
The Aunts are unlikely to receive an invitation to the Lilith Fair; according to Davis, just about the only thing that's "girlie" about the musicians is their concern about the colors of their instruments. But she admits to a fascination with music made by women. "I'm just attracted to that. The last three records I've been listening to, I realized they were all female musicians, and I'm like, 'I'm a girl-band geek, and I'm a girl, in a band.'" Questions about gender "can be annoying at times," she says. "But there really aren't many women playing music, or at least they're not given the recognition as much as men. So it is a big deal. I remember when I saw my first girl band. I saw the Lunachicks when I was eighteen, and I just lost it. I was like, wow. It changed my life."
If there are a lot of other role models out there with which young women interested in rocking can identify, Davis doesn't see them. She used to like Joan Jett until she simultaneously lightened her music and her hair, and she can't come up with a single nice thing to say about Courtney Love. "Oh, she's just...ugh," Davis practically spits. "I never liked her music, I don't think she writes very good songs, and I just don't care about her. She doesn't have any effect on my world of music. I remember when she was on the cover of Rolling Stone, I was like, 'Thank God. Now just get out of our lives. You've become a celebrity--now distance yourself from the true music scene, because you don't play any part in it.' I think she's a really irritating person...You can be the best player in the whole wide world, but if you don't have any soul, then forget about it."
Soul is something the Red Aunts have in abundance--and so is integrity. They continue to prize music over money, and if that means that they'll never make it out of the underground, so be it. "I really feel that with this band, to just accomplish what we have is something that doesn't happen very often," she says. "I never thought I could do it. I would have been in a band when I was eleven if I thought that girls could take drum lessons and be in bands. And this is gonna sound totally corny, but I know that I've made a difference in the world with my dumb punk-rock band."
Red Aunts, with King Rat and the Necessary Evils, 10 p.m. Saturday, April 4, Lion's Lair, 2022 East Colfax Avenue, $5, 320-9200; with Electric Summer and the Necessary Evils, 9 p.m. Sunday, April 5, Club 156, CU-Boulder, $6, 492-8888.
Get the Music Newsletter