Carla Bozulich, lead singer and primary songwriter for Los Angeles's Geraldine Fibbers, is in a drab New York City hotel room, waiting to cut Kevin Fitzgerald's hair. Fitzgerald, the Fibbers' drummer, is not the only bandmember whose noggin Bozulich trims on a regular basis; she's also sheared the follicles of bassist William Tutton, guitarist Nels Cline and anyone else in her orbit who does not become hysterical at the thought of a vitriolic musician with a sharp object in her hand. "I even cut our roadie's hair," she notes. "She had really long hair, and she wanted it cut off. But when I started working on it, she freaked out. She was like, 'There's eight inches of hair on the floor!' And I said, 'Well, that's what you wanted.'"
This anecdote does not wholly encapsulate Bozulich's approach to life and art, but it'll do in a pinch. Plenty of performers appear willing to go to extremes in order to reach creative pinnacles, but when it comes time to stop short of the brink or jump beyond it, they dig in their heels. Bozulich, however, is quite another story. On the Fibbers' two full-lengths, 1995's Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home and this year's moving Butch, she does not hesitate to fling herself into the void. The combination of her primeval voice, a throaty instrument whose roars and barks knock traditional views of femininity on their behinds, and the chaotic swirl of notes whipped together by Fitzgerald, Tutton, Cline and violinist Jessy Greene (who recently left the Fibbers to join the Jayhawks) will be music to the ears of PJ Harvey aficionados, but it may well have meeker types cowering in fear. Bozulich doesn't mind. She has no interest in being all things to all listeners.
"I only write about topics that touch me or people I know personally," she remarks. "Now, I like a lot of music by people who don't explore intimate parts of themselves artistically. I think that's just fine as a style. I don't want everybody to be like me. As a matter of fact, I'm damn grateful they're not like me. That's not the way I do it, but if it works for them, good." Not that she has any interest in emulating such tunesmiths. When she's asked if there are times that she writes simple, innocuous pop songs rather than rooting around in her soul for material, she gives a reply that's eloquent in its brevity: "No."
Of course, Bozulich pays a price for her honesty. On Lost, she drew upon the mid-Eighties period when she worked as a prostitute and abused addictive drugs. These experiences certainly made for vivid material: Witness "A Song About Walls," which included the quasi-autobiographical lines "She loved her junkie boyfriend/ Tried to help his heart mend/Asshole with an appetite/Living under an elevator shaft can be cold at night." But even though the tune ends with the couplet "Yeah, he died with a needle in his eye/But she was clean, clean, clean," many journalists treated Bozulich as if she were still a regular consumer of state-supplied methadone. In self-defense, she eventually declared this part of her life off-limits to scribes. "I'm really not into talking about that at all, because I feel like I've been exploited by a number of publications," she announces. "I've never asked anybody to write about it, and I'm not a person who's capitalizing on my history. All that stuff was a long time ago. I've been clean and highly functional for ten years. We're talking about stuff from my childhood, and I'm sick of it."
After clambering out of her personal hell, Bozulich became the frontwoman for Ethyl Meatplow, a sort of industrial band whose edgy manner never caught on with more than a cult-sized following. ("Devil's Johnson," a song about the dangers of crack that highlighted Happy Days, Sweetheart, the act's 1993 long-player, came closer than any of the combo's other efforts to making an impact.) But more frustrating to Bozulich than the Meatplow's relative lack of success was her difficulty in stretching it to accommodate all of her musical tastes. Left with a choice between frustration and freedom, she embraced the latter and headed into the big, bad world by herself.
The tack taken by the Fibbers, whose first singles began appearing on the Sympathy for the Record Industry imprint in 1994, was quite unlike the one that characterized Ethyl Meatplow. The band covered such country classics as George Jones's "He Stopped Loving Her" and Dolly Parton's "Jolene" using basic, bare-bones instrumentation that leaned more toward abrasion than prettification. Bozulich ripped into the material with an almost Appalachian passion that commercial C&W has long since abandoned, and her team of associates (including since-departed guitarist Daniel Keenan) matched her, emotion for emotion. The tag hung on Lost was country punk, and as a descriptor, it was not wholly inappropriate: "Get Thee Gone," accented by plunks from Fitzgerald's banjo, juxtaposes escalating guitar squawks with a lyrical lament ("I emptied out your bag of toys/And let them spin their web/But oddly, as I watch them turn/My love begins to ebb") that Bozulich delivers with Nick Cave-meets-the-Carter Family zeal. But "The Small Song," "House Is Falling" and others deftly transcend genre labels. There's a certain amount of affectation going on, but Bozulich's tales of woe and heartbreak prove strong enough to stand on their own.
Butch is better, because Bozulich's influences aren't as easy to spot. "California Tuffy," with its martial riffing and light-fingered verses, may remind those with long memories of the Gun Club or Rank and File, but "Toy Box" is an aural threat of the kind Chrissie Hynde hasn't managed since the first Pretenders album; "I Killed the Cuckoo" is a riot of scratchy guitars and twisted vocal harmonies; "Swim Back to Me" is a raw-boned, venomous ballad; "Arrow to My Drunken Eye" is disturbing chamber rock whose melody is outlined by the dark tones of cello, viola, celeste and acoustic bass; and "You Doo Right" is, of all things, a cover of a Can song that finds the Fibbers and Ethyl Meatplow on something like common ground. Homogeneous it's not, but that's one of the reasons the disc is intriguing. Whereas most Nineties albums taste the same from beginning to end, Butch offers up a plethora of flavors.
Bozulich didn't consciously plan to make such an eclectic album, but she didn't shy away from the challenge, either. "I think that it's always possible to do something very diverse," she comments. "Everybody agreed that we shouldn't limit ourselves. But there are a lot of good reasons why people don't do this anymore--the good reasons being that people don't have the attention span that they used to have in the Seventies, when album-oriented rock and roll was expected of an artist. Today that's no longer true. Now it's expected that you have a consistent sound--that you have a song, and then after that you have a bunch of songs that are trying to be that song." She pauses. "Actually, that's being generous, because what's really expected is that you don't even have a song. You have a song that sounds like another band that has already had a song. But I just decided not to impose any limitations like that on us. I felt like we were responsible enough to basically babysit ourselves."
The song that exemplifies Bozulich's bravado is "Trashman in Furs," a tune she wrote as a tribute to Jim Reva, a former dancer with Ethyl Meatplow who died of AIDS. The number's words swing back and forth between heartbreak ("Death is a spinster, mortally whacking the funny boys 'til they're not laughing anymore") and hope ("I'm ridin' ridin' ridin' to a place with no pain no tears no art no ears no cars no need for you to cry for me"). And musically, Bozulich points out, "I consider it to be a departure from our regular sound. Basically, I wrote it from the perspective of what I thought Jim might like. I tried to make it be not too sad. I tried to make it be about some of the things he said when he was dying--some of which are sad, but some of which are a little bit upbeat for a song that's about someone who's dying. And I asked Nels to play the guitar solo a certain way, because I thought that Jim would like it. I tried to put a little of him across."
The ferocity with which Bozulich tackles such chores is palpable, but she does not want to be known only for her aptitude at conveying anguish. "I don't associate our music with pain," she says. "I associate it more with a really intense desire to communicate something real. But I think there's a lot of dark humor in the music that people tend to gloss over or skip altogether." An example? "Well, there's a line in 'Toy Box' that says, 'I fucked my first fruit today. Lousy lay.' I think that's pretty funny."
Virgin, the company to which the Geraldine Fibbers are signed, isn't promoting Bozulich as America's most underrated stand-up comic, but it's hard to say what the future will bring. After all, the firm's representatives have pretty much confessed that they don't have the slightest clue how to convince the public at large to give the band a chance.
"We were a little freaked out on our first album by the fact that our record company said they couldn't get any of our songs on the radio because they were too long," Bozulich divulges. "And I think we considered that, at least subconsciously, because a lot of the new songs are shorter. But they still can't get our songs on the radio.
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"I love all these songs, and I think they were meant to be the lengths that they are," she goes on. "But I'm never going to consider anything like that ever again, you can mark my words. I regret it, because I'm a proud person--and I'm proud to say that I generally just do art the way that it's supposed to be done."
In other words, Bozulich is going to write the songs she's going to write, and if none of them have the slightest thing in common, that's jake by her. After all, that's the way she does everything else. "I cut hair different every time," she says. "Sometimes I use the buzzer, sometimes I use the scissors. You never know." She chuckles. "I'm not even consistent from a hair perspective, am I?"
The Geraldine Fibbers, with the Uphill Gardeners. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 20, the Snake Pit, 608 E. 13th Ave., $8, 830-TIXS or 831-1234. The Legendary Pink Dots, with the Geraldine Fibbers, Twilight Circus Dub Soundsystem and the Silverman. 8 p.m. Saturday, September 20, Bluebird Theater, 3317 E. Colfax, $10-$12, 830-