Photo by Eliesa Johnson
Lori Barbero and Kat Bjelland, Babes in Toyland
Lori Barbero and Kat Bjelland, the two members of Babes in Toyland who still live in Minneapolis.
Babes in Toyland might just be Minneapolis's most under-appreciated musical export.
As the newly reunited punk trio, who originally formed nearly 30 years ago, prepares to play their first hometown gig in 14 years—they're the second headliner on night two of Rock the Garden—their vitality and influence have never been more acute. This is thanks to a "riot grrl" renaissance ushered in by contemporaries like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney, who both cite Babes' iconic grungy—almost tribal—version of punk and lead singer Kat Bjelland's full-throated performing style as major influences. "It just [feels] like home. It's therapy for me," says Bjelland of sharing a stage with Lori Barbero and Maureen Herman again.
Below, excerpts from a conversation with lead singer Kat Bjelland.
What was it about Minneapolis that drew you here originally?
I liked Soul Asylum a lot, and the Replacements. I just thought it was a really good music scene. It wasn't too happening in San Francisco, had to get away from a few people there. [Minneapolis] just was thriving. I just wanted to get a fresh start. I knew, like, one person from Minneapolis, I didn't know anybody. I just came here with a guitar and a backpack and, like, 30 bucks.
Was it because there were women on the scene here?
There were some. I believe I saw The Clams and Têtes Noir. Zuzu's Petals, also The Blue Up? Everyone was just really nice when I first got here. I like it.
You obviously went up and out, were touring in Europe a lot—but what is your favorite part about performing here? Any favorite venues?
It's the home crowd. We have really loyal, cool fans here. It just feels really good. I love First Avenue and 7th Street Entry. First Avenue has the best sound. The Entry and First Avenue are by far the best, I would say, in the United States. Next to maybe the Metro in Chicago. Of all the United States, that's my favorite place to play.
You only released three albums, over eight years or so. Why do you think so many artists were inspired by you?
Yeah, I was just thinking about that. I believe that we have an original sound. My idea was to get people who didn't know how to play and formulate an organic, original sound. I had played in bands before but Lori [Barbero] had not. And our first player Michelle [Leon, the original bassist] had not. So we all formulated together, instead of bringing other things, being trained in different bands. I did it on purpose. Probably because we're a three-piece and we rock really hard. Lori has a really original drum sound. She has a lot of toms, which is not regular 4/4, so it's kind of tribal, different from a lot of people.
You've never stopped playing since the Babes disbanded, right?
No, I played in Katastrophe Wife after Babes in Toyland, and also I did a project for DreamWorks, the Witchblade record. But then I took a break with my son. I always play music.
What was it like the first night you went onstage, in February?
In the desert? Oh my god. So fun. It just felt like home, you know what I mean? It's therapy for me. I do a lot better when I'm playing with my friends that I love. At Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown, in the desert—First of all, it's a totally cool place. It's like a set from a movie. The stage is really low and people are into it. I think I signed over 100 autographs on posters. It was crazy. Really welcoming.
Is it different to be a woman on tour now than it was 20, 30 years ago?
Well, we only did a couple shows so far. The only difference would be from the very beginning. At the very beginning you go around, there are sound men sometimes, and the monitor guy would just look at you like, [disgustedly] Oh god. And if you'd ask him to do certain things, like, can you move the monitor? they'd just think you were—blah-blah-blah. Until you'd start playing, and they were like, oh. But yeah, it's better now. Definitely.
I would wonder, when you're singing the songs now, does the conviction of the writing return to you? Do you remember all the feelings of it?
Yeah, the weird thing is—I was wondering about that, that's my one concern, just personally, because a lot of the lyrics are pretty personal. But, no, the themes still ride. I feel the same when I singing. It was really great, because as soon as Lori and I started playing the first time, we didn't even listen to the songs, really. We just said, "1-2-3-4-Go!" And then your muscle memory takes over. It's like someone else is playing, like, whoa, what are my fingers doing? What's happening, what's going on right now?
Had you forgotten the thrill of being onstage?
A little bit. I forgot how nervous I get. I pace back and forth, wring my hands, feel like I'm going to vomit. I forgot that part. But I feel more confident. We sound a little more solid or mature or something.
Because when you wrote the lyrics you were in the middle of it, and now you're further away.
Exactly. But it's still good. We're probably going to write some songs in the summer. I hope so. But you know, for a reunion, new songs don't go over very well, I don't think.
You stopped before your son was old enough to know what was going on at a show. Are you excited for him to see you?
OH MY GOD, so excited! I can't wait 'til Henry sees us. He saw me play in Katastrophe Wife when he was a baby. He was crawling; he crawled up on the stage. Not since then has he seen us.
Above, the Babes' singular music video for their 1992 release "Bruise Violet," off their sophomore album Fontanelle. Catch Kat's doppelgänger in the blonde wig? That's famed photographer Cindy Sherman; the video was shot in her New York City loft.