Kat Bjelland at First Avenue
Kat Bjelland First Avenue • Mpls MN photo © J. Free; 1990

A Conversation with Kat Bjelland
of Babes In Toyland

The New Puritan ReView
Minneapolis, MN
January 1990

Exploring the creative process that connects performing artists with writers and readers alike.

By now, much has made of the Babes In Toyland legacy, by everyone who knew them from way-back-when, or knows somebody in the band, or has an inside scoop. I guess I could consider myself one of the above, and none of the above. We lived in the same neighborhood, after all, and Minneapolis is one of the biggest small towns around.

This interview took place back when Babes In Toyland was a young, “up-and-coming” band, as it were. Prior to the band, I had known two-thirds of the band from completely unrelated circumstances. Years before, I had worked with drummer Lori Barbero at The Longhorn, Mpls’ first real underground music venue; Kat Bjelland was a quiet, shy girl I used to bump into in a local coffee shop called The Upper Crust. None of which would have prepared me for the full-frontal sonic assault I witnessed, the first time I saw the band performing to a packed room in the 7th St. Entry, following a set by Sonic Youth in the adjacent First Avenue mainroom. I was instantly hooked by the combination of their coy appearance and seemingly disjointed primal rhythms. Apparently I wasn’t the only one – the members of Sonic Youth were in attendance for that show as well, and came away with a few impressions of their own, which led to a fruitful relationship between the two bands.

I’m not sure which factor most influenced my decision to interview Kat about the band – her position as as the focal point for the band, or that she was the out-of-town girl; possibly a combination of both. Minneapolis was starting to get a buzz, and I was hoping to avoid writing a piece which would perpetuate any notions of “cool”. At any rate, I left the decision to Kat as to whether we should meet for coffee or drinks, which is how we found ourselves conducting this interview over pitchers at The Black Forest Inn. To keep things interesting, I took a list of prepared questions and tore them into individual slips of paper, which we alternately pulled out of my hat between drinks – which led to even more questions. (The result was surprisingly cohesive, as you will see below). Kat told me later that this turned out to be the bands’ first “real” press, which I was unaware of at the time. I already thought they were huge at the time I wrote this – I had no idea just how big they would become in the years ahead.

[If memory serves, the entire interview / conversation ended up more or less un-edited in the published article, as it appears here.]

The following is the result of a series of pre-determined chance events. Not wanting to pigeonhole the subject, all of the questions were written on separate pieces of paper and drawn randomly out of a hat. Thankfully, a last-minute decision was made to conduct the interview over pitchers of beer rather than caffeine.

Kat Bjelland at The Uptown Bar in Mpls

Kat Bjelland
Uptown Bar • Mpls MN
photo © J. Free; 1991

Anyone who has ever seen Babes In Toyland perform can attest to the power and fury that are unleashed when Kat Bjelland steps up to a microphone. Little girl romantic revelry surrenders itself to passion-stained angst and anxiety, amidst a bombast of frantic swaying rhythms from drummer Lori Barbero and bassist Michelle Leon. If a guitar had a human voice, then Kat’s slashing, physical assault on her instrument is painfully rendered broken english.

Although Babes In Toyland have been together for over two years now, they continue to draw multitudes of loving fans, even aside from the fact that their local shows already constitute huge social events. They are either loved or hated by their audiences, but I have yet to hear a non-emotional reaction to their music, a tattered tapestry of innocence and heartbreak, resignation and revenge. Whether or not Kat can sing is a point sure to be argued among critics, but her real talent lies in what she makes you feel. Refuted by some as merely a novelty, Kat sees all too clearly the external contradictions of her creative force against the cold practical nature of human survival.

Q Is there any one of your songs that is more difficult to perform because of something it brings back to you?

A Probably seventy-five percent of the songs, but “Pain In My Heart”, that one’s pretty harsh. That one I had to do last in the studio. It’s about someone who turned blue on me.

Q Are there any situations – good or bad, you have encountered in this—or any band—that you feel would not have been as likely if you were male?

A Yeah, club owners trying to rip you off is really hard when you’re little short girls. It probably would have happened anyway, it’s just harder to get the money out of ’em. I don’t know, sometimes after I perform I think the club owners don’t think I’m as little anymore. I don’t think it hinders us at all – if anything it probably helps us a little, ’cause you know it’s still a novelty for all-girl bands to be around.

Q What is responsible for your first involvement with music, as a fan or as a participant, and how old were you?

A Well, I’ve been listening to music forever. I started buying 45s when I was in fourth grade. I used to have to buy 45s from this girl – her big sister had all the cool records, so we knew what was cool. She had Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith… so I’d go buy ’em, just ’cause I knew her big sister had ’em.

Q Do you remember what the first record you ever owned was?

A Actually, you won’t believe this – my dad bought me this weird album called The Smoke, and The Boston Tea Party, just ’cause the covers looked psychedelic. I got Aerosmith’s Rocks for my first album – it’s just because of a sister, I mean. My first 45, I can’t remember what that was.

My first boyfriend was a metal-head guy, kind of – he played a Flying-V, and he had a Marshall and a Hi-Watt he left in my basement. Whenever he’d leave, I’d just pick it up and go [makes a scraping kind of guitar noise with her teeth]. You know how powerful those things are? I was like, “Fuck! This is for me! I’ve gotta do this!” I couldn’t play anything – I could just go [makes the guitar noise again]. Then my uncle got me to play in this surf band with him, with all these older men, and I would play rhythm. I barely knew what I was doing, it was really cool. I told my uncle I wanted to be in a band, he kind of taught me how to play, and then I had my girlfriend sing. It was called The Neurotix – with an “x”. Then I decided to play with these girls—we had a guy drummer—and we were called The Vena Rays. That was when I was twenty, in Portland, Oregon. I moved to San Fransisco and got a few other weird projects, then I got into this band called the Italian Whorenuns… I sang in that for a while.

Q What brought you to Minneapolis then?

A Running away from speed… I just wanted to go somewhere. I used to work at this club in Portland, and bands that used to come there from Minneapolis were really cool.

Q Was it what you thought it would be?

A It’s smaller, and not as liberal… it’s fake liberal. When I first came here, it appeared really liberal—I thought people really were that way—but it’s kind of inhibiting me. When I first came here I played out on the street, then all of a sudden I started shutting down. It’s kind of pathetic, actually.

• • • •

Last year [1989], Babes in Toyland raised a few eyebrows with the news that they had signed with the Mpls. based Twin/Tone independent label. After a wildly successful single on the Treehouse label (birthplace to Cows, Bastards, and a revisited Pagans), it did seem that Twin/Tone might be an unlikely breeding ground for any sort of Babes action. Notwithstanding, the first long-player, Spanking Machine is due this February [ “but I know it’s gonna be like March”, quips Kat ], and is not likely to disappoint fans. Nor will the single slated for release on Sub-Pop later this year. Surprisingly, the studio not only captures the raw presence of a Babes live performance, but adds—due to the sparseness in production—an eerie quality as though these songs are being performed here for the first time. Spanking Machine does not lend itself to the usual critical floggings of other groups of this genre. This record is both personal and painful, refusing to play it safe while avoiding over-indulgence in the passion that makes it such a compelling album.

• • • •

Q What are your plans with Twin/Tone?

A Just to put out four records… that kick ass. We’re really this odd fucking band to be on Twin/Tone. We don’t really sound like what they have. I hope they don’t think we’re gonna get really musically talented, ’cause they’re probably gonna be disappointed.

I’m sure we’re gonna improve, but we’re not gonna turn into… ahem!… some bands I’m not gonna name. We don’t try to be sloppy, it’s just kind of unavoidable.

Q How did you get hooked up with Treehouse Records?

A He [label owner Mark Trehus] just came to us and said, “Hey, do you wanna do a single?”, and I thought, sure! He liked us. We’ve sold the most singles on Treehouse of all his bands so far.

Q Do you suppose that has anything to do with the fact that you tour so much?

A Yeah, ’cause we toured even before that single came out. It’s really weird though – we get letters from England and Spain, that’s where most of the ordering of the record and the fan mail comes from.I guess they played us on the [John] Peel sessions.

Q In your opinion, are the topics of your songs influenced by intimate passion, social interactions, a spiritual challenge, or is there something else?

A This sounds cheesy, but usually I totally lose it on stage. I can’t see, I can’t focus on anything – that, to me, is spiritual… a total catharsis. Afterwards, I think I’m in a bad mood, and it feels like the inside of my skin is peeled off.

Q Do you sort of recapture the feelings that make you write those songs in the first place?

A Yeah, three-quarters of the time, some songs more than others. On tour it’s kind of weird, doing it over and over. I was thinking when I was about to go tour this is probably really damaging to me, I should try to cheer up once in a while. After you play it’s like, “I’m glad that’s over with.” At the same time, I’m never in a good mood after I play. It takes hours for it to go away.

Ultimately I would just get the hell out of there. Why I started a band, besides thinking, “This is for me”, was kind of revenge-motivated. If I don’t play for a month I get really uptight. I have to do it.

Q Have you ever thought about outside projects?

A I wouldn’t mind drumming. Maybe I could sing, but not what I do exactly [with Babes in Toyland], ’cause it would take away from it.

Q A lot of people have trouble pairing up your physical appearance with your unique vocal style.Where do you think those sounds come from?

A That’s the thing people always talk about. I played in bands before I started singing, and I just ended up singing. I was like, “I can’t sing”, and then I thought, “I’ll just write these songs”, and I ended up… screaming. It’s primal, you know [laughing]. Actually, I can sing, sort of. It just took a while, I’ve only been singing a year.

Q Any interest in doing something where screaming won’t work?

A Well, the funny thing is I’ve already done that in this band called Sugar Babylon. It was with this girlfriend, Courtney Love. We went to this 24-track studio and did all these acoustic and 12-string overdubs, and I played all this finger-y pretty music. She sang and I did really soft harmonies. I swear it was like Cocteau Twins. It was more of her project than it was mine. I wrote the songs, though.

Q How have your feelings changed about music in general since you first started out in bands? How do you view radio, for instance?

A Now it’s just like, “Play this and they will like it – if they don’t like it, they’ll learn to like it, and then they’ll try imitate it.” It’s really gross, but then what would happen if everything was really underground / progressive, then probably the mainstream would seem weird. It’s hard to say. I’m glad that gross thing exists, but it doesn’t need to exist that much.

Q What is your favorite Babes In Toyland song?

A Right now – it’s always the new ones – “Vomit My Heart” is really cool. It turned out really good on the record. I like the words – I actually kind of sing on it instead of scream all the time. “Pain In My Heart” is my favorite. It always changes my mood and it’s really cool, ’cause me and Lori have this total connection. She can tell when I get into this part, and then she does. Sometimes I play so quiet she says, “That song makes me want to cry”. She can tell I’m getting emotional, so she gets that way.

I love my band. I had to keep quitting bands ’cause it just wasn’t the right chemistry. Finally I just got lucky that I met these girls.

Q What about Michelle? She seems pretty quiet.

A Does she seem quiet? She’s not, really. She’s pretty outgoing… she’s really hot. We all balance each other, like if I’m getting too dramatic, too down in the mouth. She’s really easy-going, like “Everything’s really great!” She hadn’t even been depressed in her whole life until last year, and I was like, “No wonder she’s so happy all the time.” It’s probably good. She has that happy balance so we don’t get too serious. But then, Lori is like, the extreme un-quiet.

Q When you first began singing in bands, what kind of music did you listen to, and how has this changed?

A The only music I really was listening to was… bands that would go to this club that I used to hang out in Portland… live bands, no band in particular. You know who I really thought was cool though, was Nina Hagen, because of her range. I always thought, “Man, if I could do that, that would be hot!” So, she kind of inspired me as far as like, “You can sing!”

At first I thought, “Well, I shouldn’t sing… I can’t sing”, then I thought, “Fuck it… anyone can sing, right?” That’s what I always say to people who go, “I can’t sing… I really want to sing in a band”, I say “Just do it!… if I can do it, you can do it!”

I’ve been liking Lubricated Goat a lot; we hung out with them for a week in Seattle. Those guys are really cool, they have good records. I like Nick Cave a lot, he’s one of my favorites. I always keep the same favorites – Syd Barrett, Leonard Cohen. Musically – you know, alternate music – I’ve been shut off, I didn’t really know about it until probably about three or four years ago. I remember, I saw this B-52’s record in the Benjamin Franklin drug store… I just thought, “God, look at this fucking cool cover!”, so that’s why I bought it. Then all of a sudden it was just like the door to this weirdo music, and I was thinking everyone listened to it… I didn’t know what to call it, I just knew I liked it.

Q Has anybody ever asked what you call what you do?

A Yes! I hate that! Lori said, “Trash-rot”, one time. It depends who you’re talking to – if I’m talking to my mom, I say “Punk Rock”. I like to say “punk rock – we’re a punk rock band.” I’d rather not be pigeon-holed like that, though. You kind of have to think of something when you’re explaining it to someone. It’s really hard, I gotta come up with the perfect term… it’ll have to be an original, though. I hate it when you get grouped with this whole “thing”, like a “noise band”. We’re not a “noise band”, like a bunch of senseless noise. We have structure. We got in this thing in N.M.E. [New Musical Express], it was the “Top 10 New York Noise Bands” – that’s from England. We were on there for our single, right under Jesus Lizard and Killdozer, and none of the bands were from New York – but that’s like a genre, I guess. So I guess I could say we’re a “New York Noise Band.”

Q If you were to give up music altogether, what would you be most likely to do instead?

A I don’t think that way at all… I barely ever think of that. I could maybe get into painting, but I don’t do that. I can’t imagine… when I was little, it was just like, “Yep, I’m gonna be in a band”, and I still believe that if you think you’re gonna do it, you just do it. I’m not gonna fall back on something… even though my parents still think that maybe I should go to college.

Q Has the lifestyle of being in a band in any way altered your perceptions of creativity, society, or your self?

A You find out a lot about yourself, society seems like just a joke. It changes you, really… [laughs] it’s what your parents always warned you against. A couple of times I thought I was just losing it… it just lets me know, “Okay, I can have fun now”, ’cause that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? It’s a big huge joke.

Q You’ve got a good paradox there, don’t you?

A I know – I take everything really seriously. I’m totally contradicting myself, usually. It makes sense, really – it’s a balance. It’s not like “no” and “yes”, it’s like you can see both sides. The music scene has made it so I’m just glad that there’s other people that understand… that are kind of like me.

Q Like an extended family of sorts.

A Yeah, that’s why I like Minneapolis, it’s kind of a small family-ish town… that’s the thing I hate about it too, when it gets to extremes. Well, the whole world’s really small… but then, when you know Lori Barbero, it’s like she knows everybody. We’ll blow into a town and they’ll be people, you know, like, “Hey!” That’s the cool part, though, ’cause we all love traveling, so there’s no problem touring. I can’t wait ’til we leave again.

• • • •

Kat won’t have to wait long, anyway. By April, the band will be back on the road in support of what should become a widely-received L.P. – if not for it’s lack of pretension or sophistication, then for it’s sheer guts. Whether you like or dislike the way Babes in Toyland catch you off-balance is less important than the way you’ll feel after Spanking Machine has ravaged and ignited your senses, doused them with kerosene and dances madly throughout the carnage of your heart as you discover you have only begun to hunger.

© J.Free / The New Puritan ReView; 1990; 2022