Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland has kept a low profile in recent years. It’s been almost a decade since she’s performed live, and about six years since she last issued any music under her most recent project, Katastrophy Wife.
But though she has stayed under the radar here in the Twin Cities, she has never stopped writing songs. In fact, during our interview she mentioned that she has enough songs completed now to release a new EP—all she needs is a band. It was one of many surprising revelations to come out of our conversation, which was recorded for the Women’s History Month edition of the Local Show this week.
Read our entire interview below, and find out what Bjelland has been up to these days. She even shared a teaser of her new, as-yet-untitled project that she’s hoping to debut soon.
Local Current: Take me back to the very beginning. What made you first want to start a band, and who were some of your first musical influences?
Kat Bjelland: I never really thought about starting a band, it just kind of happened. Everyone I knew was in bands. I didn’t start until I was 19, and when I started the band I didn’t even know how to play, I just wanted to make racket with my girlfriends. I asked for an acoustic guitar in 2nd grade—or I asked for a guitar, and I got an acoustic. I wanted an electric. So I was really bummed out. But my uncle kind of taught me a little bit, and I guess my first boyfriend taught me some stuff too. I played piano a little bit. I listened to rock forever. You know, in 5th grade I bought KISS records, and Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith, stuff like that. I’ve always listened to music.
Were there any songwriters that inspired you?
I like Leonard Cohen. This is who got me going, actually, this is who inspired me to start a band: I lived in Woodburn, Oregon and me and my girlfriends moved to Portland, and there was this club called the Satyricon, and we went there all the time. And there’s all these underground bands, like garage ‘60s, like the Miracle Workers and the Wipers and the Rats and the Boy Wonders and stuff, and that’s what got me going. Because you could just make a racket, or whatever. And also Frightwig, I saw Frightwig, and they were just kind of making a big racket too, so I thought I could do that.
So did you have a band when you were living in Portland?
I started a band in Woodburn, Oregon with my friends, called the Venarays, and also with my uncle, called the Neurotics, and that was kind of like a surf band.
How did you eventually end up in Minneapolis?
I moved from Oregon to San Francisco, was in a band there called Pagan Baby, Sugar Babydoll, whatever, and I wanted to move here because it seemed like all the good music was from here. And my friend Mary Beth was from here—I only knew one person here, actually. But I liked Soul Asylum a lot, and also the Replacements. I was really listening to “Unsatisfied” a lot.
How old were you when you moved here?
I was 26. I think the first band I saw was the Magnolias, they were really good. And they were playing with the Mofos, it was really fun. And Tom, the guitar player, took me to a party and introduced me to people, it was really nice.
What were your first impressions of the music community here?
It was so awesome. Because in San Francisco there weren’t tons of bands. I guess the Melvins were there. There were bands, but they weren’t tight-knit like here. You could just go down to the Entry and see shows, and they were good, one right after another. Run Westy Run played all the time, I saw the Cows a lot, Breaking Circus, Rifle Sport, Cake, all those bands. Fingerhead, stuff like that.
Were there a lot of female bands at the time?
There was the Blue Up?, I saw the Clams, they were good. I never saw Tetes Noires. Dutch Oven, but that was a little bit later, and Smut. We played with them. I like the Menstrual Tramps, they had a really great drummer girl.
How long after moving to Minneapolis did you start Babes?
Kinda right away. Probably like five months. It was kind of my goal. I remember I went down to First Avenue—I didn’t know anybody—and I would get a little bit drunk, and I saw Dave Pirner, I decided to stalk him for a minute, and I went and kind of badgered him, and I was like, “My band is gonna kick your band’s ass.” And he was so polite and nice, because he’s so sweet, and he goes, “Oh ok, what band is it?” I go, “I don’t have one yet, but it’s gonna kick your band’s ass.”
The first gig we played was I think at a skateboard fest thing out by Harriet Island, and we played a couple basement parties. And then we actually played the Entry and we ended up headlining because I think we were supposed to open for Frightwig and they got held up at the Canadian border in a snowstorm, so we did that. And pretty soon after started going on tour.
Would you describe it as a supportive scene?
Yeah, super supportive. I remember Kevin Rutmanis from the Cows, I was playing this riff, and I couldn’t play that well, but he was like, “You gotta get a band, we need more bands that sound like that.” It was like a family. You’d go to the CC Bar and hang out. That was the cool part, the extended family part.
Looking back to the early ‘90s, it seemed like all of a sudden all-female bands were everywhere. Do you feel like you helped to kickstart that period?
Probably a little bit. It’s just kind of one of those things, you know, universal consciousness, all of a sudden everybody gets the same idea at once, but yeah. Kathleen Hanna deserves a lot of props. She’s a person who’s really supportive towards the scene and making a scene, which is really admirable, I think. But yes, because the bands would come up and say, like Jack-off Jill, “You inspired us to play.” And it’s really nice. It makes me kind of shy when they say that, but I mean I saw a lot of girl bands, because they would inevitably stick us with all the girl bands in every town, good or bad.
Why do you think that was?
Well, just the obvious. So we could talk about girl stuff? I have no idea. Sometimes they were pretty bad, but I don’t care. It was good to have women play. Now there’s tons of women bands! It’s amazing. I mean—I just want to make this point—I didn’t really think about purposefully making it all girls in a band. I wanted musicians who didn’t know how to play very well so then you could create a sound together, you know, all together at once. I played in bands with guys and stuff in Portland, and never really thought about it, but boy, other people sure make you aware of it.
There was a lot of media attention about the riot grrl movement, and then it got kind of commercialized.
Yeah, like everything does.
Do you feel like signing to a major label made that attention more dramatic for you?
Not really. Because when we got signed, it was before Nirvana got signed, or any of those bands got signed to Warner Bros. It was really weird, because there were no alternative bands getting signed to majors yet, and then that big spree came. So I thought it was just kind of cool, and our A&R guy was not wanting us to change our sound or anything, which was rare. We had a good one, Tim Carr. He signed the Beastie Boys to Capitol, and was really pro-musicians.
You pour so much of yourself onto the stage when you perform. Were there times when it was ever difficult to be so raw and open?
No, it was never difficult during. Sometimes afterwards. I don’t know, it’s like, if you go on tour, for 22 hours it seems like a hangover, you don’t feel good, and then that one hour of total bliss and the two hours afterwards of more bliss—it’s kind of like, it’s painful, but it’s a necessary thing. Good therapy, you know? I have to do it. I do much better when I play and sing, mentally.
Anything that gets discussed too much gets rote, but I don’t know. I was just wearing my clothes—I mean I’m dressing up of course, but I’ve always just bought thrift store vintage clothes, because they used to be less expensive, and pretty. And believe it or not, dresses are really good to wear on stage, they allow you to move your legs and kick and they’re really easy to wear. It’s a little annoying, you know, if they focus on it, but it’s part of it. Fashion, rock and roll, it goes together, I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t.
Did you notice people copying you after that?
Yeah. [laughs] It’s really weird when that happens, like put their barrettes in the exact same spot. It makes you want to change what you do. It’s flattering though, of course.
So just to get your timeline straight, was there a period when you were living in Seattle?
Let’s see. So I started in Woodburn, I was in a band with my uncle, the Neurotics. Moved to Portland, I was in the Venarays. Moved to San Francisco in ‘85, was in Pagan Baby/Sugar Babydoll and Italian Whore Nuns, and then moved to Minnesota, Babes in Toyland. And then, yes, moved to Seattle for a little while, and played in Crunt with Stuart from Lubricated Goat and Russell Simins, who was in Jon Spencer, he was our drummer. Then I moved to Brooklyn for a while, then back to Minneapolis.
Was Crunt happening at the same time as Babes?
Yeah. That’s when we were doing Painkillers.
How did you end up back in Minneapolis?
I was going on a Christmas vacation for a week and I never went back. I had to leave my person I was with.
And you’ve been in Minneapolis ever since?
Yep! And then Babes in Toyland, and Katastrophy Wife for a while with Glenn [Mattson] and Keith [St. Louis], and then I had Henry, and that’s kind of where it is now.
When was Henry born?
In 1999. He’s 13. He’s awesome. His hair is down to here [points to elbow]. He’s a really good, natural musician, he’s got perfect pitch and everything, but he’s more interested in art.
Does he know about your musical past? What does he think about it?
You know, I’m his mom, he sees me making breakfast and stuff. But once in a while, if someone else mentions it—like if we go to the grocery store, once in a while he’ll get all proud and go, “My mom’s a rock star!” All of a sudden he’ll turn weird like that. It’s so sweet. He’s a wonderful person. I’d love for him to play in a band, because like I said, he’s a natural, but I’m not going to push it. He’s like, “Mom, I’m not you!” Ok.
The final Babes record came out in 1995, yet you didn’t play your final show until 2001. What was happening in those years?
Maureen [Herman] was in the band then and she was living in Chicago. I think the traveling got a little hard, and she quit. That’s what happened, actually. And that made it hard for a while, and we kind of struggled on for a little bit more. But you know, it ran its course. I don’t know how long we were together, but it was long enough. You’ve gotta change it up a little bit. And plus I got married and had Henry, so I wanted to concentrate on being a good mom.
And then you started Katastrophy Wife?
Yeah, because that was with Glenn Mattson, whom I was married to at the time, so that made it a little convenient.
How many records did Katastrophy Wife put out?
We have Amusia, and then there’s All Kneel, which isn’t officially released because this little sh*thead in England won’t put it out, he thinks he owns it or something. Anyway. So two. And then we have a single, “Heart-On.”
How long has it been since you’ve played out?
I played in London, my son Henry was young then. I want to say it was 2002. And then we played here I guess, Katastrophy Wife at Grumpy’s Downtown. It was about eight years ago.
Do you think you’ll play out again?
Yeah. I really want to. Me and my friend Mike were talking about having a debut show at the Ritz Theater, that’s a good venue. But I need to get a band together first. I have songs and everything, and I need a drummer and a bass player. I don’t really know how to go about it. I don’t go out enough. I want a really heavy, good heavy drummer, like Dave from the Bastards or whatever.
How often do you write new songs?
Well I write all the time, I play my guitar a little bit and then I write. I think I have about an EP’s worth of really good songs. But I mean I write all the time on the piano over there, but I don’t record them all.
Would your new project have a new name?
Yeah, I don’t know what yet. I’m studying herbalism, I’m going to this class at East-West school on herbology, so when I get inspired to write I always read about pathology and diseases and anatomy, combined with ghost stuff, paranormal, and then Hinduism. And then my normal anger. And all that goes together.
Sample an instrumental teaser of a new song from Kat: