All five surviving members of pioneering Minneapolis group Tétes Noires will be together at the Bryant-Lake Bowl tonight for the first time since they disbanded in 1987, thanks to a new remix album helmed by keyboardist Angela Frucci called The New American Dream.
On a Minnesota music history timeline, Tétes Noires fall somewhere between the Andrews Sisters and Dessa. Their unique harmonized vocals, vintage costumes, and playful stage antics set them apart from the roaring squalor of the punk bands that dominated the Twin Cities at the time, and their title as Minneapolis’s first all-female band made them an inspiration to the legions of riot grrrl bands that would follow in their wake.
But though there were plenty of other all-girl, politically minded bands that came up in the scene in the ’80s and early ’90s, there has never been another Twin Cities band quite like the Tétes.
Founder Jennifer Holt first got the idea to form Tétes Noires while performing in another mixed-gender art-rock band in the early ’80s and having a male bandleader reject one of her more feminist-leaning songs.
“I had met all these different interesting women in other bands, all of whom had jet-black hair, and it just struck me,” Holt says (Tétes Noires translates to blackheads in French). “I asked them to all come together to see if they wanted to do a performance art project for the Walker Art Center. We got together more for fun and creativity, and we did outlandish things like use a toy xylophone and a garbage can lid, and we did playground ditties onstage, we laughed a lot, and we wore very unusual costumes. It was sort of a performance art, very tongue-in-cheek, feminist, making fun of rock ‘n’ roll bands type thing.”
In fact, their performances were so unusual that they were billed as “Performance Artists Tétes Noires” for their first few shows, even as they moved past playing the Walker and into rock clubs like the Entry and First Ave.
“I said to the group, ‘If we want to be taken more seriously, we need to make a record, and we need to tour,'” Holt remembers. “And so I tried to get a couple of local male touring managers to book us, and they refused. Nobody took us seriously because we didn’t have a drummer, and we were on stage playing around and making fun. They didn’t see us as a serious rock band that had screaming guitar and screaming punk lyrics.
“We were very feminist in our lyrics and how we dressed—I wore dresses and didn’t shave my legs. And I think they really weren’t sure how to handle us. We were sometimes called Béte Noires instead of Tétes Noires, which is a French saying for the black beast, or something that’s scary. But we were pulling in major crowds, so we were certainly a favorite of the local scene, and when we started going across the country, we got pretty big.”
The six women in Tétes pooled their resources to record a debut EP, and followed it up with their 1984 full-length American Dream, which is reimagined in its entirety on the new remix album The New American Dream. Though the phrase “remix album” conjures up associations with techno dance beats, The New American Dream is more of an enhancement of the original material, with drums added in a few places to give the songs more structure and a new vocalist, Zara Bode, dropping a quick-paced spoken word verse onto “Recipe for Love” to give the song an updated feel. But the vibe of the album is preserved, and if anything the new treatment only calls further attention to what a unique approach they had to pop songwriting and shines a spotlight on their mesmerizing and masterful vocal interplay.
“I had a vision,” says Angela Frucci, who has spent the past two years working on the remix album. “I know that most everyone has told me that they’re proud of what I’ve done, and they’re happy about it.”
Frucci says that the remixing process gave her a lot of time to think about Tétes Noires’ legacy and the impact of their work. “A lot of our music was controversial for its time,” she reflects. “If I look back on it—because I’ve raked this album over the coals, and it’s been a learning experience for me, very revelatory listening to this and picking it apart—I see, in an innocent way, that we were making very strong political and feminist statements, without hitting people over the head. We were hitting them down the middle through harmonies and this kind of sweet sound, but we were really saying significant things about being women, and being women in the music industry.”
Songs like “Peace, Piece by Piece” and the title track “American Dream” tackle larger sociopolitical issues, while a cover of the Gerry Goffin and Carole King-penned “Chains” (famously performed by girl group the Cookies) takes on a more feminist slant when sung a capella by the Tétes, with only hand claps and the sound of actual chains clanging in accompaniment. And the entire album is peppered with clapping, shouting, four-part harmonies, Gypsy flourishes, and the recurring use of Frucci’s farfisa, all of which lend the songs a theatrical flair.
“That was the beauty of Tétes Noires: We were in a non-constraint of innocence,” Frucci says. “We were working out these cool things without thinking we had to be cool, or really had to prove anything to anyone yet.”
One of the album’s most touching moments comes toward the end of the album on the track “Can’t Even Dance,” which was one of late guitarist Polly Alexander’s favorite songs to perform live. Before the song begins, Alexander can be heard remembering what it was like to play on stage at First Avenue; it’s an audio snippet that Frucci recorded before Alexander passed away in 2005 and decided to weave into the song.
“We all called her Jackie,” Frucci remembers. “She was such a stylish human being. I had to have a little Polly in there, to honor her.”
Remarkably, all five of the remaining founding members of Tétes have gone on to successful, creative careers. In addition to her audio skills Frucci is a writer who has had her work published in the New York Times; founder Jennifer Holt is a psychologist, leads a forgiveness project called Namaste Dialog and still pursues music (her most recent album, Ecstatic Groove, came out in 2010); Camille Gage is an accomplished painter and activist; Cynthia Bartell is a respected attorney; and Renee George (known in Tétes as Renee Kayon) is a filmmaker who just had a short film shown at this year’s Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.
“We’re six women coming from the Midwest—that’s a hard prototype to copy,” Frucci says, laughing. “There’s something about it; a lot of the music is so tricky and novelty, and there’s so many riffs within riffs. It has to do with this amalgamation of America. It’s everything that’s the best about Minnesota and the Midwest—these girls coming from a Christian background out on the plains, from South Dakota, from Racine, Wisconsin, with a bar on every corner, the East Side of St. Paul, River Falls Wisconsin. All these girls coming together and bringing those influences—you’re not going to get the result of that anywhere else. You wouldn’t get that on the East Coast, and you’re not going to get that on the West Coast.
“But in the Midwest, this is what you get: Tétes Noires.”
Tétes Noires will host a listening party for The New American Dream tonight, Thursday, December 26, at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. 7 p.m., free, 21+. For more on Tétes Noires, see my feature on the band from the March 2013 all-female episode of the Local Show.