Local Current Blog

A California desert interview with Babes in Toyland

Kat Bjelland and Lori Barbero at The Current, 2015. (Nate Ryan/MPR)

With a summer of big festival dates ahead of them—including a homecoming gig at Rock the Garden on June 21—the influential Minneapolis trio Babes in Toyland drove up into the hills of the California desert last month to play their first public show in 14 years.

It was a small warm-up gig at an intimate and charming little bar and restaurant called Pappy and Harriet’s, and it was followed two days later by a celebrity-studded, sold-out show at the Roxy in Los Angeles.

Before Babes took the stage that first night in Pioneertown, California, I had the opportunity to sit with all three members of the band, which includes founding vocalist and guitarist Kat Bjelland and drummer Lori Barbero, plus bassist Maureen Herman, who joined around the time they signed to Warner Bros. in 1993.

Our far-reaching conversation covered everything from their reunion plans to their most surreal tour memories to their encounters with Courtney Love and friendship with iconic ’90s rock bands like Nirvana. Did you know it was Lori Barbero’s idea to have Kurt Cobain and company record In Utero in Cannon Falls, Minnesota? Read on…

Andrea Swensson: I was thinking about how appropriate it is that we are in Pioneertown with such a pioneering band in the riot grrrl movement and the punk rock scene in Minneapolis. I want to talk about your history as a band, but before we begin, the big question on everyone’s mind is: Why now? Why a Babes in Toyland reunion in 2015, and what brought you guys back together?

Lori Barbero: In 2013, Kat and Maureen got together in Minneapolis and went to Maureen’s family’s cabin in Minocqua, Wisconsin, and they started talking about doing a little reunion show. They called me and I said—well, I didn’t say a definite yes, but I said, that sounds really cool. And then we kind of snowballed from there, with help from these three gentlemen that have a little business called Powersniff. Without their help, this would not be happening at all. Period.

And Maureen, these Powersniff gentlemen were a former employer of yours, right?

Maureen Herman: Yeah. Chris Skarakis was my boss at Fuzz, a music social media company in San Francisco. And he was a Babes in Toyland fan, and my brother worked with him at Google. That’s how we connected. So he’s been waiting for the show, basically, since 2006. Because he’s been bugging me for a reunion.

When you made the decision to reunite and you all finally got in the same room together, what do you remember about that first rehearsal?

Kat Bjelland: I know that me and Maureen played in her apartment for a while, and then me and Lori played together, separately, and then we finally all got together. But the first time we played together, we just kind of went, “One, two, three…” We didn’t really listen to the songs. I know Lori didn’t, and I didn’t really. And it was really fun. We started playing and we just knew what each other was going to do. And then we started cracking up after the first song, because we were so happy and it was so automatic.

Obviously you have a lot of material to revisit. Did you feel like you were gravitating toward a certain era of the band, especially with the three of you?

Bjelland: No. The songs are over the whole spectrum of the years that we played.

Herman: And we’ve added songs that I didn’t play, from before. Which I’ve been really glad about.

And now Rock the Garden is going to be coming up in June. What do you have in mind for this big Minneapolis show?

Herman: I’m so excited to go play in Minneapolis again. It’s like coming home for me, even though I don’t live there anymore. That’s huge. I’m going to cry.

Bjelland: I’m super excited. I can actually walk there from my apartment, which is handy, and home again. But I’ve never been to a Rock the Garden, I’m ashamed to say. I worked at the Walker, as did Lori for a while, but I’ve never been to the Rock the Garden before. I’m really excited. I heard it’s really huge.

Barbero: I’m really looking forward to playing in Minneapolis. I’ll probably have to wear Depends. [laughs] And put a little thing of Kleenex in my pocket, because I’ll probably cry. It’ll be really great. I’m really excited. Really, really excited. I really like playing outside, too.

Lori, I know that you’ve drummer in other bands besides Babes in Toyland, but it’s been a while since you’ve been in a band. What’s it like to get behind the kit again?

Barbero: It’s really fun. I didn’t realize how much I needed to do it again. And now that I’m doing it, I’m so much mentally and physically happier. It’s amazing how therapeutic it is, and how much you need it. And it’s not only just drumming, but having the reunion with my two friends also. And so it’s really, really great.

When I was reading your Rolling Stone interview back in the fall, there was mention of your injury, and that you’ve had to learn how to play drums differently. I was wondering what you meant by that?

Barbero: Yeah, I had an injury with some head and neck trauma, and I did physical therapy for six months. And when I used to play, I used to throw my head every time—and then I had the dreadlocks, too, and that was kind of my metronome. When I cut those off, that was really weird. The first night I played without my dreadlocks, it threw me so off, because my hair on my head was a metronome. It was the weight on my head. But, yeah. Relearning how to play, with all my physical therapy, I feel like I’m really boring now because I’m not as physical, but I still once in a while will find myself throwing my head, which is natural.

There was a quote in that Rolling Stone article that I wanted to read to you, to see what you think about this particular assessment. The writer said, “the group’s music was often overshadowed by the media’s focus on the women in rock angle when talking about Babes in Toyland.” Is that something, looking back now, that you feel happened?

Herman: I think it happened now, I was aware that it was happening then, and I’m aware that it’s happening now. In fact, immediately, right now in this second.

Barbero: It’s always an issue, and it always will be an issue. Because it’s a man’s world, and music is still men. And no matter how hard a woman works in the office or as a musician or anything that they do, you have to work 10 times harder than a man to even get the same equal respect. And you have to prove yourself. You have to really prove yourself. I mean, when men go on meetings, they like to go golfing or they go to a strip club or they go to a bar, and then they’re having a business meeting. Can you imagine if a women took a group of women shopping? They would probably get fired. So it’s really just crazy how everything is still effed up.

The reason I bring that up is because so often you’re cited as the pioneers of the riot grrrl movement, a big influence for Kathleen Hanna, and I was just curious if, looking back, that you knew that movement was happening at the time, or if that’s something that people look back on now and say, oh wow, that moment really crystallized something important in history.

Bjelland: I know that Kathleen Hanna, she’s always said really good things about us. She said we influenced her. She actually said we got overshadowed by a lot of things, too. And I know riot grrrl was a fanzine, that’s where it stemmed from, and then the media took that sound byte and flew with it, you know what I mean? I don’t think we were really aware of it when it first came out, but then as soon as they grabbed that and they labeled it onto us, then we were very aware of it from there on in. I don’t know. We don’t really think of ourselves as women or men. We’re just kind of humans that play music.

Herman: I think for me the part that just kind of gets me, and why I can’t let it go, is that it’s kind of like defining music by race. I’m not against any kind of music or other band or anything like that, it’s more just like, you know, defining music by genitalia as opposed to sound is really bizarre to me. It’s an easy way to label, and it ghettoizes women as women musicians. They’re not compared to other bands, they’re only compared to women bands. But they’re not good enough to be compared to music in general. And that’s the part where there’s always like a, ugh.

Now that a whole new generation of fans are going to be introduced to you guys, what do you want people who are just getting into Babes in Toyland to know about your band?

Barbero: What you see is what you get. And we worked really hard to where we got to. Really, really hard. We used to rehearse seven days a week, I swear to god, in my basement on 23rd and Garfield. I think probably seven nights a week until we went on our first tour with White Zombie. And then we went on tour with the Cows after that. But I mean, we really worked and worked and worked. And then we toured 10 months a year for 10 years, pretty much. Like, solid.

As you guys were coming up and starting to play out, who would you consider some of your peers in the scene at the time? Who were some of your favorite bands to share bills with?

Barbero: Well, there’s dream bills. The first time we went to Europe was with Sonic Youth, and when they asked us to do that I freaked out, because we hadn’t even been to Europe, and I have loved Sonic Youth since the beginning. It was the most flattering, great experience. The funnest thing was when we got out of our tour bus, we get out of our van and there’s about nine men standing there, and then this guy in Holland goes, “These are your humpers!” And I’m like, “What? We get our choice of nine humpers??” I thought, yeah, eureka, I want to move here!

Bjelland: [laughs]

Barbero: But then I found out they’re the guys that move your gear. Hahaha. Like our amps and drums, that gear.

Bjelland: We played with the Cows. We played with Run Westy Run. Who else did we play with locally? We went on tour with them.

Herman: Before I was in the band I got to go see [Babes] live, which I miss. Seeing them with the Cows was so fun.

What is it like to join a band that you’ve already been a fan of in that live setting?

Herman: Really lucky as f***. Really lucky. I mean, I saw their first show at a party, and just watched the band evolve. Actually, the first time I heard them, Kat played me a cassette of their practice on the porch—our boyfriends were roommates—and she played me a tape and I’m like, oh, good luck with that. Seriously. I was just like, oh my god, that poor deluded woman.

Bjelland: [laughs wildly]

Herman: Who would know I would later join that band?

So what was the turning point for you? What made you change your mind?

Herman: Oh, I mean the first time I saw them play I was just blown away. It was just that this tape was like [cchhhhhhhkkk]. It was hilarious.

If you could put together a dream festival of bands, any bands come to mind?

Bjelland: Oh my god, that takes a little bit more thought than just a spontaneous question. Because I’d want to make it perfect. I would like Fantomas, though. I really like those guys. That would be a kickass one.

Barbero: We were really lucky, though. I mean, we got to play with My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur, Jr. on tour. We did Lollapalooza, that was a blast. It was a circus on wheels. Melvins, with White Zombie and Reverend Horton Heat. Kyuss—that’s when we met Josh Homme. He was 17 I think, when he was playing with Kyuss. I’d watch that kid with my jaw on the concrete, watching him and just going, that kid is 17 years old? And he is fantastic! So I’m really glad that he’s doing well.

With all the touring that you guys did back in the day, I’m imagining that you found yourselves in some surreal moments. I wanted to ask each of you, is there one especially surreal moment that stands out in your memory? I mean, what was it like to be on Beavis and Butthead?

Bjelland: That’s not as surreal as very cool. The earthquake, I think, was pretty surreal.

Barbero: The earthquake in San Francisco?

Bjelland: Yeah. I was on the beach at the time, and you fell out of bed.

Barbero: It threw me right out of the bed, and I opened the door and there was a wave. We were right on the epicenter—it was during the World Series in ’89.

Bjelland: And there was a blackout in the whole city except for like maybe two stores that had lines out the door. It was really cool, because all the people that probably normally wouldn’t speak to each other in houses came out and talked to each other. So it was kind of a disaster, but it was good. That was surreal.

Barbero: We were also in the war in Ljubljana. The war started in Ljubljana the morning after we played. And I stayed all night long at a dance party in a bunker, and I came out, and this kid walked me to where the bus was supposed to be and there were just all these soldiers everywhere and tanks rolling down the street. I didn’t even have my passport. I don’t know what would have happened to me if this man who was local and spoke the language didn’t help—who knows what would have happened to me. Because I didn’t have anything, and it was pretty intense.

Bjelland: We had to go through Budapest. We were supposed to go straight up to Austria but we had to make a circle because the tanks were blocking all the motorways.

Barbero: And then when we got there we played with Skunk and Guzzard. [laughs]

Bjelland: Guzzard?

Barbero: Yeah! Guzzard, from Minneapolis. And Skunk was on Twin/Tone.

How about you, Maureen? Any surreal or especially memorable moments come to mind?

Herman: Yeah, there’s a lot. There’s little snapshots where it’s almost like you’re taking a picture in your mind, and you’re like, this is my life? Oh my god. One of them happened in Ebensee, Switzerland. We were on tour, and I don’t normally smoke pot, but I did, and I fell face-first down carpeted stairs, and so I had a rugburn on my face. And the next day we were playing with Beck and the Foo Fighters, and Dave Grohl’s like, what did you do to your face? And I was just like, “I fell.” And Beck is just like, “Hi. Hi. Hi.” Oh god. It was just like, this is my life. I’ve got this rugburn on my face. Yeah, rock ‘n’ roll.

So this is something that comes up in pretty much every Babes article that I read, and I’ve heard a lot of different stories, so I want to get the straight scoop. Why do people think that Courtney Love was in Babes in Toyland?

Bjelland: Because she lied.

Barbero: [laughs] She’s a liar!

Bjelland: That’s the end of it.

But the story is that she once rehearsed with you, right? Is that what happened?

Barbero: She lived in my house for a little while. And then we did a concert together at the Orpheum. It was in 1988. It was called O-88 with Butthole Surfers, and then it was the Cows and Bastards, and Run Westy Run, and Babes in Toyland. And I guess Maureen took Courtney to the airport after she stole all the money.

Herman: Yes. So, me and my friend had a bunch of ecstasy we were going to sell at the show, but we took it all. [laughs] So I remember that show. Because I was in the catwalk watching it. But yeah, Courtney came—and for some reason she stayed over at my house, which was really odd. She didn’t want to go wherever she was staying, so she stayed and stayed, and then the next day she wanted me to take her to the airport. And so I drove her to the airport. She had just had some weird fight with the guy at the desk, and then she left. She said, “I’m going to go to L.A. and I’m going to get my face done and I’m going to be famous.” That’s what she said.

She literally said that?

Herman: That’s what she said.

Bjelland: And then she did.

Barbero: She took all the money from the ticket office and I was blackballed from the security, and all of that kind of stuff. So it wasn’t good. But she lived in my house, and one time I think when we were rehearsing she came down and probably picked up something and tried to play and we were just like, get out of here.

Bjelland: I feel bad because it screwed Lori over. You know, she’s the one that stuck in Minneapolis, so everyone of course was asking her for the money to get paid. Because she fled. But just make that clear. Let that be known.

Well, speaking of local lore, one other thing that’s been in the news lately is Pachyderm Studio. The remodeling of Pachyderm, the re-emergence, and then this really awful news recently of John Kuker’s passing. Do you have any memories you’d like to share about John, and also about Pachyderm, because I know you recorded Fontanelle there?

Barbero: Pachyderm was really great. Because, you know, you were in the middle of nowhere, and it didn’t distract you. But it was haunted, and it was pretty amazing. So we stayed down there, and then I told Kurt [Cobain] and those guys that they should do a record down there, so you could be in the middle of nowhere and it’s really beautiful and all that, so they did that.

nirvana_in_utero_back_cover_collage_kurt_cobain_artOne day I was down there, and Dave [Grohl] was doing drum tracks, and I took Kurt and Krist [Novaselic] to the Mall of America. Steve Albini was doing their album and he was like, “You can’t go there, you’re going to get mobbed!” And we were like, whatever. Just come to the Mall of America. We had so much fun. I said, “Kurt, there’s the greatest shop I want to take you to called Barebones,” and that’s where he bought everything for In Utero, and for the video for “Heart Shaped Box.” All of that, the fetus and baby and bones and invisible lady and all of that stuff, all of that is from Barebones. He spent tons of money, and he said they never cashed the check because it was his autograph. And it was thousands of dollars. So he got all of it for free. Kind of crazy. But yeah, he told me they never cashed his check because it was Kurt Cobain’s check with his autograph.

It was great down there. And it’s really sad that now, after everything John has done—he’s such a beautiful man. He’s golden. His heart of gold will forever shine. It really will. He’d take the shirt off his back for you, and he was just so beautiful, and the thing that I think about him—I mean, I could talk about him for hours—but I just remember him and his son, they’d come and visit me where I’d work in different places, and his son always had the cutest cape on, and then he’d have matching fingernail polish with the capes. And then he would do John’s fingernails, too, so they had to come and show me their new outfits and all that. That’s what I remember, the really cute little things like that that don’t have to do with music. His kindness and his sweetness and his love.

To leave off, is there anything that you want to tell everyone back home in Minnesota?

Barbero: It sure is warm in California!

Bjelland: Sorry we didn’t play there first.

Herman: My fault.

Bjelland: But we’re going to play the best for y’all.

Babes in Toyland play Rock the Garden 2015 on Sunday, June 21, at the Walker Art Center with Modest Mouse, Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, JD McPherson, and the Ghost of the Saber Tooth Tiger.

Portions of this interview will air Sunday night, March 15, from 6-8 p.m. as part of the Women’s History Month edition of The Local Show.