Local Current Blog

Ahead of their Minnesota Music Summit keynote addresses, Lori Barbero and Venus DeMars reflect on #MeToo

Lori Barbero and Venus DeMars visit the Current (Photos by Nate Ryan/MPR)

This Friday and Saturday, the annual Minnesota Music Summit returns with a timely new theme: “Amplifying Our Voices,” a two-day series of events at St. Catherine University that seeks to elevate women and nonbinary artists in the music community. The headliner for this year’s summit is the revered Portland songwriter Laura Viers, who will deliver a keynote address at noon on Friday and perform an album-release show that same evening, and the gathering will also showcase over a dozen Minnesota-based artists leading concerts, talks, workshops, and panel discussions in the various rooms of the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium.

In addition to the address by Viers, the Minnesota Music Coalition (which organizes the summit) has also tapped three pioneering artists from the local scene to share their experiences in keynote talks. On Friday at 1:15 p.m., I have the honor of hosting a conversation with the punk icon Lori Barbero, drummer for Babes in Toyland and founder of a new all-girls music studio that will soon open in St. Paul. On Saturday at noon, the gifted R&B/jazz vocalist PaviElle will address the topic of “Being Your Authentic Self” with host Janis Lane-Ewert of Jazz 88, and at 1 p.m. the pioneering transgender frontwoman Venus DeMars of glam-rock band All the Pretty Horses will share stories from her decades-long career.

All of which seemed like the perfect excuse to get a few of our scene’s most influential women into the studio for a roundtable chat. The following is an edited transcript of my conversation with Lori Barbero and Venus DeMars, which originally aired this past weekend on The Local Show.

Andrea Swensson: How does it feel to be selected to give a keynote address?

Venus DeMars: I’m scared to death of course. And as a trans person, I came out in ’88 – so this is kind of interesting for me to see that the world is as changed today [from what] it was when I came out in ’88. My dialogue, my presentation, is going to be about the landscape I navigated in rock and roll and through that time as a trans individual.

I imagine this is something you’ve been thinking about a lot, since you’ve been working on a book about your life.

DeMars: I have been, yes. I go back and live in the past a lot. I made this crazy timeline, which spans about 20 years, and I’ve got all of my band gigs, all of the tours and all of my newsletters that I sent out on a bi-weekly basis, and I’ve all distilled it all in this huge timeline graph. And then I hung on that all the different things, like my credit cards that I went into horrible debt with, so I could see when I got those credit cards, and our pets who had illnesses, and the job changes, and all of those crazy things. I’ve been living the past and then trying to apply it to the present a lot.

How about you, Lori? How does it feel to be asked to speak at this year’s Summit?

Lori Barbero: It’s really nice. It’s very flattering, and I don’t even think about – if I thought about it I’d probably get a little anxiety and then I’d get overwhelmed and paralyzed and just go blah blah blah. I work best with spontaneity, I think. But I think it’s really wonderful they’re doing something like that, and at St. Kate’s – the only reason I know St. Kate’s is that Sonic Youth played there years ago – a long time ago; probably 20 years ago. I’m really looking forward to it.

Obviously a lot has happened in the last year to inform the tone and the theme of this year’s summit, including the gigantic #metoo movement that started in Hollywood and has swept a bunch of other industries. Are you surprised that it hasn’t really spread to the music industry in the same way that it has through Hollywood?

Barbero: I honestly think that it hasn’t because there’s more power, and Hollywood is about people that are under the eye all the time – the actors and the powerful people. Hollywood is the aorta of the arts, basically. They give the awards to everyone, and all the famous people live there. Music is still very male-oriented, just like the rest of the world, and yes, music is as powerful as film, but in different ways. I’m sure people are talking, but it’s not under the magnifying glass yet with musicians and artists.

DeMars: I think it might spread. I’ve been hearing some things beginning, so I think it might happen. Of course I come from the underground music scene. I don’t come from the above-ground music scene, so I don’t have that same kind of contractual things or those kind of business people all around me. I’m dealing more [with] individual club owners and trying to do that kind of booking agent-level thing. So I’m dealing more with people on the ground and the audience and the reaction I get after I perform. And of course, the Horses – if people are familiar with my band – we’re very hypersexual, fetish-y appearing people, me kind of at the forefront of that. I gather a lot of that kind of attention, and so I’ve always had to navigate that kind of unwanted requests. That hasn’t changed too much for me.

I hear a lot of talk about the whisper networks that form in industries like ours, where maybe you don’t feel comfortable going to The New York Times with your story, but it is something that is understood between people, and passed from person to person. So it’s interesting to me to think about that maybe bubbling to the surface.

DeMars: Yeah, but you still feel so vulnerable. At least in the underground world; you’re going from gig to gig. If you get labeled as somebody who is a problem, you’re not going to get booked in that club, or you’re not going to get paid by that club owner. And it’s easy enough for them to just say there’s no opening. They don’t have to say why. There’s not a lot of leverage, at least on the level that I’m working on, to do much of anything except to self-advocate for yourself at the moment, and then you might destroy your follow-up performances by doing that.

You both got your start in the 1980s, which gives you three decades to compare experiences. Have things changed, in terms of how you’ve been treated?

Barbero: I think that things have changed a little bit. Our last show that we did was in San Bernardino in October, and I really did notice a different kind of respect. Instead of us being the female band, it was like, “You guys are great musicians.” I’m not very good at handling compliments, but when you hear different words than you’ve heard for decades, it’s kind of like wow, something’s changed a little bit. Instead of everyone just looking at you as three women – of course you can’t change that, we are three women that are playing our own instruments and performing – but instead of them saying, “You’re really good for girls,” it’s like, “You are good musicians.” It doesn’t make any difference what gender we are, and that made me feel better, and I noticed that a lot in California when we were there. It was really nice. It was very nurturing. It kind of made me stand a little taller.

How about you, Venus? Have you noticed changes?

DeMars: Yes and no. So I’m [at a bar], in line in costume — which is a corset and fishnets and stiletto thigh-high boots, and electric tape pasties — and I’m in the line to get a drink before we go onstage, and one of the audience people didn’t know that I was performing and just kind of came over and he wanted to pick me up. I said I was going to be going onstage in a minute. He heard my voice and so he was like – [surprised face] — and then I’m waiting; because in the old days I would just really be getting ready to defend myself, and I’ve got stories about that. So he stopped, and I’m getting ready, and then he said, “You’re one of those transgender people, right?” And I said yes, and he said, “Am I saying that right? I want to say that right because I just want to make sure that everybody knows,” – and he’s stammering and he’s trying to say that everything is okay and everything is cool with him. And he was really going out of his way – of course he didn’t want to pick me up after that, but he was very clear about wanting to be not misunderstood. That’s a huge change.

So now that you have each reached this point in your career where you’re perhaps taking a moment to look back — as you are, Venus, in writing your book, or Lori, getting ready to mentor a new generation of musicians — are you able to see the role that you played in all this change that’s happened? 

Barbero: Definitely for me. The first thing that pops into my head is Thurston [Moore] always called us the “Grandmothers of Grunge.” He called us that when Northern Lights was open, and I was like, “I’m not a grandmother, I’m like 35!” But because we were the ones that started it – that was the way he said it. And then our first poster when we got to Seattle – I can’t even remember who we were playing with, but we played with two of the bands that probably ended up on Sub Pop, when Sub Pop was just starting. I remember on a poster it said, “Menstrual Grunge From Minneapolis, “ and I was like “menstrual grunge?” What?

We weren’t empowered. There was nobody empowering or making sure that we were okay and feeling okay in this man’s jungle. But we still came out okay, and I think it’s because Kat [Bjelland] and I are both Sagges [Sagittarius]. We’re both really strong and independent, and we don’t give a hoot and a half what anyone really thinks of us. So we were just in this because we wanted to. We’re not doing it for anybody else.

Now, we just want to make sure that these very young ladies are empowered, and make sure that it’s okay — not everybody is going to like you, but that is okay because art is art. If you like it, it is your art. You own it and it’s great. And for every person that doesn’t like it there’s going to be five people that do. And we want to have [the all-girls music school] as an art space where you create your music and it’s a safe place and there’s no right way and there’s no wrong way. We’re not going to tell you no. We don’t have a name for the studio yet because when we were talking about it I said, we need to let the girls name it because it’s all about the girls.

Venus, I’ll return to that question for you. Are you able to see yourself as a pioneer?

DeMars: That’s code for an old person.

I don’t think so! A trailblazer.

DeMars: I was just trying to get famous. I wasn’t trying to think about doing anything other than navigating a crazy, hard landscape anyway. You just deal with what happens as it happens and navigate it. The hardest part was just getting from one town to the other looking the way we do, and not being able to stop to pee because of looking the way we do. So that was more difficult than a lot of things, just learning how to hold on to that urine for eight hours until you saw the safe place to go. And it’s still in the news. It’s still a trouble. Can you believe it? It’s still a trouble.

Do I see myself… people tell me that, so I’ve been given that. Am I happy with that? I’m glad I was able to do something as I moved and tried to get forward in my own career that made things work. I had a chance to tour with Laura Jane Grace in 2014, so even though I’m part of the underground world I got a chance to see how the above-ground world functions and what it’s like. We performed to all of these all-ages shows, which were mostly trans kids and their parents, and then Laura’s older fan base that stayed with her after she transitioned. I was amazed at the kids and the support and just the atmosphere of those shows. It was amazing. And to see that, and to see how much progress has happened, it did feel really good to be able to still be working and still be doing things and experiencing that change and that shift.

There were years I would go and not see another trans person; years of performing and going and being in audiences, and the only people I would find out are trans are the people that would come up to me and tell me that, because they were too afraid to demonstrate it. They were closeted. Now, two years ago touring with Laura I’ve got a club full of trans kids. Where did they come from? It’s great. It’s amazing. They’ve always been there, of course. I was a trans kid. I was a little kid – trans, trying to figure things out – so yes, I’ll take it. If people want to give me that, I’ll take it.

Lori Barbero’s keynote conversation happens at 1:15 p.m. Friday, April 13 (immediately following Laura Viers) at the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium at St. Catherine University. Venus DeMars gives her keynote address at the same location at 1 p.m. on Saturday, immediately following PaviElle. For a full schedule of Minnesota Music Summit events visit mnmusiccoalition.org.