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Visceral Live Therapy: A Babes in Toyland Comeback

By Paul M. Davis

In the wake of regressive online debates and the packaging of feminism as a prefab pop star pose, the righteous fury of women-fronted ’90s punk rock bands seems downright prescient, if not ahead of its time. Babes in Toyland is one such band, a seminal punk trio whose core lineup was extant from 1987 to 1995. Their influence upon the bands of the era was significant, paving the way for the riot grrrl movement and, as was a point of controversy at the time, the attitude and aesthetic of brief member Courtney Love.

Babes in Toyland released only three albums during its tenure—Spanking Machine, Fontanelle, and Nemesisters—but their fierce and ominous sound, blistering live performances, and proximity to artists such as Cindy Sherman had an outsized influence on rock music. The primary members, singer-guitarist Kat Bjelland, bassist Maureen Herman, and drummer Lori Barbero, pioneered the “kinderwhore” aesthetic that would be popularized by Love and the riot grrrl bands of the mid-’90s and is worn by art school majors to this day. The band’s sound helped define the nascent grunge movement, bringing together the knife-sharp buzz of punk rock with bruising riffs inspired by metal and ’70s rock.

Their reunion, which kicked off with a February show in Los Angeles, was far from inevitable. As Bjelland stated in a recent Rolling Stone interview, “I said I’d never, ever do a reunion.” Moreover, the band’s members have struggled in recent depression, PTSD, and addiction, prompting Herman to pen a forthcoming book, titled It’s a Memoir, Motherfucker. But the members’ post–Babes in Toyland experiences haven’t been entirely bleak, with Bjelland fronting the band Katastrophy Wife, Barbero playing in various bands in Austin, and Herman running the social justice nonprofit Project Noise. Given all these challenges and commitments, the band reuniting was not a foregone conclusion, nor does it have the whiff of cash-in that has characterized the reunions of some of the band’s contemporaries.

Babes in Toyland’s reunion was prompted by an unlikely benefactor: Powersniff, an LLC established by former Google employees, is helping bankroll the reunion. As Barbero explains, the folks behind Powersniff lobbied band members to reunite over the course of a number of years. “They talked to Maureen a few years back asking what they could do to get us to do a reunion show,” she says. “Kat and Maureen got together a year and a half ago, and they called me to ask if it was possible. It just kind of snowballed from there.”

Reunions are risky endeavors, and given the struggles of the three band members and their geographic distance—only Bjelland continues to live in Minneapolis, with Herman based in Los Angeles and Barbero in Austin—such outside support was instrumental in enabling the reunion. But more than giving the band an opportunity to place a punctuation mark upon its legacy, it has given the members a chance to reconnect with old friends and perhaps recover from the difficulties they have experienced. In a press release announcing the reunion, Bjelland stated that the reunion constitutes “visceral live therapy” for the band, an experience that Barbero echoes. “Are we finding the reunion to be a healing experience? Yes, It’s been really great for all of us,” she says. “I feel really grounded again. I have a wonderful relationship with them, and it’s really nice to be back in Minneapolis, with Kat again, as a good friend and bandmate.” Moreover, Barbero swears by the therapeutic element of live performance. “The benefits from playing an instrument physically, mentally, and emotionally are so rewarding,” she says.

The band’s upcoming reunion show at Rock the Garden is more than a homecoming for Babes in Toyland, but also appropriate given the band’s close relationship with prominent visual and performance artists of the time. Barbero cites the band’s ties with Sonic Youth, who brought the band on its first European tour and “took everything that they respected and cared for, under their wing, and helped them out as much as they could.” Tim Carr, the band’s A&R representative and former Walker Performing Arts staffer, who Barbero describes as “Babes in Toyland’s fourth member,” also connected the band to artists and musicians such as Robert Longo, Arto Lindsay, Laurie Anderson, Vito Acconci, and perhaps most notably, Cindy Sherman. The visual artist had a close relationship with the band and significantly influenced their visual aesthetic. “Cindy was Kat’s doppelgänger in the ‘Bruise Violet’ video we filmed at CBGB’s,” Barbero says. “She did the artwork for our backdrop for Lollapalooza in 1992, and she also did our cover art for Painkillers.”

Babes in Toyland’s two successful Southern California shows—a warmup in Pioneertown and a gig at the Roxy in Los Angeles—demonstrated the band’s impact on notable musicians and artists, with an introduction by Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello and guests including The Distillers founder Brody Dalle and L7’s Donita Sparks. Bjelland has felt the impact of the band on not only its contemporaries, but more personally, on a younger generation. “It was brought to my attention that not only do we have a lot of diehard fans from back in the day,” she said in the press release, “but also a whole new generation of kids—my son Henry included—that was eager to see us live.”

Barbero has enjoyed a similar experience. “I think we’ve affected a lot of folks,” she says. “I only know because people who I’ve crossed paths with have told me, and for that I am very humbled. If we’ve changed one persons life for the better, it’s all worth it, right?”

Paul M. Davis tells stories online and off. His work has appeared in publications including the Guardian, GOOD, Utne Reader, the AV Club, and SF Weekly.

Kat Bjelland at Babes in Toyland’s reunion show, Roxy Theatre, February 12, 2015

Babes in Toyland, c. 1992

Lori Barbero and Kat Bjelland with Michelle Leon, the band’s bassist from 1987 to 1992.

Babes in Toyland, 2015

Maureen Herman, Kat Bjelland, Lori Barbero

Babes in Toyland, Painkillers, 1993

Featuring cover photography by Cindy Sherman