Year of the Kat : Kat Bjelland's penchant for purging her emotions brings Babes in Toyland to the brink of alternative rock stardom

Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar

It's a prime-time show for Babes in Toyland, a headlining date at the Whisky on the rush of their first major-label album and a buzz that's rising from the recesses of the underground into the bright lights.

The Sunset Strip club is packed with L.A.'s rock kids--this show is pretty much mandatory. The record company people are there, and so are the organizers of "Lollapalooza," their thoughts on next summer's third edition of the prestigious alternative rock road show.

The Minneapolis-based female trio takes the stage, and guitarist Kat Bjelland looks like a blond angel in a white dress as she stands at her mike.

Then she starts to sing.

Above the pounding instrumental din, a magma of raw emotion spews from her baby-doll face with shocking force. She retches her enraged lyrics, her screams skid across the beat and collide with the blunt riffs. Her voice erupts into laughs and gargles, then croons down low with eerie detachment. She keeps kicking her left leg into the air, and she steps back when fans being passed atop the crowd come too close to her mike stand.

But her impassive expression never changes, and she keeps her gaze fixed slightly above the heads of the jostling crowd.

"Looking in people's eyes is pretty weird in the first place, so when you're standing there baring your soul and they're looking at you for something, it's kinda. . . ."

Bjelland, sitting for an interview in an office at Warner Bros. Records in Burbank, gives up her search for the word.

"Sometimes I get really, like I just want to get the hell out of there," she says. "Or I start wanting to make fun of myself. I don't know, it's just a thing you go through when you're onstage."

As edgy as it might make her, Bjelland's willingness to purge her emotions in public has brought Babes in Toyland to the brink of alternative rock stardom. And in the Age of Nirvana, that position means a lot more than a second van for the tours. A significant audience is possible, even for something as extreme as Babes in Toyland.

"It should be extreme," Bjelland says. "It should sound like nothing that you've heard before. That's my intention. . . . Like my singing, all I try to do is I just push myself into things where I think I can't reach notes and stuff. Sometimes it sounds really ridiculous, but then you just kind of work on it. Just I always like experimental stuff.

"Some people aspire to like being comfortable and mediocre. That's good if they can be relaxed in their minds with that. But it seems like to get peace of mind for me, I have to go into the most extreme situations and then come back."

The recent elections might have brought the "Year of the Woman" theme to a crescendo, but in the American rock underground, where Babes in Toyland, L7 and Hole lead the pack and new arrivals like the Breeders are getting in line, it's an accepted condition, and one more reason to pin high hopes on Bjelland and company.

Tim Carr, the Warner Bros. Records A&R; executive who signed the band last year, is confident of Babes' potential, but he concedes that it might take a while.

"It might be a little too tough for the moment," he says in a separate interview. "But as people realize that they're not gonna go away, and that they have something to say, they'll come around to their way of saying it.

"I think of it as being the way that Jane's Addiction swooped up from the underground into the center of attention. I would think a band like this would have the potential. Again, I think that Kat is maybe a little less user-friendly than even (Jane's Addiction leader) Perry Farrell.

"But there's a certain mystery behind her eyes--the sense that when you watch her onstage you want to be her, you want to know what it is she's thinking, that she knows something you don't know, you want to pay attention to it. It's totally not dismissible."

And, Carr notes with satisfaction, the "Lollapalooza" people left the Whisky smiling.

"I'm sure the intensity and everything comes from childhood, because that's where things come from," says Bjelland, 28, who grew up in the Portland, Ore., area. But aside from mentioning some of the music that inspired her, she doesn't have much to say about her early years.

"I never talk about my family life in the press. I just don't want to. . . . It was"--she pauses, then lets in a narrow beam of light. "I'm having a lot more fun now that I'm an adult. I just think it's funny--'You should enjoy your high school years, they're the best of your life.' People always said that to me. And you just go, 'OK, where's the knife? If this is the best. . . .' "

Bjelland signals the end of each answer with a rapid fluttering of her eyelashes, and she appears slightly distracted as she fiddles with a paper clip--one thing on her mind is food, since the demands of the day haven't allowed for a lunch break. Few of her replies are long or expansive. Like her music and lyrics, she makes her points concisely and with impact, then stops.

Bjelland's adult saga is better documented than her childhood. She moved from Portland to San Francisco, took up guitar and started writing songs. She played bowling alleys in a surf band with her uncle and worked with a few other groups, including one with L7's Jennifer Finch and Hole's Courtney Love.

In 1987, intent on finding the right musical combination, she headed for Minneapolis, drawn by the city's thriving music scene and the honest nature of groups like the Replacements and Soul Asylum. But Bjelland didn't know anyone there, and it was hard to adjust.

"I drank a lot, but it was OK," she says. "I just watched people. . . . For the first two months I would just watch people at the bars, and you could figure out everyone's story so easy. . . . I'd sit and I'd watch everyone like it was a big play. I'd get drunker and drunker and (write) on bar napkins."

She teamed with drummer Lori Barbero, and the original Babes lineup was completed by singer Cindy Russell and bassist Chris Holetz. Russell and Holetz left after a year, bassist Michelle Leon joined, and Bjelland started singing.

The trio played the Minneapolis clubs and started touring, gradually shedding its rawness and locating an individuality.

"They were a sort of loud, abrasive, angry, obnoxious thing at first and very amateurish in a sense," recalls Jon Bream, music critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "And then they developed over time into something that was pretty amazing. . . . The shows just seemed to make more sense. There was a focus there. . . . They were able to connect with the audience."

The group released its debut album, "Spanking Machine," in 1990 on the Minneapolis independent label Twin/Tone. They went to England and were embraced by the rock press there and built more credibility when they toured as the opening act for Sonic Youth.

They signed with Reprise, but Leon left the band after the still-unsolved murder in Los Angeles of her boyfriend Joe Cole, a longtime associate of L.A. punk band Black Flag. Bassist Maureen Herman joined just before the recording of Babes in Toyland's new album earlier this year.

Produced by Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, featuring a disquieting cover photo of a doll by confrontational art world star Cindy Sherman, "Fontanelle" was described in The Times as possibly "the rawest performance ever released by a major label."

While Bjelland thinks that too much is made of that abrasive thing, she can understand the reaction.

"A lot of people make me angry," she says. "Just people in general. The things they say, hypocritical things. Just in everyday life. You hear some people say something, you go, 'Oh God, how can you be like that?' . . . So a lot of people think I'm a bitch."

"She's very direct," adds the low-key Herman, who's sitting in on the interview. "It's a healthy way to be, but I think a lot of people aren't used to someone being that way."

"I've been told that since I was young," Bjelland says. "When I was little they'd always go, 'You're brutally honest.' I'd say, 'What, painfully honest ? Those words don't go together.' "

Even though Bjelland and Herman think too much has been made of the gender issue--and are especially weary of the foxcore tag that's been applied to the current wave of female bands--the fact that Babes is a no-man's-Toyland isn't an accident. After all, every time there has been a personnel change, the group has hired another woman.

"I think it's a really great idea that women are starting bands together," Bjelland says. "For one thing, if nothing else, look how much attention it got. That's just interesting in itself. And if they have good things to say, then people will pay attention. Some of the bands have more of a political bent on things. I don't really."

Adds Herman: "In the same way that all-male bands have a common denominator in their experiences, it's the same with us."

"Yeah, it is," Bjelland says. "Because I like to play with women. There's more bonding in it. I'm sure I'm gonna play with men too. Just right now, this is how it is."

So there have been no barriers because of gender?

"This is kind of corny," Bjelland says, "but I don't think true artists notice barriers, or they don't care."

Still, the two Babes think that the band's female constitution has something to do with what they see as an undue emphasis on the anger aspect.

Says Bjelland: "It's just that if women start screaming really loud it's anger instead of intensity or passion.

"Sometimes I think what we do is from this drive to get people to be more stripped down . . . more honest with themselves and their emotions, try to look at themselves more. That's what I try to do when I'm writing songs. Trying to figure myself out."

"It's just intense emotion," Herman says. "Some of it, yes, we're expressing anger, and some of it other emotions, but it's always pegged as, 'Oh, they're just angry.' And it's like there's so much more."

Such as?

"Restlessness," Herman offers.

Bjelland puts in the last word:

"It's just that thing where you go, 'What the hell am I doing here?' So you just have to like dive into life really hard and just explore every vein of it."

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