Babes in Toyland Rides Again: The 90s punk icons’ road to reunion
Kat Bjelland didn’t get the best night’s sleep. The day I caught up with her via phone at her Minneapolis home, she says she’d been up super late, rushing around the house, getting everything packed prepped to go on tour. At the moment, she’s exhausted, but good to go. “All I need right now is my vitamins and a blender to make smoothies,” she laughs. “I’m really excited.”
This year, Bjelland’s band – the iconic punk power trio Babes in Toyland – played its first shows together in 13 years. Tonight, it launches its fall tour at Underground Arts in Philadelphia. It’s the band’s longest run of tour dates since its 90s heyday, when it used to be on the road 10 months out of the year, and the energy is in the air.
Babes in Toyland broke out of the twin cities scene in 1990 with the raging full-length Spanking Machine, released on the local Twin / Tone imprint. Anchored by Bjelland’s ace guitar riffage and howling vocals, along with drummer Lori Barbero’s hammering rhythms, the band fit right into the music of the era and subsequently released two albums in the major leagues, 1992’s Fontanelle (produced by Lee Ranaldo from their onetime tourmates Sonic Youth) and 1995’s Nemisisters (which gave us the band’s best-known song, the wound-up and funky “Sweet ’69”). They were a stalwart force in the era’s Lollapalooza circuit and collaborated with renowned New York photographer Cindy Sherman, who worked on the band’s “Bruise Violet” video and contributed images to two of their album covers.
But by the early aughts, Babes in Toyland was drifting apart, and played its final show at First Avenue in Minneapolis in the fall of 2000. “We didn’t even know it was going to be our last show,” admits Barbero.
The band went its separate ways shortly thereafter. “Things run their course,” Bjelland reasoned. “I had a child, which was a lot of work. People who don’t have kids might not realize what it’s like, but I had to concentrate on that. Me and Lori had a falling out of sorts, which best friends always do.”
Bjelland kept music in her life through a string of bands – Katastrophe Wife, with her then-husband Adrian Johnson, followed by Witch Blade and a free-form, improvisatory project in England called Last Frenzy, but the balance of rock and roll and family became too stressing; she recalls bringing her son Henry, now 16, on tour in the UK when he was two. “It was hard,” she admits. “It gave me a nervous breakdown, basically.”
Barbero also kept music in her life, though through a more behind-the-scenes sort of way. After drumming for the band Eggtwist and Koalas and relocating to Austin with her family, she got a job as an assistant production manager for the annual South By Southwest festival, which she held down from 2007 to 2014.
“It was hard work, but it was actually very easy for me, since I had to manage us for so long,” she says. “Everything I had to do was second nature.”
It was an interesting time to be involved, no doubt; across the mid-to-late aughts, the festival’s growth was accelerated by the exploding digital music space, from blogs to social medial. Barbero and her team were tasked with whittling down 2,000 featured artists from some 500,000 applicants representing 200-plus countries. She says the gig kept her informed and busy.
“It did really keep me in tune with a lot of music and a lot of friends,” Barbero says. “And just keeping up with what’s going on, because technology has changed the way things happen.”
The band worked with a long string of bassists over the years, and the longest running one – Maureen Herman – was living and working in Los Angeles during the years off. She was a catalyst for the reunion, since a group of Babes in Toyland megafans with Silicon Valley bank accounts approached her with an offer to front the money for a reunion.
Bjelland recalls that when she was off the grid, she didn’t talk to any of her former bandmates, but noticed that Herman kept calling and calling. Finally she decided to pick up the phone. They arranged a get-together, talked about aS reunion possibility and decided to give Barbero a ring.
“We chatted on the phone and I said ‘we’ll see,'” Barbero recalls. “I didn’t say ‘yeah, this is gonna happen.’ I was being very realistic. Are we all going to get along? Is everybody healthy enough to do this? Is everybody in the right place? You have to be mentally and physically capable, it’s a lot of time and energy.”
The first rehearsal sessions that Babes had in LA assuaged any doubts.
“It was so fun,” recalls Bjelland. “It was like to first time we ever played together. ‘Don’t think about it, just do it.’ Lori goes ‘1,2,3,4’ and we played almost every song perfectly right away.”
The band booked its first reunion gig in February of this year, at the Roxy in Los Angeles; when they realized that a warm-up show might not be a bad idea, they booked a last minute show in Pioneertown, a tiny dot on the map about two hours east of Los Angeles. It used to be a movie set for Will Rogers westerns, and has over the years has started to amass permanent residents. Google it and you’ll see images that look like something out a Sergio Leone, and Barbero confirms that the vibe is pretty much that.
“We walked up and down the main street, and the little town doesn’t have a road or anything, it’s just dirt,” she says. “Pappy and Harriet’s [where we played] was a Harley Davidson roadhouse in the 40s. It’s the coolest, coolest par, it’s so magical out there in the desert.”
It’s become sort of a hang for musicians and artists who don’t want to be in LA, but don’t want to be in Palm Springs either, and Barbero says that first gig was sold out – with fans like Peaches in the front row, screaming along.
The band subsequently went on to play Minneaspolis Public Radio’s Rock The Garden festival, as well as Riot Fest in Chicago and Toronto. In August, Herman left the reunited trio and was replaced by Clara Salyer – a vet of a handful of Minneapolis bands, inicluding Total Babe, Prissy Clerks and Whatever Forever. Barbero calls her “an unbelievable player.” But at its core over the years, Babes was always about the Kat-Lori dynamic, and both report that it is strong as ever.
“I didn’t realize how void and empty I was not playing music and not being with Kat,” Barbero says. “It had been twelve years between seeing each other. That was crazy.”
Bjelland says that fronting the band feels good as ever, though she tried not to overthink going into it.
“I knew that if I thought about it too much, it would make me nervous,” she says. “So I just did it. And I figured it it felt bad, I would not do it, and if it felt good, I would.
“The lyrics still hold water for me,” she continues. “They’re autobiographical for the minor part, but more just a big overview of the world. I think it holds the test of time because I still have passion behind it; when I sing them, I still really feel them.” Playing one show, she says, even made her cry.”
Though she and Barbero say they plan to write new material, that’s not happening just yet. Right now is about getting out on the road again and celebrating the Babes in Toyland that fans remember and love; the bandmate both say they have seen plenty of reunion tours as fans over the years, and the dreaded “here’s a new one” moment never goes over well. They agree they’d rather not bog down this run of shows with a lot of unfamiliar material.
Plus, Bejalland points out, it gives classic Babes songs a chance to connect with a new generation. She sees a range of faces in their crowd – people her age, in their early 50s, as well as people in their mid-30s down to their early 20s. “It’s really cool to see that they can actually relate to it,” says Bjelland. “[Before we got back together], young kids – girls especially – would write letters that were just heartbreaking. I felt like I should probably go play live because they keep asking and asking. I’d feel like a little snob if I didn’t.”
Barbero adds “I think Kat and I cry from joy or sadness at least once a night.”
“It’s good for me to play, it’s good therapy,” Bjelland says. “It’s good to revisit.”
Babes in Toyland performs at Underground Arts with Kitten Forever; tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.