Editor's note: Awesome news: Interviewer Betsy Shepherd's band Thee Tsuanmis will open for Babes in Toyland at their show Wednesday at the Hi-Fi. This show is presented in part by Girls Rock! Indianapolis, which will host an all-ages meet and greet from 7:30 – 8 p.m. at their Murphy Arts Center space just above the Hi-Fi.
I remember so well seeing Babes In Toyland’s “Bruise Violet” music video as a young kid in the ’90s. Vocals marinated in gasoline over stabs of guitar distortion, the music left its mark, as did the image of riotous ladies playing for a moshing throng of women at some kind of Gotham City circus — CBGB's.
Rock’n’roll’s first bite.
I bought their record Fontanelle, one of my very first CDs, with my allowance money, and I started saving up to buy a pawnshop guitar. It was many years before I got one and even more before I learned how to play it, but I’m not sure that I would be playing music now if it weren’t for Babes in Toyland and all the riot grrrl bands that I discovered next. So, I was more than ecstatic when my band Thee Tsunamis was asked to open for Babes in Toyland at the Hi-Fi, and I was downright giddy when Lori Barbero, the drummer for Babes In Toyland, agreed to an interview.
Betsy Shepherd: When did you first get into rock’n’roll music?
Lori Barbero: I went to high school in New York, and that was in the ’70s. I saw Patti Smith at CBGB's on New Year’s Eve in 1977 when I was 17 years old. I saw the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers with Johnny Thunders.
Betsy: Did witnessing the rise of the New York punk scene make you want to play music?
Lori: Yes. I really loved music and wanted to play music and be a part of it. The thing was I talked about it for many years but I didn’t pick up drumsticks until I was 26 years old. That’s the age that most musicians retire and get married and have kids. At 26, I self-taught myself drums playing with Kat [Bjelland of Babes in Toyland].
Betsy: What was that learning curve like?
Lori: I had never played the drums before and sometimes I think if I would have drummed with someone else, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to play so well with Kat. That’s what’s really valid for our band. As of this year, Kat and I have been playing together for 30 years.
Betsy: And you’re about to go on tour. Is it hard now to go on national tours?
Lori: No. When I stop, that’s when I get anxiety. It’s my aorta, playing drums and being on tour with Kat. It’s the main valve to my heart. When we took our hiatus for 12 years, it was like taking my first born away.
Betsy: Musically, Babes in Toyland was doing something pretty different at the time. Did you feel like people had a hard time understanding it at first?
Lori: Yes, I do. We are not mainstream music. But that wasn’t what our goal was. Kat and I just got together and started playing music and this is what it ended up being. If you would have told me 29 years ago that I would be touring around the world and playing with my favorite bands of all time — Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, Lush, Nirvana, the Melvins, Iggy Pop, the Ramones, Elvis Costello — I just would’ve laughed and said “Yeah, in your dreams.” We just did what we enjoyed doing, and we worked really hard. We rehearsed seven nights a week until our first shows. We just got together and played music in my basement, and then one thing led to another.
Betsy: I read somewhere that you toured for 10 months out of the year. Is that right?
Lori: Yeah, we toured 10 months out of the year for 10 years solid.
Betsy: That’s incredible! Babes in Toyland went on a European tour with Sonic Youth in 1990. What was that experience like?
Lori: That was the greatest thing Babes in Toyland ever did. Just thinking about it makes my eyes well up. Every night hanging out with them and getting to see them play, we learned the baby steps of how a great band rolls.
Lori: Yes, and they still ask me and I’m like, “Next question, please.” I’m a musician just like my male counterpart. We’re a band, we just happen to be female. And we do the exact same thing as a male band. We work just as hard. We probably work even harder because, for some reason, in this world women have to work twice as hard to get a fraction of the praise men do when they’re doing the same work.
Betsy: You blew up in ’92 with your second album, Fontanelle. I really love that record, and it’s got this emblematic album art from the feminist photographer Cindy Sherman.
Lori: Yeah, she’s one of my idols. In our video to “Bruise Violet,” which was filmed at CBGBs, Kat has a doppelgänger. The doppelganger is Cindy!
Betsy: Wow! I didn’t know that. I see a lot of dovetailing between her art and your music. The cover of Fontanelle has this creepy babydoll imagery, which Nirvana later copied on In Utero and Hole copied on Live Through This. How did you feel about that?
Lori: I think it’s great. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.
Betsy: Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
Lori: Do what you want to do and work really hard at it. The worst that can happen is that it won’t work out, but you aren’t going to know unless you try. And success isn’t fame and fortune; it’s doing what you want to do in your life, because life is short. Babes in Toyland is successful, not because we have lots of money — we don’t — it’s because we’ve been able to do what we love.