In 1987, a punk trio was born in Minneapolis that would go on to help influence a whole new generation of female rock musicians. With a powerful sound and lyrics that weren’t afraid to visit the dark side, Babes In Toyland were a healthy alternative to the standard punk and metal of the times. Like fellow Minneapolis bands Hüsker Dü and The Replacements, they were taking punk to different levels and creating something new. Their second studio full length, Fontenelle, was released by Warner Bros. in 1992 and gained an impressive amount of public exposure for such a heavy album. The success of that album led to bigger tours and a bigger fan base, but eventually things came to a halt in 2001. Now, after a 14 year hiatus, the group has reformed and will be gracing New Orleans with a performance at this year’s Voodoo Experience.
With a three piece band, there’s no room for a weak link, and drummer Lori Barbero does more than enough to keep things strong with a unique style that conjures old punk roots rounded out with tribal charm. Her drumming brings an intense, yet organic sound to the group that perfectly compliments the angst of vocalist/guitarist Kat Bjelland. Aside from Babes In Toyland, Lori has remained busy in the music field with various projects ranging from record labels (Good Horse, Spanish Fly) to other bands (Koalas, Eggtwist) to event coordination at South By Southwest. Her hardworking nature has made her a well-respected name in the industry and after years behind the scenes, she couldn’t be happier to be back behind the drums.
Why did you break up in the first place, and what changed to make you feel like you could successfully get back together?
Lori Barbero: I think it just kind of fizzled out and we had been playing for like 16 years or something. And we didn’t really have a solid bass player, and it all just kind of took its toll. We didn’t know we were going to not play anymore, it just kind of happened. Then we didn’t play for I guess 14 years and we decided to get back together because we just swept everything under the carpet and moved forward. We all went through a lot of things in our lives individually and we were in a good place and thought we’d try it again.
It feels like things come in waves; there was a wave of riot grrrl bands, and now it seems like there’s a wave of those bands (and bands from that era) reuniting all at once. Are there any talks about going on the road or collaborating with any of those bands, in particular L7? You guys kind of got back together at the same time.
Yeah, we did, which is just kinda coincidentally. I don’t know when their first show was, but we just played with them at the Riot Fest in Denver and in Chicago. So, we’re friends, but I think it’s because we’re both kind of headlining bands, that we’re not going to do something like that, unless you just do a big festival or you could do a co-bill. But we’re both just kinda doing our own thing, you know? It would be really fun. I mean we had fun hanging out in Denver and Chicago, that’s for sure. Always great to see them.
You guys were often lumped in with the riot grrrl movement and yet, as was the case with many of those bands, I didn’t find that you were writing songs that were feminist in any way. How did it feel to be labelled riot grrrls, and what did you think about that whole movement?
I think they just put riot grrrl on any female band where the woman didn’t sing like she was reading from her diary! [laughs] I think it’s kinda like how religion started out as being a really good thing, but then everyone kind of took it and made it their own and they caused tons and tons and tons of problems, and no one really understands what it was meant to be originally. And politics, too. It all got out of control. Something starts out good and then it just kind of gets thrown off track because too many people don’t know exactly what’s going on and it blows way out of proportion.
Was there even an issue of being women in music at the time you guys were doing it? What do you think is different in the music world today?
I don’t think there’s really that much difference at all. Everyone’s taught to say “woman,” and everyone’s taught to say “female,” but I think music is something people understand in that it’s an audio thing. You can listen to it, and my new slogan, my new motto, is that it should be audio and not visual. Everyone needs to just start listening to music instead of looking at it and judging it, and looking to see what the people look like and what gender they are or what they’re wearing or this, that, or whatever. I just think if no one took photographs of any bands, and all you did was hear the music, you would know if you liked it or not. I think a lot of music, a lot of things people like, they only do because of how cool they look or whatever, and I think there’s a lot of deceit and misconception about it. I mean, who cares? I don’t even like taking band photos. I roll my eyeballs. I just really dislike it, cuz I’m like, “Who cares what I look like?” I’m just really weird about that. I don’t really care what a band looks like. Either I like ‘em or I don’t. I guess it’s nice. I mean, even for music from bands that broke up way before maybe I was even born, it’s cool to look at their images and see what they used to wear and all that back in the ‘50s and ‘60s and stuff. But nowadays, it’s just weird. I honestly think it’s kinda cool when bands don’t take band photos and they just do interviews. But that’s just me. I’m one of a gazillion musicians.
There have been many changes in the music business and in the music world in general since you guys have come back. Especially with all the changes in technology, everyone’s got their iPhone, eveyone’s streaming everything and posting mp3s now. So, how is it different for you, personally?
I guess it’s not any different for me because I’m not tech-savvy. We have an Instagram and we have a Facebook page, but I’ve never tweeted, I’ve never downloaded a song. And that’s true. So, it’s not really different for me except that now, a challenge that I have for any band is to go on tour with no iPhone or any computer, and you read, and you get directions from a map, and you stop at truck stops to make phone calls to advertise your shows. That’s what we did. We toured when there were no cell phones and there was no GPS. So check that out, and we toured for about 10 months a year for about 10 years. So, it’s pretty amazing how easy it is, now. It is a lot easier, but it’s a lot more complicated, too. It’s easier as far as getting from point A to point B, and getting in touch with people instantaneously, but it also makes everything a lot more complicated. It’s just, there’s so much, all the time. Overwhelming.
What do you think made Fontanelle a hit? How much do you credit Beavis and Butthead with your success?
I like punk, I like real, I like raw. Less is more.
I remember the story about the kid setting his trailer on fire, but I didn’t even realize that it was because of that particular video. That’s crazy! I mean, that was how I heard of you guys. I’m in New Orleans, you know?
It’s ridiculous, just like when someone commits suicide and they were listening to Black Sabbath, and so the family tries to sue Black Sabbath. It has nothing to do with the music itself, it’s the people and where their brain is at, you know? It’s just kinda silly and ridiculous, and it’s too bad there was a tragedy, but it’s not really personally our fault. So, it was a short run. Beavis and Butthead went on a long time without that being played again. But I think it’s on the “Best Of.” I just moved back to Minneapolis from Austin, and I bartended at a honky-tonk down there called The White Horse for three years, and Mike Judge actually came in quite a bit. We ended up being friends. It was pretty awesome.
Are you writing any new material?
We don’t have any, yet. We will. We went to Europe in May and June; we just got back Tuesday from a month in the U.S. and Canada, and now we’re going back out in a few weeks, for about three weeks. I think after that we’re going to go into the rehearsal space and start writing some new material. We just haven’t had time, and you know when you’re doing a reunion tour, you don’t want to whip out new stuff anyway. Everyone wants to hear the old stuff and just have a good time.
You guys definitely have a very distinct sound, especially you. You have a very distinct style of drumming, very tom-heavy. I know you influenced a lot of people, but who influenced you?
Man, you know, I was self-taught. I didn’t even know how to set a drum kit up. I play with the butt end [of the sticks]. I used to play barefooted until I broke a bone in my foot, so I can’t play barefoot anymore. It hurts even though I broke my foot many years ago. But I just have to play with shoes on now. Yeah, but over all of the years, the song—say probably in 5th or 6th grade—that I heard where I was like, “I’m gonna play the drums!” was “Halo of Flies” by Alice Cooper. It’s just an unbelievable anthem. It’s the coolest song. It has so many different parts and it’s really weird and really f ’ed up, so that was the song I remember, the first song I was like, “Oh my god!” Just the song itself, and with the drumming; well, I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world. So that, and then also in the early ‘80s, I dated a drummer from a local band in Minneapolis called Man Sized Action. Until a few years ago, I didn’t even realize how similar my drumming was to stuff that he used to do, and I don’t even know how to play drums. I really don’t know how to imitate anything, but I guess my memory just kinda negates it? I don’t know.
There’s even a couple of times I’ve listened to PiL and was like, “Whoa!” I guess cuz it’s tom-influenced and I hear a lot of PiL and that’s the way I drum. I mean, when I went to high school in New York and I went to all of the clubs like CBGB’s and The Rock Lounge and all these places that had punk rock shows. I would always just watch the drummer. I like singers, I like guitarists, I like bass players, but I didn’t really care that much. I liked the vocals, I liked hearing words, but I loved watching the drummers. Drumming was just what I always, always was attracted to. I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world. So I didn’t start drumming until I was 26. I started real late. As far as drumming, I don’t really have any specific influences, but as far as music, I mean, Patti Smith I just freakin’ loved, PiL, I loved The Fall, I loved The Damned. I got to see them last week, or like a week and a half ago. The thing is, I could go on and on. Oh, Sonic Youth, and I liked the West Coast punk. But for pop, I liked mostly really early ‘70s English bands that were like on Rough Trade… Queen’s probably having fun, and playing music, which is art, music is our lives, then that’s exactly what we want to do. There’s nothing about anything else, just that.
Did you ever find that imitation was a problem at all, people trying to rip off your sound or your style, other than Courtney Love?
I just think that imitation, or if someone takes something and runs with your idea, or anything like that, that’s quite flattering. If, quote- unquote, they think you’re so good that they want to be you, or try to be you, that’s the biggest form of flattery and compliment. Everything is taken from something. I mean, there’s not much that’s that original anymore after how many thousands of bands? There’s only so much you can do, especially when it’s coming out of a guitar or bass and one of my all-time favorites for sure. Freddie Mercury? Um, yeah.
I was self-taught. I didn’t even know how to set a drum kit up.
I was self-taught. I didn’t even know how to set a drum kit up.
I know! I just found that out. They were not on the original line-up when I looked at it. That’s recent, and I just cannot freakin’ believe it! I am gonna bring stuff and I’m gonna talk to Johnny and be like, “Pleeease!” He’s one of my idols. He really is. And I know the bass player. I’m excited. I just found out a few days ago. I didn’t know. Actually, it was because I bought a giant Johnny Lydon black-and-white poster that was really probably from the ‘70s, that I bought at a record store in Montreal last week. That’s when I told someone, and they’re like, “Oh, you know you’re playing together in New Orleans?” I was like, “NO WAY!!!” I’m so excited, oh my god. So excited.
I was excited just to see you guys on the line-up because I never got to see you live before. So, it’s been good? The reunion tour, everything ’s going great?
We are having the best time of our lives. We’re all really happy and it’s really super fun. Kat’s in a great place, and we’re just happy and having a lot of fun. Yup, I mean, that’s all that matters. It really is, at the end of the day. Even the first rounds that we did, I said, “You know what? I love doing this, and it’s really fun, but when it’s not fun anymore, I’m out.” And so, maybe that’s what happened. Maybe that’s why we broke up the first time. But we’re having so much fun now, it’s incredible. And that’s all that matters, is that Kat and I are playing together, because in 2016, we’ll have started playing 30 years ago. As long as Kat and I are happy and drums and voice.
What’s your favorite drum sound on a recording ?
Just the other day, I was listening to [The Contours’] “Do You Love Me?” A lot of the drums sound really badass in that song. The snare was just the first thing that popped into my head, super old school. I just think that I like raw. Overproduction is, well… Like, last night, for the first time ever, I was driving home from a friend’s house, and they played Justin Bieber on this regular radio station that’s an independent radio station, and usually, they would never play anything commercial. It was honestly one of the worst things I’ve ever heard in my life. It was so horrible. I could not believe it. I said. “This is what’s making all this hoopla?” That sound and that overproduction and that thing on the voice, and just everything about it… There are a lot of bands that are so overproduced that it’s just horrid. I like punk, I like real, I like raw. Less is more.
Babes in Toyland will be performing on Saturday, October 31st at this year’s Voodoo Music + Arts Experience. For more info, check out babesintoyland.com