Cat-Scratch Fever

7 Year Bitch sharpens its nails on Gato Negro

Well, stick a monkey in front of a typewriter and sooner or later he'll write a haiku.

Four years into a career ignited as a lark, and fueled on hype and connections, 7 Year Bitch has finally come up with a few decent garage-punk songs. And, Christ, how hard can that be?

If the Bitches (as they're known to friends) were a high school band from somewhere very American, like, say, a suburb of Des Moines, they'd be the chick band that all the jocks were scared of, and that every other guy in school secretly lusted after. All that painted, sweaty hair, exotic makeup, thrift-store chic, electric noise and pheromone-soaked aggression.

But 7 Year Bitch isn't from Iowa. 7 Year Bitch is from Seattle, Washington, where the playing field is big-league and littered with the wreckage of bands that were miles better than this one ever was--bands that busted their asses but didn't come up with the right gimmick or know the right people.

7 Year Bitch did both. Three of the band's founding members--drummer Valerie Agnew, vocalist Selene Vigil and bass player Elizabeth Davis--met as employees in the same health-food store at Seattle's Pike Place market in 1990. The Rainy City music scene was one big, fat buzz at that time and the three decided to--what the hell--start a band and get in on the fun. "No, we didn't know how to play our instruments," Davis said in a recent interview, her incredulous tone implying "stupid question."

"When we started off, we didn't really know anything about writing or playing music, so there was nowhere to go but up."

And up it went; the band that climbed the ropes without learning them first. Filling out its lineup with local guitarist-in-training Stefanie Sargent, 7YB started playing sporadic dates around Seattle in 1991--mostly opening slots and parties for free beer. The band sucked, of course. But the members also knew Eddie Vedder's wife, Beth, who, in early 1992, secured the group a spot opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers on a national string of rain-check dates (Pearl Jam had opened for the Red Hots on the original tour, but had to be in Europe for the makeup shows).

"[The Peppers] said they wanted to help out an up-and-coming band from the same city, and Beth set us up," Davis says. The tour was pretty much a disaster. "We were petrified, and we sort of knew we didn't belong there," Davis says. "We didn't play especially well."

No matter. A Seattle indie label, C/Z Records, inked a deal with the band anyway, a few months after it came off the Chili Peppers tour. Shortly before 7YB's debut album, Sick 'Em, came out in early 1993, Sargent died of a heroin overdose. Coming on the heels of her band's unlikely performances with the Red Hots, the guitarist's death made national news in the rock press.

The band decided, after a few months of mourning, to press on, and Fastbacks bassist Kim Warnick invited a friend from Los Angeles to drive up to Seattle to meet the surviving Bitches. Roisin Dunne had little talent or experience as a musician and possessed only a passing familiarity with 7 Year Bitch's material. Two weeks later, she was in the band. 7YB's second album, Viva Zapata, came out in the spring of 1994, immediately after an embarrassingly bad European tour.

Like Sick 'Em, Viva Zapata was a collection of crude, brown-wrapper aggro rock that hopscotched between punk and metal. Normally, either album would have died a quick death on college radio. But, sick as it is, tragedy and hype sell records--even bad ones.

There is no question that the members of 7 Year Bitch were legitimate close friends of Gits singer Mia Zapata before she was raped and killed in July of 1993. But there is also no question that putting Zapata's name in the title of their second album and a portrait of her as a Mexican bandito on the cover was a smart business move.

Zapata's brutal murder quickly became a cause celebre for Seattle musicians and artists (see related story on page 96), and turned media attention to the Northwest's "riot grrrl" scene--feminist punk bands like L7, Bikini Kill, and Babes in Toyland, that put their politics high in the mix.

Though Davis says 7YB never identified itself with that movement, when Viva Zapata came out, the rock press tagged the band a riot grrrl act anyway, primarily because of the track "Dead Men Don't Rape," a song more notable for its title than its substance.

"We never were a feminist band," Davis says. "To me, extreme anger and wanting to kill a rapist is a completely normal female response, not a political one."

Shortly after Viva Zapata came out, 7YB signed a contract with Atlantic Records. The band's first major-label LP, Gato Negro, was released in February. Surprisingly, it's not half-bad. Starting with the slinky, drag-race guitar riff on the album's opener, "The History of My Future," Gato Negro holds a few tasty surprises for anyone who's followed the band's dubious rise up to now. Most of the album is merely serviceable, but at least it won't make you cringe. And several cuts are actually pretty damn good, including the lurching bruiser "Whoopie Cat" and "Crying Shame," a languid broken-heart lament with a mean hook that comes out of nowhere.

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