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On a drag queen night at a downtown Phoenix gay-boy watering hole not long ago, four biological females walked in the door, dressed in leather and fishnets with multicolored hair and studded belts. As they passed the makeshift stage inside Amsterdam, a tall African-American queen in a shrink-wrapped-on dress named Chantal stopped everything to squeal at the four girls, hugging each one. Then Chantal pulled them up in front of the crowd, announcing, "These are my girls, they're in a band called Hell on Heels, and they just got a record deal -- aren't they fabulous?"
The crowd went wild.
That chick may have been a dude, but even the drag queens have one thing straight -- the members of Hell on Heels are four bad-ass rocker chicks with an enviable record deal and enough fabulousness to make a six-foot-tall she-man salivate.
Hell on Heels is everywhere lately, from Fox News to Rain on Central to SMoCA Nights, and there's a damn good reason why. The members of this girl band are torchbearers for all the qualities that you love punk rock for -- attitude tempered with sweetness, smart songs about simple things, and a fashion sense the Yeah Yeah Yeahs would envy.
The girls -- guitarist and vocalist Paula Monarch, bassist and vocalist Chela Rose Fox, guitarist and vocalist Katie Rose, and drummer Kristin Machynski -- have only played their hooky power-punk together since fall of last year, but in its short existence Hell on Heels has already secured a three-record deal with legendary indie label Bomp!. The girls head to Seattle at the end of April to record their debut album with legendary rock producer Jack Endino (who recorded Nirvana and Mudhoney, among others), due out in July of this year.
A few weeks after the girls sashayed across Amsterdam's stage, Greg Shaw, the owner of Bomp! Records, was in town from L.A. to finalize a contract with Hell on Heels and watch the girls rock out at the Emerald Lounge and the Rogue on consecutive nights. Shaw started Bomp! in 1974, making it one of the oldest surviving independent record labels, and in the interim Bomp! has released or reissued records by Iggy Pop, Stiv Bators and Dead Boys, the Germs, and more recently the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Warlocks.
"I've been looking around for a few really special bands to get the new millennium going with, and they really fit the bill for what I was looking for," Shaw told me recently.
Record deals like the one Shaw struck with Hell on Heels don't happen by accident. It's a delicate alchemy of sweat, talent, persistence -- and making the right friends. Shaw met the girls through Phoenix punk legend Jeff Dahl, who had recorded both of the previous bands the girls were in -- Paula and Chela when they were in the Peeps, and Kristin and Katie when they played with the Tempe Tramps.
"I was prepared to be kind of skeptical," Shaw says, recalling the first time he went to see the girls play in Los Angeles. "Some girls, if they looked like that, would be really trying too hard, and it wouldn't be natural. I was afraid of that, that they would be biker chicks or something."
Shaw's fears dissipated once he met Monarch, et al. "They turned out to be such really nice, genuine people -- I won't work with anyone I can't be friends with, I can't do anything cynically," he says. "They were people I personally liked and got along with, and they were bright and very aware of what they were doing and how they're manipulating their images and the music itself was completely there."
Hell on Heels recently played an unlikely gig at one of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Arts' SMoCA Nights parties. The girls set up in a white boxy room decorated with melancholic watercolors by Philip C. Curtis, while the curious onlookers who wandered in tried to figure out what to make of these punk rock girls with guitars. As they plugged into their amps, Chela announced to the security guard that one of their favorite onstage gimmicks was smashing art with their instruments. These girls are so charming that even the guard laughed. It was a welcome dose of attitude compared to the staid DJs the museum often hosts.
After that, the girls were off on a tear, inspiring some observers, including a fiftyish-looking guy with a long gray ponytail, to start shaking their asses. The rest of the crowd gathered along the perimeter of the gallery bobbed their heads as they took in the Hell on Heels experience.
The girls' sound is an amalgamation of Joan Jett, '70s girl band the Runaways, and riot grrrl outfit Bratmobile. They play classic punk rock with heavy pop hooks, power pop injected with sass and attitude, songs about girl fights and brand-new boyfriends.
"We write songs about everything -- dying young, sex, makeup, boys, girls that mess with our boys, each other," Monarch says with a laugh.
If the description sounds perilously close to that of novelty revivalists the Donnas, apologies are in order. When asked to differentiate between Hell on Heels and the Donnas, Shaw first spits out, "Uh, [Hell on Hells are] pretty. The only reason the Donnas are successful I think is because there's a lot of geeky-looking guys who think they might stand a chance of going out with geeky-looking girls. But I never liked any of those bands. I didn't like Babes in Toyland, the Lunachicks, that whole wave of them -- they were getting by on being chicks, and not especially good-looking chicks. There's plenty of novelty acts like that around, that wouldn't interest me. I want the real thing -- I think these girls are the real thing."
There's no doubt that the girls are the real thing. You can see how comfortable they are in their roles onstage, joking with the audience and each other, grinning at each other while they play, all the time making it seem quite effortless. In fact, it's often apparent that they're having more fun onstage than the drunken audiences they're entertaining.
It's nearly impossible to get anywhere in the music business without a patron to guide you on your way, and that's exactly what Shaw intends to be for the Valley's toughest, sassiest girl band. "I feel the same way Phil Spector must have felt when he saw the Ronettes," he says. "I'm not Phil Spector, but I know there's something there that can be taken further than, for instance, what the Peeps were able to do. I think they've got it together this time."
Shaw's enthusiasm and faith in the girls is evident by the record contract he offered them -- three records over the course of three years, rare for a label like Bomp!. "I would like the chance to take a long-term approach and have separate increasingly audacious goals for each record," he says. "We'll do the indie thing, take it as far as it can go on the indie thing, and then I would like to pass them off to somebody in the industry. I could help to negotiate the deal for them to be sure they get a good deal and not be working with any rip-off weasels, and just kind of be their godfather. That's my long-range sort of hazy idea. Make them an underground sensation and then steer them further down the road."
Meanwhile, the girls of Hell on Heels aren't taking anything for granted. Sitting around a fire in the backyard of Paula Monarch's downtown Phoenix home, which doubles as the girls' practice space, they're giddy but humble about their recent accomplishments. "We have accomplished a lot [of our goals] because we got on Bomp!," Monarch tells me.
"I've never had more fun in my life, that's all I know," Katie Rose adds.
It's the girls' work ethic that's propelled them further than most local bands in such a brief period of time. They normally spend five nights a week writing songs and practicing, and they play at local bars several times a month. The four are obviously the best of friends, bound together not just by common musical ground but also by a pervasive and perverted sense of humor. It's not long into our backyard interview until the conversation devolves to talk of bowel movements and synchronized menstrual cycles.
The girls of Hell on Heels are unfortunately bound to meet haters who attribute their success to their gender, but anyone who thinks they're succeeding on good looks and girl-band novelty alone is dead wrong.
"There's people who say the only reason we get anything is 'cause we're girls," Monarch tells me. "Fine, then don't fucking listen to us. I'm doing this because I love playing guitar, I love singing, and I love hanging out with them. I'm having fun."