Brat on the Beat
Everyone might be entitled to 15 minutes of fame, but most people don't have any say about when that window opens. If, as in the case of Bratmobile, fate calls on three college students, two of whom are based on the West Coast while the other is attending classes in Maryland, it's impossible to capitalize on this fleeting notoriety. Because of band members' schedules and geographic separation, lengthy tours were implausible and recording time was rare.
In 1994, soon after national media outlets had taken notice of the riot grrrl revolution Bratmobile helped to incite, the group split onstage during a show in New York. The often-name-dropped but seldom-seen group left behind only two raw recorded documents of its power (Pottymouth and The Real Janelle) and two highly influential zines (singer Allison Wolfe and drummer Molly Neuman's Girl Germs and guitarist Erin Smith's Teenage Gang Debs). When the Experience Music Project -- Microsoft guru Paul Allen's glitzy new Seattle museum, which one-ups Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- debuted its riot grrrl retrospective, it looked as if the contents of Bratmobile's star-crossed career would be confined to a glass case, to be admired but never experienced.
Unlike many other bands overwhelmed by too much too soon, however, Bratmobile has the opportunity to add chapters to its story. Now signed to the Berkeley, California-based label Lookout Records -- where Smith handles college-radio promotion and Neuman works as general manager -- Bratmobile has released an explosive new 14-song salvo, Ladies, Women and Girls. Although singer Wolfe now lives in Washington, D.C., where she works for the Washington Post, having "real world" jobs has given the group the scheduling flexibility it lacked when its members were all in school. The band is now freed up for its first cross-country tour in eight years.
"A lot of times people say, 'If I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently,'" Smith says. "Now we have a chance to do it again. It's not like when you're 18 and everything's so dramatic and intense and crazy. Now we get to step back and be mellowed out and do things as adults. But not too mellowed out."
If anything, Bratmobile's edge is sharper than ever. On Ladies, Women and Girls, Wolfe repeatedly spits variations on the word "hate," whether she's declaring, "I don't like your boyfriend and I can't stand you"; skewering the target of "You're Fired" for being scared of "girls taking things/In their own hands and making things"; or lambasting a PC trust-fund boy for speaking on behalf of women, telling him, "You can't feel how we suffer or we bleed/Can't give us what we want, much less what we need." Wolfe's tone has always been defiant, but many of her previous rants were cartoonishly profane and sported titles that winked at the listener -- when she threw a fit on "Brat Girl" or peppered Pottymouth with the f-word, it all seemed to be part of the show. By contrast, when she snarls, "Who's gonna kick your ass?/I think it's a girl" on "Not in Dog Years," her fury seems focused and genuine.
Likewise, the music simmering below Wolfe's diatribes has evolved. Smith's guitar work, while retaining its minimalist charm, features a dark side that smartly matches the lyrical content. Her foreboding surf guitar brings to mind the Dead Kennedys, her sludgy solos conjure horrific images of the Misfits, and she experiments with chords for the first time, giving some tunes a pounding, choppy feel. Neuman leads the group's powerful transitions with her thundering, complex drum rolls, and Jon Nikki of the group Gene Defcon stopped by the studio to supply Bratmobile with its first bass lines to appear on a full-length release.
While the record exudes a new level of confidence, the group's live show has been a symphony in swagger since its first concerts in the early '90s. That's mostly due to the charismatic Wolfe, whose cheerleader choreography and interactive stage banter keep her audiences alert and enthralled ("What's the gossip?" she asks them at each tour stop). Smith assures everyone that Wolfe hasn't calmed down. "Allison's never going to change," she says, "and the kids love it."
That's not to say that Bratmobile's sets are identical to the ones the group played in riot grrrl's prime. As the new album indicates, all three members have enhanced their arsenal, and their renditions of relatively simple tunes, such as "Cool Schmool," indicate their improved mastery of their instruments. "We do these totally big rock endings, and we're all on time with each other," Smith says. "We know what to do now, by virtue of playing for a longer period of time, and it's smoother."
Smith learned her craft by playing along with her favorite records in her bedroom, but she didn't spend much of her hiatus writing songs alone. She teamed with Wolfe for the side project Cold Cold Hearts, a band that released one full-length album and embarked on two U.S. tours before calling it quits. She didn't start writing songs again until Bratmobile re-formed. "Because we're on two coasts, I have to write all the music when we're not together," she says. "When we are together, it's so intense -- we practice every single day for two months straight -- that when we're not together, I just don't do it so much. It's okay, because it's the style of music we play. It's punk rock, right?"
Working alone, Smith concocted a unique style that focuses on single notes instead of relying on chords. Her guitar lines are sparse without being thin, with each isolated sound leading listeners through the melodies like a musical version of connect-the-dots. Smith's guitar heroes include Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson, whose spare licks convinced her to pick up the instrument again after she felt overwhelmed by the lush guitar attack of Duran Duran's Andy Taylor.
Bratmobile's reunion means that a new generation of fans, many of them young women, is attempting to figure out Smith's intricate guitar lines, singing along loudly with Wolfe's cathartic words and dancing in worry-free, all-female mosh pits. It's not a new phenomenon, but it's one that Bratmobile largely missed out on during its first incarnation. This summer's Ladyfest, held in Olympia, Washington, gave the group its first glimpse of what constitutes the riot grrrl movement in 2000. The event was Wolfe's brain child, born out of nostalgia after the opening of the riot grrrl retrospective, although scores of volunteers did the actual planning and carried out the event. Smith reports lesbian pop-punk band the Butchies and female art-rock trio Sleater-Kinney played to a Backstreet Boys-style response, complete with screaming and crying. Bratmobile's set inspired similar hysteria, which -- considering that Smith got chills when her band merely was recognized in Washington, D.C., soon after its reunion -- was rather overwhelming.
"It was really moving," she says. "This might sound cheesy, but it was a really electrifying week. When we were doing the interviews for the riot grrrl retrospective, it was so inspiring just to be talking about those things again and thinking about how it used to be, and Allison wondered, 'Why can't we do this today?' There was all this 'riot grrrl is dead' talk, but Ladyfest really proved that it's still alive and there's still interest in it. I can be really cheesy about it sometimes, but I'm really glad we're back together. There's no one I'd rather be in a band with."
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