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W.O.M.B. With a View

W.O.M.B.: An unbridled all-girl trio made up of musicians who are also visual artists.
Dan Huff

When Stanley Kowalski mumbled, "What are you, a bunch of queens or something?" in A Streetcar Named Desire, he wasn't fixing to pay his wife and nutty sister-in-law any compliments. But if he or you or anyone else were to burst in on the very sane women of W.O.M.B. with that highfalutin' assessment, they'd have to agree with you. And they'd be right.

Because in the last five years, sisters Marta and Cristiana Wiley and longtime friend Debbie Lorray have created an artistic musical kingdom over which they alone have dominion. Where else can you see three intelligent, beautiful women with exquisite harmonies who are also accomplished fine artists and who bring their sound paintings to the stage with video representations? And even if you could, what are the chances they'd be singing about Halloween, Zeus, the forces of nature, blood money, food getting cold, witch covens and the politics of freaking people out?

Attempts to pigeonhole these self-anointed "Warriors of Make Believe" in our cookie-cutter Phoenix music scene just haven't worked. The obvious all-female band umbrella doesn't fit -- our few remaining girl groups consist of gum-chewing punkettes whose vocal range extends only as far as their lips and the ashtray. And if our folk scene is really only happy hour Eddie Vedders who sing about the weather and girls who don't understand their Staind sensitivity, our rock scene, in the main, consists of those same happy hour galoots back an hour later with electric guitars and the same set list.

While you folks playing along at home fish around for some pencil and paper to come up with your own new W.O.M.B. categories, here's Marta Wiley with some past winners.

"People who write articles about us say 'Post-punk folk genre,' 'multimedia neo-hippie girl group,'" she laughs. "We had to come up with a new sound for ourselves. I decided I'm just going to make music and let other people talk about it. That's what you do as an artist. You paint the painting and let history decide where it's going to hang."

Cristiana chimes in emphatically, "Our genre is kinetic music. We've decided on that." Debbie agrees before all three burst into giggles. Talking to W.O.M.B. is a lot like listening to their vocal stylings: one voice overlaps another, and another whispers or moans what the other person has just said.

"It is really kinetic," Marta continues, "this motion that rips apart old paradigms. Not in a violent way. But when we play live, it does make your paradigms pop. We've had people come up to us at shows and tell us they've had a religious experience. We don't really even know what it is we're doing, but for some reason, if there's a tragedy happening, we'll go there. We're like light workers or something. I know some people don't believe in that sort of thing." She pauses before talk turns to the most recent of tragedies and the fact that W.O.M.B. found itself in New York for the CMJ Convention.

The music industry was in questionable shape even before September 11 -- what with the Internet and all. Consider what it must be like now, with unsolicited tapes being irradiated and checked for white powder. There were plenty of no-shows at this year's seminars, like Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, who canceled appearances in the wake of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.

In a rare moment of free time, W.O.M.B. and the band's road aide de camp Vincent Capece managed a pilgrimage to Ground Zero, but whether the video footage they shot there will work its way into a future audio/visual presentation or painting is uncertain. Like all artists, the women of W.O.M.B. feel the need for their art to be up-to-the-minute, and in light of recent developments, Cristiana moans, "I almost feel like the new CD is outdated because everything seems so different now."

Bismillah! No! Who says you've gotta be Nostradamus to make records anyhow? Look at Dream Theater, a band whose blockheaded misfortune it was to release a live CD with a picture of New York being blown to bits mere days before September 11 and who spent the better part of that terrible week apologizing and denying any Muslim ancestry. If people need anything right now, it's music from a more idyllic time, even if it's kinetic music made and mixed a little over a month ago. If the dullard anti-bin Laden songs we've already heard are any harbinger, let's bring back the Charleston, too.

Second thought, grab hold of a copy of Kinetic Music for the People and you hear pop music reminiscent of another idyllic time, the mid-'80s and early '90s. It didn't seem so idyllic at the time, watching the all-powerful music video dictate who'd be stars and who wouldn't. Yet it was probably the last time Top 40 celebrated the eccentricity of the individual. Sure, there was lots of posturing, and directors imposing their skewered world visions on a clueless recording artist, but anyone with half a brain could separate the Belindas from the Sineads, the Pixies from the Dishwallas.

 

Some might hear the aural polish of the new CD and cite the stepped-up influence of W.O.M.B. producer Gardner Cole, who penned "Open Your Heart," a Number 1 hit for Madonna in 1986. Far from being some kind of studio Svengali, Cole acts as a collaborator, facilitator and editor.

"I basically get some sounds up and let them have at it because they're wild and like to have fun," he says. "Then I come back and edit everything, make sense of it later. And I get to have some time alone with the stuff and add keyboards. It's more of a situation where they need someone like me to go in there and help them choose what material is the best, what flows together and creates an interesting project, because they have an abundance of ideas. It's not a traditional approach, the way we produce. It's pretty loose and fun, we try not get too serious."

This loose approach would seem the easiest for Cole and Cristiana, who live together and have a 32-track digital studio to work with around the clock.

"It's always more of a challenge when you're in the studio with someone you have a personal relationship with," says Cole. "It's not harder to be objective, but it's harder to get your objectivity across without hurting people's feelings. I have to be a bit gentler than I would be with a bunch of 20-year-old guys that I can say, 'Dude, that sucked.' With your girlfriend, you have to have a bit more tact and say maybe we can try something different. Because the studio's in the house, I can work on it and say, 'What do you think of this?' There's positive elements as well."

Cole originally came to the band through Marta, who met him through a business associate and played him some songs she intended for a solo project. "She told me her dream was to do a band thing with her sister and Debbie and I encouraged her to do that. We lost touch for a while then Marta came back a few months later. They made some lineup changes, there was another girl that co-led the band with her. I thought becoming a three-member group was a good idea and encouraged them to go for it."

Little is known about the mysterious fourth W.O.M.B., effectively removed from the band's history like so much unwanted placenta. But it's hard to know where a fourth member would even fit into such a symbiotic relationship as W.O.M.B.

Most bands get together around the ages of 17 or 18 and it takes years of living in each other's pockets and being trapped in the enforced closed quarters of a van to figure out who the pathological liar and who the petty idiot's gonna be. W.O.M.B. got all that out of their system years ago, when the Wiley sisters shared a room together and ran tape down the middle so the other couldn't cross over. Their long-standing friendship with Debbie is nearly as extensive -- she and Cristiana bonded at age 3, at a Miami garage sale.

"I started playing with Cristiana's old toys [that] they were selling and she was getting very upset," says Debbie, smiling.

"Which is why we're so close now, and can deal with all the intricacies of ego," says Marta. "Because I've seen you with your diapers around your ankles."

Marta credits her mom for the sisters' gift of self-expression. "She was a good woman but she was also a wild woman who kind of put a streak of cultural wildness in us."

"She would let us do whatever we wanted," blurts out Cristiana. "We ran around the block naked until we were 12. We'd jump into people's backyards." More acceptable forms of childhood expression included making up dances and selling tickets to their friends for their backyard productions.

"West Side Story was our favorite musical. We were dancers," says Debbie. "We haven't incorporated dance into W.O.M.B. yet, but Flashdance, that was another big inspiration. We used to wear leg warmers and slide across the tiled floor."

One of the earliest extravaganzas was a show they staged for their parents and all their friends. Cristiana recalls: "We'd put cigarettes on top of the fan. Then we'd turn on the fan, do a stupid choreography and sing 'Cigarettes, we don't need them anymore.' It was cheesy stuff."

 

The Wileys moved from Miami to Tucson when the girls were middle-school age. Each pursued fine arts to one degree or the other. Marta won a full scholarship to the Otis Parsons School of Design. Cristiana won a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute, but went to the U of A in Tucson instead and became a drummer in a punk band called SOS. Marta took up classical guitar for five years, winning a host of talent contests and developing a battering style of guitar playing.

"I started to drum on my guitar. And I know that there are people around that do that, but it's a very kinetic, mariachi sound. Cristiana and I were born in Mexico City, and that was something I heard when I was a little girl. That's how W.O.M.B.'s music started -- crunchy weird, simplistic, but the vocals are melodic."

Meanwhile, Debbie pursued dance, drama and athletics over what few art programs were available in Florida. Her dissatisfaction with college led her to Tucson on New York's Eve 1997 to join W.O.M.B. She played her first gig with the girls at a coffee house two days later. "I didn't know half the songs and would just belt out choruses."

"We just gave her a bass and said we wanted to start something," recalls Cristiana.

"We're like the female Police," says Debbie, citing the W.O.M.B. power-trio lineup which de-emphasizes lead guitar in favor of melodic harmonies. "There's hard rock but there's a humanistic side, political and social side, as opposed to Britney."

"We met Britney and she was cool," interjects Marta, who seems in a professional interview mode. The more Merlot she drinks, the more mindful she is of what she says. Nope, she won't dish the dirt with the rest of the girls. Maybe because W.O.M.B. can see a little of themselves in the teen queen, not so many years their junior.

Prior to Debbie's Tucson sojourn, the sisters took a backpacking trip through Europe. According to Marta, they wrote many of the early W.O.M.B. songs on a microcassette recorder. "We've got all these recordings of us walking through Prague, waking up on trains in the middle of the night singing "there is no science/I have decided." We're going to include those songs on our next CD, which is going to be recorded on toy instruments. We want to do a children's record next."

If the Warriors carry through with their plan, it will be the first children's release with a Parental Advisory sticker. The previous two self-pressed CDs contain lots of frank talk about sex that might scare little Jimmy and Jane off. But that's just semantics -- the word "head" isn't dirty unless you're giving it to someone. W.O.M.B. also sings orgasmically timed "uh uh uh uhs" like Donna Summers on a pogo stick for what many agree is the money song on the new Kinetic Music CD, the controversial "Sex Will Sell."

Of course, sex sells -- you don't see our sexy triumvirate dressing up in bulky sea diver costumes for shows or for their self-published coffee-table book or their music and art Web site, www.warriorsofmakebelieve.com. But you need only to think back to '80s lady Pat Benatar, who issued a song titled "Sex As a Weapon" with a sexploitative video and a mixed message of "STOP using sex as a weapon," something she'd been doing since her spandexed ass first landed on MTV. Listeners felt sucker-punched, as if Nicole Sheridan stopped gyrating in the middle of a porn video to chastise you for exploiting women. Benatar never had another hit, sexy or otherwise.

"Sex Will Sell" has already given W.O.M.B. some ideological problems. Recently, they played at a body glow show at the old Grand Slam in Miami and Marta admits, "We did play 'Sex Will Sell' and they were using that song to literally sell their product. So there was a clash of interests there."

Less controversial and even more catchy is "Blood $," which clearly states the consistency of thick blood over flimsy paper currency. Even if its anti-establishment rant is a wee-bit vague ("I never sold my friends out and I never will/I know the system will make you doubt what you're afraid to feel") the catchy "bloody bloody bloody bloody" climax of the song will stick to your brain like audio super-adhesive, like nothing you've heard on radio since, well, the last time you thought radio played anything good.

"There are a few songs that definitely have a chance. 'Sex Will Sell' has a radio vibe," remarks producer Cole. "When I first hooked up with W.O.M.B., they were pretty green, but I knew there was the potential because they have a huge body of work. They write tons of tunes. If a band's got a big well to draw from, chances are they're gonna have a hit there somewhere."

 

To celebrate the release of its new CD, W.O.M.B. is hosting a combination performance and visual art installation at Alwun House in Phoenix on Saturday, November 3, the first time the group has combined its paintings and stage show at one installation on such a grand scale.

"Because all three of us are painters, and we essentially paint with sound in the studio, it's hard to know when something's finished," says Cristiana. "One of the great things about having a producer is that he can come to a song with fresh ears and say, 'Why did you re-record this? Wow, this is great. No more. Stop!'"


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