Their band is only a year old, and two of them are only 15 years older than that, but already the members of Bruise Violet feel like they have some things to clear up.
Like, for instance, how often their trio is compared to the famed riot-grrrl bands of the 1990s. Even local rock heroes Babes in Toyland — whose song “Bruise Violet” gave these Minneapolis teens their band name — avoided that label.
“Every female band that plays some kind of rock with any kind of angry message in it is automatically called riot-grrrl,” drummer/co-vocalist Danielle Cusack lamented.
Or the popular theory that those irate songs — sample lyric: “You’re just a liar / I wanna throw you down and spit on your grave” — are about boys.
“Most of us haven’t even experienced a real breakup yet,” guitarist/co-vocalist Emily Schoonover pointed out.
Or the notion that the three of them are walking around mad at the world all the time just because their songs are fueled by anger.
“People think we’re trying to be these super bad-ass, feminist, in-your-face, intimidating girls,” Cusack said, “but when we get offstage — or even on stage — we’re laughing like Beavis & Butt-head and making poop jokes.”
There were certainly a lot of Butt-head-ian moments last Saturday morning when the bandmates got together to rehearse at Schoonover’s house in the Longfellow neighborhood, where Mom and Dad seemed well versed on staying out of the way. The family’s wiry whippet Eugene, however, came off a bit like a pestering groupie who craves the girls’ attention (and usually gets it).
Rounded out by Bella Dawson on bass, the trio held its usual weekly practice ahead of an unusually busy stretch. Bruise Violet will perform twice at First Avenue over the next two weekends, starting with a slot at the club’s annual Best New Bands showcase Friday. Then they return the following Saturday, Jan. 23, as part of 89.3 the Current’s 11th-anniversary parties with Tommy Stinson, Gramma’s Boyfriend and the Cactus Blossoms.
These First Ave gigs are the steamrolling effects of Bruise Violet’s remarkable first year in action. Last year saw the trio come in at No. 2 on City Pages’ Picked to Click new-bands poll. Then the band cracked the top 10 of our Twin Cities Critics Tally with its debut EP, “Survival of the Prettiest.”
“We’re trying to act chill about everything, but we’re actually crazy excited,” Cusack said.
Rock hard, study hard
Of course, Bruise Violet’s members inherently have to play it cool when it comes to their budding music career because they also have to pay attention to school.
Cusack, 19, is in her first year at Hamline University, a college she chose primarily for its proximity to her bands, which also now includes Cherry Cola. Schoonover and Dawson are both 16 and attend St. Paul Academy and Minneapolis Washburn, respectively. Each of the high school juniors is also busy with after-school activities such as several different play productions and choir.
“I’m usually working on vocals in one way or another about four hours per day,” Schoonover said matter-of-factly.
It’s amazing how choir and theater training can make for good punk-rock. While Schoonover and Cusack trade off on lead vocals — doubling their endurance to scream their way through a show — all three members often meld their voices together in a powerful way for the songs’ choruses or hooks.
“We have this natural high, medium, low thing that worked well from the start,” Dawson noted.
The bandmates met about three years ago at the St. Paul location of School of Rock, a chain of performance-oriented music-ed facilities that has birthed many other budding rockers of late. Unlike many former students, Bruise Violet’s members aren’t too cool to admit that in their lineage. “My drum teacher there never once brought up gender,” Cusack proudly recalled.
Dawson and Schoonover got off to a rocky start at the school when the latter accidentally took the former’s bass home thinking it was hers. “I wanted to kill her,” Dawson said, “but then I thought she was pretty cool.”
It was the little everyday boiling points like the bass incident that would spark inspiration once the Bruise Violet members started practicing together. The first song on their debut EP, “Sketchy Jeff” — the one with the “spit on your grave” lyric — also happened to be the very first tune they wrote together. Cusack remembered it like this: “We got in the room together and said, ‘All right, think of someone who really pissed you off. OK, play E, G, ready, go!”
The formula stuck. Most of the five songs on the trio’s EP and many other tunes in their live set boast at least one F-bomb and some kind of threat of bodily harm. Oftentimes that anger is just tangential to their personal lives, though. For instance, another of the EP’s standout tracks, “Maybe You’re the Problem,” is based on the reaction the bandmates had while listening to a particularly mopey dude sing about his girlfriend.
“He was singing all these songs like, ‘I hate you, but I still love you,’ ” Cusack recounted. “I turned to the girls and said, ‘Well, maybe he’s the problem.’ ”
‘How we have fun’
The way the members all light up telling the stories behind the songs reiterates their repeated claims that they’re in Bruise Violet to have a good time, not to spout off at the world. Turns out those two goals can be one and the same.
“Anger is just a fun ingredient when you’re in a band,” Schoonover said. “You can write a happy punk song, but they’re not usually as good.”
Bringing up the riot-grrrl comparisons, Cusack added, “We tried to write angry political songs at first, but it felt forced. So we just stuck with the more honest things we were feeling, things we wanted to get off our chest. That’s how we have fun.”
Seeing them hang out together, it’s clear that Bruise Violet’s members have as much personal chemistry as musical. They excitedly recounted driving together to the recent Girl Germs tribute concert at the Turf Club, where they donned wild costumes and cans of Silly String to pay tribute to New York trash-punk vets the Lunachicks.
“Can you imagine driving past a car of girls in wild, horrible makeup, one of them with ‘Fart’ written across her forehead, all singing along to the Screaming Females?” Schoonover recounted to a gaggle of laughter.
While they may act their age a lot off stage, Girl Germs co-organizer and music blogger Dana Raidt said she was impressed by how many songs and how much effort they put into that Lunachicks set "IT was truly their own interpretation," she said -- and by their professionalism and originality beyond that show.
"A lot of people are going to latch onto the fact that they're young and female," Raidt said. "That's all part of their identity, [but] I don't think they rely on it. I'd hope that they wouldn't come across as a novelty act, and I think anyone who felt they were would change their mind once they saw them play."
The band members also colorfully recounted their other big tribute gig of late, the opening slot at First Avenue’s annual Replacements tribute in November.
Playing to a crowd more their parents’ age, they also earned serious respect there with such appropriate vim-and-vigor classics as “Kids Don’t Follow” and “[Expletive] School.” After that nerve-racking affair, Cusack said, “we said we didn’t want anything to do with the Replacements ever again.”
“And now we’re playing the Current party with [Replacements bassist] Tommy Stinson,” Schoonover cracked.
Not sure who laughed harder at that one, the bandmates or the guy their parents’ age who was interviewing them.