North Hollywood, Calif.
She springs onto the tips of her toes. The veins in her forehead begin to pop. Her eyes look like they’re going to jump out of their sockets.
And then Kat Bjelland uncorks that blood-curdling scream.
She seems possessed, scary and dangerous. And this is only rehearsal.
Bjelland and the rest of Babes in Toyland — Minneapolis’ influential post-punk band of the 1990s — were preparing last weekend for their first proper gig in 18 years, set for Thursday night at the legendary Roxy nightclub on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. All 750 tickets sold out in one minute.
After Bjelland blasts through “Bruise Violet,” the door to the small rehearsal studio bursts open.
“You sound awesome,” says a young woman without introducing herself. “I bleeping love your group. I don’t have a ticket for the Roxy. I’m going to beg the guy at the door.”
Babes drummer Lori Barbero asks the woman her name. It’s Nicki Tedesco. She sings and plays bass in an all-female “power punk” trio called Frantic Ginger that’s reminiscent of a certain Twin Cities threesome.
“I’m nervous. Not nervous. I’m excited,” Barbero admits a couple days later. She just got back from dinner with one of the guys from the Melvins and is starting to focus on a warmup gig they’ve scheduled Tuesday night away from L.A.
Pappy & Harriet’s is in the middle of nowhere. To be exact, it’s near Joshua Tree, Calif., about 45 minutes from Palm Springs. The stage is only four inches off the ground. The place holds 244 people and the sightlines are impossible. Think of Minneapolis’ 7th Street Entry set in an Old West log cabin.
The place is packed with people too young to have seen Babes the first time around, when they made a mark from 1987 to 2001 with nonstop touring (including Lollapalooza in 1993 with Rage Against the Machine, Arrested Development, Tool and Alice in Chains) and two albums on Warner Bros.
The set is fast and furious — 13 songs in 50 minutes. Bjelland is fierce on vocals and guitar. At 51, she has no trouble bringing the angst and anger. But there are all kinds of technical issues — a fuse in an amp is blown, the foot pedal on the kick drum (borrowed from the opening act) doesn’t work and bassist Maureen Herman can’t hear her instrument in the monitor.
“It was fun. I was glad for the technical problems,” Herman said afterward. “You get through them. I know now that we can play the songs.”
Barbero said she was so happy that she cried onstage.
Afterward, Bjelland seemed overwhelmed. She spent a full hour sitting outside the venue, signing autographs and posing for photos with fans. She’d never done that before. “Since I’m older, I need to spend more time with the people,” she said.
The fans — who came from as far away as Belgium, Australia and Minneapolis — showered the Babes with love.
“You helped me a lot when I was having such a hard time with a bad relationship,” Sarah Thompson, 35, of Minneapolis, told Bjelland.
“I’m glad because I had a lot of hard times myself,” said Bjelland.
Stijn Snoeck, 24, of Belgium, called it the best concert he’d seen in his life. “I like the raw sound and how she screams,” he said. “The drums are very natural.”
One man brought covers of nine vinyl LPs to be autographed. Bjelland said she didn’t even own copies of some of those discs.
Shane Wallin, 40, of San Diego, recalled seeing Babes at Loring Park and at Coffman Union when he lived in Minneapolis. “They’re just as good now as they were in the ’80s and ’90s,” said Wallin, who brought his daughters, ages 9 and 13, to the show.
Wannabes heaped praise, too. “Our generation needs you,” Beah Romero, 23, who has a band called Flames of Durga, told Bjelland.
Jackie Hernandez, 32, of Los Angeles, was overjoyed at finally getting to see the band.
“I never thought I’d get to see them,” she said. “This was like a gift to my 18-year-old self.”
A few things conspired to make this reunion happen:
• Barbero and Bjelland patched up a rift in their friendship.
• Bjelland went to the Herman family’s Wisconsin lake home and tested out her scream on a secluded dock.
• Herman learned how to play bass again.
• Three fans who had worked at Google had a desire and the funds to sponsor the reunion.
Barbero and Bjelland hadn’t talked for 12 years. The drummer was upset that the singer/guitarist did a Babes in Toyland tour of Europe in 2002 without her. But Barbero reached out to her bandmate of 15 years when Tim Carr, the Twin Cities-bred impresario who signed Babes to Warner Bros., died unexpectedly two years ago.
“I remember saying that Babes will never play again,” Barbero admitted. “Time and love heals. I’m such a happier person because of this.”
Herman invited Bjelland to the lake home in the summer of 2013 and within 10 seconds after they got in the car, they discussed a Babes reunion. Herman needed bass lessons, though. She turned to an old high school friend, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who recommended his sometimes bandmate Carl Restivo.
Of course, a reunion was complicated by the fact that all three Babes lived in different cities — Herman in Los Angeles, Bjelland in Minneapolis and Barbero in Austin, Texas. (She moved back to Minneapolis in November.)
Enter Chris Skarakis, employee No. 14 at Google. A friend of Herman’s brother, he hired her for his now-defunct Fuzz digital music company in the mid-’00s. For 10 years, he’d bugged her about reuniting Babes and offered to help. He and two ex-Google pals formed Powersniff LLC in Palo Alto, Calif., to finance the reunion.
Calling themselves more of a management team than a record label, Powersniff has made a “sizable, six-figure” investment, Skarakis explained. That includes paying for rehearsals since April 2014 in Los Angeles, where Herman is a single mother to an 11-year-old girl. Bjelland also has a child — a 15-year-old son being raised by her ex-boyfriend, who is not the boy’s biological father.
An album is possible but the band hasn’t started writing new material. A tour is definite, with a Twin Cities date guaranteed.
Even though Babes in Toyland has been cited as an influence on such all-female bands as Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney, the three musicians struggled after leaving the group. Herman and Bjelland have each dealt with addiction, homelessness and mental health issues.
Herman became pregnant from a sexual assault and gave birth to her daughter. For a time, she worked as a journalist, doing stints at Musician and Rolling Stone. In 2009, she moved to Los Angeles to become executive director of Project Noise, which produces videos for nonprofit organizations.
Now 47, she is writing “It’s a Memoir, [expletive]” for a Macmillan imprint, due in July 2016. Said Herman: “My life is complicated and complex and tragic/comedic. I’ve been lucky and unlucky. It’s like I’m the Forrest Gump of social ills.”
Barbero, 53, spent seven years in Austin, Texas, working for the South by Southwest festival. In 2013, she was injured at a home-improvement store when a heavy box fell from a ladder onto her back. She had to reteach herself how to play drums — and limit the trademark shaking of her long hair.
All three musicians have welcomed this reunion — and their rekindled friendships.
“It’s helped my confidence,” Bjelland said during a band lunch after rehearsal.
“I feel invigorated,” Barbero chimed in. “When I’m done playing, I feel like I’ve had a massage, a nap, acupuncture and therapy.”