Clara Salyer remembers hearing Babes in Toyland’s thundering sound for the first time when she was 13 or 14 and thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know women could do that.”
A decade later, she found out after only eight days of rehearsals — and with one of 2015’s most anticipated indie-rock reunion tours hanging in the balance — that she, too, could do “that.”
“Playing along to the records is one thing,” said Salyer, “but you never really know until you’re actually doing a live show.”
Salyer, 23, is young enough to be a daughter of Babes in Toyland’s two co-founders, singer/guitarist Kat Bjelland and drummer Lori Barbero, but now she’s their new bandmate.
The south Minneapolis native joined the veteran Minneapolis punk band in August after Bjelland and Barbero kicked out their heyday-era bass player, Maureen Herman, due to personal disputes that arose seven months into the band’s first tour in 18 years. Salyer has since played 28 gigs with the trio and will make her hometown debut as a Babe at First Avenue on Saturday.
“I was excited just to see them play for the first time,” Salyer said, referring to the trio’s prior local gig at last summer’s Rock the Garden concert outside Walker Art Center. “To be with them a half a year later for this First Ave show is just kind of mind-blowing.”
Salyer is hardly a newbie to First Ave, though. Twin Cities music lovers have known her since she was 17 and landed a minor 89.3 the Current hit, “Bearbones,” with her indie-pop band Total Babe (talk about a prophetic band name). Salyer was so sure she wanted to pursue a music career at the time that she quit high school and earned a GED diploma after her sophomore year.
Things didn’t go so well, though, despite a steady buzz. Total Babe was nipped in the bud when guitarist Jordan Gatesmith famously signed to Rough Trade Records with his own group, Howler. Salyer then started the louder, stormier quartet Prissy Clerks with ex-Red Pens guitar blaster Howard Hamilton. But Prissy Clerks, too, came to an abrupt end when guitarist Dylan Ritchie quit in 2014, two years after the band won Vita.mn’s Are You Local? contest.
“I was starting to think I just wasn’t really meant to play music,” Salyer recounted.
Barbero came to her first, asking out of the blue last summer if Salyer “could even do it.” The drummer did not have to go far to ask: Salyer and Hamilton are her tenants, living in the bottom half of the Minneapolis house that Barbero rented out when she relocated to Austin, Texas, for about five years up until 2014.
“Kat only met Clara once, and that was just by chance,” Barbero said, recounting a Triple Rock show they all attended back in April with future Babes tour mates Kitten Forever and the teen-punk band named after a Babes song, Bruise Violet.
“I introduced her to Kat and said, ‘Oh, she’s a really talented musician, you should come see her,’ and whatnot, and Clara just kind of kept looking at the floor and was all humble. Which is how she is.”
Once the fallout with Herman happened over the summer — and not until then, Barbero clarified — the drummer really talked up Salyer’s talent. But there was a lot more to the job than just musical chops, a point Barbero brought up when asked about the age difference.
“Most women our age can’t drop everything and go on tour on such short notice,” Barbero said. “They’re either moms or they have full-time jobs, or in many cases both.”
For that reason, the idea of bringing back original Babes in Toyland bassist Michelle Leon — who played on the band’s 1990 debut “Spanking Machine” — never really came up because Leon just had a baby. (Leon is also about to publish her book, “I Live Inside: Memoir of a Babe in Toyland,” coming in March from Minnesota Historical Society Press.)
“Besides being very talented, Clara is still young enough she’s able to dedicate her life to music like Kat and I are again,” Barbero said.
‘We leave in a week’
Not that saying yes was entirely easy for Salyer. She had to hastily quit her “good job” with Hennepin County Libraries. She also had to put her two new bands on hold, the whir-rocking quartet Whatever Forever, which she fronts beside Hamilton; and the more bombastic trio Royal Brat, in which she plays guitar behind queer-punk artist Alex Uhrich.
“When Lori first asked, it was kind of vague and uncertain,” Salyer recalled, “but when Kat called a day or two later, it was, ‘OK, learn the songs. We leave in a week.’ ”
She said it was an easy decision, though: “I didn’t hesitate for a minute. It was very much a dream-come-true kind of scenario.”
Pausing and laughing, she added, “And that was followed by extreme panic.”
In addition to learning 17 Babes songs by heart in eight days — “I walked around with headphones everywhere I went for the next week,” Salyer recalled — she also had to adjust to playing bass again. Salyer got her start on the instrument in her early teens and even took lessons back then from a few well-known local bass kings, Erik Fratzke (Happy Apple) and Chris Morrissey. But she had mostly been playing six-string guitar since Total Babe.
“It was just a challenge working up the muscle memory again,” she said. “I knew I was going to mess up at first, and I did. But after a few days, I wasn’t just trying to keep up, I think was fitting in.
“Kat and Lori would look at me or each other and smile if I wasn’t playing something the exact way they were used to. I think they liked it that way.”
And before she knew it, Salyer was on the road with Babes in Toyland. She said she had never even set foot in a tour bus before loading her gear into her bunk. The first show was mercifully at a small club in St. Louis called the Firebird.
“I messed up in ‘Sweet 69’ that night, of all songs, but I don’t think anybody noticed,” she recounted.
Soon after that, though, came big gigs in front of 20,000-some fans at the three RiotFests in Chicago, Toronto and Denver. Another big gig was at the Fun Fun Fun Fest in Texas’ capital city.
“Even weirder than looking out and seeing a sea of people,” she said, “was looking over and seeing Kat and Lori so far away on those big [festival] stages. I was used to being 2 feet from them in their cramped rehearsal space.”
The new blood
A review of Babes’ set by the Austin Chronicle said Salyer “has given them a newfound sense of commitment and drive, possibly pushing [the band] into new realms of hard-rockin’ ecstasy.” Barbero similarly described Salyer’s effect on the band.
“She’s brought in a really positive, fresh energy that I think everyone can feel,” she said, pointing especially to the young women and teenage girls who attended the festivals and had never been able to see Babes in Toyland in concert before. “They can see her more as one of them.”
Salyer, in turn, said she has been impressed by the energy and “deep connection” between her two new bandmates, who didn’t speak for many years after their initial breakup in 2001.
“This band is their life, and they both take it very seriously and very passionately,” she said. “And they’re still great. Separating myself from my part in the band, I don’t think it’s weird to say that: The band is sounding really, really good.”
There’s now talk of making a new Babes in Toyland album after touring wraps in Fargo the night after the First Ave show. Salyer intends to keep playing with her own bands then — Royal Brat has a 7-inch single coming, and Whatever Forever will start playing again soon — but made it clear she would consider herself a Babe in Toyland for life if given the chance.
“Obviously, whatever they want from me, I’m there.”
She’s already proved that once.