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How fierce resolve and curious funding resurrected Babes in Toyland

Babes in Toyland, from left: Maureen Herman, Lori Barbero, and Kat Bjelland.

Babes in Toyland, from left: Maureen Herman, Lori Barbero, and Kat Bjelland.

Something demonic overtakes Kat Bjelland when she handles her guitar. She becomes a banshee, lips curling away from her teeth in a sulphurous snarl, the skeletal knobs of her cheekbones giving way to wide, bulging eyes.

Nearly 30 years after her sinister glare made Babes in Toyland a global punk sensation, Bjelland, now 51, is back conjuring demons with drummer and lifetime collaborator Lori Barbero. Barbero, 53, the grinning viking behind the drums of Babes in Toyland, beats her toms with eccentric thwacks, her drumsticks held upside down so that the audience can feel her presence equally in their eyes and chests. It's a rhythmic force that drives Bjelland into her otherworldly fits — one she's missed sorely since her influential band broke up in 2001.

Now reconciled with their glory-years bassist Maureen Herman, 47, Babes in Toyland are finally returning to their hometown of Minneapolis to play the Sunday leg of Rock the Garden. It'll be their 11th show since an impromptu reunion was announced last June, and so far the proto-grunge Twin Cities legends have reveled in their reconciliation.

"We are three fuckin' happy chickadees in a little nest," Barbero reports.

Much has transpired in the time between Babes in Toyland's initial split and their June 21 homecoming. Bjelland was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and endured two divorces; Barbero drunkenly crashed her car into her garage and had a 63-pound box dropped on her at a local hardware store; and Herman, who jokingly refers to herself as "the Forrest Gump of social issues," was gang raped, rendered homeless, became addicted to crack, and was diagnosed with PTSD before bouncing back and making a name for herself as a writer.

The mutual trauma has pulled the threesome closer together than they've ever been. "We're older and have various injuries and things," Bjelland says. "But we're more grounded mentally and tighter as a unit." Barbero concurs, saying, "We're all older, we're more mature, and we're in better places."

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The party line from the band is that they're even playing better than they did in their heyday, which is good news for Minneapolitans who've waited since 1996 to see this lineup peel paint, but something is different. Always thrashing and animalistic, Babes in Toyland are indeed in peak form, but they've played with vengeance in their sudden reunion. Incensed, they've seared their way through California and Europe with all the percussive vitriol of misinterpreted teenagers. But after 28 years of seminal, ass-kicking, volatile rock 'n' roll, what do Bjelland, Herman, and Barbero have left to prove?

The Twin Cities was indeed the proving ground for Babes in Toyland, and now it'll serve as the setting of their reclamation. In the short time they've been reunited, Babes have seen their motives side-eyed, their funding scrutinized, their traumas dramatized, and their legacy warped by bloggers and pundits. Rock the Garden is their chance to come home and refocus the narrative on the sheer fact that they're together again, and they're performing with hellfire.

Their comeback should be cause for celebration, even if it was made possible by a deal with a trio of dubiously punk-rock tech millionaires.


It's Not a Goddamn Google Problem

Though Herman and Bjelland were always forthright about how they were able to fund the Babes in Toyland reunion, it wasn't until a Rolling Stone article from last November that money became the focal point.

"Google money funding Babes in Toyland reunion," led the Star Tribune. "Ex-Googlers Bankroll Babes in Toyland Reunion," Stereogum churned. The further the story fell down the bloghole, the more Babes in Toyland's role in their own reunion was pushed to the periphery.

All of a sudden, Herman, Bjelland, and Barbero's involvement became secondary to that of Chris Skarakis, Eric Fredrickson, and Jon Motley, the triumvirate of Silicon Valley financiers who pooled money to make a "sizable, six-figure" investment in the Babes' comeback.

Operating as the LLC Powersniff — named for the huffing breath that precedes a humblebrag — Skarakis and his partners foot the bill for band's travel, rehearsal space, hotel accommodations, and basically every other expense incurred in planning and executing the reunion. But they're not just signing over some bottomless slush fund like the headlines suggest — Babes in Toyland are paying back the investment. Powersniff takes no profit from the partnership, and they have no creative control.

"This whole arrangement has been totally distorted because of the whole Google thing," Skarakis says. "We have exactly the same goal in this. We want to help them do it, we want to earn back what it's taking to do it, but we want those girls to be successful. That's truly it."

The guys behind Powersniff were early Googlers (Fredrickson invented the Google toolbar), though it's been a decade since Skarakis worked for the search engine paragons. In the time since, he's twice partnered with Herman — once at the ill-fated music e-commerce site Fuzz and once to found Project Noise, a nonprofit that acts as an amplifier for musicians engaged in social justice issues. Herman, who has a familial bond with Skarakis through her brother, sees him and Fredrickson as advocates of a kindred cause. "They're really just activists," she says, "We've done a lot of work with social justice, especially around prison reform."

"This whole arrangement is so fucking punk rock, it's ridiculous," Skarakis claims in exasperation. But still, the intersection points between punk rock and business ventures are always dubious, and any time double-comma investments are being made in artists, suspicions will rise. Beyond that, positioning anyone with a disposable rock band revival budget as an activist is a hard fucking sell, but Babes in Toyland aren't concerned with that reductive thinking.

"Whatever," Herman says, dismissively. "It's very DIY, if you think about it, because it's just doing it through people that you know. Punk rock is just making it happen, and we made it happen."

Bjelland, who like Barbero didn't have a pre-existing relationship with Powersniff, never had any reservations about their intentions. "I was overjoyed, of course, especially with how broke I was," she says. "You want people with money to do things like this, but it's pretty few and far between that it actually ever happens."

Bjelland likens Skarakis's influence to that of Tim Carr, the legendary Minnesotan A&R man credited with discovering the Babes at New York City's Pyramid Club. A former Star Tribune writer and Walker Art Center employee, Carr instantly became a bullhorn for Babes in Toyland's catastrophic brand of Meat Puppets-meets-Betty Friedan rock 'n' roll.

"He was an integral part of getting us on a major label," Bjelland says, referring to their early days on Reprise, a Warner Bros. imprint. "I go, 'Major label? Bugs Bunny money? Are you kidding? Screw you!' But then we talked to him and decided that it'd be OK."

Under Carr's guidance, Babes in Toyland put out their sophomore album, Fontanelle, in 1992, a critical and commercial landmark that also heralded the beginning of Herman's tenure with the band. "It was circumstance and also stubbornness, we wouldn't do it any other way," says Bjelland, referring to how the reunion came about. "We did it how we wanted because of Tim Carr. He was that go-between translator."

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Bjelland, Herman, and Barbero always considered Carr to be Babes in Toyland's fourth member, and when the industry icon mysteriously died in 2013, they were less one believer. But when they were ready to try being a band again, Skarakis and Powersniff were ready to assume the role Carr had filled two decades prior.

"Chris is one of us," Barbero says. "And they know that we're intelligent and savvy, they know that we're DIY, they know all of our aesthetic. They would be my friends if they had not a dollar in their pockets."

Their kinship is borne of mutual passion — something Barbero notes "isn't a very common virtue anymore, especially in music" — but also mutual ball busting. In a February interview with the Guardian, Barbero and Bjelland chided the Powersniff guys, ribbingly calling them "benefactors" and "sugar daddies." Bjelland jokes that Skarakis and Fredrickson, who both play guitar and used to be in a band together, are living vicariously through the Babes. "They're just frustrated musicians and they just want to rock," Herman piles on. This friendly teasing is a carryover from the days at Fuzz, where Skarakis would fanboy over Herman, pestering her to revive Babes in Toyland.

"About once a year I would say, 'You gotta get the Babes back together,'" Skarakis recalls. "Her response usually went like this: 'Fuck off Chris, it's not gonna happen.'" As a fan, he was genuinely interested in seeing them play again, but he also saw it as an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of their revival. "They have this cultish, rabid fan base that was really on Maureen to play again. I was like, 'It's just sitting right there, we all want to see it, myself included.'"

When Herman called years later to see if he was still interested, Skarakis lept at the opportunity. He got Fredrickson and Motley in on the deal, establishing the LLC explicitly for bankrolling Babes in Toyland, and set about making it happen.

A year after that decision, Skarakis is dutifully recouping his money, but that's not his focus. The day after catching the band play at the Barcelona edition of the massive Primavera Sound festival last month, he's thrilled by how positive the experience has been.

"The story isn't about Google money or venture capital or anything like that, it's seriously about friends coming together," Skarakis says. "The punk-rock space does not want that going on, and I get it, but I would personally love it if that wasn't the take. They're back, and they're kicking ass, and that's the story."

A Pedigree of Fiasco

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Babes in Toyland's current reunion isn't their first. They've thrice tried to reform the band, all to varying degrees of disaster, but this reunion is unique in that it's the first with the classic Fontanelle-era lineup.

Herman was the Babes' longest-tenured bassist, and her departure in 1996 was effectively Babes in Toyland's death knell. After she left, Babes were dropped from their record label and have not released a new album since 1995's Nemesisters. In its wake, they struggled to find any form of consistency, cycling through a carousel of bassists in between a volley of breakups.

Their first hazard at a "reunion" was in 1997, when founding bassist Michelle Leon rejoined Babes in Toyland after a forgettable rebound with Dana Cochrane on bass. That didn't last, and the band went dormant for three more years. During the layoff, Bjelland focused her energy on her side project, Katastrophy Wife, only returning to Babes in Toyland for a brief run with Jessie Farmer on bass in the early millennium. The band's last official activity prior to last year was a show in 2000 at First Avenue, which was immortalized on the album Minneapolism: Live for the Last Time.

Despite the record's title, the gig wasn't intended to be a swansong. "I thought it was just another show," Barbero remembers. "Then, there was a wrench thrown into the engine, so there was a seize that took about 14 years to fix."

The wrench Barbero refers to materialized from Babes' more recent reunion attempt — an unsanctioned European tour launched by Bjelland in 2002. On that particular jaunt, Bjelland took Brigit Colton and Rachel Parsons of the British band Angelica on the road under the Babes in Toyland moniker without consulting Barbero, resulting in a feud over naming rights that festered until just last year.

"I asked Kat three times about it, and she claimed she was touring England as Katastrophy Wife," Barbero told City Pages in 2002. "I don't hate anybody, but I feel really betrayed."

When Herman and Bjelland approached Barbero about reforming the band last spring, she wasn't immediately romanced. "I remember it verbatim, I was like, 'I'm not saying yes, I'm not saying no. I gotta make sure we're compatible,'" she says. "A real band — a true band — is a bunch of people who get onstage together and actually respect and love each other and can make that magic happen. And that's what I wanted." Barbero also wanted to clear their plans with Babes' former bassists in hopes of avoiding another debacle like 2002.

However, even after getting the approval of the former Babes, Barbero's trepidation still lingered. The three core members had not spent more than an hour together since George W. Bush took office, and Barbero knew it'd take effort to repair her relationship with Bjelland.

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The first time Barbero flew out to California for rehearsal, she got her chance to do just that. At the time, Herman was in Illinois at a family reunion, giving Barbero time to spill her guts to her estranged longtime partner.

"I laid out my cards on the table, because that's the only way it can be true and sincere and open, and I bawled my head off," she says. "We told each other how much we love each other and how much we mean to each other. We're in a better place now than we've ever been."

Things with Herman are copacetic as well, and the band is finding a harmony that could only be achieved after half a lifetime of trial and error. "I'm just so happy," Barbero says, "My brain and my body are just fuckin' doing cartwheels." But her trust would be tested almost immediately when, during an interview on Lancer Radio at Pasadena College, Bjelland and Herman damn near sabotaged the whole reunion.

In their first media appearance since deciding to reform, Bjelland and Herman gushed about their reunion plans, hinting at new music, tour designs, and a kickoff concert in their hometown of Minneapolis to benefit the Lady Parts Justice charity. The problem was that Barbero, who was bartending in her then-home of Austin, Texas, at the time of the announcement, had no idea they were going on air.

"That was a very premature call by Kat and Maureen," Barbero says, diplomatically. "That's all I'm gonna say about that." The Lady Parts show never panned out because, according to Barbero, "after that happened, we weren't ready."

But a lot of maturity comes with 28 years of betrayal, pain, and reconciliation, and Babes were able to patch things up without compromising their comeback ambitions. "I didn't have enough forethought to think this isn't the way you introduce a comeback, without an original member there," Bjelland admits. "But I didn't mean to do it like that. We were just excited."

In their haste, the Babes' mouthpieces also inadvertently slighted their hometown fans. When the reunited punk band finally did take the stage again on February 10, it was in Joshua Tree, California. Nearly a year after their appearance on Lancer Radio, Babes in Toyland have yet to plug in anywhere in Minnesota. Instead, they opted to launch out of California, home of Powersniff, since that's where they were rehearsing and where Herman lives with her 12-year-old daughter. "Leaving my child is obviously difficult," she says. "And they were gracious enough to come out to me so we could practice."

"I feel kind of bad we didn't start out [in Minneapolis]," says Bjelland, who wanted to resume her rock 'n' roll career with her 15-year-old son, Henry, in the crowd. "But it didn't work out with us all living in different states." But the Babes aren't dwelling in the past anymore. Instead of harping on what could've or should've been, they're trying to make it right by giving the Twin Cities the biggest show possible.

Jim McGuinn of 89.3 the Current, who co-organizes Rock the Garden with the Walker, couldn't wait to book this year's event. Though the Current's program director recognizes how rewarding a Mainroom set at First Avenue would be for hardcore fans, both he and Walker Associate Curator Doug Benidt knew they had to get Babes in Toyland in front of as many people as possible.

"Playing Rock the Garden is a chance for Babes in Toyland to introduce themselves to an entire generation of rock fans that weren't around 20 years ago," McGuinn says. "It's about drawing artistic connections rather than nostalgia when we ask a band to play one of our shows, and Babes in Toyland continue to resonate as a groundbreaking, influential artist."

Even though the setting is less intimate, that doesn't mean the show will be any less emotional.

"I know that I'll start crying," says Barbero, who recently returned to Minnesota after living in Austin for seven years. "Minneapolis is the greatest city in the United States, and I'm a proud citizen of the city, and I cannot fucking wait for that show."

And while their plans today are as vague and speculative as those early projections Bjelland and Herman made in Pasadena, Barbero has good news for the Babes in Toyland faithful.

"At some point in our career, we'll be at First Avenue," she promises. "I can't tell you what's going on right this minute, but that is, yeah... it'll all work out at some point."

Echoes in Toyland

Sixteen-year-old Emily Schoonover is an obvious pastiche.

With her broomstraw hair, gauzy dresses, and ferocious wail, the Bruise Violet guitarist/vocalist exudes the same banshee quintessence of her idol Bjelland. The two even share a similar possessed glare from behind the microphone, but Schoonover and her Twin Cities band have learned more than just imitation from Babes in Toyland.

"We're definitely influenced by Babes in Toyland, but I wouldn't say we're replicas of them," Schoonover says. "I'll make a lot of Kat faces. Not intentionally, but I think it's mainly the energy and the vibe. We have our own things that we've added to it."

As news of Babes in Toyland's reunion penetrated the blogosphere, their historical context was lost. Like fellow reformed '90s female rockers Sleater-Kinney and L7, Babes in Toyland found themselves increasingly saddled with the adjective "riot grrrl" — a signifier Herman has rejected from the beginning.

"I don't feel comfortable ghettoizing music by gender or racial lines," she says. "That's making the assumption that girl music is softer. By identifying it with a gender, people's own prejudices will define what that means."

Babes' original tether to the riot grrrl movement derives from incisive Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna and her frequent citation of their influence, but it was the media that assigned this legacy to the band. In Minneapolis, Bjelland, Herman, and Barbero were never classified by their sex.

"When I first heard Babes in Toyland play in Minneapolis, I don't remember thinking, 'They're a girl band,'" remembers Herman, who was a fan of the group before joining in 1992. "It wasn't until they went out in the world that it was separated. In the Minneapolis music scene, they were just a great rock 'n' roll band."

Decades later, Minneapolis's scene is just as unassuming, and its bastions like Bruise Violet and fellow avowed feminists Kitten Forever are giving Babes in Toyland the legacy they deserve.

"Riot grrrl wasn't particularly inclusive," Kitten Forever's Corrie Harrigan told PBS in the band's recent Lowertown Line feature. "Young women today are talking about feminism in ways that riot grrrl didn't even touch on."

Schoonover nearly parrots this sentiment, adding, "The riot grrrl movement was pretty limited to white women and cis women, and we're trying to be more inclusive to people outside of the gender binary and people of color."

Of course, Babes in Toyland's influence cannot be properly dissected without discussing Bjelland's babydoll — or "kinderwhore" — aesthetic. Both Kitten Forever and Bruise Violet take notes from this facet of Babes in Toyland's image, though they interpret it in different ways.

"There's something about them that's super subversive," says Laura Larson of Kitten Forever. "A female getting up there, and it comes across as not cute or dainty, just like in your face and really powerful, that's something that we take huge influence from."

Bruise Violet's take is much less abstract. The teen rockers often don dresses and lipstick — artifacts they see as worth preserving. "Women tend to get smacked down, especially when it comes to harder music," says drummer Danielle Cusack. "We just wanted people to realize the femininity is not a weakness."

Cusack, 18, met Schoonover while studying at the St. Paul chapter of School of Rock, where the two bonded over their mutual respect for Babes in Toyland's gender-eschewing garage-rock abandon. They immediately named their band after Babes' breakthrough single as an homage to their friendship. When Bella Dawson (15, ironically BV's second bassist) joined on early this year, they indoctrinated her as well.

Schoonover, Cusack, and Dawson were euphoric when they heard Babes in Toyland were mounting a return to Minneapolis, but from their perspective, it was as if the band had never left.

In the post-Babes years, Barbero was an extremely active custodian of the Twin Cities music scene, launching a record label, Spanish Fly, and being bestowed an Artist of Distinction award at the 2006 Sound Unseen Festival. Though Bjelland's been much more reclusive, Bruise Violet felt her presence early on in their career.

On her way to a gig at the Skyway Theatre one night, Cusack noticed Bjelland walking down the street. Her mom immediately pulled over and pushed Cusack out the door. Cusack gushed like a fan in her position might and then handed her hero a pair of tickets to the show.

Though Bjelland missed their set that night, she and Barbero made it a point to catch Bruise Violet live at the Triple Rock last April, chatting with the band after their set. "They're really great," Barbero says. "They're the age where they all could be my children. It's very flattering, and it's really sweet." Ten days later, Barbero sat in on drums for Schoonover and Cusack at School of Rock's Best of Minnesota showcase. They even performed "Bruise Violet" together.

Schoonover, Cusack, and Dawson are lucky in that they have only favorable memories of Babes in Toyland. The years of backstabbing, addiction, pain, and repent came before they ever strung a guitar. The band's context is more immediate.

"I hold these women on such a pedestal," Cusack says. "But they're seriously just right there."