"Where's Kat? Kat!" Buzz Osbourne of the Melvins is shouting from the First Avenue stage, resplendent in polka-dot housedress and fright-wig Afro. The godfathers of Seattle sludge-punk are about to launch into their crowd-pleasing cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but first they need a singer. On their new album, The Crybaby, they recruited weedy Seventies icon Leif Garrett for the job, even taking him along for their West Coast tour to duplicate the feat live. For tonight's version, the Melvins have already intimated to First Avenue's in-house magazine their plan to enlist one of local rock's favorite daughters.
If Kat Bjelland hears her name, she shows no signs. Casually crouched on the steps leading to the upstairs bar, swaddled in a bright-red coat with fur cuffs and collar, she chats with friends while husband Glen Mattson leans against the wall nearby, oblivious to the Kat calls. Her face is set in that part-scowl, part-pout it often assumes at rest. A valiant white barrette holds back a mound of hair that has mellowed to a light brown in recent years--far less conspicuous than the curled platinum shock it was when Bjelland fronted Babes in Toyland.
It's a telling moment. Bjelland's seminal noise-rock trio with drummer Lori Barbero had the mixed luck of emerging just when the fickle national media decided that women with guitars were hip trendsetters. They were callously ignored when said media benefactors deemed this supposed "trend" due for a backlash, and the band faded two years ago with a curiously noncommittal shrug. (The members remain friends and may yet play together again.) Since then Bjelland has stayed in public view without drawing too much attention to herself. She gigged through two trimesters of her pregnancy last year with the band she and Mattson formed out of casual jams in their basement practice space in 1998. The six-month courtship between the longtime local rocker and the Twin Cities' most eligible postpunk bachelorette spawned a wicked pun for a band name: Katastrophy Wife. (Get it?)
As Kat chills on the steps, the one female audience member courageous enough to howl the words to "Teen Spirit" in her place is demonstrating the limits of punk's artistic democracy. They say if you give enough monkeys enough typewriters one of 'em will eventually type Hamlet. But put as many scenesters on as many stages with as many microphones and every last one of them will shout, "Fuck!" So it is with the drunk and dreadlocked volunteer the Melvins eventually scour up, and the leather-pantsed woman who tries next. Neither knows the words. (Jeez, isn't this supposed to be the anthem of somebody's generation or something?) And as part of their climactic denial, Minneapolis's newest stars flip us off, hop offstage, and the Melvins say goodbye--for a bit. They're scheduled to play another set in an hour or so. In the meantime, Bjelland takes the stage, with Mattson on drums and Keith St. Louis on bass, for an unusual halftime set.
Katastrophy Wife's Mainroom set runs slightly longer than a half-hour but seems much shorter. Kat says, "Hello," while the rising video screen still hides her from the waist up, then adds, "We're Katastrophy Wife," before she's fully visible, launching into the first chord of "Gone Away" before the scrim disappears overhead. Wearing a black dress with shoulder pads, Bjelland abuses a sticker-covered Rickenbacker and allows it to feed back of its own will while stretching her arms back. She raises her voice to a sweet girlie singsong, drops to a flat, John Lydonian declamatory midrange, then unleashes her trademark shriek: riveting, effortless, elastic. Just when you think she could keep her wail going all night, she stops and turns, casually spitting a thick spray to the side.
This band is more punkishly streamlined than the frayed Babes ever were, though Bjelland complicates this rush with what she later calls "my same old weird chords." Mattson and St. Louis click into a groove that reveals their unprepossessing garage pedigrees. Both labored in the hectically freeform Peasants (whose sound St. Louis describes as "a chaotic haze of alcoholism"), and Mattson has been an on- and off-again member of local roots warriors the Glenrustles, fronted by his brother Rich. Hooking into Bjelland's simple riffing on the snarling, all-purpose kiss-off tune "Git Go," the rhythm section taps into an adrenal urgency that rushes from A to B with straightforward determination.
Down below, the pit's not as full as it was for the Melvins' first set, or will be for their second. Older types, most either the worse for wear around the eyes or feeling gravity's pull in their jowls, wear de rigueur black leather--the blue blazer of the lazy clubber--and nurse drinks on the balcony, curious but distant. But on the floor, there's a striking whiff of teen spirit, as spiky punk kids taking advantage of tonight's all-ages policy play slam-pit pinball with bystanders as bumpers and themselves as the ball.
Onstage, Bjelland's legs dart out in random kicks. Then she turns her guitar ampward, manipulating the feedback, mauling the instrument mercilessly against her Marshall. By set's end the show's energy propels Mattson (who later admits to Mainroom jitters) up from his stool--he's on his feet before the last song finishes, and he leaves the stage in the same motion, with high hat in hand.
Henry Paul Mattson has his dad's sense of rhythm and his mom's lungs. Which is a polite way of saying that Kat and Glen's nine-month-old is wailing and banging on the metal tray of his highchair with some plastic spoon-toothbrush contraption.
It's bothering the parents more than the customers in the Modern Cafe, the Northeast restaurant where Bjelland waits tables and where the band gathers for an interview a week after the First Avenue show. His head tucked into a red-and-blue striped cap and swaddled in a hood, Henry conducts this fit to empathetic smiles from most of the room. With pudgy, Gerber-baby cheeks and gorgeously unreal blue eyes, Henry solicits less of a hushing impulse than an urge to make him happy. After Cheerios and picture books fail to appease the boy, Kat chimes in with everymom's apologetic refrain, "He's usually really well-behaved."
So well-behaved that Katastrophy Wife plan to spend the summer touring on the festival circuit (the Reading Festival is already confirmed), with little Henry (and a sitter, of course) in tow. Interest in Bjelland's music remains strong overseas. U.K. label Alma Fame has already expressed interest in releasing the band's debut this summer, and has confirmed that it will release a double disc of live Babes in Toyland material, compiled by Bjelland and Barbero from tapes made by friends and engineers, all the way from early Entry shows to later European tours. "It was supposed to be call Devil Lived, but I think they screwed it up and called it Lived Devil," Bjelland explains.
The nemesister has weathered worse logistical foul-ups on the business front in the past. She spent two years recording and compiling a soundtrack album for the Witchblade comic books, jetting between coasts to enlist the aid of musicians ranging from Lower East Side avant-gardist Arto Lindsay to metal vets Megadeth. Though happy with the results, which were finally released on Dreamworks in 1998, she says, "I would never do something like that again. It was really fun, but it took too long." When asked about the business end of Katastrophy Wife, Bjelland announces in a silly voice that it's just "monkey business."
Despite their far-flung connections, the couple is comfortably ensconced in northeast Minneapolis. They speak fondly of semiregular gigs at their "home club," Mayslack's, and when a community activist stops by our table to talk about how local redevelopment projects might wind up gutting nearby landmarks, Kat tells him to get in touch when it's time to make a fuss to stop them. And in spite of the international plans already made, in the long run, she says, "I'd be just as happy playing with these guys in the neighborhood bars.
"I'd play with Glen even if I didn't like him," she adds, then reconsiders. "Well, you know, I'd have to like him a little."
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