SMOKIN' IN THE GIRLS' ROOM
Detroit musicians let us know what it's like being 'the chick' in the band.
“I’ve always been a band bitch,” Teri Lynn Williams states matter-of-factly over coffee during a break between her day job in ad sales and night job as bassist for Die Zünderpatooties.
In high school, she schemed her way into shows, masquerading as a roadie and helping her friends carry equipment into venues. After a while, Williams figured it might be nice to learn how to play an instrument herself, and when a friend told her he was selling his three-quarter-size bass, she made a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy it. Later that day, another friend heard she bought the instrument and asked her to join his band, “mostly because I was a girl,” she thinks. “Obviously, it wasn’t because of my musicianship. I didn’t even have an amp or anything.”
She played her first gig with the now-defunct Spy Show, opening up for Lazy and Sleepyhead at the Magic Stick three weeks later. “I screwed up a lot. I was still only playing one or two notes with my index finger.” Over time, Williams developed more confidence in her playing, but it’s still been a rocky road for her and other women trying to make it in the mostly male music industry.
The “Year of the Woman” has passed and we’re left with a few Lilith remains such as the free“Girls Room” show in Pontiac this Monday, but for the most part, we’ve entered a new era, the “third wave” so to speak. It’s not a shock to see women onstage with instruments anymore, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The situation is magnified in a city like Detroit where the majority of acts getting notice include either stinging, misogynist rappers or testosterone-drunk, boys-club garage rockers. But growing numbers of local female musicians aren’t letting logistics slow them down. The poor odds have increased their drive to be heard and the mutual support within the community couldn’t be more promising.
“You have to talk to Karen Neal of Queen Bee,” Tabatha Predovich, the lead singer of Radium, assures me. “I think she really got the ball rolling. She’s really talented and she has a lot of style. I think she influenced other women to get out there and do this.”
Lead vocalist and bassist for Queen Bee
If you’ve never heard of Neal, it’s not because she hasn’t been busy. Over the past 12 years, the work of the pierced, tongue-in-cheek, punk-rock seductress has appeared on more than 35 recordings and she’s overseen the production of a great number of them. From singing with His Name is Alive to opening for Bad Religion in Europe to getting denied admittance to theWhitney (after performing at one of its garden parties) because of her outrageous costume, Neal has seen everything throughout her career — except major-label attention.
“As far as the industry is concerned, I am beyond signing age,” she says with a sigh. “They’re signing them younger and younger, and they’re better and better looking. I don’t have the money for a nose job or a boob job. Not that I necessarily want a boob job, but maybe a nose job,” she says with a chuckle. For a long time, Neal obsessed about attaining a record deal. “But you know what?” she says, “I live in Michigan. As long as I can afford to put out my own records, I don’t care if nobody hears them.”
In 1985, Neal started playing bass with the all-female band Inside Out.
“We made a lot of great music together and we’re all still friends,” Neal says. “But you can only have a band together for so long and, if nothing’s going to happen, you have to move on. That’s kind of how we all felt. In ‘95, we broke up.”
Many bands followed, including Thrall, Pussyfoot, Dirt Eaters, Lickitty Clit and her current project, Queen Bee. Transitioning from the all-female Inside Out to the mostly male Thrall, Neal experienced varied notions of power.
“When I was in Inside Out, I stood practically stationary and just hammered on my bass. I used to break strings. I just played the shit out of it and I never thought of shaking my hips or anything. When I got into Thrall, I joined as a bass player and it was a completely different vibe. It was a lot slower and a lot different. It was like taking the turntable from 78 to 33. (The leader of the band) wore his suit and tie. He encouraged me to dress up and we came up with a Catholic schoolgirl uniform that I wore onstage. He was like, ‘Come on, act sexy.’
“It was very hard for me to do and sometimes it can be now, but when you realize the impact it has on appeal when you dress up and play the sexy part ... people react to it. I had been doing so much in the scene for so long and, quite honestly, it wasn’t until I did this Queen Bee thing with the outrageous stuff that people started to write about me. I still find it very frustrating to turn on the TV and watch some bimbo orgasming to a bottle of shampoo, but I’m far less judgmental than I have been. I used to have a very feminist, puritanical way of thinking, but when I realized what it felt like to appeal to an audience sexually, I discovered a power and I began to enjoy it. The fact that I’m 33 years old and not getting any younger, I feel that I better enjoy what I have while I still have it, because I’m going to be working hard the rest of my life.”
At the Detroit Music Awards, Neal approached the bass player from Fez to congratulate his band for winning the category in which they both were nominated. He told her that she should have gotten the award because if it weren’t for her, he would’ve never started playing bass.
“I was very touched,” she says. “That meant a lot to me. I thought, ‘Wow. I haven’t gone completely unnoticed.’”
Lead singer of Radium, Elysium
An introverted child, Predovich used writing as a way to express herself. When she was a teenager, her parents gave her opera lessons. Growing up, her tastes gravitated toward Lena Lovich, Kate Bush, Curve and Siouxie and the Banshees.
“I could relate to them,” she explains. “They weren’t high-pitched, girly, happy-love sort of singers. They were more moody and dark, which is kind of how I am, so I could relate. It was a good thing because I felt out of place.”
Now, singing with Radium gives her a chance to let things out. Most of her atmospheric songs are about old betrayals and unhappiness; releasing the emotions helps her to deal with them. After shows, guys often come up to her and ask her if she hates men because of the lyrical content of her songs and the anger she expresses, but Predovich says that’s not the case at all. She actually prefers the company of men at times, especially when it comes to making music.
“It’s not as competitive,” she explains. “For some reason, when you get females together, there seems to be a weird competitive feel, which is too bad. It’s only that way with certain people. And with my personality, I get along better with guys. I’m more masculine.”
Predovich started singing for Radium after answering an ad the band placed. After a while she kind of “took over,” she says, and power struggles ensued. At 6-foot-tall with flowing strawberry blond hair and an entrancing sense of style, Predovich realized that her attention-grabbing stage presence might have created frustration among the former members of the band (who have been replaced recently), but she always felt that an image was important for the band’s success.
As a woman in the Detroit music scene, the songwriter often feels more looked at than listened to, but she admits that her image draws attention and more bands in the area with female singers are getting noticed. “It’s a good time for women to get somewhere,” she says hopefully.
Lead vocals and djembe for Jelly’s Pierced Tattoo
Jelly and Timothy Clark started writing songs in the summer of 1994 while working on a play forMosaic Youth Theater in Detroit. The two chose the name Jelly’s Pierced Tattoo because they wanted a name that meant something while still having a nice ring to it.
“Jelly is a resilient substance; ‘pierce’ is to penetrate with the eyes or the intellect; and ‘tattoo’ means a steady rapping beat,” Jelly says. They call their sound “funkternative” and it includes a little funk, a little alternative and a little world beat, along with elements of classical and country. Some local musicians Jelly looks up to include Jill Jack and Thornetta Davis.
“I totally gig with people who know how to just let go, because that’s the type of performer I am,” she says. “I like to think of myself in the Patti LaBelle school because she said once, ‘If I get up onstage and you hand me a mic, don’t think I’m gonna hold back.’ That’s how I am. If I’m gonna get up onstage and do something, I’m not going to hold back, even if it’s going to make you look like less of a performer. You just better step up. You show everybody what you’ve got and I’m definitely going to show them what I’ve got. And (Jill Jack and Thornetta Davis) show you what they’ve got. They don’t hold back and that’s what I admire and what I feed off of.”
Jelly thinks that the current musical climate has a lot to do with a new women’s rights movement. Women used to be concerned more with equality, she says. Now they realize that “we are just as good, but we’re not the same. Music right now is enjoying the femininity of women as well as the strength of women and not negating one for the other. I think that’s why there are so many women musicians right now like Paula Cole and Erykah Badu. They’re not bra-burning. They’re just using their whole package. They’re sexy, they’re beautiful and they’re strong. They’re all these things all at once.”
Jelly sees the pure essence of music itself as a sexual manifestation.
“It’s very intimate. It’s very binding. Making a song is a very intense, close thing to do with somebody. It’s like making a baby. You nurture your baby and you see it grow. It’s not bad to have an all-girl or all-guy band because you get different babies, but it’s always weird to say, ‘Oh we’re not going to listen to this kind of baby anymore. We’re just not having this kind of baby anymore.’”
Teri Lynn Williams
Bassist for Die Zünderpatooties
Williams admits that joining a band before she even knew a note was a little backward. But it forced her to learn quickly and it’s the longest hobby she’s had so far — so she must be doing something right. Recent tragedy has temporarily cut short her motivation, however. Sarah Zeiden, her band’s guitarist, was killed in an automobile accident late last month.
“Sarah had such an amazing force about her, so much energy and motivation. She could do anything, and did. I doubt she really realized how much she inspired me, and everyone around her, especially since I was too shy and embarrassed to say anything. She was so talented and inspirational. It seems so difficult to imagine playing music without her anymore. … I’ve done my crying now, though it still comes up at odd moments. Now I smile when I think of her, and everything she said and did for me and others, and the sadness is partially quelled. But the music isn’t coming yet. That will take time, I think.”
A few weeks before the accident, Teri reminisced about her start in music.
“When I joined Spy Show, they would tell me where to put my fingers and where to play until I started feeling a little more comfortable with it,” she said. “I always had a sense of the rhythm for it so I would know when the notes would hit — I just didn’t know what notes to play. Once I started getting more comfortable with it, I could kind of play around a little bit.”
Before Die Zünderpatooties, Williams played bass for Galicja. After the band broke up, she helped form the new band with the three women of Galicja — Megan Morrill (cello), Zeiden (guitar, vocals) and Williams (bass). They asked Mike Kuzmanovski to step in on drums. With the estrogen-heavy new setup, Williams says one of the main differences between all-male and all-female bands is less talk about wrestling.
“When I was in Spy Show, I was ‘the girl.’ That’s what I was referred to as. I didn’t really think all that much of it because I figured I was fooling everybody into thinking I was a musician at that point anyway. When we went out of town a couple of times to play shows, staying in hotel rooms was always weird, thinking, ‘who am I going to share a bed with?’” Dating within a band creates a whole other curve, she says. “Being in a band is like being in a relationship with these people anyway. It gets really frustrating when there actually is a relationship going on.”
Like the other women in this story, Williams recognizes objectification of women in the music industry, but she enjoys getting decked out as much the others.
“I love dressing up for shows in go-go boots and dresses. It definitely sends out a message that I probably shouldn’t send out, but it’s the only time I get to wear that stuff. I wore it to work the other day and fell down a flight of stairs — bad idea. Your band is going to get noticed more if you have a cute girl in it, which is kind of frustrating, but shit, you know, we’ve gotta bleed five days out of every month. I think we should take everything we can get.”
They’re still here
In these “post-Year of the Woman,” “anti-PC,” “ironic pop culture scavenger” times, Detroit is experiencing a different kind of renaissance. The unpretentious, nonintellectual hub of blue-collar, Midwestern hick chic has spawned numerous American badasses and Slim Shadys to feed the mouths in the nest of the mainstream. Meanwhile, Slumber Party, a local all-female band, has emerged from the garage again with an album to be released in August on the indie label Kill Rock Stars. Ko, Virginia North and the rest of the Breakdowns released a 7-inch single on the same label in May. And you can still find Deb Agoli behind the drums, Abbey Schneider wailing on her violin, Onna-D working the mic, Magda spinning records, Karen Neal turning up her bass, Tabatha Predovich warming up her voice, Jelly pounding out the beat and Teri Lynn Williams at the low end. In conversations with Detroit musicians, these names pop up time and time again. Competition remains stiff, but local women in the music community have shed any stereotypical acrimony.
Detroit is riding high on the third wave of feminism just like the rest of the country and the local music community represents the movement’s ideals of empowerment, identity and self-esteem. And though a story of this nature might seem silly at a time when everyone realizes women can rock, there’s no harm in a little reminder every once in a while to keep the momentum going strong.