Breaking the Sound Barrier

These girls are not with the band. They are the band.

How many times have you paid your six bucks for a night of XX chromosome rock, only to slog through a bill of boy bands with the token female on vocals? Or the equally common scenario: a solo singer-songwriter passionately strumming her acoustic guitar while seated (!) on a stool, wailing about an ex-boyfriend (or -girlfriend)? If the planets align and you do see girls onstage kicking some ass, they’re probably fresh off the plane from Olympia.

OK, so New York’s isn’t known as a premiere breeding ground for rock n’ roll girl groups like the Pacific Northwest is—yet. Over the past couple of years, New York City has emerged as a magnet for girl groups (sometimes including their like-minded male comrades) who rock as hard as they roll. They don’t play wimp-rock or sensitive folk tunes; they do rage onstage and wear their pop hearts on their sleeves—and smash a few stereotypes in the process. Britney, you’ve been warned!

In a culture ruled by disposable pop princesses, an artists’ shelf life can be little more than that of your average salad dressing, but Antigone Rising have proven that if it doesn’t work the first time, try again. The band originally formed as a female quartet in the mid-90s, working the acoustics and the folksy harmonies for herbal tea money. Somehow, that didn’t cut it. “We broke away from the influence of producers and managers,” says rhythm guitarist Kristen Henderson, “we kept the name, but changed the sound and the image.” AR’s feisty leading lady Cassidy is one result of the transition; a harder rock sound—with electric guitars courtesy of Kristen and sister Cathy Henderson–is another. The tight rhythm section consists of Anne-Marie Stehn on bass and Dena Tauriello on drums. “Think female Eddie Vedder meets the later-years Beatles, with hints of Pat Benatar,” Kristen suggests. “And cute butts,” she adds.

AR is shopping around their newest LP and plan to “tour and tour and tour” in the near future, which is not as romantic as it sounds. “We get a lot of ‘Hey, Josie and the Pussycats!’ from the club owners and bartenders. Then we play, and they’re like, ‘Wow, you guys…I mean girls…I mean ladies…” On the other hand, “When you’re an all female band on a bill with all guys, you stand out. You’re the band [the audience] remembers first, especially if you put on a great show.”

Also doing it for themselves is Brooklyn’s own Triple Creme, a fearsome foursome who have also been through their share of grueling personal development. Their skills and sound have evolved over the course of their four-year history into a deceptively complex onslaught of dual guitars and call-and-response vocals (from Christina Mazzalupo and fellow six-string siren Robyn Pickering), ably backed up with Terry Lafrazia’s punchy bass and Tiffany Wolff’s tempo-switching drum style. “I think it sounds like the Breeders meets some 80’s boy rock band,” says Christina. “It just keeps turning into rock, whatever we try to do,” Tiff adds. Their rawked-up sound, combined with socially-conscious lyrics a step above the girl-meets-girl, girl-loses-girl variety, scored Triple Creme a coveted opening slot for legendary provocateurs Tribe 8 last year. But even with scads of supportive lezzies behind them, the inherent limitations of being a queer band in a straight world can get frustrating. “We don’t just want to play to queer crowds; we don’t want to be a good band just because we’re queer. We want people to recognize us as musicians…and think we’re cute,” Christina says. Terry adds, “We’re not out trying to sell a political agenda.” Like any other band struggling to make it in a world dominated by toothless pop acts and corporate cock rock, they just want to be accepted for what they do, not necessarily what they are.

While New York is undoubtedly a rock n’ roll town, there is a smaller but just as vigorous community that’s not afraid to go pop. Lava Baby is one band that embraces the skinny-tie aesthetic without completely doing away with rock angst. As lead singer and guitarist Robyn Celia explains, “Everyone in this band is a big lover of pop music. It’s isn’t cool [to be a pop fan], but we are really being just who we are.” The guilty party also includes Jen Salzman on keyboards and vocals, Miss Brown on drums, Marc Piovanetti on guitar and Peter Cole on bass. “I grew up listening to Duran Duran!” Robyn enthuses. “I am not a fan of ballads.”

It shows–the LB sound is a propulsive confection of radio-friendly choruses, girl group harmonies, and keyboard-flavored party beats that wouldn’t seem out of place on Club MTV. The band shrewdly doesn’t keep all of their eggs in one basket as far as their career direction goes. Witness the incredibly disparate locations of their recent and upcoming gigs: a warm-up slot for Patti Rothberg last February; a stint playing at the West Coast’s Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls; and a five-day tour of Barbados coming up. “We’re just concentrating on putting out our record ourselves, promoting it, and touring,” Robyn says. “Being in a band is a lot of hard work, and if you don’t like the music, what’s the point?”

Crown on 45 take some of the same new wave influences and push them in the opposite direction—to a realm in which theremins compete with power chords and the drummer actually sings. “I think we’re a rock band with 80’s new wave and 70’s-80’s-90’s punk influences. With theremin,” explains Chris Ohnesorge, the singing stickslinger. “The word ‘angular’ gets thrown around a lot,” says singer and guitarist Heather Hellskiss. Their democratic approach to their sound is heard in the amalgam of New Romanticism, queercore punk and feisty rhythms that treads the fine line between indie rock and Brian Eno.

C45 does their best to resist labeling their music, and the same goes for the band as individuals. Identity politics can often be a hindrance to success. “You don’t want to be noted for your queerness,” Chris says, “You want to be known for your abilities…sometimes by saying we’re a queer rock band, people will think that’s our ‘box’ and we’ll never get out if it.” On the other hand, Chris notes, sometimes labels can be a positive thing, especially within the cathartic power of music. “If I could turn back time to when I was seventeen, and there were [queer] bands like there are, it would have solved so many mysteries for me.” Despite the wide variety of musical influences and personal opinions, Casio queen Hillary Johnson points out C45’s one unifying theme: “New Wave will never die.”

And speaking of new wave, Diana Berry might look like Liz Phair, but she packs a vocal punch like the divine Debbie herself. The band walks in the footsteps of early–Pretenders guitar grind and supremely Clem Burke-ish rhythms as tight as the bikinis she tends to favor during her live shows. “I started playing guitar when I was four years old, really young,” she says. “My big hit was “Catching Waterbugs by the Sea,” that was my first song. It already had a co-dependent, lost-love theme. And then there was a song called ‘Annette and Ted,’ which was a song about a broken relationship—it was really weird shit for a four-year-old!”

Berry continued to explore the timeless themes of love and the human condition even past puberty. Her band is a trio of lads—but Diana is the exception to the posing-nymphet-with-mic-stand rule, equal parts Mick Jagger swagger and the unpredictable fragility of Cat Power. “I’m always looking at things from all different angles, trying to understand human survival and human desires and who people are, what’s really inside,” she says. Thankfully, all this squishy romanticism is couched in spiky layers of British Invasion guitar chords and energetic romping that is a far cry from the wistful, acoustic waifs currently populating coffeehouses nationwide.

The recent proliferation of smart, sassy, slamming girl bands in the five boroughs must be an omen of good things to come. Could New York be the next Portland, Oregon? Only time will tell. But when you next find yourself in a smoky club, maybe the lady to your left with the guitar case won’t just be holding it for her boyfriend.

For more information on the bands, check out these sites:
www.antigonerising.com
www.triplecreme.com
www.lavababy.com
www.crownson45.com
home.earthlink.net/~dvrberry

KAT LONG is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY. Her book Smut Wars: The Sordid Past and Uncertain Future of New York City’s Sex Industry will be published this summer by On Your Own Publications. Kat’s rock articles have been published in Venus Zine, Smarty Pants, and other indie mags