Interview with Blake Babies
We're so excited for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One as we get to bring you our conversation with the legendary Blake Babies. Iconic mainstays of the 1980s college rock scene, Blake Babies delivered a unique mixture of syrupy sweet vocals and caustic lyrics, all laid out over a bed of jangly guitar work and nuanced drumming. We sat down with the band to discuss their experience coming up in the Massachusetts music scene of the 1980s, their lasting impact on present day bands, and what we can expect from their catalog reissues planned for next year.
NoiseTrade: What do you hear when you listen back to this 1989 WERS radio broadcast?
Juliana Hatfield: I have not listened to it! It kind of freaks me out to hear myself back then.
John Strohm: It’s still hard to hear this music in an objective way. It triggers so many memories. I wish I could experience it without all the baggage, but it’s impossible. I’m judging my own performances as if I made them this morning. I’m frustrated with my guitar tone, knowing that it’s a borrowed guitar, and I didn’t get a nice one until later that year. But I get the charm. We are kids making it up as we go along, and that comes across.
Freda Love Smith: It's strange and disorienting to listen to something that I barely remember. It's a serious mind-fuck time machine! I was kind of terrified to listen, somehow assuming it would sound clunky and amateurish and that I'd feel embarrassed. But no... it sounds earnest, young, hardworking, and musical. We loved what we were doing and we were trying with all our hearts!
NT: With this specific recording capturing the band right before you started recording your Earwig album, what are some things that characterize or identify this period of the band for you each individually?
Strohm: We had a very frustrating period going into Earwig when we transitioned from a two-guitar band (me and Juliana) with a bassist to a one-guitar band with Juliana moving to bass. That’s the lineup here on the WERS broadcast – the three of us. Evan Dando played bass for six months or so, and that was a great band, but we just couldn’t replace Evan. He spoiled us. So eventually Juliana or I had to take up bass, and Juliana was generous in learning the instrument and she played really well. She sort of adopted Evan’s guitarist-on-bass style, which really worked. At the point of this recording, we’re still figuring out how to be a three-piece band. You can tell we’re all playing a lot to fill up the sound. Probably a year after this we added a second guitarist (Michael Leahy) and that took it to another level. But we’re still just figuring it out here. The technically good Earwig recordings are a little deceptive, as we still couldn’t play all that well.
Smith: I really hear the care that we took with the arrangements of the songs. Much of this stemmed from our work with producer Gary Smith and also our settling into being a 3-piece band. We were making the few ingredients that we had to work with really count.
Hatfield: I just remember being really excited about playing and recording music, like it was all sort of bursting out of me, and us. Also I was figuring out a lot of stuff, learning by doing. Like, how to play, how to record, how to mix. I was frustrated too, wanting things to happen more quickly than they were. Gary Smith, our friend and producer and one of the guys who started Fort Apache studios, was helping us a lot. He sort of took us under his wing. I was kind of high-strung back then so I imagine I was hard to deal with. I think John and Freda were probably very tolerant and forgiving of the foul moods I would get myself into.
NT: Since you all started in Boston, MA, how would you describe the college rock scene there in the 1980s?
Smith: I'd describe it as an embarrassment of riches. It was just astounding. Buffalo Tom, Galaxie 500, Big Dipper, The Lemonheads, Throwing Muses, Dinosaur, Jr., The Pixies, Volcano Suns. I absolutely loved every single one of these bands. I never felt like we were in their league!
Strohm: Freda and I moved to Boston specifically because we thought it would be a good place to start a band, but we really lucked out. I was a hardcore kid and I knew about the Boston hardcore scene. However, by the time I moved there in the mid-80s, the hardcore scene was in transition and I really didn’t want much to do with it. We were taking our cues from stuff like REM, the Replacements, Husker Du, X… not really hardcore, but stuff that evolved out of punk. But we wanted to pursue a more melodic sound and we found many peers around the Boston scene, bands coming up such as The Lemonheads, Buffalo Tom, Big Dipper, Throwing Muses, Galaxie 500, The Pixies, and a few dozen bands that aren’t as well remembered. Around 1988 or 89, none of those bands was big enough to sell 300 tickets, so we all played the same rooms, the same bills, went to the same parties and shows. It really felt like a scene, and there was a real excitement because everybody shared this feeling that these bands were really fucking good. We saw bands really starting to break out from places nearby, like Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth…we felt like that could be us. It all got pretty surreal when bands from our scene started getting popular overseas and selling out in New York. But then, once we started to get a bit popular, it all felt scattered. Freda and I left Boston and I didn’t think about local scenes too much. I really think it was a pretty powerful moment, though. That moment right before all those bands really got noticed.
Hatfield: There were a lot of interesting indie rock bands playing around town and none of them really sounded alike. It was fun and there was no pressure to conform to any kind of local sound. It was so exciting to see Dinosaur (before they added the "Jr.") play at full Dinosaur volume at a small club to about ten people. And it was exciting to open for the Pixies at The Rat (did that really happen or am I imagining it?), another tiny club. I think we (the Blake Babies) felt dorky compared to a lot of the cool bands around town. I did, anyway. I was always very intimidated in the presence of J. Mascis, even though we were technically peers.
NT: As a band that featured two women in a generally testosterone-fueled music scene, did you all face any unique/unnecessary situations during your trailblazing years?
Strohm: I guess I should let the women in the band answer that, but since I was in a band with my girlfriend at the time (Freda), it bugged me a lot that so many of our fans were guys nursing a crush on one or the other of the women in the band. We encountered some blatant sexism here and there from the older music business people, but for the most part those trails had been blazed. A woman playing in a rock band wasn’t all that radical by the late 80s.
Hatfield: I disagree that the music scene then was generally testosterone-fueled. I think the boys in the indie rock scene in the late '80's were not macho at all. In the mainstream, yes, probably we would have experienced a lot more sexism. But we were underground where people were a lot more accepting of girls playing in bands. Later, when we started to tour out in the world, Freda and I started to feel more of that sexism, I think. It was ugly and undeniable but, thankfully, we were shielded from some of it by the good people/guys around us like Gary Smith, Strohm, fellow bands, and the crew guys. And we were based in the northeast, which was more liberal and tolerant than other areas. Some of the worst things I can remember during that era happened in the south. When we all shaved our heads I got so much shit from men in the south. Guys shouting "Dykes!" at me and Freda from the audience in Clemson, South Carolina, and various obnoxious comments from strangers like, "What are you, a boy or a girl?" from an old man in a restaurant somewhere in the deep south.
Smith: I'm still garnering perspective on this. The fact that there were so many women in bands in our immediate scene kind of normalized it for me, but on the road I faced some infuriating moments. I'm really stuck on this time that a sound man actually took my kick drum out of my hands as I was loading out. It was kinda like "Hey little lady, let me help you with that." As if I didn't lug that fucking thing every night of the week! And as Juliana mentioned in her answer, there was the bile and hatred we faced in the deep south. In Clemson, somebody hurled a can of beer at me, right at my face! I think the hurler was upset that I'd shaved my head, and possibly also that I was beating the shit out of a set of drums. I'm guessing I wasn't performing femininity in a way in which he was comfortable! Also, I think I could write an entire book about the way I was treated in drum shops. Drum shops are the worst for mansplaining douchebags. At this one drum shop in Lawrence, Kansas, the guy who worked there was respectful and kind and cool and I took a photo of him! I still have that photo as proof that the unicorn exists.
NT: Many present day bands list Blake Babies as an influence and have even name dropped the band in interviews . For example, Bully comes to mind recently. How does that feel for you all and to what do you attribute your lasting sonic legacy?
Strohm: I’ve met the people in Bully before - they are a local band here in Nashville - and they’ve given me no indication that they know our band! But I do hear an influence, whether it’s direct or they are mining similar influences as us. I’ve seen the references in the press. When young bands or music writers acknowledge us as influential, that feels amazing. That’s the best thing, really. We felt at the time that a big reason we were toughing it out – and it was very hard to do this band for a lot of reasons – was to build some sort of musical legacy that could become more important over time. We didn’t necessarily expect it to happen, but I think we really hoped it would. Now that we’ve built our lives in other directions it matters less than I would have expected, but it’s still very satisfying. I can only really speak for myself, but I’m such a geek music fan that it just blows my mind to think that something we did as kids decades ago actually has a life and continuing influence today. The very best thing that could happen is to inspire young people to want to make music, or to influence the music they make. That sort of thing really validates the whole experience, and everything we put into it.
Smith: I'm proud of the initiative we took in the early days of our career. How when nobody would sign us, we put out our own record. Also, how we worked hard and worked together because we cared so much about what we were doing.
Hatfield: I am just glad no one got killed, that we didn't kill each other, or kill ourselves.
NT: You guys have recorded some really stellar covers over the years (Ramones, Fleetwood Mac, Dinosaur Jr., Stooges, The Grass Roots). Are these more to just give a nod to your influences or did those specific songs resonate with you all in a special way?
Hatfield: Sometimes you do covers to show how cool you are, to show how much you know, how smart you are, how ahead of the pack. It's like being able to claim you discovered something before anyone else did. It's like the pride I felt in being one of the first bands to talk up the Frogs' seminal album It's Only Right and Natural before everyone else did, before everyone else got on that bandwagon. Sometimes covers are just a fun thing to do or they get you away from your own musical habits and shake things up. You want to show you have done your studying, that you have learned the history. Of course, the cover song has to have some kind of resonance to you - the person playing it - or it won't be fun. Or you want to twist it around. Like, singing "Loose" from a female perspective, it makes you look at the song in another light. Some of the covers we recorded were things I had never heard before they were brought to me. I wasn't a big MC5 fan and had heard hardly anything of theirs before Strohm suggested "Shakin' Street". Same with the Fleetwood Mac son. I wasn't very familiar with the Tusk album. That was Strohm's idea, again, I think... or maybe Freda's. I think "Temptation Eyes" was Gary Smith's idea. I hadn't heard it before.
Strohm: We were such music fans in general, we’d fall in love with songs and want to play them. I had a special love for hearing Juliana, with her very feminine voice, singing macho songs like "Loose" or very male-centric songs like "Severed Lips". I dug the irony. But for the most part, it was all about playing songs we loved and trying to bring a fresh perspective. "Temptation Eyes" was our producer Gary Smith's idea and he was very insistent.
NT: Also, individually, which cover was your favorite to record (and why)?
Strohm: We used to do a lot of Neil Young songs, those were my favorite to play live…especially "Barstool Blues". My favorite recorded cover is "Severed Lips". I just like the way Juliana sang it.
Hatfield: I liked doing "Raisans", the Dinosaur song. But that wasn't a Blake Babies recording. I was so enamored of You're Living All Over Me, it is one of my top ten albums of all time. Learning the song and playing it was like going to school and going to church and doing a really important job, for me. It was a form of worship. I still have fantasies of someday recording the whole You're Living All Over Me album, really faithfully and seriously.
NT: Freda, what can we look forward to from your new book Red Velvet Underground? Juliana and John, what's your favorite part?
Smith: The book includes some of my fondest Blake Babies memories about our early tours, about the apartment we shared in Boston, and about experiences and meals we shared during that pivotal time. It also includes a few recipes inspired by that era, including a version of the black bean soup that fed me during some of my more broke musician stretches!
Strohm: I’ll let you know after I finish reading it!
Hatfield: My favorite part is the recipe for garlic placenta, where Freda cooks up and eats her placenta... SO PUNK ROCK!!