Pioneering grunge-era band Babes in Toyland have reunited and scheduled their first live show since 2001. The punk rock trio’s major-label-years lineup – singer-guitarist Kat Bjelland, drummer Lori Barbero and bassist Maureen Herman – will play Los Angeles’ Roxy Theatre on February 12th, with more dates in the U.S. and abroad to follow. Under an unusual arrangement, the reunion is being bankrolled by Powersniff, an LLC formed by three ex-Google employees specifically to facilitate the Babes’ return.
“I said I’d never, ever do a reunion,” Bjelland reveals in a phone call from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, where she’s awaiting a flight to L.A. for the latest Babes practice session. “When I was younger, I thought, ‘Once it’s done, it’s done.’ I just got older and changed my mind, I guess. My son is 15, and I wanted him to see us play. I’ve played in bands after Babes in Toyland, but I missed my friends.”
Babes in Toyland formed in Minneapolis in 1987 and released three studio albums, the last two – 1992’s Fontanelle and 1995’s Nemesisters – on Reprise Records. The trio played Lollapalooza 1993 with Primus and Alice in Chains, won over Beavis and Butt-head (“Whoa! These chicks rock!”) and had a profound influence on the early-Nineties riot grrrl scene (Kathleen Hanna has cited “an amazing, life-changing” Babes gig as inspiration for the formation of her pioneering former band Bikini Kill). However, the group’s music was often overshadowed by the media’s focus on the “women in rock” angle and a fierce debate over whether Bjelland or her friend Courtney Love had pioneered the “kinderwhore” look, known for its baby doll dresses and Mary Jane shoes.
After Herman departed in 1996, citing the band’s rigorous touring schedule and a desire to pursue writing, Reprise dropped the group. The Babes soldiered on with a rotating cast of bassists – including Michelle Leon, whom Herman had replaced in 1992 – and performed its last official show in Minneapolis in November 2001.
The Babes reunion talk began in earnest in summer 2013, after Herman, who lives in Los Angeles, arranged to meet up with Bjelland in Minneapolis to travel to her own family’s lake house in Minocqua, Wisconsin. “I’d say within 30 seconds of me getting in her van she asked me if I wanted to play,” Herman recalls, laughing. “I was of course thinking the same thing but kind of figured we’d see how it went.
“It was on that drive that she and I really bonded over the very similar struggles that we had both had – the mental health issues we had overcome in the the 18 years that we hadn’t seen each other,” she continues. “And we were laughing because we’re pretty much on the same medication.”
A recovering alcoholic and crack addict, Herman suffers from a major depressive disorder and PTSD, stemming in part from a gang rape that resulted in a pregnancy that she carried to term. (She’s currently writing about her experiences for her first book, It’s a Memoir, Motherfucker, for Macmillan’s Flatiron Books imprint.) Meanwhile, Bjelland was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder: “I was in the hospital a long time. I got healthy and lived really clean and got it together. It was really hard, really painful.”
Barbero’s post-Babes life hasn’t seen that sort of tumult, though she was seriously injured in a 2013 incident at a home-improvement store. As she tells it, an employee on a ladder accidentally dropped a 63-pound box on her upper back. This drove her into debt (she just moved back home to Minneapolis after years in Austin) and forced her to relearn the way she drums.
In 2002, she had quit the band after learning that Bjelland had played a European tour without her under the Babes in Toyland name. Today, Bjelland calls that situation “a big misunderstanding and just horrible,” explaining that the shows were supposed to have been billed as her project Katastrophy Wife.
“Maureen and I were pretty pissed about that,” Barbero says, looking back. “I had to just let it go and move on. But we’re gonna do things right this time.”
Now, travel to and from the Babes’ monthly L.A. practices (which began in August) and other comeback-related costs are being covered by Powersniff, a group co-founded by early Googlers Chris Skarakis, Eric Fredricksen and Jon Motley. “Once a year I would say, ‘Hey, Maureen, why don’t you talk to Kat and Lori and get the Babes back together?'” says Skarakis, who employed Herman at his now-defunct digital-music company Fuzz in the mid-2000s. “And then she’d say, ‘Fuck off, Chris, it’s not going to happen.’ I finally said, ‘Hey, if you guys ever really want to do it, just let me know. I’d love to be a part of it.”
Google’s 14th employee and its former director of business, Skarakis explains that Powersniff – the name is a techie inside joke, referring to the inhalation that punctuates a humble brag – “is not a traditional label or management.” He says the Powersniff founders’ motives are less financial and more to do “something cool and fun.” “We don’t want to lose money on it, either,” he adds. “Hopefully we can come out of this whole or better, and the girls can come away with it with money in their pockets. And maybe we can throw a little bit back into the coffers of Powersniff to do more with them.”
While the Babes won’t rule out the possibility of continuing the reunion by recording new material, right now they’re focusing on tour preparation and bonding with their bandmates. All three members describe the recent rehearsals as “fun” and laughter-filled. “We’ve all evolved as people over the years in really great ways,” Herman says. “The first practice was really magical. The music was – bam! – right back. We couldn’t even believe it: ‘Holy shit, we just fuckin’ kicked the ass out of that song!'”