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Year of the Kat : Kat Bjelland's penchant for purging her emotions brings Babes in Toyland to the brink of alternative rock stardom

November 15, 1992|RICHARD CROMELIN | Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar

It's a prime-time show for Babes in Toyland, a headlining date at the Whisky on the rush of their first major-label album and a buzz that's rising from the recesses of the underground into the bright lights.

The Sunset Strip club is packed with L.A.'s rock kids--this show is pretty much mandatory. The record company people are there, and so are the organizers of "Lollapalooza," their thoughts on next summer's third edition of the prestigious alternative rock road show.

The Minneapolis-based female trio takes the stage, and guitarist Kat Bjelland looks like a blond angel in a white dress as she stands at her mike.

Then she starts to sing.

Above the pounding instrumental din, a magma of raw emotion spews from her baby-doll face with shocking force. She retches her enraged lyrics, her screams skid across the beat and collide with the blunt riffs. Her voice erupts into laughs and gargles, then croons down low with eerie detachment. She keeps kicking her left leg into the air, and she steps back when fans being passed atop the crowd come too close to her mike stand.

But her impassive expression never changes, and she keeps her gaze fixed slightly above the heads of the jostling crowd.

"Looking in people's eyes is pretty weird in the first place, so when you're standing there baring your soul and they're looking at you for something, it's kinda. . . ."

Bjelland, sitting for an interview in an office at Warner Bros. Records in Burbank, gives up her search for the word.

"Sometimes I get really, like I just want to get the hell out of there," she says. "Or I start wanting to make fun of myself. I don't know, it's just a thing you go through when you're onstage."

As edgy as it might make her, Bjelland's willingness to purge her emotions in public has brought Babes in Toyland to the brink of alternative rock stardom. And in the Age of Nirvana, that position means a lot more than a second van for the tours. A significant audience is possible, even for something as extreme as Babes in Toyland.

"It should be extreme," Bjelland says. "It should sound like nothing that you've heard before. That's my intention. . . . Like my singing, all I try to do is I just push myself into things where I think I can't reach notes and stuff. Sometimes it sounds really ridiculous, but then you just kind of work on it. Just I always like experimental stuff.

"Some people aspire to like being comfortable and mediocre. That's good if they can be relaxed in their minds with that. But it seems like to get peace of mind for me, I have to go into the most extreme situations and then come back."

The recent elections might have brought the "Year of the Woman" theme to a crescendo, but in the American rock underground, where Babes in Toyland, L7 and Hole lead the pack and new arrivals like the Breeders are getting in line, it's an accepted condition, and one more reason to pin high hopes on Bjelland and company.

Tim Carr, the Warner Bros. Records A&R executive who signed the band last year, is confident of Babes' potential, but he concedes that it might take a while.

"It might be a little too tough for the moment," he says in a separate interview. "But as people realize that they're not gonna go away, and that they have something to say, they'll come around to their way of saying it.

"I think of it as being the way that Jane's Addiction swooped up from the underground into the center of attention. I would think a band like this would have the potential. Again, I think that Kat is maybe a little less user-friendly than even (Jane's Addiction leader) Perry Farrell.

"But there's a certain mystery behind her eyes--the sense that when you watch her onstage you want to be her, you want to know what it is she's thinking, that she knows something you don't know, you want to pay attention to it. It's totally not dismissible."

And, Carr notes with satisfaction, the "Lollapalooza" people left the Whisky smiling.

"I'm sure the intensity and everything comes from childhood, because that's where things come from," says Bjelland, 28, who grew up in the Portland, Ore., area. But aside from mentioning some of the music that inspired her, she doesn't have much to say about her early years.

"I never talk about my family life in the press. I just don't want to. . . . It was"--she pauses, then lets in a narrow beam of light. "I'm having a lot more fun now that I'm an adult. I just think it's funny--'You should enjoy your high school years, they're the best of your life.' People always said that to me. And you just go, 'OK, where's the knife? If this is the best. . . .' "

Bjelland signals the end of each answer with a rapid fluttering of her eyelashes, and she appears slightly distracted as she fiddles with a paper clip--one thing on her mind is food, since the demands of the day haven't allowed for a lunch break. Few of her replies are long or expansive. Like her music and lyrics, she makes her points concisely and with impact, then stops.

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