With everything that's happened to 7 Year Bitch during the past two years, the Seattle quartet should out-gloom the most notoriously downcast rock bands, from England's landmark Joy Division to Seattle's Alice in Chains.
The first trauma for the band was the drug-related death in 1992 of original guitarist Stefanie Sargent. A year later, fellow musician and band mentor Mia Zapata was raped and murdered.
With the suicide of Seattle cohort Kurt Cobain in April and the overdose death last month of the band's friend Kristin Pfaff, bassist for the group Hole, you couldn't blame the members of 7 Year Bitch if they wanted to hang it up.
"It's really hard sometimes to keep going and keep in a good frame of mind when everybody's dropping away," says singer Selene Vigil.
But the band has fought back. The group's gruff new album, "Viva Zapata," is defiantly celebratory and very much alive.
"I will have my cake and eat it too, just like you," Vigil rails in "The Scratch." In "M.I.A.," a response to Zapata's murder, she seethes, "Does society have justice for you? Well if not, then I do."
That ability to balance the dark with the hopeful has combined with the band's strong survival instinct to gain 7 Year Bitch a loyal following in the world of alternative/college rock.
"Compared to 7 Year Bitch, most bands seem wimpy," says Jennifer Fischer, publicist at Seattle's C/Z Records, the independent label that 7 Year Bitch has been on for two years. "The band has a (defiant) attitude, and I think that a lot of people relate to that. You know, just that pure and driven anger."
The music and attitude attracted major record labels' interest, and the group recently signed with Atlantic Records, which will release the group's next album.
"Now it's just starting to feel like it did right before Stefanie died, when everything was starting to come together," says Vigil, whose husky speaking voice reflects the wear of belting the songs on tour. The 27-year-old singer is small and compact, and her bleached hair contrasts sharply with her olive skin.
"We were at this super peak when we really felt we knew what we were doing--we had a grip on it and felt it. I thought, 'God, it's never gonna be like that again,' but in the past couple months it has been. It's starting to click and gel musically and friendship-wise."
Much of the grief and rage that 7 Year Bitch felt over the murder of Zapata, leader of the group the Gits, is reflected on the album. When talking about it, Elizabeth Davis' voice quavers with intensity.
"It stunned us," says Bitch's 29-year-old bassist and songwriter. "It's something we feel and deal with every day because (the killer) still hasn't been caught. It's something still very much in the forefront of our heads."
Valerie Agnew, 25, the group's drummer, was so moved by the death that she founded a nonprofit organization, Home Alive, that promotes self-defense courses and other safeguards against rape. With increasing participation from other musicians, Home Alive also stages benefit shows and is currently working on a compilation album.
"Mia was also an extremely big influence on me--just the way she sang, and her honesty," Vigil explains.
"She was the first person who made me feel like I could sing. She was also a big help to our band when we started. They (the Gits) would let us practice in their space and helped us get shows. They were totally behind us."
Vigil grew up in Spokane, Wash., as one of six children, all of whom were exposed to a wide range of contemporary music. Her father, a hairdresser, loved Motown, blues, reggae and soul music. Her mom, a housewife, listened to country music, especially Johnny Cash.
Attracted to the youth scene in Seattle, she moved to the city soon after graduating from high school and got a job at a health food store. There she met Agnew, a fellow employee.
"That's when I first seriously started thinking about having a band," Vigil says. "Val and I thought, 'Yeah, we should do it.' We finally got up and did it, and it was terrifying. We sucked, but it was so fun I wanted to do it again and again."
They hooked up with Davis, a transplanted Southern Californian who worked in the same open market. Sargent, a well-known figure on the Seattle scene, completed the original 7 Year Bitch lineup in 1990, and the group eventually shared stages with such touted area bands as Pearl Jam. The group was signed in early 1992 by C/Z Records, but Sargent died five months later, while the band was recording its first full album.
"We couldn't even talk about the band after that," Vigil recalls. "It was more like 'Our best friend's gone.' First and foremost, we missed Stefanie. It wasn't until a couple weeks later we were able to sit down and talk about what we were gonna do with the band.