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[whitespace] Femme Metale

Bay Area sisters in rock are doing it for themselves

By Erica Pedersen

THE UNLIMITED Sunshine Tour that passed through Berkeley's Greek Theatre this summer billed itself as the messiah of alternative-rock festivals. Even with De La Soul next to the Flaming Lips, the varied lineup was still missing something to make it rock's true alternative: a girl. With eight bands, not a single player was female, except for one voyeuristic fan with blinking green lights for nipples who snuck onstage and came close enough to count coup on Cake's lead singer. Same for Moby's Area2 Fest--many genres, one lady in the form of Ash's rhythm guitarist Charlotte Hatherly. Not a lot of chicks playing Ozzfest, either.

In rock, or at least in big-money rock like the above tours (with the notable exception of Lilith Fair), women are seen as the audience, the groupies and the marginalized participants with limited access to the spoils of rock stardom. Just looking around the Bay Area, one wonders: Who are the women in rock? How do they see their place in it? Do we really take them seriously?

Like our Ms. Blinking Green Lights, a woman can be the sex object, the go-get-a-rock-star girl. She can internalize and abjectly gain association with the common tongue of rock by literally doing the rock star in the tour-bus bunks. (In one sense, she's a necessity if the whole ceremony is to function properly.)

Yes, women have risen in rock's ranks and done well--like Janis, Joan, Pat, Chrissie and Kim Gordon, to just name a scant few--but looking through the lenses of our Bay Area viewer, women rockers are exceptions to the rule of a patriarchy that still reigns. If she wants to be taken seriously for her art, be a hero, she has to pave her own way. Otherwise, it's all B(ritney).S(pears).

But this doesn't deter women from trying--more now than ever--and a number of homegrown acts boast female members. One such, sixseven, which features Julia Cooke on drums, was featured nightly in the Punk Rock Band "Night Moves" installation at the Institute for Contemporary Art on South First Street in downtown San Jose. Theatrical orchestral-metal Lords of the Manor boasts Jessica Zumwalt on keyboards and Julie Matthews on guitar. The eerie new avant-garde band Corpus Callosum features Kate Stewart on oboe, saxophone and the golden calf; similarly, Xiu Xiu contains multi-instrumentalist Lauren Andrews. The Feathers combines sweet vocals with classic garage-band rock. Gothic-industrial band Control Theory includes Corinne on bass and programming. Santa Cruz's indie-emo Tenth of Always showed its stuff at LadyFest, the popular female-rock extravaganza in San Francisco.

Many other bands that are dominated by male musicians are led by women. Hippie Aggression is fronted by Gigi Bautista; Picnic is fronted by Sally Crosthwait; Atomic Mint is fronted by Brianna; Hope Child is fronted by Natalia; and emaneht is fronted by Renee. Then there are local singer/songwriters, like Lisa Dewey and Tiana Noyes, who often take the stage backed by their own band of men.

Dewey, who has taken to promoting as well as performing, believes that things are getting a little easier for women in rock "mostly because there are some forerunning women in the industry who have helped pave the path ... such as Ani Difranco, Joni Mitchell, Madonna, Kim Gordon, Bonnie Raitt, Exene, PJ Harvey, etc."

Dewey adds that "there are a lot of women now who just do it all themselves. Also, there are a lot of organizations that help women get shows and also help promote each other."

The Donnas
Donnas of a New Era: Peninsula girl-band pioneers the Donnas, currently on tour with Jimmy Eat World, release their new CD 'Spend the Night' next month.

The peninsula-bred Donnas are without a doubt the most successful of the pure femme band. Currently on tour with Jimmy Eat World, the Palo Alto gals are gearing up to release their latest, Spend the Night, on Oct. 22. Unfortunately, they're celebrating the release not here on their home turf but at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Oct. 24.

On a more grassroots level, the Feathers have been winning fans over at San Jose clubs like Kleidon's Lounge and Plant 51. Bubblegum pop trio Skye has also been making ripples. The perky group played this year's Concert for the Homeless and was recently featured on San Jose's Stand UP, It's Thursday NIte! variety show.

So clearly, girls are welcome in the South Bay. Most people would agree that there should be more women in rock and, as a result, make a point to encourage female musicians and vocalists on a local level. The double bill of Seattle's Hell's Belles (an all-girl AC/DC tribute band that called it quits earlier this year) and Sacramento's the Skirts routinely packed audiences into the Usual back before it became spy. Regional female-fronted rock groups like Sacramento's Luxt and Petaluma's Tsunami Bomb get such good response from South Bay audiences that they return as often as they can.

From the north, we've got bass-playing dominatrix (Shera Storm), an all-girl rock metal band (Shevel Knievel), a hard-rockin' singer fronting an all-male band (Daphne of Forcing Bloom) and a metal bass player gigging with her husband (Meg Castellanos of Totimoshi). The ways in which these women infiltrate rock in this area are as varied as rock itself. But a similar stance as women artists in a niche staked by men runs through them all.

Apocalypstick Eye of the Storm: The North Bay's Apocalypstick features bass-playing dominatrix Shera Storm, who makes men bark onstage, dress like 'pink pig boys' and otherwise grovel for her affections.

Art vs. Sex

What is it about rock that draws players, of any gender? Rock isn't about being a good girl, or a good boy, for sure. It's about abandon, recklessness and searching. Its rewards are recognition, fame, sex, unlimited access to a psychic expanse of drugs, freedom, travel, cash and a creative life warping the fringes of normalcy.

But giants guard the golden egg. Castellanos says that "losing money on tours, sleeping on piss floors, dealing with asshole bookers," are just some of the unladylike holes in success's way. That's precisely what makes it an adventure, something to esteem players for: that the players are doing what they must, however uncertain.

Asked about the difference for women in folk rock (you know, socially conscious stuff) vs. hard rock, Daphne says, "Women have already conquered folk rock, that's all." It's the hard-rock scene where sex and art are still at odds.

For her, the key to success in hard rock is to "stop using sex as a tool." Only then "will women be more of a threat to the male-dominated hard-rock scene."

One of the biggest commonalities among these women is that, first off, they aren't objects of someone else's desire. They are their own subjects. As part of her hard-rock performance group, Apocalypstick, San Francisco's bass-playing dominatrix, Shera Storm (a.k.a. Mistress Vega Lee), does things her way by turning men into pink pig boys (officers of her law) onstage to objectify them--"They're much sexier that way." Extreme, yes, but it does shift the poles, and even helps men "learn how to bark" and explore their own objectivity.

Feathers Feathered Frenzy: Local South Bay bands like the Feathers have been wooing club-goers at Kleidon's and Plant 51.

Crazy Beautiful

All of these women possess a compulsion for the form. Shera sees herself as addicted to rock, "the organic feel of something that is raw, natural, that says what it means and means what it says." At 9 years old, Isabel from Shevel Knievel knew where she "belonged" the first time she heard Metallica ("For Whom the Bell Tolls").

With a fake ID, Meg saw "Bad Brains just totally rip it up" and knew she "wanted to be a part of that." And for Daphne, "this [rock] chose me, and I'm not going to turn my back on that and mess it up." These women are doing what they love, and that motivation isn't gendered, it's human.

Compulsion is different to each of our ladies, but for each it has nothing to do with la femme. Shera created her group from scratch as a way to "create a physical form of what goes on in [her] head 24 hours a day." For Shevel's guitar player, Evel T, rock isn't about anger, "it's about a release that brings joy." For Castellanos, it's not about rebellion, but about the "power" of heavy punk and metal. Daphne says she's "out here with my sword and my shield, and it's crazy and beautiful."

As for playing with men, all of these ladies do, except for Shevel Knievel's drummer, Evel I. She says, "Very few of my guy friends take me seriously, not that I necessarily want them to. Nonetheless, I think men love women in rock."

Drums, a most male enclave, might be a final frontier for women rock instrumentalists, but girls have oddity on their side. And that stagnancy, that gender predictability of rock lineups (ho-hum, another four guys in a band), is most likely what engendered the boredom that made us all resurrect Elvis, dead now for 25 years.

As for the next 25 years, the business savvy of women musicians, learning how to record, finance and distribute, will help bring balance to the rock force. And the breeding of a whole new crop of female players, ones encouraged to play from the get go, will inevitably change the playing field. Just imagine what will happen when an army of girls brought up on Daisy Rock guitars, a new line of electric guitars targeted for little girls, grows up and hits the mainstream. Pioneer Tish Ciravolo hopes the flower body design and narrow frets will give girls the musical "confidence" and "self-assurance" to bust the biased structure to bits.

Like Evel T says, "Guys get more radio play and more money. I guess they get more history, too."

Not for long.

There just might come a time when we recall that in European guitar creation myths, a woman chased by a man disguises herself as a guitar and transforms female flesh into sonorous wooden curves.

Sarah Quelland contributed to this piece.

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From the September 26-October 2, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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