Lori Barbero: Babes in Toyland

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Lori Barbero is known as the drummer and co-founder of the iconic all-female ‘90s band, Babes in Toyland – one of the greatest all-female rock bands of all time.

Barbero formed the Minneapolis trio with lead singer/guitarist Kat Bjelland in 1987. Even though Barbero was not a drummer at the time she met Bjelland, Kat convinced her to start a band with her. The rest, as they say, is music history.

Babes played together for 14 years (Courtney Love and Jennifer Finch were members briefly). They put out a single for Sub Pop‘s singles club, released three albums, and traveled the world before disbanding in 2001.

Barbero relocated to Austin in 2008 and, while she isn’t actively seeking a music career or reliving her glory days, she’s still got her hand in music, working each year for SXSW.

We asked her to give us the scoop on what she’s up to now, her experience as a musician in the ’90s grunge scene and her thoughts on the state of women in rock.

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What you do for SXSW?

I’m an assistant production manager. Every year there’s more and more on my plate. This year the festival started on Tuesday as opposed to Wednesday so instead of six stages I was the assistant production manager for eight stages and 236 bands.

How many venues is that? 

Six venues. Two of them have two stages, inside and out.

How does it feel to be on the other side of the stage? 

I’m used to it from touring and taking care of business back then. I’m really familiar with advancing dates, talking about backline and making sure everyone has what they need. I DJ’ed for 10, 12 years up in Minneapolis so I know what the DJs need also.

Didn’t you also manage other bands for a while?

I had a record label and I did do a little bit of management.

So you handled management for Babes?

Yeah. I was the one who made sure everything was taken care of. We had a manager a couple of times but through our  career, it was mostly me.

Your band was such an integral part of the whole grunge and alternative scene. Women had a lot of presence and power at that particular moment.

They had a lot of attention but I don’t think it was really any power. Music’s always been and is still a male dominated world. I always said we had to work ten times harder to prove ourselves and get the same treatment as male bands. It was really hard to get your foot in the door and we had to work really, really, really hard – I think a lot harder than a lot of male musicians. We rehearsed a minimum of five times a week for many years and we toured a lot. We were afraid that if we slid back a little bit the slack would make us drift away. So we were really driven.

Were there other women in Minneapolis that you looked to for camaraderie?

I admired Chrissie Dunlap who worked at First Avenue. Chrissie and Maggie also booked the Uptown Bar. Those clubs booked 98 percent male bands.  The Uptown Bar was the first place in Minneapolis that Nirvana ever played and First Avenue used to bring in music from all over the world. These women were familiar with music but still operating in a man’s world. Unless you’re a sex kitten you still don’t get a page within the first 100 pages of any music magazine. You may get something in the back if you pay for an ad.

Later on down the road we played with Seven Year Bitch and then The Gits, but Mia [Zapata] was the only female in that band, bless her soul.

I had a lot of friends in music and we weren’t competing with anyone. It depends on what kind of personality you have, too. We were just having fun banging away at our instruments and enjoying life.

So was there one particular moment that catapulted you into the spotlight? 

When we got back from Europe with Sonic Youth in ’90. We had played a lot before that but we never got paid. After we came back from that tour we were really popular. People adored us and our crowd was a lot bigger. We got more respect.

Sonic Youth was a bit of a lightning rod, weren’t they? Everyone they toured with got popular. 

They are still one of my favorite bands. They brought everyone that they believed in on tour with them. I encouraged that with us too. We brought a lot of friends on tour with us. We were kind of the festival gals. We didn’t headline, but we were on a lot of festivals.

Seeing women play music at that time was so empowering.

I know. It is. I still love it.

Babes was such an important band and so few bands reach the level you did. It was a big band for the time and there still aren’t a lot of women in rock getting recognition as rock musicians. Do you ever think about that?

I guess it was just part of my life. I really embrace it. Even my roommates say, “You didn’t tell me you were in Babes in Toyland!” I don’t tell anyone. It’s a huge, huge part of my life. I’m not embarrassed about it and I don’t regret it whatsoever. It’s the greatest thing and I’m so grateful. I guess it’s because when I hear people go on [about their bands] I just roll my eyes. I’m not one of those people who wear their own band t-shirts. Some things are really sacred and very personal.

Wasn’t there a controversial book written about you guys?

I never read it. I guess I never really cared. I never even listen to our records. I guess I could listen in the privacy of my own home but I never have. I’ve never read the book. That’s just how I am.

I do think it’s important, though, for women’s stories to be told for the sake of other women. 

Maybe it’s because my dad told me I was never going to do anything in my life. At the end of the day he was really proud of me but when I got accepted to Parsons School of Design in New York he said, “Why would you ever even go there? You don’t have anything.” So that might be why I’ve never been able to accept compliments. If I’m with someone that I’ve known for a long time and we talk about a memory, then I laugh. It could be a woman thing, too. I have no idea.

Interesting because you’ve really accomplished something so inspiring.

I used to answer all of our mail at our PO box. A girl in Wisconsin wrote us a letter saying she hated her parents and wanted to kill herself. She was probably 18 or 19. I wrote her back and told her not to kill herself. I told her to just get a guitar. It doesn’t make a difference if it costs $20. She wrote back to me about a year later and said, “I don’t know if you remember me but I taught myself how to play guitar because you told me to. Thank you. If it wasn’t for your letter back to me I don’t know if I’d be alive.” I remember just weeping. If everything I did was just for that one person it makes me feel so much better. I’m not doing it to satisfy other people. I’m doing it because I enjoy it and it makes me happy. I loved traveling. I loved playing music with the people I played music with and I just loved the whole experience.

Lori Barbero is the keynote speaker at MEOW Day on May 26th. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. Click the link for details.

by Carla De Santis of MEOW

Photos courtesy of MEOW

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