"I dislike everything! I'm such a picky, snitty, pesky princess. Well, I'm actually not a princess. I'm more like a prince in drag."
Carla Bozulich, tempestuous singer of the much-heralded Geraldine Fibbers, is off and running. She's actually more easy-going than one might guess, but not when it comes to discussing outside perceptions of her music.
"Oh God, I was so fucking pissed about everything," she groans. "It's not healthy for me to read things that people write. Unhealthful, as the Surgeon General would put it. Let's see, what do I hate the most? [chuckle] I guess 'cowpunk' gets me pretty livid. And then everything that people who haven't seen Ethyl Meatplow but pretend that they have say about my old band. Very few people ever saw that band, so I know they're lying. They just say things about the band that they've heard elsewhere, and then pretend they saw us."
All right, easy now...let's steer back to the matter at hand: the Geraldine Fibbers, one of the most acclaimed new acts of recent years. Surely, despite a few misguided reviews, she must have been happy with the overall critical response to the group's fiery 1995 debut, Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home?
"Yeah, I was," she says, back on even keel. "I mean, it was sorta out of proportion. I don't think that many people heard our album. I think we had more articles written about it than individual CDs sold." She laughs again. "But it depends on how you look at it. For a band that didn't really get any commercial airplay -- we got a few spins, but nothing substantial -- we sold a lot of records. So I don't know."
Following the debut's shaky sales performance, the Fibbers endured the usual turmoil -- par for the course, ever since Bozulich launched the group in 1994 as an incongruous country-influenced offshoot of Meatplow. First, founding guitarist Daniel Keenan developed tendonitis and was forced to quit (he's now a chef in Alaska). Ever survivors, Bozulich and band shrugged off the loss and recruited veteran L.A. guitarist-at-large Nels Cline. In the meantime, Bozulich showed up on Mike Watt and Barry Adamson albums, while Sympathy for the Record Industry issued What Part of Get Thee Gone Don't You Understand, a compilation of early Fibbers material. Then, shortly after the group finally returned to the studio and recorded their second album, virtuoso violinist Jessy Greene left to join the Jayhawks. It wasn't until recently that Leyna Papach (otherwise known as Leyna Marika P.) was named Greene's permanent replacement, and this followed at least two interim players.
Somehow amidst all this upheaval, the Fibbers managed to create another stunning record, Butch. More diverse and ambitious than Lost Somewhere (if not quite as focused), Butch veers through a dizzying array of styles: slashing pop ("California Tuffy"), ferocious post-grunge ("Toybox"), thrashing punk ("I Killed the Cuckoo"), giddyup country ("Folks Like Me"), sensual dirges ("Swim Back to Me"), gnawing waltzes ("Pet Angel"), two woozy instrumentals and a couple of orchestrated pieces that completely defy classification ("Arrow to My Drunken Eye," "The Dwarf Song"). Top that off with a blistering cover of Can's "Yoo Doo Right," and you're left with the most dazzlingly versatile disc of the year. Bozulich's smoky bellow remains utterly magnetic, Cline's solos pull off everything from avant-noise to Beatle-esque simplicity, while Greene's violin/viola lines can be breathtakingly vivid (it's a shame about her departure, which apparently was under bitter circumstances).
Bozulich didn't set out to create such an expansive second record -- it just happened. "I don't really think much about approach. There's just a progression. I mean, Nels Cline, he's a great player and really the most amazing musician I've ever known, and I can't believe I'm playing with him. So bringing him into the mix, just that right there, is bound to turn everything upside-down. Although, unfortunately he wasn't able to be with us for the writing of the album, except for the song 'Butch' and a tiny part on one other song. But that's what you're hearing, the addition of him. Plus, we've just progressed quite a bit, because we recorded the other album more than two years ago. For instance, back then I was just learning how to play the guitar. I'm more versatile now, and I can move my fingers better."
If the first album's themes were largely based upon Bozulich's notorious street-kid adolescence, Butch takes a more mature stance, dwelling upon death and mourning inspired by friends lost to AIDS. (One track, "Trashman in Furs," is specifically written for the late Jim Reva, former dancer/stage performer with Ethyl Meatplow.) Bozulich admits that she's a purely instinctual writer (asked to explain the title song, she replies, "Gee, I don't know about that one -- it was total stream-of-consciousness, written in like 10 minutes"), so amusingly, her ideas about subject matter can be quite uncertain.
"Wow, I'm not really sure," she muses about "I Killed the Cuckoo." "That's one of those things where I just rattled off the words in sort of a poetic fit [laugh]. As I recall, I was in a bad mood. I don't really know. The chorus goes, 'Doesn't her smile smack of starvation?/ Her legs outstretched toward her salvation/ In a word, it's suicide, like everything else.' So as far as I can figure, it's probably about me. I'd say it's probably about me making fun of myself for getting sucked up into something to do with sex that wasn't good for me. But I'm just guessing -- I could be totally wrong.
"It's not just about that, anyway. It's never just about me. When it's about me, it's generally about women. Not all women, but women who can relate to my words as they apply to themselves. A lot of times, people think that I'm talking about somebody else and often I am, like in 'Seven out of 10' or 'Toybox.' But in 'I Killed the Cuckoo,' I think I'm talking about myself, or talking about the way a girl could feel about herself."
Got that? Or take "Folks Like Me," an almost comically simple tune matched with a far less straightforward set of lyrics. Bozulich confides, "That song is fiction. It's really kinda corny. I don't usually tell people this, but that song is about if there was a planet that wanted to commence scientific observation of the Earth. So, they sent one of their top scientists down here and put that being into a male humanoid body, and dropped him down somewhere in like Nashville or Memphis with the dialect and everything. Let's say they put a lot of their people down here, but that he's the one we're focusing on. And he's somewhere in the South -- I think he's in Nashville, frankly. He's got a little life and a cover story and everything, but really he's just doing research. He falls in love with a local woman, but his body and his whole cover have an expiration date. He can't stay down here for an unlimited amount of time -- it's like a temporary body. So the song is about not only that, but that his government or whatever doesn't understand. It's a sad song, about how he has to leave and she has to stay here."
Whew. Impenetrable tales like these help explain the confusion about Bozulich and her songwriting. Singing in the guise of a character always carries a certain amount of risk (especially when the gender is switched), and her protagonists are so harrowingly on-edge that it's easy to make clumsy conclusions about her own state of mind.
"I figure I'm asking for that," she shrugs. "I can't fault somebody for assuming that it's autobiographical. I don't have too much room to be mad."
So she's less tortured than we might think? The unbalanced, degraded, miserable heroines of her songs are mere internal creations? She chuckles. "I don't know. I mean, I have a lot of highs and lows. I'm definitely capable of all the depths that you hear in the music, but in general, I'm pretty happy and mischievous."
Happy and mischievous. Not the first words that come to mind when picturing Carla Bozulich, but then she has always been a creature of contradictions, from her volatile teen years through her Ethyl Meatplow days to the present. As one of rock's most fascinatingly complex women, it seems only natural that the mainstream music press might trail after her one day like the Courtneys and the Madonnas. But Bozulich isn't after any such global recognition.
"I wouldn't want to handle the responsibility of being 'huge.' I guess 'large' might be all right. Not extra-large. Children's large? I don't know, it's pretty scary to think about success in those terms. I don't even know how long I can do music like this. I mean, I'll always do music, but as far as existing in the commercial world, I don't know how long. Probably not very long."
So enjoy her music while you can. Just don't call her cowpunk.
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