Welcome to our latest author Q&A, where we chat to the writers behind new and upcoming 33 1/3 books! Today Selena Chambers talks to us about her addition to the series: Babes in Toyland’s Fontanelle. She tells us more about the fun and challenging parts of writing her first 33 1/3, what content didn’t make it into the finished book, and why Fontanelle is such a captivating album.
How would you describe your book in one sentence?
A critical celebration of Babes in Toyland’s overlooked contributions to the feminist aesthetics and conversations of the 1990s.
What drew you to this album?
Everything. I first heard Babes in Toyland in 1993 via their EP Painkillers. Before that, I had read about them in various magazines, and I found their visual presentation curious and captivating. For example, when I saw Painkillers in the record store, I didn’t know it was the Babes at first, and I certainly didn’t know about Cindy Sherman yet, but something about the discarded doll wearing a grotesque clown mask appealed to me. It wasn’t like an aesthetic pleasure, so much, as a feminine recoil—and that was what was interesting.
But then I finally got to hear them, and it was an ecstatic moment. I have had a lot of first-encounter artistic epiphanies before and after Babes in Toyland, but this was unlike anything I had known at that time, and it was absolutely everything I wanted. My personal feminism was built upon the foundations of their noise.
This band presented an alternative example of a future womanhood I could aspire to. It was a presentation of a space that I didn’t know existed, much less I could access since, up until that moment, I’d seen it only occupied by men. But here, they’d been thrown out and there were full-grown women performing this art harder and more uniquely than their counterparts. I would become obsessed with this space—or lack there of—for the rest of my life.
If you were introducing someone to Babes in Toyland or Fontanelle for the first time, what would you recommend they listen to?
I do this a lot, actually, and when I do, I play an earlier song: “Dust Cake Boy.”
This was their very first 7-inch single via Treehouse records, and it was re-recorded by Jack Endino for their first album Spanking Machine for Twin Tone. Among those versions, I recommend the single because it is unrelenting noise with Bjelland’s raw lyrics and ferocious voice. It’s kind of scary to hear, and that’s what I most want to convey to new listeners—the unapologetic violence and pathos that is at the center of Babes in Toyland’s aesthetics. The Treehouse single is a rare collectible now, but thanks to awesome YouTube channels like Kicker of Elves, you can check it below.
What was it like writing the book? Did you learn anything new about Fontanelle that you didn’t know going into the project?
Writing the book was a humbling and vulnerable process. The most fun, but also unexpectedly difficult, part was getting to meet my heroes. It was an honor to interview almost all but one member of Babes in Toyland, but it was also daunting because, due to the way the band was covered in the past, I found I had to ask many wrong questions first to get to the right ones. And those questions were sometimes uncomfortable for me to broach.
Another difficulty was that my original intent of trying to make an incomplete history whole was quickly thwarted when I learned early on during the research phase that the Babes’ A&R manager, Tim Carr, had tragically passed away in 2013, and that front woman Kat Bjelland was critically ill and unreachable. Those were two major voices who had been heard least in the Babes’ history, and I had to figure out how to keep moving forward while honoring the negative space Carr and Bjelland’s absence held in the narrative.
It was a lot to work through, and I flailed for a while until I realized that what was needed was a vulnerable structure that would allow for both the known and unknown to work together, as well as the hard facts of the band members’ experience with the critical analysis and cultural interpretations. Fortunately, such a structure had been staring me in the face the whole time via the idea of the fontanelle. I used the structure of a baby’s skull, with its five unattached skull plates and two oculi waiting to suture and heal.
Are there any interesting stories that didn’t make it into the final book?
The only thing that was cut from the book that could warrant a follow-up somewhere else is the Battle of the Dress controversy. I ultimately cut it because I learned from other people that the wounds inflicted by that whole thing cut much deeper than I initially thought. This story, a media-concoction pitting Bjelland against her close friend Courtney Love over the inane notion that one of them stole the other’s dress style, has haunted Babes in Toyland’s career worse than Love’s husband has haunted hers. To go any further with that discussion, I wanted it to be in Bjelland’s words, but as previously mentioned that was impossible. So, I decided that, for once, that discussion didn’t really need to come up at all.
But, I do have opinions about it and Bjelland’s overall contribution to the Kinderwhore look. I talk about it briefly in the Anterior Fontanelle chapter, and maybe that’s enough, because really Kinderwhore belongs to neither Bjelland nor Love. It belongs to both of them as well as others like Katie Jane Garside and Chrissy Amphlett.
If you got the chance to write a 33 1/3 on one other album – what are you picking?
L7’s Bricks Are Heavy deserves to be discussed alongside Hole’s Live Through This and Babes in Toyland’s Fontanelle. I think of these albums as attributes akin to the Triple Goddess—Fontanelle would be the maiden, Live Through This the mother, and Bricks Are Heavy the Crone. In embodying the Crone, Bricks Are Heavy takes on the same kind of feminist confrontations present in the other two albums, but with a disarming wisdom of addressing political and societal wrongs through irony and witty anecdotes. If “Wargasm” isn’t the paragon of crone wisdom, I don’t know what is.
Selena Chambers is author of the feminist horror story collection Calls for Submission (2017) and co-author (as S. J. Chambers) of the critically-acclaimed The Steampunk Bible (2011). Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Colorado Book Award, Best of the Net, as well as the Hugo Award and World Fantasy award (twice). You can find her online at SelenaChambers.com or on Twitter @BasBleuZombie.
Babes in Toyland’s Fontanelle is out now and available in bookshops and online (including at Bloomsbury.com).