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Shooting the Shit with Babes in Toyland's Lori Barbero

A riot grrrl original, Lori is a Minneapolis music scene mainstay with stories to spare.

by Kim Taylor Bennett
Jul 11 2014, 5:02pm

I’m only told that I’m talking to Lori Barbero—the drummer of Babes in Toyland—a couple of hours before we meet outside historic Minneapolis venue First Avenue and 7th Street Entry. For someone who really fell hard for music when grunge and riot grrrl bands were making headlines, this is a pretty major moment. Back then artists like BIT and Hole, with their sloppily applied lipstick, torn up baby doll dresses and scorched earth feminine rage, spoke to my teen angst and parent-angled annoyance. Trust me when I say that when your mom grounds you for a year for lying and sneaking up to London to visit your then-boyfriend, there is no better soundtrack to bouncing off four walls than Fontanelle.

Although Lori currently splits her time between Austin—working for SXSW and helming Good Horse Record Company—and her hometown of Minneapolis, every musician I spoke with as part of Made in Minnesota immediately sung Lori’s praises as the ultimate connector and consummate host. It’s clear why: she’s a ball of giddy energy, her mind a giant roladex of bands and accompanying stories, music that blows her mind, and people who continue to move her today. Despite over 20 years in the biz her enthusiasm remains undimmed. I talked to her about Minneapolis, all the bands who crashed on her floor over the years—Nirvana, Sonic Youth, et al—and of course Babes in Toyland.

So, we’re outside First Ave. How many times have you played this venue?
Lori: I don’t have that many brain cells to count that high. Honestly, we played here quite a bit. We toured for about ten months a year for about ten years. This is our tarmac: when we came back to town, we just kind of landed here. It really is the best club in the world. I go to Austin, Texas and come back and it’s just wonderful. I used to come here years ago when it was called The Depot and then it was Uncle Sams, then Sam’s, and then First Avenue. Back in the day, this was the Greyhound station. It was disco in the late 70s and they had a floor with the lights. I used to win disco dance competitions with my neighbor’s brother. I was very young, but he taught me how to dance. I was young, but we’d win money disco dancing.

Do you still have those moves?
I actually kind of know them because when I go to Austin, the two-step is not that different than the disco. The whole moves and the dips.

That was disco. So, when did rock ’n’ roll take over your brain?
I moved to New York in high school, in ninth grade. It was magnificent. I found CBGB, I saw Queen. That was the best. I still have the ticket stub and the t-shirt. It was really great.

How formative was Minneapolis itself to your music development?
My first concert was the Jackson Five at Met Sports Center, I was in sixth grade. Now it’s where the Mall of America parking lot is. Then in ninth grade, I went out to New York and then that’s when I got into Patti Smith a lot. I ran around with Alan Vega [of Suicide] and a couple other people, Johnny Thunder—saw those guys. I was kind of crazy and young and they liked me. It worked out good.

What was the music scene like in Minneapolis when you started doing Babes in Toyland?
It was ’87. I started playing in Babes in Toyland when most musicians actually retired. I didn’t started until I was older. I had met Kat and we got together and found Michelle. There was some really great stuff. The great thing about being old is I saw all the great bands. I saw The Replacements all the time and used to hang out with them in their rehearsals—Hüsker Dü.It was so funny when people started putting those two together. I’m like I’m out with them all the time, I’ve never seen that. People really convinced me that they didn’t get along, but I was like I really don’t remember that. There was this thing they were doing saying that they just didn’t like each other.

They were secret buddies?
They were. It was within the band that there weren’t really buddies. The Suicide Commandos were one of the first punk bands actually—they were a power trio Minneapolis in the late 70s. You should look them up if you haven’t heard of them

So, it was a pretty unified scene?
It was. It was really fun and small. Prince used to play at The Entry and there would be 15-25 people. This was in the early 80s with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and stuff. I worked at a punk rock bar down the road called The Longhorn. That was the punk rock club where The Replacements played with the Plasmatics. Iggy Pop played there and he stopped the show because he saw that people were being really aggressive.

And you’re friends with Craig from The Hold Steady too, right?
Yes. All of those boys, they’re all my buddies.

What about Soul Asylum? Craig was like they’re one of the best live bands around.
They really were. The original Soul Asylum. When they went with the second drummer, they were really, really fun. It was great. Then they started playing at The White House and then Carl, bless his heart, passed away from cancer and that was the end of that. Dave still plays.

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Lori and Noisey's Kim Taylor Bennett.

One of the things that I’ve been noticing as we’ve been hoping around these cities in America is that a lot of the people, specifically the girls, are saying it’s a much more open space for women to play. It goes without saying that there are so many more girls involved in music now. What was it like for you back in the day? You said you were getting a lot of press, but you didn’t have a lot of power.
That is true. I think rock and roll is still male and there’s a strong male domination. What I see a lot are that women are front people again like it was back in the Motown days. They didn’t actually play the instruments, they sang and it was great, but I want women to pick up their instruments and learn it. I had no idea what I was doing, I still don’t. Everyone is like, “Can you give my daughter a drum lesson?” I’m like, “No, I have no idea what the hell I’m doing!”

You’re totally self-taught, right?
I am. I don’t even know how to read music and I don’t even know what the hell I’m doing. You just have to do it. It’s not going to hurt anybody and it’s really empowering just to be able to do something that is creative. You gain this relationship with people you never really thought you would ever know. Our first tour in Europe was with Sonic Youth and they’re still my idols. And now my modern day idol is Lizzo. Things just fall into place. The first time we ever played here, at the Seventh Street Entry was with Dinosaur. I don’t think they were even Dinosaur Jr.— they were Dinosaur. We rehearsed in my basement, and when we had to move my gear, I had no idea how to break this stuff down. So, when it was time to put everything in our van, I picked it up and put it in the van exactly how it was set up in the basement because I wouldn’t know how to reset it up.

We drove like three miles per hour because we didn’t want it to tip over. Ryan Anderson, who is still the sound engineer here, I’m doing soundcheck and J. Mascis is stand there, my leg is shaking and Ryan goes, “Lori, hit the snare!” And I’m just sitting there and everyone’s look at me and I’m like, “Which one is the snare?” Everyone just started laughing and I wanted to die! Women need to embarrass themselves and play an instrument. You can sing and do whatever you want, but pick up and a damn instrument. It is so much fun. And you know what, when it’s not fun anymore, don’t do it.

Babes in Toyland lance bangs

Lori and director Lance Bangs.

How did you meet Lizzo originally?
Through Har Mar Superstar. She was doing backup vocals on a tour. I played with him and managed him on different tours. I really loved her song “Batches and Cookies.” I DJ so sometimes I would play that. I would make up my own words. I think that she’s just really strong. She just doesn’t care. She says what she wants. She’s cute and she goes all out. That’s what I’m talking about. She’s not contained. Just do it.

Back when you lived here all the time bands would come through and you’d take them around right? Who did you show around and what would you take them to do?
I can’t even tell you what bands I’ve hosted. I had a half-pipe in my backyard for a while, so I had a lot of skaters. I had everyone from Black Flag to Minor Threat. I used to do all ages shows before there were all ages shows. Nirvana’s first show was at the Uptown Bar and I actually worked there. When they tried to get off stage, I just made everyone hold wrists and say no.

Was it crazy?
No, there weren’t that many people there, but we wouldn’t let them off stage! Then they stayed with me and we continued our friendship from them. I don’t even know what year that was. That was early on. It was the Uptown Bar Prince sang about and now it’s an Apple store, unfortunately.

Oh jeez. That’s depressing. Do you get annoyed about people asking you about the past?
I really don’t mind. I can’t say I don’t have any regrets. I really don’t. Everything is really great. I regret not buying this really unbelievable dragon at this antique store like 30 years ago. It’s my only regret. It was this bronze dragon.

If that’s your only regret, you’re doing pretty good.
I’m very proud of the city I’m from. I’ve very proud of the people I’ve crossed paths with and continue to cross paths with. Being from the Twin Cities and just playing music. The thing for me was I started band because I liked the idea of playing drums, it’s the spine and it’s that beat. So, when I started doing it I said I don’t care if anyone even likes us. I would like it just as much if someone didn’t like us. If someone can have an emotion when they see you, you’ve done what you came to do. I played music because I love travelling and loved my bandmates and I loved playing my drums and writing new songs. When Babes in Toyland first started in my basement, we’d play a song and we’d just start laughing. It was weird. It was so funny to us. If we could affect anyone in any way emotionally or affecting them and their path of playing an instrument or even managing bands or starting a record label, that’s great. If we can affect one person, that makes the world a better place.

You did have that girl from Wisconsin write to you that she was very depressed and considering suicide and you wrote back to her. What happened?
I told her to buy a guitar because she always wanted to play guitar. I said if you need any help buying a guitar, I’m sure that we could figure something out. She was just really young. A lot of really young kids don’t realize that it does get better. She ended up getting a guitar and wrote back saying that now when I play the guitar, I just cry because I’m so happy. I still think about her. I wonder whatever happened with her. I lived in this house that they tore down, but that’s where all the bands stayed with me. It’s kind of sad. They paved paradise to put in a parking lot. We had a P.O. box though and I would write all the letters and answer all the mail. It was important to me—I love communicating with people. If someone wants to say something, even if it was just a postcard, if it was really personal, I would write a letter so no one else could read it. I did that for a long time. I personally answered all of our mail for a really long time. I think I put my phone number on our first record, too. It may still be my phone number. I never listened to us, so I’ll have to pull out a record and listen.

What do you mean you’ve never listened to your own record?
Nope. I was in the studio when we mixed it and when it was done, it’s done. I’ve never listened to it!

Babes in Toyland back in the day...

With everyone doing reformations, what are the chances Babes in Toyland will get back together?
Maybe a chance. Us women have not been in the same room for probably I would say 12 or 13 years. First I’d have to listen to us. I listened to one song the other day partially, but I turned it off because I got all flustered. I’d have to relearn everything. I really would. Everyone says if you just sit there and do it, it’s like riding a bike. But it would have to be a three-wheel bike because I have to be balanced. I haven’t played the songs since the last show. The last show was here at First Ave too: we didn’t announce it, it just happened. And that’s OK, it’s a good way to do it.

So when you walk through these doors at First Ave, do you feel all kinds of crazy emotions?
Yeah, I really like it. Anyone who knows me knows I’m really sentimental. I cry from happiness. I don’t cry as much from sadness, but I get moved. I hear things I love, I cry. I just really like being here. I feel comfortable and I have tons of history with this place. It’s nice to be home.

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Episode 3 - Made in Minnesota - Featuring Lizzo, The Replacements, The Hold Steady, Hüsker Dü, and Babes in Toyland

Made in Minnesota - Behind the Scenes Snaps with Lizzo, The Hold Steady, Hüsker Dü, and Babes in Toyland

Lizzo Tried to Teach Me to Twerk in a Minneapolis Lake

Lance Bangs in Conversation with Tommy Stinson of The Replacements