"Won't you look inside and see what's inside a girl like me?"
So goes the rather innocent sounding question that Geraldine Fibbers' lead singer/songwriter Carla Bozulich offers up to open "Swim Back To Me," a cunningly simple track from the band's new album, Butch. As she begins answering her own query-- "rivers of blood flow from my eyes..."-- it's difficult not to be overcome with a morbid curiosity. After all, rivers of blood don't flow from my eyes, even after a serious night of boozing, so what the hell's happened to this poor girl to create such an affliction?
That, it seems, is the question everyone wants answered about the Geraldine Fibbers. Over the course of two disturbing albums and a handful of singles and EPs, the band has delivered up perversely raw shards of emotion in the form of artsy country-punk gospels that seem to rise out of Los Angeles' urban landscape like steam from a sewer cap. Bozulich's shrieks and howls have always sounded upsettingly real, the piercing guitars and violin infusing every song with an unhealthy dose of emotional truth. And the journalistic search for the source of this truth has led back time and time again to the figure of Carla Bozulich.
Shortly after the Fibbers first crash-landed on the pop music landscape, an article that Bozulich had written for the fanzine Ben Is Dead back in 1992 (which detailed her past, including time as both a heroin addict and a prostitute) surfaced and began hounding Bozulich and the rest of the band. Writers dug around, turning over every stone they could find, and quickly drew their own conclusions about her life and how it related to her music. In return, they drew her ire. Her life story has become fodder to sell magazines, largely overshadowing the Fibbers' remarkable first two albums, and she's sick of it.
"I'm getting about ready to quit doing interviews," Bozulich told me in a very even tone before the Fibbers' recent Atlanta appearance. "I'm pissed off about it. I'm tired of people taking my life story out of context, twisting it around, editing out stuff that I say so it changes the meaning, printing it in these articles that continue to appear to where there's stacks and stacks and stacks of printed matter presuming to know my life story. It's really insulting to me, and it's become a major problem in terms of whether I continue to do music publicly or not. Even at this little stage I'm at, people feel like my life is open season and that I'm not entitled to any private life at all or any kind of journalistic integrity in terms of keeping things in context.
"I think it's a game for tougher people than me," she continued. "I'm tough in a lot of ways, and I guess I'm tough in that way, too. Like, I don't know if I really care, but part of me feels like just being a brat and denying access to myself anymore. And people say, 'Well, they'll keep writing about you, they just won't ask you anymore.' Maybe then, that's when it's time to get out the 4-track and make little records that nobody could possibly give a shit about except small, credible fanzines."
What's amazing is that all this attention has been lavished on a band which managed to sell only 15,000 copies of its brilliant debut album, Lost Somewhere Between The Earth And My Home, and whose most recent effort, Butch, probably won't fare much better despite being one of the best albums of the year to date. Madonna expects the paparazzi outside her window, but why should Bozulich? Part of it certainly has to do with the intensely intimate feel that Bozulich lends to all the Fibbers' songs. Listening to songs like "Dragon Lady" or "Toybox," you feel as if you've glimpsed a bit of her soul. Then-- in the same way you rifle through your new girlfriend's closet, digging for skeletons the first time she leaves you alone in her room-- you want to know where Bozulich got her scars.
"I know I have an interesting story. I have a fascinating life story as a matter of fact, but that's my business as far as I'm concerned. I did that; I lived that life; I went through it and it's my fuckin' business. And if somebody wants to ask me about it, then I'll answer them any way I want."
Strangely enough, as Bozulich tells me this, the emotion she's expressing is not the sort of anger that probably leaps off the page with phrases like "I'm pissed off..." and "that's my fuckin' business." Instead, it's a sort of weariness that seems barely able to muster the strength to shout, "ENOUGH ALREADY!" In fact, contrary to the menacing image which has been layed upon Bozulich by the press in recent years, she's actually incredibly sweet and almost soft-spoken. She battles through laryngitis to do this interview simply because she vaguely remembers having fun the last time I talked to her... over a year and a half ago. What her wide eyes convey is almost a sort of shell-shock at everything that's happened to her world in the last five years. Now, she's just trying to regain her balance.
Bozulich formed the Fibbers with guitarist Daniel Keenan, bassist William Tutton, drummer Kevin Fitzgerald, and a revolving door of violin players (the most memorable of which was Jessy Greene, who played on both albums) after spending time in the bizarro industrial sex-core outfit, Ethyl Meatplow. Following an EP titled Get Thee Gone (released on Sympathy for the Record Industry), Virgin won a bidding war that had the Fibbers pegged as the Next Big Thing. The industry could smell country-rock around the corner like cowshit in a barn, and since Bozulioch and Co. were known to actually cover George Jones live-- with a straight face, no less-- expectations were high. What Virgin got, though, was not the No Depression retreads they expected, but an album of punk rage filtered through old Hank Williams and Tammy Wynette records.
Then, when Lost Somewhere Between The Earth And My Home caught the ears of the mainstream music press, something strange happened... they liked it. Bearing no similarity to anything else on the musical landscape, the album had the frightening feel of a fairy tale gone awry. Conventional melodies and song structures were bastardized by a band who loved saying "fuck you" and "bless you" at the same time.
The band slaved over their debut, ripping their souls out, dropping them into the album's grooves, and nearly destroying the band in the process. The first time I spoke to Bozulich and then-guitarist Daniel Keenan, they reflected on the painstaking work that went into their debut. Keenan noted that it was so "draining" that at times he didn't want to do it. Two years later, holed up to record Butch, much had changed.
"It was just the opposite," Bozulich said, comparing the trials of making Butch with that of the first album. "It was much easier. It was really fast. We were totally together when we went in the studio."
The "we" Bozulich refers to, though, had also changed. Keenan, the Fibbers' original guitarist and Bozulich's on-again, off-again boyfriend, had left the band. The official explanation for his departure was the worsening of his chronic tendonitis, which rendered him unable to keep up with the band's grueling tour regimen. Pressed for any additional factors that may have contributed to his departure, Bozulich pauses before sticking to her guns.
"Well...tendonitis was the main thing."
She freely admits, though, that Keenan's exit was one of the main reasons things got easier for the band on Butch.
"Things got easier after Daniel left... I hate to say that-- I wish it wasn't true-- but Daniel and me fought all the time. So when that was over, it was just a lot easier in general-- a lot less fucking horrible. I mean, that interview me and him did with you was really fun, and when we had fun together, we had a great time. [But] it was almost like we were capable of too much extremes. There's some really good things about that, but it's a lot easier now."
Keenan was replaced by guitar guru Nels Cline, whom Bozulich met when the two were recording material for (former Minuteman) Mike Watt's solo album, Ball Hog or Tugboat?. They struck up a connection immediately, with Cline filling in for an ailing Keenan while the Fibbers were touring behind the first album. His presence has significantly changed the dynamic of the band, and his influence on the band's direction can not be underestimated. Cline brings some whacked-out genius to the band's already potent brew, filling every bare space in the Fibbers' songs with yelps and yaws from his guitar. His bandmates regularly marvel at his proficiency, and don't need to be prodded much to sing his praises.
According to Bozulich, "Nels Cline is the best musician I could ever hope to meet in my entire life."
Bassist William Tutton adds, "Nels is pretty much the single most talented musician I've ever played with. I know, myself, I really wanted to impress him with what I was doing."
Despite his bandmate's testimonials, nowhere is it more evident what the rest of the band thinks of Cline than on stage. As he lurches into one solo or another, the rest of the band gazes, awestruck that he manages to charge the tunes with even more energy than that with which they were originally written. He seems to float into another plane when he really gets going, with a look of near-rapture coming over him.
Cline's presence also helped to stir things up musically on the new album. In bringing elements of the kind of free, experimental jazz that he played with people like Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo to the Geraldine Fibbers' already warped mix of country, folk, blues and rock, Cline brought his new bandmates the confidence to extend themselves as far as possible.
"We challenged ourselves a lot more. We weren't deliberate. It wasn't anything we discussed," Tutton said of the band's approach to Butch. "[But] a lot more thought went into each song, and I think it flows more cohesively as a whole..."
As the band wrapped up the recording of Butch-- proud of their work and happy to have overcome the loss of a key figure in the band-- they were hit with an unexpected shot to the head. Another face decided to drop off of their publicity photo, this one in the form of violinist Jessy Greene, who blindsided the rest of the band by quitting to join the Jayhawks. While her reasons were unclear to everyone else in the Fibbers, speculation abounded that it had a lot to do with her relationship with Jayhawks frontman Gary Louris, whom she met while the Fibbers toured with Louris' country-rock supergroup, Golden Smog.
"That was a shock," Bozulich said somewhat resignedly. "We had no idea. I don't know what to say about it other than it fucked me up more than you can imagine as far as just being a pain in the ass and a really bad fuck-over."
Greene was replaced by the classically-trained Leyna Marika P., who, according to Bozulich, is the best of the five violin players the band has gone through. Her rather staid appearance is a striking contrast to the rest of the band on stage, but Bozulich insists that she fits in much better with the band than Greene ever did. Nonetheless, bitterness still abounds over Greene's departure.
"I wouldn't have gotten another violin player at all if Jessy had played her hand before we finished recording and mixing the album, but she waited until just the right moment and we had to. I would have rewritten the album, because it hurt so bad to have to go through this bullshit. I thought that things would be fine with her and [that] if she wanted to leave, she would have before the recording process of any album took place, because she had agreed to do that years before. If she had left [before the album was made], we would've made a different album."
Probably an even more vicious one, if you can imagine that. So maybe Greene's departure was more of a blessing than the band even imagined. After all, could anyone have handled a bloodier, gorier, more frightening album than Butch? Well, maybe. After all, you should never underestimate the public's lust for blood. Bozulich doesn't; they've been after hers for quite some time now.
"It's just the day and age we're in now. People are just bloodthirsty to hear about drama and trouble."
Which is what will bring them back, time and time again, to the Geraldine Fibbers.
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