Tell No Lies

With Butch the Geraldine Fibbers and Carla Bozulich are lost no more
by Robert Wilonsky
New Times Los Angeles July 24-30, 1997

She lives about 20 minutes away, but she does not want to meet in person. She ostensibly knows how to dial a phone, yet she has her publicist place the call from a third location and patch her through. sometimes, musicians seem to enjoy being eccentric simply because they can, turning even such simple things as interviews into the stuff of high drama. Then, you get the feeling Carla Bozulich lives for drama, that she enjoys making others feel uncomfortable simply because she can.

Such is the small reward, perhaps, for a woman whose band released a remarkable album two years ago only to find writers discussing her life instead of her art, placing her at the scene of the crime with so much talk of heroin days and street-walking nights. The record, Lost Somewhere Between The Earth And My Home, became less about the music and more about reading in between the lyrics: Was she Lillybelle, the woman rocking in the dark to voices in her head? Was she the "girl so sleepy she could not be roused"? Was she the "girlie" who was "kinda surly, stuck a needle in her eye"? Yes, of course she was them all--a very long time ago. A decade ago to be precise, long before she cleaned up and set straight a punk-rock life that began in San Pedro, where she hung out with Minuteman George Hurley, and brought her to Echo Park, to Virgin Records and to the brink of greatness with a band called the Geraldine Fibbers.

The Fibbers have just released their second full length album, Butch, and it is among the finest records you will have the pleasure of hearing this year. No, wait, not one of the finest--make that one of the oddest records you will hear in 1997 and one of the most disorienting, one of the most beguiling, one of the most enthralling. And maybe it's not such a pleasure to hear either, nor should it be. Butch might as well be a compilation: every song sounds different than the one before it and the one after it. It's almost a dare, bigger than life, made up of pieces of everything you've ever heard before and things you didn't even know existed.

The Fibbers began in 1993 as a country offshoot, a way for Bozulich to act out her Bobbie Gentry and Dolly Parton and George Jones fantasies during their days fronting the sex-obsessed too-hip-hop band Ethyl Meatplow. The earliest Fibber songs, like "Marmalade" and "Outside Of Town" and a Carter Family-styled cover of 'Beck's "Blue Cross" were like Appalachian folk ballads dressed in punk finery, with banjos and lap steels forcing their way through the feedback. In an instant the woman who sang 'Devil's Johnson', the anti-crack anthem off Ethyl Meatplow's sole release, 1993's Happy Days, Sweetheart, was singing murder ballads like a Tennessee refugee.

But the country fetish has long since given way to metal side trips and ambient tangents and new-wave hoedowns; Butch is almost indefinable, intangible, maybe even impenetrable at first. From the edgy tension of 'I Killed The Cuckoo" to the hazily gorgeous instrumental "Claudine" to the country-tinged "Folks Like Me" and "Pet Angel" to the cello bound-and- gagged "Arrow To My Drunken Eye" to the cover of Can's "You Doo Right" to the orchestrated freakout of "The Dwarf Song", it's a record that frightened even Bozulich at first. She was convinced almost until the end it could never be out in any sort of order, that it didn't make sense. That, in the end, is or perhaps the point.

"I really think people are being sold a bill of goods in general at this time in our little story," Bozulich says. "You look a round and everything is exactly the same. There's these limitations and boundaries on everything that people don't even question. Like your average 20- to 25-year old person doesn't remember when cars didn't all look the same, you know what I mean? And they don't remember when the music on the radio used to get airplay because it didn't sound like anything else. It's the opposite now. You get airplay if you sound like something else successful, but people that are before a certain age have never seen that. It's a bad thing and that's kind of one of my little causes, I think, to let people know that limitations are a myth.

"Take me, for instance. I don't think I'm a genius or anything. I'm lucky because I've been exposed to so much beauty and so much amazing fucking mind-blowing rock and roll and all this crazy film and art that I've always embraced. You can still find that now, but you have to search a lot harder than I did when I was a kid and when I was a young teenager. I think people need to dare each other. I think that for some reason it's subversive right now just to be creative. I mean, that's... pathetic."

Butch is 'Lost Somewhere' times a thousand, string sections filling in the awkward silences and band newcomer Nels Cline's' guitar pushing up against the sky like Chuck Yeager in search of Mach 1. The Fibbers are now down one Jessy Greene, the violinist who has since departed to join her boyfriend in the Jayhawks (Greene is all over the 'Hawks ;latest 'Sound Of Lies'), and up one Cline, the man who could play a symphony with a single guitar pick. (Cline has replaced guitarist Daniel Keenan, whose bout with tendonitis has rendered him unable to play, the he did cowrite one song on Butch.) Bassist William Tutton and drummer Kevin Fitzgerald remain from the original incarnation, and now two rotating violinists will fill in for Greene, whose departure has clearly unsettled Bozulich, especially since Greene played on Butch and was expected to tour behind it.

"Um..she..I don't know what her trip is," is all Bozulich will say of Greene's exit. "That's all I can say." But of Cline, who has been touring with the band for years, she gushes with great enthusiasm. "Ol' Nelly boy saved the day," she insists, claiming the new lineup is even more coherent , more tight-knit than the band that made Lost Somewhere Between The Earth and My Home.

"Nels reinvents the guitar everytime he picks it up, and there was a big fear that he was just too like... good for the music we were playing," she says. "The emphasis for use has never been on technique, and I've tried at times to keep it that way, even though everybody in the band--maybe with the exception of myself on guitar--is a really amazing technician. I've tried to make sure that somebody listening to the music never is distracted by that. I always want it to be something that hits you in the gut more than in the head."

But it is Bozulich who defines the band: She writes the words, uses her sadness as inspiration, imbues every syllable with some hidden anguish. Her voice stands out above the music--that haunting, haunted voice that's neither male nor female but something otherwordly and spellbinding and even kind of frightening. If Jayhawks Gary Louris's voice is just as androgynous, at least his is on the upside of pretty; his is a voice you can imagine singing lullabies, while Bozulich's is one best suited to spouting four-letter threats. "My shell on top of your knotty fist with a speculum shoved up my cunt after hours," she sing-speaks on "Toy box" from Butch, and she sneers the word cunt almost as if it were a warning.

Lost Somewhere... played like a collection of novellas set to music--sort of an avant-country 12 Stories, even down to the packaging: it was a precise overwrought, carefully told tale about death and redemption, about people who "never knew nothing but hunger and fear", and ultimately about a woman who makes a pact with the devil and peace with God so she can trudge on and forget her past. Though the band had released the song "Get Thee Gone" on various other pre-Lost EP's and singles , it also closed out Lost Somewhere..., and it worked best there: "My sadness does escape me now," Bozulich sang, putting the period at the end of a very long, hard-won sentence.

Butch is more like an enormous sprawling epic; it's language is less precise but more graphic, loaded with such images as "rivers of blood" that "pour from my eyes" and "a ball of light" that "comes down to bite me on the ass, the legs, the breasts." If Lost Somewhere... was her burying her past--"I don't want to go there again," she said during an interview two years ago--then Butch is very much about the present, Bozulich's way of saying farewell to friends who have died of AIDS. And so much of the record tells stories of death that comes with a kiss, of angels who sweep through the night serving death in teacups, of "fugitive lovers" who return to a place where "folks like me are from". In other words, it's a long goodbye.

"Certainly, if people believe a lot of the writing on Lost Somewhere Between The Earth And My Home was inspired by, y'know, my drug days and stuff when I was a teenager, I can tell you it has been more than 10 years since I've had any drugs or anything to drink, so it's pretty much ancient history to me, " Bozulich says, her voice rising a bit. "But if that's been over for 10 years, what' s been going on for ten years is AIDS. You know what I mean? That's a current thing. To me, it's more of a ... what's the word that means you can sink your teeth into it? It's a more tangible thing and much more of an influence on me than all that old history really is."

"This album is heavily peppered with my feelings on the subject and with my experiences, and I'm still... I don't know...I'm still disgusted with the treatment of people that have AIDS, and my heart is broken over the loss of friends and people I don't even know. That's that."

One song in particular, "Trashman In Furs" was written specifically for the late Jim Reva who used to dance onstage during Ethyl Meatplow 's shows-- and who was once Bozulich's employer. But it's not a sad so-long, rather "Trashman In Furs" is a celebration of a man Bozulich says was a liberating influence on her. "Don't cry don't cry," she repeats over and over again during the song. "I'm ridin' ridin' ridin' to a place with no pain no tears no art no ears no cars no need for you to cry."

"Jim was a jewelry maker and an artist, and I was his assistant," Bozulich says. "and then" -- she starts to laugh--"we would do that by day and then put on some crazy..." She pauses. "He was just so great. He was just such a fucking great person. For instance, he would get a jockstrap, and he would go buy a wig at a thrift store and cover the jockstrap in wig hair, and he wouldn't have anything on, and he was kinda chubby, and he'd just wear this jockstrap and make a fake black eye on his face. He was the epitome of an anti-sexy go-go dancer.

"That was his whole thing, and a lot of time people...Like, I try to explain what Ethyl Meatplow was about, and I can't explain it. But if I can explain what Jim Reva was like, it explains Ethyl Meatplow entirely, because that was the thing about Ethyl Meatplow-- we weren't just like some dumb-ass S&M band, it was funny. There was humor to it all the time. We were definitely sex-obsessed. I don't deny that," she laughs again. "But it was funny. It was supposed to make you laugh and make you a little bit uncomfortable, but it was supposed to be liberating and funny and just fun...It was hard, but I don't normally say, 'I'm going to right a song about blah-blah-blah,' but in this case , I decided I'm going to write a song about Jim Reva. I want to make something for him. I felt better once it was done."

Bozulich seems to come to life when talking about her old friend. She laughs often; she opens up. Perhaps that's because in Reva she sees much of herself--someone willing to expose himself for the sake of Art, someone who danced toward the light and didn't much care what anyone else thought.

"He was the type of artist who would take something that nobody could ever give a second look to or something that would be considered garbage and turn it into the most amazing piece of art," she says of Reva, and she could just as well be speaking of herself. "He recycled cliches he recycled anything that was ridiculous or useless or just completely absurd into something that made the most bizarre sense.

"So that's where the 'Trashman' part came from, and then 'in Furs' , obviously, a trashman in furs is an oxymoron, and we always used to listen to the Velvet Underground together, so it's also a little tip of the hat to 'Venus in Furs.' Yeah, it kinda worked., It's hard." And she laughs again.

Back to the articles page

Back to thee shrine