Musicheads Essential Artist: Babes in Toyland

Babes in Toyland's Kat Bjelland and Lori Barbero
Babes in Toyland frontwoman Kat Bjelland with drummer Lori Barbero at The Current in 2015. (Nate Ryan/MPR)
Musicheads Essential Artist: Babes in Toyland
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April is Minnesota Music Month. To celebrate, each weekday this month we'll be spotlighting a different artist with special coverage on air and online. For Monday, April 27, we're shining a light on Babes in Toyland.

The trailblazing Minneapolis trio Babes in Toyland helped lay the groundwork for grunge music and inspired a generation of riot grrrls.

The story of Babes in Toyland begins in 1987, when the band's lead singer and guitar player Kat Bjelland moved from San Francisco to Minneapolis, in search of a new scene. Within months, she had immersed herself in the tight-knit rock scene and had befriended Lori Barbero and convinced her to take up the drums. Their chemistry together was immediately obvious.

After trying out a few different lineups — including a brief moment when they played with a former bandmate of Kat's, Courtney Love — they solidified as a trio with the bass player Michelle Leon and released their debut album, Spanking Machine, on Twin/Tone Records in 1990.

Looking back on those days in a 2013 interview with The Current, Kat said, "I wanted musicians who didn't know how to play very well so then you could create a sound together." The sound they made was raw and unapologetically angry. They became experts at toying with dynamics and emotions, contrasting Kat's screams with sing-songy melodies and Lori's hilarious between song banter.

Before long, they had attracted the attention of a Minneapolis critic and A&R rep, Tim Carr, who helped them sign to Warner Bros. imprint Reprise Records, and launched them onto the national stage in a major way. They played Lollapalooza, toured with My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr., were featured on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and even got a shout-out on Beavis and Butthead.

As their visibility grew, so did a wave of additional powerful, all-women punk rock bands, many of whom cited Babes in Toyland as a major influence in their formation. The band recorded their final album in 1995 and have only regrouped sporadically since then, including a blistering reunion set at Rock the Garden in 2015 with their mid-90s bass player, Maureen Herman. But their impact is still felt to this day — including in the performances of a young band from their hometown, Bruise Violet, who took their name from a Babes in Toyland song.

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