Perfect Sound Forever

The Butchies

By Jeanne Fury
(September 2001)

I can see her sitting at a bus stop, scribbling burning lyrics onto a take-out menu. Ah, there's nothin' like a song from the heart. On The Butchies' third album, 3, that's just what you're getting-punk rock music that squishes your blood pump like it's jelly. Kaia Wilson (guitar/vocals), Melissa York (drums) and Alison Martlew (bass/vocals) are queer feminist garage-rock troubadours whose songs are rooted in gender equality, loving the girl who can't love you back, and coming to terms with the twisted place we earthlings call home. "We've always been a really emotional band," declares York. Mixing buckets of tender passion with their punk, their lyrics are poetic-you feel as if Wilson is singing in secret vernacular. When writing material for 3, "I thought more about wanting to write really good lyrics," explains Wilson. "I think we were trying to make a really tight record and have it be understandable," says York. But the songs' interpretations are certainly up for grabs. "I Hate.Com," a hand-clapping ditty includes the lines, "ACTION! take 2000 and 10/ Nuh-uh/ Inside your/ Head/ Yeah water instead." It's inane on paper, but when it's sung, you (sorta) get it. Sorta. But there's an urgency on 3; there's a need to be listened to. The swelling of amped-up fuzzy guitars and hyper drumming conveys the agitation and anguish. You can sense the weight of Wilson's words, and they'd be harder to embrace if her voice wasn't so, well, pretty.

 But The Butchies (who also moonlight as Amy Ray's band) didn't start out making albums that sound like 3. "In the beginning we wanted to start a dyke band," says York, "but I think in a way it's sort of become more than that. We are dykes and totally that's what we talk about but it's become kind of more," she declares.

 To better understand what York is talking about, you have to go back to Team Dresch-the dyke-punk band that became a national (homo) treasure with their two albums Personal Best (after the 1982 movie starring Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly) and Captain My Captain. The superstars of TD included Donna Dresch, Jody Bleyle, Marci Martinez(first drummer), York (second drummer), and Wilson. The band played gutsy, liberated rock 'n' roll, as they spouted off vendettas both political and personal.

The members of TD were used to exploring their musical outlets. Each member had been in (or still played in) other bands before forming Team Dresch. But after Captain My Captain, Wilson left the band, seemingly out of nowhere. Fans were shocked to the point of brokenhearted. It was like Joan Jett leaving The Runaways. But Wilson's departure was hardly the silencing of queer youth music. Wilson formed The Butchies, with York on drums and Martlew on bass and back-up vocals. In 1998, The Butchies debuted on Mr. Lady records (see sidebar below) with Are We Not Femme? The sound wasn't as traditionally punk as any TD release. With one guitar and one lead singer, The Butchies had to channel their energy carefully if they wanted to create the same frenzy that TD did so easily with multiple scathing guitars and righteous singers.

Are We Not Femme? had a kooky feel - the vocals were slapped on the melodies, sounding askew, awkward, and unprepared. It was like rock 'n' roll freestyle. Indeed, the trio was something immediate. The rush of Wilson's windswept voice, coupled with the deep harmonizing of Martlew created something new. Songs like "To Be Broadcast Live," "Ellen D." and "Disco" showed that this band couldn't be labeled. It was unclear where and at what the songs were pointing. But this much was certain - The Butchies were the next step.

From the first listen, you knew The Butchies was a band that loved group hugs, watching TV together, and taking care of each other's dogs. By the time Population 1975 came out in 1999, the band sounded like it had grown into each other. The music itself benefited from their growing closeness. The vocals meshed with the music, York's drums and Martlew's bass leveled Wilson's riffs, the harmonies were intoxicating, and there was less guess-work involved for the listener. They just sounded better. Perhaps the most endearing part of the album (besides the music) was the art design. The Butchies put an ad in their local paper calling for local queer youth to show up to be in a photo. The photo was used as the cover shot for the album. On the back of the album, there's a shot of Wilson, Martlew, and York with their hands piled on top of each other's, forming a little hand tower. It's a symbol of friendship, security, and dedication-something their lives wholly embody.

The Butchies know they play a role in a larger community, simply by existing in the public eye and loving what they do. "I think we definitely feel a social responsibility," says Martlew. "I think that's a very big part of why we do what we do... to be political and hopefully have a positive impact." "Whatever you are," adds York, "you can hopefully hold on to some of those things that we're talking about and take them to heart, you know?"

 But there's a resistance to queer music that permeates through listeners, whether they're aware of it or not. Especially in recent years, it's been widely accepted for a white girl to get down with Eve, Lauryn Hill, or Missy Elliott, but would the same white girl be as accepted if she wanted to rock out with The Butchies? Probably not. But why? "It's tied in with the larger societal view of homos," says Wilson. Which is, of course, that all queers are deviants with condemned souls. "You know, queer music isn't just for queer people," Martlew chuckles. "A lot of people think, 'well, this [music] isn't talking to me,' but they need to open up their minds a little bit. Music crosses all boundaries, it's not like this is music for a particular group of people," she says matter-of-factly. So when will queer bands (dyke bands, at that) be welcome? "That's a really hard question. I don't know," admits York. She pauses for a long time. "I guess it's gonna take some people to step out of that notion-it's something that people don't want to hear, but we're gonna still do it, because that's who we are and we're always gonna be here," she says. As testament to York's statement, The Butchies latest songs confront the harsh realities that face the queer community.

 There's a lot of death imagery and mourning on 3, something unexpected after their previous albums. Their sound is hardly morose; 3 won't make you don a black veil or yank out old Joy Division records. Instead, the imagery feels spawned from a sensitive suburban kid's frustration at the evils that go on constantly. Hey, look, another outcast was kicked to her knees; oops, another queer was beaten; by the way, you were lied to. "[The imagery is] tied in with homophobia in general," says Wilson, the band's lyricist, "and then lesbians get the particular kind of almost-invisibility homophobia. I think that, partially, visibility is going to be very helpful in raising awareness and understanding where a band like us would be coming from," she continues. "Whether it be our direct experience or a more covert emotional violence or stuff that we see around us, it's all violence and it's all awful to be tuned in to."

 Violence against queer youth is seriously examined on 3. "Junior High Lament" is about a girl who gets beat up for looking like a boy, and the rock-me-stupid track "Huh Huh Hear" is a seething story of an 18-year old gay sailor's suicide. A ferocious spew of lyrics, onslaught of drums, and cranked-up guitars recall the Team Dresch years. "In the eyes of the world you'd be better off dead/ May you bleed pouring sand shame out your pores," Wilson screeches so fiercely that your stomach lurches. Then, suddenly, it's silent, giving you a moment to think. York tap tap taps her cymbals, as if impatiently waiting for your response.

 3 confronts a familiar paradox. We're all looking for a safe place here, but the safest place might not be here at all. You can hear it in the way the melody switches gears, becoming more and more vigorous, and in Wilson's voice. One minute she's working a falsetto and the next she's hissing. "For Kay" opens with "This world's my place this world is not mine." As the chorus builds, Wilson questions, "My only mother what would you say/ They're killing everything today/ They're killing souls and safety/ They're killing sanity." But by the end of the song, when there's still no remedy, Wilson's not a soldier looking up to her captain for orders; she's in your face, ardently shouting the chorus, taunting this "only mother." Similarly, on "The Wedding Disaster," the mood starts like light rain, but ends like a monsoon, with Wilson purging, "I've become just a shelter for the storm matter/ I am part of the rain and mud it don't matter/ I am matter of factly dead."

There are, of course, more uplifting songs to get you crazy. "Anything Anthology" and "Forget Your Calculus" are rock 'n' roll somersaults that'll leave you punch-drunk and buzzing. 3 rocks with a purpose. "We were very thoughtful about this record," says Wilson. "We understood how we wanted to go about recording and what sort of ways to make our songs the best that they could be."

 The combination of topics confronted on 3-from tragedy to friskiness to personal identity-should be difficult to adjust to from track to track, but it's not. You can play 3 straight through and it feels completely whole, not as disjointed as their previous albums. There's a connection between each track, but good luck pinning it down. "I think that's the thing with The Butchies, there is no common thread," York laughs. "And I think that's how people can criticize us, too, for just having all these weird songs but somehow we make a record and it just becomes what The Butchies are. I think that's just become The Butchies' style." Hopefully, people will realize that their style is one we can all sport.

Mr. Lady Records

Kaia Wilson and her partner, filmmaker Tammy Rae Carland, are the founders of Mr. Lady Records. Heroine rocker Sarah Dougher signed on to Mr. Lady to release her second album after her solo debut was put out on a different label. Other labels like Chainsaw Records (owned and operated by Donna Dresch) and Kill Rock Stars do a commendable job of promoting female artists. "I don't know that Chainsaw has much of a political bent besides putting out queer artists, which is a big deal. Kill Rock Stars is a committed feminist label run by people who are really interested in visibility for women in punk," says Dougher. But the reason behind her decision exemplifies Mr. Lady's unique, focused mission: "[The founders] have explicitly feminist politics that permeate all of their creative and business dealings. There are very few record labels, or organizations generally, for whom this is a priority, and I wanted to be part of it." But what about everyone's classic example of an independent, feminist record label-Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records? Dougher's reply: "I have no idea."

Mr. Lady Records' current roster varies in style, and I hate to pigeonhole a band as one thing or another, but to make it easy for novices in Mr. Lady land, here's the best I could do. If you're looking to hark back to the Riot Grrrl days of yore, the bands The Haggard and The Moves are your best bet; Sarah Dougher is a less-folk-more-rock artist with a voice to slay dragons; Tami Hart and Doria Roberts are heart-wrenching singer/songwriters with stories to tell; and Le Tigre, starring Riot Grrrl icon Kathleen Hanna, is an experimental punk rock outfit that SPIN Magazine listed as one of the Top 40 Bands in America. For more info, visit

Also see the official Butchies site

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