Babes in Toyland Bassist Maureen Herman on Addiction, Recovery and Reunions (VIDEO)
Babes In Toyland are one of the most influential all-female groups ever, inspiring the likes of Bikini Kill, Hole and others male and female, musically and stylistically. The power trio of singer-guitarist Kat Bjelland, drummer Lori Barbero and bassist Maureen Herman have not joined each other on stage in nearly two decades, but interest in them never waned. When a reunion tour was announced, the anticipation on the Internet was as deafening as their music used to be.
Though original bassist Michelle Leon re-joined the band for their last show in 2001, Herman remains their best-known bassist. But she endured some major personal struggles after her departure in 1996. She went on to become a successful writer, but also went through a period of a crack addiction, and suffered a rape that resulted in pregnancy.
Now sober, a proud mom, and living in Los Angeles, Herman is an advocate for survivors of addiction and sexual assault, and she'll soon to be telling her story in a new book. In advance of her reunion with her old bandmates at the Roxy, we spoke to her about all of it, and nothing was off limits.
L.A. Weekly: How did this reunion come about?
Maureen Herman: I didn’t talk to Kat and Lori for years. As I discovered that Kat and I shared similar psychiatric issues, I reached out to her. Then I sent her an article I wrote, part of my upcoming book. It was a section that dealt with using drugs while pregnant. She called me and we were soon crying, and we connected on that level. Then I was coming to the Midwest to see my parents. We connected in person and the second I got into her van, she asked if I wanted to play again. I hadn’t seen her in 18 years. We had a five hour drive and caught up and it was one of the most incredible conversations I ever had in my life. Then, miraculously, these three friends of mine who used to work at Google said they wanted to sponsor the reunion.
The tech LLC called Powersniff is sponsoring the tour. You've known these guys since they were at Google and you've worked with them before right?
I started a non-profit with them called Project Noise with their help. The motto is, “We make change louder.” We produce videos for other non-profits for free or very low cost. Our clients have included Jail Guitar Doors with Wayne Kramer from MC5, the Justice Tour with Tom Morello, an organization called Get on the Bus. It's been really successful and a fun thing. They’re great people. They always wanted a reunion so they made it happen.
What was it like getting together after so many years? What material will you playing at the shows?
Were focusing 100% on the existing music. All of us would like to try to write new songs. But I cant stand when a band reunites and doesn't play their old stuff. What the hell is that? We're playing all the old stuff and every record is represented. We got in the practice space, started playing "He's My Thing," and it was like, "We're back." It was amazing, we just did it.
Let's go back a bit. How did you come to play with the Babes to begin with?
I saw their very first stage show in Minneapolis. I'd been a fan and friend for many years. Michelle, the original bass player had to leave. Her boyfriend, Joe Cole, was murdered. He and Henry Rollins were mugged. It's a well-known story. He was shot. She was going through a lot.... Not a great way to have an opening in a band, but she'd been doing it a long time and then that happened. The schedule was going to be rigorous. It so happened that one of her last shows was in Chicago and whenever they played Chicago they stayed with me. I got a call saying, "Hey, would you be interested in joining the band?" I was self-taught and hadn’t even been playing bass that long.
How did you make the cut?
I had a secret weapon: My roommate was Duane Denison, the guitarist for Jesus Lizard. He taught me the parts. But I really had to think about it to be honest. I wanted to be a writer, that was my goal and dream. Interesting story: The reason I started playing bass was my brother’s hand got stuck in a pasta machine and it was totally flattened. So he gave me his bass. Tragedy has unfortunately given me my music career.
Speaking of tragedy, you've endured a lot. You’ve been candid about having drug problems. Did those start from being in the band?
It’s funny because it came after. So many people, like some of the publishers that were first interested in my book - not the one I ended up going with- wanted to hear about the crazy times in the band… but I had to explain to people that [it] was the most stable and successful time in my life. I was an alcoholic before then. By then. But the drug problems happened after. It wasn’t until 2000 that I started doing drugs. And started doing crack.
How did you become a crack addict?
I tried everything over the years. Cocaine had been intermittent. The way it hit my brain, it was like a missing piece. I wanted more. I was an alcoholic first but I had a lot of trauma happen to me while in living in New York, including 9/11. I was homeless for a while... and I experienced sexual abuse.
So the drug problems got bad after you left the band. How long were you actually in the band? Why did you leave?
I was in from February '92 to June '96… I had a condition where my right hip wouldn’t bend. It was displaced. I was like, what the hell is going on? We were scheduled to play Portugal. But I wouldn’t even get on a plane. I literally couldn't do it. Then I found out they had someone come in and use my equipment and practice to replace me. It was not communicated to me and it upset me.
Did drugs play a part in the band conflict?
There was a lot of self-medicating going on in the band. But I think it was looking for an excuse. A way to exit. I was over, it, I really wanted to be a writer. People said I was crazy to leave a successful band. I just felt like I knew it and what I needed to do. I went back to school and started writing. My teacher hooked me up with a local paper and within six months of that I was an editor at Musician magazine. It was a pretty fast ride.
Were things good then ?
Yes, professionally. I was married and that was ending. I moved to Nashville where the magazine was based. But my alcoholism got worse. I got treatment but it wasn’t long enough. I continued to drink, but I but did a lot of things. I started my own company producing videos, Polyanna Productions. I knew nothing about it. I bluffed my way into a job producing a Hank Williams III video and got a huge budget. The thing got on CMT and then I was a producer. I was also writing for Rolling Stone and other magazines. I rode that wave. Then I moved to New York. I was able to make a living by doing a couple pieces a month, getting about two bucks a word for stories. That was back in the days when a writer was paid what they were worth.
What do you think about the rates us freelance journalists are paid these days?
It is the sickest motherfucking change, and business model. Yeah it's sickening. And fuck Arianna Huffington, by the way.
But you were making a living in New York doing it at the time.
Yes. I was producing and writing in New York. But my alcoholism, my untreated depression and PTSD always cut me off at the knees. That’s how I lost my job, because I couldn't go into work. The hangovers were so bad. And frequent. But I was doing good work.
Alcoholism is so misunderstood and it's one of the main topics of my book. I went into in-patient treatment again but it still didn't stick. Then crack came into my life.
How did you become addicted?
I didn’t have a solid out-patient situation. I got out and still had a lot of the same problems. I had met this girl in treatment and I saw her at a bar afterward. I asked if she had coke. We went to the bathroom and she pulled out a crack pipe. It was the worst time to be introduced to a drug that gives you vending machine euphoria. I am actually really grateful that I found crack though. Because it escalated my addiction and I believe made it so that I got to my bottom quicker. It was a weird blessing.
The letter you wrote to congressman Todd Akin (the "legitimate rape" guy) for Huffington Post.... It was brave and powerful, and you were very open about your pregnancy due to rape, and your drug use. The piece also linked to studies about crack babies and it being less harmful than alcohol or tobacco to fetuses, which many might not know.
I went the Country Medical Center. I said, "I'm pregnant and I'm smoking crack. Help me." They said it’s a six month wait for a bed. The nurse prescribed me some anti-depressant and sent me on my fucking way. But before she sent me on my way, she said, out of mercy, "if you’re going to use drugs while pregnant, it's not the worst."
Was it a difficult decision to keep your daughter considering the circumstances?
I avoided thinking about it. I was smoking crack heavily. Her and I have discussed this. It’s not an easy thing, but because of her exposure to my recovery, she understands that an actively using person is a sick person, a much different person. I could not have have survived without the exceptional support I had. Thank god for my mother. It wasn’t what I intended, but it is what it is. My daughter is super healthy and happy. A great kid. I couldn't be luckier. I'm very grateful. My addiction in the end, forced fate that I'd become a mother. The position I take is everything happens, and you can regret and complain or you can transform it. I transformed a lot of pain into music and writing. I've been lucky to have those opportunities.
My main dream is that my story can help others understand alcoholism, addiction, homelessness, social ills. If you get sober for anyone but yourself it doesn’t work. It sounds selfish but it's something I really learned in AA. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen with your relationship with anybody. It took a year-long outpatient treatment and weekly meetings before I had solid footing in my sobriety. That’s what I believe it takes and I think that should be a national model.
What do you think are other misconceptions about addiction?
You cant just re-enter your life as it was without to the tools to cope. Alcohol is the thing that people use to treat their symptoms of the problems they have. So if you take away the alcohol and you don’t replace it with something, you’re really fucked. You don’t have the coping skills to deal with any problem. So it is crucial to have a solid footing and recovery program. And people around you that are sober. Find new ways to handle to life. It can be a beautiful journey. I found it to be super rewarding. I'm really grateful that I'm an alcoholic, because I get to be in this whole awesome world of recovery, which I love.
Sounds like your book is more about your struggles outside of the band than in. What's its main focus?
As a friend said, if I could explain my book in a couple sentences I wouldn’t have to write a fucking book. I'm joking. I struggled with the proposal for 18 years. When I quit the band I got a call from a literary agent. I had always wanted to write a book. He sent me a proposal format. I worked on it, lost it, sold the computer with the book on it for crack.... All my journals were a mess. But he stuck with me. And stuck with me. And when I got the deal, we were both crying our heads off. .
What's the title?
It’s a Memoir, Motherfucker. It came out of frustration, because all I could say to people was I had so many stories and it just about surviving.
You've been through so much and you've been very strong and honest, which must have been hard. I think you'll inspire a lot of people. Since we're talking about about strength and inspiration, it might be a good time to ask about Babes in Toyland's image and persona. The band got lumped in with the whole riot grrrl movement in the 90s. How did — and how do — you gals feel about that?
Coming from a musical perspective, I don’t like it when music is sub-genred by gender. It irritated me. To be constantly compared musically to bands who sound nothing like us just because we all have vaginas was and is offensive to me. I felt like the riot grrrl movement furthered that problem. In some cases those bands seemed really proud of their non-musicianship, but for us, it wasn’t a joke. I was really honored to be part of something that inspired other people to find or make music, but I don’t like our band being labeled that way. It's lazy because it should be about listening to the music and discussing what we sound like, not what kind of dress we wear or whatever. We all feel that way.
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