“We had our own language,” Terri Hart says about her band Red Aunts. “We were the stuff. That’s what we’d always say, keeping it weird.” The ferocious L.A. garage-punk quartet triumphantly started performing live again recently after a 20-year absence and seemed positioned to enjoy even greater success than they had in their heyday in the 1990s — only to see everything come crashing down following an unexpected and heartbreaking tragedy.
In November last year, Red Aunts played at a music festival in Spain following high-profile reunion shows in the United States. After returning home, bassist Debi Martini broke her foot, but that seemed like a minor setback, and the group were looking forward to several upcoming concerts. But Martini developed a blood clot from the injury, and she went into cardiac arrest and died suddenly in New York City on Jan. 17. She was 52.
“She was super healthy,” Hart says by phone from Los Angeles, still in shock over her bandmate’s unexpected death. “She broke her foot and was in a cast. The blood clot went into her lungs. She was on eight different forms of life support but they couldn’t save her.”
Following a recent memorial in New York, singer-guitarist Hart, singer-guitarist Kerry Smith and drummer Lesley Ishino are gathering again for another memorial for Martini on Saturday, March 9, from 2 to 5 p.m., at the Echoplex in Echo Park. The surviving band members aren’t going to perform music but the public is welcome to attend as the group share memories about their fallen comrade.
At this point, it’s not clear if Red Aunts will ever play again. “We don’t know,” Hart muses. “That’s another loss we’re dealing with right now. I know Debi would want us to play. We’re going to think about that for a while.”
Martini’s death came just as Red Aunts were becoming revitalized again. A career-spanning compilation, Come Up for a Closer Look, was released on Larry Hardy’s label In the Red Records. “It was our greatest hits — even though we never had a hit,” Hart says. “We headlined the festival in Spain. It was sold out — 2,000 people. It definitely was one of our best shows ever. We were very tight and practiced. I remember when Debi would look over at me and wink as if to say, ‘Yeah, you’re playing all the right notes. And if you’re not, just have fun!’”
Hart pauses for a moment before continuing. “We went to Seville for a week on vacation after the [festival] show,” she says. “I am so thankful for that. We had so much fun together. We’d just sit out on the cobblestone streets and sit and eat and talk about life a lot. We were talking about going to France in June, at a festival. We were going to Chicago, too.”
The Spanish festival was preceded during the past year by a series of well-received comeback concerts in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Philadelphia. “Once we started playing again, there were big crowds, especially considering the kind of music we do as an underground band,” Hart says. “It was really fun and a bit surprising. When we were at our peak [in the 1990s], we were selling out a lot of places back then, but we didn’t know if people would remember us. The Los Angeles show here at the Echo was really great.”
Did the reunion shows bring in crowds who had never seen Red Aunts before? “It was a lot of people who had seen us before — and their kids!” Hart says.
Hart formed the band with Martini in Long Beach in 1991. “Both of our boyfriends at the time were in bands,” Hart recalls. “Debi and I met at a party. We were sick of hearing about our boyfriends’ bands, so we said, ‘Let’s start our own.’ Neither of us had any experience or had even picked up an instrument before. Kerry came in three weeks later.”
Hart’s then-boyfriend, Claw Hammer singer Jon Wahl, filled in on drums for a while. “He was the original drummer,” Hart says. “He taught us how to play.” About a year later, Red Aunts’ lineup was solidified with the addition of drummer Lesley Ishino. After an early single on Hell Yeah Records and two albums on Sympathy for the Record Industry, Red Aunts nabbed a deal with Epitaph Records, which released three full-length records: #1 Chicken (1995), Saltbox (1996) and Ghetto Blaster (1998).
Red Aunts broke up in 1998, with Martini and Smith eventually moving to New York while Ishino and Hart remained in Los Angeles. Martini occasionally took part in Smith’s new band, Two Tears, but Hart didn’t do much musically until Red Aunts reunited. “This was our biggest and best thing,” Hart says. “Playing in Red Aunts was one of Debi’s favorite things. I’m so thankful for the fact that we got to do those [reunion] shows.”
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When Hart remembers Martini now, what stands out to her? “Her smile and her kindness,” Hart says. “She was so kind, always. … Her personality onstage was like a total badass. She didn’t say much. Her songs were always mellower. She had the more sultry, lower voice. Personally, as a friend, she was shy, quiet and always, always happy. She made you feel like you were the only one who mattered. She was very caring.”
It has taken a long time for Hart to process Martini’s death. “It’s sunk in for me,” she says. “I was just in such complete denial. After the New York memorial, it really sunk in. It’s been a little while to wrap our heads around. It’s weird to think one of your best friends and bandmates is gone.”
Did Martini have any kids? “No,” Hart says. “She led a rock & roll lifestyle by choice. That would have just gotten in the way. She made the most of life.”
The memorial for Debi Martini will be held at the Echoplex, 1154 Glendale Blvd., Echo Park; Sat., March 9, 2-5 p.m.; free. (213) 413-8200.