Near the end of every Third Grade Teacher show, singer Sabrina Stevenson rolls around onstage, twitching spasmodically as if suffering a seizure. Her glassy eyes bug out, her face turns bright red and she begins singing in tongues, spitting out rapid-fire Tourette’s syndrome gibberish as the rest of the band churns up a grungy hard-rock storm. It’s hard to believe that by day she really is a mild-mannered teacher at an elementary school in East Los Angeles.
“I watched The Exorcist about 20 times when I was at an impressionable age, so I’m sure there’s some Linda Blair in there,” Stevenson says. “I really liked Karen Black in Trilogy of Terror. The great psychos — Sissy Spacek, Joan Crawford, all the mannish divas and transvestites — are the closest to what I try to approximate onstage. I love movies about people going insane.”
She says that five years ago she was kicked out of her first band, the heavy-metal outfit Synthetic Mary, after only one gig “because I wasn’t aggressive enough.” Maybe it was her acting classes, or something she ate, but Stevenson recalls the turning point when she stopped being a wallflower. “At one show I was on an Herbalife diet, and I didn’t eat and I drank a lot of water, and I got kind of dizzy and felt light, and I cut loose and I just didn’t care. I wasn’t so self-conscious, so stuck in my body.”
“Sabrina’s the crazy one,” says bassist Sharon Schloss. “She needs a little balance. I stay mellow in my corner and keep the beat. One mad person is enough in one band.”
Yet the entire band, which includes drummer Art Jencks and soft-spoken guitarist David Guerrero, gets roped into playing Stevenson’s dress-up games, such as last Halloween at Al’s Bar when, decked out in prom gowns and tuxedos, Third Grade Teacher re-enacted Carrie, complete with Schloss triumphantly dumping a bucket of fake blood over the singer’s head. “I just like wearing things that feel like a costume,” Stevenson says. “I have a gospel robe, and I’ve done a Sister Aimee McPherson arche type, a Tina Turner, and a whorish archetype, as well as a curly-hair I-just-won-the-Oscar archetype.”
Stevenson, who used to play in a folk duo with coffeehouse veteran Bob West brook (“If you don’t like my guacamole, then why do you dig your chips in me?”), met Guerrero in 1995 after placing a Recycler ad that listed the Pixies, the Stooges and the Velvet Underground as influences. The pair began playing at the now-defunct Culver City coffeehouse Mama Pajama’s, where they enlisted Schloss, who’d been in Bub Laugh, and eventually hooked up with drummer Jencks.
None of Stevenson’s various theatrics, like swigging from a flask that contains tea or dressing up most nights as a Catholic schoolgirl, would matter if the band didn’t write such memorable songs. Third Grade Teacher’s debut CD is, like 3 Hole Punch’s, cheekily named Greatest Hits: Volume I, and ranges from the delicately pretty pop songs “Cinnamon” and “Fear of a Boy” to crunch ing, Nirvana-ish workouts “Ow Ow Ow” and “Fire.” The CD’s closing ballad, “Roll of Film,” is a hypnotic rumination about mortality, with lulling, subdued tom-tom patterns and “na-na-na” vocals in the schmaltzy tradition of “Hey Jude” or Paul Simon’s “The Boxer.” With its seismically shifting, doomy pendulum chords, the best song might be “Down,” which, according to a rhapsodic Guerrero, is about Jesus and the supernatural, though Stev enson demurs, saying it’s about retreating inside one’s self. The funny thing is, the song also works as a paean to oral sex.
Such ambiguities define the band. Stevenson and Guerrero are Libertarians who are into a paranormal version of Chris tianity. Schloss calls herself an anarchistic atheist, and Jencks is a hopeless Beatles fan. When they perform their a cappella version of N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton,” there’s an undeniable charm in watching these geeks shout out the words with the utmost sincerity.
Education is a recurring theme. But is Stevenson thinking about her students when, in “Schoolboy,” she sings, “I’m going to rip your ass apart!”? “‘Schoolboy’ was written with my guitar player in mind,” she says, “and is probably more about men than kids. If a woman has an issue with men, it doesn’t matter which man it is, the issue is going to come up . . . ‘Fear of a Boy’ is where I put men on a pedestal and envy them because I want to be more like them. I felt like music and art belonged to all these cute young men, and that they weren’t going to let me into their collective.”
Third Grade Teacher plays a free show at Spaceland on Monday, May 25.