Photo by Rita O'Brien

“OH SHIT!” A SEVEN-HOUR DRIVE FROM “THE Grog Shop” in Cleveland, and the Gossip have just poured transmission fluid into the oil tank of their '85 white superdeluxe Chevy van. “Is that bad?” guitarist Nathan Howdeshell (a.k.a. Brace Paine, a.k.a. Druxxx) asks as the cell phone goes to static, then dies. When Nathan finally picks up again three days later, Cleveland and car troubles are ancient history.

Now he's fired up on the Detroit show: “We played with this girl named Vicki Hott, and at the end of the show Vicki Hott and us did a chaotic version of 'I Wanna Be Your Dog.' Ten minutes of noise chaos. Vicki Hott was throwing firecrackers into the audience, everything ended up getting destroyed.”

The phone dies again, and I don't catch up with them until post­New York, a show that Nathan wasn't crazy about: “I have sex with every person that comes to our shows. New Yorkers' genitalia is cold, freezing to the touch.”

In the last few years, the Gossip have been doing their share of traveling. “I want to say this is our fourth U.S. tour,” lead singer Beth Ditto says, “but Kathy [Mendonca, drummer] is always like, 'No, bitch, it's only our third!'” New towns, new dives, new couches and motels, it's the life's blood of any good band. Still, the single biggest trip the Gossip ever made was the one that took them out of their hometown, Searcy, Arkansas, pop. 14,000.

Kathy was the first to escape when, in 1998, she left to attend college in Olympia, Washington, the birthplace of Riot Grrrl, and the independent-rock epicenter of the Pacific Northwest. Three months later, Nathan flew out to join her. Beth couldn't afford plane fare, so Kathy bought her a one-way ticket, and Beth was on her way. “I was supposed to find a job and buy a ticket home, but I ended up staying.”

Living together in Olympia, the three began playing music together for the first time. A week after their first session, their unnamed band played four songs at a basement party. “Basically we became a basement band,” Nathan says. “We played basements at least once a week.” In this crazed party atmosphere the band's style began to form. While inclined toward the queer/neo-feminist/activist ideologies of Riot Grrrl and the DIY/don't-give-a-fuck attitude of punk rock, the Gossip paid deeper heed to their roots in Arkansas blues. It was at one of these basement shows that Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney experienced the Gossip's embryonic sound. On the spot she invited them to go on tour, and the Gossip hit the road for their first national trek.

As stated on the K Records Web site, the band's purpose was clear: “We started a band because we were BORED. Our mission is to make you dance & if yr not gonna dance, just stay at home. We listen to the oldies & that's all.” This last statement, like the minimalist rock they play, is deceptively simple. The truth is, the three are widely diverse, each bringing an eclectic musical palate to the band. Beth loves R&B, soul and hip-hop women like Missy Elliott. Nathan's obsession is punk rock and no-wave bands like Teenage Jesus and Mars; he also goes in for experimental music and art (“I want to play a show inside a deer carcass, Hermann Nitsch­style”). Kathy digs the Beatles and Elliott Smith. She's dismissive of her influence in the group. “I just play drums.”

The Gossip's simplicity and traditional influences have led to comparisons to Detroit's garage-rock darlings the White Stripes. That doesn't fly with the Gossip.

Nathan: “I don't think we sound like them at all. We like the blues, Robert Johnson, Skip James, and I think they do too. But they have lots of bad influences — AC/DC and Led Zeppelin.”

Kathy: “The White Stripes are more boy-music, more wanking. There's more substance in our music. Beth sings about body issues, queer issues, about class and politics. The White Stripes just sing about girls, normal song stuff.”

To be fair, Beth occasionally sings about girls too.

AFTER PLAYING THE 2000 LADYFEST MUSIC festival in Olympia, local label Kill Rock Stars approached the Gossip to release their first full-length recording. “Full-length,” however, is a misleading term: The 14 songs on That's Not What I Heard clock in at just over 24 minutes total. Recorded on a 4-track in Kathy's basement, the album tears into you with brash beauty. “Swing Low” is a sly subversion of the gospel classic: It's oral sex, not the host of heaven, that Beth's throaty howl suggests can take you to heaven. As queer collides with gospel and the trio tackle the blues, the Gossip draw deeply from the origins of American music, then spike the brew with some fresh and freaky punk rock.

The band has just released a new EP, Arkansas Heat (dedicated to “the kids stuck in a shitty small town”), and it's even louder, more abrasive, an authentic slice of the band's torrential live act. Beth's sassy political lyrics still fuel the engine and rock the boat: “Rules for Luv” spits in the eye of the class divide felt so sharply in the South, and “(Take Back) the Revolution,” which the band improvised while recording, may be the sharpest feminist war cry since Bikini Kill's “Rebel Girl.”

As for the future of the Gossip, will they join the mass-market “rock renaissance” led by the White Stripes, the Strokes and the Hives? “The Hives?” Nathan says, aghast. “We want to shit in the mouths of the Hives!”

“We'd love to make enough money to live,” Kathy admits, “but whatever happens, happens.”

For Beth, what she's doing right now is just fine. “I just feel so fucking lucky to be in a band, and getting to travel across America.”LA

The Gossip play at the Echo on Friday, June 21.

LA Weekly