(Fist) Fighting Female Stereotypes in a Male-Dominated Rock Scene
“If guys mess up it’s because they’re drunk or something. If we mess up, it’s because we’re girls.”
“We do get a benefit from [being female] that dude bands don’t get. We get a lot more attention because of it. But at the same time, we have to be able to play.”
Jan 7th @ Great Scott, Allston MA: Naked on Roller Skates, Full Body Anchor, Tijuana Sweetheart, Real Synthetics
Sat Feb 18th @ Great Scott, Allston MA: Tijuana Sweetheart / Ducky Boys double CD release party (with Hudson Falcons and Energy)
“Jem and the Holograms, now, as an adult, is awful!” Helen McWilliams screams, scrunching her face as if she’s just smelled something foul. “The whole concept behind the show is that there can’t be two all-girl bands—they must battle!” She pauses and sips straight from a bottle of sparkling wine before adding, “And the bad ones, The Misfits, are the poorer ones!” The blonde-haired, black-clad mouthpiece of Boston’s Tijuana Sweetheart is loudly illustrating the stigma of female musicians in the mid-’80s cartoon. “Jem has a hologram machine made by her super-rich dad who is a bigwig in the music industry and that’s why she’s good. But she can never let anyone know that she plays in a band, because that would ruin her pristine image as Jerrica.”
Jem may have been truly, truly, truly outrageous, but she was also afraid to openly express her artistic ambitions. Helen a.k.a. “The Hellion,” founding vocalist/rhythm guitarist for Tijuana Sweetheart, doesn’t have a Synergy machine transforming her and her bandmates: drummer Lauren “LoWreck” Recchia, bassist Julie Two-Times and guitarist Keri Medeiros, into a bubblegum pop outfit. They are perfectly happy as is – being a raucous all-girl rock band.
Readers may remember The Hellion and LoWreck from Performer’s June 2007 issue, then appearing under their former moniker “Vagiant” [pronounced vuh-giant]. Gamers might also recall their songs from the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series, courtesy of Helen’s day job at the MA-based video game development company Harmonix. Forced to change their labia-inspired label for reasons they are legally unable to disclose [another band had it], the ladies settled on the less overt and more flirtatious Tijuana Sweetheart. “I like it because it sounds like old-time slang for a prostitute,” Helen dotes. “It’s easier to pronounce, but harder to spell.”
Tonight is the ladies’ first rehearsal since Helen’s marriage last October. To celebrate, they alternate between The Hellion’s bubbly and cans of Miller High Life, coincidentally “The Champagne of Beers.” There’s reason to rejoice, and not just because of the singer’s recent nuptials. The band has nearly completed their third full-length Under The Gun, a conspicuously more rock effort than its two predominantly punk predecessors.
Early albums Public Display of Infection and Trash Candy contain a youthful, yet textbook distaste for authority and society, with a dose of fertile femininity. Songs titles such as “Cocktease” and “Sugar Daddy” leave little to the imagination, while sly lyrics such as, “I like tattooed women and I like Catholic boys,” appropriately confused and enamored fans of both sexes. Both releases are raw, dirty and feature a tongue-deeply-set-in-cheek sensibility. Though, the simple structures and sing-a-long choruses do make for songs as infectious as their subject matter.
“We recorded [Infection] within a year of picking up instruments.” Helen shrugs her shoulders back in mock horror, “I cringe when I hear it.”
“But there’s so many people that still like that stuff,” LoWreck points out. “It’s kind of adorable…and weird.”
Helen and LoWreck still remember when they could barely keep a beat, let alone hold a tune. “We couldn’t play anything for a long time. But then we could play [The Runaways’] ‘Cherry Bomb.’” LoWreck muses.
“A terrible cover of ‘Cherry Bomb.’” Helen corrects. “We were really bad for a long time.”
Bassist Julie Two-Times, who took over four-string duties during the recording of 2009’s Trash Candy, added fresh blood and a wealth of musical experience to the still semi-novice act. “I’m usually in two or three bands at a time,” she informs dryly. “I get around.”
“But we’re your favorite,” Helen insists.
“Obviously,” Julie answers in a sideways smile.
Rounding out the current lineup is their newest addition, guitarist Keri Medeiros, who joined in 2010. At 23, Keri is the youngest of the group, not even alive when Jem first aired. She initially attempted to join the band when she was just 18, but lost out on the gig. “I don’t think she actually played with us,” Helen recollects. “We had dinner then we got locked out of the studio. Nice audition.” A few years later, Keri reconnected through a random email to Helen. Luckily, the band was again looking to fill the recently re-vacated guitar slot. Now Keri’s churning out badass blues licks from her Gibson SG à la Angus Young, pumping up Tijuana Sweetheart’s pure rock fury. “Yea, I’m bringing in some sick riffs,” she says with a mix of modesty and sarcasm. “Just more ballsy I guess.”
It’s those balls that give lead single “Fallout,” [featured on the Performer-endorsed compilation Still Beating] a darker vibe than previous offerings. Also apparent is an overall improvement of instrumental skill, starting with LoWreck’s inner clock through to Two-Times’ jazzed-up walking bass lines. Helen’s throat still rasps and snarls, but The Hellion eases back on some of the choruses, letting songs breathe with frequent harmonies, instead of stifling each refrain with screams. These elements have always made cameos in Tijuana Sweetheart, but on Under the Gun they take a front seat.
As the songwriting skills have grown, so have the abundance of dynamics – from drumline military marches (“Fallout”) to ska-nky bridges (“Eyeliner”). This departure from the Ramones-rulebook has opened the women up to a broader spectrum, albeit one still based around a punk rock box. “We all like playing songs that are hard to play,” Helen notes. “Which is why we don’t want to play [Rock Band track and fan favorite] ‘Seven.’ It’s like three chords.”
“I had to rewrite it so it sounds like I know how to play drums,” LoWreck asserts. “Now that we’re better, when we’re writing stuff, our closest friends go, ‘That’s fuckin’ awesome!’ When before it was, ‘Oh, that’s cute.’”
Recorded in various sessions throughout 2011 at Galaxy Park Studios with producer/engineer Richard Marr, Under The Gun is still tasty ear candy, just of a more mature variety. The obvious overtones of anarchy and pessimism traded for subtlety and solemnity with outright innuendo exchanged for more veiled metaphors. “I don’t want to say that I’m an aging punk musician,” Helen reasons, “But when we did the first album, I was pissed off all the time, ’cause I was 24.” She wraps her hand around the wine bottleneck and mimics screaming into a microphone, “Now I’m like, ‘I really wish I had a washer and dryer!’” Like many musicians searching for inspiration, she turns to her friends. “I have to draw on other peoples’ experiences now. Like, ‘You seem angry, tell me about it!’” Though, the end results can have a mixed effect. “So many people think songs are about them. My friends’ boyfriends will come up to me and go, “I know ‘Sticks and Stones’ is about me.’ And I say, ‘No, but gross that you think that! That means you’re doing a bad job!’” Other new “eclectic” song topics include: “Sunday,” about someone who’s drinking too much, “Dragging My Heels,” the daily 9 to 5 buzzkill and “Last Transmission,” about the apocalypse.
“What’s ‘Pistol Whipped’ about?” Helen asks herself aloud.
“It’s about doin’ it, isn’t it?” Julie answers enthusiastically.
“I think it originally was, but then it was too dirty.”
Too dirty? Is this is the same band that wrote “Cocktease?” Teasing aside, Tijuana Sweetheart has been warmly embraced by the male-dominated punk underground. The girls play regularly on numerous bills throughout the Boston area and are always well received. “Guys in the punk rock scene will tell you that they want girls in the scene,” explains Helen. “That’s why, even when we were bad, they’d ask us to open shows for them. They were like, ‘Yay, women!’ We do get a benefit from [being female] that dude bands don’t get. We get a lot more attention because of it. But at the same time, we have to be able to play. If guys mess up it’s because they’re drunk or something. If we mess up, it’s because we’re girls.”
“As far as people perceive [us], I was kind of scared at first,” Julie admits. “I didn’t want to be kitschy. I didn’t want to be schticky. That’s one reason I was glad we had the [Vagiant] name changed. I didn’t think we needed to do that anymore. I thought we could change that and still stand on our own. The songs are fuckin’ awesome. If someone doesn’t like it, it’s just because they don’t like the song, not because we’re girls.”
Beantown’s regulars have already taken notice of Tijuana Sweetheart. Not only nominated multiple times for the Boston Music Awards Punk Act of the Year, they were also invited to compete in The Hub’s annual battle of the bands, The Rock ‘N’ Roll Rumble. They’ve also opened shows for fellow Massholes The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Bang Camaro. This February 18 at Great Scott in Allston, MA, they’ll share the stage with local legends The Ducky Boys as part of Under the Gun’s CD release party and thanks to the Rock Band Network, gamers across the globe are jamming to their songs.
While the openings and accolades are greatly appreciated, in the end these girls just want to have fun. That’s why live performances often include covers of The Golden Girls’theme song “Thank You for Being a Friend” and the theme to another ’80s cartoon, Heathcliff. Songs they sing through ear-to-ear smiles. These moments are evidence that the adolescent angst has diluted, and has been replaced with a genuine love of creating and playing music for themselves, their friends and their fans.
“In the beginning, I didn’t have good reasons for being in the band,” Helen confesses. “I was younger. I just wanted to have people know who I was. I figured, ‘I’ll have an album, and my picture will be on it, and I’ll write the liner notes.’” She laughs at her younger self’s naïve narcissism. “Now, I don’t really care about any of that stuff. I just like playing music and getting together with the girls. Writing songs and playing shows—it’s awesome.”