RNRG’s exclusive chat with the Boston alt-rock greats
This should have been a fairly routine interview, and it began that way. An old, cult-beloved—then and now—late ’80s band reissues an old, posthumous compilation of “odds and sods” on vinyl, 26 years after its original 1993 issue on CD on Mammoth Records (now on American Laundromat Records), and all three surviving members kindly agree to discuss it.
Thus, bassist/singer Juliana Hatfield, guitarist John Strohm and drummer Freda Love kindly fielded a few questions about it you see below, innocently offered without any great desire to stir up a gigantic amount of old muck.
But Boston’s Blake Babies were and sometimes still aren’t just any band. They were known for their unguarded open-ness and punky approach to both their music and band. And the compilation in question, 1993’s Innocence and Experience—like their BBs name, a William Blake reference—was a farewell record of non-LP tracks lying around to feed the fans one more time following a 1992 breakup—just as it appeared as if the six-year-old group was poised to cross over to the mainstream, post-Nirvana.
Surprise, instead: A to-be-expected, routine question about that breakup produced an outpouring of deep remembrance, sharp regrets and revelations of the fraying forces that led to that perhaps inevitable demise, instead. With two nice-looking, smart women and a lanky, nice-looking, smart man, they sure were great fodder for MTV, with the play they were already getting in light rotation there pre-Nevermind. So it seemed a given that with the industry now finally attuned to indie bands, the Blake Babies could become ubiquitous, and depart the large clubs and small halls they played for theaters and festival sheds, if not small arenas. But as seen below, a longstanding, inter-band romance not fated to last, the frontwoman’s serious health disorder, tour fatigue without road help, frustrations over production and musical constraints, and more, led them to take the exit ramp off that superhighway to greater notice instead. And they papered-over their implosion with a cover story concocted for the press to mask all the above, and make it sound like it was all just an amicable, friendly breakup.
I remember reading that supposed reason in 1992, and ask about it below. They smash it to pieces, now, in a truly revealing look at how bands used to grind to sad halts three decades ago, barely supported by middling indie labels in an industry that just threw you out there on your own, and not fully equipped to deal with each other like that stuck together all the time.
Not that things didn’t work out in the long, long run. Once they stopped the group—and, eventually, the romance—the deeper friendships that had produced their pairing in the first place came back, and quickly. So instead of Innocence being the end of the story, all three resurfaced, only seven years later in 1999 and 2000, to play shows and make 2001’s comeback fourth LP, God Bless the Blake Babies. And as recently as three years ago, they did it again for three more gigs, wrapped around a release of early recordings, Earwig Demos 6-7 March 1988. The love and affection they have for each other is on clear display below, even if you didn’t know they’d come back twice, or that Strohm and Love had continued on after Blake Babies in Antenna, or that Hatfield and Love had made a different group again in 2003 called Some Girls with Heidi Gluck. It’s really quite touching, in fact.
And of course, the newly reissued compilation LP still forms a basis for the chat below to go with the context of the breakup that led to it. Let’s remember them for the music they made and left us, as it’s truly worthy. And it helps in getting the group to open up a little below, that this writer knew them a bit from the first go-round, having played a gig in my own band, Springhouse with them and New Zealand band The Chills (whom they were touring with) in 1990 at Chapel Hill, NC’s Cat’s Cradle. Our band got on with them famously at sound check—they were total sweeties!—and ended up combining some gear. As the drummer who couldn’t fit his whole set in the mini van for the 10-hour drive from New York, I particularly was overjoyed to share bits of my kit and vice versa with Love. And I’ve always remembered that they watched our whole set from the front row start to finish even though they’d never heard of us before. (Not everyone does that; in fact, most don’t.) Then they watched the whole Chills show though they’d seen it a few nights already. In short, they were great music fans and lovely people—though they deny that contention somewhat below; or more to the point, perhaps they were only not lovely to each other, or to anyone who just came to gawk at the girls instead of being into it for the music.
Not surprisingly, this old album, and the four proper ones they made, still retain the spark of love for that music they were making, and the fresh tunes they were writing, while they were covering songs by The Stooges, Neil Young, Grass Roots, Dinosaur Jr., MC5, Ramones, and Fleetwood Mac, and enlisting the Lemonheads’ Evan Dando to sit in on bass. Put all that in a blender with some more winsome folk rock from any Canyon you choose, you had a heady stew.
When this album first appeared, it was like a loose ends sum up for a band that had broken up when it was just starting to catch on with larger swatches of the indie rock loving fans worldwide. Of course, the band has reformed since a few times and released music since. But was that how it felt at the time, and how does this album feel to you looking back at it now?
JOHN: We didn’t really ask for this release, and it wasn’t what any of us were focused on at the time, I don’t think. Juliana was having some real success, so there was some sort of demand that Mammoth had in mind. I took no part in deciding with American Laundromat which album or albums to reissue; this was Joe from the label’s choice. I find that interesting because this was his introduction to the band, and the record he fell in love with. I’m fine with it and I’m proud of all of this music, but I tend to think mostly in terms of the albums we made on purpose, as opposed to the one we compiled with the label after the band had broken up. That’s my take on it.
JULIANA: I agree with John that this compilation album was not our idea. I felt that the band had done some great work, made some great recordings and I was satisfied with all of the albums/EPs in their original forms. The release of this Innocence and Experience, initially, seemed like a way for the record company to try and capitalize further, somehow, in the wake of the band’s breakup. Now, I am not so cynical, and also I have been working with American Laundromat on my solo stuff, and I feel like they are coming at this from a good place and not just seeing dollars in their eyes—not that there are or ever were huge amounts of money to be made off the Blake Babies; we were/are a cult group. I think that this compilation is a fine overview and a fine way for people who are maybe not too familiar with the band to get a taste of us.
FREDA: When Innocence and Experience was originally released, it definitely felt like an afterthought to me. I cared strongly about our albums and EPs. I was so wrapped up in the creation and release of each of them, and so concerned with the reception, but by the time this record came out, the Blake Babies felt like a thing in my past and it didn’t mean much to me. Like Juliana just said, I feel differently now, and I appreciate the current release of this compilation of songs from every stage of the band’s first and primary incarnation. I think it’s a nice sampling.
Along those lines, the reunions, and the other groups and projects you’ve done together like Antenna [John and Freda] and Some Girls [Juliana and Freda], are longstanding testament to the perception that you broke up the band as friends, and it wasn’t dissension or disagreements or differences on direction that caused the group to cease like nearly every other that quits while its profile/audience is still increasing. Is the contemporary press release idea that you broke up because John and Freda wanted to move back to Indiana that got bandied about a bit back then the full story? And is that obviously lingering friendship what you take away from the 1986-1991 days, along with the music you made? Is it all pleasant memory and affection, and/or is there any musing on what might have been had you continued on instead?
JOHN: I don’t think easy band breakups exist. Your perception of it is fascinating, because inside our bubble, it was very turbulent for a couple years. It was hard for me at the time to part ways professionally with Juliana, and then watch her almost immediately achieve the goals we’d worked towards together. I thought I wanted those things, and then years later I realized that I don’t really care about that stuff, which was liberating. When we regrouped, especially recently, I think it was easy to do despite the trauma, because I was—and am—very happy with how my life has turned out. If I wasn’t so happy in my post-band life, I think it might be more painful to revisit. But now it’s both something I’m proud of and also a bunch of cool memories of things we got to do. It’s not what I’ve wanted to be doing all the time into my 40s and 50s, but there’s nothing I’d have rather been doing at the time. And when I play music with Freda and Juliana lately, it makes me feel very connected to these wonderful people in a way that is very familiar and comforting. It feels good to play music together, and thankfully it still sounds pretty good too.
JULIANA: The breakup of the band is pretty hazy in my memory. It seems like it was not a blunt moment of explosion and dispersal, but rather a drawn-out and painful tearing off of the Band-Aid. I think that all that jazz about some of us wanting to move back to Indiana might’ve been something we just told people—a PR thing—because the reality was more complicated than that. But at the same time I think one or more of us, John and/or Freda, may have indeed wanted to move out of Boston. About the breakup: I do remember being frustrated by what I perceived as the limitations of the band. We had a certain style and a sound and I was starting to feel like we had kind of taken it as far as we could, musically. I could’ve been wrong. But I know I had a desire to play with other/new people. That might sound harsh, but that’s the way it was for me, in my mind, then. I also vaguely remember Freda maybe quit the band at some point, while John and I kept it going? Freda, evidently, maybe, was also frustrated with the situation, for whatever reasons. I remember doing shows on the west coast with a last-minute fill-in drummer and it was a nightmare. And I remember doing a European tour with a different temporary drummer [Anthony DeLuca], and that was also a nightmare. Are my memories correct? I have a notoriously terrible memory. Now, I have only fond feelings and good memories about the band and about John and Freda. I think they are and were great people and incredible players; both of them had unique and compelling personal styles, from the beginning. And the three of us had a great and unique musical chemistry, and I’m really proud of the music we made. I’m sure I was a moody terror back then. I’m sure I wasn’t easy to work with or to be with and I am grateful that John and Freda were so tolerant and good-hearted in their dealings with me.
FREDA: Regarding our demise, it was indeed, as Juliana remembers, long and drawn out! What was hardest for me was that we agreed to break up but kept playing shows, mostly to fulfill our obligations. Being a dead band rocking was no fun, and on one long tour I was very depressed then got super sick and went home in the middle—to be replaced by Juliana’s brother—and then I opted out of our final tour of Europe because it just felt sad and pointless to me. I’ve always needed to feel like I’m working with a sense of hope and direction and forward momentum, and the Blake Babies had that in our early years, which was exciting, and when that was gone I checked out, disappointed and a little wounded. Now I wish I had rallied to keep my shit together for a strong ending. My regret about that was one factor in my suggesting the [2001 comeback fourth LP] God Bless the Blake Babies reunion album and tour—I wanted a happier final chapter for us! I’m not sure if it’s because of the reunion or because of time, or because of love and friendship, but I don’t have any bad feelings about the breakup now. I just feel lucky I ever got to be in a band with Juliana and John.
JOHN: I appreciate the generous words from both—this is very therapeutic! From the vantage of a very happy, gratifying post-band life, I don’t see that it could have gone any other way. Nor would I want it to. The band ran its course, as bands do. It was painful at the time, and messy…but it was clearly right. And that we can make music together in later years, including recently, is a blessing. Whereas back then, I was distracted a lot, because Freda and I were in a very close but rather dysfunctional romance that dated back to age 15. I have a theory that people who get into serious relationships at a young age mature individually, but not as a couple. I think that’s true of us, because once we split up and found ourselves in other, healthier relationships, I was more mature in general than I’d been with Freda. And observing her with Jake, her husband now of well over 20 years, it was the same thing. We acted immaturely towards each other, even as we matured as individuals. And now, at least to me, it’s more like we’re virtual siblings. We are close, we root for each other, we admire each other’s families, but there’s none of the bitterness or rivalry you’d expect from a long, ultimately painful relationship and breakup. It’s hard for me to think too deeply about the band’s original run without thinking of the relationship – and what a drag it must have been for Juliana to be around it at times.
Thank you for all these candid and thoughtful answers. It’s funny, fans, and journalists, and even just casual observers always want to pick at scabs with band’s breakups, because we are consumed with stories about bands, and how they get along, and stop getting along—how they create and then stop creating, because it is tied in to the entire mystery of how they do or did it in the first place; and how bands create music that’s greater than the mere sum of their individual parts. They have a certain something together, that can only be made in concert with each other. And this album, of course being tied into your demise, it’s especially unavoidable. But also albums exist on their own as just finished pieces of music. And the story John tells of how Joe fell in love with your group reminds that, like Singles Going Steady by The Buzzcocks—among the most famous of these non-albums that become albums to many, even unintended albums fashioned out of unconnected tracks—become whole and interesting albums just by existing. And Innocence, because it was b-sides, demos, and live tracks, is a much more “accidental” album than even that—your band at its most unguarded, perhaps? It seems to compile like a totally different side of your band. There’s a cool Neil Young cover, even—even though your albums already had more of a spontaneous feel than most bands. Do you think so?
JULIANA: You know what? I haven’t listened to Innocence and Experience since it came out the first time. I tend to never listen to anything I’ve done after it is released. So I don’t even know how any of the extra tracks sound. I should go and listen, but I don’t have a turntable, and all I have here at home is the new vinyl release. So I guess I can’t really comment on how, now, I think it sounds. I just remember being really into that  Neil Young album Ragged Glory at the time and being kind of bored with/sick of our own songs and frustrated with the band and just wanting to play a lot of Neil Young songs, because it was a kind of escape, and also the songs were so easy to play and sing, especially compared to the Blake Babies songs which were, like John says, kind of fussy, and very tightly wound.
JOHN: We had moments on those final tours of tensions boiling over, but I think mostly we were all just looking forward to our lives after the band. We’d toured so much and for so long that we were sick of the songs and started doing more and more covers. I think during the phase of doing covers from Ragged Glory by Neil Young & Crazy Horse was when Sonic Youth was opening for Neil in arenas on a similar routing as us. We were always a city behind or ahead of that tour, and since we shared an agent with Sonic Youth, we could have gone to any show for free. We were all obsessed with that record, so for a few weeks we’d do as many as three or four songs from that album. “Over and Over,” “Farmer John,” “Fucking Up,” at least one other. Those songs were looser and less fussy than our own songs, and we really enjoyed just jamming. For me, playing those covers on stage was by far the high point of any day on tour at that stage. I can tell you it wasn’t much fun off stage. It was time to move on.
JULIANA: I think that when artists and labels are trying to find extra, unreleased tracks, they/we kind of just root around for anything that can be used, that wasn’t used before. I don’t think there is a high level of discernment. You just kind of use what you have on hand. There was an early demo called “Radiator” that I loved. I wish we had put that on the compilation. I don’t know or remember why we didn’t. That was a great Blake Babies song in my opinion that was never heard by anyone. I think Freda wrote the words.
JOHN: We must have that demo to “Radiator” somewhere! We could release it online for shits n’ giggles. No idea why we didn’t see fit to put that on the album—it was one of the better early songs. And yes, Freda did write the lyrics, about our pre-Condo Pad apartment where all the riff-raff from Berklee [College of Music] hung out to smoke weed and drink malt liquor. There’s a reference to the Hare Krishna temple, where we went for a meal and lecture on meditation every week. I mean, we went for the free, delicious meal and stuck around because it would have been rude to bail. I had mixed feelings about putting anything on the album from our  first effort, Nicely Nicely, and I also had reservations about “Over and Over.” I was iffy about putting the demos on the album as well. I’m a stickler for production, and at the time I wanted it all to sound “good.” My favorite recordings by the band by far were the ones [Indianapolis punk legend from Zero Boys and prominent engineer] Paul Mahern did, meaning most of [1991’s] Rosy Jack World [EP] and then, years later, God Bless. I think Gary [Smith, producer] and Paul [Q] Kolderie [and Sean Slade, engineers] did a nice job in tracking [1989 second LP] Earwig, but there’s a sheen to the mixes I don’t like. And I hate the [1990 third LP] Sunburn mixes. We had a far more “pro” engineer on that one, Steve Haigler, and I didn’t and still don’t like his mixes: Too slick, dated. Anyway, now my perspective after listening a bit is that the character of the band really comes through here. These are a little messy, but that’s how we were as a band. Anyone who saw us live knows it had a vibe and energy but it was a little rough around the edges, and more punk rock than the proper albums would indicate. Whereas “Wipe It Up” was one of our first songs. I wrote the music a couple years before the band started, with a different set of lyrics that are long forgotten. A few of the songs on Nicely, Nicely were my or Juliana’s repertoire before we met each other: I had the “Wipe It Up” tune and “Rain [Demo]” Juliana had [Nicely, Nicely closer] “Swill & the Cocaine Sluts” and I think “AKA Deluxebury?” Both of those were about her experience as a teenager on the South Shore. Anyway, “Wipe It Up” was sort of a rip-off of “Winter Lady” by Leonard Cohen. I doubt anyone would get that from how it turned out! There’s a couplet in Juliana’s lyrics that is literally her complaining about Freda and me being shitty roommates—that part about “threw my sweater on the floor, threw my letter out the door.” The letter in question was from Paul Westerberg, who returned her fan letter. In 1987 we’d played a few shows and we were in a huge hurry to get some songs recorded. We knew we could improve our draw in Boston if we had a song on college radio, so we asked a neighbor named T.W. Li to help us. His roommate was at an upgraded to a 24-track facility called Newbury Sound, which looked like a fern bar inside. They had the first New Kids on the Block album on the wall, which we thought was hilarious. We couldn’t afford Newbury Sound legitimately, so we had to work from midnight to 6 A.M. I’m not sure if we paid for anything but tape. Evan Dando was around pretty much all the time, so he was there for the sessions. I was the drummer in the Lemonheads at that point. My most vivid memory was of getting done with the tracking sessions as the sun was coming up. There was a rough gay bar called The Ramrod downstairs from the studio, and it was still open as the sun came up. We weren’t really happy with those sessions; in fact, we ended up preferring the 8-tracks. Both sessions are represented on Nicely, Nicely. We were all deeply committed to the band at that point and really just hurrying to get to the next phase. We were all 20, and it was one of the most fun and exciting times of my life. Anything seemed possible.
And of course, if breaking up is usually a less pleasant memory for a group, especially with a posthumous odds and sods collection tied into it, sort of, what are the more pleasant memories of the time reflected on this compilation? For me it was seeing you three so pleasantly happy playing on the Chills tour at the shows I saw at Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, Woodies in New York, and one other I can’t remember—was it New Haven at this weird reggae club on Whaley avenue The Chills played? Foggy memory! And also sharing gear with you folks at the Chapel Hill show and finding you all so remarkably friendly and unpretentious, which I often think is a window on a band’s character—how they treat other bands they play with they don’t even know. You all seemed so ebullient on stage on that tour and on record too. But I am interested in any great, fun or funny memories you have. It was such a different time being a recording/touring indie band back then, pre-internet!
JOHN: I’m always relieved when I talk to people who met me back then who have nice things to say. We were moody as fuck and often fighting. And I was a little prickly because it was just the three of us on early tours and I took on the “dad” role, demanding soundchecks and towels backstage and staring/shouting down thousands of douchebags who didn’t know how to behave around pretty young women in bands.
JULIANA: I’ll say that during the band and all of our recording sessions and touring, I was really up and down—really up and really down—emotionally. I was very excited to be making music and recording and gigging, it was like a dream come true, literally. But at the same time, I was very frustrated by what I saw as my limitations, musical and social, and by what I perceived as a lack of more widespread recognition of the band, and stuff like that. I was also dealing with highly disordered eating all throughout the band’s run, and for many years after. I was veering between binging and starving. It was a horrible never-ending nightmarish pendulum I was on. It was fueled by my own underlying emotional problems, which pre-dated the band, but then my emotional problems were made worse by the binging and starving and what it was doing to my body and mind. I was incredibly moody and I was miserable a lot of the time, and I’m sure I made John and Freda miserable, too. I would binge for a few days and then not eat for a few days. Horrible. I don’t know if John and Freda knew this was happening. I never talked about it, as far as I can remember. There was a lot of shame involved and I tried to hide it, the whole thing.
FREDA: It’s a little heartbreaking to think about what we were all going through individually and how little we were able to help each other at the time. In some ways I’m not much smarter or better as a human being than I was back then, but in one way I’ve evolved, and that’s in grasping that everybody is struggling in some way, and you can’t ever fully know what’s going on with people, therefore it’s a good idea to cut slack and err on the side of kindness. I wish I’d known that then! Plus I wish I’d been less of a drunk!
JOHN: On the subject of your binging, Jules, I think Freda was more in tune with that than I was. If I’d have heard about you secretly eating pints of ice cream in the basement, I’d have assumed it was because you didn’t want to share! But honestly, Freda and Juliana discussed issues around food openly, and I gladly participated in the vegetarian touring—though I ended up not sticking with it. It’s been easier for me to keep a healthy diet post-band, though. “Over and Over” was from one of our last tours in 1991. We’d already decided to break up, and we were touring because the records were doing well. We were already conceiving our next, post-band projects. Freda and I had been optioned by Mammoth and had probably already made the first Antenna album, and Juliana was planning [1992’s] Hey Babe. We’d added my buddy Mike Leahy on second guitar; he really saved us in a lot of ways because his sharp sense of humor and low-key demeanor really eased the tension. As an aside, it’s pretty ironic that Mike became Juliana’s booking agent and for years I did her legal work.
FREDA: I do feel a lot of tenderness towards all of us when I think back on how fucked-up we were, but still how hard we tried in our way to work at it and make beautiful songs. We were young and dumb and damaged but we really believed that music was important.