Nearing the Portland home of Gossip singer Beth Ditto, I call to double-check her address. "Yupthat's it," she confirms. "The door's open, let yourself in. Nathan and I are in the kitchen. I'm cutting a pear." A pear? Odd. Perhaps she's planned a luncheon in celebration of the band's new album, Standing in the Way of Control.
Upon entering, I find guitarist Nathan "Brace Paine" Howdeshell draped in a barber's cape. A pair of shears in hand, Ditto scrutinizes her handiwork. I realize my mistake. The singer is not slicing a Bosc or Bartlett; she is cutting his hair.
"This side is all flippin' out, but we can fix that," drawls Ditto, ruffling his black locks. Howdeshell hops up and scurries off to check.
"This is perfect!" he shouts from the bathroom.
"It looks like it always does," she quips, smiling. (Later, mid-interview, Ditto decides touchups are required. "We have got to take that bulk out," she announces. "You look like a flapper.")
As it turns out, Ditto does prepare lunch. She has even baked a cheesecake. But the pear/hair mix-up seems portentous. First, because folks rarely have trouble hearing Beth Ditto. Since they emerged with their 2000 full-length, That's Not What I Heard, the Gossip's bluesy punk wallop, topped by Ditto's soulful, full-throttle singing, has bowled over many listeners. But, also, had its members not fled rural Arkansas, Ditto says she would probably be entertaining salon clients, not sweaty audiences, full-time.
Could the Gossip have happened if Ditto and Howdeshell had stayed in the South? "No," they answer in unison. "I wouldn't even be playing music," confesses Ditto. "I would be pregnant."
Howdeshell is a big Morrissey fan ("Every morning I wake up and put on the Who Put the 'M' in Manchester? DVD"), and his empathy with the recluse-turned-rock-icon makes sense. The guitarist grew up in a distant house on a gravel road so isolated that the school-bus driver had to rise 15 minutes early every morning to pick him up. Internet access was virtually unheard of.
Fortunately, such limitations didn't curtail dreaming. Ditto always felt destined to perform, but she kept her aspirations, well... quiet. "When people asked me what I wanted to do, I knew I was going to be a singer. But I was scared to say that." If folks believed her crazy scheme, then she ran the risk of failure. "So instead, I would answer, 'I'm going to be a hairdresser.'"
Neither of them were interested in higher education. Luckily, Nathan's pal, future Gossip drummer Kathy Mendonca, was. When she split Arkansas for the Evergreen State College, it triggered a micro-exodus that brought Howdeshell and Ditto west, too.
The three shared a house in Olympia, more due to their shared geographical roots than to tight friendship. "We all knew each other, but if you had told me, when I was 18, that I was going to be in a band with Nathan, I would have laughed my ass off," says Ditto. The Gossip were born in 1999, when Howdeshell and Mendonca were jamming together one night, and asked Ditto to sing.
The result was a visceral mix of old and new, gut-bucket roots music fused with Riot-Grrrl urgency. Growing up with minimal exposure to pop culture, cool or otherwise, proved beneficial, creating a Galapagos Island effect. "When Beth and Nathan moved to Olympia, they had no pretensions," says Seattle drummer Hannah Blilie, whose old band, the Chromatics, toured with the Gossip in 2002. "That they came from that fucking crazy background, and are doing what they are, is amazing."
K Records issued the four-song The Gossip EP in the summer of 2000, just as the band hit the road opening for Sleater-Kinney. Ditto's uninhibited gyrations and primal wail, plus Howdeshell's no-wave-inspired slashing and Mendonca's rudimentary, rock-solid rhythms, would serve the trio well over the next five years. That's Not What I Heard (on Kill Rock Stars) was followed by Movement in 2003, plus a slew of EPs, split singles, and a live album; the band toured with the White Stripes, Sonic Youth, and others.
When the time arrived to make their third album, challenges arose. "We wanted to do something very different from Movement," explains Howdeshell. "I was frustrated. We had exhausted this certain sound... so let's do something crazy, and get really upbeat." But there was dissention in the ranks. "Beth and I were going in the same direction, and Kathy wasn't."
Mendonca was focused on academic studies and holding down a good job, says Ditto. The others, meanwhile, refused to seek employment so they could concentrate on music. When the Gossip were offered a series of dates with Le Tigre in late 2003, Mendonca had conflicting commitments. The others accepted anyway. Blilie, now playing in Shoplifting, was drafted to fill the drum stool.
"I was stoked when they asked me," recalls Blilie over coffee at Bauhaus. "I was super busy at the time, but I thought, 'I've got to do this.'" Despite a day gig at Babeland, her duties in Shoplifting, and regular DJ slots, she was determined to go out with the Gossip. "I just made some sacrifices and picked it up."
"From the first practice we had together, it immediately clicked," she remembers. Ditto seconds Blilie's sentiments: "I remember being scared, because it felt like we were cheating on our girlfriend."
Although the stripped-down style of the Gossip was a marked departure from Hannah's artier playing in the Chromatics and Shoplifting, she adapted eagerly. "Our sound was suddenly so much more full," says Howdeshell. The temporary slot soon became permanent.
The personalities were an instant lock, too. "We're all total music nerds," admits the guitarist. "We can sit around and talk about the Slits, and then Missy Elliott and LL Cool J, and then the Supremes and Nina Simone. Hannah finds as much influence in Jay-Z beats as she does in the Fall."
Although a few cuts for Standing in the Way of Control were composed before Mendonca's departure, the entirety of the album was recorded with Blilie. She also participated in writing its 10 tracks. The result is the most variegated, dynamic Gossip offering yet.
Songs aimed at the hips and feet—such as "Listen Up!" a frisky mix of hissing high hats, cowbell, and bass that recalls '80s minimalist funk outfit ESG—are more dance-floor-friendly than ever. The urgent title track has already been issued as a 12-inch club single, complete with a Le Tigre remix.
Elsewhere on the LP, the volume drops; Ditto originally wrote "Coal to Diamonds" as a candidate for a future solo album, and sings it with smoldering intensity tempered with a restraint only hinted at previously.
"I don't have a little voice," admits the vocalist. "But I have different kinds of voices, and I get to use them all on this record."
The chilling "Dark Lines," which concludes Standing... on a somber note, confirms the new lineup's chemistry. "That's our homage to Young Marble Giants," says Blilie, referring to just one of the classic post-punk bands the Gossip admire. The song was written entirely in the studio, with Blilie playing percussion on the back of an acoustic guitar, and Howdeshell improvising on piano. The kicker? "Nathan can't play piano," says Ditto. "He can barely play guitar. We were holding our breath the whole time."
There would be more tense moments before the new album reached fans. Last summer, Ditto had to undergo emergency surgery for untreated gallstones. She suspected something was wrong for a while, but, like most musicians with no health coverage, chose to ignore the situation. "I'm usually a good 200 pounds. That's my normal weight. Two years ago, I was down to 140 pounds. I went to a party in Olympia, and nobody would talk to me until I talked to them, because they didn't recognize who I was," she continues. "That was the moment when I knew I was really ill."
She had no appetite, and was frequently racked with pain, yet still avoided treatment. "I was afraid," she says. And not just of the potential expense. "If you are a chubby person, and you go to the doctor, they always blame your weight. Even if you have tonsillitis, they think it's because you're fat." Finally, after an emergency-room visit, the decision was made: Her gall bladder had to come out, immediately.
For most queer individuals, there's nothing like a major health crisis to drive home the shortage of civil rights for partnered gays and lesbians. But Ditto (who has been with her "sweetie" for five years) was already focused on that discrepancy. "What made me more aware was when gay marriage was turned down in Oregon." During those brief days in March 2004, she watched with optimism as her friends lined up for marriage licenses, only to see their hopes dashed soon after.
"At first I thought, 'Why do I even care?'" she admits. "I was 22, and didn't want to get married. And then I realized, this is what oppressed people go through: a time of complacency. You're taught to settle for less. Then one day, you wake up and say, 'That is not fucking okay.'"
Just as she balks at women musicians who refuse to call themselves feminists ("I hate them"), the singer has no patience for GLBT community members who disregard the gay-marriage battle. "It is really sad to hear some queer people say, 'I don't care about that.' Call me lulu, but that is you being brainwashed."
Coupled with their music and stage presence, it is this no-nonsense disposition that has won the Gossip so many ardent fans. "I don't think we necessarily have to be spokespeople all the time, but we're not going to hide who we are," insists Blilie, who is also queer. She says the same attitude holds true for Ditto's ample curves. "Her visibility as a fat person who is not ashamed, who embraces it and loves it, is political in and of itself."
While Ditto praises zaftig showbiz predecessors including Ricki Lake, Divine, and Romeo Void singer Debora Iyall, she recognizes that the music industry is prejudiced against big girls. "If I weighed 130 pounds, the Gossip would be twice as big, twice as fast. No doubt in my mind. Tell me Karen O has more talent than me! I refuse to believe it." Neither do I. Hell, nobody in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs ever baked me a cheesecake.
The Gossip perform with Numbers, Bobcats, and DJ Porq on Thurs Feb 2 at Chop Suey, 8 pm, $10, all ages.
From early signings Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear to recent acts Sleater-Kinney and the Gossip, Olympia indie label Kill Rock Stars has always championed groundbreaking all-female and coed bands. Since 2001, the label has been stretching its lineage backward, too, reissuing out-of-print material by seminal post-punk innovators like LiLiPUT and Essential Logic. The latest, Delta 5: Singles & Sessions 1979–81, celebrates a Leeds, England, quintet who were contemporaries of Gang of Four and the Mekons.
Slim Moon, who founded KRS in 1991, came to these bands after their heyday, when he met Olympia post-punk fans Calvin Johnson and Toby Vail in the mid-'80s. "When kids discover it now, 20 years later, I think of it as very similar to how I discovered it. I feel much more of an affinity with them than people who lived through this the first time."
The influence of these groups on modern KRS acts runs strong. Gossip guitarist Nathan Howdeshell, who hosts the PDX shindig Suicide Club, cites the Delta 5's best-known cut, "Mind Your Own Business," as "the perfect dance-punk party song."
His colleague, Shoplifting and Gossip drummer Hannah Blilie, AKA DJ Master Stan, concurs. "I have the Essential Logic and LiLiPUT CDs, and I fucking wore those things out. Back in the '70s, those women had to struggle against so much more. Yet that music sounds like nothing else, and you can totally hear how it influenced things today." —KBR