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They're No Angels 

The women of HellFire Choir storm the hard rock boys' club

Wednesday, Aug 29 2001
When L7 took the stage at 1994's Lollapalooza festival, the all-girl group injected new meaning into the phrase "female power." Suddenly, the sweaty alternateens in the pit were moshing to the kind of loud, vein-popping rock usually reserved -- at least on MTV -- for boy bands. L7's aggro anthems like "Fast and Frightening," "American Society," and "Shove" had nothing to do with feminist political theories or women's studies classes; instead, they just plain rocked. The group's appeal stemmed from its roughshod melodies and machine-gunned choruses -- shot halfway between the riot grrl punk of Bikini Kill and the amphetamine-driven grunge of the Gits.

Over time, however, L7 disappeared from the spotlight, leaving female hard rock idols harder to find than good material from Courtney Love. These days, Nashville Pussy guitarist Ruyter Suys stands tall -- both in stature and shredding ability -- and L.A.'s Betty Blowtorch features razor-clawed ladies with loud libidos, but there are few other visible female artists. When asked about women in hard rock, Blowtorch frontwoman Bianca Butthole complains, "We're in a major minority; there needs to be more women out there. We've been touring the U.S. and we've played with maybe two or three females the whole tour. They don't even play chicks on radio anymore, unless it's pop. In the '70s there were more women on [rock] radio than there are now."

While the mainstream may be low on chick factor, new local bands like Psychedelic Wedding and HellFire Choir are making inroads into the hard rock boys' club. And although HellFire isn't completely devoid of testosterone -- drummer Eric Davenport sports the literal balls in the band -- this four-piece puts ladies Shelly Cardiff (guitar, vocals), Michelle Weeks (guitar, vocals), and Carmela Thompson (bass, vocals) first.

HellFire Choir makes mincemeat of the stereotype that fine-looking chicks can't make a massive ruckus. Cardiff howls in a primal fashion, screaming lyrics like "I'm too young to die" with psycho-killer fury, while the rest of the band blasts aggressive rock that you can sing along to. "I think they fucking rock," says Betty Blowtorch's Butthole. "Shelly is a sexy vixen with a raspy bedroom voice that'll get your panties wet. They're fun and entertaining, with some great stage moves." Live, the band pulls out all the stops, from choreographed jumps to Cardiff flicking her tongue down her guitar neck and onto the mike stand. Thompson is the most volatile onstage, jumping around and shooting high kicks to the rafters. "I'm always afraid she's gonna hit me in the head," laughs Cardiff.

On HellFire Choir's new self-titled debut, the band captures the force of its stage attack, whether the topic is sex ("Love of mine, I'm the one to teach you discipline/ Tell me, do you want more/ On your knees to the floor/ Turn your back, beg, implore") or street brawls ("Kick, kick in the teeth/ Cops are in the street/ I couldn't even see/ Bang, bang in the head/ I was seeing red/ You are fucking dead"). Even a rather passive pastime like gambling, which Cardiff tackles on "Go," has an aggressive vibe: "Split me, hit me, dealer just raped me/ Vegas is the town that never escapes me."

"I'm a huge gambler, I love it," she admits. "Gambling is the only vice I have left. I quit drinking, I quit smoking, so I play blackjack."

She may be sober now, but Cardiff's never had much interest in the good girl gig. Growing up in Davis in the '80s, she started checking out punk shows at 12 and spent her teenage years getting busted by her parents and the law. "When I was 14, I was always in trouble with the police -- getting drunk and taking drugs," she says, clad in a leopard miniskirt and Zeke T-shirt, curled up in a chair in Thompson's apartment.

Cardiff's parents thought music might make their little girl more responsible, so they agreed to pay for guitar lessons. Did it work? "No," she says with a husky laugh, "because I would say I was going to lessons and then just go get fucked up. I had the coolest teacher, though. I'd come to a lesson and be totally grounded, and he'd say, "Was that your [arrest] in the paper?' And we'd spend the whole lesson talking about it."

Cardiff moved to San Francisco in 1989 and played guitar with acts like Super Pussy, Bimbo Toolshed, and Princess Special. In 1999, Weeks answered a notice for a Princess Special guitarist. "When I was looking at ads, I was looking for a girl band," says Weeks. "Bikini Kill really influenced me to be in a girl rock band. I think it's really cool to work with other female musicians because there aren't enough of them out there."

Unfortunately, soon after Weeks auditioned, Cardiff split a tendon in her finger and couldn't play for four months. When she recovered, the band played together two more times and then broke up. Weeks stayed on Cardiff's case, however, suggesting they start a group with her drummer pal Davenport. HellFire Choir's lineup was eventually completed when Cardiff convinced Thompson, a veteran of rock bands like Cameltoe and Short Dogs Grow, to return from Los Angeles. "I moved last July," says Thompson. "It was either that or get a restraining order [against Cardiff]."

Like her bandmates, Thompson has had a long-standing love affair with rock 'n' roll. Her apartment is decorated with relics from rock's past: vintage Kiss posters, cutout cardboard Ramones stand-ups, a copy of the punk oral history book Please Kill Me. Her interest in playing music began after watching American Bandstand while she was still in grade school. "I must have been 10 or 11, and there was this band called Taste of Honey on TV. They had two female guitar players -- really beautiful women who could really play. That was the first time I'd ever seen women rocking like that. I was like, "Oh my God, I can do that.'" When her father, self-taught jazz musician Robert Thompson, refused to give her lessons, she took the initiative herself. "I got a job at Wendy's for $3.35 an hour -- that's really dating myself -- to make money so I could take guitar lessons," she says.

In 1985, she played with Janis Tanaka of L7 and Stone Fox in a local band called Lee Kwan. Later that year, she moved on to Short Dogs Grow, a band that gave her an education in the masculine rock lifestyle. "Don't ever sleep with a guy in a band -- warn everyone," she says, laughing. "They're pigs. I've been in a van with them the next day, listening to them talk about the girls they've met. They all know what girl in what town will do what to them."

Thompson says there weren't many other women playing at that time either, so the ones who did play stuck together and swapped stories. "Comparing notes with other girls in rock bands, we realized we always had to be the ones to do the booking or to buy the strings. It was like I was the den mom for so long. I felt like I had three little boys."

HellFire Choir may be in the minority in the male-dominated hard rock genre, but the band still expects to be judged on its music, not its gender. "We played last night, and the other [male] band was unloading their stuff," Cardiff says, "and we were talking to them right before we loaded our stuff onstage. The security chick came up to me, and she's all, "You girls are gonna have to wait over there to talk to the band.' And I said, "OK, but we're in the [next] band.' Nobody's ever said anything like that to us, and, of all things, it was a chick saying it."

Luckily, the HellFire ladies aren't often mistaken for groupies -- especially after they unleash their combustible tunes. And while Choir lyrics like "Slap me in the face/ Only makes me wetter" (from "Dirty") may make riot grrls fume, Cardiff's delivery leaves no question who's on top.

Just in case this band thing doesn't work out, Cardiff has a backup plan in place -- one that is even less subtle than HellFire Choir. "I'm writing porno too," she says. "But I haven't shown it to anybody. It's disgusting!"

About The Author

Jennifer Maerz


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