Editor’s Note: Back in my past life as an extraordinarily small-time freelance music writer (as opposed to whatever the fuck I am now), I had the opportunity to interview Beth Ditto of the Gossip for this article in my local “alternative” weekly, the Lansing, Michigan City Pulse. The interview was, to be honest, the main reason why I wrote about the Gossip for today’s Women’s History Month post: don’t get me wrong, Beth Ditto was and remains a badass, but even more than her music, our conversation is what made a lasting impression on me. Ditto’s reflections on growing up as a queer woman in the deep Bible Belt were fascinating and incisive; she was also funny, gregarious, and a pleasure to speak to in general. So, whether you’re a fan of the Gossip or not, I highly recommend reading this interview: not because 21-year-old me did a great job as an interviewer–I emphatically did not–but because it’s a warm exchange with a decent human being, and that’s something I think we can all appreciate. – Z.H.
So your new album Standing in the Way of Control is a pretty radical departure for you guys.
Yeah, thank God! (laughs)
Were you afraid of being pigeonholed as the Kill Rock Stars band with roots influences?
Well, with every record there’s a pigeonhole – I mean the whole rootsy gospel sound was never really intentional in the first place. But when we made the new album, I felt so happy; I felt like, this is breaking out of something and hanging on to something at the same time. Again, it wasn’t really a conscious decision – it just worked out that way. But I think if you don’t change, you might as well not be in a band.
Do you think it’s your best record yet?
Yeah. It’s the number one. Just the care that went into this record… We did the best we could in the time we had. We were feeling more confident, with the lyrics, with everything. Everyone took it more seriously–we actually took the time to tune the guitar! (laughs) This was also the very first time we were all there, all the time. On [2003’s] Movement, at least eight of the ten songs were recorded separately; we tried to record together but it didn’t work out. This time all three of us were there as much as we could be, and that made a major difference.
How did Hannah joining the band come about?
Well, [original drummer] Kathy [Mendonça] left in November , but there was a little overlap because Hannah was standing in for her on a tour at the time. Kathy was just busy. She started going to school full time… It just sort of became obvious that Hannah likes playing music and Kathy likes going to school. There was no big fight, or “okay, now Hannah is in the band and Kathy is out.” It just worked out that way.
I’d like to go back to the “older” Gossip sound for a second. You guys have always been interesting because you have the blues influence, but unlike other bands like that, it’s totally incorporated into this modern sort of punk-rock context.
There’s a definite blend. Nathan [guitarist Brace Paine’s birth name] was always into punk, and I was always just into the weirdest shit: Mama Cass’ solo stuff, and old Mahalia Jackson records. And also just being in the Southern Baptist Church, that exposed me to gospel music.
Was the church where you started singing?
No, church was where my mom would send me on Sunday mornings so she could be alone! (laughs) But in my family, everyone was really into singing. My mom would make me sing all the time, and she had a beautiful voice. I also grew up working sound in the VFW hall with my dad, so that taught me how to project.
Yeah, I don’t know what I would do if I’d had training. Formal training is such a weird concept to me…it would be so different. I wouldn’t want to do anything out of the ordinary, I’d be afraid to mess it up.
You and Nathan both came from Searcy, Arkansas…that’s a pretty far cry from Olympia, Washington.
Growing up in the South is like a different planet. It’s the Bible Belt. I grew up afraid of being possessed my whole life… Nathan’s the same way. To this day, if it’s dark we won’t say the “D” word. Which is “Demon.”
I remember in twelfth grade, my teacher showed us The Silent Scream. You know that video? So she showed it and like half the girls in the class had to get up and leave, because of course half the girls in the class had had abortions. We’d take sex ed. and learn for weeks about buying engagement rings, and then maybe thirty minutes about safe sex…and there were girls in my school who already had babies! Just crazy shit.
(laughs) Yeah, we didn’t know that coming in…but when we found out it was amazing. Actually in that same studio there was a microphone Heart used to record Dreamboat Annie…I was like, “I get to record on the same microphone as Annie Wilson!!”
The deciding factor for going there, though, was just because Nathan and I didn’t have driver’s licenses or a car! The studio has beds and everything, so we could stay there the whole time and not have to drive back and forth. It’s actually on a farm, like in a pasture – it’s a really good place to record.
How long did you spend recording?
One thing that impresses me about you guys is how you came out right near the end of riot grrrl and right near the beginning of garage rock, and the critics seemed to lump you in with first one genre and then the other; but you transcended both of them.
Well, we never really were “garage rock.” When we first started as a band there was no garage rock–just bands playing together, not anything huge. And riot grrrl–I mean, we liked bands like Bratmobile; we weren’t really the same thing, though. But I’d rather be worked into riot grrrl than garage rock any day. Some of those bands set out to be “garage”–it was phony. We didn’t ever intend to do that, or anything really. Even Nathan and I meeting, it was total fate–it’s so weird, the way we get along.
Do you think that’s one reason why the Gossip never really received any of the whole garage backlash? There’s just something authentic about the band?
We never really received the attention those bands received, either! (laughs) I mean those bands, they signed to major labels, and the underground does lose interest when that happens. But the underground is really loyal, too; so our fanbase has been great to us.
Oh, I’m all for it! But it wouldn’t be worth signing over anytime soon. Everything is too amazing: I’m too young, I’m too comfortable. My life rules – why should I give this up?
Is this the best place you’ve ever been with the Gossip?
Yeah, I feel like we’re growing up. It’s just full now. There were things missing before…now it’s all in place.
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