cover_story_2 (2006-29)

Fleetwood Mac is crackling on the record player, appropriately, and like most nostalgic music, this requires some analysis. “Listening to ’80s music is so funny,” says Julia Hungerford, who drums in Knoxville’s The Cheat. “To think they were all so coked up when they made it—such a bad idea. But they thought it was a great idea. They were just like, ‘Make it sound real bright, bright as the sun!’”

Lounging on the shabby couches in their South Knox apartment, Dirty Knees bassist Maggie Brannon and drummer Laura Rogers crack up in agreement. A grotesquely large—and perhaps fake—fish hovers above their heads on its wall-mount, and on the end table beside Brannon are a lamp and a plant, along with a framed picture of the same lamp and plant. They aren’t your typical girly girls, but there is a definitively pink painting in their bathroom. But then, it has skulls on it. Cute skulls.

Tonight, the two chat with Hungerford about being girls, being in bands, and other sundry subjects from sentience to homoerotic behavior to the idiocy of the government’s inaction after hurricane Katrina. During the long night, there will be pillow fighting, cigarette smoking by professed non-smokers and multiple beer runs.

Such is the life of a rock girl.

In general—and Knoxville’s no exception—there seem to be far fewer female musicians than male counterparts. And though they may have to prove themselves from time to time, these shouting, strutting, guitar slinging and drum-banging women aren’t about to let that get them down. Plus, there are advantages to being a woman in a stereotypically male realm. And it’s not (just) the hot outfits.

Hungerford started playing drums when she was 13, after convincing her grandmother to buy her a set. “I played in this band called Spooge,” she says in her monotonously cool way. “I quit that band for a lot of reasons, one of them being the name. That was so terrible.” Then, before her days with Lobster Lobster Lobster and The Cuts (now The Cheat), she did a brief stint in a band with two girlfriends. “I miss being in a band with other women, because they’re more polite,” she says. “Women tend to be more nurturing.”

Brannon and Rogers concur; when asked what’s difficult about being in an all-girl band, they simultaneously say “Nothing!” The two got together as Dirty Knees, with guitarist Elizabeth Wright (who’s running late), through a foosball game. “Someone said, ‘you guys should be a band,’ and we were like, ‘OK,’” says Rogers.

As could be expected in the incestuous Knoxville band scene, Brannon and Hungerford were also briefly in a band together, called Scott Johnson. OK, extremely briefly. “It had to be something terrible, like a dude’s name, and then it’s a bunch of girls,” explains Hungerford. “We got real stoned one time and played some songs and it sounded awesome, and then we couldn’t remember them.”

Of course, brevity is common among small-time bands. Of the countless acts under Will Fist’s Whisk-Hutzel label, many only play together a few times and call it quits or reunite once in a blue moon. “It’s funny how some of those bands don’t really exist,” says Hungerford, “but in Will’s head, they’re huge.”

But all ephemeral bands aside, the girls’ current gigs are serious endeavors. The Cheat has undoubtedly risen to the top echelon of Knoxville’s punk scene of late, sounding crisper and more energetic all the time. And Rogers points out that Dirty Knees play more shows than most local bands. “We’re the highest grossing Whisk-Hutzel band,” adds Brannon .

Even so, the Knees takes a fair amount of grief for being an all-girl ensemble. “I get a lot of, ‘Oh, if you were in a real band.’ Like we’re just a play band,” Rogers says.

“It is like a novelty to some people,” adds Hungerford. “It’s not like you set out to make an all-girl band, but people will always be like, ‘Hey man, these chicks are rockin’.”

While Dirty Knees tend to revel in their adorable-ness (while still playing hardcore music), other female rockers are more adverse to the feminine label. “I’ve always been such a tomboy. I’ve always played with the boys,” says Kat Brock, of Whiskey Scars. “I don’t know what kind of femininity enters into it. Maybe there’s an openness—I’m pretty open and honest about my songwriting.”

She may have been taught guitar by her high school boyfriend when she joined the band subbluecollar, but Brock is probably best known for her songwriting and deep, scratchy singing while she was with Dixie Dirt, the band she co-fronted with Angela Santos. In some ways, the two had to prove themselves. “Knoxville’s always been really supportive,” says Brock, “but touring, it seemed like sound guys and club owners were always skeptical…It’s a boy’s game, unfortunately.”

Hearing Brock—who’s always sort-of brooded behind a tough persona, but now happens to be nine months pregnant—say things like, “It’s a boy, the cutest boy in the whole world,” is a little jarring. But, even over the phone (and not within sight of her glow/belly) there’s a serenity that was never in her voice before. “Becoming a mother, I’m so much more honest than I ever was. I will write things that I might have masked before,” she says. “I don’t feel the angst that I used to feel. And I’ve had to come to terms with emotions that have been buried. The motherly instinct is definitely present—it’s like opening up my whole body.”

That may have just been a surge of hormones though, as Brock quickly retreats into non-mom mode. “I don’t think the fact that I’m a woman is an issue [as a musician],” she says. “Every band I’ve ever been in I’ve had a writing partner, and [gender] doesn’t really play into it. It’s just an intense working relationship. I think that’s why Dixie Dirt was so well-accepted across the board, because Angela and I didn’t emphasize the female musician thing.”

Jagstar’s Sarah Lewis isn’t a professed tomboy, but she does enjoy playing with male bandmates. “It’s crazy,” she says, “I’m really more comfortable with them than I am with my girlfriends.”

Of course, her husband is the guitarist, and Lewis says that makes things easier, but even so they’ve had problematic band members in the past. “Some guys will act weird about a girl being the lead,” she says. “But these guys are not at all like that.  Once they realized that I was doing this for real and I didn’t just want to be the cute girl in the front, they just kinda let me do my thing.”

Even if female musicians don’t try to showcase their looks, there’s a certain allure—just as there is with male musicians—about someone unabashedly rocking out onstage. “There are a lot of guys out there who are just really into female musicians,” says Lewis. “I’ve definitely gotten some strange letters. And pictures. But it’s all good.”

For some guys it’s an ultimate fantasy: girls and rock music. It can illicit unwelcome attention. “I think there are the weirdo stalkers out there,” Brannon says, sipping a Sierra Nevada, now on the porch. “Yeah, being in a girl band is a good way to attract stalkers,” Rogers adds.

Hungerford, who seems blissfully unaware of the male-propagated lore in Knoxville surrounding the majorette outfit she sometimes dons onstage, says “I definitely know the guys in my band get more attention than I do.”

Wright, who’s also known as “The Hussla,” has now arrived, but the beer-fueled conversation has now dwindled into a mix of heated political discourse and nostalgia over past bands. “I played in a band in high school called Coat Hanger,” Wright says. “There were only five songs about this guy’s girlfriend and how she was psycho.”

“So you were backing up this guy’s psychosis,” Hungerford says, as if this were typical .

And then, Brannon, who’s been nervous that her statements have been recorded up until now, says the most awesome thing of the night. “I think guys [play music] as a way to get girls, and then girls wanna play ’cause they see it, and instead of ‘I wanna fuck that guy,’ they’re like  ‘I wanna fuck that guitar.”

From there, things can only devolve. And they do. A blue cell phone screen confirms the ungodly hour of 3 a.m. as the conversation turns to conjecture that some guy bands thrive on an underlying homoerotic desire. But they’re not being judgmental—merely pointing out a tendency that resides in both sexes, but is just less accepted for guys.

Case in point: the pillow fight they decide to have in Roger’s bedroom—for the photo shoot of course. Validating Cyndi Lauper’s claim that girls really do just wanna have fun, the foursome thrashes around on the bouncy double bed, knocking pictures off the wall and tumbling onto the floor. Just as I’m calculating how much a video of this would go for on the Internet, they stop for a moment to huff and puff haggardly, and Brannon says, “Talk about homoerotic!”

And while they don’t seem like the calorie-counting types, Wright points out the evident aerobic benefit of pillowfighting. “Damn, this is a workout,” she says. “We should start a pillowfighting workout class. You’re bouncing, working your legs, trying not to die.”

Hey, you gotta work off the beer somehow.