March 20-26, 2003
Indie rock mothers of invention Tsunami are still fighting the good fight and reuniting for Ladyfest.
"We never broke up, we just stopped playing," says Jenny Toomey, lead singer/guitarist of her long-defunct and momentarily refunked D.C./Philly indie band, Tsunami. After a five-year hiatus, the band reunited for Ladyfest D.C. last May and they’re doing it again for Ladyfest Philly’s Sunday-afternoon finale.
Throughout the '90s, Toomey and guitarist/singer Kristin Thomson (a regular on the Philadelphia music scene and a part-time Ladyfest organizer) were unofficial role models for up-and-coming indie rockers looking to get their music out there while keeping their integrity intact. Tsunami kicked ass and changed minds with their three CDs and something close to their collective weight in vinyl. The most recent exclamation point at the end of the Tsunami storyline was, until now, their spectacular 1997 disc, Brilliant Mistake. Although they found themselves lumped in with the riot grrrl scene, this band never screamed to make its presence known (which is probably why they refused to yell into the megaphone for our cover). Like poet Robert Frost -- who wrote extensively about the less-traveled path he chose for his life -- Tsunami sang often about going against the grain and then went out and lived it.
Thomson and Toomey are equally revered for creating and operating Simple Machines, one of the most successful and sovereign independent rock labels in history. Over its eight years, the label helped find a venue and an audience for bands like Ida, Scrawl, Franklin Bruno and Danielle Howle. Simple Machines' DIY ideals (and educational album art) were a beacon of unity for punk kids to stop the infighting and start working together. (Please see The Simple Machines Mechanic's Guide, a frequently updated and details-oriented handbook for other upstart bands and labels.)
These days, the two are still making indie music -- Toomey lives in D.C. and has a couple of albums out under her own name; Thomson, a new mom, lives in Philly and plays with local rockers KeN -- and still fighting the good fight. In 2000, they founded the Future of Music Coalition, a not-for-profit political think tank that seeks to educate the public, the media, artists and policymakers about the issues independent musicians currently face. At regular public speaking engagements and on their all-business website (www.futureofmusic.org), the coalition tackles everything from intellectual property laws to using modern technology to avoid shaking hands with major-label executives. Both women are busy as bees with music making and the FMC, but Toomey (in Seattle) and Thomson (in Austin) found time for an e-mail interview.
City Paper: What makes Ladyfest a special occasion?
Kristin Thomson: Jenny and I have done and continue to do our fair share of organizing events -- musical and political -- and we know what it's like to orchestrate something at this level. For me, it's been really fun to work with the Philly Ladyfesters on the organizing and the process of working together towards a common goal. I'm amazed at the level of dedication and commitment that everyone has to the project. Plus, I came to know about two dozen great new people in the city that, no doubt, will be friends and collaborators in the future. I'm really proud of Ladyfest Philly's genuine commitment to representing and showcasing the true diversity of music, arts, dance, spoken word and theater that the region has to offer.
CP: At Ladyfest D.C. you got Franklin Bruno to join you on stage. Any surprises for Philly?
Jenny Toomey: We might dip into the Ida gene pool if that's possible.
CP: I know somehow you've managed to get some practice in. Any rust?
KT: [Drummer Trip Gray and bassist Amy Domingues] -- consummate musicians -- seem to recall songs that we haven't played together in five years without a problem. I guess that's why they're musicians for a living. Jenny and I, however, had to begin scraping away the chunky rust layer last July/August before Ladyfest D.C. Though it took a few practices to get back up to speed, thankfully, at some point, muscle memory kicks in and your fingers magically end up on the right place on the guitar frets. We've dusted off the repertoire again over the past few in preparation for Ladyfest Philly, and things are sounding surprisingly good!
CP: Will you be playing "Genius of Crack" at Ladyfest?
CP: Think you could dust off "Old City?"
CP: When you started Simple Machines, did you feel like music was pretty much a boys' club?
KT: Yes and no. When I moved to D.C. I was very aware of the political nature of music, as well as feminist politics. D.C. had a lot of women in bands already -- from Fire Party, to Autoclave, to Maria [Jones] in the Holy Rollers, to Kim Coletta in Jawbox -- that served as continued inspiration for me to be active in bands and in the community. Simple Machines, however, was more about operating a small label based on the ideas of fairness, simplicity and community and less about going out to prove that two women could run a label. Yes, there were fewer labels run by women at that point, but it wasn't the reason that the label existed.
CP: Were there times when being a woman was an issue?
KT: Nothing springs to mind right away. In fact, the "novelty" of the idea that Simple Machines was run by two women worked in our favor in a strange way in raising the label's profile, since it made the label somewhat unique among the indie labels running at the time, though we were hardly the only women doing it. But as far as label operations, working with bands, vendors or distributors, I don't remember anything being a particular problem. And remember that, despite the boy-ish profile of the indie/punk scene, when you get to the sales/distribution/retail end of things, there are as many women as men working in the indie community, so I spent a good part of my day dealing with both women and men to get things done.
CP: Tsunami and Simple Machines were, I imagine, very inspirational to many of the younger bands at Ladyfest. How does it feel knowing you've created a sort of proven, working model that a band and a label can do everything independently and maintain creative and ideological integrity?
JT: We didn't create anything. It was happening all around us. The inspiring folks are the ones you see [in 1984 punk rock documentary] Another State of Mind where clearly kids are making a touring circuit out of basements and pick-up shows because there was no infrastructure. If we helped any bands to avoid re-inventing the wheel, that feels great but we were only passing along and documenting the generosity we received from the folks who came before us.
CP: What did all those years of Simple Machines teach you?
KT: Besides the basics of running a small business, it taught me that working in partnership with people was much more fun and productive than working on stuff by yourself. It taught me that being generous to people in the present has many long-term rewards. Friends we made back on our first tours are still some of our closest allies, even as we move past the record label and more into the activism surrounding the Future of Music Coalition and media ownership issues.
CP: How important is it for musicians to work together?
KT: It's essential. Look, the entire musical landscape has been shifting over the past 10 years from a terrestrial model to a digital one. In an ideal world, musicians would be the winners in this new model thanks to "disintermediation," meaning taking out the middle men/women and allowing musicians to get their music directly to the music fans who want to hear it. In a digital world, musicians can record their own stuff on their digital eight-track or whatever, upload it to their website or another distribution site and let folks access it directly. No more mastering, no more making CDs, no more boxing and shipping, no more musty boxes in your basement of overstock. Sounds pretty good, right? But there's a critical question at the center of this that has yet to be resolved to many musicians' satisfaction: How do artists get compensated for their work in this new digital environment? Music in a digital format can be copied and redistributed without any degradation of the digital file, so once a song is made available, it's pretty much out there for everyone to hear, download and pass on. This makes it much more complicated for musicians to get paid, and it's one of the core issues for the Future of Music Coalition. It's really important for musicians to work together now to ensure that these broken business models aren't replicated in the future.
CP: So what do we do?
KT: In some cases the changes need to happen at a legislative level -- at the copyright office, in Congress and at the FCC. But we're often challenging the positions of some very well-financed interests -- the music and film industry, commercial radio broadcasters, big tech companies. Since we don't have the money we have to show policymakers that we represent a reasonable and achievable middle ground -- solutions that make sense for the vast majority of musicians who aren't superstars but just want to be able to make a living, get compensated for their work and hear their music on the radio.
CP: Do you download music off a Napster-type file-sharing service?
KT: Nope. There's no doubt that the technologies behind Napster, KaZaa and other peer-to-peer networks are really cool, but I personally feel more inclined to use services that ensure that musicians will be paid.
CP: Jenny, you've played four Ladyfests so far. What were they like?
JT: Some make me feel very included, some made me feel old, alienated. In any case I think there is some value in getting out there and saying that I remember a time when it was rare to see women playing at the local rock club and that I'm glad to see that change.
CP: Kristin, has becoming a mom changed your rock 'n' roll lifestyle?
KT: I still rock, but more selectively. I can't go out to as many shows, but that's neither here nor there. Geez, in fact, I've only been to a handful of shows since Riley was born in September, whereas before I'd probably go to three to five a week. So sometimes I feel really out of the loop, especially with the local bands. But Riley is a super baby and I love hanging out with him so I don't feel as though it's a compromise at all. He's also a great traveler! Because of our schedules -- both mine and [husband/local music booker Bryan Dilworth]'s -- we travel a lot, and Riley comes with us all the time. In fact, I'm writing this note from South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where, later in the week, Jenny and I will be on panels and Jenny will be playing a bunch of shows. Though I can't just roam from show to show, Bryan and I can often work it so that one of us watches Riley while the other one sees some of a band's set. But I'm still practicing and playing with KeN, which should get me double rock points.
Tsunami will play Sun., March 23, 2 p.m., $10, with Ida, Rebecca Gates and Jodi Buonnano, Dear Nora and The Snow Fairies, First Unitarian Church, 2125 Chestnut St.