Babies Come Back
By Stacee Sledge
Birmingham Black & White, August 2000

Formed around Boston’s fertile college-rock scene in 1986, the Blake Babies had an inviting, jangly pop sound that was heavy on melody and guitar hooks. Comprised of Freda Love, John Strohm, Juliana Hatfield and, on occasion, Evan Dando, the band’s popularity and album sales steadily increased over time, making them one of the most popular college acts around.

They eventually recorded four albums and an EP before splitting five years later. The enduring charm of the band’s best material garnered them loyal fans who followed each member’s individual efforts leading other bands (Freda Love with the Mysteries of Life, Evan Dando with the Lemonheads, John Strohm with Antenna and several albums under his own name, and Juliana Hatfield leading a revolving cast of backing musicians).

Though still involved in various projects of their own, all four members recently convened in Bloomington, Indiana, to record a soon-to-be-released album of new material and play a one-off reunion show. While future touring plans are uncertain, locals can take advantage of a rare chance to see the group in action when the band reunites for a show here on Saturday, August 26, at the B&A Warehouse (Dando and Ben Lee will perform an opening set). The occasion? John Strohm took up residency here around two years ago to be near his longtime girlfriend while she finished college. The couple will be married the day of the show and, in true rock ‘n’ roll style, the concert will double as a post-wedding party.

The Blake Babies may not be that well known in Birmingham since we never boasted a proper college campus, but local record stores report that they’ve sold a large number of tickets to out-of-town fans, many of whom are planning to travel from several states away to catch the show. The band’s enthusiasm for their new work, plus a crowd full of avid fans reliving the heyday of their college years with a favorite band, should make for a great gig.

Black & White: How did the recording go?

Strohm: The recording was surprisingly smooth. We were all a bit nervous, because we only had 11 days and the songs weren’t really written. We hadn’t all even been in the same room together since ’91—since ’88, if you count Evan [Dando, of the Lemonheads]—so we couldn’t just recreate a creative process.

Freda and I actually tracked two songs I had written completely, “Picture Perfect” and “Invisible World,” before Jules even got there. The idea was that it would help to get her enthused if there was something on tape that sounded good—and that’s exactly what happened. We spent the first day finishing the tracks for those songs and then we recorded two songs Juliana had written completely.

At that point we had to start finishing songs as they came up. I had sent a tape of about nine unfinished songs to Jules and Freda, so they were at least somewhat familiar with them. I would introduce the piece of music and we would play it until it was comfortable, then [engineer] Paul Mahern would roll tape as soon as we were ready. We usually got it on the first take. Then I would hum a wordless scratch vocal and Paul would print a rough mix for Jules to take home to write words. The majority of the songs came together this way.

Except for Freda playing drums, we didn’t have fixed instruments. I played bass on four songs, Juliana played bass on four songs and Evan on five. We all played guitar and Juliana and I split the keyboard parts equally. She actually played the piano on the live basic track on one standout track called “Until I Almost Died.”

One of Freda’s songs was originally recorded by her band Lola, and we used their version as a jumping off point. We started with a drum loop and Evan played a bass part and I played a rhythm guitar and then we just started adding all kinds of percussion and synths and noise until it felt like a total mess. Then we extracted bits until it made sense. The other song of Freda’s [“When I See His Face”] is built on the foundation of a guitar part played by Freda’s husband Jake Smith and is very spare. Evan’s song [“Brain Damage,” co-written by Ben Lee] was recorded in about ten minutes and all I did was play a guitar part. It came together very naturally, with Evan essentially producing. It doesn’t really sound like the Blakes, but it is a lovely duet between Jules and Evan, and they’ve never sounded better singing together. They also sing together on several other songs, including a beautiful version of “Baby Gets High,” by Madder Rose.

B&W Has the group dynamic changed?

Strohm: The group dynamic has changed completely, much to all of our surprise. In the old days we all took it very seriously, and as a result of that we used to fight a lot. We had an unfortunate sense that we were doing very important work and we rarely had much fun. This time we were united in a desire to make good music, but also to have a good time doing it, and I think the music is better as a result.

When I listen to the old records, although I like them, there is a certain stiffness and formality that comes from trying a bit too hard for perfection. Most of the records we all agree are great have a sort of off-the-cuff feel, which can only be the result of musicians being relaxed in the studio—getting along. Also, I did a bit of math and figured out that if you add up all of our records, this one is like number 30. We should be learning how to make records at this point. We could NEVER have made an album using this informal recording process nine years ago—we were completely dependent upon rehearsal, structure and routine. It feels good to be able to approach it from a different perspective and have it work.

The first thing you notice when you hear the tapes is that is really sounds like the Blakes. The chemistry is the same, you can hear it working, even though we weren’t making any conscious effort to reproduce our old sound. The second thing is that there is a maturity that wasn’t there before—the songs are at once more relaxed and more forlorn, deeper. You can hear the years of living that have gone on since the last thing. I think we were all a bit surprised by the outcome.

B&W: Any word on which record label will release the record?

Strohm At this point no one knows who is going to put the record out. Several labels have expressed a strong interest, but no one has heard it yet. Maybe there won’t be any interest, maybe there will be total hysteria. Most likely somewhere in between. We’d all like to see it find a happy home, though.

B&W: Tell me a bit about the Bloomington show.

John: The show was really good, and we had lots of people come from all over the country, much to our amazement. The whole month—the recording as well as the show—was affirming to all of us that the fact that we were able to make some good music together as youngsters was no accident: The Blake Babies were and are a really good band. I for one hope that we’re able to take it a step or two further in the not-too-distant future.


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