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Under Acme is the kind of club most likely to feature your friend’s younger brother’s college band. The lighting is low; the tendency to jam is high. Shaggy boys in quintets named Smokin Buddha or Gravity Galaxy hunch over their instruments and fill the room with muddy guitar rock. So on a recent Thursday night, everyone’s taken aback when Lava Baby—three girls in crop tops and two guys, one in white baggy pants with a white furry Kangol cap—bounce onto the stage. They play Arlene Grocery this Saturday night.
“Get ready for the return of rock!” Robyn Celia, the bottle-blond lead singer, screams. Then, after a sparkly riff, she lets loose a girly wail that could make Susanna Hoffs jealous. “It’s a lie/Baby, it’s untrue,” she chants like a pissed-off cheerleader, “I would die if I didn’t have you!” “Start dancing!” she yells. “Pretend this isn’t New York!” The crowd, now that it’s awake, is trying to process everything. A couple of guys in plaid shirts and long hair look a little freaked out. Up front are a few die-hard fans—all women. The leader of the small pack twirls wildly around like a groupie. She knows every word. The lyrics float by—something about tossing and turning, something about a “straight-to-video jam.” The lead singer and the keyboard player have a transfixing chemistry, a formalistic dance of glancing and winking. All of a sudden the music stops dead, and the band chant in perfect unison, “Time out!! Get down, Miss Brown!!” and the drummer, who looks like she could fix Joan Jett’s transmission, takes a mini-solo. They’re like Josie and the Pussycats—the choreographed way they smile at each other and make jokes between songs. Very squeaky-clean ’50s, but with a sexy girlpower twist. Whenever the male bassist tries to steal the spotlight, he gets taunted until he stops. “What-ever, LL Cool J,” Robyn smirks, after he attempts a particularly macho riff. These chicks probably have their own van, and it’s probably pink—the guys are just along for the ride.
Cartoonish, girl-fueled powerpop in a basement club is kind of a waste. Especially for Lava Baby, whose typical fan is about 15, from Kansas, and sends them e-mails like “You guys, you’re so hot I can’t believe it your even better than brittany spears.” After the band won the most audience votes in VH1’s Undiscovered Artist search last year, teens from the Midwest started getting waaay into them. “We sent them personal e-mails back,” Robyn says, “and they think we’re, like, Christina Aguilera.” Soon they were getting thousands of requests through lavababy.com for their self-recorded 1999 debut CD, In the Right Place. “We got so many e-mails that we decided to give our CDs out for free,” Robyn says.
So far, that’s the only way they’ve been able to distribute their music. They’ve got a van, but they don’t have a manager. Or a booking agent, or a record deal, or a guest spot on TRL. They’ve been courted by labels and talent agencies, but to no avail. “ICM approaches us,” Robyn explains, “and they’re like, ‘You guys are amazing, you’re the Go-Go’s of the millennium, call us next week.’ I called the next week—great conversation with the guy—he went to school with Jewel, we had this whole joke about Jewel. We never heard from him again. And that happens a lot.”
“Whatever,” Miss Brown adds, angrily. “The industry can kiss my ass.” Lava Baby might be frustrated partly because they’ve never considered themselves indie; they’ve always been a pop band. When an oddly sycophantic Billboard article trumpeted, “This is a no-brainer for a record label in search of something that’s truly fresh and marketable,” they took it as a compliment. Still, for a “no-brainer,” they have had surprisingly bad luck with record companies.
The main reason may be that girls playing instruments haven’t been on the radio in a while. At least new girls. The “Hot Adult Contemporary” format that’s taken over so many playlists doesn’t allow for it. Hot AC is that “no rap/no hard stuff” formula stations like New York’s 95.5 WPLJ use, mixing up new music with hits from the last few decades. WPLJ wants to attract women in their twenties, who—the rationale goes—can’t get enough of that ’80s music. So, interspersed in the lineup of modern rocking boys, Faith Hill, and the occasional Nirvana song, you get Power Station, Blondie, the Bangles, Cyndi Lauper. People are so used to listening to the same girls rocking over and over again that the Bangles have become practically canonical. ” ‘In Your Room’—I wish I wrote that song,” Miss Brown says reverently. “We belong in the ’80s,” Robyn sighs. Lava Baby would make perfect sense on Hot AC, but strangely they’re losing out to music from two decades ago.
Although WPLJ is supposed to appeal to women, they hardly ever play new female bands—the contemporary rock part of their equation is Third Eye Blind with a twist of Everclear. The other rock radio format du jour, stations devoted to Fred Durst and his angry little minions, is also a no-girls-allowed clubhouse. It’s a rough time for power ballads and tearjerking rock lullabies.
Out of necessity or nostalgia, Lava Baby have become the best thing they could be—a radio playlist come to life. Eighties bands that you can hear Saturday nights on WPLJ—Survivor, Bangles, Scorpions—show up in their set. They take up the dead air between songs by doing live samples—a spoken-word recital of Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded,” for instance, or breathing life into the odd forgotten C&C Music Factory hit. Any other band covering this music might attach a genre to it, but with the Lava Babies, it’s just obvious they flat out love rocking like a hurricane. Robyn, Miss Brown, and Jen, Robyn’s sister who used to play bass, grew up together in the Rome of the High Eighties, suburban New Jersey. Jen now and then still gets up and sings, but she basically quit the band when she got married, to be a teacher and “worry about her mortgage,” as Robyn puts it. They’ve replaced her with a keyboard-playing cutie with a predilection for pigtails, also named Jen. But the core of the band, Miss Brown and Robyn, has always rocked at heart (and to Heart). In high school they were kind of bad girls who drove around, got drunk, and cut class, like the heroines of a John Hughes movie. They took ’80s music seriously then, and they still identify more with the Go-Go’s and Blondie and early Madonna they grew up on than with today’s grrrl progeny. To Lava Baby, girls back then wanted to have fun more than they do now. “I went to see Mazzy Star,” Robyn says. “Someone talks in the middle of the first song, and she’s like, ‘I’m out of here.’ And Cat Power—what’s the deal there?”
There’s little danger of Lava Baby pulling a Chan Marshall. They’re like a really good prom band; they show up on time, and they don’t sing about Cassavetes. They don’t really have a niche right now, and they may never be signed because of it. But if there’s a contradiction inherent in being an unsigned commercial pop band, Lava Baby are choosing to ignore it. They’re backstage slathering on glitter for their next show.