Not a Wussy Girl Band

(l-r): Shannon Wade, Susie Martinez, Sarah White, Lisa Wickware

(l-r): Shannon Wade, Susie Martinez,
Sarah White, Lisa Wickware

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

When the women of Handful first convened their "Church of Divine Distortion" back in September 1996, they had but one overriding motive. "The idea was that none of us wanted to be a wussy girl band," asserts drummer Susie Martinez. "The harder and faster, the better."

Hearing female musicians use derisive terms such as "wussy girl band" might be surprising to some, but it's not entirely inappropriate in a time when mainstream channels hoist Lilith Fair as the end-all, be-all of women's music. Although everyone from Big Mama Thornton to the Lunachicks have taken us to big rock candy mountain in a manner that transcends gender, Handful uses their recent, self-titled, self-released debut to fly the banner of Austin old-school punk rock like they still have something to prove.

The local quintet formed when Martinez approached guitarists Shannon Wade and Lisa Wickware about putting together a band; Wade and Wickware had previously played together with Meg Hentges, while Martinez also played with Wickware in the Hormones. Vocalist Sarah White was recruited for Handful duty after Wickware saw her singing a cappella at a party. Ursa Major's Andy Maguire was Handful's original bassist, followed by Cypress York. The bass chair is currently occupied on an interim basis by four-string journeyman Chepo Peña.

Wickware and Wade both cut their adolescent teeth on reigning Monsters of Rawk like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Judas Priest. This shared predilection undoubtedly shapes Handful's relentless dual guitar attack.

"I went to a lot of concerts and I have a million ticket stubs," recalls Wickware. "Styx was my first concert ever."

"Van Halen was mine," interjects Martinez.

Lilith Fare logo

"Me?" deadpans Wade. "I saw Three Dog Night!"

As for White, growing up in a small northeast Arkansas town provided her with all the requisite youthful anger a would-be rocker could ever need. More than anything else, it's White's low, sneering/smiling vocals that imbue Handful with an emotional aesthetic that leans heavily toward Eighties punk. "I don't feel like I could write about stuff I don't know about and that's what I knew for so long -- young and angry," explains the singer.

Nevertheless, when growing up in a small town with only "seven freaks total," a smart freak must assimilate to a degree in order to survive. "I was pretty much the class freak," says White, "but instead of letting everybody kick me around and talk shit about me, I just jumped right in the middle of everything they were doing. I had high hair and I was a bleach blonde. I was the freak cheerleader and I was the freak basketball player. I played their games, so they kind of accepted me because I was able to speak their language and still be a freak."

Although White got her start singing in a church choir, fellow parishioners didn't kowtow to her unconventional attitude and appearance. Perhaps that's why she draws her current vocal inspiration from Courtney Love and Janis Joplin instead of Amy Grant and Sandi Patti. "Where I'm from is like the buckle on the Bible Belt," reveals White. "There are churches on every corner. My best friend's mother told me on various occasions that I was going to hell.

"When I was 17 or 18, I actually had a Sunday school teacher who told me I was going to hell because I had evil hair. She said, 'You're going to hell, Sarah White,' and I said, 'I'll save you a room.'"

Wickware's similar experiences with the holier-than-thou brand of religion led her to write "My God," a pre-emptive aural attack on those who can't accept the idea that someone might find spiritual contentment outside the specter of evangelism. "Other groups try to take ownership of something that's so personal and within you, so I'm saying, 'I have my God and I don't need you to tell me what I need to do to be righteous,'" Wickware asserts.

Another standout track from an album that won't win Handful any friends at the Heritage Foundation is "Two Nice Girls," a hardcore-flavored song named after the late, lamented Austin band as "kind of a nod to our forefathers," according to Martinez. Spinning on the addictive refrain, "I had two chicks at once," the song documents a lesbian make-out session in a manner that utilizes traditional elements of celebratory male bravado without assuming a derogatory conquest mentality.

"Sister Spit [a San Francisco-based spoken word troupe] opened for us at Electric Lounge and I was approached by two of the performers after the show," remembers White. "They told me they were trying to gather points for the road and asked if I would make out with them in the bathroom. I said I'd be glad to. So I made out with them and that's where the song came from.

"When I wrote the song, I was just thinking about making out with two chicks in the bathroom and how that would make anybody feel good whether they were girl or boy or alien. I don't see how it would make anybody feel bad. The idea is to say exactly what you feel and not try to sugarcoat it. Everything I say is what I feel. If that offends anybody, that's really too bad."

Handful brings a similar attitude to Austin stages, which has engendered them to a small yet wildly enthusiastic local fan base. Between Wickware's trusty smoke machine, White's defiant breast baring, and an enthusiastically ribald rendition of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog," the band knows how to bring an audience to its feet. Handful's constant gigging may cut into their drawing power somewhat, but they have their reasons. "We just like to play, and the money helps," says Martinez. "Plus it keeps the name out there all the time."

One place you won't be seeing Handful's name is on the second or third stage of Lilith Fair's Southpark Meadows stop next Tuesday. While everyone in the band digs what Sarah McLachlan has done musically, they wouldn't mind seeing the female-themed music fest add a few more Joan Jetts to offset the Lisa Loebs. "It would be cool if they had a stage where they really pushed hard rock," says Wade. "It seems like they've tried that with one or two bands, but if you've got Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, and the Indigo Girls on stage one, the 900,000 people who are there are going to be there to see that kind of music."

Which isn't to say Handful wouldn't be happy to play the festival. "We'd be all over it because it's a chick fest and anytime there's a chick fest, we are there," quips Martinez.

Handful record cover

Although Lilith Fair's limited purview of women in popular music may irk them a bit, Handful is even more annoyed by girl rock bands that garner raves just because of their gender. "When I think about us not being a wimpy chick band is when I hear about some all-girl band that's supposed to rock really hard," says Wickware. "So you go and it turns out they can barely play. Maybe they're doing some screaming thing, so they're punk rock or whatever. That pisses me off really badly."

Wade goes so far as to express sympathy for male bands with regard to this phenomenon. "I feel sorry for young guy bands that are trying to start out," she explains. "If you're a chick band, you're going to get way more attention right off the bat. And you get more credit even if you're not that great."

Of course, one cannot discount the role of an overwhelmingly male audience and the even more overwhelmingly male cadre of critics in this equation. Despite the inroads women in music have made in recent years, seeing an all-girl band play balls-out rock & roll still packs a certain degree of novelty for some. Handful experienced this firsthand when they played a rock festival across the border in Matamoros last summer.

"The crowd was nothing but guys who were freaking out because they'd never seen women rocking out," recalls Wade. "I came out with this short dress on and they were like, 'Cu-lo! [Cute] Cu-lo! Cu-lo!'" laughs Wickware.

Still, Handful had a great time playing the festival and look forward to rocking Matamoros again in late August. A few catcalls are no match for a singer who spits out angry words like rotten milk on top of the distorted crunch of power chords and a stampeding 2/4 beat. Say what you will of Handful, but this definitely ain't no "wussy girl band."

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