Katastrophy Wife’s Amusia Turns 20
If you are a fan of Babes in Toyland (1987–2001; 2014–2020), eventually you will find Kat Bjelland’s side projects and fall in love with them too. From 1993 to 1995, Salem’s guitarist picked up a bass and played alongside her then-husband, Stu Gray (Lubricated Goat), in the alternative band Crunt. Her lines “I’m coming to greet ya/ Coming to meet ya […]” in the band’s track Unglued, make you want to sing along and the song is her trademark in the only Crunt’s work. After Babes in Toyland’s bassist Maureen Herman left the band in 1996 due to health problems, the band reduced the number of shows and during the uncertain times, Kat devoted herself to her first child, Henry, who she had with drummer Glenn Mattson, her former husband with who she formed Katastrophy Wife in 1998. Mattson’s The Peasants bandmate, Keith St Louis, joined the group as a bassist.
Katastrophy Wife’s first work was the soundtrack for the comic Witchblade, named Songs of Witchblade, which contains the ballad ‘Blue Valiant’ that would be also released in the second KW’s album, All Kneel. Although the soundtrack is amazing and features many famous instrumentists and vocalists such as Lydia Lunch, Peter Steele, and Buzz Osbourne, it would be with Katastrophy Wife’s debut album, Amusia (2001), that we would be able to fully experience Kat’s artistic vein outside Babes in Toyland (I strongly suggest that you check out other bands that Kat was involved such as The Venarays, The Italian Whorenuns, and Pagan Babies).
The first impression I got from the band was that Kat was always whip-smart when it comes to playing with words and in KW that wouldn’t be different. KATASTROPHY WIFE can be read as KAT AS TROPHY WIFE, as she double plays with the gender roles ‘catastrophic wife’ and ‘trophy wife’. Such a creative way to defy patriarchy! Kat was experiencing motherhood and a second marriage at the time, so the timing couldn’t be better. Another touch of brilliance inside Kat’s mind is the album title. Amusia is found in the lyrics of the track ‘Rosacea’:
[…]Once was a muse system
Caste broken used to amusia[…]
From the lyrics, we can interpret amusia as ‘amuse ya’. Looking up amusia on RxList’s online dictionary, I found that Amusia is a medical condition that means ‘the inability to recognize musical tones or to reproduce them’. Kat has already taken inspiration from dreams to write songs and in a 2013 interview, responding to a question about a new project, she said:
Yeah, I don’t know what yet. I’m studying herbalism, I’m going to this class at East-West school on herbology, so when I get inspired to write I always read about pathology and diseases and anatomy, combined with ghost stuff, paranormal, and then Hinduism. And then my normal anger. And all that goes together.
If she was already studying medicine stuff at the time of Amusia I don’t know, but it’s just amazing that this word has to do with music, and especially Kat’s music which many people still consider hard to listen to. She had done this game of ambiguous words before and it stood out in BIT’s Real Eyes: ‘[…]I realize I real eyes I realize your lies are in your own eyes[…]’. Amusia was officially released in the UK on July 9, 2001, and on March 19, 2002, in the U.S. by the label Almafame and it was produced by Brad Cassetto. I will talk a bit about its 11 tracks below.
1. GONE AWAY
In Mark Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge (2011), Kat says that she really didn’t know Nirvana at the time Babes toured with them in 1991, what was captured in the groundbreaking documentary, 1991: The Year Punk Broke. She went further to say that Courtney wanted her to meet Kurt but the bond between them would be different. When Kurt died on April 5, 1994, Babes were going to play at the L7’s Rock for Choice benefit concert and Maureen had to come back to the hotel they were staying at because she had forgotten her bass. According to her, the phone was ringing off the hook, and when she finally answered it, “It turned out to be Courtney Love desperately looking for Kat. She told me the news of Kurt’s death. She was understandably hysterical and wanted me to have Kat call her immediately.” In Yarm’s oral history, Kat says:
[I was in Seattle after he died] to hang out with Courtney and support her. […] In the funeral home, I saw him dead, which was more than disturbing… I had a nervous breakdown right after that.
In VH1’s Behind The Music with Courtney Love (2010), Kat tearfully mentions that she and Kurt never talked much but when they saw each other for the last time, they sat on the kitchen floor and talked a lot. He also gave her a big hug which felt like a goodbye. Courtney gave away some of Kurt’s belonging at the time, and she gave Kat his famous wrist watch. According to Bjelland, it stopped ticking one week after Kurt’s death. She chose to leave the watch unrepaired. This background is necessary to understand how Kurt’s demise and Courtney’s reliance on her in her possibly most vulnerable moment impacted her life and her writing.
The opening track of Amusia, ‘Gone Away’, is allusive to the passing of Kurt the same way All Kneel’s Layne to Rest would be to Layne Staley and to Kurt as well. The song showcases Kat’s more Sonic Youth-oriented guitar and her landmark: her screams. Here’s Gone Away’s excerpt that makes a clear reference to the Cobain couple:
[…]Living as a favour for the
Neighbour’s guilty wife
Burning like blister on
The finger of your life
Picture of the singer a
Deadringer and the wife
Live through this encounter,
Counting figures his demise […]
The parts guilty wife/live through this/his demise allude to the time of Kurt’s death as a lot of people blamed Courtney for that and shortly after, Hole would release the sadly prophetic album of the same title in which an eponymous track was co-written by Bjelland. ‘Burning like blister on the finger of your life’ could be a reference to Live Through This’ Softer, Softest in which Courtney sings ‘I’ve got a blister from touching everything I see’, and Kurt’s body was cremated; therefore, she references both Kurt and LTT. ‘Picture of the singer a deadringer and the wife’ implies the comparisons between Courtney and Kat once deadringer means ‘someone who looks exactly like someone else. Courtney and Kat were also pictured together on the day Kurt died. Also, just like ‘wife’ in the Katastrophy Wife, ‘the wife’ in the song also works as a sharp criticism of women’s roles in relation to men rather than to their own careers. Several people credit Live Through This entirely to Kurt Cobain and that’s clearly an attempt to erase Courtney’s career.
2. BOOMERANG DOLL
Gone Away is followed by ‘Boomerang Doll’ which reminds me of BIT’s Ariel, mainly its bassline. See the song’s first part below:
Saw boomerang doll at the
On plastic mattress sat a gal
All made of straw
She snapped like match stick
And she spit out cracker drawl
All that she lacks is are the
Bones to break her fall […]
I’m not sure if the ‘doll’ is a reference to Kat herself or to Courtney as both liked wearing babydoll kinderwhore dresses, although I think that by 2001 they had already left their issues behind in 1994 once Kat called Courtney her soul sister in an interview on the same year Amusia was released. Besides, according to a 2001 interview, Kat was almost 40 and reflected on how aging changed her perspectives:
When I was in my early 20s, I was wild and, of course, that’s going to show and reflect in the music. Now I’m almost 36, and I still scream and stuff, but I’m not as angry, I guess — thank God. There’s a reason for everything, and angst music is good, too, but I hope that I age gracefully. I don’t want to be an old lady stomping around complaining. […]
Sticking to the theory that the song is about herself, she might be seeing herself as a doll made of straw and that is also like a boomerang — something that goes contrary to expectations and results in harm. It can be a song about being in a downward spiral as she snaps and lacks bones to break in her fall. Someone who lived contrary to the expectations of a doll-like gal although she dresses like one and snaps like a match stick, and as the song reaches its end: on plastic mattress burned the gal all made of straw. She sees herself as made of straw, so she can easily burn and that can mean harming herself easily being thus the boomerang doll. Kat has not only struggled with mental health but also with addiction as she stated in the Oral history of grunge:
Let me make this clear: I never really did heroin on tour […]When I came home and was bored and depressed [and] with money, yeah, that’s when I would do it [heroin].
3. GIT GO
I love how Kat’s artistic journey is pretty raw and DIY and about how she does music for the sake of music, self-teaching herself how to play instruments, making abrasive music without pedals for years, and being a pro-musicians. Although her bands never broke through the mainstream, she stayed true to her beliefs and this can be perceived in the lyrics of ‘Git Go’:
Never thought I had to take it
Never felt the need to fake it
Never felt the need to try all the shit you pull
Never felt the need to follow
Insights of those whose sight is shallow
I never kissed the ass of cash but then again… […]
This is a great response to the pressure bands that went through the grunge era and despite being in a band labeled as ‘grunge’ and ‘riot grrrl’, Kat didn’t follow the waves, and Babes in Toyland went on to cover Sister Sledge’s We Are Family for their final album, showing the real reason why they were a band. In that same 2001 interview, she stated:
We want to keep it [Katastrophy Wife] pure. I just want it to be pure and follow a punk-rock ethic, in a way. We don’t want to fall for stuff like fame or think about how we want to write songs so we will be [punk] a certain way.
‘Rosacea’ is probably one of my favorite songs by Katastrophy Wife. It is probably the most beautiful, so much that it got a cello hidden track called Rosacello and which closes the album. It is also another song in which Kat brilliantly uses medical words. The word is a condition in which certain facial blood vessels enlarge, giving the cheeks and nose a flushed appearance. Take a look at these two different parts of the song:
Pretending I’m blind in the
back of my mind I have
permanent spent neon mind
glowing bent like a church fair
it’s enough to make you cry
though you repent it makes
less than a dent in the repair
Once was a muse system
Caste broken used to amusia
Found in a maze-meant I’m
Lost in the phrase of aphasia
It’s enough to make you rye
All that I say is the final
Act play in dementia
Kat said that all the songs were written before Henry was born and we can figure that this song is about a previous relationship in which she was a ‘muse system’ and her ‘caste broken’ to amuse the partner. The combination of these words gives the idea that Kat had to fit some sort of submissive role in it, pretending she was blind when aware she was being cheated on being lost in the phrase of aphasia which means the loss of ability to express speech, in other words, unable to communicate her feelings to her partner. And the final act in dementia could mean pretending dementia about the case so the couple could move on. But what intrigues me is the word ‘Rosacea’.
My Rosacea following fall
Away my life
It could mean her inability to blush as it is commonly associated with our excitement about something. But her rosacea, aphasia, and dementia could also be signs of Kat trying to open up about her mental illness which would only be diagnosed as schizophrenia in 2007. Kat spent a year in an institution receiving treatment. She also said that a major influence in her writing was dealing with the episode. I think that how she also used her mental condition as a metaphor for other issues in her life is just impressive and that makes her a real poet.
5. PRETTY CAR
In a pretty car you’re the star
See you fall in all the bars
When we’re apart it hurts
In a pretty car you’re the star
like a dagger through
Another dagger through
Drive away in your
The next track of Amusia is ‘Pretty Car’ and while the lyrics don’t give us any clues of what it is about, we can guess that it deals with someone with alcohol problems ‘see you fall in all the bars’ or who had to leave her and that was painful ‘like a dagger through your heart’. I enjoy the male backing vocals in this track and it would have been awesome if it had a music video. Every time I listen to it I picture Kat driving cars reenacting Melanie Griffth in Crazy in Alabama (1999).
Wait, have you gone insane
This is just what it looks like
This is just what it sounds like
If Pretty Car is pretty punk, ‘Anathema’ is pretty stoner rock. The album gets more experimental from here on and since anathema means something or someone that one vehemently dislikes, Kat’s descent toward the deepest parts of her mind is not pleasant to her but she tries to describe it just like Lou Reed did in Heroin.
7. KNIFE FIGHT
When I saw you last night
What I saw was not right
When they said you
It did not take me so long
Remembered I was along
Wouldn’t leave you alone
But the moon was not right
We broke into a knife fight…
Amusia’s cover features Kat dressed in all black, holding a pumpkin and there’s a green filter which gives some Halloween/Wicked Witch of the West vibes; and if we were haunted by Kat speaking in tongues in Babes in Toyland, in Amusia’s Knife Fight, Kat transports us to a Halloween movie where the protagonist fights her enemies and in Kat’s case, it could be her multiple personalities. In a 2007 interview, she said that dealing with them was extremely difficult because some days she didn’t know who she was or where she was at. It could also be a female revenge song in which the enemy is an abusive husband. Either way, it’s a very gothic tune, and Kat’s voice is perfect for creating gothic sounds.
I see an unreal light
I know an unreal light
I am an unreal light haunted
I feel an unreal flight
I see an unreal light
I fight a surreal flight
I am an unreal light haunted
I heard thee unreal light
I am an unreal light
I have the unreal sight haunted
We all know how Kat loves rhyming words and the supernatural tone of Knife Fight is followed by ‘Haunted’, a track that reminded me of Melvins and Kat’s Diamanda Galás-like screams lead us to believe she’s exorcising something that’s so strong that she becomes it. I can’t possibly imagine what it feels like for Kat to transform her fight against her demons into art, but the experience of listening to her music is so intense that you might feel like you’ve just walked out from a spiritual session.
Staring out the window you
You lose yourself there’s no one else
Standing in the corner you’re
Out of place
You’re out of place.outer space
You’re outer space, fell
You’re far, far and away
And it’s far and away
Screaming out the window you
Lose your breath
You lose your breath, need a rest
You need a rest welcome death
And you’re far, far and away...
This song made so much sense to me during my isolation in the pandemic. I think that I’ve never felt outer of place like in these last two years and it’s just not a pleasant sensation. I felt like screaming out the window many times and lost my breath too. It’s all part of being too lonely and growing desperate. Imagine how it must be for those who struggle with disorders. Kat wrote this song two decades before the pandemic, but many people who struggle with disorders, addiction and etc., didn’t need the pandemic to know loneliness. At the same time Kat writes her heart out, she is comforting many people whose issues are barely addressed in songs. The world is a better place because of people like Kat Bjelland.
I have electrical-occurrences
Doors blown open
Craft is burnt out
HER NAME IS VIOLET LIKE THE WAY-(WARD )IT GOES
O’ER THE CROOKED FINGER ROAD SO DREAM LIKE HOW THEY LOOK AND SEE ONLY THIS TIME THEY WERE STARING AT ME
AN ELABORATE SERIES OF STRAP-ON WIRES
ONTO YOUR SKULL RECORD TO PAPER OR NEW FORMAT
YOUR THOUGHT DREAMS RECORDED INSTANTANEOUS ART FORM
AN ELABORATE SYSTEM
CAPTURED WITHOUT TIME TO EVALUATE OR RE-THINK TIME FOR INTERPRETATION […]
Kat’s writings always reminded me of those from the Beat Generation. They are very fluid, providing a monologue of what runs in her head. This could be the scenario of someone who walks the evil ways — that’s a definition for widdershins — being treated in a psychiatric hospital ‘ward’, ‘strap-on wires’, ‘skull’ and writing down their observations before being captured for a procedure or something like this. I don’t know if Kat was hospitalized prior to 2007, but it seems like that she foresaw that given the signs from other songs. When she sings ‘her name is Violet’, it reminds me of Catatonic’s ‘I know the sugar plum fairy, her name is Mary’. I think that other female names in her songs like ‘Pearl’, ‘Bluebell’, and ‘Violet’ this last one is also present in BIT’s most famous song, ‘Bruise Violet’, might be her multiple-personality manifestation. She could also be talking about herself in the third person.
In 2016, Katastrophy Wife’s fans were gifted with the release of a new streaming version of Amusia called Amnesia with demos, covers, and previously unreleased tracks. Widdershins’ was called Busiest Shopping Day Of The Year and the lyrics were different too:
This guy comes into the restaurant
I guess his name was like Paris
So I bet his parents thought he should be all cultural
So he goes “is this real butter?”
He sticks his finger in it and goes “make sure this is real butter, take it back to the cook”
I said “of course it’s butter you motherfucker”
So I bring it back, he sticks his finger in it and he goes
“Oh, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”
And I go “I saw you in the paper the other day
“You know what you are?
“You’re a wife beater”
Kat was working as a waitress in a restaurant at the time of the album and in this track, she does a spoken word about a wife-beater, changing thus the perspective of the word wife and if Kat really called the man out for his aggression and lost her job for that, I don’t know, but that’s a song that could be written today in the #metoo era and you must be thinking of another of Kat’s line that also puts abusers in their places. I totally felt a Lydia Lunch vibe here.
Kat also shows her love for blues music covering Mary James’ Make the Devil Leave Me Alone, for Kurt’s heroes, The Vaselines, following his punk version of Molly’s Lips and records two different versions for a song called Poison. Amnesia also features the original version of Liberty Belle, which would be released in KW’s second and last album, All Kneel, in 2004. Although I adore this album and it is the band’s landmark, Amusia holds a special position among my favorite albums ever. For me, Kat Bjelland is the type of artist who can go heavy metal, blues, hip-hop, and many other music genres, and she will always nail it! Kat hasn’t released any new music in a long time and in the beginning of this year, her sister shared on a Facebook group that Kat has been suffering from stage 4 liver failure which is truly devastating and she’s been getting help from friends and healing vibes from fans. She must miss playing music and with this post, I tried to show how special is her work and everything she does. I can’t wait for All Kneel’s 20th anniversary to write about it but I’m so looking forward to a time sooner than that to write about Kat’s new music!
I feel like I have to play music, and I don’t feel very good if I’m not playing music. I need to vent, and that’s how I do it. It’s not really angry, it’s passionate. It’s pretty multidimensional — happy, sad, angry. People think it’s angry because you raise your voice, which is silly.
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