Up all night

In a rest-stop parking lot, somewhere between Hoboken and Boston and October and November, the four Slumber Party ladies decided it was time to stumble out of the van to stretch and do a few jumping jacks. The Road to Freedom 2001 tour may have just begun a few nights earlier, but the effects of a “Tacos every day!” diet and sitting for hours was weighing heavily on the minds, if nothing else, of the group.

Midstretch, they noticed a “total hippie guy who was probably about 19” staring at them. Aliccia Berg, the group’s vocalist-guitarist, thought it was a little creepy, but she didn’t pay it too much thought. “We ran into this a couple times on the road. Because it’s just us four ladies traveling together, I guess it looks strange. Four women tumbling out of a van, a little bit ragged from the road, but we don’t look too bad.”

The dark and mysterious aura projected by the women is quite strong. Their presence alone, even without the sleepy psychedelic soundtrack wafting from their fingers and lips, can transform nearly any setting into a Dionysian fantasy world, even a middle-of-nowhere concrete parking lot.

After staring for a while, the young man worked up enough nerve to approach the band.

“So this guy walks by and he’s like, ‘Who … are … you?’” relates Julie Benjamin, Slumber Party’s drummer.

“It was like a scene out of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” Berg laughs. “He was just like, ‘Hey, where you from?’ He probably said ‘dude.’”

They only talked with the man for a few minutes, but a few days later, the group’s lead guitarist, Gretchen Gonzales, read an e-mail sent to the women from the dude, saying that they had changed his life.

Who is Slumber Party?

I invited the band to my house for a pseudo-slumber party so that I could maybe unravel a little of the mystery they convey so convincingly. After raiding my record collection for Roxy Music, Velvet Underground, Rolling Stones and Morrissey, we ate three bags of M&Ms, some Chex Mix and settled down to talk about our New Year’s resolutions, take some photos and hear a few stories from their most recent tour. The Detroit foursome hit the road in a half-moon shape across the Northern half of the United States from the East Coast to the West after releasing Psychedelicate, their sophomore release for Olympia, Wash.’s, Kill Rock Stars in late August.

Conceived in 1998, Slumber Party has leisurely morphed from a concrete post-rock presence to a more abstract apparition of its influences, wrapping warm open chords drenched in fuzzy distortion, neo-psychedelic drone and wandering lead guitar with four-part harmonies that float in a watery fog.

Berg’s mysterious melodies beg to be pieced together like a Magic Eye poster, a blurry black-and-white still or a pointillist painting. The songs emit an intense sense of intuition and are delivered hypnotically, each one retelling a faded memory. If Nico had taken over main songwriting duties for Velvet Underground while battling insomnia, you might end up with something close to the soft, impressionistic, feedback pop of Slumber Party.

Berg says the band didn’t start out with the conscious intention to be an all-female group. “It just seems like that was a natural progression. It wasn’t totally plotted out. Maybe men would want to be in a band called Slumber Party. I don’t know.”

The name itself fits the band’s personality. Literally, the music is soporific but fun. And while the ladies’ average age falls somewhere in the late-20s range, when they get together, the overall feel in the room is youthful and quite “girly.”

Before solidifying the lineup the way it is now, however, Berg says that Detroit musician Chris Fachini (Teach Me Tiger, His Name is Alive) stepped in on bass for the monthlong, Rollin’ With the Punches tour in the fall of 2000.

“Of course it’s gonna be fun to go on tour with three really pretty girls,” says Fachini. “I’m kind of like a girl anyway with all my facial products. I helped Leigh get on track with her toner and exfoliating and all that. I was the one walking around with a towel on my head all the time instead of them. That’s just me. ... Overall, everything was pretty smooth. They’re really laid-back. I was just happy to play with them because I think Aliccia is a really great songwriter.”

Each member of Slumber Party brings her own personality into the mix to create a solid yet mystical stage presence. Onstage, Gonzales appears as though she’s in her own world, meandering through the chord wash with rambling picked solos. In the van, she’s the hyper mother, taking care of most of the driving. Berg and Gonzales are the two original Slumber Party members. They met while attending Michigan State University, but didn’t form the band until after relocating to Detroit, where they met Benjamin and Leigh Sabo, the bassist, through friends.

While Gonzales plays a sort of attention-deficit role, Berg, who was raised in rural Minnesota, has an eerie focus to her performance style, giving off more of a stern schoolteacher or librarian vibe. It’s almost as if her mission is to hypnotize the audience with piercing eye contact. One fan followed her to three shows, claiming the two had a “cosmic connection.” He identified strongly with her lyrics, which alternate between harsh honesty (“If I didn’t have somebody now/I might love you”) and fairy tale metaphor (“There’s a bag of spiders behind my ears/one falls out for every year”). Her fairy tales are more like the devastating original versions, however, the ones depicted in Cindy Sherman’s photography. The spacey-scary tone of the music brings to mind horrifying monsters chasing children pacified by poppy fields and hookah-bearing snails, like a dream where your legs turn to mush and the ground, quicksand.

It’s no wonder Berg’s lyrics resemble literature. On the road, she’s usually either sleeping or reading. During the three-and-a-half-week tour, she read a different newspaper every day and finished four books, including a Howard Hughes biography, a Neil Young biography, Jim Harrison’s Wolf: A False Memoir and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America.

Onstage, both Benjamin and Sabo appear to come close to nodding off under Berg’s spell, tapping time on a simple drum kit and bass. On tour, Benjamin takes navigational duties while Sabo alternates between sleeping and causing trouble. Before the band had a van to tour with, Sabo would get exiled from time to time. At one point, the rest of the band shoved her into the Luggage Buddy on the roof of the car.

Home and abroad

Through extensive touring, Slumber Party has perked up the ears of several new fans. The group spotted Gina Birch of the Raincoats wearing a Slumber Party T-shirt at the original Ladyfest in Olympia, Wash.

“Slumber Party is on Kill Rock Stars Records, which is interesting in itself, because the majority of KRS bands — bands such as Sleater-Kinney, the Bangs and the Gossip — come from the Northwest,” says Amy Schroeder, the editor of Venus, a popular Chicago-based music and do-it-yourself culture magazine. Schroeder also helped book Ladyfest Midwest in Chicago, which featured a performance from Slumber Party.

“The band was intriguing from the start because of their name, which makes you think of, well, pillow fights and sleepovers. When people first heard about an all-lady band called Slumber Party recording for Kill Rock Stars, I think they assumed that the band’s sound would be some sort of pop punk, but they discovered something different. Slumber Party has attracted a tight and steadily growing following and will continue to do so. Their press in such publications as Jane magazine doesn’t hurt either,” Schroeder says.

After the members of Hoboken’s Yo La Tengo discovered Slumber Party, they invited the women to open up for their New Year’s Eve show at the Majestic Theatre on Monday. Detroit’s Outrageous Cherry will provide the chewy center to the bill. Slumber Party, along with Outrageous Cherry, The Alphabet, The Witches and a few other bands in the Detroit area, are all forging a slightly more psych-rock branch from the city’s rough-and-tumble garage sound.

Hovering between a quiet hum and a hyper intensity, these three bands on the New Year’s bill should make for a unique spin on what’s supposedly the biggest party night of the year.

But expectations rarely pan out the way we imagine, especially on evenings as hyped as New Year’s. Sabo knows this very well. In the early ’90s, she spent one Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Mexico.

“I was in a revolution one New Year, the Zapatista revolution. The Zapatistas are the peasants and the farmers. This is when NAFTA went into effect (January 1, 1994). My best friend and I were in Chiapas, just visiting,” she recounts. “We were hanging out in a plaza drinking tea. The government building was across the way. And we heard these footsteps marching and we watched the Zapatista folks come in from the mountains and overtake the government building with guns. And we were stuck in this town for two days. We couldn’t leave until the military got there. It was the start of the Zapatista revolution. They’re losing their land and that’s all they have. I don’t know all the provisions of NAFTA, but it was pretty amazing to be held somewhere for two days and not have contact with your family or any outside world to know what was going on. The States had no idea. There were all these people shooting guns.”

Road to Freedom

Many of the band’s most memorable moments of 2001 took place during the three-and-a-half-week, 8,200-mile “Freedom” tour. En route, the band paused for an afternoon in Minnesota at the house of Berg’s father, who lives on 100 acres. The city girls got a taste of Berg’s rural upbringing as they rode around on tractors, were given rifle lessons and ate venison (or “ate deer” as Gonzales puts it).

“At about 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Aliccia’s uncle told us that there was a huge blizzard in Fargo and that’s where we were headed,” remembers Benjamin. “So Gretchen barreled us through this blizzard to Fargo and we didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be one of the best shows.”

They got there on time, but still nearly missed their performance because the musicians discovered that the second floor of the venue featured entertainment by the Karaoke Kings.

“The second floor was a huge lodge, like an Elks lodge, VFW-hall type place and they had karaoke, so we took that over for the first two hours,” Sabo adds. “Then we realized we had to go play (on the third floor). But (the second floor) was really a Moose lodge, a full-on Moose lodge. So we stole a moose off the wall. It was just a cardboard cutout, though. It wasn’t a real moose head.”

Resolutions, resignation

“I always fail, so I’m not gonna try,” Berg states when asked what her New Year’s resolution is for 2002. But then she clarifies her answer with just a hint of sarcasm. “I’ve set up my life so that I never fail.”

When it comes to her long-term goals for Slumber Party: “I don’t think beyond tomorrow. I quit thinking long term a year ago at least because it doesn’t work out how you think it will. But you can roll with it. It’s good. Just do what you can do and meet the next challenge and keep going. Whatever happens, you just hope you remember.”

“No more Tequila Rose,” Benjamin jokes.

“No more shoplifting,” Gonzales chimes in, possibly in recollection of the bottle of Tequila Rose Benjamin swiped from a venue while on tour. “I promise I’m not gonna shoplift in 2002. In 2003, I can’t guarantee …”

The band members participate in musical ventures besides Slumber Party. Gonzales’ other bands, Universal Indians and Dr. Gretchen’s Musical Weightlifting Program, still put out material, though it’s mostly old recordings. Sabo plays guitar in Atalaya and Berg has performed with Robert McCreedy on occasion. But they don’t have a hard time getting together for regular Slumber Party practices, recording and tours — “probably because one of us has someone else’s clothes we wanna get back, or CDs. We say, ‘What do you have of mine? We’ve gotta get together,’” Aliccia jokes.

A few things the women have to look forward to in the next year is a third album they’re in the process of writing and maybe a summer European tour. In Europe, Psychedelicate was released by the Poptones label. And the band’s first album, Slumber Party, recently received write-ups in Mojo and London’s Sunday Times.

Coming up sooner and closer to home is this Monday’s show and another planned for February 16 at CPOP. The gallery is hosting an all-night “Slumber Party with Slumber Party,” complete with a pajama fashion show and “best jammies” contest, plus a late-night performance from the band.

“We’re gonna play truth, dare, double dare, promise or repeat; spin the bottle; seven minutes in heaven; light as a feather, stiff as a board; makeovers; make ’em pee. We’re gonna freeze bras, the works. Everyone is invited,” Gonzales enthuses.

But as the hours tick by, the bowl of Chex Mix runs low and everyone shows signs that maybe we’re staying up a little past our bedtime. So I wrap things up by asking Slumber Party to tell me its most profound discovery from the road.

“Jack in the Box tacos rule!” Sabo laughs. “That was probably our greatest discovery on this tour.”

Then it’s time for Slumber Party to head home, but not without accidentally leaving behind some clothes from the photo shoot in a paper bag. We’ve got to get together, I think. Then I recall their kleptomaniac tendencies and after a quick check, nothing appears to be missing from my apartment. But wait — whatever happened to that Roxy Music record?

Melissa Giannini is the music writer for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]