Somebody pass the Ritalin. These chicks are nuts.
The interview has gone awry. Corey Hart's on the jukebox and I've lost 'em. They're singing "Sunglasses at Night" at the top of their lungs and everyone's starting to look. We're at Jacoby's, a jam-packed German biergarten in the heart of Detroit, and these five rock chicks are starting to contrast deeply with the surrounding "business casual" crowd. If it weren't for the fact they have a show upstairs in a few minutes, someone might ask them to leave.
The girls of Hellen are all in their early- to mid-20s. They look like modern day Runaways. But unlike the group that made waves in the '70s by being one of the first all-female rock bands to take center stage, these women are Generation Y-ers.
Now, because dudes like Kim Fowley took the credit and ran, because Joan Jett and Suzi Quatro rocked it solo, because of the Wilson sisters and the Riot Grrl movement, young women can decide literally on a whim to start a band.
If times hadn't caught up, Hellen would probably be another novelty, their existences seen as little more than a playwright's carefully crafted character description:
Katie Galazka: lead singer. Actress by trade; the matriarch.
Emily Schaller: drummer. Spazzy and Keith Moon-like; the nucleus.
Amanda Mentzer: bass. Personality as smoky and thick as her eyeliner; the poet.
Charmain Azzopardi: lead guitar. Worldly and tough but lovable; the sage.
Becca Tyler: rhythm guitar. Doesn't try to, but lights up the room anyway; the beacon.
Thankfully, it's not that simple. They are complex, bright, confident musicians. And being from Detroit a city that practically dares its youth to start a band it's no real surprise that they came together.
"Amanda and I were working at Pure Detroit together and we had a power outage," Schaller says. "I told her, 'I'm going to Guitar Center to buy some drums. Come.'"
Mentzer interrupts, "Emily and I had talked about starting a band before, but nothing really came of it. After she bought her drums, the salesman said, 'Is that all?' and Emily said, 'No, she wants to buy a bass.'"
"So I did," Mentzer laughs.
While that's a pretty hefty investment for a person who never picked up a bass before, it didn't stop the rest of the (equally green) girls in the band from doing the same. As Tyler explains, she was actually "informed" that she was in the band while vacationing with her parents in New York. "I was in the back seat of my parent's car when my cell rang," she says. "They told me to buy a guitar and I was like, 'Uh, OK!'"
It's almost too perfect: The girls immersed themselves in lessons and, within months, learned the basics. Once word got out that they could bang out a few of tunes, friends insisted on hearing. "Our first show was a Halloween party in Dave Malarsh's [the Sirens, Wolfbait, the Paybacks] basement," Schaller says. "We played 4.5 songs," she laughs. "It was four songs and the beginning part of 'We're Not Gonna Take It.'"
And while it's a common misconception that Hellen actually is a cover band, they are not. By now, they've come to ignore the "you're good for a girl" rhetoric. They don't take themselves serious enough to give a shit. How could they? They've only been playing their instruments for three years. Nobody's trying to front: They play straightforward, power chord-laden rock 'n' roll. It's nothing fancy, but it's theirs.
And while their inexperience and simple brand of rock 'n' roll could easily make for an embarrassing and mawkish combination, what's disarming about Hellen is the confidence they exude. It's something that until you experience it firsthand you don't really realize is rare. While open about the fact that they're new to the gig, it's very obvious that they love being in a rock 'n' roll band. They're completely uncorrupted. Sans ego, they're there for the ride, and, damn it, they are going to enjoy it. It's pure and naive, in a good way. Actually, no ... in a wonderful way.
It's possible that they don't sweat the bullshit because they have more perspective than most young rockers.
Unlike many young musicians in the throes of their early days as a band, the girls of Hellen deal with issues much more serious than "Who's sober enough to drive home?" and "Did we forget to get paid?" Sadly, their everyday reality is much scarier and much more tragic than anyone their age should have to contend with.
It's almost impossible to believe, as she's practically unstoppable, but plucky drummer Schaller is one sick little lady. In a group of hyper-attractive hams, she's by far the most playful. Quick with a wisecrack, practically unable to sit still, she oozes hardiness. But Schaller's got cystic fibrosis, a fatal disease too evil to truly think about in this interview. It's hard to imagine her spending each day enduring hours-long lung treatments and choking down the required 30-plus pills. Looking into her impossibly happy eyes, it could not feel more unfair.
At least twice a year, Schaller comes down with severe lung problems that require hospitalization. The hospital stays last for weeks months, even. And while you'd think that might put a damper on the band, it doesn't. They girls do their best to keep things as normal as possible. Schaller's rarely ever alone when she's recovering. They do overnights and sleepovers.
"It's not something I broadcast. I deal with it. I live with it. I feel like cystic fibrosis has given me a mission," Schaller says in a solitary moment of seriousness.
Galazka speaks up: "You're gonna make us cry," but the effervescent Tyler tries to break up the moment with, "I don't ever even think about it!" She's a good friend with a brave face, but Tyler's not fooling anyone. They're all madly in love with their buddy and it pains them to see her suffer. No amount of horsing around can eclipse that fact.
But if there's a constant about these hyperactive girls, it's a certain toughness that ensures that nothing not even cystic fibrosis is going to spoil their fun.
Their song "FUCF" is just part of the proof. They played it last week at last week's Just Let Me Breathe concert an annual rock concert fund-raiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The event was organized by Schaller and her brother Jason (who just so happened to play in the local rock band, South Normal).
Schaller says of her bandmates: "They are the most supportive people I know. I feel like being in this band has helped me find my purpose." With the help of family and friends, Schaller plans to start up a nonprofit organization with her newfound promotions experience she intends to raise awareness about CF.
But just as sentimentality starts to take over the interview, Snow's "Informer" comes up on the juke and they've all bounced back into performance mode.
"We're all attention whores," Azzopardi yells over the singing. "It's always ADD. We, like, outbid each other for attention," Mentzer adds.
As far as the cosmos and this scribe are concerned, these girls can have the spotlight. After all, they are fighting hard for more than one cause and having a ball in the process.Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]