Baby Shakes at Hemlock Tavern, by Robert Alleyne
Baby Shakes (photo: Robert Alleyne)

“Next up, a girl group with one guy, or a boy group with three girls?” proclaims announcer John Waters while introducing the next band to the Gone Shrimpin’ stage at Burger Boogaloo. It’s 3pm in Oakland, the sun is shining, and Mosswood Park is packed. Everyone is waiting for Baby Shakes, a four-piece power-pop/punk quartet based in New York.

The set starts with "Do What You Want," and they seem to find their stride quickly. The music is quick and fun. Guitars soar, and the vocals work together in a gritty, yet melodic harmony. The heads nodding at the sides are met with mildly frantic dancing in the middle, just behind those crammed up against the front of the stage. As the set goes on, the cheers get louder and Baby Shakes appear to get swept up in the excitement.

The 30-minute set builds towards a crescendo of energy. During the last song, guitarist Judy Lindsay affixes her right foot to Ryan McHale’s bass drum and leans back. She continues bending backwards into an arch, like a rock and roll contortionist, as her guitar wails out the final notes. She almost stumbles under the ferociousness of her playing, but catches her balance under the exuberant display.

When the last note hits, the cheers do not seem to finish. As they attempt to walk off stage, they look a little surprised by the reception the short set is receiving. Following the request for an encore, lead singer and guitarist Mary Blount whips off her jacket under the heat of the afternoon, and they play one more song for the thirsty Oakland crowd.

Baby Shakes at Burger Boogaloo 2017, by Robert Alleyne

A few days later, they play their second show in the Bay Area at Hemlock Tavern (with Oakland’s So What and Genuine Parts opening the night). It’s a much smaller affair. The tiny back room of the deceptively large pub only holds around 80 people and has the feel of a grungy punk rock club with storied walls and beer-stained floors.

We catch up with Baby Shakes just before the show. During our interview, they fondly joke about their introduction at Burger Boogaloo, “a boy group with three girls.” The band has always had male drummers, the latest of which is McHale, who joined Baby Shakes two years ago. “I've been a fan of these guys before I played with them, and I filled in on a show when I was really young (when I was like 21 or something), and then when they asked me to play again it just worked out,” he says.

Shedding the "girl group" label was a battle they had to fight at their early shows when the band was first formed over a decade ago. “When we first started as a band, people would talk to our drummers — basically, they wouldn't really deal with us,” explains Blount. "We would show up, and they'd think we were a joke.” By delivering blistering live performances and letting their music do the talking, the band overcame this prejudice. “They'd see us play and [then] they're like, ‘Oh wow, that was great. You're a really good band.’ And that's something that we've accomplished; the status of being bands, not girl bands.” The way she speaks about the topic is empowering; shredding a restrictive label to be equal to those around them while still being unashamedly female. “We would load in heavy equipment on our own in stiletto heels, no less,” Blount reminisces.

I ask how they translate the fun spirit of the records into infectious live performances, and Blount explains that “it's mostly just the spirit of having fun, cause that’s what our music's about...We don't have any hidden themes or political messages or anything like that. We have this band because it's what we really love and enjoy (and we have fun doing it), so we want the shows to be fun too. We want people to have fun watching us,” she says.

Baby Shakes at Hemlock Tavern, by Robert Alleyne

“Basically, we like to keep politics out of music,” explains Claudia Gonzalez after I ask about whether or not they see the ever-evolving world influencing their music. “It becomes a really sticky, touchy subject,” she says, “things have happened to Mary because she's gone to protests or she's expressed political views...[it can] rub people the wrong way.”

While not outwardly voicing political opinions on records, their actions and work ethic as a band serve as their own statement. “We're very privileged, especially as women because...we could be born in some other place, in a different decade, and things wouldn't be the same for us,” says Gonzalez. “We probably make a difference because we're very hard-working. We do what we do [and] nothing stops us. We're very determined, and that's basically the message that we get across with our records, with our shows, going abroad, booking our own tours, having full-time jobs — we all have full-time jobs!” she exclaims.

“We've been told we inspire other girl bands and we've inspired younger girls to start bands, and they wanna travel and pursue their own dreams, so hopefully that's how we make our difference, you know?” says Gonzalez. “We're not necessarily sing[ing] about anything political or anything politically significant, but our band is basically our political statement — it's our ‘Screw you, we're doing this cause we want to!’” she states.

The second show feels a lot more intimate — it feels a lot more punk. The guitars continue to roar, and Ryan’s breakneck drumming keeps the songs moving at a rapid pace. There is a constant request to increase the vocals — the low ceiling in the venue makes the sound reverberate around, and makes every guitar lick even louder. There is only the slightest adjustment to the set list, which still leans heavily on the latest album, Turn It Up. It sounds every bit a good live as it does recorded: Turn It Up is more rebellious than their previous work, with “a little bit more of an edgy quality to it. There's a little of bit of "oomph" to it and not just about having fun,” says Gonzalez.

Baby Shakes at Hemlock Tavern, by Robert Alleyne

Turn It Up came out in May, and was released on Baby Shake’s record label, Lil’ Chewy Records. The band are proud of how the album turned out. However, they experienced challenges getting the album out there. “The record was delayed, and there was nothing we could do about it, so we basically didn't have albums for our Japanese tour,” explains Blount. Gonzalez clarifies that the album was finished on time, it was just the vinyl pressing that was delayed, so they sold test presses while in Japan. Lindsay and Gonzalez joke around as the reminisce the process of preparing each test press and printing the labels with a Xerox:

Lindsay: “Cut, fold...”

Gonzalez: “Cut, fold...”

Lindsay: "Stamp, hand stamp...”

Gonzalez: Hand number. [It was] very last-minute, what was that, like one day before we left for tour?”

Lindsay: “We were in Japan.”

I ask what the biggest thing they’ve learned from the process and Gonzalez is the first to reply: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” she says with a wistful look that mixes happiness and heartache.

“I mean, it's been a lot of work, but it's gratifying work,” she continues, “you really feel proud of yourself after, because we've been packing and shipping everything too; basically the label is run from Mary's apartment...Our tiny apartments. We're the distributors.”

“We're happy to do everything ourselves because we don't really like relying on people...so, I guess the most important thing that we learned is, you get what you put into it. Your hard work. If you really work hard and do everything that you have to do, and you really believe in it, you get exactly what you deserve from it, and you get all of your work out of it. It pays off,” she affirms. Even though they don’t like relying on people, the band does have a little team of friends who help them “because they love the music like us,” which makes endeavor more fun.

Hard work, and ability to challenge perceptions of who can play guitar music, signifies what it means to be Baby Shakes. The band’s music may not be outwardly political, but their very presence serves as a rebellious inspiration for everyone who has ever been told no. Gonzalez puts it best when she says, “it's [now] more than ever that we need to do something like this. To show that we work hard, we do what we do, and we don't give a fuck what anyone thinks about it!”

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