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The Hissyfits' 'Perfect' Sound

New York City's edgy pop-punk quartet The Hissyfits have changed their lineup and added a viola player since the release of their debut album, Letters From Frank, last July. But that doesn't mean the next album, due this fall, will find the all-women group abandoning its personal, true-to-life lyricism and bittersweet rock sound.

"There's a lot of similar themes as far as moodiness — pain seems to be what inspires me," leader Holly Jacobs, A.K.A. Princess, says of the band's second long-player, tentatively titled either One More Time Forever or Friends and Lovers. "I seem to be inspired by negative or painful events; disappointments or loss. I hate to admit it, but it is a lot of relationship stuff — that's my muse. Music is my way of processing and dealing with bad feelings. If I'm having a hard time with something, I write a song about it.... It's like reading a page from my diary; reflections and thoughts on things that have happened and my feelings on them. People seem to really dig the honesty and rawness."

Esteemed rock critic Greil Marcus certainly did after hearing the catchy girl-group-innocence-meets-thrashing-'60s-garage-rock sound of the group's first single, which featured "Something Wrong"; he called it "perfect pop" in his September 1999 Interview column. "Oh my God, it was amazing, it was unbelievable," Jacobs, who sings and plays guitar, said of Marcus' review. "All we had was a seven-inch out that I didn't know if anyone had heard, and the fact that he got his hands on it and was completely in love with it was just amazing. We were thrilled. I was totally honored. He said it was perfect — you can't get much better than someone calling your music perfect."

Sonically, the next record won't stray far from the band's melodic yet gritty, power chord-driven sound but will be augmented by the addition of the viola. "The viola adds a whole new layer, a new texture and a new, interesting color," Jacobs said. "There's still much of the same vibe — our sound hasn't changed that much."

Jacob sees significant progression in the band's sound; the challenge is to capture the evolution on the upcoming record. "I hope people will be able to hear how much we've grown since the last album," Jacobs said, "whether it be the actual songwriting, the instrumentation or in the production. That would make me happy.

"It's a little bit scary, a whole new lineup," she continued. "I'm hoping people are gonna really dig what we're doing, which from every indication of people that have seen us live so far [they will]. It's been like, 'Oh my God you guys are even better, we love it even more.' I'm hoping that's gonna be the general consensus, 'cause that's pretty awesome."

The Hissyfits now comprise Jacobs along with bassist Hallie Bullitt, drummer Sivan and viola player Ren. The first version of the band formed in 1996 after Jacobs moved to New York City from Washington, D.C., to follow her dream and start a band. "I got this urge to do it myself and picked up a guitar and moved to New York with basically no knowledge of anything," said Jacobs, who taught herself to play the guitar shortly after the move. "And I put an ad in the Village Voice looking for people to do it with for fun and had no idea it would take off and become what it's become.

"I have to pinch myself every day and be like, 'Am I really doing this? Wow, I'm good at writing songs,'" she recalled. "We definitely have a cool thing going on and I'm really grateful for it and thrilled that I took the plunge and did it."

Over the years, Jacobs has changed the lineup various times. "We've been through a couple incarnations. We've really grown and changed and developed, but it's always grown in a bigger, better direction every time," Jacobs said. "It's been a really positive thing. Every person that has been with me has brought something really fabulous and contributed something really wonderful. It's been a growing, changing family that's always brought something great to the mix."

The Hissyfits' sound combines a dark, raw rock urgency with punk and pop. Jacobs lists Nirvana, Hole, Sleater-Kinney, Weezer and Yo La Tengo as a few of the current artists she admires. "I was exposed to so many different types of music growing up," Jacobs said. "I always had an affinity for melodies and harmonies. Growing up, I would be into the Beach Boys or old '60s girl-group harmonies. I've always preferred things that sounded pretty, but I also really liked Kiss, The Who, things that really rocked. All that stuff seeps in unconsciously and it's reflected back out with the music."

Focusing typically and not always intentionally on tales of heartbreak, Jacobs doesn't consider The Hissyfits a blatantly political, riot grrl band. Still, she hopes to empower women simply by showing that an all-female group can survive and succeed. But most important is the music; Jacobs intends to continue making powerful and moving music. "It's not my goal for doing music, but I hope, while we're doing it, it's empowering girls and that we're good role models and are inspiring people to do things," she said. "It's really subtle in our music, but that message of being hurt, or the feeling of being kept down or shut out of something, yet you're still standing, is a very clear message of being a strong woman, without having to literally come out and say that.

"I'm dealing with a lot of issues that modern women have to deal with," she continued. "And that's an issue of feeling what your place is in the world and a struggle between being a feminist or a strong woman or being the ideal fairytale woman that you're brought up on. It's very conflictive, and it's something we have to deal with every day — the issues of being included or excluded from certain groups. Or having to deal with things like being a mom or being an independent career woman — they're not easy decisions to make. And relationship-wise, wanting to have that fairytale that you think is a possibility when you're a little kid and then realizing that this is not the way it is and being able to deal with that. We're really subtle about it — we think in a riot grrrl type of way without having to shout it. We whisper it, and hopefully it's coming through."

The band has less personal but equally significant onstage objectives. "When I go see someone, I want to see a live show," said Jacobs. "I want to rock out, I want to see stuff rock my ass off. A lot of bands who I like a lot and I've gone to see them live and I'm like, 'Oh, wow, they really don't come across well as a live band,' 'cause they're too mellow, they're just standing there or they have no personality. So for our own fun and for the fun of the audience, we want to totally rock out and we do. We really put on a great show — we have a lot of energy and charisma and personality and rock hard, sweat and rock out, get down on the floor if we need to, jump around if we need to. It's supposed to be a lot of fun for us and everybody else, and it always is."

The Hissyfits will begin touring the UK at the end of July. A U.S. tour will follow the release of the new album in the fall. Check www.hissyfits.com for more info. — Jenny Tatone [Wednesday, June 12, 2002]

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