An Interview with Janis Tanaka of Pagan Babies, P!NK & Femme Fatale

Header image courtesy of Janis Tanaka

By Andrew Daly
andrew@vinylwriter.com

All images courtesy of Janis Tanaka

Recently, I caught up with veteran bassist, Janis Tanaka of Pagan Babies, P!NK, L7, Femme Fatale, and more. Among other things, we touch on how Janis is kicking off 2022, her early years, her long and varied career in music, what’s next, and a whole lot more.

If you would like to learn more about Janis Tanaka, the link to her Instagram is here. Once you’ve checked that out, dig into this interview with Janis. Cheers.

Andrew:
Janis, thank you for taking the time to dig in with us. In your recollection, what was the initial moment which first sparked your interest in music, specifically, the bass guitar?

Janis:
My first real band, The Reign of Lee Kuan, had just broken up. “Real band” as in we practiced and played shows, not that we were particularly good. Erik Meade ran home one day with a flyer for a band looking for a drummer and a bass player. He said it was perfect for me because all their influences were my influences. I called up and said, “I play drums and bass!” I thought, “I can’t be that much harder than sucking on guitar.” They had a drummer and said to try out for bass in three days, so I borrowed a bass from The Reign of Lee Kuan’s bass player – Carmela Thompson later of Short Dogs Grow – and practiced and practiced for three days and tried out, and I really enjoyed it. I could hear lines in the music and knew I wanted the bassline to go through the music like a snake. I had found my instrument. 

Andrew:
What do you recall about the music scene you were exposed to when you were first cutting your teeth? Paint a picture for us.

Janis:
Well, I grew up in Long Beach, California, but San Francisco is where I started playing in bands, and that’s why I always put that that’s where I’m from. I guess I mostly saw the punk rock scene. It was bedhead hair because you just woke up and ran to work, practice, a show, out with friends, ran to the bus, maybe you’d lost your brush. [Laughs]. There was a moment when underwear on the outside was a thing, bras, boxers, and slips, which were pretty comfy and funny; I miss slips as dresses.

A crowd at a show could have a smattering of skinheads in classic whatever-they-wore, Doc’s, puffy flight jackets, braces, shaved heads, the gals had shaved heads with bangs, which I loved. A smattering of goths who didn’t have quite the uniform, so a lot of people with shaved heads, a lot of ripped jeans, studded leather cock rings from The Castro worn as bracelets for the moment, lots of activity in the crowd – dancing, fighting, hi jinx. At least one person who looked like the Oracle of Delphi, and another who looked like a big baby in a diaper with rainbow nails and insert-crazy-noun-here. The Farm was the biggest DIY show place and the pit, if there was a pit, would be the entire floor, practically everyone. I always thought it held three of four thousand, but it was probably about a thousand. Before it was called The Pit, it was called The Dance Floor, I think. A big, huge circle of people goofing around and around and around.

After shows, everyone just walked to the bus stops or home in a big, tired gang. The shows were pretty great. There was always something weird going on like an audience member handing the singer a Hostess apple pie and the singer smashing it on his forehead, like at a Three Day Stubble show. Or the band running around and all disappearing and all you see are their feet sticking out from the wings because they’ve all fallen down, still playing, which happened during a Tales of Terror show. Actually, I saw Richard Hell do that too. Or, a band calling all the guys on stage to do a striptease as a maybe gender swap thing. The guys all dance around and get down to their skivvies and then someone runs across the stage pulling all their undies down and there’s a mad dive off stage, which happened at a Frightwig show. There was often performance art between bands. I heard that in LA there was comedy. [Laughs]. There was raw meat thrown and spaghetti, and you wanted to make sure there was no glass on the ground because someone always ended up there, and you didn’t want them to get hurt. Lastly, lots of nakedness for no particular reason.

All images courtesy of Janis Tanaka

Andrew:
Walk me through your tryout and subsequently joining Courtney Love’s early band, Pagan Babies.

Janis:
That was the band with Kat Bjelland and Diedre Schletter. There was some singer [Courtney Love], who was supposed to show up and did at first, I don’t really remember meeting her and she never showed up for practice. After a while, Kat said she wanted to play some harder stuff. Diedre and I were stoked and said we wanted to play harder stuff, too. So, she pulled out her other stuff and we’d play that stuff for hours. 

Andrew:
Pagan Babies recorded a four-song demo in 1985, which later became the genesis of a few early Hole songs. It’s said that you play bass on that demo. Can you clear up the rumors for us?

Janis:
I never heard any of the demo songs in early Hole. We (The Jackson Saints) played with Hole at the Club Lingerie early on, and I didn’t hear anything familiar. At that point, someone thought the Cocteau Twins were the next huge thing, and the sound was aiming at a Cocteau Twins sound, at least that’s what someone told me. The stuff Pagan Babies played when the singer [Courtney Love] didn’t show was the genesis for Babes in Toyland.

Andrew:
There are a lot of rumors surrounding the early days of the band which included Courtney Love. Can you clear the history up for us? In your recollection, what was the progression?

Janis:
We didn’t play any shows, maybe there was someone before me. Or they could be fantasy shows or the biggest fish that got away. We were busy playing Kat’s harder stuff, which I did hear when I saw Babes in Toyland, about three or four of the songs we’d played with Kat were great, fun stuff. The singer [Courtney Love] finally showed up one day, and we were playing Kat’s harder stuff, and she [Courtney Love] got all huffy and turned tail and left. Kat moved to Minneapolis a few years later. I considered moving with her but was rather daunted about moving to the snow with no money. 

Andrew:
Were the writers of those original tracks ever credited properly after they were reworked by Love with Hole in the 90s?

Janis:
Oh, I don’t know anything about this. If Kat got no credit then, no. Kat was great, she was a sweet little waif. She once asked me to join Babes in Toyland, and I was too scared to go on tour, not have a continuous income, and not be able to pay my measly rent. She was so mad when I toured with Bash ‘N’ Pop and not her, but I couldn’t explain that it was just fate because explaining fate is a very long story. Someone from Hole once called me, sometime after 2000, after I’d toured with P!NK at least once, maybe in 2004 or even 2010, and asked me if I’d play bass for Hole. I said, “Nah.”

All images courtesy of Janis Tanaka

Andrew:
I wanted to hit on your tenure with L7, which lasted from 1999 until the band’s initial breakup in 2001. How did you get the gig?

Janis:
L7! I was working side by side with the infamous John Roecker at the time. He got the L7’s to come to see me playing with the indelible and salacious Stone Fox, one of the best bands that I got to songwrite and tour with. They needed a bass player, and after that, asked me to fill in. Who can resist a Stone Fox? I certainly couldn’t resist L7. [Laughs]. At that point, I’d been touring and had a great boss, who was incredibly flexible, and supportive. I really couldn’t have done all of that otherwise. 

Andrew;
L7 put out Slap-Happy in 1999, but the bass credits are a bit murky on the album’s liner notes. Did you contribute to that record?

Janis:
Oh! Can I say it’s me? Yes! I can because no one knows for sure! Mwah-ha-ha-ha!!! Those crazy L7s – so enigmatic. No, that wasn’t me, sadly.

Andrew:
Ultimately, what do you recall regarding L7’s disbanding in 2001? Were you asked to rejoin when they reformed years later?

Janis:
I think they just needed a break. They’d been going for years. I felt so honored to be able to keep them going for a bit. Actually, I think the entire last leg of the touring that I did with them, we were so tired that we ate Taco Bell for every meal except two meals for a month and a half. Donita [Sparks] would yell, “TAH-coh!” and the driver would pull over, and no one objected. Most of the time, someone objected every now and then, but not that last leg. I mean, I use that to explain just how tired you can get on tour. I think that must have done it. Personally, Taco Bell is my guilty comfort food, but that must have been just too many Taco Bells for the rest of ’em. No, and it’s great they’re playing with Jennifer [Finch] again. When you play with someone for that long, it’s just never going to feel right with anyone else. 

All images courtesy of Janis Tanaka

Janis:
Hammers of Misfortune is a very underexposed group you were a part of for some time. Take me through your indoctrination.

Janis:
Hammers of Misfortune is a great and grizzly band. I used to call it “grey metal. I’d tell John [Cobbett] it was because it was so cerebral, and I’d tell everyone else it was because we were all so grey. I played and sang on The Bastard and August Engines. I might have said some disparaging things about the bass player after me, which I wish I could take back because she was great, and I was just being evil and jealous that I couldn’t do it anymore, ejealous, if you will. Or maybe I was being mean and jealous – jemelous – yeah, that, and wish I could take it back. John Cobbett had been running ’round with his Hammer for a long time, showing it to everyone, working on it with Brent Hoover, and I forget who else. I saw them play with Erica Stolz as the singer and bass player. She’s amazing. She’s really solid and gritty and rocks on the heavy end of the Moh’s scale, and I really wanted to do that, the Hammer’s stuff. So, when she couldn’t do it anymore and they asked me, I said, “Sure.” They’re all a bunch of friends I’ve known for light-years. So, it was like my personal superfriends group. Lots of laughs and long-standing arguments about things like whether Excalibur or Camelot is the better King Arthur movie, etc. 

Andrew:
You only stuck around with Hammers for two albums, but a track you co-wrote, “The Blood Ax Speaks,” really stands out to me. What led to your departure?

Janis:
Oh, wow!!! I’m so glad it stands out to you! Not a lot of people have heard this. The Bastard is such a dynamic piece of work and a concept album. [Laughs]. Concept Album. [Laughs]. That John Cobbett. I was touring with P!NK during the second recording. I would record on my unstable breaks – unstable because you could never tell how long the break was going to be as they kept adding dates to the tours. One time, John had all the basslines in his head, and really wanted me to play bass. I’d never heard the piece and he wrote the bass line down in tablature while I was recording, and was just placing the next page down as I finished a page. It was nuts. I told him, “I’m sure you could just play it as well as me reading it off tablature for the first time ever.” I think he just liked the challenge of writing it out and getting it to me in time. We were just laughing and laughing. And then he had me sing all these things I hadn’t heard before, “Just sing it like a dead girl in a cold and gloomy graveyard!”“What?!”“Just try it.” Ignoring that a dead girl can’t sing and wanting to say, “You mean the ghost of a dead girl?” So, I did a bunch of different dead girl singing things, and he said I nailed it, and we laughed and laughed. Even though John was adamant about only playing one show a year, we practiced and worked on stuff at least three times a week. And I was gone. A lot. Naturally, the band needed to go forward without me, sadly. I could have quit P!NK, but I didn’t. I wasn’t really around to see them play much after that, which was a bummer.

Andrew:
As you’ve alluded to, in 2001, you started recording and touring with P!NK, which is certainly about as high profile as it gets. How did you first meet P!NK, and ultimately, join her band?

Janis:
Erik Meade had been hanging out with her, P!NK, and Linda Perry and had played me a tape of the stuff they were doing. Then, months later it seemed, Linda called me at work out of the blue and said, “Heeeey, Janis, this is, hahahaha Linda,” laughing because she never called me, and definitely not at work, or maybe she always talks like that on the phone. She asked me if I’d play for P!NK. I’d heard the stuff and knew I liked it and said, “Sure.” Then I went to a practice and met little Leesha AKA P!NK at a practice. She skipped in like a happy, super muscular sprite, let me pin her wrestling, nailed the songs, and skipped out. Linda was there, told me I had to play my Fender – not my Rickenbaker – and told Bibi, the guitar player at the time, that she couldn’t play the Ovation. Linda told me that she had actually wanted to smash the Ovation and toss a check into the smoke from the broken guitar like a cartoon, but that she was sure it wasn’t going to make a Roadrunner-style poof of smoke if she smashed it. Fender was the best choice for that stuff. I got some cool basses from Fender and decorated them up with stuff from the truck stops in my downtime, and a sticker of Uncle Phil, the guitar tech, as a baby. 

All images courtesy of Janis Tanaka

Andrew:
I last wanted to hit on you joining forces with a reformed Femme Fatale in 2013. Lorraine Lewis is certainly a force. How did you two hook up?

Janis:
That is the least rock and roll story; although Lorraine is the most rock and roll there is, and I can’t even tell you those stories! [Laughs]. I was moping around and thinking I needed to get in a band to hone up my bass chops. I was in LA, working and watching my friends’ kid sometimes because my best friend/husband had died, and a great friend of mine in the area thought watching her kid would help me get my mind turned around, so true, great kid. I started watching her friend’s kid as well. Toddlers. I don’t call that babysitting because toddlers aren’t babies; they know what they want and they know what is supposed to happen and they tell you, and you better do it or have a creative way to get out of it. Because of that, I call it Toddler Dom. So, I was going to Toddler Dom for my friend’s friend and she said, “Hey, did you say you wanted to get into another band?”“Did I say that out loud? Because I really need to work on my chops.” So, I went over and tried out, and started playing with them/her Femme Fatale/Lorraine Lewis. It wasn’t the original band; she had put together a rockin’ band of people who are all phallically challenged and very, very funny, also great musicians.

Andrew:
I know a lot of people were hoping for some new music from Femme Fatale, but sadly, we didn’t see any before the band ended once again. How frustrating for the band was that, and was there ever talk of new music?

Janis:
I thought Lorraine was going to put out the record that didn’t get released. I just realized that I don’t have it. I thought she had one in the vault that had never been released. I could be wrong. We didn’t write music together. Some of the musicians were in other bands together but we pretty much got together, practiced, and sometimes went to have coffee or shots after, maybe a little karaoke. 

All images courtesy of Janis Tanaka

Andrew:
Was it a shock when Lorraine ended Femme Fatale to join Vixen? How did that all end up going down?

Janis:
Not really. Lorraine knew them from before. We were on some bills together as well. She had done a show or three for them already that their singer couldn’t make, and she smashed it, of course. She’s a great performer, gets crazy, I’m-gonna-kill-it eyes when she hits the stage. So, when their singer left – it made total sense.  

Andrew:
Last one. You’re a woman of many hats, Janis. What’s next for you in all lanes?

Janis:
I don’t know, really. I’ve moved away from friends and music to be around family in San Diego, and be a nanny to my niece’s kids. I got the umbrella and the chimney sweep friend, a few penguins, and everything! I’ve only been playing with my boozgrass band, The Big Meat Combo, occasionally in San Francisco, which actually has the Hammers drummer, Chewy Marzolo, from when I was in Hammers, on bass. We used to play a lot about twenty years ago as a respite from our regular bands, and for free beer. Over the years, our set has settled defiantly onto the other side of the politically correct line, eeeee. The only way to correct that is probably to not play. I sing and play a lot of bells and whistles – cowbell, hotel bells, jingle bells, Acme siren whistle, duck call, noisemaker, saw…bucket o’ fun. [Laughs]. I’m also going to be playing a show here and there with Andrés Miguel Cervantes, and accidentally got to be very still and spooky in his music video — Watch Oout!!!! It’s not called Watch Oout!!! It’s called “The Crossing,” great country, with zest. There are probably some lullabies that need to be written and recorded because I love singing to babies. But the kids are growing up and I’m going to have to get busy pretty soon. Thanks for having me!

All images courtesy of Janis Tanaka

Interested in learning more about the work of Janis Tanaka? Hit the link below:

Be sure to check out the full catalog of VWMusic Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interviews

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

Inspired by the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, Lester Bangs, and Eddie Trunk, coupled with an immense passion for music, and a disposition for writing, freelance journalist Andrew Daly moved to found VWMusic in 2019. Over time, VWMusic has grown into a bustling music outlet harboring a staff who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles, interviews, and more. In addition to running VWMusic, Andrew is also an accomplished freelance journalist, currently writing for Copper Magazine, as well as a drummer, and lover of all things guitar.
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