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Not exactly the type you’d expect to be working up a rock-slut image, local punk-folkie Lois has nonetheless titled her new album, her second, Strumpet. “I thought I’d redeem a word,” says Lois, sitting at a table at Zig-Zag, the U Street coffee shop where she works when she isn’t touring (as she was last month, with Heavenly in Britain).
“Now I sort of think of it as a word to describe a girl hero,” explains the 30-year-old singer, who’s every bit as winningly chatty offstage as on, frequently slipping into dialogues with herself and other, imaginary conversation partners. “But it also has the word “strum’ in it, which is what I do—”I’m a strumpet who strums.’ I don’t think I’m going to change the meaning of the word in world usage or anything.”
“It could be Audrey Hepburn. It could be HelenFrankenthaler. It could be Margaret Sanger. They’re like heroes. They went beyond what people were telling them they couldn’t do. It’s like when women walk into a music shop and they say, “You buying strings for your boyfriend?’ and they say, “No, fuck you, I’m buying them for myself because I’m a musician.’ They’re going beyond what people expect them to be. That’s what inspires me about playing music. I guess that’s what a strumpet means to me.”
Tags are important to Lois, who was once in a band called Courtney Love, a name it shared, confusingly, with the woman who became Mrs. Kurt Cobain. “It was a name chosen in haste, and it was a name that she probably chose in haste as well,” says Lois of that other Love, with whom she once lived in a Portland group house.
“My whole experience living in Portland was awful, insane,” she recalls. “Everyone I knew was psychotic, everyone was always really wasted on Valium. It was a big pharmaceutical scene. They drove me crazy.”
“That’s kinda why I started playing guitar. It was like, “I’m getting out of here, and I’m doing everything that they hate.’ ”
“I had my Mary Tyler Moore experience and it failed,” decided Lois, who moved back to Olympia, where she and partner Pat Maley recorded three singles for the local indie label, K, as Courtney Love. Choosing the name “was kind of a homage to my time of fuckedness in Portland. And it was kind of a one-off that went out of control.”
Courtney Love is a hip commodity now, especially in trend-ravenous Britain. “I had gotten very little reaction from that band when I was in it,” says Lois, “but then like a year later, people started to talk about it, like, “That was a really cool band,’ ” she laughs. “ “It was? Gosh. Maybe I should have stuck with it?’ ”
Lois liked Olympia, and especially K, which is still her label. “I love the records they put out. It’s always been impressive to me how many women have been involved, in the management, and on the roster. That’s always been a big deal for me, to be involved in something that’s encouraging for women to play music. That’s why I like K.”
Still, Olympia was a small town. “I suddenly realized, “I know everybody, I’ve done everything.’ My whole goal at that time was to a put out a single on K. It was like, “Oh, I did it.’ So then I felt like, “Well, I’m done.’ So I wrote letters to all my friends in different places I was kind of interested in living in. I got a great response from [Fugazi drummer] Brendan Canty, with something like “1,000 reasons to move to Washington, D.C.’ And three reasons not to. The balance was pretty good. So I moved here.”
Washington was not an unknown quantity: “Calvin Johnson, who runs K Records, went to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. His mom actually still lives here. In college, when we were bored and didn’t have anything to do during the summer, we’d come here and stay with his mom and go see shows. So we saw Ignition and Rites of Spring and were pretty enthralled by the scene.”
Since she frequently plays alone with an acoustic guitar, Lois is sometimes dubbed a folkie. She’s even played the Birchmere. (“When I yelled out, “Who’s gonna start the mosh pit?,’ I’m not sure anyone got it.”) Her sense of melody and metaphor (like the Super Glue reference in the brokenhearted “Bonds in Seconds”) is clearly pop, though, in the Brill Building sense. Her record label calls her music “secret punk rock.”
“I love that description,” she says. “I write three-chord songs, that’s pretty punky. I’ve never had a black leather jacket or dyed hair. But I’m still a punk.”
“I heard about this thing call punk, and I heard about this band called the Sex Pistols, and I really thought it was going to hurt my ears. It was going to be so radical. It was going to be like needles entering my brain, I was convinced. And then I heard the Sex Pistols, and it was like, “Oh, this is a rock band. Oh, I’m so dumb!’ But then I heard bands like Young Marble Giants and Raincoats. I thought it was so much more radical than the Sex Pistols or even the Clash. To me, that and the do-it-yourself ethic was so much indicative of what punk was.”
To Lois’ delight, Young Marble Giant Stuart Moxham ended up producing her first album, Butterfly Kiss; he even got the technophobic singer/songwriter to tune her guitar. Both Kiss and the Calvin Johnson-produced Strumpet feature a full band, and Lois is currently playing live with drummer Amy Farina. Farina and bassist Donna Dresch, who plays on Strumpet, will join Lois on a tour next year. Yet Lois will also continue to play solo.
That’s why the performer doesn’t use her last name, which is Maffeo, and sometimes refers to her performing lineups as The Lois—“so I could be a band. After the whole Courtney Love thing, I wanted to name my band something that no one can take issue with. I didn’t want to name my band Chip and find out there’s a Chip in Sioux City that’s going send me cease-and-desist letters. And that way it could have changing members. The working theory is that anybody can be in The Lois. It’s not like I’m Prince or Madonna,” she laughs. “It’s more like Tad. Or Limahl.”