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Friday, Nov. 9, 2007
From trailer park to catwalk
By DAVID HICKEY
"Sorry, I'm having pure chaos!"
It's 7:45 p.m. on a cool, late summer's evening in Portland, Oregon. Beth Ditto will soon be entertaining a full house, and her cat has just bolted out the front door.
Still, Ditto, the Arkansas-born, openly gay frontwoman of disco-punk hit- makers Gossip, is gamely trying to talk The Japan Times through the last 12 months — the most bizarre period of her life.
"What I experienced was sometimes really surreal, sometimes really fun and sometimes scary and weird for me because we didn't expect it. We weren't ready for anything that was going to happen," she says of the last year, which began with 26-year-old Ditto being crowned the coolest person in rock by the NME — the British music weekly that first started featuring the band in the early 2000s — in its annual Cool List, then saw her take her band's barnstorming live show — in which Ditto invariably strips her Spandex bodysuit down to knickers and bra — all across Europe to slay summer festival crowds.
Weighing 95 kg and only 160 cm tall, Ditto hardly looks like your average female pop star. What she is, though, is opinionated, funny and every inch the style icon, and everyone wants a piece of her.
"Everyone" ranges from The Guardian newspaper, for whom Ditto pens a fortnightly advice column, to much-hyped young fashion designer Christopher Kane, who last month dressed Ditto for her catwalk debut at the Swarovski Fashion Rocks show in London in a vampish getup that was somewhere between Harajuku goth girl and a cast member from "Hairspray — The Musical."
Then there's the music, which is fortunately rather good. Ditto is in possession of a paint-stripping soul holler that can move buildings as well as dance floors. Witness this year's reissued single "Standing in the Way of Control," which was an indie-disco hit before becoming a daytime radio staple in Britain, where the band has its largest following.
Taken from Gossip's third album of the same name (the group's first Japan release, it's been out here since August), "Standing in the Way of Control" was a call-to-arms against the current Bush administration's refusal to allow same-sex marriage over a fist-pumping punk-funk backing.
Having been in the band for eight years, you'd think a Top 10 chart hit in Britain would have felt like victory. But Ditto was an ocean away from the action, something for which she is grateful.
"I felt disconnected from it because I was in the U.S., and the U.S. is such a cave," she says with an Arkansas twang. "They keep their heads in the sand for lots of different things. I didn't really get to revel in it. I don't think I wanted to."
With an album's worth of self-empowering anthems at her disposal, Ditto has found herself being labeled a spokesperson, a term she struggles with. "I don't know if I feel comfortable with that word," she says. "I think it's weird other people allowing you to be a spokesperson. You don't really claim it for yourself, but you do have a responsibility to represent yourself and the people you come from and other people you want to influence."
If a teenager wrote in to her advice column asking for guidance on coming out to their parents, how would she respond?
"(I'd say) you shouldn't expect the worst, but you shouldn't be surprised if you don't get what you want. You never know!" Ditto counsels, not entirely convincingly.
She knows this dilemma only too well, of course. At 17, Ditto suffered a nervous breakdown, but to put that down to her sexuality would be to oversimplify. "It ran a lot deeper than that, I think. A lot of things added up to a ballpark picture, you know?"
Nor have the insecurities entirely gone away. "What's the scariest it got in the last 12 months? I think not being able to control what people say about you, not because you don't want them to say bad things about you but because you don't ever want to be misunderstood when you have something you believe in a lot, politically or . . . you know what I mean?"
Politics matter to Ditto, unsurprising for a lesbian who embraces being called "fat" and who counts feminist-activist bands such as Le Tigre and Sleater- Kinney as influences. Her world view is indelibly stamped by her trailer-park upbringing as one of seven children raised in rural Arkansas, where some of the populace believe gays go to hell. Asked to sum up her home state in three words and Ditto plumps for "friendly," "behind" and "strange."
Strange? That would involve formative years spent shooting, skinning and eating squirrels.
Ditto never ended up going to hell. Instead she opted for the Pacific Northwest in her late teens. And it was there that she formed Gossip in 1999 in Olympia, Washington, with two Arkansan friends: Guitarist Brace Paine, who often bangs out his riffs on only three strings, and drummer Kathy Mendoca, replaced by Hannah Blilie in 2003. Like The White Stripes, with whom they have toured, there's no bass player.
Ditto seems grateful that success came late to Gossip. "You make a little money, but in the grand scheme of the music industry, you don't make that much and you don't wanna spend it all. That's the problem with bands who become famous when they're 19, bands that are signed immediately," says Ditto, whose own band this year signed with Music With a Twist, a new subsidiary of Sony BMG in the U.S. that is dedicated to lesbian and gay artists, after releasing their first two albums on the Washington hipster haven Kill Rock Stars. "They blow all their money and they think it's gonna last forever, but we were in a band for eight years, traveling in a van and sleeping on crusty floors. You definitely know that life can be better, but you don't know how bad it can be."
Ditto still gets to spend the occasional night on the floor, though she's swapped the crustiness for something more opulent. Sort of.
"It was during CMJ Music Marathon (in 2006), which is this huge music festival in the U.S.," Ditto says. "Steve Aoki [aka DJ Kid Millionaire and the son of Rocky Aoki, founder of the Japanese-restaurant chain Benihana] said, 'OK, you can stay at my dad's.' And we said, 'He will let us in, right?' Steve gave us the door code. There were two door codes and the only one we had was to get into the foyer, and we just stayed in there all night, me and Nathan (guitarist Paine's real first name) and these three other punk bands that were in town. We were all kind of wasted and we passed out, and the thing that woke us up was this millionaire pointing at us and laughing. Did he mind? No."
Fat cats, catwalks and cool lists — but Ditto reckons her DIY-punk credentials are still intact. Currently writing songs for Gossip's fourth album, she says she has nothing to prove. "I'm not gonna write anything to please anybody except for me and my band mates and my friends," she rattles off. "If we do end up being a flash in the pan, then I don't think it's gonna be our fault, I think it will be because the mainstream is so fickle."
And despite being embraced by the fashion world, Ditto doesn't harbor any fears of being co-opted by the establishment. "I do exactly what I wanna do in any context at any given time. That's what matters to me," she says, sounding like she's almost on autopilot by now. "I don't worry about overexposure. I worry about being overworked. I'm afraid of that. 'Cos, you know what, if it all goes away tomorrow, and people talk shit, that's f**king fine with me.
"I always say it, but I lived in Arkansas, I lived through Arkansas, I can live through some stupid bullshit, you know what I mean? It's just the next chapter of your life. Anyway, I can quit and be a hairdresser. So let's do this!"
Gossip play Shinsaibashi Club Quattro, Osaka, on Dec. 19 (tel.  6535-5569); Shibuya O-East on Dec. 20 (tel.  3444-6751). Tickets are ¥5,500 in advance. Shows start at 7 p.m. Listen to Gossip at www.my space.com/gossipband