By Carl Begai
Even if you don’t buy into the idea of a critically acclaimed metal authority like BW&BK offering regular coverage on a radio (pop) rock artist like Bif Naked, you have to respect the amount of work and in-your-face commitment she put into her new album, The Promise. On a purely selfish and personal level it’s an honour to spend the time, having watched and waited over the last year as she battled breast cancer, praying for a positive outcome. The Promise has become a guilty pleasure, and a bloody inspirational one to boot for reasons that will become painfully clear. It was written and recorded while Bif was undergoing chemotherapy, an endurance test that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, and fans will be far from disappointed. The best part of it all, however, is that the Bif Naked who made an unforgettable impression on yours truly 15 years ago with her warm-hearted tough as nails approach and became a fave interview over the years hasn’t changed. Okay, a few more tattoos, but the person underneath the ink is alive and well. Thus, the question about whether or not Bif ever broke down with a “Why me?” after being diagnosed – especially after her successful run with the Superbeautifulmonster album and in her personal life – is wasted breath.
“Never. It’s not in my nature and it never would have occurred to me,” says Bif. “I’m sure that my husband did. He married Bif Naked and he’s never seen my show, he’s a hip-hop fan, he’s a jock, he’s never heard of Black Flag, and drives a BMW that’s peacock blue… this is my husband. He’s also a meat eater and I’m a vegan until the cows come home, so to speak. He married the rocker chick he’d never heard of, and three weeks after our honeymoon I get diagnosed with tit cancer. I went directly into treatment and that must have been a mindfuck for him, and in my experience guys internalize everything. It was harder on him than it was on me, for sure. And he’s the biggest ray of sunshine, he really is.”
Bif is slightly less affectionate in her description of her producer and collaborator on The Promise, ex-Neurosonic frontman Jason Darr. Or at least that affection is veiled by something that sounds suspiciously like awe. According to Bif he was the driving force that made it possible for her to work and record while she was undergoing cancer treatment.
“Oh my God, I was sick. I wouldn’t have been able to do it with anyone else, and I’d never worked with Jason before except for touring. It was the first time I ever collaborated with him, I never anticipated collaborating with anyone, never mind Darr, and I just don’t think I would have been able to do it with anybody else. No one would have been as effective as Jason. It’s not that Jason didn’t give a fuck that I was sick so much as if he didn’t feel I was giving my best that was it, he’d send me home. I was yellow-skinned and fucking hairless, like a baby rat. It was heinous, man. I had this thing sticking out of my chest like a garden hose that they surgically implanted under my collarbone. It’s called a surgically implanted port, and the catheter from it they threaded up my jugular vein, so I had this catheter in my jugular vein and this big fucking two-inch-in-diameter hose nozzle sticking out of my chest. It was fucking crazy, and that’s where they put the chemo every three weeks, and I had that in me for 10 months. Jason had to see that, and not only was he undaunted – you’ve got to keep in mind he’s the world’s biggest South Park fan, so he doesn’t mince words – he was like ‘Put your dog away, cover that shit up…’ He didn’t give a shit; we were there to work and that was the end of it. I was never treated like I had special needs, I was never treated like I was sick. Nothing like that at all.”
Darr has gone on record saying that he never imagined collaborating with Bif would work as well as it did. She echoes the sentiment, equally baffled by how well they got along as artists and people.
“Exactly. It was unreal. And surprising, because I didn’t know him that well. Lyrically I’m pretty anal retentive, I don’t like a lot of input from anyone else, and I’ve never been that accepting of any efforts anyone would make. With Jason, I couldn’t believe how smart he was in conveying things. I love writing love songs and I always have, and it’s something that’s a real challenge for me as a lyricist because it’s always about trying to find new ways to express the same thing. Heartache is generally heartache for everyone in the universe year after year, so how can you paint a different picture? Darr is a phenomenal lyricist, he’s clever, and when he and I were collaborating… some of the stuff is really sad. I live for sad shit, and I had no idea he had such a vast grasp of being able to convey dark emotions through words. The guy’s like fucking John Lennon, what can I tell you? He’s like The Beatles, a monster songwriter.”
The bulk of the music on The Promise was written by Darr, some of it originally meant for his own band Neurosonic before he officially decided as of April 2009 to put the band on ice. This includes first single ‘I Won’t Cry (Fuck You 2)’, which Neurosonic performed during their two-and-a-half year tour for their debut album Drama Queen even though the track was never recorded. Bif gives credit where it’s due without a moment’s hesitation.
“It’s definitely Jason Darr stuff,” she says of the new material. “His music is very signature and I never would have thought I’d be able to collaborate with him, but we finish each other’s sentences half the time. I’m not a music writer, I’ve never been a music writer. I’m shitty at guitar, I’m shitty at bass, I’m shitty at piano and always have been. I’ve always been a lyricist and a vocalist forever. A song like ‘Henry’ from my last album, that started with me singing in my kitchen. I had to sit down with Peter (Karroll), chord it out, and then he wrote a bridge for it. That’s how those co-writes happened. This time it was mainly Jason and I collaborating together, but often he’d have the riffs in place first. As you know ‘I Won’t Cry (Fuck You 2)’ is a Jason song, and I liked that song so much that I have no problem singing it or having it on an album. I’d sing 10 Jason songs. I like the way he writes. There are a lot of sad, beautiful songs on this record.”
It also offers the heaviest song of Bif’s career, a little tune called ‘Sick’ complete with some over-the-top metal inspired backing vocals. Certainly not a performance anyone expects of someone going through chemotherapy.
“Are you kidding me? It was because I was so afraid of Darr. I was so afraid of the unholy wrath he would have unleashed on me had I not done it right. But to his credit it’s his production; all I am is a willing servant as a vocalist. Really and truly. Jason was the producer, period. Plus, that’s his music. That’s his sound, his direction, and that’s Jason’s vocal production. He’d tell me ‘Emphasize the last half of that syllable here’ and he wouldn’t let me slack off. I had a lot of pain in my jaws from chemotherapy and my jaws would quite often get really tired just from eating or talking, never mind singing, so sometimes my enunciation would get a little bit lazy. Man, that guy’s got fucking dog hearing! My enunciation would be off and he’d be like, ‘You know what? I need you to pronounce the ‘U’ better in the second syllable of line 35…’ and I’d be looking at him thinking I wanted to blow my brains out. I thought ‘I’m gonna die here…’ but he got me to do it.”
“I think from 20 years of being a performer I have a really good game face” Bif adds. “You have to have one when you’re on tour because if you get sick you have to just suck it up and do the show anyway. The only times I wouldn’t record were the times when I was literally in a coma, and I wouldn’t record that one day. It took a long time, it was a long process, but Jason shit-kicked me on the vocals.”
Bif shrugs off being called “inspirational” as something better suited to other people. She’s just a singer in a rock n’ roll band, or so she says…
“You know who you’re got to see?” she asks. “His name was Jim Valvano (North Carolina State basketball coach / ESPN commentator) and he was really well loved. He accepted an award at an ESPN dinner (in 1993) and it was televised, and at that point he was already in end stage cancer. He was going to die. He gave this acceptance speech, and it was hilarious. He was funny, he was a sweetheart, and this was a dying man. It’s the most empowering, motivating, touching speech I’ve ever heard. I used to look at it online every day.”
“I can’t complain,” Bif says of her situation, which has included a number of surgeries since saying goodbye to cancer treatment. “I still volunteer at the cancer agency once a week, I still take women and make them work out with me. I’ve been doing that for the last year. Until I go on tour I’m doing that every week. There are people that are just so much worse off than me – they have to take the bus there, or they have four kids, or they’re alone. There’s always somebody who’s doing worse, and I’ve still got my tit. It’s got a dent in it, but I don’t give a fuck.”
That’s a shock. Case in point…
“We had to do a video this week (for ‘Sick’) and I had a really low cut dress, and everybody at the shoot was saying ‘Pull your top up, pull your top up’ because they don’t want to say anything about it. Everybody wanted to be polite. I was like, ‘Why, is my dent showing?’ I just looked at my managers and I told them, ‘I have to be honest with you, I don’t really give a fuck who sees my dent.’ I’m going on tour, everybody’s going to see my dent, I could care less. Everybody knows about it, who gives a shit?”
Giving rise to the thought that the momentary boob adjustment in the ‘I Won’t Cry (Fuck You 2)’ video wasn’t a spur of the moment thing.
“That was definitely deliberate,” Bif laughs. “When I went into treatment I was probably underweight. Every body who goes through breast cancer treatment in particular gains weight, and I put on 20 pounds… but I did it in three weeks. First chemo treatment I swelled up so fast from fluid – and you’re talking about a five or six hour drip in that fucking neck catheter – because it accumulates and it stays there forever. You’re fucked the whole time. So I’m still heavier than I was when I went in, and my tits grew. Breast cancer gave me tits. It made me quite a curvaceous girl.”
Somewhat unexpected was the news that Bif was gearing up to tour for The Promise, due to kick off mere weeks after going through yet another follow-up surgery. She remains undaunted. It’s just another day at the office and she’s very happy to be back at work.
“Everyone knows I have a hole in my heart, and the problem I have from the port catheter is that I developed a blood clot around it. The problem I have now is that my face turns purple all the time. So when we were in rehearsal the other day we were going through the set and I was looking at the band, and I think they were trying to fucking kill me. It’s such a hard set. It was like, ‘I couldn’t wing this set when I was healthy, are you crazy?’ so I kept asking them if I was turning purple. No? Good! I’ll be fine.”
“I’ll probably be a bit worried because I don’t want to look sick in front of anyone,” she admits as her only fear of touring now. “I don’t really care if I don’t feel good, that’s never been an issue for me because I would never say anything. But if I look sick, that’s a problem for me. Nobody wants to see that and I don’t want anybody to see that. That’s the only thing I hope never happens. It’s gonna be great, though. My fans have been so awesome. They’ve been so supportive and for that I can’t wait to get back on the road. It’s going to be exhausting, but it always was. I don’t anticipate anything different.”
Go to this location to check out audio samples from The Promise and to purchase the album.