Chewing the 'fat
On the eve of a long-awaited CD release, local veterans Ultrababyfat find comfort at ground zero of Atlanta's rock scene
As motorcycles roar down Moreland Avenue in Little Five Points, Ultrababyfat's Shonali Bhowmik, Michelle DuBois and Shane Sanders make their way through a busy outdoor restaurant. Seemingly half the buzzing crowd hail the trio, either to say hello, invite them to a party or ask about joining a late-night jam session. Several of the well-wishers are former bandmates of Bhowmik and DuBois. One slightly tipsy friend good-naturedly yelps, "Hey, rock stars!" as they pass his table. Bhowmik laughs loudly and shakes her head.
Here, in ground zero of Atlanta's music community, Ultrababyfat reign — somewhat reluctantly — as stars of the scene. And after a few years of retrenchment following their 1998 national debut, Silver Tones Smile — which disappeared as quickly as did their high-profile label Velvel — Ultrababyfat's star is set to rise even higher with the band's long-awaited follow-up CD, Eight Balls in Reverse, out next week on California indie label Orange Records.
But even if the band's local notoriety boils over to larger national acclaim, after all the band has been through, it seems Ultrababyfat long ago moved past any traditional notions of superstardom. "All of us share a sense of life beyond being a rock star," singer/guitarist Bhowmik says. "We share the sense of what we're getting out of spending time with these great people and playing music to audiences that love it, in big towns and in small ones."
Drummer Sanders, at least, finds all the attention refreshing. In Ultrababyfat for only the past two of the group's eight years, Sanders previously performed in an impressive series of critically lauded but ultimately unsuccessful Atlanta rock ensembles, including My Sweet Etc., Chump, Dew and Hummer. "I've never seen anything like this," he says. "It's great to get this much audience reaction and energy."
For Bhowmik and Dubois, Ultrababyfat's front-women and only constant members, warm receptions by audiences and local media have pretty much been business as usual since the band's earliest days. Childhood friends in Nashville who played music together since their pre-teen years, the two formed Babyfat (later adding the prefix "Ultra" to avoid confusion with a similarly-named Northeastern band) back in 1993. They released their first album in January '95 on the upstart local indie label Sister Ruby, and discovered that their unique blend of coy, girlish vocals and hard-driving post-punk guitars rapidly earned them a sizable following. Major success and national acclaim seemed imminent.
And now, nearly eight years (and many line-ups) later, it still does.
"For me, the reason we keep doing it," explains Dubois, "is that we are still having fun." While the sentiment would seem trite and cliched coming from many musicians, both Dubois and Bhowmik share an exuberance that's not only infectious, it easily conveys their enjoyment of both their music and of each other's company.
Through regular touring, Ultrababyfat have built a following that extends beyond Atlanta to a handful of cities up the East Coast, from Charleston to Boston. "I love Shonali and Michelle," says Mike Stuto, manager of the New York rock club Brownie's. "We've had them play here for years. They are a good, solid draw and the crowds love them. They work hard and seem to truly love what they do."
Pointing to impressive recent turnouts at venues such as New York's indie rock mecca, the Mercury Lounge, Bhowmik admits, "Yeah, we're a good draw, mainly because we've been persistent. We just keep going back, and our crowd continues to build." She also notes that, through their website, Ultrababyfat hears from fans as far away as Italy and Sweden.
They got a big boost when college radio picked up on Silver Tones Smile a few years back, but through no fault of their own, the group found itself unable to capitalize on this momentum. "Our label dissolved three months after the CD was released," recalls Bhowmik.
Velvel, the New York-based outfit started by veteran industry exec Walter Yentikoff, signed the band in 1997 and presented Bhowmik and DuBois with what appeared to be the biggest break of their career. Velvel spent a considerable amount of money on the band, bankrolling a tour, a video and a month of recording sessions in a deluxe Memphis studio.
But as Ultrababyfat soon learned (along with fellow Georgia artists Five-Eight and Michelle Malone, also briefly under contract there), Velvel turned out to be the incredible vanishing record company. By the time the label folded and Ultrababyfat got their release, Bhowmik and Dubois were so fed up with the label's operations, they breathed a sigh of relief. "We actually gave each other a high-five," Bhowmik says, laughing, "the moment we got the letter saying we were no longer working with them."
"We were released from the stranglehold of a giant company and given our freedom back — and we aren't gonna give up that up again," says DuBois proudly. "That's one of the things that energizes me now — feeling liberated, able to write and do whatever the hell I wanna do, not feeling any kind of restriction at all."
Sanders, who wasn't around during the band's tenure at Velvel, shakes his head in amazement. "The way these guys look at things is unique," he says. "No one else I know would high-five each other when they got dropped from a label."
After Velvel's dissolution, Bhowmik and DuBois immediately began recording new demos. They now look back on their tenure with the big-time label as a growing experience. "People like Courtney Love have to go to court to get out of their deals," observes Bhowmik, "and here we are, given this freedom."
The joy of their newfound liberty is evident in every track of Eight Balls in Reverse, Ultrababyfat's new CD. Carefully culled from among the 30 songs written in the wake of their Velvel debacle, its selections range from the refreshingly bubbly "Water Tower" and the wistful "Star's Lament" to furious unhinged rockers such as "Shake 'N' Bake." The indelibly catchy "Bored in Paris," a standout track, already has garnered airplay from college radio in Georgia and Alabama.
Perhaps as notable as the strength of the new album, however, is the solidity of the group's present lineup. After a dizzy six years of ever-changing rhythm sections (see "Ultrababyfat's family tree," p. 74), Ultrababyfat finally began stabilizing its membership in '97 with the addition of Britta Phillips on bass. Although Phillips lives in New York and has other musical obligations — most notably playing bass in Luna and providing the singing voice of Mattel's New Generation Barbie — she nevertheless remains solidly committed to the Atlanta group.
"One of the biggest compliments that we've ever gotten about the band was actually from Britta," Bhowmik says. "About this time last year, we were driving around and she said, 'I will never take this for granted, because this is what being in a true band is all about — in the sense of four people who enjoy playing music and having a good time.' And all of our attitudes about it are exactly the same about what we get out of it."
"For me personally," says DuBois, "the time we were on Velvel was one of the hardest times in my life. I went through a lot of inner searching, asking myself, 'Is that really what I want?' The only way I can think about it is this: All of us are doing what we have to do to be happy, and one of those things is to play music. Writing is something we are always going to do, and Shonali and I are always going to write together."
Given the band's past, it seems that as long as Ultrababyfat continue making music, they'll be able to count on the continuing support of an admiring local scene. Where other bands struggle to retain an original fanbase following any brief taste of acclaim, Ultrababyfat still consistently attracts new fans. They remain aware, however, of both how special this phenomenon is and how difficult it can be to maintain.
"The four of us are all experienced and mature enough to know that it takes work to make anything happen," concludes Bhowmik. "We're not stressed about tomorrow. We're not lamenting yesterday. We're taking care of today."
Ultrababyfat performs at a benefit for WRAS' "Georgia Music Show" Sat., April 28, at the Echo Lounge. Tickets are $8. Ultrababyfat also performs at its CD release party Sat., May 12, at the Echo Lounge. For more information on either show, call 404-681-3600.??