Photos courtesy of Black Velvet Elvis and Megan Helm
Black Velvet Elvis, led by frontwoman Olivia Britz, guitarist Tony Matts and drummer Joe “Danger” Brennan, bring a little diversity to the local stage. “It’s nice to stand out with Olivia,” says Brennan of the band’s place in a male-dominated music scene, “because she can really sing. There’s no gimmick. It’s nice to be different without really trying too hard.”
Here’s a fun trivia question next time you’re out with local music fans: Ask them to start listing female-fronted Missoula rock bands from the last, say, 10 or so years. It’s harder than you think.
There’s Sasshole, of course. The almost all-girl noise-rock outfit lasted nearly a decade and was perhaps best known for dumping a bag of kitty litter on the audience during a 1998 show at Jay’s Upstairs. Then there were a couple of projects—Spanker and Saved for This Dark Dawn—in the late ’90s fronted by the indomitable Cindy Laundrie, both of which also included her now-husband, Volumen drummer Bob Marshall. (Word has it Cindy is on the cusp of resurfacing with a new creation, Vera, next month). More recently, there’s Jamie Henkensiefken, formerly of Switch and The Pleasure, now playing solo as the eponymous Henkensiefken in Seattle, and The Basic Practicalities, a high school punk trio starring drummer/singer Lela Bayless that scored a spot in last year’s Total Fest.
Beyond that? Even a veteran of the scene like Wäntage USA label founder Josh Vanek scratches his head before finally adding to the list Squinting Bin, which apparently featured a female vocalist with one leg noticeably longer than the other. The details are sketchy.
But here’s the point: You can count Missoula’s female-fronted rock bands from the last decade with the strings of a single guitar. The male-dominated music biz lives on, even in inclusive Missoula, making women rock stars an unfortunate rarity.
Olivia Britz gets it. The lead singer of Black Velvet Elvis is a natural born star with her garage-sleek stage presence, her tattooed chest brandishing Shakespeare’s “Be Just and Fear Not” in cursive and bookended by pistols on either shoulder, and, most importantly, her effortlessly agile voice capable of oozing soul or screaming punk. But it’s with a humble tone that the novice—Britz admits “karaoke is my only formal training”—recognizes her significance in the local music scene.
“Anything to inspire people,” she says. “I mean, I’ve been inspired by female vocalists my entire life, so to have the chance to be someone who people get excited about or rock through, someone who people go out to see to help support local music—I’m excited about that. This is all still really new—every show still feels like a head trip. But I can see it in our crowds, or the fact that we actually have fans. Some people are into it.”
In fact, more than just some, but the newness is understandable. Less than a year ago, BVE was nothing more than Britz experimenting with guitarist Tony Matts on everything from song writing to core sensibilities (they’re fascinated, for instance, by “taco-serving non-taco restaurants”). When they performed, the rhythm section was a drum machine.
“It wasn’t the greatest, but we slowly figured out how we wanted to do things,” says Matts. “I’ve always kind of felt that a lot of female vocalists are kind of thrown into a band where it doesn’t always match up or sound right. I thought it was interesting that Olivia and I were almost immediately on the same page. It fit.”
Things started to click even more when Joe “Danger” Brennan, former drummer with the International Playboys, replaced the drum machine in October. The new trio quickly generated major buzz with a full-on Misfits tribute show on Day of the Dead; landed a plum spot in March opening for Hells Belles, a touring all-girl AC/DC cover band; and the same weekend competed as finalists in Pabst Blue Ribbon’s Band of the Year competition.
Now firmly entrenched, Britz, Brennan and Matts are busy evolving their sound, messing with old songs to break free of the drum machine’s enforced monotony, and crafting new ones. They’re careful in the tweaks, however, to maintain the band’s easy vacillation from lounge-y surf rock to power-chord punk. It’s a sound captured in the soulful lines of “My Daddy Don't Love Me,” with Britz brooding over the refrain, “My daddy don’t love me, but he sure can dance,” or in the more strident delivery of “Dick Newhart,” where she rumbles, “Quit looking at me like a loaded gun.”
“There’s no bass, no rhythm guitar,” says Brennan of the stripped-down arrangements. “It’s just Tony being able to do his own thing. For me, I used to just beat the shit out of my drum set like a monkey. Now I just play more in the pocket, pick my spots…What’s cool is we can go after several different sounds. Say we write a song that’s a little faster, a little louder, we may react to that by looking to work on a slower, sexy song next. Or if Olivia has an idea that she wants to sing about rather than yell about, we can go that route.”
Britz’s personal comfort at fronting the band has come just as far as the band’s flexibility. The first time anyone in Missoula heard her sing was in a random guest spot for The Revenge at the old Raven Café—a show Matts played as a member of Victory Smokes—just after Britz moved from Colorado. The Revenge’s lead singer didn’t make the tour, leaving them to pick last-minute, one-night replacements like Britz at each stop. That was as much on-stage practice as she’d ever had before starting BVE. Finding her voice, so to speak, took time.
“I remember our very first show, I was terrified because I’d never performed my own songs before, I’d never really written before, I’m not a poet, I’m none of those things,” says Britz, who works at Edge of the World and as an apprentice at American Made Tattoos. “It was nerve-racking. I was definitely—I don’t know, shy.”
“I’d say that’s sort of gone away,” adds Brennan with a laugh.
Britz fills a room now, a confident presence usually decked out in brassy outfits—from glittery dresses to jeans that lace like a corset midway up her torso—and carrying herself with a no-bullshit swagger.
“I feel like I’m just starting to figure out how to write songs, how to perform,” she says. “It took me a long time to break out of that initial shyness. I’m not shy anymore, that’s for sure. And there are still a lot of things I want to do on stage.”
“You’ll just have to see, but you’ll know it when you see it.”
Spoken like a true frontwoman.
Black Velvet Elvis plays a benefit for the Lolo Community Garage Saturday, April 12, at the Elk’s Lodge at 7 PM, with Good Neighbor Policy, Arrows to the Sun and Daniel Fernandez. $7 suggested donation. They also open for Devil Doll at The Other Side April 28 and celebrate the band’s one-year anniversary at The Palace May 7.