Back in the mid 1990s, when the dark and smoky Jay's Upstairs was the main rock venue for local musicians, Cindy Laundrie Marshall fronted two different bands—Saved For This Dark Dawn and Spanker—and played drums in a short-lived duo called Sharky. Jen Tachovsky Parsons also rocked the Jay's stage, as the drummer for the stalwart all-girl rock group Sasshole. But then, as time passed, Marshall and Parsons each got married and had kids, and any dreams of pursuing band life diminished under the weight of family responsibilities. Until recently.
In 2007, Marshall and Parsons had both suffered from the stress of colicky babies and sought precious time away from their family lives. They'd hire babysitters if only to get away for an afternoon or evening. The two often sat in Marshall's VW van to have a couple of beers or drove around to vent. But then they began using the van as a practice space to experiment with music on an acoustic guitar and a child's drum kit.
"I'm not thankful for having a colicky baby," says Marshall, who, around the same time, started experimenting with playing guitar. "But if it wasn't for having a colicky baby, Vera probably wouldn't exist."
Since its early van practices, Vera has blossomed into a formidable local band. The duo played at Missoula's ever-growing indie rock festival Total Fest in both 2008 and 2009. They were the obvious choice to headline a recent benefit for the new Hellgate Roller Girls team. Now, with a new debut album, Pupils Black to Black, and an upcoming release show, Marshall and Parsons don't see themselves putting Vera on the backburner anytime soon.
Marshall writes the songs for Vera, but she writes them with Parsons in mind. While Pupils Black to Black explores many themes, a couple of the songs inevitably document where Vera first started out—the trials and tribulations of motherhood. "Demons From the Cure," for instance, captures Marshall venting about when she first started raising her kids, intent on keeping a tight ship, keeping everything clean and excelling at anything she did.
"But I was miserable," says Marshall. "Now, I feel like I'm going through a mini renaissance of thought and I don't know if that has to do with being in my late 30s or if it has to do with coming out of surviving young children mode."
On the matter of women in rock, Parsons and Marshall are torn. They want to talk about Vera as just a band without having to discuss gender. For instance, Marshall doesn't like the word "feminist."
"Why is feminism the real 'F' word?," she says. "I think when people hear the word 'feminism' they shut down."
But both musicians say they feel strongly about the implication of the word because their experiences in the rock scene are inextricably tied to the issue.
"Girls in rock 'n' roll are novelties," Parsons says. "I think that's really interesting because plenty of girls listen to rock 'n' roll and I don't understand why they don't pursue it. I don't want Vera to be a novelty. I want to just be one of the bands that plays in Missoula."
The fact that both musicians were part of the Jay's music scene did not stop them from noticing the general lack of female musicians and the lack of support—or perceived lack—to change that. Marshall still questions whether she was ever viewed as a serious musician.
"I just always felt like I was frosting on the cake," Marshall says. "I did feel a part of the band but I always felt like I had this inferior role. In fact, people even wrote about it in the scene back then, that they didn't even think of me as being in the band."
Despite a strong focus on women and motherhood, Vera's lyrics cover plenty of other material. "S Bomb" delves into suicide bombings. "All Leaves for Noah" pays tribute to a longtime rock scene member, Noah Jennings, who died of brain cancer last year. "Blood of Evil" is a reaction to the seedy news stories of women and kids who've suffered abuse.
"I work with abused and emotionally disturbed kids," says Parsons. "I get so numb to it because I hear these horrible, horrible things every day and I just kind of let it wash over me. But when I sing that songit just makes it really real for me. I think it's important." She pauses and then slyly adds, "And, it's a badass song."
That's the thing with Vera—there's nothing soft about the band's approach. On the album and onstage, Marshall plays galloping, minor key rock chords with a menacing confidence. Parsons wields tough straight-up rock beats, matching the often-changing tempos that make Vera songs more progressive and metal than any kind of verse-chorus-verse pop music. Parsons deftly pulls off singing and drumming duty, and together the duo's harmonies create sweet and sinister vocal tones. More to the point, there's nothing conventionally "mom-ish" or "girly" about it. It's a way, they say, to express their current experiences without losing the edgy rock 'n' roll sensibilities from their past.
"We should never have to compress [ourselves] into the roles handed down to us by previous generations," Marshall says. "We need to forge our own path. On one hand we're just a band. But in other ways it's a big thing. Everyone has to take risks, even little ones. It's about planting seeds and it really only took a little sprinkling of water for us to form this band. Now it's taking on a life of its own."
Vera plays a CD release show at the Badlander Friday, Dec. 11, at 9 PM with Secret Powers and Butter. $5.