Escaping their stifling Southern roots, the members of Olympia's the Gossip aim to reclaim rock for society's outcasts.

Chick-a, chick-a, chick-a, chick-a, chick. Sssssssssssssss.

Musicians do lots of things before shows—sleep, drink, lie around dressing rooms.

Chick-a, chick-a, chick-a, chick-a, chick. Sssssssssssssss.

Nathan Howdeschell, guitarist for Olympia's the Gossip, is manufacturing—sort of. Out in the courtyard behind San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill club, he's armed with a stencil in one hand and a can of pink spray paint in the other. Hanes white T-shirts are piled on a glass table, and he swashes each with a lightning bolt and the band's name underneath.

Chick-a, chick-a, chick-a, chick-a, chick. Sssssssssssssss.

Mind you, doors have been open for the Gossip's show—the last on their nationwide summer tour—for a half-hour. There are several fans milling about next to the T-shirt operation. If Howdeschell had an enterprising bone in his body, he'd boast about working with "just-in-time delivery." Instead he fesses up that the band ran out of shirts the night before. Though his voice is marked by dips and lilts and shyness, it's full of assured pride when he notes that the makeshift assembly allows the Gossip to charge a mere six bucks per shirt.

The Gossip—Howdeschell, singer Beth Ditto, and drummer Kathy Mendonca—prefer to make their rock 'n' roll as bare bones as their merchandise. But lump 'em with today's neo-trad newsmakers and they're likely to . . . well, they're too nice a bunch to do anything violent, but you'll definitely get a heap of indignant sass. And they've got a point. The Gossip ain't city folk. Their brand of rock 'n' roll is less studied than the White Stripes' blues; the band scorns the Hives' slick shtick.

So what do they have? Start with Mendonca's Mo Tucker-sparse drums. Fold in Howdeschell's guitar, plain as dirt, seductive as Mississippi mud pie. Top it all off with vocals from Ditto, a feminist, fat-friendly, queer-happy soul shouter, who shows by sure-as-shit example how a crowd should be getting down at a rock 'n' roll party.

It bears repeating: The Gossip are not city folk. They're not even Olympia folk. The band came to the Evergreen State a few years back from the Arkansas backwoods of Searcy and Judsonia—a move they're thankful for, particularly after a recent tour stop in Little Rock.

"It [was] really strange to be there and be at the place I am now," Mendonca, 23, says, shivering in a cool San Fran summer breeze. "I've seen so much stuff and experienced so much stuff that I never thought I'd do. I've seen the whole country. I've been so many places.

"It's really crazy to go back and see people that I went to high school with who I thought were so much better than I was. Now they're married and they have two kids, and they're like, 'You got out. I can't believe you got out. I envy you so much.'"

Searcy, Ark.: "Where thousands live like millions wish they could," according to the Chamber of Commerce. Largest employer: Wal-Mart, whose facility provides 1,325 jobs and has earned the company's award for best distribution center 11 of the past 14 years. Median household income: $32,321. Population: just under 19,000; add 1,900 for nearby Judsonia.

People know each other there. Howdeschell's great aunt is married to Mendonca's uncle. Ditto's mother and Mendonca's aunt both work at Central Arkansas Hospital. Mind you, White County isn't entirely cut off from the rest of the world; earlier this year, the local Army National Guard unit left to serve with the multinational force in the Sinai.

Life in Searcy was smaller when Howdeschell, now 22, was in high school. With a dog collar on his neck and a black suit on his back during even the hottest days, he was the kind of misfit that city folks would've recognized as an artist in training. His classmates saw him as a misfit, period.

"It was us vs. the world," he says.

Those were pre-Gossip days. Mendonca left town first, heading west for a year at Evergreen State College. Howdeschell and Ditto followed. The band was launched in Olympia in early 2000.

It's still them vs. the world, but now it's less a battle than a challenge: a challenge to break through the thick fog that's enveloped too many young kids; a challenge to get those kids wondering why they rarely see fat people, queers, or women portrayed as anything other than mere objects or sideshow spectacles on MTV or in Spin.

The Gossip have been furiously spreading the word. They've toured the U.S. three times, once with Sleater-Kinney, twice as headliners. They played the inaugural Ladyfest arts and activism event in Olympia in 2000 as well as the 2001 edition in Scotland. Preaching to the converted? Maybe, but the music's strong enough to reach for a broader audience. The Gossip's self-titled debut lays down their dare early on: "If you wanna do it, well, then come and do it!" Ditto sings on the opener, "Red Hott"—not so much a come-on as a "Come on!" Their full-length follow-up That's Not What I Heard is longer but less patient and positively Prince-like in its demands ("Better make it good, better make it now") and promises ("I'll show you things like you've never seen").

On the new Arkansas Heat EP, the Gossip explore their politics more overtly. The sex remains, though. "First time I had you down on the floor . . . ," Ditto sings on "Rules for Luv," and it matters little that you can't understand what she says next.

Both the title cut and "(Take Back) the Revolution" rally for society's square pegs. And on "Lily White Hands," Ditto recalls a conversation she had with her late Aunt Janie—who married a no-good man too young, only to die of cancer before leaving or finding any kind of happiness. "'Say, girl?' I said, 'Yes, ma'am?'/'You never trust a man with lily white hands./You can bet your bottom dollar that he's got plans./Promise me you'll leave when you get the chance.'"

"She taught me everything I know," Ditto, 21, tells the crowd at the Bottom of the Hill. "She was my first feminist influence."

But the band's best work so far is an unrecorded song "Waves." During the Gossip's sets, the piece plays like a dialogue between two friends.

"It's like I got a hole in my pocket trying to keep you satisfied," offers a character forced to deny herself in order to keep a partner happy. "It's like I gotta burn a million bridges just to keep you by my side." Her friend warns against revenge—"Don't make waves in the water, lest you mess around and drown"—but knows it's futile: "It's not like I could've stopped you/Because a girl can't be tied down."

The song glides on Howdeschell's swinging guitar riffs, which later drop out against the pulse of Mendonca's bass drum thump and stick taps. As outside commentator, Ditto urges the abused woman to make her break and brings audiences along with her in a call-and-response of "Fight the power!" On the page, the phrase sounds trite, but onstage, it courses with inspiration, all the more so since it's been appropriated from hip-hop, a genre too often marred by misogyny.

Getting to the root of Ditto's class consciousness is a relatively simple endeavor.

She was born fourth in a line of six kids and raised by a divorced mom earning laborer's wages. During their Seattle CD-release show, Ditto mentions a broken tooth that's housed a cavity since sixth grade. Her sister finally scheduled Ditto's first ever dentist appointment for the Little Rock tour stop. The tooth is black with rot, but you hear suspicion in Ditto's voice as she's detailing her dental woes to the crowd. "We're gonna play it by ear," she says. Still, when she hits San Francisco, she's proud of her new cap. One down, five to go, she says.

All three of the Gossips had their earliest musical exposure in church. While Ditto spent Sunday morning in the pews, her mom stayed home.

"On Sunday morning, she'd be like, 'You need to get out of the house. All you kids just get the fuck out the house, or I'm gonna kill you,'" Ditto says. "She'd put us on the church bus. Every single Sunday I wore the same dress. It was red with black flowers."

The Gossip are talking about their formative years during an April interview in the duplex Ditto rents in Olympia. Her bandmates are indulging her second passion: hairdressing. Today, they take their turns in the kitchen chair for artfully placed bleach streaks.

According to Ditto, her mom was always supportive. As long as Ditto threw her energy into choir, her mom looked the other way when her schoolwork slipped. Mother and daughter would sometimes stay up until 5 a.m. making decorations for lunchroom music recitals.

Mendonca, too, got plenty of parental support. She squirms a bit when talking about the scrapbook of press clippings her parents keep and the Gossip CDs they hand out to extended family, but something about her demeanor says that deep down, she's thrilled with their enthusiasm.

The trio first found rock 'n' roll through their fathers. "We would be eating bread and milk, but we'd have the most amazing stereo," Ditto says. Same for Howdeschell. His dad would get drunk, he says, stay up late, and fire up his Creedence Clearwater Revival and Led Zeppelin albums. Pop stopped the wee-hour parties for a while, but now that Howdeschell's grown up and moved out, they're roaring again, with a little bit of Nickelback thrown in for modernity's sake.

Folks on the road, though, haven't always been so encouraging. "I meet people from huge towns who are way more backwoods than Kathy or Beth are, and that's really weird," Howdeschell says.

On tour with Sleater-Kinney in 2000, "People would think Kathy was the singer sometimes," Ditto says, her voice moving more gingerly than usual. "I can't think of that many bands that have fat girls in them, let alone singing and dancing.

"People tend to not say things like that to your face; it's just their reaction. But I heard. People in crowds would be like, 'She is so fat.' I was bigger then than I am now. But you're kinda like, 'Yeah? That's not an insult.' You're just like, 'I'm gonna prove you wrong.'"

Ditto absorbed some of that determination from her mother, whom she salutes on "(Take Back) the Revolution." "My mother worked every day of her life for a man who don't care," she sings over a burning churn from her bandmates. She then connects the indifference her mom suffered with the treatment she's had to endure: "All you do is criticize my body, my hair, or the clothes I wear."

The singer has a sharp awareness of the commonalities that cut across various borders, especially age. Onstage, she tweaks the line in "(Take Back) the Revolution" that goes, "Let me tell you, when it's all through, you're gonna get what's coming to you!" to "You got yours, well, you need mine, too!" You might well expect her to say, "I'm getting mine, too,"—a predictable sentiment from a horny 21-year-old. Regardless, it's these powerful shifting perspectives that make the Gossip's music work so well.

During the gig in Little Rock, Ditto brought her mother onstage—clad proudly in a Gossip T— to sing the song with her.

"It was intense; I almost cried," Ditto says. "It was really cool, because Mom sings really well and she deserves a lot of attention. She wanted to be a singer. She had a fucked-up life and she still does, so it meant a lot for me and for her."

The Gossip are evolving rapidly, the way young bands often do. If Howdeschell really does play in as many side groups as he claims—among them Boy Pussy U.S.A., Fractions, Female Health, and White County—it might help explain his ever-growing confidence with the guitar. "Old noise guys love Nathan," Ditto says, and the two minutes of guitar drone that open "(Take Back) the Revolution" attest that the feeling's mutual.

The band's only problem right now is that they've got so many ideas that they morph from one song to the next faster than they can keep track of them. "Doesn't that sound like the last song?" Howdeschell asks of one tune during a practice in Olympia. "Oh well, it doesn't matter. We just won't play them next to each other."

It's a common complaint from each band member that they've released too much work, particularly on That's Not What I Heard, which shimmies through 14 songs in a scant 24 minutes. Their second full-length is slated for early 2003, but Ditto says they'd like to slow the pace to record an album they're comfortable with, start to finish.

Later that night at the Bottom of the Hill, the Gossip seem concerned about everyone but themselves. This is a band that typically keeps their sets to a hard and fast half-hour, regularly eschewing encores. But on this night, the last of their tour, they oblige a demanding crowd by returning with tourmates the Chromatics for a blast through the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog."

As the song begins its joyful disintegration, it becomes clear just what an incredibly generous display it is. Howdeschell dismantles Mendonca's drums and hands her floor tom to a group of fans dancing stage left. He blows on the mike and, assured it's on, tosses it out to the first few rows in front. His guitar follows.

And then the band leaves the stage. It's not that they don't worry about their gear; they just trust the crowd.

It's as if, having taken back the revolution for themselves, the Gossip are now ready to give it away to everyone else.

The Gossip play the Capitol Hill Block Party main stage (11th and Pine) at 2:45 p.m. Sat., July 13.

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