The band Vixen has a long history both well before they made their mark on MTV and well after. The “MTV” lineup was hardly the original lineup of the band as it’s been evolving and changing since well before they were the only girl group in METAL EDGE. One constant from the very beginning has been band founder Jan Kuehnemund who has been holding down the guitar spot since the inception of Vixen. The Minnesota native has quite a story and has pretty much played an active role in rewriting “hair metal” history by having the chops and yes, the hair, to keep up with the pack and cement her own little space in pop culture. The band continues on with a new lineup featuring a talented ( and yes guys, hot) new singer and a live show (you can youtube it) that is heavier than the albums but retains all the glossiness and sheen you’d expect. We talked to Jan about the band’s humble beginnings, the fun and stress of the hairspray era and how lucky she feels to still be entertaining and creating. Read on….
Legendary Rock Interviews: Thanks for talking to us Jan. We got a hold of you through Eric Carr’s sister and I know you toured with my all time favorite band KISS. I imagine you got to know Bruce, Eric and the guys over that time. How did it feel to be touring with such a legendary act?
Jan Kuehnemund: It was great John. We did get along great with those guys, it was the HOT IN THE SHADE tour and they were very kind to us, it was a good tour and a lot of fun to do. The KISS guys really treated us with a lot of respect, it was fantastic. That particular leg was us and Winger and KISS and we all just enjoyed every minute of it. I had actually met Eric before that at a NAMM show in Chicago and I remember walking spending all day walking around with him, we met through one of my sponsors. He was such a nice person and so funny and then we went on tour with them and I do seem to remember us hitting a late night club and partying into the morning after one of our gigs with him as well. He was truly a sweetheart and his reputation with the fans speaks for itself.
LRI: I know that you started the band out here in the midwest way before Vixen went Hollywood so I’m really interested in talking to you about that era and those early lineups. Is that something you remember fondly?
JK: Absolutely. I started the original lineup of Vixen with basically all of my best friends from Minnesota while we were all still in high school. We were touring and playing around Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and the area for a long time while we were all still in school. That original lineup eventually moved to L.A. because we were trying to get a record deal which of course took a long time. One by one, my friends in the original lineup left the band. One quit, one got married and we moved on and eventually settled into the lineup which got signed and made the records but I do think about those girls in the very first band all the time. We actually put a LOT of ground work in building that band up since we were kids and we were all so close, I am still very close with them to this day. I know a lot of people only remember the lineup from the MTV era but we played a long time, many, many years prior to that time.
LRI: I am from the area and the scene has changed or maybe it hasn’t (laughs). There’s not a helluva lot going on take me back to that 1980-81 era and tell me what the midwest frozen tundra rock scene was in those days. What kind of places did you play and did you record with that lineup?
JK: There were a lot of ballrooms, Colleges, bars, it sounds odd today I guess but there were a lot of ballrooms back in those days, especially in Iowa. We hooked up with an agency thankfully and played pretty much all the time, anywhere we could. We were always recording demos too because we had a manager at that point who was very concerned with us always writing and recording and having a new demo. So, we spent a lot of time in the studio with that original lineup as well. I just had a friend who was like “You know Jan you could take those reel to reels and turn them into digital format and release that” which to be honest hadn’t really occurred to me. Maybe I should consider dusting them off and cleaning them up (laughs).
LRI: How did the MTV era lineup end up coming together out on the west coast?
JK: Janet (Gardner, ex- vocalist) was the first to join us. She was originally from Montana and had been singing Top-40 out in L.A. and we found her singing one night in a club and were like “Ok, we’ve found our singer” which was great because we had auditioned many, many, many singers before Janet to replace my good friend Noelle who was our singer. Janet was in the band with myself and two other original members for a few years before the other two original girls left and it was time for Janet and I to find a new drummer and bass player. Roxy was the next to join and then we had a few bass players, for a while we had Pia Vai, Steve Vai’s wife on bass and eventually the last to join was Share Pederson which was I think around 1987.
LRI: How long did the lineup of you Share, Roxy and Janet play out on the strip prior to getting signed? I told director Penelope Spheeris that you guys and TUFF really stood out in the Decline of Western Civilization 2 movie because you were the unsigned bands who ended up actually getting deals.
JK: Not that long really, we didn’t really gig that much. We did some showcases on the strip and the four of us made a demo right away. We found our manager through our demo which was great and he was determined to get us a deal with EMI. He wouldn’t take no for an answer from them although we did do many showcases for other labels (laughs). We never really left L.A. much with that lineup until well after we got the ball rolling and signed with EMI.
LRI: Decline 2 is one of my all time favorite movies and I was just kind of wondering how you remember those days working with Penelope and being involved in the documentary?
JK: I just remember waiting in line with all the bands in this really big house where we all were signed up to shoot our sit down discussions. I remember being really nervous and waiting in this really wild house. It was almost like Halloween or something, the house was either lit like that or maybe it was actually around that time. We were all just waiting for our turn and when it came out I remember being really happy that we were in it although I believe they cut out my part of the interview (laughs). I think they only showed two of us so of course Share and I were bummed but it was cool that Vixen were a part of it anyway. I think like everyone I also remember the Chris Holmes part in the swimming pool.
LRI: Well according to Penelope she has tons of extra footage she is working with for the DVD release this summer so maybe we’ll see that someday after all. Some other footage of you guys on youtube is hilarious. It was from a TV news segment on the band, like a story on you guys that featured some footage of you in a radio station fielding questions. It was really friggin funny because the band was just rolling their eyes at one after another variation of the exact same question “What’s it like being a glamour all girl band in a male dominated rock cock rock scene” (laughs).
JK: Yea, I think I remember the segment you’re talking about. (laughs). That is so true. I don’t even think we realized or considered that we were so different from the whole movement of those bands. It was like, we were part of it and we didn’t ever think of ourselves as being out of that clique, we were part of it and we used probably less hairspray than some of them did (laughs). We were putting on the normal level of makeup or hairspray that any girl would at the time. I remember us playing a show at the Troubadour or the Whisky and we were competing with Poison for the same real estate as far as placing our flyers on the walls and bushes and signposts. We were totally a part of that era so those questions were always like “Ugggh”.
LRI: Looking back on those days did the never-ending series of radio stations and interviews and photo shoots get to be an unbelievable grind or stress on you guys?
JK: It got to be a grind when our management wouldn’t give us enough time to SLEEP. That was the worst part of all that it was like “Oh come on, we have a show to do and we have to wake up at 6 am to go do some radio things, we’re not going to be in very good shape for the show man!” It was only a grind when it was clear that we wouldn’t be well rested and they would try to cram all these things in. We did do a couple promo tours where that was all we did and there weren’t any shows involved and that was actually kind of fun. We would split up into pairs where like Roxy and I would do one city and Share and Janet would do another and we would actually get a chance to focus solely on that.
LRI: The second album REV IT UP was the album where you guys were afforded a bit more freedom to actually contribute your own songs and have much more of a say in the production. Was that sort of a creative highlight for that era of the band in your opinion?
JK: Yes, very much so John. It just felt like from the beginning that it was more “us” than the first album and we were markedly more comfortable in the studio as well. We were able to actually work with our producer from the very beginning and it was at that point that we got really excited and knew that it was going to be a different experience.
LRI: I think you guys have all really agreed that despite the success of the first album it was really frustrating.
JK: It was. It was like “Hurry up, hurry up, we’re on a budget, you’re gonna cost us money” and just constant looking over our shoulders. I would be in there working on a guitar solo and not only would you not receive any direction or encouragement but we would get no feedback on our performances either. I would finish and look into the control room for a yay or nay and you could just hear a pin drop and it was like “Ok, is this good? or do you need us to do it again? or….”. It was very frustrating.
LRI: I look back on some of the stories you have all told about your manager shopping the demo to labels and being told things like “We’ve already got one of those” or “No, we might be interested but they’re girls” and it is really a reminder and sad indicator of women’s minority status back in those days. It was almost similar to an uphill battle someone like “Living Colour” or “Black Sheep” would have faced.
JK: Oh I know! It totally was. In that era it was totally a reminder of that but now it’s just astounding when you look at how many women are in every area of music, pop, rock, metal and it’s so good but that was NOT the climate when we came out at that time. What you said is so true, we would be trying to make headway with a radio station for instance and they would be like “Nope, sorry, we’re already playing the Lita Ford single and we can’t do another female thing” and we would just be like “What? Who SAYS that???”. It’s crazy and now it’s almost like the complete opposite environment for female artists.
LRI: You guys back then and still to this day have acquired a reputation as being a better live band than what was ever captured on your studio albums. I think a small part of that was just that the energy was cranked up, the looseness and volume and probably that same thing applies to many bands other than Vixen. I know the current lineup with Jenna, Lynn, Kat and yourself have a Live in Sweden album and there is a widely circulated bootleg of the Fort Lauderdale MTV show the other lineup did. Are there any live recordings that you are aware of that document that “MTV” era of the band other than that?
JK: Well thank you and yeah (laughs) actually there are some original live recordings of that lineup that sound terrific. I think we felt like we did have some extra energy or aggression live and we needed to get it out. I think like you said that’s just kind of a natural thing for any band to be a little more off the cuff live and a little less processed. We have a friend in Germany who somehow comes up with these overseas recordings that were done in that era. I wonder who has the rights to that Ft. Lauderdale show you’re talking about. That is crazy that people are trading that or whatever although it was a good show now that I remember it.
LRI: The band reunited the “classic” lineup for the VOICES OF METAL tour and then mid-tour Vixen sort of fell apart and had to re-organize into the lineup you have now. I have heard every comment on earth from “Jan pulled off the ultimate accomplishment by finishing that tour” to “Jan is the biggest bitch on the face of the earth for what went down”. What is your viewpoint on how it actually broke down. I mentioned something to Roxy on Facebook about how I was going to be talking to you and she didn’t seem bitter or venomous at all so I truly don’t understand.
JK: Well, that’s good to hear, she and I don’t have any bad blood. The band just basically fell apart as sometimes happens and I was just kind of forced into making a decision of do I just pack it in and we go home because everyone was REALLY unhappy. The tour was chaotic and not working out and it was like go home or try to get replacements and finish the tour. Our driver/road manager and I just kind of talked it out and decided we could give it a shot and if it didn’t work we could still just go home. We held auditions and found Jenna, Lynn and Kat and finished out the tour and things went well. Some people didn’t know the difference which was kind of interesting, the girls were being asked to sign all the old albums and everything. From that point on the lineup has been solid all these years and we’ve just continued and put out one studio album “LIVE AND LEARN” and then the live one you were talking about. To me, it really WAS a miracle that we were able to pull that off and also just that we’ve continued to enjoy working together.
LRI: So many people were individually fans of Janet, Roxy and Share that it would seem to be a little daunting to try to do that but I have seen the new live shows in front of both large festivals and small clubs and it does seem to go over. Jenna has her own singing style but it still SOUNDS like Vixen when you play stuff like “Love Made Me” or “Killer”.
JK: I think you’d have to really ask them how it felt but they were all really happy and excited to be a part of the band and have all done a good job of filling those shoes in my opinion. It does help that they’re able to play new material and sort of be themselves rather than being forced to replicate the other girls. They all do things their own way and there is a slightly different vibe or individual thing they bring to it but it works. We are working on a nice collection of new songs for our next album. The majority of them are completed and we are weeding out ones that aren’t as strong and we are also working with some outside songwriters who have proven themselves. It’s not something we are opposed to, provided someone has a good song. I live in Colorado and the other girls are in California so I do a lot of driving and we share a lot of recording things and files thankfully by email. It takes time so it’s sort of a slow but sure process. We are working towards getting that out there and trying to play as much as we can but that is very hard because it carries a financial cost and it’s just a tough environment for both bands and promoters to get what they need. We have people working with promoters to try to do the right shows because we REALLY,REALLY want to play live more than anything. You used to be able to travel and bring all your gear and everything along with you for free and now it’s to the point where they charge you for a carry-on (laughs).
LRI: “Edge of a Broken Heart” clearly worked. Was it something that was tailor-made for the band by Richard Marx or was it a song that required a bit of re-working in order to sort of make it your own?
JK: Well, actually we didn’t really change it or have to “rock it up” or change any arrangements a whole lot to be honest. I think it sounds perfect for us and it ended up sounding the way it did just because we were playing it. The record was done and we were ready to release it when the label said, “No, we don’t hear the hit single” and our manager had a working relationship with Richard and said “Hey….can you write a hit single for VIXEN really fast?” and he sure did. He called Fee Waybill and asked him to help him finish the lyrics and when we got it we went home and kind of learned it in a couple of days and went right in to record it. Richard sort of helped us produce it and guide it but I think he KNEW while writing it that we were a hard rock band and it needed to rock maybe a little more than some of his songs and that’s how it worked out. Richard is a really, really good songwriter and we are very thankful he was able to help us (laughs).
LRI: Last Question. I have to ask just for the fans sake because they WILL email me. If someone were to dangle the right situation and the right amount of respect and money in your direction what would you say to a reunion of the lineup with you, Share, Roxy and Janet?
JK: It would depend on the right situation and all those things you said. We did the VH1 Bands Reunited special a few years ago which was fine but it was a one time deal. I am really happy with the lineup we’ve had since that time but I guess the truth is that you can never say never to something like that. It would really have to be in everyone’s best interests and totally depending on everything being aligned in the perfect way but again, you never say never.
The band’s NEW Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pages/Vixen/266438203422093?ref=ts&sk=wall
and the NEW official TWITTER….. : https://twitter.com/#!/OfficialVixen
and their website: www.vixenrock.com