Heavy metal was always considered a boys club, where long-haired, leather-clad men sang songs about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But even as early as the 1970s and 1980s there were a handful of artists who challenged this theory, with girls proving that they were just as capable at being rock stars as their male counterparts. While Mötley Crüe were singing about Girls, Girls, Girls, a new group emerged called Vixen, who showed that women could play metal with just as much conviction as the men.
Some considered them the female Poison, while to others they were continuing on from where The Runaways had left off a decade earlier, but with the release of their eponymous debut album in 1988 Vixen became stars overnight.
Formed by guitarist Jan Kuehnemund in the early 1980s, Vixen worked with songwriter Richard Marx (who would later top the charts with the hits Right Here Waiting and Hazard) and appeared in the acclaimed documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, while Kuehnemund and singer Janet Gardner were hailed as sex symbols by their fans. Like many bands from the glam metal era, Vixen eventually split after the grunge explosion of the early 1990s but would reform several times over the following decade, before Kuehnemund established the current line-up in 2001.
Jan Kuehnemund discusses the modern music scene and how women are portrayed in metal.
Over recent years technology has advanced considerably, with many studios being upgraded to digital with programs such as ProTools. How have you found these changes and do you willingly embrace new technology?
I do embrace new technology because it makes it easier for the musicians and singers in the studio. We can go in and fix one note if we have to, whereas in the past you would have to had to re-record a much longer piece of a guitar or vocal track if there was a small mistake. It makes things go much faster and saves money on studio time.
In 2009 The Cult‘s Ian Astbury declared ‘Albums are dead. The format is dead.’ Do you believe this or will there always be a market for albums and singles?
I don’t necessarily believe it. I know singles are more of the way of the future, but I hope that albums are never dead because I personally like to put on an entire CD of an artist instead of one song here or there. Maybe for certain artists singles make more sense, but for many great artists, albums tell a bigger story.
Being the only member from the band’s original line-up, when you revived Vixen in 2001 did you consider performing under a new name or did you always think of yourself as the driving force behind the group?
I absolutely did not consider performing under a new name with the new line-up in 2001. Ever since I started the band, Vixen, there have been member changes, and that does not mean that you need to change the name of the band. I’ve kept Vixen together for many many years and, like any ‘team,’ I will always identify with the name – it’s always been a part of me no matter who I’m playing with.
The Runaways proved that there is an audience for biopics on all-girl rock bands. Do you feel that the story of Vixen would make an interesting movie and just how excessive and eventful was life for the group during the 1980s?
YES I absolutely feel that the story of Vixen would make an interesting movie. While our story is very eventful, I don’t feel it was excessive during the ’80s. Not in the way most people would typically think a story about rock and roll would be – I mean, there was excessive drama, but not drug use and that sort of thing.
Do you see aspects of yourself in the likes of Paramore or other female-fronted groups?
I sure hope that Vixen helped bring female rock into the mainstream in the same way as some of those artists mentioned. As far as other female-fronted groups (or even male-fronted groups with female players), yes, I definitely see aspects of myself there. Particularly with guitarists of course – I have wondered about some and whether I’ve had any indirect influence. Someone once asked me if Orianthi was a relative of mine!
One cliché of the heavy metal lifestyle is the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Are girl bands as guilty of indulging in these as their male counterparts and was Vixen ever known for hooking up with groupies?
I can’t speak for any other girl bands except for Vixen. I would say we were all about the rock ‘n’ roll, rather than the sex and drugs. We weren’t known for hooking up with groupies. In fact, most of our guy groupies seemed to be very shy and would approach us very hesitantly – not like some of these bold female groupies that approach guy’s bands, tearing their clothes off at any opportunity. We didn’t see a lot of that.
In an interview a couple of years ago vocalist Jeff Scott Soto said ‘There aren’t that many great rock singers but just about all of them have got great hair.’ Did you regularly have to defend your music to cynics and did you have to prove that there was more to Vixen than just image?
Definitely yes, we did have to defend our music quite often to people in the business, unfortunately. Many people would see the image on the cover of the album and immediately write us off as a joke. So we were constantly proving and re-proving our skills and our music.
The so-called hair metal scene of the 1980s came to an abrupt end and over the years both fans and critics have speculated what the final nail in the coffin was; some say power ballads, others say grungeDo you feel there was a specific cause or had the scene simply run its course?
I would say it was kind of a combination of grunge coming in and also the scene at the time running its course. We have very rare opportunities to know how many of the metal glam bands of the time would have evolved over the years if grunge hadn’t swept over the market in such a big way so quickly. Of course we hope our next album will be one example of that evolution.
Mötley Crüe toured last year with Poison and then with Def Leppard. Are there any groups from back in the day that you would like to go on the road with and have you been approached by any other artists from that era?
There are many groups we would love to tour with. Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard all come to mind. We have been approached a few times to tour with Poison but so far we haven’t been able to make it work. We are still hopeful that we will be able to do that in the near future. We love all those bands and of course we love their music.
Do you feel that reality shows such as American Idol belittles what many hard-working artists have to go through to land a record deal and has websites like TMZ and Perez Hilton made society more obsessed with celebrities than their art?
Sometimes when watching shows like American Idol I get the feeling that they do belittle what some artists and bands have had to work a lot longer for than what you can achieve on a show like that. BUT, that being said, these shows offer a great opportunity for many artists who would have otherwise never had a chance and for that reason I think it’s a good thing. I think sites like TMZ and Perez Hilton may contribute to society being more obsessed with celebrities than their art, but it could really be the other way around – the sites just feed the hunger for celebrity that’s already there. You could trace it back a lot farther than TMZ, so I wouldn’t necessarily blame them (or give them all the credit).
How has your approach to the music industry changed over the years, specifically from a business perspective?
Well, I’ve learned a lot over the years. I think the business has to be much more in the artists’ hands these days. It’s not like some label just wants to sign you and pay you a lot of money and put you out on the road, while your manager ‘handles’ everything and you just focus on your artistry. It’s more and more rare these days. So we take matters into our own hands. Like, for example, we have just launched a new Kickstarter project so that we can record our next album without the influence of too many outside people. That’s a big reflection on how things have changed. We hope your readers will support us in bringing our music back to the main stage!