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May 22, 1997 * Vol. 7, No. 20

Married With Attitude

Girls With Tools blows up the nuclear family

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

Teri and Tony Lee are sitting at opposite ends of a friend's couch facing away from each other. Tony has just said something indelicate about his wife, and she is annoyed.

"This is where the stage show gets interesting, when stuff like that pops out of Tony's mouth," says Jeff Townsend with a laugh. As the drummer for Girls With Tools—a band led by the maritally blissful Lees—he's seen it all before.

In fact, the band thrives on it. Walking a tightrope between a stop-start-go rhythm section, buzzing guitar lines, and Teri's wide-open vocals, Girls With Tools' songs pinball from tension to release and back again. So if Tony and Teri—who have been married six years—are having a bad day, it just feeds the music's tautness.

Girls With Tools is one of Knoxville's newest bands and also one of its oldest, in more ways than one. The group formed three years ago in Carbondale, Ill., and only recently set up camp in the land of the rising Sunsphere. The original line-up was Teri and two guys she worked with at a pizza parlor, along with Tony. Neither Lee had ever been in a band before.

"I was like, 'Hey, Tony can play,'" recalls Teri. "They said, 'Can he play bass?' I said, 'No.' But he learned."

Townsend, who joined up shortly thereafter, was more experienced. He'd played with several bands, including a stint with a Boston group that opened for Nirvana, Buffalo Tom, and others.

It didn't take long for the group's sound to gel. The band's reference points are obvious—even without the married-couple thing, X would immediately come to mind, followed closely by Patti Smith, Blondie, and other art-school post-punkers. A Girls With Tools set will typically include an homage or two—they do a killer version of Iggy Pop's "I Wanna Be Your Dog," and Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot" does not suffer a bit from Teri's steely delivery.

But the covers are far from the best thing about the band's live show. Their originals are rhythmic pistons with enough melody to stick and enough attitude to send a dozen alterna-schlock bands running for their mommies. Tony and Townsend are rock-solid, the way rocks are just before they turn into lava. New guitarist Dennis Garrison (ex-Rat Patrol) steers ably through the intricate songs, adding layers of high-end energy.

And then there's Teri, stomping around in punky red high-tops like Johnny Ramone's little sister. Her voice has range and depth, and she knows how to use them, drawing you in with sultry asides and then knocking you flat with full-frontal bluntness. She's the primary lyricist, and while some of the songs cover Angry Chick territory—one memorably begins, "What makes you think I want to suck your dick?"—most are more reflective, less "boy-girl" than "man-woman."

"I was never a big heroin addict, didn't hang out with a bunch of junkies. I can't write like that," Teri says. "It's personal, or it stems from relationships, or I just make it up from something that's gone on in a relationship."

"It's beyond an adolescent relationship, sort of getting into the nitty-gritty years of what relationships really become," offers Townsend. "They're songs Teri mutters under her breath while she and Tony eat breakfast getting ready to go to work."

Girls With Tools comes by its worldly wisdom honestly. At 30, Teri is the band's youngest member. Tony, who you'd never guess just turned 40, is the oldest, and thinks the group's maturity is an asset.

"Had I been doing this as a younger man, I'd be dead by now," he says. "I was able to grow up and get all the kind of drugs and stuff, that whole scene, out."

The downside?

"It's a Greek tragedy," he says with a mock groan, "because as a teenager, I always wanted to be in a rock 'n' roll band to pick up chicks. And now that I am in a rock 'n' roll band, I'm in a band with my wife, and there are no chicks."

The band, which has played only a few gigs so far in Knoxville, came to Tennessee in bits and pieces. Teri and Tony moved here two years ago to be near family, and for awhile commuted to Carbondale for shows (highlights included opening for Velocity Girl and playing in a South X Southwest regional showcase in St. Louis). Townsend followed them last year, enrolling in a master's program at UT. Garrison is the only Knoxville addition, making the cut after the band auditioned a half-dozen local guitarists.

Once the line-up is fully stabilized, they plan to write more songs and explore the group's possibilities. Although they're grown up enough to have respectable day jobs—Tony's in research and development for a local company and Teri works in accounting ("I'm not an accountant! I'm in accounting.")—they're not too grown up for rock 'n' roll dreams.

"I'd much rather be a rock 'n' roll star," Teri says wistfully. "That'd be great, to tour..."

"I'd quit my job in a minute," Tony agrees. "As long as Teri's in one van and I'm in another, we'll be able to do it no problem."

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