Wonder Women: Kristen Pfaff

Kristen Pfaff

I recently searched the No Treble archives for a bassist who was listed among Carolina Enriquez’s influences; Kristen Pfaff. For those unfamiliar with Pfaff, she was the bassist with Minneapolis-based Janitor Joe. Pfaff then took a hiatus from Janitor Joe to play with Hole from 1993 to 1994 and was the bassist on Hole’s (ironically titled) Live Through This album.

My search in the No Treble archives turned up very little, but in all fairness, No Treble didn’t come online until 2009, and Pfaff passed in 1994. The web was a much smaller place then, accessed through a dial-up connection. Additionally, the grunge world was still processing the death of Kurt Cobain, who passed two months before Pfaff’s death. Vice reporter Hannah Ewens noted the timing of Pfaff’s passing “…it was just a footnote in the shadow of the pop cultural phenomenon that was Kurt Cobain.”

So for this edition of Wonder Women, we’re going back to the early ’90s. For those who are too young to have the context of what popular culture was like, grunge was beginning to reach the peak of its popularity. Michael Jackson’s legal issues were coming into the public eye. Prince officially changed his name to a symbol, becoming The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. The Who’s Tommy (the musical of the 1969 rock opera Pinball Wizard) debuted on Broadway. Killing In The Name Of was released by Rage Against the Machine. And an unconventional trio made up of bari sax, bass guitar, and drums named Morphine released their first album, Good.

Pfaff was living in Minneapolis. She had majored in Women’s Studies at the University of Minnesota. While in school, she was a part of Restore of the Sexual Violence Program, which offered a crisis line, counseling services, and training in self-defense programs. Pfaff was an activist who helped improve the life of women on campus. She took a key role during an occupation of the President of the University’s office to protest cuts to a program designed to help protect women from assault on the campus. More detail on this is covered in Pfaff biographer Guy Mankowski’s recent TEDx talk. He discusses what was revealed when he opened an archive given to him by Pfaff’s brother, Jason. Additionally, Pfaff was a DJ at the school radio station, K-Radio (a clip of her on the air is here).

She had learned classical piano and cello while growing up, but after graduation, Pfaff taught herself bass guitar. Pfaff, guitarist/vocalist Joachim Breuer, and drummer Matt Entsminger formed the band Janitor Joe. Their 1992 debut single was H’mong Today, Hung Tomorrow. Pfaff announces the band’s entrance with an aggressive intro:

Janitor Joe released a single, Bullethead later in 1992. 1993 saw more releases; the singles Boyfriend, Under the Knife, and Stinker, and their debut album, Big Metal Birds. With the release of Stinker in 1993, Janitor Joe started touring nationally. Here’s a clip of Pfaff performing live with Janitor Joe on April 16th, 1993, in Athens, Georgia:

Courtney Love (of Hole fame) had parted ways with bassist Jill Emery. Pfaff was scouted by Eric Erlandson (guitarist for Hole) and Courtney Love while on a gig with Janitor Joe in California. Initially, Pfaff declined the offer, but her adoptive father, Norman Pfaff, encouraged her to make the move to Seattle even though her mother was reluctant. She made the move and began working on the Live Through This album.

Eric Erlandson recalled in an interview with Spin: “[Kristen] joined the band, she moved to Seattle, and that’s when all the songs came to life, literally. She was the star of her band and so she was bringing that to Hole, and that created sparks in everybody; we all saw an even greater potential than before.”

Drummer Patty Schemel added, “We saw her play, and she was amazing. She was just cool. Her playing was heavy, and she was knowledgeable, and she had command of her instrument… There was such a confidence in her playing that it just all happened, as soon as she started to play. It was really natural for her. “Plump” was one of her ideas… At the Phoenix Festival, we were playing all these brand-new songs and there was just this sea of people moving up and down. It was amazing. Kristen was so great live.”

Producer Sean Slade praised Pfaff’s talents in the same interview: “Kristen was just amazing. She’s such a natural talent, knew exactly what to play, played totally tight with Patty. I have to give her credit — and this has never happened on an album that we’ve done in all these years — every single bass track on Live Through This was from the basic tracks. There was no bass overdubs because there was no need to because they were perfect. It was an exceptional performance on her part. That’s like a singer doing an album’s worth of vocals in just one take. It just doesn’t happen.”

Pfaff was in a new city with a new band and new boyfriend (Eric Erlandson) and away from her Minneapolis friends. Heroin was easy to get in Seattle, and the new band presented its own creative issues. Pfaff went through drug rehab in Minneapolis during early 1994, then had a spring tour with Janitor Joe.

In 1994, Pfaff decided to move back to Minneapolis. She had returned to Seattle to clean out her Capitol Hill apartment. She never made the trip home from Seattle to be with her friends. She was found dead on June 14th, 1994, by her friend Paul Erickson, in her apartment bathtub. They were supposed to leave that day to return to Minneapolis. The cause of death was “acute opiate intoxication.” She was 27 years old. Her Uhaul was packed in her apartment garage, ready to leave.

Paul Q. Kolderie, producer and engineer, praised Pfaff in a 2014 Spin interview; ”Kristen is the secret ingredient; she made the whole thing gel and happen. It’s criminal she didn’t get to make any more records because it would have been great to see what came down the road.”

Pfaff’s musical legacy is focused on her work with Janitor Joe, and Hole’s platinum Live Through This album. However, twenty-eight years later, Pfaff’s legacy is still actively being explored. There is a call to action post on the Janitor Joe Facebook page, requesting live footage of Pfaff performing with Janitor Joe for a documentary. Janet Pfaff, Kristen’s mother, released a book on Kristen’s life, titled Unfinished Rhapsody. And author Guy Mankowski has a forthcoming biography on Pfaff, titled I Know How To Live: The Story Of Kristen Pfaff. This book will focus more on her life and seek to address the different theories regarding Pfaff’s death. Of the book, Mankowski said, “I have been working on it since around 2019 when I got in touch with Jason Pfaff to suggest writing a book about his sister. Astonishingly Jason offered, for the first time, to confidentially share with me his sister’s unopened archive and collaborate and to share with me her recording diary tapes which mainly cover her time in Hole.”

The book draws from Pfaff’s archive of essays, letters, and diary recordings. It also draws from a wide-reaching archive of interviews Jason recorded with many people that knew and worked with Pfaff throughout her life. Jason also wrote a prologue for the book. I’ve interviewed Jason, along with Pfaff’s mother, and many previous partners, friends, fellow activists, and people who worked with Pfaff. The book has been substantively written- but more information keeps coming to me, adding to it further, and I am open to input. The diary tapes are beyond fascinating, but I have to be limited in what I talk about, not least as my priority is ensuring the Pfaff family, who have been through so much, are supported as well as possible… which sometimes means pressing pause on a book when people are grieving or when the book throws up challenges for those involved. The book is currently with my agent. There has also been much interest in us offering what we have for a film.

Even in 2022, revelations about Pfaff for the book are still occurring… despite how much Jason Pfaff (and subsequently I) know about her. What I have been given additional information about in the main is to do with Pfaff’s activism for women, from other activists who she collaborated with whilst at university. But the insights from friends and those she had relationships with have offered for the book a much newer, much deeper understanding into who Kristen Pfaff was, the struggles that she had, and really what a complex and multi-talented person she was. The activity generated around the book coming out…for instance, from my TEDx talk about the experience of initially opening her extraordinary archive and how it affected me… all of this activity results in more people coming to Jason and myself and opening up.

Brittany Frompovich is a highly regarded educator, clinician, blogger, and bassist who currently resides in the Washington DC/NOVA region. For more content from Brittany, check out her blog, her YouTube channel, and her Bandcamp site. She also offers handmade unisex music-themed jewelry through her Etsy store. Get a Wonder Woman Tee!

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