Members of the band Gossip know precisely when they hit the big time.
It wasn't when Sony agreed to put out their new album. Nor was it when Grammy-winner Rick Rubin showed up to produce it. And it wasn't when they traded in their former dingy recording studios for a sleek one by the beach in California.
When was it exactly, then?
"When we got asked to do 'The Simpson's' theme song," says Brace Paine, the guitarist, bassist and music creator for the Portland, Ore.-based trio.
He isn't kidding: Gossip, known for its fusion of rock, punk and disco, jumped at the chance to contribute to a new version of the song that kicks off Bart and Co.'s 20th anniversary episode next year.
"That's the moment when you go, 'This is the big time, baby,'" says Beth Ditto, the band's irrepressible lead singer and lyricist.
"That, or Weird Al doing one of our songs," replies Paine.
A weird trip
It's certainly been a weird trip for Gossip, a one-time garage band who this month release their first full-length studio CD since making waves in 2006 with the pro-gay marriage single "Standing in the Way of Control."
Interviewed in a plush office at Sony Music's headquarters in Manhattan, the band is riotously funny, finishing each others' thoughts and often bursting into silly song.
Paine wears a leather jacket, a sloppy mustache and oversized glasses, his hair in a shaggy pompadour. Drummer Hannah Blilie, 28, whose solitary face graces the album cover, sports a partially shaved head, mouth piercing and tattoos up her arms. Ditto wears outrageous amounts of eye makeup and her short hair bright orange. They insist their punk tastes won't change at Sony.
The new 11-song CD, "Music For Men," was overseen by an icon in the industry who has produced the Beastie Boys, Metallica and Johnny Cash, and recorded at the luxurious Shangri La studio in Malibu, Calif.
"I felt weird a couple of times, but if you think about it, it'll drive you crazy," says Paine. "I tried to just let it be as natural as possible. If I sat down and thought about how much money was put into record, that could be depressing."
The album is arguably Gossip's most mainstream, a carefully crafted, professionally produced group of catchy, high-tempo songs that showcase Ditto's blistering vocals and Paine's knack for short bursts of infectious riffs. As always, their lyrics attack sexism, size-ism, homophobia and social injustice.
Reviews have been mostly positive, with The New York Times declaring the band "reveals new levels of craftsmanship and detail" and The Associated Press saying "Those open to the band's new direction will be rewarded." Rolling Stone said "punk purists may hate it. But dance-floor revelers will drown them out."
Rubin, reached by e-mail, said he had wanted to help the band explore who they are as artists in the studio, letting their true selves comes through: "They are in their infancy and have the talent and taste to be a very important band," he said.
‘You don’t want to regress’
Band members wave away any suggestion that their bigger spotlight has put them under any new pressure and hope fans will cheer as they emerge from the cult band category.
"You want to stay consistent and get better because that's what you should want out of life. You don't want to regress; you want to progress," Ditto says. "You want to change and be better as a band."
Formed in 1999 in Olympia, Wash., by Arkansas-bred school friends Paine and Ditto, Gossip toured relentlessly for years and recorded several raw albums on small, independent riot grrrl labels.
They've made more of a splash in Britain than in America — with "Standing in the Way of Control" hitting gold status, tours with the likes of the White Stripes and invitations to prestigious festivals.
The band isn't surprised that hipster Britain love Gossip. "We're weirdoes, kind of, and they embrace that. They're really into unconventional artists," says Blilie.
The Brits have especially embraced Ditto's robust physique and fashion brashness, helped in part by her posing nude in several magazines. She was called the Coolest Person in Rock by New Musical Express, and was named International Artist of the Year by Glamour magazine in 2008. Karl Lagerfeld and Kate Moss are among her new pals and she's launched a U.K.-based plus-sized clothing line. Not surprisingly, "Music For Men" made its first impact on European charts.
Blilie and Paine say they don't feel overshadowed by the sudden fame of their bandmate: "Beth is affecting the world in a positive way. Being a woman and being fat and proud and gay is something to be supportive of, especially if it's your friend," Paine says.
The band also laughs at any hint that their politics will be compromised by deep-pocket recording contracts, better publicity — or even exposure on "The Simpson's."
"I think that's all the more reason to stay political," says Blilie.