In Olympia, Ditto moved in with Mendonca, Howdeshell, and another friend from Searcy. The band started by accident, as many do when the members live under the same roof. "Kathy was playing drums and Nathan was playing guitar, and they asked if I wanted to come downstairs and sing with them," Ditto remembers. But they'd all been in bands before: In Arkansas, Mendonca and Howdeshell had played together, and Ditto had fronted a pop group.
Still, playing to an audience was a new thing since, as Mendonca says, "I don't think there had been more than three people in the room any time I had played before." The trio wrote a few songs in the basement, then Howdeshell arranged for their debut at an upcoming party. Ditto recalls with a hint of resentment, "I didn't even think we were ever going to play a show, and then Nathan set one up without telling us."
The band's act hadn't yet jelled, but it soon became clear that the Gossip wasn't in Arkansas anymore. The foundations of the band's sound and stage act were in place in the early shows: Ditto's bluesy holler, Howdeshell's stammering guitar, Mendonca's caustic drumming, and an energy forged by Arkansas summers and constant Pacific rainfall. The members' personalities took center stage. "I've never been really scared to go onstage, but I like to get nervous, and that's good, because I start to talk out of my ass, kind of like I'm doing now," Ditto giggles. "Kathy was really scared at first; it was pretty cute. She'd tell us to stand in front of her so no one could see her. She's such a showoff now."
In the ensuing months, the Gossip quickly overcame any initial stage fright and took residence as an official party band in Olympia. Playing music neither complicated nor sophisticated, the Gossip was in its element in basements and living rooms, with college kids and college dropouts, smoke, cheap alcohol, and, of course, gossip. "I love playing parties," Ditto says. "I love getting people dancing, and I love seeing how everyone reacts to everything."
With a local fan base and shows whenever it wanted, the little band had already become much more than the members expected. Talk of recording or touring became definite when Sleater-Kinney -- friends of the band, and Olympia's favorite export -- offered to take the Gossip on its upcoming nationwide tour. The band had been together for a little more than half a year, had yet to release a record (and therefore had nothing to sell on the road), and, most impossible of all, none of the three owned a working car, much less a van. Things somehow came together: Local label K Records agreed to put out a single in time for the tour, and a friend with a van was hired to drive.
Playing to Sleater-Kinney's sold-out audiences not only brought attention to the Gossip, but gave the members a chance to see life beyond the small towns they had always called home. Ditto was awestruck by the experience. "I'm 19, and the fact that I got to go across the country and see all these places is amazing to me," she says. By the time the tour was over, the Gossip had fans across the country, and people were eager to hear about the kids from Arkansas. The band literally went national overnight: In a feature covering Ladyfest -- a women-centered event in Olympia -- Time profiled the band last September. "Our families were so happy," Ditto says.
While the press attention impressed the band members' families and befuddled Olympia townies, it was the live audiences that changed things the most for the Gossip. Crowds exposed Ditto to another side of performing: doubt. "Big shows, at first, made me less sure about this whole thing," she admits. "When we play in Olympia, there are a lot of people there, but it's nothing like those big crowds. Even if there are a hundred people at our show here, I can tell what people are doing, and I can talk to the audience. But at a big show, I can't see anything going on, and that's scary."
The Gossip's live presence, its undeniable driving force, is a tricky thing to translate to record. While the band seemed to have its collective guard up on its debut single, its newest release, That's Not What I Heard, captures the Gossip where it was born, in the basement. Recorded in Mendonca's house with a four-track, the record's 24 minutes form an overwhelmingly honest self-portrait. The songs are simplified to what becomes, for the most part, all chorus, with no time left for verses. Mendonca's and Howdeshell's drums and guitar stay locked in a crass, unyielding argument, while Ditto's girl-crazy lyrics, unapologetic in subject matter and wholly convincing in delivery, take an emphasis unheard and unseen in the live act.
"If I had grown up in Olympia," Mendonca says, "I would have never wanted to start a band. In Arkansas, no one was doing things, so we didn't have to worry about anything." What is most apparent in this record is how both exceptional and unoriginal the Gossip is. The band is a glimpse into what started rock 'n' roll traditions: growing up isolated, for the most part, listening to oldies radio, never learning how to properly play an instrument, yet doing it anyway, having fun, and getting out by doing it.
Ditto sums it up: "Olympia is great because there's all these weird kids from shitty, little towns, and it's like, "I've found you !'"
On a Sunday afternoon, Ditto and Mendonca sit in the vacuous bare front room of Mendonca's white frame house on the seedy outskirts of Olympia's east side. The week before, the local release of That's Not What I Heard was marked with, appropriately, a party at the address. The upcoming tour begins in three days, and there's a lot to be done. Ditto locks and unlocks a new accessory for this tour, a cash lockbox. "Last time, we just used Nathan's pockets ... I don't know who's gonna keep track of the keys." Meanwhile, Mendonca's scheduled for dental work on Tuesday. "Kathy's usually better at interviews, but right now, it's the painkillers talking," Ditto says. "Her new nickname is Vicodin." Aside from dirty laundry and anxiety, the looming knowledge of what will come in the next two months brings a mixture of dread and anticipation. "This turned into business before we ever wanted it to be business," Ditto says. "We never wanted it to be business."
The business side has been easier, both agree, due to the help of the friends who brought them the attention in the first place. "The people who have handled us and taken care of us -- the people at K, at Kill Rock Stars, the people in Sleater-Kinney -- have been totally great," Ditto sighs. "We've never felt pushed."
The tour will be a welcome return to playing as frequently as the Gossip once did. Last fall, Howdeshell moved in with his girlfriend in Vancouver, making practicing and playing shows difficult. "I miss Nathan," Ditto admits. "We never practice now." The group has played shows with other guitarists -- namely, Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein -- but with a proficient guitarist playing the part of famously inept Howdeshell, the Gossip isn't itself.
"People can play the notes, but it's not the same," Mendonca says.
Ditto adds, sweetly, "There wouldn't be a Gossip without any one of us."
The Gossip knows this well, and Beth Ditto seems very aware of her part. With a stage persona that's equal parts James Brown and Mickey Mouse Club, Ditto's quick to note that she isn't the underground approximation of the manufactured teen-girl pop star. "Britney Spears -- yeah, it totally reminds me of people I knew in Arkansas, and people I still know," she begins. "It's sick that these mothers put their daughters in beauty pageants and put them on diets from the time that they're 6 years old. It's killing yourself, you know, starving yourself and taking diet pills. I'm not about being cute in that way. It's about being fat and wearing a bra and a skirt and fishnets and high heels and being loud about being who I am."
As much as the Gossip feels at home in Olympia, Ditto misses the small-town South. "I'm from Judsonia, a town that's right beside Searcy. There are three places where you do not want to live because a tornado will blow your house away, and you will die," Ditto says. And then the punch line: "Judsonia's one of them." She continues, "I miss people saying "hi' on the street and "thank you' and being polite. I miss" -- she pauses -- "Dollar Store culture. In Arkansas, people are so proud to have that."