Long limos, plush hotels and bags of coke don't mean diddley to Te tes Noires, six female folk-rockers from Minnesota.
In fact, their new album, "American Dream," takes a jab at conspicuous consumption. Wary of the riches the music industry can offer, the group is intent upon avoiding the commercial pitfalls and chemical vices that have afflicted other bands. Their average age is 27, and most of them are music veterans who work long hours, tour in a van with bunk beds, and take their craft very seriously.
In interviews from pay phones in New York, where they are playing two clubs, band members Jennifer Holt and Camille Kanyon-Gage laid down the band's philosophy: autonomy over their music, a lively left-wing kick to their tunes and plenty of hard work.
They own their company, Rapunzel Records, through which they press their albums, arrange their tours and promote themselves. All of their profits go into the company.
"I think after two years of doing this with no pay, you get a good idea of who's dedicated," said Kenyon-Gage. Members support themselves through part-time jobs. Holt is a free-lance legal secretary and Kenyon-Gage has taken construction jobs. Others do word processing and accounting to pay the bills.
Their music is best described as folk-rock, although they've been labeled everything from "a New Wave Andrews Sisters" to "an electronic Roches." With their emphasis on harmonies and literate sociopolitical songs, they are touring the country, promoting their new album, and considering whether to hook up with a bigger label.
"We would be extremely careful about what kind of artistic compromises we would have to make," said Kenyon-Gage, one of the band's main songwriters. If they could keep their freedom, as the Talking Heads and R.E.M. have, they would be willing to sign with an interested label. They've already hired a New York entertainment lawyer who handles Cyndi Lauper and the Heads, and a California producer is flying in to listen to their new demo later in the week.
"I would love to have a cult following, (yet) be respected enough to keep recording," said Holt, a former South Dakota beauty queen who likens many aspects of the music business to prostitution: "I will never again do anything solely for money. I will never sell out," she said.
Holt formed the band about two years ago when she wanted to experiment with performance art. She met Kenyon-Gage at a cable TV filming, and the two gathered a group of musicians from other Minnesota bands. Holt wanted the group to be all-female, because she'd never led a band before and figured women would be easier to work with than men. Besides, she said, "I wanted to work with all female energy.
"It's fun," she continued. "It's like a slumber party."
Although the performance art project never panned out, the women received such a strong reception from their concerts that they quit their other bands and stayed together. Since then, they've produced an EP and "American Dream."
Their repertoire includes an ode to a gay male prostitute, a tribute to the all-doughnut diet, a tune about bingo, and "Plato's," which Holt was inspired to write when she saw a Village Voice ad for a New York sex club.
"I thought it was a joke," she said.
The band also packs a political punch. "The Hawk" reveals the band's disarmament stance, and in a recent concert, they dedicated "Soldier Boy" to the troops in Nicaragua.
When they open tonight for Beat Rodeo at the 9:30 club, they will do their typical "goofballish" shtick: "We just tell a lot of stupid jokes and make fun of President Reagan," Holt said.