Girls Against Boys
Photo: Grandstand Media

Girls Against Boys on Their Criticized ’90s Album, ‘Freak*on*Ica’

Girls Against Boys are the crucial and criminally under-appreciated link between ’90s alternative rock and the 2000s post-punk boom. Freak*on*Ica plays well in these times.

Girls Against Boys
June 1998

Girls Against Boys were one of the buzziest indie bands in the 1990s. They cut their teeth in the D.C. punk scene in Soulside before releasing their first e.p., Nineties vs. Eighties. From the start, Girls Against Boys forged a different sound, borrowing more from the Fall, Depeche Mode, and Gang of Four than Black Sabbath or the hardcore of their hometown. They steadily built an audience that expanded past the punk crowds that would grit their teeth watching Eli Janney set up his keyboard. He played bass when not on keys, and that dynamic of two bass players became a signature of the Girls Against Boys’ sound. 

After “Kill the Sexplayer” – a catchy deconstruction Jean-Luc Godard would approve – landed on Kevin Smith’s 1994 comedy Clerks soundtrack, the band reached its widest audience, and the major labels started paying attention as the tour for Cruise Yourself hit Europe in 1995. While Girls Against Boys saw plenty of friends signing to majors with mixed results, the band still decided to give it a shot.

Girls Against Boys decided it was worth taking the risk to make the jump because the opportunity wouldn’t likely happen again, and they were right. By the late ’90s, grunge’s bubble had burst, arena-sized punk was fading, and major labels were betting heavily on EDM acts such as the Chemical Brothers, Tricky, Portishead, and Prodigy to break as the next acts. When that didn’t pan out, and rap-rock took off instead, they scrambled to find the next Korn or Limp Bizkit

Girls Against Boys signed to Geffen while still owing Touch and Go Records one more full-length. That record, 1996’s House of GVSB, was their biggest hit to date and remains many fans’ favorite. After touring, the band was ready to hit the studio to make their major label debut. “It was an interesting time. Indie rock had mainstreamed and peaked. Things changed from indie to nu-metal, and we didn’t have the same allure as we did a few years earlier,” says drummer Alexis Fleisig. 

When their unjustly maligned major label debut, Freak*on*Ica, arrived in 1998, alternative rock stations were dwindling. The majors were on the verge of a massive merger that would shake up the entire industry and eliminate the marketing support for the record. “Geffen actually closed its doors the day it was released,” says legendary producer Nick Launay, who worked on Freak*on*Ica. “It’s a shame what happened. Freak*on*Ica is one of my favorite records of all time. It was underpromoted, and it is underacknowledged.”  

Freak*on*Ica was expected to catapult Girls Against Boys to the next level of success – but was left hanging. Longtime fans turned up for the shows, and lead single “Park Avenue” caught on in some markets, but the record was perceived as a dramatic shift to a more polished sound and a disappointment, despite selling more copies than any of the Touch and Go releases. Additionally frustrating, a couple of years later, the band would not be part of the conversation as dance-punk exploded with LCD Soundsystem, Yeah Yeah Yeahs (who opened for Girls Against Boys pre-fame), and countless other mostly forgotten bands, although they had likely influenced all the bands that had the tastemakers falling all over themselves.  

Girls Against Boys is the crucial and criminally under-appreciated link between ’90s alternative rock and the 2000s post-punk boom. The band had incorporated that era’s go-to influences, such as Gang of Four, the Fall, and Killing Joke, into their indie rock for quite some time before dance punk captured the tastemakers’ ears. Their ’90s records with Ted Niceley on Touch and Go Records–Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby, Cruise Yourself, and House of GVSB are some of the most original and enduring of the ’90s. They still sound like nothing else from the decade in the best possible way. 

New York was again at the center of the rock conversation, but to say it was “back” is to disregard all the legendary, canonical hip hop coming from the city at the time. “What was New York coming back from? In the ’90s, you had Wu-Tang, Biggie, Jay-Z, De La Soul, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest…it was disingenuous to pretend that New York was ‘back’ when rock bands started getting attention again with all that vital hip hop coming from the city,” Janney says. 

House of GVSB earned plenty of positive press and positioned the band for another major leap, although Geffen was taken aback by its success. However, they did sign Girls Against Boys, knowing it would be a couple of years before the band would begin working on their major label debut, which the band would seize as an opportunity to take an ambitious swing on Freak*on*Ica.

While House of GVSB delivered more of the noisy post-punk the band was known for, tracks such as “Vera Cruz”, “Life in Pink”, and “Zodiac Love Team” reflected the band’s increasing interest in dance, hip-hop, and trip-hop, too. “We didn’t want to do the same thing again. Looking back, it’s a bigger musical leap than I realized at the time, and I’m proud that we did it,” Janney says. “We were getting burned out on guitar music after playing all those shows for years with guitar-based bands.”

Scott McCloud, Girls Against Boys’ lead singer and guitarist, says, “Our music always had a groove. We decided we wanted to make an electronic-based rock record. In the mid-’90s, that music was exciting. Lots of bands were dabbling in it. We decided to see how we could implement some of those sounds into our next record. We thought, ‘We have always loved bands like Depeche Mode, so let’s experiment.”

“We felt we could take a chance with Freak*on*Ica because we had a three-album deal. We didn’t think that it would be the only record with Geffen. We had no idea our label would collapse,” he says. “The label left us alone to make the record we wanted. We thought we could always follow up Freak*on*Ica with something that sounds more like House of GVSB if this didn’t work.”

Deciding to switch producers wasn’t easy, but the band clicked with Launay, who has produced Gang of Four, the Slits, Kate Bush, INXS, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Nick Cave, guiding many of those bands to signature and breakthrough records. “My mission is always to make the music jump out of the speakers without compromising the art,” Launay says. “I want to make the art better and make it reach even more people. The band wanted to make a dance record. We wanted it to sound very space-age. The album cover perfectly represents the sound we were going for.”

Girls Against Boys headed to Seedy Underbelly studio in Minnesota, which Launay recommended, to focus on Freak*on*Ica, free from distraction and life in New York. “We had never spent more than two weeks making a record. We spent two months on Freak*on*Ica,” McCloud says. “Nick was great at maintaining the focus. He was used to working on a record for that long. It’s no one’s fault, but you can start to lose perspective. Should this be rougher? How do we keep this exciting? At one point, ‘Park Avenue’ had a much rougher sound.”

Listening to Freak*on*Ica in 2023 it sounds like a preview of 21st-century mainstream music, a decadent mix of electronic and guitars with lyrics that read as a tongue-in-cheek critique of the high life. Girls Against Boys sought to make a dance record with guitars, and it delivers on that fully. Aside from the bigger production, most songs begin with an introduction, a new wrinkle in the classic Girls Against Boys sound. While it is commonplace now for pop music to lean heavily into club music, Girls Against Boys were breaking ground by playing riffs that sound like samples and leaning further into synthesizers and the groove-heavy drumming of Fleisig with Johnny Temple playing bass and Janney playing bass or keyboards.

Opener “Park Avenue” builds similarly to the signature song “Super Fire” from House of GVSB, except its chaos is in the sounds rather than the lyrics. “Pleasurized” takes that up a notch with an electronic intro that builds into a catchy riff and never lets up. The scratches that kick-off and end “Black Hole” are as seamless a use of hip-hop as any other band, rap-rock or otherwise, at a time when a DJ was on stage but drowned out by the guitars most of the time.

The relentless riffs on “Speedway” develop into a repetition that rivals any of the hypnotic loops of a Chemical Brothers highlight. “Push the Fader” and “Cowboy’s Orbit” have that darker keyboard and guitars that have always set Girls Against Boys apart from the fuzz pedals and mall punk that came to define the decade, while “Psycho Future” is a catchier version of that sound. It’s not hard to imagine that song all over the radio with some promotion behind it. Highlight “Roxy” begins with guitars that sound like a hangover and ends with a weary last couple of lines that encapsulate the era perfectly: “Maybe I don’t want to feel alright/Whatever/Maybe I don’t even know myself/Whatever.”

McCloud’s brilliant lyrics read as a satire of late ’90s malaise, with slogans and snippets of conversations blended together to encapsulate the bored comfort of the time in ways that seem highly relevant in the age of the influencer. “Look by trash/Eyes by heaven”, could describe a clubber in the ’90s or someone with millions of Instagram followers. Drawing from overheard conversations and his love for classic and international film, his lyrics have a reputation for requiring some work on the listener’s part. It’s all there for those who are willing to engage. The images from the words click together to place the listener in the scene. The restlessness of the lyrics fit these times as adeptly as they did then, as our emphasis on faux stardom and being famous for nothing in particular consumes the 2020s.

“Selling out” was a cultural debate in the ’90s, but considering the current state of the music industry, the idea of a band getting a sizable budget to record an album with a name producer and minimal interference likely sounds quite desirable to a number of bands. What this meant for a band like Girls Against Boys was access to things many of us assume are part of work benefits, like health insurance. “As an independent band, we were doing great, but we couldn’t afford health insurance,” says Temple. 

The fiercely protective indie rock audience mostly didn’t like sharing their music with the rest of the listening public. They were frequently incensed when beloved bands moved to major labels, taking the more expansive, risk-taking major label debuts as a personal affront rather than a sign of artistic growth. Rather than growing with the band, many just wanted another House of GVSB

The press, which championed House of GVSB did not fall for Freak*on*Ica. “Journalists who loved us on the House press tour really didn’t like Freak*on*Ica, and weren’t shy about letting us know,” Temple says. Even so, Girls Against Boys are happy they stuck to their vision for the record and glad they took the risks of signing to a major and making the record they wanted. “It wasn’t a surprise [not blowing up]. We had seen it not pan out for plenty of people we knew,” says Temple. “Bands that got signed didn’t explode. In fact, they often didn’t. That said, I’m really glad I got to make this record.”

After the release of Freak*on*Ica, the label merger changed everything for Girls Against Boys. The shuffle moved the band from Geffen, which had been dissolved, to Interscope. Where Geffen had allowed them complete creative control, the band found themselves demoing tracks for feedback in the wake of the merger. “It was a challenging time. Rather than making music, we had to spend a lot of time deciding what to do about being on Interscope,” Janney says. “We were stuck in oblivion while negotiating our exit from the label.”

Girls Against Boys eventually found their way out of their contract and found a new home at indie institution Jade Tree Records, who released 2002’s You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See, which hews closer to the Touch and Go releases than Freak*on*Ica. The band reformed and released The Ghost List in 2013 and played shows to celebrate the 25th anniversary of House of GVSB, which received a Covid-delayed reissue with bonus tracks.

As Girls Against Boys slowed down, McCloud worked on his Paramount Styles project; Temple built an independent book publishing empire of Akashic Books and plays with punk supergroup Fake Names. Eli Janney is a highly respected producer and member of the 8G band on the Late Show with Seth Meyers. Alexis Fleisig is a noted photographer and animator. McCloud, Temple, and Fleisig are also playing together as Soulside, who released a new record this year after three decades.

It would be easy, and was for many, to write off Girls Against Boys’ major label debut Freak*on*Ica as another example of indie bands changing their sound and losing their core audience. Listen carefully, though, and you’ll hear everything that earned the band its following. “Park Avenue” is not that different from House of GVSB opener “Super Fire” when you break down the construction of the songs. The scratches in “Black Hole” aren’t that surprising, given previous songs like “Zodiac Love Team” and “Vera Cruz”. Lyrically, the record is cut from the same cloth as other Girls Against Boys records, with McCloud interspersing conversations overheard, film translations, and buzzy phrases into a mix that makes sense if you’re willing to listen carefully.

“A lot of factors are involved in something getting popular. What we did still wasn’t approachable to a mainstream audience, even though it sounded like it could catch on,” McCloud says. “It’s not ‘go out and party’ music. It’s more sinister.”

Launay seems to have taken Freak*on*Ica‘s dismissal by critics harder than the rest of the band. “The whole thing was so depressing. The ‘cool press’ criticized it, and the label didn’t support it. Freak*on*Ica just died on the vine,” he says. One thing everyone involved agrees upon is that the creative risk was the right decision at the time. “We need to believe in what we are doing. Artists please themselves first,” Fleisig says.

Given the blending of rock and electronic music that has dominated the pop charts for some time, it becomes clear that Freak*on*Ica was ahead of its time. The record sounds like an apocalyptic dance party; not the hands-up-it’s-over party of Prince’s “1999”, but a weary, possibly final blast of decadence, an awareness that the party is ending soon. Girls Against Boys weren’t the only band blending electronic and rock music at the time. They were just one of the few doing it seamlessly, whether longtime fans chose to see it or not. Twenty-five years later, it’s likely that Freak*on*Ica would be embraced for the elements that made it so maligned in 1998.