By Sarah Bennett
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By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
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Okay, class, let's get the obvious shit out of the way.
Yes, Third Grade Teacher lead singer Sabrina Stevenson has been known to end shows writhing in imagined torment, her wide crazy eyes and guttural outbursts recalling Linda Blair in The Exorcist, Hitler giving his famous speech at Nuremberg, or any other completely committed performer graced—or cursed—with the ability to channel a sort of berserk frenzy.
Yes, Third Grade Teacher dresses in elementary-school uniforms: plaid skirts and white shirts for the two girls, black ties and white shirts for the two boys. The costume provides a visual counterpoint to its fiercely energetic metal/punk/alt.-rock.
And yes, Stevenson is a real third-grade teacher who, five days per week, works with young, impressionable minds in an East Los Angeles elementary school.
But don't be fooled into thinking you're watching a certified schizo onstage. As compelling and even disturbing as this band can be in the flesh, there is method to the apparent madness.
"There is something ambiguous about this band that transfixes people," said bass player Laura Smith, who was a fan for several years before joining two years ago. "We've got these memorably catchy songs and a funny sense of humor. But there's also something weird and heavy, fucked-up and crazy."
Take 3, the Los Angeles-based band's latest self-produced album. For the first time, Third Grade Teacher has a record—two discs, actually—that embodies the dualistic tenor of its live performances, perfectly capturing the band's dark, aggressive side along with its more melodic, restrained leanings. Produced by guitarist David Guerrero, who formed Third Grade Teacher five years ago with Stevenson, the record is the band's cleanest and most polished. The first disc features Stevenson's most complicated and contemplative songs to date—approaching kind and gentle at times. But the second disc embodies the band's live energy. It's loud, raucous and aggressive and includes re-recorded versions of such signature tunes as "Schoolboy" and "Down" and new ones such as "Rageaholik."
The inclusion of the non-overdubbed second disc is designed to satisfy longtime fans who never "thought that we'd come close on a record to sounding like we do live," Stevenson said. (The drums on 3 were supplied by Josh Baldwin, the band's third drummer. He has been replaced by Rob Ahlers, a longtime fan who seems nearly giddy about finally being able to play with a band in which he can, as he says, "beat the shit out of the drums.")
Third Grade Teacher's musical diversity stems from Guerrero's impressive range. He draws on everything from metal and punk to classic rock and isn't afraid of howling into his guitar's pickups at appropriate moments. But most eyes are fixed on Stevenson. She's theatrical and bizarre; you're unlikely to encounter on any local stage—musical or otherwise—a more brutally honest performer. At times, she stands motionless, clutching her microphone and droning in a trance-like state, only to explode into a state of possession, screaming and buckling her knees as if some demon is prowling through the crawlspaces of her psyche.
It's all an act, but that doesn't mean what Stevenson is feeling onstage isn't real. She leans on her training as an actress (she majored in theater arts at UC Santa Cruz) to get into the appropriate mental zone during her songs. Onstage, she may appear high or smashed or fucked-up; offstage, she's actually reserved.
"I'm the nicest person on earth. I'm more timid than most people," said the woman who claims she had seen The Exorcist 20 times by the time she was 8.
Stevenson's dynamic live presence is all the more remarkable because she got kicked out of the first band she was ever in for not being "aggressive enough." Undeterred, she placed an ad in The Recycler looking for a skilled guitarist influenced by the Velvet Underground, the Pixies and the Stooges. The ad caught Guerrero's eye. At the time, he was climbing back from a nervous breakdown, something he says turned him from a college student taking 21 units into a babbling wreck with plenty of time to practice guitar and listen to punk records in his bedroom. He'd never heard the bands that Stevenson listed in her ad, but he "was into Sonic Youth, and they always talked about them, so I figured she must be cool."
Upon meeting, however, Guerrero wasn't exactly blown away. "I didn't think she could sing. But she did have some interesting lyrics."
From such inauspicious beginnings was spawned Third Grade Teacher, a band now deservedly hyped throughout the great Los Angeles basin, a group that—as Stevenson hoped—blends "the musical diversity and range of the Velvet Underground, the innovation of the Pixies and the raw power of the Stooges," according to Stevenson. Add to that Stevenson's metaphysical leanings as a writer and the band's quirky sense of humor (two of its most intense songs actually began as parodies of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin), and the result is a band ideally suited to trafficking in ambiguous double meanings. Take "Conductor Semiconductor," the first song on 3. Serving as greeter and conductor, Stevenson welcomes people aboard, hisses at them to buckle up tight, and then screams the train into motion, bellowing out that they're all "bound for the other plane."
"Most people think the song is about people descending into hell, but I think it's more an ascent through the astral plane—being taken to enlightenment," she said. "But I totally see what they're hearing."
Another song offered as evidence of dual meaning is "Rageaholik," one of Third Grade Teacher's most confrontational and vicious-sounding songs. In it, Stevenson screams that she wants to batter someone's ears until they bleed and rain down blows upon someone's head. But the blows, as Stevenson says, are referred to in the song as psychic blows. "It sounds terribly destructive, but actually it's about someone who's really powerless," says Stevenson, who admits that one of the things that attracts her to live music is the opportunity to vent. "I feel guilty about the song sometimes because I think it's bad to want to hurt somebody even psychically, but I always feel better afterward."
THIRD GRADE TEACHER PERFORMS WITH JUMBO SIZE, SECRET HATE AND SPIDER AT THE LAVA LOUNGE AT JAVA LANES, 3800 E. PACIFIC COAST HWY., LONG BEACH, (562) 597-6171. FRI., 9 P.M. 21+.