Spin “Earwig Demos,” a new vinyl LP featuring recordings the beloved Boston indie-rock trio Blake Babies taped in early March of 1988, and you’re captivated anew by the fresh, honest sound of a sparky young band from Boston. “Bless my soul, what’s wrong with me? Everybody hates me,” Juliana Hatfield sings on “Don’t Suck My Breath,” which opens the new album in a version only slightly rawer than the one featured on “Earwig,” the trio’s 1989 Mammoth label debut. Listening to Hatfield’s youthful peal alongside John Strohm’s jangly guitar and Freda Love’s airy drumming on the demo transports a listener to another time.
It’s not a journey Hatfield is altogether comfortable taking. “I haven’t listened since we made them,” she confesses during a telephone interview covering the album’s arrival, as well as two concerts the Blake Babies will play in Boston on Saturday for small, select audiences who crowd-funded the LP’s production.
“I know I have to listen to them at some point,” she continues, laughing softly. “I haven’t. . . . I’m afraid to go back. I’m listening to the album recordings so I can re-learn the songs for the shows. But I actually have not listened to these demos that we’re promoting.”
Up until around a year ago, neither had anyone else, probably. Strohm, speaking by telephone from his home in Nashville with Love — now Love Smith — on the line in Evanston, Ill., described how the tapes had come to be.
“We’d made a record on our own, a nine-song LP or EP or whatever, 20 minutes of music that we pressed on a thousand pieces of vinyl,” Strohm recalled, referring to “Nicely, Nicely,” the Blake Babies’ self-released debut of 1987. “We tried to do a little tour behind it, and really nobody cared anywhere. The best show we had, headlining, we maybe had eight people.”
The band had formed when Strohm — who’d moved to Boston from Indiana, soon followed by Love Smith, his high school girlfriend — crossed paths with Hatfield, a Boston local, while enrolled at Berklee College of Music. (Hatfield graduated; Strohm didn’t.)
“There was no place more perfect than Boston, as it turned out, at the time that we arrived there,” Love Smith says. “The music scene that was starting to explode there was the perfect place to be — better than New York, I think, for us. We found people that we connected with right away, and all these bands that really inspired us, like the Lemonheads and Throwing Muses. The Pixies started to happen, and Buffalo Tom, Galaxy 500. It was amazing.”
Working alongside those bands — and without support from a previous generation of Boston indie-rock fixtures — Blake Babies helped to break new ground. “We actually played the first show that ever happened at the Middle East Café,” Strohm says, “because we just scouted that location and I kind of knew the guy who managed it. And he said, ‘Sure, you can use our room where we have belly dancers.’ ” Opening for Throwing Muses at one particular show brought the trio to the attention of the producer Gary Smith, owner of the prestigious Boston recording studio Fort Apache.
“My memory is that that same night, he took us out and showed us the studio, this [expletive] amazing place, and said, ‘I want to have you in here and I want to record you. I want to make an album, and I want to get you a record deal,’ ” Strohm recalled. “Within a month or two, Gary brought us into the studio and had us set up with his engineer, Paul Kolderie. He put mikes in front of our instruments, and had us play our set. We didn’t give it a whole lot of thought because the purpose of it was pre-production; he wanted to make proper recordings, quote-unquote, using the 24-track, and that’s what became ‘Earwig.’ ”
The demo proved an auspicious beginning; working with Smith, Blake Babies recorded “Earwig” in 1988 and ’89, and its follow-up, “Sunburn,” in 1990. A year later, the band was defunct.
“We both left Boston in ’90,” Love Smith says, “in that we started storing stuff in our parents’ homes in Indiana. But we continued to tour until we broke up in ’91.”
For Strohm, living in Boston had become increasingly hard. “We’d get back from tour, we’d have enough money left over to live for about a week,” he says. Moving back to Indiana made Blake Babies impractical. “It was probably the moving that most led to why the band fell apart, because we isolated ourselves; Juliana wasn’t leaving Boston for anything, of course.”
Hatfield suggests that differences of taste and varying levels of aspiration also contributed to splitting the band. “I was just feeling a little bit frustrated by our limitations musically,” Hatfield says. “As a trio, we had a certain sound, and I think I wanted to push past the boundaries of what we did. What we did was great, but I think I just wanted to try something else.” She describes demo sessions with David Kahne, the label executive and record producer who’d transformed the Bangles from Paisley Underground cult darlings to MTV heavy rotation.
“Right there you could see the dichotomy in our attitudes,” Hatfield says. “I was excited about it and into it, and John and Freda were pretty uncomfortable with the situation.”
As a solo artist and bandleader, Hatfield went on to attain major-label success without compromise. Her former bandmates, meanwhile, ultimately pursued careers still intimately involved with music. Love Smith became a widely published journalist and a professor at Northwestern University; Strohm, now an entertainment and media lawyer, has numbered Alabama Shakes, Dawes, and Lucius among his clients. The erstwhile Babies remain on friendly terms, and reunited to make “God Bless the Blake Babies” in 2001.
There, the story might have ended, had a friend not compelled Strohm to take possession of tapes he’d left in storage in Indiana, one of which turned out to be the March 1988 demos. “I brought it down to a studio here in Nashville and had ’em dump it to digital, and then gave it to a friend of mine to mix, and was astonished at how good it sounded.”
A decision was quickly reached to prep the album for official release with a Pledge Music online campaign; included among the special incentives for donors was access to exclusive, unplugged studio concerts: two in Boston this Saturday, and one in Evanston on July 23. Unlike recently reunited peer acts like Belly and Letters to Cleo, Blake Babies don’t plan to continue performing beyond that scattered handful of shows.
Which still means Hatfield has to come to terms with what she describes as her miserable past self. “When you go back to when you’re, what, 20 years old — do you really want to go back there and remember everything you said and did, what you looked like and what you sounded like?” she asks. “With my songs and my music back then, I was really laying it all on the line. It was kind of like an open wound a little bit.”
Still, she says, Love Smith assured her that the demos are worth hearing. And Hatfield had already determined, in revisiting the old studio albums, that her songs were less raw than she’d feared, more crafted works than mere diary entries.
“So I think I will go and listen to the demos at some point soon,” she says. “Now I’m curious about them.”
July 9 at 1:30 and 5:30 p.m. More information at www.pledgemusic.com/projects/blakebabiesSteve Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.