That Mardis would feel disregarded is surprising, because Anton Mink's music demands respect. Take the song "Unhappy," off the band's self-titled, self-released debut album: It boldly begins with a single guitar chord followed by a thick bass line. Then the drums crash in, creating the song's musical backbone, but it's not until Mardis starts singing that "Unhappy" sounds complete. Her throaty vocals growl over the bass dominating the song, begging for attention -- which for Mardis, 28, is the root of her problem.
As the female front-woman for an all-male band, she knows she's not getting the respect she deserves.
"I've noticed here that a band will come out, it's all guys, it's fine, it's normal," she says. "If we come out, we're automatically a female-fronted band."
What Mardis faces is a typical problem for female lead singers. While the novelty of having a woman up front gains attention for the band -- think of Gwen Stefani from ska-punk outfit No Doubt, to whom Mardis laments she is often compared -- it also becomes the band's calling card. Rather than being recognized as a great singer or talented songwriter, Mardis is a memorable musician because, well, she's a girl.
A native Kentuckian, Mardis never intended to join an all-male band; she just wanted more creative control over her music. She started out in the Louisville scene by laying vocal tracks for underground hip-hop artists and dancing at local hip-hop events, where she pop-and-locked. But she was always frustrated working with DJs because she had little musical input.
"You only get to write so much of the hook," she says. "So what I wanted to do is find a kind of music I could sing with, so I could write [my own] lyrics."
Three years ago, she answered an ad in a local newspaper from a band looking for a singer, and she found bass player Anton Z. The pair began playing acoustic sets together around Louisville with a just a bass and vocals. They recorded a few of these songs, like "Stump Her Clock," where Mardis croons over a funk-inspired bass line, channeling the jazz singers (like Nina Simone) she idolizes. She sings about markedly feminine things, like being approached by a man at a party: "Went to a party / Wasn't there for a while / When this little boy told me that he liked my smile."
Although Anton Mink gained notice around Louisville for these acoustic sets -- "It was an angle, the rock band without the guitar," says Mardis -- the band remained on the back burner while Anton played in other bands and Mardis kept dancing. When Mardis injured her back and wrist in a car wreck two years ago and could no longer dance, she decided to focus on the band. She quickly found drummer Gerome Smith, and Anton Mink recorded its first album a year ago. In April of this year, the band added guitarist Andy Jack. The band's sound is a catchier, more even-keeled version of the three-piece punk outfit the Gossip: Mardis' voice is honed and controlled, just as soulful but more steady than the Gossip's outspoken front-woman Beth Ditto.
Despite Anton Mink's other accomplishments, like creating record label Rose Island in order to self-release the band's first album, Mardis says her gender never goes unnoticed or unmentioned when Anton Mink plays shows. In fact, she'd say it's an issue "all the time." A thin, tattooed blonde, Mardis claims she's been taken advantage of when it comes time for club owners to pay for gigs.
That part of the problem, she admits, comes from the Louisville scene, where indie rock bands like Anton Mink aren't highly regarded. "The biggest band to come out of Louisville in a while is My Morning Jacket," she says, referring to the country-infused indie band fronted by Jim James. "When they first started out here, nobody even went to their shows. There were like two people there."
Even though the Louisville scene is tough, Mardis succeeds in the man's world of rock music because she can act like a man. She does all the booking and promotions for Anton Mink, including sending out demos to radio stations and record labels. While she admits an affinity for singers like Amy Winehouse, her main vocal inspiration comes from male singers like the Doors' Jim Morrison and the Misfits' Glenn Danzig. She writes take-crap-from-no-one lyrics on songs like "Monster Trucks": "No longer an amusement / You're wasting my time / You can move on / Already said goodbye." Her voice is sexy and throaty but also more masculine: She holds a deeper tone and strings her words together quickly, losing the slow melodic drawl that makes vocalists like Billie Holliday sound feminine.
What makes Mardis' vocals so powerful is the drive behind them: Listen closely to her lyrics and the female angst becomes clear. On the track "Everything," she laments feeling trapped, possibly by odds stacked against her as a female musician, "It's not paranoia / And there's no one to console ya." Consolation or not, this is one front-woman who won't fade into the background.
Anton Mink at Brooklyn Nights on Friday, Nov. 16, at 9 pm. $5. 835-4177.