My Pre-Teen Punk Hero: Venus DeBaun

Several years ago, a friend made me a mix CD (remember those?) and among the many gems on it was a song called “Beer” by a band I’d never heard of called Unit 3 with Venus. It was a punky new wave song that sounded like it was recorded in a bar and it got stuck in my head forever, mostly because of the vocals, which sounded like a little kid screaming “BEER! Beer isn’t good for you!” over and over. Instant hit. Of course I googled “Unit 3 with Venus” immediately but didn’t find out much, except that they were an LA band made up of a mom, a dad, and their 8 year old daughter named Venus, (the owner of the Punky Brewster voice screaming about beer that I loved so much). They never even released a full length album, just a single and a few songs here and there on compilation albums, but they achieved mild popularity in the LA punk scene of the 80s and were now something of a cult favorite.

Fast forward almost eight years later and I found myself googling ‘Unit 3 with Venus’ once again, this time with better results. Amidst message board rumors about Venus’ whereabouts and a few random blog posts musing about the band, I came across a YouTube video of Unit 3 with Venus from performing on KROQ’s cable access TV show, and there in the comments, was a message from someone purporting to be Venus herself. Five minutes later I found myself at Venus DeBaun’s Facebook page, the user photo was of a pretty blonde woman with a huge smile who looked something like what I imagined a grown-up Weetzie Bat might look like. Dare I message her? I did, and here is the conversation that followed.

Hi Venus, Can you start off by telling me how Unit 3 started? 

My dad has been playing drums since before I was born, so I was always around music and bands. I used to sleep in my dad’s bass drum when I was a toddler! My parents had a makeshift music studio in our garage and when I was 6, my friend and I were playing around with the equipment and we decided we wanted to start a band. My dad helped us, and eventually when my friend decided she didn’t want to do it, my dad ran with the opportunity and started Unit 3.

Who was in the band?

Unit 3 was my mom (Patty Bondage) on bass, my dad (Henree Herd) on keyboards with a drum machine, and I sang. My dad ended up getting my Uncle Jay to be our drummer, and later a close friend named Tony Vermin played drums. Somehow, Rodney Bingenheimer from KROQ found out about us and helped us get our music out there. He started calling us Unit 3 with Venus.

Most of your songs are written from the point of view of a little kid, which is part of what makes them so amazing. Who came up with lyrics or ideas for the songs?

My dad would sit me down and ask me what was going on in my life and write a song about it. I used to take baths with Barbie dolls so we had a song called “Barbies in the Bathtub”. “Scott Baio” was about seeing Scott Baio play a concert at Knott’s Barry Farm. We had a song called “My School Has a Cafeteria”, and a song called “So Hot” (about people who thought they were so hot and so cute), and of course there were our popular songs “Pajama Party” and “B.O.Y.S.“, because I was boy crazy and there were a bunch of guys who hung out at our house all the time that I had crushes on.

Your vocals are so confident and sassy. Did performing come naturally to you? Were you ever nervous about singing or being in front of an audience?

Recently I was talking with someone about this and I told them “life is my stage”. I was born to perform. I just love performing, it came naturally to me and I don’t remember ever being nervous. I was very confident and sassy back then and still am today. Once we played with Nina Hagen in Long Beach and while we were performing, the audience was yelling for her to come out and play, so I told the crowd that we were the ones performing and if they didn’t want to hear us, they could leave and come back when we were done! I think the sassiness is what drew people to us.

Did your friends at school know that you sang in a band? 

Here I was, a seven-year old girl with bleach blonde buzzed hair, wearing colored tights and used clothing. Even though I didn’t look like other kids, I felt like inside, I was the same as them. I didn’t realize my life was that different from everybody else’s because my life was all I knew. My friends knew what I did, but I didn’t flaunt being in a band, I was just singing about my life and I loved performing.

When Unit 3 with Venus started playing shows and gaining notoriety, what was it like for you? 

I never thought twice about being in a band. My dad was always involved in music—he still is to this day. So when we became popular, I really didn’t get it.

When did you stop singing with Unit 3? 

As I approached my teenage years I was unhappy with being “weird” and looking different. I just wanted to be a normal pre-teen and not have to worry about practicing and stuff.  I remember we went on our only tour, to Hawaii in 1983, and I was swimming in the ocean and someone saw me and said “That’s a cute little boy”. Later I was interviewed on Entertainment Tonight and I told the interviewer I just wanted to be normal and I started crying. I remember going to school after that aired and my schoolmates made fun of me. I wanted to grow my hair long and not stick out anymore, so I walked away from it all when I was 14.

What were you like in high school? were you into punk or alternative music when you were a teenager?

In junior high and high school I was really into The Cure, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, and Tears For Fears. I love music but I never became a person that was defined by the music I listened to, I didn’t find my identity in music like my parents did. I do have a special place in my heart for punk, even Green Day and Blink 182, bands that people who grew up in the original punk scene may not consider “real” punk.

Were you involved with music or did you sing in other bands later in life?

I didn’t play in any bands when I got older, but a few years ago, my uncle told me that there were some Unit 3 videos on YouTube so I watched the “Scott Baio” video and I was amazed at how good I was, I really had no idea. It was then that I embraced my past. All my life people have called me “weird”. I used to try to run away from it but in the last 5 years, I’ve come to terms with the fact that my name is Venus, I am, and will always be weird. I have a goofy sense of humor and I don’t really care what people think. I loved Popeye growing up so to quote him: “I am who I am and that’s all that I am”. So what, I am weird, what does it matter to everyone else? (that’s where my upbringing comes in to play, a little “punk rock thinking”).

While we’re on the subject of punk, what was it like to grow up with punk musicians for parents?

A couple of years ago, I was hanging out with some people and someone said my parents were bad parents because they had me out late in clubs when I should have been in bed. I was terribly offended, because that thought had never even entered my mind. My parents, though eccentric, are the most caring, kind, supportive and loving people I have ever met. They met as hippies in the 70’s, became punk in the 80’s, and they didn’t want to conform to society’s standards, so they were different not only in the way they looked, but also in their way of thinking. They gave me the freedom to speak my mind and to be myself and they did their best to raise me to be independent and to not let what others thought of me hold me back. Maybe it wasn’t the “norm”, but my upbringing has shaped me into a pretty decent person. I went to school, got good grades, participated in extra-curricular activities, plus I was a small part of punk history, so I am thankful for the experiences my parents gave me when I was growing up and for their support in whatever I put my mind to.

It seems like the thing most people out there who remember Unit 3 and Venus want to know is, “Where is Venus now and what is she doing?” 

Well, I graduated from Wilson High School in Long Beach in 1991, and went to Calvary Chapel Bible College where I got a bachelors degree in science and kinesiology. I live in Orange County and I keep myself busy participating in triathlons. I’m a high school physical education teacher, and I’ve been teaching for nine years, I run the cheerleading program and I pour my heart out to teenagers on a daily basis. The love and support my parents gave me growing up is something I try to pass on to my students. I’m just plugging away at life, hoping what I do matters to others.

—Tara Sinn is an artist, she makes videos and zines and lives in New York City. As a teenager she played drums in her garage and thought about starting a band until she accidentally crushed her bass drum while trying to park her stepfather’s car.