Death Valley Girls
Take Me to Church:
Death Valley Girls Kneel at the Altar of Rock ‘n’ Roll
Death Valley Girls truly are purveyors of the type of dark and sleazy rock ‘n’ roll vibes rarely harnessed nowadays by indie and garage rockers. Purveyor is meant in an evangelistic sense – the West Coast band sees songwriting, recording, and touring as means to share the good news of rock as a bonafide religion, with rock stars of yore as gods worth serving.
When talking to singer/guitarist Bonnie Bloomgarden about her musical backstory and recent album Glow in the Dark (Burger Records), both subjects circle back to her own metaphysical beliefs about rock music. It was a light-hearted chat, but she always seemed genuine when discussing spiritual matters. It’s not a gimmick, and given the role personal faith has always played in the development and progression of popular music, it’s not the least bit unusual.
“I was aware of all of these concepts, and I wanted to believe in them,” Bloomgarden says. “It became more clear (after joining the band). This is our religion. It is as meaningful to us as religion is to anyone else. We idolize Iggy and Alice Cooper. They are gods to us. They are legitimate heroes, and we worship them. We travel around forgoing all the comforts humans require and are homeless for most of the year because of our spiritual quest. We are mere mortals bringing the message to as many as we can find.”
Without white and African-American churches in the South, early rock music would have sounded a lot different, assuming it would’ve even happened without those influences. Christian virtues remained strongly intact in the ‘50s – just look at how many gospel songs were recorded by the Million Dollar Quartet and the chart success of squeaky-clean believers like Pat Boone. The Beatles opened doors for creative types and non-Christians to reshape rock during their run, due in part to the Maharishi’s role in introducing Eastern thought into popular music. By the ‘70s, it’s hard to imagine acts ranging from Led Zeppelin to Fleetwood Mac without the influence of religions and schools of thought outside of (and sometimes contrary to) old time religion. In short, personal faith and rock music have always been intertwined, making Bloomgarden and her bandmates’ zeal more ordinary than initially perceived.
It was some of the artists that introduced other lines of spiritual thought into rock that first captured Bloomgarden’s imagination as a pre-teen. “My cousin gave me 20 records and a record player, and I listened to Black Sabbath’s first record,” she says. “The minute I heard that, I couldn’t believe that was also music after just hearing show tunes, Indigo Girls and Tori Amos. I could not believe this world also had music like Black Sabbath, so I just listened to that record a million-billion times. In those 20 records was Zeppelin, the Stones, and Judas Priest, and it blew my whole wide world.”
Bloomgarden’s obsession with rock music found her studying jazz briefly because she saw it as a way to learn the blues. As happens sometimes with natural performers, she found the structure of higher education frustrating compared to the relative freedom of life on the road. “Staying in one place for 15 minutes drives me crazy, and I don’t like paying attention when I’m supposed to,” she says. Additional schooling isn’t always the best option for people in their twenties. Despite what they may be told by their elders, sidestepping additional schooling doesn’t make them less intelligent or motivated than anyone who’s geared toward excelling in the college environment.
Around the time she left school, Bloomgarden forced herself to overcome stage fright and give rock ‘n’ roll a chance. “I went to school for music, but I was terrified of performing,” she says. “It’s a weird thing where ever since I was a little kid, I wanted the same job as Keith Richards. What other job would you want? I was 19 when I was in my first band, and I was terrified. I told myself, ‘If you want to be a musician, you’ve got to play!’”
Bloomgarden’s first glimpse of underground notoriety came with fashionable rockers The Witnesses, a New York band that had an album recorded by Tommy Ramone. From there, it was babies and the longtime drummer of the band Hole that spurred the 2013 creation of Death Valley Girls. “Patty (Schemel) is Larry our guitar player’s sister, and that’s how the band started,” Bloomgarden says. “My sister knows his sister because they are both moms. Babies brought us together, oddly enough.”
Early on, Patty was in the group, adding additional credibility to a band that found itself on the road opening for Shonen Knife shortly after forming. Bloomgarden sees early success through a spiritual lens, crediting more than a famous drummer and a capable cast of young musicians. “We’ve been studying sound since we were born, whether we knew it or not, and now we’ve found each other and are playing together,” she says.
The current lineup – Patty has since been replaced by a drummer known simply as The Kid – is two albums into its run, with many of its songs written on the spot during studio time. Unsurprisingly, Bloomgarden sees the creation of songs as a spiritual experience. “We don’t believe that humans write songs,” she says. “We believe that songs come from outer space. We didn’t create this concept, but there’s songs floating up there that you can pull down when the time is right. I guess the time wasn’t right until that morning in the studio.”
The songs on Glow in the Dark are more overly spiritual than those on 2014’s Street Venom cassette. The title track, for instance, is about the concept that Bloomgarden and her bandmates can instantly spot others with comparable beliefs. “It’s not an aura, but you can see that this person is like you,” she adds. This furthers the ideal of the performer on stage, feeling a connection as soon as they lock eyes with an exuberant fan.
Bloomgarden credits a particular live setting with inspiring the content of the new album. “As the story goes, we played a show at the Natural History Museum for this mummy exhibit, and the mummies had been in the Chicago museum since the 1890s,” she says. “As far as we could tell, they had never heard rock ‘n’ roll music, so we were like, ‘Whoa, we can be the first to bring rock ‘n’ roll to the mummies. We can bring rock ‘n’ roll to the dead!’ So we wrote all these songs for the mummies, and after that we decided more songs should be about waking the dead and taking rock ‘n’ roll to people who have never heard it, so we wrote Glow in the Dark as a call to arms for the next level of the spiritual awakening.”
In an attempt to connect with fellow believers, the band has started a Cosmic Underground. It’s a spiritual and musical collective without geographic or generational boundaries that’s not just for fellow musicians and punks. “It’s a way to be united and let others be part of the gang,” she says. “Anyone can join. We’d have everyone in the band if we could, but it’s really hard. Having lots of people in a van would be a hassle, so we have another way for people to feel included.”
The idea of a clown van scenario, with everyone with this “glow” crammed in the same vehicle is funny in an immature kind of way. It’s also a sign that Bloomberg, with all of her evangelistic zeal about rock music and how it connects the band to its fans and peers, can have a sense of humor without compromising her beliefs. And really, any band worth sharing the stage with, seeing as a fan, or writing about should be both fun, warm, and relatable as people and serious as performers and composers. If the rest of the band is anything like Bloomberg, they’ve got both qualifiers on lockdown.
Sure, some of Bloomberg’s beliefs about songs existing already in space or worshipping the openly Christian Alice Cooper as a god will solicit some eye rolls. But that’s her personal beliefs, just like a man walking on water or crystals having healing powers might be part of yours. These are all matters of faith – trusting in things unseen, informed by personal experiences while practicing a belief system. It’s no one’s place to discount others’ deeply held beliefs. What can be judged without being a jerk is Death Valley Girls’ commitment to incorporating sounds from those 20 LPs that changed Bloomberg’s life into modern garage-rock. The band has executed that part of its mission well, paying homage to greats of the past while forwarding the progression of the music they love.
Photo by Olivia Jaffe.