While watching Death Valley Girls perform at the Knockdown Center in Queens, New York on Halloween, opening up for psych legend Roky Erickson, I witnessed the most brazen, fearless, and full-on shocking act I’ve ever seen a singer perform during a show. Did it involve nudity? No. Bodily fluids? Uh, no. Illicit sexual acts? Nope. Animal sacrifices? Thankfully, no. Frontwoman Bonnie Bloomgarden, an emerald green Siouxsie Sioux-eyeshadowed pixie with the personality, voice and stage presence of a giant, leapt into the barricaded space between the audience and the stage, grabbed a slice of pizza from a pie awaiting the band post-show, and proceeded to nosh away. DURING. A. SONG. After a couple bites, she jumped back into the song, voice – and cherry red lipstick - unaffected. My mouth was agape. This was a woman after my own heart.
Pizza-eating antics aside, Death Valley Girls put on one hell of a show. Bloomgarden seems to operate on her own frequency, but it’s a frequency that I desperately wanted to get on. It was Halloween, and a packed house on a legendary bill, so while her ecstatic energy seemed justified, I also got the impression that she’s like that every night on stage. And maybe offstage too. It was a refreshing change, with so many bands being so cucumber-cool on stage. Smiling, cackling and cracking jokes are all a part of a Death Valley Girls show.
Shortly after the show, I connected with Bonnie and guitarist Larry Schemel over email to talk about the band’s origins, influences, the paranormal and supernatural, and that Iggy Pop-eating-a-hamburger video, because, if you did a video featuring Iggy Pop eating a hamburger, wouldn’t you want to talk about it too?
Anna Blumenthal: Bonnie, I remember you from your days in NY-based band The Witnesses. When did you move to LA, how did you and Larry meet, and when did you start Death Valley Girls?
Bonnie Bloomgarden: I can’t really remember exactly when I moved to LA! At first I went just to visit, but the visit never ended! I know I was here in 2012, cause I was scared about the apocalypse and being so close to the ocean! I think right after the world didn’t end, I met Larry. Once we started playing together we never stopped, and have been best friends ever since!
AB: Larry, who were you playing with before Death Valley Girls?
Larry Schemel: Before Death Valley Girls, I had played in bands in Seattle where I’m originally from, including Kill Sybil and The Gimmicks. When I moved to LA I joined a reformed version of original LA punks The Flesh Eaters and then played in Midnight Movies.
AB: Your lineup has changed since you started in 2013. Your first drummer was Larry’s sister, Patty Schemel, who was in Hole. Who else is in the band now?
LS: Laura Kelsey, AKA “The Kid” is our drummer, and Nicole Smith AKA “Pickle” is our bass player!
AB: Bonnie, you switch between keys and guitar in Death Valley Girls. Do you feel that either instrument is your primary instrument or do you feel equally comfortable on both?
BB: They both make such cool sounds, and are so different texturally, I would be sad if we didn’t have both. But I definitely like playing guitar better in real life, and organ better in the studio!
AB: What two or three bands would you say Death Valley Girls is the bastard child of?
LS: Lately people have been saying we sound like the spawn of The B-52’s and The Stooges, or an evil B52’s. We love both of the bands and don’t mind that description at all!
AB: I hear a lot of early Go-Go’s in your sound, when their music was poppy, but way more punk and raw than they became later. Are they a band that has influenced you?
LS: I think they have been an influence personally, especially in the way some of their songs are very pop, but have a bit of a darkness in them. Blondie, The Avengers and X-Ray Spex also share that sort of quality. We like that duality in the music!
AB: You released one of the most talked-about videos of the year for your song “Disaster (Is What We’re After)”, which is four minutes of Iggy Pop eating a hamburger. How did that come about? You heard he played you on his BBC show? I heard he said he was a huge fan, which is pretty much the highest compliment a band could get.
LS: Iggy had been playing us on his BBC radio show “Iggy Confidential”, which was amazing enough for us already. But our friend Kansas Bowling had an even crazier idea: to have Iggy in our video. She told us she had a dream where she made a video for us with Iggy Pop recreating the Andy Warhol eating a hamburger short film. Next thing we know, she reaches out to Iggy, he says yes and we’re on our way to Miami to shoot the video! Iggy was the most gracious, coolest guy you could ever meet. It was a dream come true!
AB: If you were stuck in a Groundhog Day situation in which you had to make a version of that video over and over, which punk icon would you ask to be in your next video, and what would they be eating?
LS: That’s a tough one, cause most of the great punk icons are dead but I would have to say Richard Hell drinking coffee or Ronnie Spector chewing gum!
AB: You’re a very effects-driven band – lots of fuzz and reverb and overdrive. Do effects help you create, or are they something you add later?
LS: The effects definitely help us create when we’re writing songs. Sometimes we’ll be stuck on a part and a certain effect will inspire a change, or another part of the song will appear through experimenting with some effects.
AB: Is there such thing as too much fuzz?
LS: No way!! Fuzz is our favorite effect and there’s so many different types, never gets old!
AB: What are your current rigs? Guitars, keyboards, amps and pedals?
LS: I have a Fender ‘72 Tele deluxe and a Pure Salem “Jimmy” guitar. My amp is an Ampeg GVT152 112. The pedals I’m using are the Boss FZ-5 Fuzz, Crybaby Wah pedal, MXR Carbon Copy delay, and Boss DD-7 digital delay and the Park Fuzz, which is amazing.
BB: My guitar is a Hagstrom ‘62 Futura. My organs are a Gem Sprinter and a Baldwin Discoverer! For pedals I use the Hoof for guitar and Big Muff for keyboard, and my amp is a 70’s Music Man 112 RD.
AB: I read an interview with you in the LA Times, where you took the writer to the Oman House, where members of the Manson family killed Sharon Tate and four others. Were you all interested in the paranormal, ghosts, and the supernatural separately, or is it something you sort of got into as a band? Has it shaped your songwriting and your music?
BB: We are all into different aspects of the supernatural, and learn so much from each other and our travels. It totally affects our songwriting! Darkness Rains is pretty much exclusively about the afterlife and the mysteries of the universe! Glow in the Dark was more about psychic connections and magic!
AB: Your third album, Darkness Rains, was released in October [Suicide Squeeze Records]. Do you think the band, and your music, has changed since your first album, Street Venom? While all three albums have been consistently awesome, I do think Darkness Rains seems to be a little tighter and punkier, while still maintaining the fuzzy garage psych elements that make your sound so badass.
LS: Thank you! Yes, we have become more confident in our songwriting and have taken in more influence from a lot of 70’s punk bands while still keeping some of the 60’s garage sound that we love!
AB: What’s next for Death Valley Girls?
LS: European Tour, more recording, more videos, more touring!!
DEVICES MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE
Anna Blumenthal handles Sales and Artist Relations for EarthQuaker Devices. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, plays bass in Sit N Spin, DJs 60s soul and R&B at various Brooklyn bars, and has seen Cheap Trick over 30 times.