Current lineup includes the indispensable presence of vocalist Rachel Nagy and guitarist Mary Ramirez, accompanied by longtime members Kenny Tudrick and Steve Nawara. Along for the ride on this tour is Greg Cartwright (on guitar). He's also revered in '60s and garage circles for his work with the Oblivians and Reigning Sound.
Recently added to the strong Chicago-based label Bloodshot Records (go see Scott Biram, y'all), the Detroit Cobras have hit the road to promote "Baby" (their latest release), on a long tour that also includes Cartwright's own band, Reigning Sound. This interview (conducted with Rachael and Mary in the wee hours of the morning under plenty of whiskey, cigarettes and more) wrapped up a frenzied rock and roll free-for-all at Emo's on October 29th.
At the foot of the stage, Elijah Wood (yes, THAT Elijah Wood) and I drooled together at the raw simplicity of the band. He was supposed to come with me to interview the band, but alas, he had an early plane out in the morning. I'll try to do right by him, lest he pull out those creepy glasses he wore in Sin City and kick the crap out of me.
CG: So, what's the Detroit Cobras' history with Austin?
RN: It's a great town.
MR: The first time we came here it was during SxSW and we were brought here by Camel cigarettes.
RN: Yeah. We didn't come as a desperate band, like hoping to be discovered. Camel called us--and was like, yeah, wanna do a private party? So in the middle of the day we did that private party. They flew us out, they paid us, fed us and the next thing you know, I'm swimming in a pool with the most beautiful breasts I've ever seen. You know, it was just awesome! And it wasn't a grimy, yucky, porno way, it was just like...girls getting to rub against each other in the water and just be happy and drunk.
MR: And the weather was fine for us, you know warm. It was Austin.
RN: And it was of course, SxSW, so there was a lot to be lacking just to come, eat great barbeque and rub against naked women....
MR: And it's been that way ever since then!
CG: The Detroit Cobras could technically still be considered 'under the radar,' but still, there's a huge following and strong, loyal fan base. Is this intentional?
MR: Well, what do you consider to be 'the radar?' You mean, like MTV?
CG: Well, yeah.
RN: Number one, we don't fit there. Number two, we don't have the desire to be there, so it's never worth it.
MR: Well, put it this way. Nothing MTV has done maybe in the last 15 or 20 years says....it's about selling something, and even though you'll be making a lot of money I can't relate to that as something you'd want to get to.
RN: In a short version, it sucks.
MR: Yeah! [laughs]
RN: We live very much by the seat of our pants, and we've had a very fortunate wind. I mean, somebody might be [gasps] "Oh! Our career! I'm gonna start this band and our career! I'm gonna get a band and starve, but I'd love for you to hear us!' It's like, we turn down gigs 'cause it's not enough money and then, you know, we get more money.
MR: You should do it for fun, anyway. If not you're not going to, stay home.
CG: What's your idea of REAL musical success?
RN: You know what? Bands love Bloodshot [Records]. It's my favorite thing. There's one thing that I hear there and I love, at Bloodshot. There's a message that says, "We're trying to create a middle class for musicians." And that's exactly it. Fuck starving for your "art." Fuck "We're going to go in a van and starve for three years; we're going to hit every bar around, because maybe three people will hear us and like us." And then they go to SxSW and they think they'll get discovered. They don't realize that everyone's just drinking on their business credit cards.
We've never worried about what our status was going to be, but we've been very blessed by the things that have blown our way. I mean, I'm not going to work at McDonald's. We do pretty much as we please, but we also live very, very simply. That's what that saying says about being middle class....that you don't have to starve to death just because you're a musician. You also don't need to have three Maseratis in the garage. And managers--so many managers you don't even know who works for you.
MR: It's like, you're rapping about 'the man,' but at the same time you're greedy. That's bullshit. You want to tell some young guy, "Trying to make a living is all it is. That's what being a musician is. What YOU'RE trying to be is some kind of 'star.'" I can't believe people actually want to be 'stars." I mean, did someone actually SAY that?
RN: To me, personally, this has all been an accident. I tried my damnedest to have a normal life, and it wouldn't all the "normal" just got slammed shut. And I finally just had to accept it and say, "Okay, okay, I GET it!" See, my mom is a devout Christian, and she has faith. REAL faith. Which is actually inspiring to me, instead of repulsing me. When SHE was saying, "Look. This is obviously is what God wants for you," to go for it and be blessed; I had to do it. For me personally, for a while [after that] I was getting to where I was NOT enjoying it, and I was trying to figure out, "How am I going to end this?" And then everything fell into place again, and we enjoy it.
I will never struggle to do something I hate, or because someone told me....don't get me wrong though, if someone gave me a million dollars and asked me to do what we keep doing, yeah! Rich and famous, well I have no desire to be famous, but rich? Fuck yeah.
MR: I have to pay bills.
RN: I don't want jewels. I don't want a bunch of cars. I just want to know that I don't have to worry about how I'm going to eat tomorrow or the week after that.
CG: How do you feel about writing original songs? You must get a lot of pressure to write them from people.
MR: I just want to have good songs. When you have songs that you learn, you have something to stack up against. You've got something to compare them to. But, who cares, man? If we do another album, full of originals or we never to another original again, then that's fucking great, that's who you are.
CG: The Cobras have always had a very basic instrumentation. Would you ever consider using other instruments like the ones on the old recordings?
CG: How come?
MR: Because the only way you can do a song like that, you'll sound like the same band...and well, when you do a reggae song, with the same instruments, it doesn't sound like you. The only way you can do this many covers [as the Detroit Cobras] and still have a 'sound', is when you're being the same at the CORE. If you play with all those other instruments, that's not the band you are. Don't get me wrong, I want to use a Spanish horn on something sometime, but that's just a little thing. I would not want to do this and that; I'm not here to make a big sound, I just want to make something I want to listen to.
CG: Do you think where you live has an effect on the music you create? Like Detroit?
MR: It depends on what era. I mean, we've got stupid music too; we've got techno, nobody likes techno. It's not so much the city or the kind of state, it's more like, I don't know how to describe it...you can't pretend if there's nothing to pretend to.
CG: What about supportive musicians?
MR: We've all been, but this is the thing. We were gonna do this no matter what! But when somebody does a write-up saying that we're like this big cliché, well...we didn't go and screw up yours. And when nobody wrote about their bands and I didn't like it, I didn't go and write it. A lot of people think they're better than the garage scene because they can play better....but what they don't understand is we have better ideas.
CG: So I read somewhere that you've won an award for giving best head.
MR: That we WHAT? [I repeat]
Well, I don't know, Rachel probably went a little too far with that one! [No answer from RN, who's fast approaching Sleepyville] Well, me and Rachel both; I guess somebody had called and given us an award for blow jobs! [laughs her head off]
CG: Well, that's all cool by me, but I have to say...there's three guys in your band, too. So what can you tell us about THEIR credentials? Inquiring minds, you know....
MR: We know what we've been told! [and then she gave me a pretty damned good scoop involving a beer bottle and a couple of choice anecdotes...much ribald laughter ensued]
CG: Here's another thing I've read. You and Rachel have been described as two hard-drinkin', cursin', chain-smokin', wild, sex-crazed women. How do you like that?
MR: That's a fine example of why you should not be believe what the media tells you! [laughs] I mean, me and Rachel are probably rough on you because we don't want to go to jail, and then we'd kill you.
Interview also published in Austin-based Whoopsy! Magazine.
Photograph of Mary Restrepo and Rachel Nagy of the Detroit Cobras, courtesy of the the Cobras' publicist at Bloodshot Records.
Photograph by Heather McDonald.