“The show is All That Matters. We Need to be Onstage”
By Timothy Herrick
Death Valley Girls return to White Eagle Hall in Jersey City on April 10, making them one of the first bands to play the newly restored historic concert venue twice. In September, the band opened for the legendary Roky Erikson and in April they are opening for L7, the equally legendary grunge era progenitors of the riot grrrl movement. According to Bonnie Bloomgarden, songwriter and lead singer (she also plays guitar and organ) “it has been amazing to be the supporting act” on back-to-back tours with “my heroes.” These high-profile tours have grown the following for this Los Angeles based garage rock quartet, who released their second LP, Glow in the Dark in 2016, which received critical acclaim: “10 songs that raise hell with shrill harmonies and emphatic, fist-pumping, garage-punk rock.” (LA Weekly). The band – which also includes Larry Schemel (guitar), Alana Amram ( bass, vocals), and Laura Harris (drums, vocals) – is currently completing a new album, Darkness Rains, with a TBA release date later this year. Death Valley Girls rock! They performed an exhilarating, memorable set at their first White Eagle Hall gig. We caught up with Bonnie just before she embarked on the L7 tour to find out – among other things – what impressions lingered from the band’s debut at the New Jersey/New York market’s oldest “new” music venue. During the course of the interview, Bonnie also revealed the band’s high level commitment to live concerts, how Billie Holiday inspired a preadolescent girl to become 21st century punk rocker and perhaps most surprisingly, the early 20th century Jersey City roots of this LA woman.
Timothy: What was the last song you heard before speaking with me?
Bonnie: I pretty much listen to just one song for a month until I can’t stand it anymore. I’ve been obsessed with that song by The Gun Club, The Light of the World.
Timothy: You play a lot of gigs so I am sure they tend to blur together, but is there anything you remember about White Eagle Hall?
Bonnie: Totally! The staff is so well organized and the work they did on the hall is supper cool, it’s beautiful. They really know what they are doing. I love the weird imperial structure inside. We made a lot of friends, it was a very special night. I hope they come back to see us!
Timothy: Compared to other venues you play, what stands out the most about the hall?
Bonnie: It was a great, cool room. The sound was awesome. I love the merch area and talking to people. I took a walk around the block and there were people like playing music in this garage. You know, my grandma is from there.
Timothy: From Jersey City?
Bonnie: Yes, I grew up in Los Angeles, but my maternal grandparents were from New York and New Jersey. My great grandparents opened a deli in Jersey City and in 1931 moved it to Los Angeles, and it is still in business, what 87 years later.
Timothy: That’s a great story, what’s the name of the Deli?
Bonnie: Canter’s (Check out http://www.cantersdeli.com)
Timothy: Was your show the first time you were in Jersey City?
Bonnie: I lived in New York and been to Jersey a few times. I had only been to Hoboken, but I had never been to Jersey City before I played White Eagle Hall with my band.
Timothy: Death Valley Girls released two records, now you are on an opening act on another high profile tour, how do you feel the band is evolving?
Bonnie: We are getting better, and we are proudly heading down the virtuous path of rock and roll. It is working and we are really happy that we get to play rock and roll music, just like Iggy. We have the same job as Iggy Pop!
Timothy: You obviously have a lot of fun on stage, you guys really enjoy playing together. Is it more fun now that you’ve achieved some success or is the stage show more serious because the stakes are higher?
Bonnie: We wait all day for that half hour or 45 minutes on stage, that is everything that matters, the only thing that matters. We try to have an out of body experience each time. The bad shows are when you are in your bodies thinking about what you are doing. The tour is it is what we live for, going on the stage, forgetting all your earthly woes, there’s nothing more important. We still have fun off stage, but we have way more fun when we are playing. For us it is a big thing, and an honor.
Timothy: Do you write new material on tour or does that happen between tours?
Bonnie: Writing happens more between tours. When we are on tour we meditate all day, sometimes we are driving for eight hours, then waiting around for the show. Writing songs? I don’t know how it happens. For me, at least, I’ll be walking around and a melody comes to mind, You keep wondering where is that dog, that is writing, waiting for the muse, waiting for inspiration. I train myself to write down my dreams, or record them on my phone. A lot of times it’s just gibberish, but that is my new thing, writing songs in my dreams. I’ve been writing down my dreams and using them as lyrics. I will wake myself up when I’m having a dream that would be a cool song, then write it down when my eyes open.
Timothy: How does the band create new material?
Bonnie: We believe songs already exist, it’s more of a channeling thing. We start playing and the songs come from out of space. I’m the ghost writer. I don’t know who gives me the song. When we record we usually do the first vocal track with fake words, just syllables. Then we work on the lyrics and all the words come out as one.
Timothy: Do you have any pre-show rituals?
Bonnie: I watch the other bands if they are playing before us. We are all so eager to get on stage, we don’t have anything we have to do. The show is the ritual, you don’t need anything more romantic than playing in front of people. The show is all that matters, we need to be onstage. We don’t really do anything special beforehand.
Timothy: What is your favorite color and why?
Bonnie: I guess black, because it’s cool. I dress in all black, or sometimes I dress in all white. I’m very monochromatic. I don’t often mix colors.
Timothy: What is favorite time of the year?
Bonnie: I love fall because that is when Halloween is. I love the autumn smells, you can really smell fall. It reminds me of being a kid. It’s just so good, I don’t know why.
Timothy: Your band is really tight, with a spot-on rhythm section. I remember thinking when I saw you guys open for Roky Erickson that these guys don’t just rock, they swing, which tends to be uncommon in the kind of punk and garage rock genre you play. Does that emphasis on rhythm come naturally or has it been a deliberate developmental process?
Bonnie: Well, the main the thing is my musical history and Larry’s, we were obsessed with the Rolling Stones, and blues and Jazz. I love the kind of beats The Gun Club Plays, it is a swinging, primal beat. It’s what makes you move, the drums are the leader, the bass shows you how to dance, and the guitars and singing show you what the song is. The most important part of the band is the rhythm section, you want that primal beat, without knowing what it is. You want to feel primal urges in the music.
Timothy: Where did you grow up?
Bonnie: I grew up in LA,I moved to New York, when I was 17. I joined a band and had our first recording produced by Tommy Ramone We exchanged emails before he died and I sent him a picture of my dog. He said the dog is very cute.
Timothy: What is the dog’s name?
Bonnie: Tommy. I named him after Tommy Ramone. He’s a little white fluffy thing, a real special guy.
Timothy: What was the name of the New York band?
Bonnie: The Witnesses, that was very early. We played CBGBs, it was really at the very end of that era. They closed CBGBs soon after we played there. It was the second show we ever played. It was super cool.
Timothy: Why did you move to New York?
Bonnie: To go to Hunter College and study music. I didn’t go to classes, I joined a band instead.
Timothy: But you formed the Death Valley Girls in California, why did you leave New York?
Bonnie: The recession. I couldn’t make any money to live. I remember I was so desperate that I applied for a job at McDonald’s and on the application they said they were only taking people who had previous McDonald’s experience. That’s when I decided to leave New York.
Timothy: What is your first memory?
Timothy: Yes, ever.
Bonnie: My first memory is of me being one or two and lying on the ground and staring at a turtle. I was really excited that this was alive, and I was looking at the shape, I kept tracing the shell with my finger, over and over again without having the language to understand what I was seeing. I remember this turtle vividly.
Timothy: What is your favorite movie?
Bonnie: Rosemary’s Baby and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Timothy: Do you have a favorite writer or book?
Bonnie: I really like The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and Please Kill Me.
Timothy: The Legs McNeil oral history of the New York punk movement?
Bonnie: That one, it’s great, I love it.
Timothy: How does the band spend their downtime on the road?
Bonnie: We try and visit supernatural and true crime scenes, anything supernatural and other worldly, things like that.
Timothy: Who are your musical heroes?
Bonnie: Tony Iommi, the guitar play for Black Sabbath. Iggy Pop and Roky, and also Bo Diddly. No one is better than Bo Diddly. The night I first got Spotify, I didn’t really know how to use it so I just put on Bo Diddly and played everything by Bo Diddly, he is fascinating, beyond fascinating.
Timothy: What non-musician, famous person do you admire the most?
Bonnie: Admire, I don’t know. I would say first my first crush was Patricia Arquette, I just love her.
Timothy: Well, what famous person do you hate the most?
Bonnie: I don’t know, this world is big a place. My job is to entertain. We want to get everyone to listen to the band. I don’t want to offend somebody.
Timothy: What is your favorite Flower?
Bonnie: My favorite flower! Nobody ever asked me that before! I really like poppies, they are very pretty, intricate and delicate. I like how their name sounds too.
Timothy: What is your favorite thing about Los Angeles?
Bonnie: The plants, because they seem like they are from another planet, that is probably the best part. But anywhere you live, you make the most of because you are alive there. Everywhere is the best place if that’s where you are.
Timothy: LA has such a rich musical history and a great punk movement in the late 70s through the 80s. As an LA musician and part of that scene, is there a sense of tradition, of keeping the LA sound alive while also taking it one step further? Is there an LA punk revival going on?
Bonnie: I’m learning a lot about that scene, I really didn’t learn about LA punk until I moved back here from New York. It is amazing to think that we’re a part of a scene that was started by the Germs and all those people. The LA music scene was different from punk scenes other cities because the girls ruled the roost. Women like Exene (Exene Cervanka of X) really made the LA punk scene. It is such a different scene now. So many people play and there are just millions of bands, you hear about a new one every day it seems. It’s a total scene and it’s getting freaky, which is pretty cool. There’s a lot of interesting bands here now.
Timothy: When did your first decide to be a musician?
Bonnie: I had to do a report in second grade and my grandpa suggested I might like Billie Holiday. I thought she was really cool. I wanted to be her. I maxed out on her music, I listened exclusively to Billie Holiday for years. Before I was 11 years old I had maxed out on Billie Holiday.
Timothy: What records did you listen to growing up? What was your parent’s record collection like?
Bonnie: They listened to show tunes, and Billy Joel. My introduction to music came from a cousin who gave me records by Black Sabbath, the Rolling Stones, AC/DC. I was 11 or so.
Timothy: What was the first record you purchased?
Bonnie: The Shape of Jazz to Come, by Ornette Coleman. I also bought records by Don Cherry and Charlie Hayden, who both play on that record. I was around 14 or 13. I bought some cassettes too, but it was before I bought Marylyn Manson.
Timothy: Maybe that early jazz foundation is why Death Valley Girls has such a great rhythm section.
Bonnie: Could be. I don’t know what the connection is. Jazz is pretty far out there. Blues, and Rock & Roll, are more structural. Jazz has more improvisation, but I definitely listened to more jazz when I was young, it opened me up musically at a very early age.
See Death Valley Girls open for L7, Tuesday April 10/Doors 7:00/Show: 8:00
Find out more about Death Valley Girls, visit: deathvalleygirls.bandcamp.com