Posted June 9, 2005
SHEDDING MUSICAL SKINS:
OF THE DETROIT COBRAS
If dubbing The Detroit Cobras "the Best Cover Band in the World" was meant to be a back-handed insult, these four road warriors from Michigan's Motor City aren't showing any bruises. Basing your set on what, to most of the world, are obscure soul and R & B covers from the '60s seems an unusual twist destined to keep a band playing in small bars to three men and a dog,you obviously haven't wrapped your ears around the Cobras' output. Theirs' isa joyous, raucous and spirited noise, born out of a genuine love of the songs they play.
With three magnificent albums ("Mink, Rat or Rabbit", "Life, Love and Leaving" and "Baby"), an EP ("7 Easy Pieces") and a slew of singles/compilation tracks to their credit, this is a band that stamps everything with its own distinctive signature. Powered by the incredible pipes of Ms Rachel Nagy (a former exotic dancer who grew up in Geelong, Australia), clean twin guitars from Steve Nawara and Mary Restrepo and an engine room (drummer Kenny Tudrick and new bassist Joe Mazzola) that's pliable enough to tackle just about any song it puts its mind to, the Cobras have enjoyed considerable success as a live draw in Europe, as well as their homeland. Now they're heading to Australia for three dates in June '05.
THE BARMAN thought it high time to ask one of the Cobras to pause a while in the Bar and answer some questions. Guitarist STEVE NAWARA, who has an extensive cv to his credit after stints with Michigan bands the Electric Six, The Go, Ko and the Knockouts and Rocket 455, to name a few, was good enough to give us his time. Here are his thoughts.
Q The obvious Australian question out of the way first - how did Rachel come to grow up in Geelong? Was she aware of the area's heritage as a stronghold of Detroit (as in hard-edged, Stooges-inspired) rock and roll at the time?
Rachel was born here in Detroit. Her father worked for Ford and was relocated to Australia when Rachel was around the age of eight. So her formative years were spent Down Under. At 15, Ford sent the Nagy family back home to the Motor City.
On the road, she's spoken to me many times on how much she loved growing up in Australia. It is where she discovered her love for horses.
As for the Stooges question I'm not sure, but I do know Rachel was a big fan of the Saints and the Lime Spiders back then.
Q The history of the Detroit Cobras is a complex one with about 14 or 15 members in 11 years. Why the turnover and what's the band's level of fame back home?
Unfortunately, there has been a revolving door in the Detroit Cobras and for many various reasons such as creative, personal, and style differences. But a lot of the time, those line-up changes were players who were hired guns and just helped us out through the years. Even though I haven't agreed with all of the decisions; Rachel and Mary have been loyal to me and I've been loyal to them.
Oh, we do just fine in Detroit.
Q Give us a bit of background on yourself. You joined the band in 2001? How did that come about?
Actually, my first show with the band was New Year's Eve 2000 at the Magic Stick. I was on double duty because I used to play bass with the Electric Six who were opening for the Cobras that night. I became friends with Mary from seeing her around town and at E6 shows. She thought we were retarded but always came to the gigs.
In 2003, I left the Cobras because the Six had a hit song in the UK and I had to go take care of business. But in the same year the band became totally fucked and I gave them my two week notice.
The Cobras welcomed me back with open arms. I love those girls.
Q Going right back to the beginning, I believe Rachel and a guy named Steve Shaw founded the band. What was his background and what was the aim? Have the Cobras always relied on obscure covers to fill the set?
Steve Shaw, Jeff Meier, Mary, and Rachel founded the band in '95 or '96, I believe. They were all people who shared a love for soul music from back in its heyday. Since they all had guitars, they thought it would be fun to play their favorite music and that's how the Cobras began. Steve Shaw and the girls eventually grew apart and the band broke up. A year later they regrouped without Steve. Which is when I stepped in.
I guess they figured they would get a 'new' Steve.
The band mostly does the obscure stuff but the song "Bad Girl" was written by the Oblivions (who
originally called it "Bad Man") is a contemporary song. And on the new record "Baby" we do "It's
Raining" a well known Irma Thomas song. Also there has been some originals starting to come to the surface like "Hot Dog".
Q I suppose there's a temptation to call the songs you play "obscure covers" because, to those of us who didn't grow up in the American Midwest, many of the tunes are. Is it true the songs you play are drawn from the band members' own vinyl collections and second-hand store shopping trips? Has anyone not seen "Hi-Fidelity"?!
Absolutely from our collections. For years all of us have dug through piles of old vinyl and most of the songs do come from our collections, or our friends' collections. We have a DJ friend, named Mr.Fine Wine, who has provided us with many great tunes.
As for "High Fidelity", I thought it was so-so.
Q Second-hand record shopping trips with you guys must be fun. Are you familiar with that shop in Ann Arbor, just down the hill from State, that stocks rows and rows of second-hand vinyl? I can't remember the name but it?s a killer.
Yeah, it's either Encore or Wazoo Records. Great store.
Q If it's the case that you?re a band playing the songs you love, how democratic is the selection process for deciding what you will play? I mean, it must be hard assembling a band for any length of time that's right into the same music.
Everyone always listens to each others ideas and the creative process is pretty democratic. However, it's not totally up to us. Sometimes, even if we really like a song; the song doesn't like us back. We tried a Smokey Robinson song once called,"Come Spy With Me" and we must of played it a hundred times but it just didn't work out so we scrapped it. For the last part of your question, it hard to keep a band together but not because of different tastes in music. I think everyone in Detroit has the same record collection.
Q I know "Hot Dog" is an original composition. Is that a direction the band's moving in and are there many more?
We've been working on originals with Greg Cartwright from the Reigning Sound/Oblivions and he has inspired Rachel and Mary a bit. He's a good songwriter and a very talented guitarist. We have very high standards when it comes to writing original material. I know "Hot Dog" is a pretty goofy song but we liked the end result. There's another original called "Fall" that didn't make it on the record. It was performed a little sloppy. I think it's a beautiful song. We did use it when we were invited to a John Peel Session. So you can find it on the BBC website, I think!
Q Has all the noise about Detroit being the epicentre of the new garage rock movement subsided yet? How did you guys treat all that hoop-la? Are there any local bands that you want to namecheck as being worthwhile of wider attention?
It was very strange when the media frenzy began because all of a sudden, everyone was gone. You'd go to the bar and none of your friends would be around. Whereas before, every band in Detroit would be out drinking seven days a week.
There isn't that closeness that was there before. I've been running into most friends from home in other countries.
The press has moved on to the New York new wave scene now and I'm glad it has passed.
There's still is a lot bands playing good music like The Paybacks, Cyril Lords, The Hard Lessons, Lee Marvin Computer Arm, The Sirens, and many anothers. There's still some of the classic Detroit bands like the Hentchmen who are truly in their prime.
Q How has the signing to Rough Trade opened things for you in Europe? Is that the key market, outside the US, that you'd like to crack?
Rough Trade has been really good to us. Last winter, they set us up in a fancy bus and we toured 15
countries in Europe. The tour was a cake walk due to their efforts but I still managed to come back home completely derranged.
Q Speaking of Europe, I believe you crossed paths with The Solution, Scott Morgan's European soul band, while in Scandinavia last year. What did you think?
That was fucking incredible. Here we are in Helsinki, the farthest I've ever been from home and we run into Scott Morgan from Detroit. The crowd went insane before we hit a chord. Probably the best show of the tour. The Solution was one of the finest displays of musicianship I've seen in a while. Nicke Hellacopter is an excellent drummer and a cool dude, by the way.
Q Your Melbourne show is close to sold-out and your support to You Am I will probably do the same, as will the Sunday show at Spectrum. What have you heard about Australian crowds and what sort of reaction do you expect?
Friends have told me tales about how the girls are beautiful and aggressive, the audiences leave the show covered in blood, and there's no drinking water, only beer. I'm growing impatient. We will arrive with our boogie shoes already on.
Q There's a great "loose tightness" to the engine room and you and Mary leave lots of space in the guitars. Are they things you?re aware of? How often do you play out live each month and how much work do you put into working up the songs?
Mary and I always try to keep the guitars on two different paths, this is important us. We do get
together and work on our parts, but on "Baby" we learned our parts minutes before recording the track. While we're not in the studio, we try to play out at least three times a month.
Q What guitarists do you personally listen to?
I love early Peter Green. Stephen Cropper, Eddie Hazel from Funkadelic, and the greats Hendrix, Beck, And Page, Also Jack White is the best guitar player around today; he's doing things that have never been on the guitar and I have no clue how he does it. Wait till you hear the new Stripes record, it'll rape your mind.
Q The three albums and one EP have mixed it up without moving in any radical new directions. It?s a presumptuous question because it presumes there?s some conscious thought happening on one level but where?s the next one going?
There is both conscious and subconscious thoughts happening on all of the recordings. "Mink, Rat or Rabbit" is the kid that has fun all day. "Life, Love, & Leaving" is still a good time but the kid is growing
up. "7 Easy Pieces" is the midlife crisis, and Baby is kinda thinking back on the past, remembering the good times. So what is next in the cycle, well since there will be some more originals it sounds like it'll be a reincarnation but this time with more guitars. If you know what I mean?
Q Since we?re in a Bar, what are you drinking?
It's a Tuesday and I always end up gettin' in trouble on Tuesdays. So how about a Pabst Blue Ribbon and a double whisky on the rocks? But after that I'm going home.
The Detroit Cobras play the Prince of Wales in St Kilda (June 24), The Metro in Sydney (June 25 - supporting You Am I) and Spectrum in Sydney (June 26). Their latest album "Baby" is out on Rough Trade through Shock.
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