Islands In The Sky: A conversation with Bonnie Bloomgarden of Death Valley Girls
Magic has always played a big part in the imaginarium of the underground music scene. Whether its mythological tales of gods and monsters, occult rituals to summon evil forces, or the channeling of natural energies from the world that surrounds us, magic has been ever-present in most metal subgenres since Black Sabbath laid their first riffs over 50 years ago. Since then, a whole lot of bands have followed the footsteps of the godfathers of metal, and one group that has been capturing that alluring essence of magic and witchcraft in a perfect way is Death Valley Girls. Formed under amusing circumstances, and perfhaps chance as well, Death Valley Girls have created a sound that blends Black Sabbath’s devil worshipping riffs with ZZ Top’s desert-inspired vibes, a magnificent witch’s brew that breathes freshness into the genre. On their latest record, Islands In The Sky, the band’s songwriting mastermind Bonnie Bloomgarden used Death Valley Girls’ anthemic revelries as a guidebook to spiritual healing and a roadmap for future incarnations of the self. The end result is music that is both infectious and celebratory, a decisive mark in their magickal discography.
This August, Death Valley Girls will be returning to Portugal after six years to perform for the very first time at SonicBlast, and with that in mind, we spoke with Bonnie Bloomgarden about the founding of the band, creating their latest record, Islands In The Sky, almost entirely in the studio, and the band’s upcoming performance at SonicBlast.
What was your first contact with music?
The first thing I remember is hearing Billie Holiday at a restaurant, I was a really little kid. And it was like, so weird and so familiar. And I had no idea when it was from… You know, when you’re like a tiny kid, you don’t know anything, but I was just like, I remember that being like, “wow, what is this?”.
Where did the interested in playing music come from?
I think the same place, just trying to get that feeling of something that is completely unexpected, but really familiar. Sort of like that comfort and escape, all those things. I think I wanted really badly to be a part of that, in some way.
Were there were there any bands and artists that influenced you specifically during that time when you were started playing?
I think later on, when I was like 11 or 12. I think hearing like Black Sabbath, that was like, “oh my god, I can’t believe this is music too”, you know? After not ever hearing anything hard or tough or dark or dirty ever before, and then hearing Black Sabbath’s first record, that changed everything. That was like, oh my god. And that was the first time where I understood what a band was, that there were different instruments, that somebody was playing everything, and those people are gods, and that is so cool. You know, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me ever before, but I think that’s because it is such a great thing. And their tones, you’ve never heard anything like that, those tones were so insane that it was just like, “wait, what is going on here?”. For the first time I was like, I need to know what is happening. [laughs]
“[Listening to Black Sabbath] was the first time where I understood what a band was, that there were different instruments, that somebody was playing everything, and those people are gods, and that is so cool.”
What is the origin story of Death Valley Girls?
It’s pretty funny; it’s from babies, babies are what made this happen. [laughs] My sister Dina had a baby, and Larry’s sister Patty had a baby. And they were in some sort of baby playgroup kind of thing. I hadn’t been in a band for a while and was getting really bummed out. And I told my sister, and she was like, “oh, there’s a drummer in my mom’s playgroup”. And I was like, “cool, but you know, I’m going to need more than just a drummer”. And then she’s like, “the drummer has a brother who plays guitar”. And I was like, “alright, let’s do this”. And then we met and they’re just the coolest people, Patty and Larry, and Larry and I became best friends right away. And yeah, that’s the beginning of it all.
Did you already have an idea of what kind of music you guys wanted to play at the time?
I don’t know that we ever knew what kind of music we wanted to play, except that, when we first agreed to meet up, we were like, “so, what kind of music do you like?”. But I don’t think we’ve ever talked about what kind of music we want to make. I think we just make the kind of music we do make. Luckily, I feel like we’re getting better individually and together. Like, it could have gone the other way. [laughs] But I don’t think we’ve ever been like… Because I don’t even know what kind of music we make, to be honest. Like, I think in the beginning, we maybe were just like, we want to be a rock and roll band, but that’s not very specific. I don’t think we ever were like, “we want to be this kind of band and I want to be that kind of band”. I think we were more like, “I want to be in a band”. [laughs]
The release of Darkness Rains brought a change in labels, where you jumped from Burger Records to Suicide Squeeze. What prompted this change in labels and how has it been working with Suicide Squeeze since then?
Well, I will say that Suicide Squeeze is the best label, because it is run by the best person in the world, David Dickenson, for who I think anybody that’s on the label would be like. “I would I would jump in front of a train for that human”. He is the nicest person in the world. But yeah, I think Burger Records wasn’t really a label; they would print stuff and put out stuff, but it wasn’t a label in the sense that, you know, like any other label where you’re signed to something and you work together to do something specific. So, it was a good starting place for people back then to have physical stuff to put out in cassette and LP. When we met David, it was more just like, if you want your job, you have to have a specific label and all sorts of different things. I remember that when he called to say that we could be on the label, we were in Vegas at a show and we were looking at that, I don’t know what it’s called, but there’s a pyramid hotel or whatever, and the place we played got us a room there. And we were like standing outside the pyramid and we were like bowing to the pyramid. I remember we were like, “oh my god, I can’t believe it”. You know, there’s lots of things you don’t think about when you start making music or when you’ve been in a band forever, there’s so many things that you don’t think about. It’s really good to have those few key things like a label, a booking agent, you know?
Going into the band’s brand-new record, Islands in the Sky, how was the creative and recording process like? What were some themes and ideas that you wanted to explore this time around?
That’s a really good question. I think after COVID and stuff, I learned a lot. It was insane, and I got super sick. And the process of feeling that sickness was a lot psychological and emotional. I know a lot of people know this kind of thing, but I had no idea; our bodies are connected to our minds, which is funny, but I just didn’t know. And so, I was sick from October 2020 to about May 2021. And it’s weird, but it’s like I had been carrying around all of my pain, and everyone’s pain and anxiety, and it caused a fever, and healing from that made me feel all sorts of other things. And one thing I realized; I didn’t ever want to learn that lesson the hard way. And then another thing is, I went to a bunch of doctors and tried every imaginable thing, including I went to a healer. And she helped me a lot, but one of the main things that inspired me was, she was like, “oh, in one of your past lives, you were a jazz singer”. And I was like, “whoa, crazy”. And then, a little bit later, I was like, “oh my god, if I figured out who I was, I could listen to my past life, that’s nuts”. And then I was like, “holy shit, I should write a record now for my future self”. So, I took both of those ideas of like wanting to send a message or wanting to never have to learn in such a hard way. I mean, I was lucky that we had a lockdown because, like, what if this happened, I couldn’t be like sick for seven or whatever months, in regular life. Luckily, it happened when I could deal with it, but I was like, I can’t ever do this again. So, I’m going to make a record for my future self, so that it never has to suffer in this way again. So, we all were like, “oh, what do we want to send to our future selves?”. And then, that was kind of the mission. So, there’s like, all sorts of stuff woven into there that we believe that, no matter what or who we are in the future, we will be drawn to this record.
You’ve stated in the past that mostly everything the band does has a degree of spontaneity and improvisation. How much of that makes up this record?
I think musically, 75% of it is improvised. The way that we work and specifically with this record, because we only had like four practices, I think, before we did it, and then one of us got COVID – we had one week less than we thought we were going to have. So, it’s always just a roll of the dice, but this was particularly crazy. But I think all we knew were general structures and general melody. We always do like one or two takes, get the drums in one or two takes, then build from there. And then, all the saxophone, Gregg [Foreman] never heard us pitching music, he never heard anything, and he put the organ, wurlitzer and synth. Which is insane. he never heard any of it, and that plays a huge role in our music what he does. You know, everything is invented in the studio, all of the singing is invented, everything. Like, there is a general, like, seed of an idea, but we don’t know what it’s going to be until it’s down. And I mean, it’s weird; like, the guy that recorded this was like, “you guys are weird, no one does it like this”, which is weird. Because I’m always wondering like, “are we weird?”. you know, and he’s like, “yeah, you guys are weird, people don’t just come in for one week and expect everything to fall out”. But I feel like that’s the way we like to do it, for whatever reason. I don’t know why.
Do you feel like creating the record in the studio adds a sort of pressure on the band?
Hell yeah! [laughs] I mean, they don’t like it at all, they wish more than anything that I’ve had it all laid out months in advance. But I believe that everything already exists, I believe this record was already out there. So, our job is to pull it down, figure it out and play it. And I believe every song already exists, like not on Earth, but in in stars.
Like a manifestation.
Yeah! I guess I don’t really know that much about it, but some people believe in the Akashic records or just all this different stuff. And I don’t know, I’m not like smart or anything; I just can tell that I don’t feel like I’m responsible for writing, I feel like I just channel it. Like, I get into a state where I just find it. And I don’t like to rush it, in the sense that I have no patience, so I’m like, I’m not going to do it more than once. We’re going to do it in the studio, not doing it before that. And I think that’s cool sounding, like, wild. You know, listening to some of this stuff, knowing that it was the first time anyone had heard it and that’s just what they played. It’s one of my favorite things about it, it’s so weird, I think it’s cool. When Greg comes in and does, like, the Wurlitzer or something; it’s just like, he pulled down the same song, just the right thing. There are moments where it’s like, “well, you’re way off”, you know? With all of us, where it’s like, “oh no, that’s not it, wrong direction”. There isn’t that much of it, I think that mostly it’s just building a house, but we need to already sort of imagine it, but yeah, I like it. I think we would sound really weird if it was practiced and rehearsed. I think it would sound weird. Rikki [Styxx] can do anything, she’s like, built for every type of drumming but I think Larry and I are not built for every type of playing, and I think that’s great.
“I believe that everything already exists, I believe this record is already out there. So, our job is to pull it down, figure it out and play it. And I believe every song already exists, like not on Earth, but in in stars.”
Islands in the Sky was once again produced by Mark Rains. How is it working with Rains and what do you feel he brings to the table in terms of recording and production?
Oh, he is like family too! And we’ve studied under him, we recorded everything there. So, we have a complete, nonverbal communication, psychic bond, where he doesn’t even have to tell us anything, we all know what to do. We don’t barely talk, it’s pretty crazy, and he is a very even keel, non-emotional, super perfect team member. But he also knows if you have a better one in you, and he’s not scared to say, like, “you need to do that again”. Or when you do have it and you don’t know, for him to just do that, like, “that’s it”, you know? But I think the cool thing about him is that we don’t even notice all the cool stuff he does. He just fixes everything and we don’t even know, because we’re not like that, you know? We’re not perfectionists, but he is, I know he is. And he does all the percussion and all the magic touches, and I’m sure there’s tons of hidden stuff in there, I would not be surprised, you know? But I think that our sound is definitely him. I don’t really know what he does, but I know that it doesn’t usually work when we go anywhere else to record.
He is like the fifth member of the band that just elevates the sound to even greater heights.
Yeah, for sure. It’s definitely the right fit. And I think someone else would get super stressed out if people came in that were like, “oh, we don’t know, we don’t know how many songs, we don’t know anything, we already wrote it in our minds”. [laughs] He knows us, and we’re all respectful of each other’s time and bodies. It’s like, “have you eaten today, you haven’t eaten yet, do you need to take a break?”, you know? It’s family, he’s our best friend. And I’m being completely honest, I’m sure he does way more than we’ll ever know to make our sound. But at this point, I just think that’s our sound. But really, I’m sure it’s just his magic.
The artwork of Islands in the Sky features a beautiful piece from Gilbert Williams entitled “Moon Temple”. How did the band come across the art of Gilbert Williams and what prompted the decision to use this specific piece for the record?
Yeah, it’s so weird. I had never heard or seen that before, to my knowledge, and we had drawn almost exactly that image. Not like detailed at all, but like, this building kind of floating in the sky, not that far off. [laughs] We got someone else to do the artwork, and it just wasn’t really right. And then, when we were looking through their Instagram to see if they had something else that we could use, we saw that and we were like, “oh my god, that’s perfect, that’s exactly it”. And then, we found out that it was Gilbert Williams and we were like, “oh no”, because we thought it was this other dude’s art. But then, we just wrote them, and his daughter is in charge of his art, and she said that he’d be happy to let us use it and have more people see it. I think he was happy that a new generation of people are going to get to see it. And also, it’s not like we were printing like 100,000 copies or something. [laughs] I think there was some sort of agreement, but I don’t remember all of that stuff. But yeah, it’s super cool. And it’s crazy that it is the Moon Temple because I love the moon, and I think it’s so cool. And it’s so wild, the whole thing about finding that image and it being like, “oh, this is exactly what we drew”, it’s so cool.
It’s almost like another thing that you guys channeled into your music.
Yeah, it’s so weird, for sure. Because we wanted to pay tribute to the moon in some sort of way in the record, but we didn’t really know how. And when that happened, we were like, “oh my god, that’s insane, that’s so cool”, you know? I think that image will always speak to us, regardless of who we are in the future, and hopefully, that’s just another little tiny breadcrumb for future us, you know?
This Summer, you will be returning to Portugal to play for the first time at SonicBlast. Last time you were in the country, you played a show at Sabotage Club, in Lisbon. Do you have fond memories of that show?
Yes! We have been trying to get back to Portugal; we’ve asked every single time and we never got to come back until now. And what I remember best is that The Kid, our old drummer, she broke her screen on her phone. And so, we walked with her to get a new one and I was just looking at the ground the whole time, you guys have the coolest streets in the whole wide world, I couldn’t even look up. And then, when you look up there would be stores filled with crazy old stuff, like pirate nautical equipment from like the 18th Century. And I just want to go back and look at the ground. I can’t wait, and that festival looks so cool, I’m so excited.
What are you most excited about going into Sonic Blast? Did you have a chance to check the lineup?
Yeah, I did. I’m super excited for it. I’m like trying to picture the poster now but I’m not a good future thinker; I don’t think about anything days before it happens. Who was playing? I can’t really remember.
You have The Black Angels, Thurston Moore, Earthless, Naxatras, Kadavar, Eyehategod, Acid King, Frankie and the Witch Fingers… Yeah, even I can’t remember everything because there are like 30-something bands already confirmed.
Yeah, that looks amazing, I’m so excited. I just feel really lucky; we’ve been trying to get back and I think it’s been like six years or something like that. So, I’m super excited to go back, for sure.
What will come next for Death Valley Girls following these Summer dates? Any tours you would like to mention. Any ideas already brewing for the next record?
I mean, that tour, I don’t remember all the specifics but that looks insane, that tour is going to be so much fun. All of the shows, I’m like, “oh my god, there are so many exciting things happening”. And we are working on a little project now – we all noticed in our dreams that we’ll be writing a song or be at practice or be playing a show. So, we were like, “we should try and remember the songs that we play in our dreams”, and then make an EP of those songs, no matter how weird they are. And I’ve been doing that, and they’re so funny. There’s one that is just so country, not like in a good way at all. It’s a super fun project, but aside from that, I think we’re going to be on the road a lot and I hope we get to spend a lot of time there next year. And hopefully, we’ll have a third trip back to Europe before the end of the year.
“[About Portugal], you guys have the coolest streets in the whole wide world, I couldn’t even look up. And then, when you look up there would be stores filled with crazy old stuff, like pirate nautical equipment from like the 18th Century. And I just want to go back and look at the ground. I can’t wait, and that festival looks so cool, I’m so excited.”
Interview by Filipe Silva
Photo by Neto Velasco, courtesy of Death Valley Girls