(Death Valley Girls, l-r: Larry Schemel, Sammy Weservelt, Bonnie Bloomgarden, Rikki Styxx)
“I THINK YOU SHOULD BE IN THE DESERT wherever you are, looking up at the night sky listening to this, for sure.”
These riding instructions for listening to Islands In The Sky, the new album from Los Angeles’ Death Valley Girls come, helpfully, from chief Girl and principal explorer of alternative worlds, Bonnie Bloomgarden.
The multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter has enthusiastically taken to my description of the new record as mixing trippy drone with a kind of sunshine delirium; a record that feels equal parts California desert and California dreaming, space age and space rock. Perhaps that enthusiasm is not surprising given the background she has during this video call is a star-spangled night sky, with spaceship.
That’s spaceship of the alien kind. Has she seen any?
“Um, yeah. I’ve definitely talked to people who have had way better experiences all the time. I wouldn’t put myself in that category of experience,” Bloomgarden says. “But I have seen them for sure. We’ve had a lo-o-o-o-t of strange experiences on the road.”
How can she tell the difference between a regular strange experience on the road and an extra-terrestrial strange experience?
“Now that we’ve explored haunted houses, there is just a certain feeling you get and we are part of some contactees and abductee support groups, so there’s a difference between seeing something and feeling it and seeing it,” she says. “And when you have those two, that’s when you know, and it’s no longer a question of ‘did I just see something?’, it’s ‘what just happened?’.”
This may be an opportune time, if you are not already familiar with Death Valley Girls, to confirm that, yes, exploring haunted houses and hanging with those who’ve had some up close and intimate experiences with, um, off-planet types, is very much home territory for Bloomgarden and friends: guitarist Larry Schemel, drummer/vocalist Rikki Styxx and bassist/vocalist Sammy Weservelt.
As she told me in 2020, “What I find fascinating is that not everyone is obsessed with the supernatural and paranormal.”
Consequently, when Bloomgarden adds today that when it comes to the spectral and the extra-terrestrial, “I think everyone is capable of feeling it and seeing it too but I don’t know if you can turn it off once you start seeing it”, it comes with some personal freight.
So are people like me who might scoff not seeing it because we are not attuned or not seeing it because we are in denial?
“It could be a little bit of both,” she says. “I don’t really know, but we have definitely gone out seeking it in our travels, on purpose, for about 10 years. So we have a little bit of a jumpstart on you. It took a while, it took my whole life, until we went to this one legitimately famously haunted house on Cielo Drive, next to where the Manson murders happened. Once you actually feel what it feels like, then you can feel it anywhere else.
‘Before that I believed because I wanted to; but after that I was like there was no denying that there is something different about this house.”
This kind of brings into relief or highlights a couple of lines from different songs on the album that leapt out on first listens. “Nothing can happen to me anymore” and “We are living in a simulated world”. If what she says is true, are we living in a simulated world or at least in a world that isn’t what we think it is because we can’t see or won’t see?
“Yeah, I would definitely say so. It’s not a simulated world in the sense that we are all plugged into something in the sky, but I do think that there’s a certain dimensionality where we are in a 3D setting and I think we will learn more and more and more that this isn’t all there is. It’s just a fraction of reality,” Bloomgarden says with her trademark mix of buoyant eagerness and guileless earnestness.
“We are taught not to be sensitive and not to listen to our bodies with these things, but if we do, like indigenous cultures where they have these ‘magic powers’ when they are connected to the earth and senses are not doing all this weirdo stuff that we are doing, wasting away listening to rock ‘n’ roll and driving our cars. I think we do have magic powers but maybe we think we don’t need them as much in this fast-paced world.”
Well if there is any truth to that, the music on this album certainly works to create the kind of trancelike state where we might start to believe, where we might disconnect active thinking and switch to active feeling. You don’t need a desert if you’ve got this.
“That’s exactly the coolest thing I’ve ever heard, thank you so much. Yeah, that’s the point of it,” Bloomgarden says. “With this record we didn’t pay attention to how it sounded, I didn’t even think about that honestly until now that everyone’s heard it.”
So, you might ask yourself, what were they thinking of to get this psych rock undertow and are-they-off-their-heads overlay? If you said a fever dream you would be spot on.
“Basically I had a fever from October 2020 till about March of 2021 and it was like this super psychedelic – painful and scary but also psychedelic – experience,” says Bloomgarden. “I hallucinate when I have fevers so was like so many months of sleeping 20 hours a day and by the end of it I learnt a lot and I realise that it was pain and fear that had caused the fever, it wasn’t my kidneys or this or that, it was not expressing my feelings because we were not on the road.
"That’s the only time, it turns out, that I express myself.”
The road as saviour? Good god, no wonder Bob Dylan’s so-called Never Ending Tour keeps trundling on! But for Bloomdarden it does deeper, goes further back, and in a sense, goes further forward, than that.
“I went to a healer after all these doctors, and one of the things she said was ‘you were a jazz singer in a past life’, and I was like my God that makes so much sense. I went to jazz school in this life and no one in my family is a musician it doesn’t make sense that I am, so I thought if I can figure out who I am I could listen to myself in my past life,” she says. “Then I kept going about my day and I was like, oh my god I’m going to make a record for my future self now, to tell it all the lessons that I’ve learnt in this life that I’ve messed up, and put it all on a record [to say] you don’t need to suffer, you are not alone, you are loved still.
"So the record is a concept record for my future self to find and there are a lot of things we hid on this record that I don’t even know.”
“I don’t even know why it’s called Islands In The Sky. We went up to Big Bear [a mountain resort town in southern California], to Rikki’s house, and channelled this whole record and tried to figure out what we would want later and tried to feel what our future self would want. There’s so much stuff I don’t even know what it means.”
Yes, all this might feel extremely weird. On the other hand, in the Death Valley Girls world, this makes perfect sense.
“I know it’s weird,” Bloomgarden laughs. “That’s not completely lost on me, but it does make so much sense too. What else am I going to write a record about? The last record [2020’s Under The Spell Of Joy ] we tried to be like, if we just sing about joy we will end up being happy. And that’s not true. We found out the hard way.
“You can’t just say the words; we really have to send this message. I know it’s weird, and I know reincarnation seems strange, but it doesn’t seem that much more strange than anything else that people believe.”
True that. And remember, whatever else, a new Death Valley Girls album costs a lot less – in money, psyche and future-self terms – than a bunch of Scientology audits or a lifetime of bible studies.
Islands In The Sky is out today on Suicide Squeeze Records.