Photo by Shit Show Dave
“WE WERE DOING THIS CHANTING for a little bit and I got kinda scared because I was like I don’t know really what this is that I’m saying. It wasn’t anything negative, but it was perpetuating karma I think,” says Bonnie Bloomgarden. “I didn’t get why that was good.”
The principal writer and frontwoman for Los Angeles psych/garage/hard rock band, Death Valley Girls, is not unfamiliar with what others might think of as dark experience. And not just because their last album was laced with death and peppered with messages about persevering through life’s worst trials.
As fans of historian, occult writer, and author of How Thoughts Make Things Happen, Mitch Horowitz (“our hero, and he inspired the [new] song 10 Day Miracle Challenge”), the band Bloomgarden formed with guitarist Larry Schemel, which now includes Rikki Styxx and Nikki Pickle, think of themselves as paranormal investigators.
Yes, they’re serious. Not only do they subscribe to the idea of the Akashic plane – where all knowledge and human experience so far is stored, and drawn from for creative pursuits – and have stayed in a “haunted” house in Arizona to probe the unknown, but they will assure you they are responsible for a hotel being haunted thanks to some errant Ouija board use.
“I don’t think you should use [Ouija boards] anywhere … they’re just like portals,” Bloomgarden told a magazine two years ago. Which seems sensible advice.
More to the point today, the otherworldly aspects earlier this year of making their new album, Under The Spell Of Joy , resonated strongly, Bloomgarden explains in a lengthy, lively chat, with only occasional interruptions from her fluffy, snowy dog, named after The Ramones’ Tommy Erdelyi, the band’s original drummer and producer (“It’s a girl: I wanted a dog named Tommy before I found the dog”) who is the camera hog her extremely shy owner is not.
“We started off just really into African ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll and how so many people sang in unison: my favourite part of music is singing together in unison and harmonising,” says Bloomgarden. “So I knew we wanted to have a lot of singing [on the new album] but then we started to realise we sing songs like 150 times a year live, and 100×100 is I don’t know how many, but it’s a lot.
“Everyone’s still powerful, but most people don’t spend the time actually concentrating on anything at all - if you do, it’s amazing what can happen – and if we said words that did something, we do realise that we have any effect or impact.”
That’s a good thing though, right? The new album trades in some of the classic ‘70s hard rock sounds of its predecessors for something trippier, and in some ways lighter, while the messaging is clearer for fans who already pay close attention to Bloomgarden’s lyrics.
“But to think of myself as the focal point of that?” she responds. “Then I started to realise there is power in thinking of yourself as more than someone who’s stirring the pot. I’m not the arms, I’m the body, the body that says these things.”
This wasn’t the only existential and physical thought on her mind in 2020. With psychological, emotional, financial and medical destruction been wrought by not just a killer disease but a feral president, this year had her “sitting with that and really thinking about it, thinking about is it okay to perpetuate joy? Is it okay to celebrate? To sing?”
Although the previous Death Valley Girls album, Darkness Rains, was named after their producer’s dog and not necessarily a state of mind, it’s not a coincidence that they’ve followed that up with one called Under The Spell Of Joy. The messages Bloomgarden’s been talking about - trusting in yourself to achieve, taking control - are tied to the idea of finding a way out of darkness.
“We didn’t even realise. When you are truly yourself or trying to achieve harmony with yourself and the universe - which sounds ridiculous - we were just trying to perpetuate rock ‘n’ roll and give people a safe place to be,” she says. “All we were trying to say was there is a place for everyone, that’s rock ‘n’ roll. And then I started to realise it wasn’t as safe as we thought and it seemed that there was a bigger need. We need to have intention for joy.”
Also no coincidence is the fact that an album centred on joy is also in some ways the most pop-oriented of the three Death Valley Girls albums, a comment that Bloomgarden takes, as it was intended, as a compliment.
“I love writing in that kind of style and I think Larry likes to muck it up and make it dirty, which I think is our sound and it’s awesome. For me the goal of writing pop music and making it cool is the ultimate dream and maybe we are getting our sound together a little bit more this time.”
It is not to say that darkness is excised, for her fascination with the occult and supernatural is not casual - nor is it any weirder, she reckons, than people who believe in souls going to heaven, unleavened bread transformed into godly flesh or a tripartite mystical entity.
“What I find fascinating is that not everyone is obsessed with the supernatural and paranormal,” Bloomgarden says. “I get that some things are far out, like our commitment to abductees and contactees of UFOs and aliens and stuff. I get that that seems extreme, but it’s just not. If millions and millions of people believe something, and there are similar things throughout all history, I believe that at the very least it makes life way more fun.”
Sidestepping the aliens for a minute, a thought has been bubbling away in my mind as this conversation progressed. Is there a connection between believing in an alternative view of the world’s, ahem, elements, and her dogged determination three albums and seven years into this band, not to write lyrics until the very last minute before recording?
It sounds like either fear or faith - which may be the same thing.
“Yes, that’s exactly what it is. Both. Entirely,” Bloomgarden says. “It’s fear that I’m not going to do good enough and complete faith that I know it will be given to me. And it always has been. I had to do a lot of thinking in those months at home before the record and I was like, ‘I’m going to change my process. I’m going to be so creative and make so much stuff; I’m going to write lyrics every day’.”
She took a month off to decompress and detox from the road, planned more walks, a schedule for cleaning the house, improvements to her diet, thought about getting a plant that she could actually look after with touring off the agenda. And then? She wrote the lyrics at the last moment.
“I realised that I can’t write a record about the universe and spirituality unless I completely trust it. At the same time, that’s scary. So it’s fear and faith, combined.”
Under The Spell Of Joy is out now on Suicide Squeeze Records.