Big City Rockabilly

Laura Palmer is ready to take her leopard print into the wilds of dives and festival stages all over the world

Laura Palmer

It’s become a standard trash rock habit to bemoan the state of rockabilly. The Cramps flipped the genre upside down back in the late 1970s, twisting it inside, out, and away from the encroaching cartooning of the early ‘70s mini-revival (Sha Na Na, anyone?), revealing the nutso moonshine-drowned heart of the weirdest of the ‘50s originals. Wild forgottens like Charlie Feathers, Ronnie Dawson, Herbie Duncan, Wanda Jackson, Hasil Adkins, Vince Taylor, Benny Joy, and Barbara Pittman became post-punk checks on the standard Elvis definitions. And amazingly sleazy compilation series like Sin Alley, Desperate Rock ‘N’ Roll, Wavy Gravy and many more further exposed how out-there the seemingly stereotyped sound could get.

The British psychobilly scene of the early ‘80s reveled in the fashion end of perhaps the sartorially snazziest of all R’n’R genres, and gothed it up with Mohawked pompadours, messy mascara, and ripped-up, thrift store-swiped gabardine jackets. Then American adherents like the Gibson Bros., Flat Duo Jets, Gravediggers, Devil Dogs, Fireworks, and ‘68 Comeback drove deep into the booze-battered byways the Cramps first took a left onto. After a retro rock revival in the ‘90s brought back a vintage shop adherence (Reverend Horton Heat, Southern Culture on the Skids, Deadbolt, the regrettable swing revival), rockabilly had once again been set into a standard box: mile-high pompadours, pegged pants, leopard print creepers, flames on all guitars, and press photos featuring ‘57 Chevys.

The Stray Cats’ Brian Setzer – a laudable mainstream revivalist and prime target for the stereotyping of the genre – once wisely stated that (I’m paraphrasing), all these rockabilly guys are sitting around in ‘57 Chevys. If you were a cool teen in the actual 1950s, you didn’t want to drive a ‘57 Chevy. That was the square new car your parents bought. You wanted to get an old Model T and soup it up. Well, that is exactly what Laura Palmer and her Screamin’ Rebel Angels aim to do with any remaining stereotypical notions of rockabilly.

Oh, she’s got the flames and leopard print look down pat, and will apologize to no one for flapping away on her upright double bass. But on top of the floorboards, Palmer stomps up and down in 8-inch heels, and wrings your neck with a Hell-deep scream. That band namesake ain’t for nothing. Not since Kim Shattuck of the Muffs have I heard a gal quell up such a commanding vocal screech. And even if she were whispering, the lyrical suggestions to step off, pal, would be hard to miss.

Her vox and ability to wrangle solid musicians around her – or quickly learning the instruments herself, if need be – and waxing the whole thing with a near-metal punch makes for an action-packed live show. And after a few years of touring, the Screamin’ Rebel Angels second album, Heel Grinder, is finally out there to offer a full picture of Palmer and her rockabilly redux. Somewhere between Rev. Horton Heat’s spit-shined chasis and Poison Ivy’s discarded, end-of-tour fishnets, it’s a fun, sweaty, party starter.

 

 

So, how do you approach rockabilly? Like if someone asked you, “What’s rockabilly all about,” what would you say?

 I’d tell them it the most primitive form of rock ‘n’ roll that hooks into your gut, and pulls out the greasy juvenile delinquent that is hiding inside us all. If anyone says it’s about poodle skirts and letterman jackets, stab them with your lipstick!

 

In “Brassy Brown,” you say you’re from the wrong side of town. Where did you grow up? How did you first come across the rockabilly sound? And do you have a first time you saw a rockabilly band story?

 I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, right where New York, New Jersey and PA all meet. I was the youngest of four kids, and they all went off to college by the time I hit elementary school.  There weren’t really many kids around for me to play with, so I spent a lot of time alone, either playing outside or playing music. I played piano, flute, violin, and guitar.   I listened to all the rock ‘n roll growing up, and was a hardcore/punk rock kid by the time I was 12. I loved the energy of going to a DIY all ages punk show. It made me finally feel less alone, and like I was part of something.  I didn’t come across a modern rockabilly band until I was about 17, and I saw the Buzzards playing in Long Island. It was the first time I saw punk energy with the sound of the early rock ‘n’ roll that I loved, and style was just so glamorous to me, I immediately was hooked. I was like, what the hell is this? Why have I been missing this?  I remember someone called me Olive Oil, (I was really tall and skinny and awkward) and the friend I was with got in her face and yelled at her, and then she told me, that’s how you deal with girls like that.  Pretty much a turning point in my life.

 

 

I assume the Cramps are a fave?

Obviously!  Not only The Cramps, but the WFMU collection of Lux and Ivy’s favorites. Those selections from their mountains of vinyl really got me to dig deeper into early R&B, rockabilly, and rock ‘n’ roll.  Poison Ivy is such an underrated guitar player too in my opinion.  They developed a sound that inspired a cult following to this day, and a style all their own.  I hold them to the highest standard of all-encompassing creativity.

 

But of course, you’re not doing a totally reverential take on the sound…

I feel like what we are doing is more in the spirit of early rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues than rockabilly. I like to think that we are doing something different with the traditional building blocks. I really wanted to embrace the fast, raw, and raging side of this kind of music; take it a step further than the original era, and also in the opposite direction of what people are doing contemporarily. At the same time though, this is just the music as it comes out, and I wanted to make a record where we do the things that we do well.

 

What are some things about the current rockabilly scene you like, and don’t like?

 I love that wherever I go around the world and play a show, I will know someone. It’s a big world and a small scene, and you can feel at home thousands of miles away from home. It is really a special kind of scene, and while we might not be traditional rockabilly, I just adore the world wide rockabilly scene and festivals, and I am so happy that they have embraced us.

At home however, there is a fine line sometimes between what I think rockabilly is and then what people think a sock hop is. I think of rockabilly as a ground-breaking, barrier smashing genre of American music that captures the spirit of rebellion, and represents the building blocks of rock ‘n’ roll, inclusivity and ingenuity at a time when the world was recovering from the devastation of WWII. Sometimes I look at it locally, and it’s like karaoke in costume, and I realize why people outside of the scene can get so turned off by the term “rockabilly.”  I hope that we can help change that, and make it feel more relevant. I hope people can listen to our music with an open mind, outside of genres.

 

I don’t sense that there is a solid rockabilly scene in NYC – at least as far as working bands. So is that partly why you find yourself touring more?

There is a vintage enthusiast scene and a DJ scene, that is often called the rockabilly scene, but none of it revolves around live music. The live music venues are closing, there are no all ages venues, no bars or record stores that cater to the rockabilly life style, and I think the decline of this subculture can be tied to that. The scene can also be a bit elitist at times in regards to clothing, style, and authenticity, and causes a real barrier for entry for anyone new. It’s suffocating itself, and makes me sad, but then I go on tour.

 

What are some of the better festivals you’ve played; and what country do you think is most receptive to rockabilly?

 We just played Bedlam Breakout in Northampton, UK, in September 2018. It was the first time we played the UK, and it was pretty incredible! People had been waiting for years to see us, we sold so many records, great reception, great crowds. What I love about rockabilly in the UK is that they are hungry for new sounds, and a new take on the music. They love what we do there. There’s no looking at us like we’re doing something wrong. The way that they approach music is a bit different too, it’s just so much more of a part of the social fabric in England and Europe. Multi-generations within families come, there is so much support, and just sincere enjoyment.  I love it so much. You’re putting your soul out there, and they give you their’s right back.

 

That said, where are some places in NYC that are go-to if you’re in a rockabilly mood?

 I head to band practice!

 

How does your screaming vox hold up on tour?

 Vocal warmups and cool downs, a monitor mix where you can hear yourself, and vocal training of “controlled screams,” and I am good to go night after night! If there’s one show where I can’t hear myself over the stage volume, it really messes everything up so I have to be careful.  There is nothing worse than being on show three of a 25-show string and not being able to talk.  It’s really about control and knowing where you can get a breather.

 

On stage, you seem to revel in getting right up in peoples’ faces with that scream. Any stories of someone from the crowd getting back in your face, or having to kick ‘em off you, fights, that sort of thing? 

Most people are super respectful, and come to enjoy the show.  We feed off the energy of a crowd, so if someone is up front screaming along and dancing, I’m all about that, yes! Occasionally there will be a drunk who doesn’t understand the boundaries of the stage, and I will just clap back to them, and they’ll get dragged out by security. However, there was one time we were headlining the Belgian Trophy Classic, which is a café racer race through The Ardennes, the mountain range between Belgium and France. We played to a few thousand people, and as soon as I stepped out on stage, for whatever reason, people lost their minds, and kept trying to climb the stage and grab me.  It was surreal, but my deflection game is A1, and I also am able to use my bass as a shield or barrier when needed.  I also have code words with my band mates, and they will form a physical barrier around me when someone tries to get too close or touchy. People more so want to hug me more than fight me, which between the two options, I think I am winning.

Heel Grinder by Screamin’ Rebel Angels

I believe in the live and tour setting, you have a revolving set of musicians you work with. So who played on Heel Grinder? Did you work to have a consistent “band” on the album? 

 If I had to wait for a consistent band, then this record would have never been made.  A steady lineup has somehow never been in my cards, try as I might. New York City is a city that people just seem to leave. So for Heel Grinder, only three people played on this record. I hired a session drummer, Josh Bailey, and Brian Hack, who is the only other permanent member of Screamin’ Rebel Angels, (except for touring) played lead guitar.  I played everything else. Upright Bass, Rhythm Guitar, acoustic guitar, electric bass, and farfisa.

I am happy it happened that way. It was terrifying to go into the studio with such a large project, and be responsible for so much of it.  This record really allowed me to figure out who I was as an artist and musician and what I was capable of. I practiced my ass off, took as many lessons as I could afford, and worked to figure out what I didn’t know how to do, and just kept at it. I would love to have a permanent band, but I’m not going to allow not having one to hold me back. But instead, I get to have this huge extended family of musicians all over the world that I play with, and in all honesty, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.  Playing with so many top players has made me a better musician.

 

Where did the title Heel Grinder come from?

 It comes from my contemporary interpretation of being unapologetically female and powerfully feminine. Our society is full of contradictions. Women have the expectation of beauty and glamour, but shame women for putting effort in to it. On the flip side, women are shamed for not being beautiful and glamorous, and constantly being told to put more effort in. This song is about throwing off the burden of social expectations, and embracing the baddassery that comes with being whatever version of yourself you want to be, and just grinding your heels in. When I hear the term “Heel Grinder,” I just imagine a powerful woman dancing by herself, with a completely content snarl on her face – and maybe her eyeliner’s so sharp it can kill a man.

 

Tell us about “Snake.” Plus, you do some real vocal dramatics all over that one. What other styles of singing might we find in your past?

 “Snake” I wrote about some drama-loving bullies and social climbers who were the first ones to cry if anyone called them out. They’ve got forked tongues, but no fangs, baby!

I studied a little bit of opera here and there, and I would dabble in singing blues and jazz.  But in all honesty, my voice is something that I have really been working on, it’s an instrument that requires practice and study.  Some people are natural talents, and that I am not. I fight hard each step of the way practicing and studying my crafts.

 

 

Have you ever actually had the Devil whisper to you? And what did you answer back?

In that song, “The Devil Whispered to Me,” the devil is the voice in our heads that feeds off of our shame, self-doubt, the sadness, and overwhelming burdens in our lives that weigh us down. That devil is constantly in my head, but I am constantly beating him.  The song is about releasing the baggage of your past, quieting the voices that say you aren’t good enough, and taking control over what you have the ability to control.

 

How was the journey to create Heel Grinder? Seems like it was spread out over a stretch of time…

 It was a total of 11 days in the studio recording and mixing.  I recorded at Studio G in Brooklyn with Tony Maimone, who is such an amazing human. He was an original member of Pere Ubu; has worked with Bob Mould, Frank Black, They Might Be Giants, and so many more. He had a lot of good stories! When I was looking for a studio, I had emailed a few people, and tried to explain what I wanted to do.  I had these songs, I didn’t have a full band, I didn’t know who was going to record with me, but I needed to make it happen somehow. Tony immediately called me after listening to some of our old work, and some new demos, and was really excited about the energy, and we talked for about an hour.  I made an appointment to see the studio, and within the first few minutes I knew I was going to record there.  He was such a protective, kind of fatherly figure to me. He was there to protect my ideas and give me the space and support to write and record the album. To be able to find someone with so much experience and knowledge, and to have them listen to you, not talk over you, and believe in what you are doing allowed this record to become what it did.

For the recording process itself, we live tracked the drums and lead guitar, and I was on either upright bass or rhythm guitar, depending on how it was easiest for me to lead the band.  We tracked the drums in a day, and then recut Brian’s leads in about a day or two, and then I got in there and just started layering in instruments – upright bass, electric bass, electric rhythm guitar, acoustic, farfisa, vocals, and background vocals. The 11 days were spread out over about 4 weeks, so I had the chance to sit with the “listeners” from each session, and took the time to go back in and add or take away instrumentation, or really push the mix to get that sound.  All my previous records were analog, and while that had a lovely warm sound to it, it provided too many limitations to what I wanted to do with this record, and how I wanted to record it. It is physically impossible for me to play more than one instrument at once, and I wanted to this record to sound like how I play it, and the way that I play it. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.

 

The photos for the album art and promos for this seem like you put a lot of time and idealization behind them. Any stories about the photo shoots?

 Thank you for noticing that! I think that album art and photos should pull you in and tell you the story about the band and the record.  For new fans, it’s the first step into the world that I am creating with Screamin’ Rebel Angels. I was really happy to work with one of my close friends and talented photographer, Jolie Clifford. We have a really similar process and aesthetic, and I am so comfortable with her behind the camera, I feel like we make great art together, and I’m not self- conscious.

For months, we were bouncing ideas off of one another, pulling reference for promo photos and cover shots. I had decided that for this record, I didn’t want to have my face on the cover. I made these skull shoes, and I wanted to have a photo of them climbing up stairs, on broken glass. We shot that photo, and it came out perfect, but we also shot about 5 other concepts that I was going to use for promo photos.  Those other photos came out so much stronger, and told the story of the record a bit better, and since this record was so much of myself, when I saw the cover and back cover photos, I knew that should be the record.  I think that when you are creating, it is really important to be prepared and plan out everything, but be flexible and conscious enough to recognize when you are creating something special, because those are the magical sparks that are hard to capture.

 

 

Tell me about making the two videos from the record so far? Any good stories, etc.

 I am so proud of these videos!  These are the first two videos of ours that I wrote, directed, and edited. I worked with D.C. DuFrane as the cinematographer, who is also a good friend, happens to be Jolie’s boyfriend, and like Jolie, we have the same tastes and aesthetics. “Oh! My Soul” was shot at my sister’s house, which happens to be a Bed and Breakfast. So I somehow had this crazy idea, and my amazing and wonderful friends and family were really excited to be a part of it. We shot the video in one day, we drove from Brooklyn to Pennsylvania in the morning; hair, makeup, lighting, set dressing; then we started to shoot around 2pm maybe? Everything went pretty smoothly, but being the first time we were making a video, we didn’t have a shot schedule, so we just took our time, until the end.

The last scenes that we shot were the Bat Dances. I was so happy that I had pieced together the Bat Dance costumes – they were roughly based on Ethyl Merman in Alexander’s Ragtime Band from 1938 – that I had failed to try them on!  So at around 1am, me and my three super amazing lady friends try on the costumes that were supposedly one size fits all.  I think it was one size fits all if you were a 10-year old child.  We couldn’t figure out what was the front, what was the back, the snap crotch barely held together, and we had to keep adjusting to make sure our lady bits weren’t on full display. Two of us couldn’t stop laughing, one of us dropped to the floor crying, and by that time all of their boyfriends were there too, just shaking their heads. But we made it through!  Everyone trusted that I wouldn’t let any labia slips in, since I was editing the video, and now every time something is too small, or goes slightly off, everyone says, “It’s the Bat Dance costumes all over again!”

For “The Devil Whispered to Me,” I went from idea to final edit in less than two weeks, which was a pretty daunting task, but I needed to have it finished before I went on tour, since I can’t edit heavy files on my laptop. Once again I was able to find the perfect location, perfect cast and crew, and I made a shot schedule that we followed and stuck to – and there were no wardrobe malfunctions.  I couldn’t have asked for a better shoot.  There’s a point when you are creating, and it moves from being the only person involved, to working with half a dozen people who all trust your vision, and you trust them, and everyone is shining bright at what they do, and it really is magical. It’s like making a record, but less drama with actors.

 

Tell me the story about your instrument malfunction – when you broke your bass.

 That was one of the most stressful weekends. I was having major car trouble with our old Jeep SUV, we were rear ended at a red light a week before, so the back was all smashed in, and the night before we had a gig in Philly, where the battery died three times (once while I was double parked at a bus stop), and I had to jumpstart it from a battery pack I was hauling around.  So the next day I had another gig and a photo shoot, and was on a tight schedule, so I borrowed my mother-In-law’s car, which is a 2004 Toyota Camry. It was the first cold day of the fall, and I played a three-hour gig outside in the wind. The gig was running late and I was on a tight schedule to get to a photo shoot to have new promo photo and a cover photo for the “Oh! My Soul” single.  The artist that was supposed to have done the cover art just stopped responding to me, and the single was due out in a few days. So to say that I was stressed would be accurate. I finished up the outdoor gig, packed up everything into the Camry.  I pushed the passenger seat all the way back and down, and loaded in my upright there, it felt a little tight and awkward, but that was how I got it there, so I thought it was fine. I slammed the door closed, and the bass I guess wasn’t in all the way, and the neck just snapped clean off. I was numb, but didn’t want to miss the shoot that I had paid for, and just drove to it on auto pilot.

Since the bass was so heavy, the car thought someone was in the passenger seat, and for the whole ride there was that loud annoying, fasten-your-seatbelt beep. Each beep was like the universe testing me, and I was so flustered. I resigned to the beep and got to the shoot.  I was so upset that I couldn’t shoot a promo with the bass, then I realized, why not shoot with the broken bass?  When will I have that chance again? We also shot the Bat Costume for the “Oh! My Soul” cover, and in retrospect, everything worked out perfectly, despite the stress and everything working against me.

 

 Whoa. In general, what is it like having to lug that around?!

It is larger than a human, and a giant pain in the ass, but man, do I love beating the hell out of it on stage! It’s a logistical nightmare at times, but the sound and technique of rockabilly slap bass is so integral to our songs at the moment, that it’s just something that you deal with.

 

How did you choose to play that instrument?

 I wound up playing upright bass out of necessity. When I started the band I was on guitar, but after my original bassist left the band, all my bass players were from out of town. I bought the bass with the intention of trying to get my husband to play upright, but he wanted no part of it. So I taught myself how to play it. We would rehearse as a trio – two guitars and drums – and it just didn’t make sense, so I decided to just play upright. From a touring perspective, and a rehearsal perspective, it just made more sense. I love playing upright, I also fill in on upright for a few bands, and it’s just such a fun instrument. But for the Heel Grinder tours, I will be swapping out instruments, sometimes bass, sometimes guitar, sometimes keyboard.

 

What are the Rebels’ plans for the upcoming year?

We will be touring the U.S. & Canada with the new record this spring and summer, and I am working on more European tours for the fall, and hoping for a Japanese tour in the future! In the mean time, I am writing the next record, filming more videos, and working on more art!

 

Eric Davidson

Eric Davidson is a freelance writer from Queens; singer of New Bomb Turks; author of We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988–2001, and former Managing Editor of CMJ. Follow him @lanceforth.

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