Of all the bands that have emerged from Detroit in the past few years, only the Cobras are bold enough announce their city of origin in their name. And that’s as it should be. These are people so wired into the musical history of the city that, if you looked real close at the chains of letters that make up their DNA, you’d probably see the Motown logo in there.
The Detroit Cobras fuel the notion that the Detroit music scene is much like the Glasgow one – i.e., bands are formed and split at the drop of a hat, and eventually people fall into combos that work. This particular bunch of guys and girls wound up together with the straightforward notion that they would play other people’s songs, largely pop and soul numbers from the 1950s and 1960s, in the loose garage-rock style they’d developed during their apprenticeships.
‘From the beginning, through all the changes, beer is what has always brought us together,’ confirms exotic dancer-turned-vocalistRachel Nagy. ‘It’s good to have a unifying element. Oh, and good taste. In beer.’
This ‘rag-tag’ group has been gigging around the city for a few years now, and recently they’ve found willing audiences further afield: ‘Chicago, NY, Ohio, a little West Coast, London. It’s actually kind of bewildering to find out just how far we’ve been passed along – Europe, Spain, Angola – all sorts of crazy mail and e-mail comes in. It’s amazing, because most of it has just been hand to hand, word of mouth – no promo, no support from labels or us for that matter. I’m ready to go meet all these freaking maniacs.’
The band has also recorded two albums of semi-forgotten classics for Sympathy for the Record Industry, “Mink Rat or Rabbit” and “Life, Love And Leaving”: other than that, ‘We pretty much just hustle our way between gigs.’
A mini-album, “Seven Easy Pieces”, has just been released to tide us over until the next long-player. So what neglected gems will be given the Cobras polish next time around? ‘You’ll be the first to know,’ says Rachel, ‘right after me.’
I ask how they select which tunes to take under their wing. ‘How do you choose what to eat?’ she responds. ‘It’s like not being able to make out with someone you should like because you don’t like their scent. You hear it, you want it, if it fits, you put it on. If the shoulders are too tight, or it pinches your toes, fuck it. OK, enough analogies for you?’ Yep, that should be enough. As for who picks the songs: ‘It’s an open market. It just has to be really good.’
Is there anything that they’ve tried to play and been dissatisfied with how it turned out? ‘Definitely. Not everybody can always do everything, and sometimes stuff just isn’t the right mix for our mix. If it doesn’t feel good or right after a couple times, fuck it, why kick a dead horse?’
Music lovers that the Cobras are, there are also some tunes that they just won’t do. ‘There’s some sacred stuff – either people that reached such a high point in their careers it’s redundant to do their material or some songs that are just so perfect, you don’t put your dirty finger in the pie, no matter how much fun it would be. And there’s the pointless – why would you do “Tears of a Clown” unless you’re a metal band?’
The nature of the band means that gigs can be a pick ‘n’ mix affair. ‘We’ll throw in stuff that’s never been recorded from our past or stuff we’re working on. We write a fresh set list every time we play. But that’s probably because we all just forget to grab the old ones. It’s not exactly a creative ploy. We just have to try to remember all the songs we know.’ Any favourites? ‘“Cry On” is so fun to do, everybody gets so weepy. “Shout Bama Lama” is always nuts… “You Don’t Knock” carries a lot of conviction.’
Inadvertently, Rachel also touches on my single, solitary misgiving about their recent show at the London Garage: ‘We need to start doing “Bye Bye Baby” again.’ Oh, they do. The Cobras version of thisMary Wells-penned track features a scorching vocal from Rachel, raucous and melancholy all at once. It’s the highlight of “Life, Love And Leaving”, which finally got an official UK release at the end of 2002. It’s ideal for giving a party a kick up the arse, a half-hour shot of soul adrenaline that seems to gain a convert with each new pair of ears it reaches.
This is all the more surprising because you’d think the Cobras would only work as a live proposition, airing songs that wouldn’t otherwise get played. ‘Somebody in a review put it really well lately, something like they love Carla and Irma and Betty Lavette, but you know, they just don’t play out much any more.’ The fact that the Cobras aren’t trying too hard to do something radical is part of what gives their shows and records such a relaxed vibe. The band’s lack of preciousness is one of their greatest assets. ‘Past our enjoyment, what anybody gets out of it is their bag. I’m just trying to have some fun, and it just happened that other people starting having fun too.’
So what’s the fun of being in The Detroit Cobras? ‘The joy is in hearing and feeling it come together, like a new born ghost coming up, this music we love so much coming through us, not just listening to records and having to wish. I’m not saying we’re anywhere near the masters that our heroes are… were… but it feels good to shake the dust off and shake yer booty.’ However, they don’t entirely rule out the idea of doing their own material – ‘Hey, if it happens, it happens.’
The British music media has been looking to Detroit for its kicks for a couple of years now – does Rachel feel that there’s a genuine ‘scene’ in the city, and if so does she see the Cobras as a part of it? ‘Yeah, there’s finally good bands coming out of Detroit again. And there’s scenes everywhere, every city. If people don’t think there’s scenes in their city, maybe they’re just not cool enough to be let in.’
So remember kids – if you want to find your local scene, for God’s sake wear a decent shirt when you go out to look.