45 Grave's Dinah Cancer Plans to Keep Deathrock Alive in 2017

45 Grave's Dinah Cancer performing at the Glass House last year
45 Grave's Dinah Cancer performing at the Glass House last year
John Gilhooley

That deathrock pioneers 45 Grave are still together a full 38 years after forming seems to be as much of a surprise to singer Mary Sims, aka Dinah Cancer, as it is to anyone.

On the surface, this wasn't the sort of band meant to go the distance, and Sims has tried her damnedest over the years to let 45 Grave go. After all, until 2012 the band had only the one studio album, 1983’s Sleep in Safety. There were long breaks between 1985 and ’88, then again for 14 years between 1990 and 2004. But eventually the band's dark, gothic take on punk pulled Sims back in. She simply can’t let it go.

As we kick off 2017, Sims (all these years later, it seems too abrasive to refer to her simply as “Cancer”) readily admits that 45 Grave is a legacy act. She embraces the notion, enjoying the fact that, with the turmoil enveloping the country at present, a dose of punk nostalgia can re-inspire the disenchanted as the same music has done in the past.

“People are so pained,” Sims says. “I’m like, have your voice heard and speak up for change. With music today, it’s all about who has a porta-studio or who has the newest software to record the band. More venues are closing down, and we might be coming to a time period where we may not be able to actually play. So it’s about trying to rekindle the fire, and letting people know that we’re not alone in the world. There are other people like us out there. You can go out and play music, and still have a very good time.”

Dinah Cancer is the only original member still with the band, and has been for many years. In the past, Germs men Pat Smear and Don Bolles have passed through the ranks, as have The Dream Syndicate’s Paul Cutler (with whom Sims and Bolles co-founded the band), The Screamers’ Paul Roessler, and Rikk Agnew of Social Distortion and Adolescents. Back in 45 Graves’ 1980s heyday, Sims says, most bands in the L.A. punk scene were upset about the political landscape, and she hopes that something similarly galvanizing can happen with the music now.

“I remember distinctly saying that I wouldn’t live past 21,” she says. “There’s no future for us, so let’s just go balls out — write music and do what makes us happy. When the band originally started out, we didn’t know what to make of it, but the original lineup, with Paul Cutler, Rob Graves and Don Bolles, had an amazing style. I’m very happy that I shared my writing experiences with Paul Cutler. It’s very reassuring to know that at least we did contribute something to history.”

Nowadays, Sims says that the band is getting an impressive cross-section of people at its shows, including the old punks, death rockers and metalheads, but also young, new fans. The current lineup has been together for two years and is relatively settled so, all things considered, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why 45 Grave can’t keep going for some time to come. Sims isn’t sure.

“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do it,” she says. “As everyone says, ‘You’re getting older.’ I go, ‘Really? I didn’t know that.’ Every year, just when you think that nothing is going to happen, you get some awesome show offers, and then you go forth and play. Even if it’s not with 45 Grave, I will find a project to be in.”

On Friday, 45 Grave will perform at the Observatory in Santa Ana with the Reverend Horton Heat as part of the intriguingly named “Psychobilly vs. Rock ’n’ Roll” two-day event. Interestingly, 45 Grave play the "psychobilly" night with Nekromantix and Rezurex.

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“I wish I could teleport everybody back to the time where you could see six great bands for $3, but that was back in the 1980s,” Sims says. “Now we’re in 2017 and it’s a whole different atmosphere. Lots of people are staying at home, plugged into their phones all the time. If they want to see something, they’ll just catch it off of YouTube. To do this show is a really good opportunity, and I’m really looking forward to it.”

45 Grave’s second studio album, Pick Your Poison, came out five years ago, and Sims has been busy writing for another one. There might even be some new material aired this weekend and, as a new record from this band is so rare, that’s reason enough to be excited.

“Like a lot of bands, we’ve been waiting to see how everything’s shaking out with the new year,” Sims says. “Once I cross over into 2017, I’ll be taking a look at everything and seeing what direction we'll be going into. It’s a very different time, and I know we have plans to go back to Mexico City, and over to England later in the year, so we’ll be working toward that. Basically, I’ll be planning for the future. Playing live shows, and eventually going into the recording studio.”

45 Grave play with Reverend Horton Heat, Nekromantix, Rezurex and more at the Observatory on Friday, Jan. 6. Tickets and more info.


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