A punk rock scene, any punk rock scene, isn’t built on the bands that break big and wind up headlining Vans Warped shows and, eventually, their own arena tours, selling shirts at Hot Topic and getting masses of mainstream radio play.
No, a valid punk scene is rooted in the dives and basements, populated by fans who care little about the number of units their latest fave sells, and by bands who know that they’re only as good as the last gig in front of 50 people (including the bartender, sound person, other bands on the bill and their own friends). Punk is many things to many people, and all of it is valid. But a punk scene has to be in your face and personal. Sweaty, stinky and fucking obnoxious.
Death on the Radio know this. They know it because, for a couple of decades at least, the three musicians in the band — bassist Lee Powers, drummer Roger DeLong and guitarist Danny Dorman — have lived it. These are lifers — weather-worn and battle-scarred from years of loading in, pummeling, then loading out, to little acclaim. They do it because they love it.
For about eight years, they’ve been together under the current moniker. For most of that time, up until the end of 2017, Powers’ now ex-wife, Mary, was the vocalist. As of December, though, Maxine Murder has been fronting the band. Powers picks up the story…
“The band has been through several incarnations,” the bassist says. “It actually had a different name when it began — it was called The Modern End. It was an acoustic, tribal, death-rock combo with hand percussionists. But then it developed into an electric band when I joined around 2010. That’s when we changed the name to Death on the Radio. ‘Death’ means change, and we were tired of all the stuff we were hearing on the radio, all the new pop music and that kind of stuff. What we really wanted to see was a change on the radio. We were sick of all the fluffy music on the radio.”
2010 was also the year that Mary Powers appeared on season nine of American Idol, not a TV show one would normally associate with the grassroots L.A. punk scene, but there you go.
“She auditioned with Pat Benatar, ‘Love Is a Battlefield,’” Powers says. “My daughter met Simon Cowell. [Mary] made it all the way to Hollywood week, made it to the top 72, and then they kind of portrayed her as the bitch of the show and kicked her off. This year, Mary decided that she had other priorities and other opportunities she wanted to go after, and we were lucky enough to pick up Maxine this year.”
According to Dorman, Miss Murder saved the band. The singer herself is a little more humble, saying that she brought a different flavor in with her, respecting and acknowledging the existing members’ efforts and their history.
“Just a completely open mind and willingness to do whatever it takes,” she says. “To meet them in the middle and not try to overstep them. Not have a thing of, ‘I’m new and I’m going to try to take over.’ That’s not what it’s about. I had to ask a lot of questions and make sure that what I was doing worked for them. I still to this day want to make sure of that. It’s not a one-woman kind of show. I can’t do this on my own. It’s something brand-new.”
The foursome are clearly still in the honeymoon period; Murder has only been in for six months and they haven’t had time to develop lasting resentments yet. For now, they’re all loved up on each other, with Dorman referring to the relationship as a “hot, smoldering mess of love.”
“I’ll tell you what Maxine brought to the band — a passion, and an energy that has not been in this band for quite a while,” DeLong says. “It’s fun, exciting and new. She has a great voice and she’s brought a killer violin to the mix, which really adds something. She’s just brought a fresh new life and energy to the band. She’s a godsend to us.”
Death on the Radio’s sound is coming from a dark, death-rock part of the punk spectrum. Think 45 Grave and Siouxsie & the Banshees. There are other eclectic elements, too, hence the Talking Heads and Lene Lovich covers they perform live.
“I feel like it’s a mix of a lot of different flavors,” Murder says. “Everything from old-school punk to dark rock, some ska, little bit of rock & roll, metal, goth, industrial — and it’s growing even more. The more we all work together.”
On their Facebook page, it says, “From the ashes of the L.A. punk scene comes a surge from the decay.” Does that mean that they think L.A. punk had died?
“It has changed actually,” DeLong says. “It’s bigger and stronger. It had a dormant period not all that long ago, and now it’s been revived and the old cats are doing all kinds of crazy stuff. The whole scene has been revived from the ashes. It’s got the same vibe, but it’s not the same as it was in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s. That kind of thing isn’t around much anymore. But the fire of the old punk scene has been revived.”
That’s reassuring. It’s also appropriate that the band play Cafe NELA this week. That joint has become a punk-rock hangout and venue of choice for L.A. punks — the sort of spot that you can go to without checking the calendar and know you’re going to hear some awesome music.
“Dave Travis [NELA owner] is such a great benefactor to the punk scene,” Powers says. “He’s been good to every band that’s walked through there. He’s an amazing guy and he’s kept the scene alive there. Cafe NELA alone, just the atmosphere, has this amazing feeling when you get there, and then everyone treats you so nice, it’s like being at home. Then it has that old checkerboard hard dance floor, and the old beat-up booths, a big section outside where everybody can congregate. It’s just fantastic. It’s amazing just being in that place by itself, but then you put some really good bands on, and the energy is out of control.”
Death on the Radio have just one single out, a 7-inch called The Death Rock 45, through local label Scare America. They have some more stuff recorded, but want to go back into the studio and add Murder’s vocals. Regardless, they have a full and exciting set prepared for this gig.
“We have a full set that we’re all excited to play, and it’s gonna be a lot of new stuff and things that haven’t been performed in a while, and a lot of songs that most of the fans know pretty well,” Murder says. “You’re in for a surprise, because it’s an interesting blend of hard-hitting rockers and hypnotic sounds. Sick-adelic.”
“You’ll see Maxi play the violin,” Powers adds. “It’ll be a whirlwind of songs and a roller coaster of emotions.”
Death on the Radio play with The Neck Breakers, Downtown Devil Dogs and The Hymen Blasters at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 19, at Cafe NELA.
Death on the Radio from 2013, back when Mary Powers was fronting the band.