The wonderfully named Bonnie Bloomgarden, singer and multi-instrumentalist with Los Angeles psych-rockers Death Valley Girls, is a captivating conversationalist. Her passion and enthusiasm for her band is wildly infectious, even under current conditions. And lord, she has every right to be psyched (pun intended). Death Valley Girls’ third full-length album, 2018’s Darkness Rains, saw the group dial up the Sabbath-meets-Stooges-meets-early-ZZ-Top psychedelic stoner sludge, and make new friends on the process.
Their first new offering since then is the Breakthrough EP — two covers that perfectly highlight where the band is at in 2020. The title track is an old Atomic Rooster tune, though it was a previous cover by Nigerian band the Funkees that attracted Bloomgarden and her bandmates to the song. Further inspiration, though, came from an unlikely source.
“We were on tour this one time, we were listening to this Nigerian ‘70s rock & roll compilation, and this song came on and we thought it was really cool,” she says. “At the same time, we were also listening to this book by Damien Echols who was wrongfully convicted of murder. We were listening to his book and it was amazing to us, the idea that somebody learned how to astral project, learned how to survive and thrive in the worst of conditions. I thought that was so cool, and we were listening to the song at the same time. It just seemed like that song and that concept, what we learned from him, really stuck with us so we wanted to record it for him.”
Echols, if you remember, was one of the West Memphis Three — convicted in 1994 for the horrific and ritualistic murder of three young children named Steve Branch, James Moore and Christopher Byers. Investigations were going nowhere, so the murders were pinned on Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley for seemingly no other reason than they wore black, listened to metal and read Stephen King.
“It was like the beginning of Satanic panic,” says Bloomgarden. “The whole system is so messed up, people don’t even realize that even if they find the guy that did it, or girl, you don’t just automatically leave prison. That was a really interesting part of the story too. They would rather pay money to keep you in so that they don’t look bad. So it’s such a bad system, but it’s such an amazing story and it reminds you that your mind is everything. It’s the opportunity. You can do anything inside your mind. And also, when this is coming out, during this time, it seems like a good time to return to your mind and remember you have so much power.”
That is an important message right now, at a time when we’re all cooped up but starting to think about the transition back to something resembling normality. Temptation reigns, and mistakes will be made. We need to stay sensible. While “Breakthrough” is an old song written by somebody else, and even though the Death Valley Girls recorded it before the lockdown, the lyrics ring eerily true.
“It’s weird because it makes so much sense,” says Bloomgarden. “But that happens a lot with us — we don’t realize what’s happening until, sometimes until someone makes a video and we go, ‘Oh that’s what that song means — cool.’ But yeah, I can’t remember exactly when we did it, I actually have no concept of time at all, but it seems really, really, really long ago.”
The frontwoman says that this EP will serve as the perfect bridge between Darkness Rains and their next full project.
“We’ve been getting really into the idea of singing together and singing with as many people as possible, and then also making records for people to sing to,” she says. “On ‘Breakthrough,’ we had 10 friends come and sing. So yeah, it’s just the idea that there’s power in singing and it also feels really good. I think we’re copying other religions or something. It’s cover songs [there’s also a cover of Daniel Johnson’s ‘Rock & Roll/EGA’ on the EP], so there’s something in it that attracted us to it. We’ve done one cover before but we don’t usually do it so there’s something that made us want to do this. People will find their own thing that they’re pulled to and want to sing along to.”
Bloomgarden says that, like everything else they’ve put out, the EP was recorded at Station House Studio in Echo Park. Darkness; the studio dog belonging to engineer Mark Rains, was their guiding animal (hence the previous album being named Darkness Rains). Business as usual then. In fact, Bloomgarden says that the lockdown barely affected the rollout at all
“It had an effect in the way that what was important shifted for everyone in the world,” she says. “But it kinda felt like this song made sense, particularly at the time. It’s a song you’re supposed to sing to, just talking about breaking free and breaking through in your mind. You can free wherever you are. It’s so scary, even though it’s hard to keep the fear up. But this is totally scary, these times. There’s always music to make it a little less scary or to escape to.”
In an attempt to stay sane, Bloomgarden says that she has spent much of the past three months inside of her own head, thinking.
“That sounds funny and weird, but we are usually on tour and we knew that we were going to have the longest break we’ve ever had which is supposed to be four months, from December to March,” she says. “That was going to be our break and we were going to record in there. So we knew we were already going to have to stay at home for our months and figure out how to be productive members of society because usually we work for months and then we cocoon for months. You can’t cocoon for four months — that’s not good for anybody. So we already had been working on how to be here. Then when this all happened, it seemed like the whole world had to work out how to be here. It seemed like a great opportunity to just think and consider stuff.”
Whether they retained sanity or not, there will be new music released over the coming weeks and months, and Bloomgarden will try to figure out how to take the music to the people.
“In this time, you have to think ‘what is the live experience? What do people need from that? Is it possible to do it any other way?’ she says. “We’ll hopefully get to play live, but I think things are going to be slow and things are going to change. Hopefully they’re all gonna change for the better. It’s a great opportunity change, to fix things that weren’t working, including in our rock & roll music industry.”
Death Valley Girls’ “Breakthrough” is out now through Suicide Squeeze Records.