Three girls wearing leather capes and a mysterious man appear in the parking lot shadows of a haunted, desolate desert dive bar, like bats swooping in from a hunt. They take human shape as they approach, the full moon clarifying their silhouettes and a breeze sweeping long tangled hair from their faces, presenting Bonnie Bloomgarden flanked by blond Death Valley Girls bandmates The Kid and Pickle, “666” and pentagrams scrawled on their foreheads with eyeliner. The presence of their lone male bandmate, Larry Schemel, is the least supernatural thing about this gang. At first impression, he looks like a regular guy who just happens to roll with hell-spawned goddesses. Soon enough, it becomes evident that his apparent normalcy is a disguise. He’s as far-out as the girls, and together they exist in a world of ghosts, mummies, UFOs, conspiracy theories, aliens, demons, and rock & roll.
The tenuous margin that keeps fantasy at bay does not contain Death Valley Girls. Certainly not when they perform, even less when they describe reality. “Rock & roll is this wild thing that’s from outer space. It’s paranormal and it’s crazy and it affects you in this way that you can’t explain,” guitarist Schemel says.
His words sum up the band’s performances. A force of wild energy almost sucks in the whole room. The walls nearly shake. Bloomgarden points a shiny raygun at the audience from behind her keyboard, eyes squinting as she targets sweaty strangers with a bright green light, perhaps seeing if any of “the Others” made it to the show, lips curled as her wry, piercing voice takes no prisoners. The Kid disappears in a swell of hair behind the drum kit. Pickle melts into her bass, which she calls “the boning instrument.” She says, “If you play bass you are probably good at sex.” While his presence is unassuming, Schemel’s lead guitar packs an otherworldly punch, transporting the audience to a bluesy rock & roll séance.
Self-described as “hell’s house band,” theirs is a dark sound drenched in overdrive and mutant energy, but it’s more fun than scary, and maniacally compelling. In the words of The Kid: “We are attracted to the dark side because there’s no rules. Enjoy yourself and do what’s fun. It doesn’t pigeonhole you into good or bad or any one thing, it just says have a ball. And that’s the same thing with rock & roll. Have a ball and let your freak flag fly.”
On June 10, Burger Records released the band’s new album, Glow in the Dark, 10 songs that raise hell with shrill harmonies and emphatic, fist-pumping, garage-punk rock. The title track invites disciples to join the revolution. “Death Valley Boogie” and “Disco” demand that listeners break their repressive chains and revel in rebellion. Then there’s “Pink Radiation,” a ballad with The Kid on lead vocals, reminiscent of first wave punk band X-Ray Spex. “Seis Seis Seis” slides in all sultry-like, then gets loud, raucous and scuzzy as anything this side of sin. “I’m a Man, Too” is a post-feminist song. Pickle explains, “We’re stuck in this rhetoric of ‘it’s a male-dominated industry’ and ‘we’re in a patriarchal society.’ We’re trying to think beyond feminism; gender equality to the point that we don’t even talk about gender anymore.” Bloomgarden adds, “I’ve always been in bands and I’ve always been a girl and I haven’t been asked these questions until now: ‘Why are you playing music as a girl?’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t fucking know, I just am one.’”
Death Valley Girls emerged around three years ago in Los Angeles with Bloomgarden, Schemel and his sister, drummer Patty Schemel of Hole fame, forming the core. They released an album, Street Venom, through Burger Records in 2014, followed by singles on Lolipop Records and Manimal Vinyl. About a year into the band, The Kid, formerly known as Laura Kelsey, replaced Patty Schemel and, after a few other lineup changes, the band landed its permanent bassist, Nikki Pickle.
These kindred spirits finish one another’s sentences. They find solace in having been outsiders and weirdos growing up. The Kid commanded a witch club in fourth grade. Pickle put her friends into trances at sleepovers. Bloomgarden would wear full Victorian-goth garb to the zoo, just to freak people out, and Schemel liked hanging out in cemeteries. Not too much has changed, “But I’m not exclusively trying to terrify people right now,” Bloomgarden says. On tour, they visit the most haunted places they can find in each city, and spooky things happen to them … a lot.
“We didn’t ask each other, ‘Hey, were you a freak too when you were little?' But then the power started rolling in and all these supernatural things keep happening to us,” Bloomgarden explains. Aside from witnessing a mummy leaking flesh at a gas station in Echo Park, one of their best stories concerns The Kid getting possessed at Hotel Congress in Arizona, a notoriously haunted place. At the time, Jesse Jones of Feeding People also was singing in the band. She found The Kid in a hallway at 3 a.m. talking to the ghost of a maid. Jones had woken up after having a dream that Bloomgarden woke her up, even though she was at another motel, and at the same moment a dog came to Bloomgarden’s door and tried to get her to leave. It was eerie. The Kid hasn’t been the same since.
Once, a guy wore an alien mask to their show and Bloomgarden abducted him. “He couldn’t really speak because of the mask, so it was easy to pretend he was from another planet,” Pickle says. “She wanted to teach him about love, the physical act of love, but he said he had to go to work the next day.” They giggle at this, but they do have a plan if/when an alien visits Earth and lands at their house. First, they would sit the alien down and play it The Stooges’ seminal 1970 proto-punk album Fun House, “the height of human accomplishment,” Schemel says. Then they would show it how to hold hands, humanity’s other greatest gift.