The Detroit Cobras in conversation…
Blasting out of the Motor City, releasing their first album nearly twenty years ago, the Detroit Cobras are the ultimate rock n roll regeneration machine, taking lost soul R & B and R&R gems and remaking them in their own image. Possessed of the fire of rock n roll that seems to inhabit so many denizens of the Detroit music scene, from the Stooges and the MC5 onwards, the Cobras’ unique selling point is they use that blistering rock n roll to forge an art form that is uniquely their own.
Guitarist Mary Ramirez brings a hard punching attack which is almost reminiscent of Johnny Ramone at times. She cites 5 Royales’ guitarist Lowman Pauling as her primary influence – himself a criminally underrated guitar slinger in the blues tradition. Countering Mary’s axe attack is vocalist Rachel Nagy – with a voice so powerful, distinctive and emotive that it is insane to think that the likes of Adele are considered the benchmark of great female vocals, when compared to Nagy she sounds like a blustering pretender to the crown of authentic soul.
Have a look at any of the live footage of the Cobras on YouTube for a taste of the DC vibe. There is a constant stream of good-natured banter between Rachel and Mary, punctuating the full throttle, no holds barred, three minute sonic assault they perform on song after song. If, as the MC5 sang, the Motor City is burning, the Cobras are the white-hot core of that heat.
The interesting thing about the songs the Cobras cover, is that in almost every case their version is at least as good – if not better than – the source. I’ve frequently tracked down the originals of the various tracks and thought that what this song is really crying out for is a Rachel Nagy vocal!
As great as the band is, they’ve been criminally under recorded, with only four actual albums, plus a handful of ‘odds and ends’ sweep up compilations. The band have never recorded an original song save for Hot Dog, which is, ironically, one of the best things they’ve ever done! I was curious as to why there had been so little activity on the recording front and why they seem so reluctant to move out of the world of covers – albeit superior master classes in how to make a song your own.
There have been so many line-up changes in the band since day one that it would be a redundant exercise to try to account for the movements in and out. The constant, however, is the presence of Mary Ramirez and Rachel Nagy. Given the band’s low profile in recent years, it was interesting to see that Jack White’s Third Man had decided to re-release the first two albums late last year. Hopeful that this might be indicative of a return to a more active career, I interviewed Mary and Rachel at length on their early days, influences and current plans.
In the early days of any band when they’re building up their set, there will inevitably be a smattering of covers thrown in to fill out the set and nail their colours to a particular mast. The Cobras were different – they seemed to decide from day one that it was going to be covers all the way. Mary: “Yes, we just care about great songs and recordings – who writes it is secondary – just do what you do best. The idea of covering R&B records is as old as rock and roll itself, so the idea is nothing new. Look at The Stones, Beatles, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, etc. A better question would be ‘how did we get here?” So how did you get there I wondered? Mary again ” My mother refused to listened to anything but Stax and Columbia records, and would not allow any other records in the house. Exceptions were made for things like Freddy Fender and few others. The woman had strong ideas about things, including white people and their hi jinx – even though she dyed her hair blonde for many years! Rachel’s take: “Being stuck up in my bedroom while my parents were stomping the floor to Motown records, puts a bad taste in one’s mouth for a while. What child doesn’t rebel at their parents’ tastes?” According to Rachel one thing that she and Mary had in common was that they were runaways at a young age. “That freedom let us understand that we were allowed to be angry, to dance and figure out who we really were – which proves you can’t run from yourself.”
The first Detroit Cobras album ‘Mink, Rat or Rabbit’ came out on the uber hip Sympathy For The Record Industry label in 1988. Being seen as part of the whole Detroit and garage/punk type movement that was bursting out at that time, with the White Stripes and The Von Bondies etc didn’t do the Cobras any harm in boosting their profile. The Cobras were, however, unlike any of their contemporaries. Although the album was entirely comprised of covers, who knew? Certainly the majority of hipsters looking towards this whole new era of Detroit rock wouldn’t have been aware of the authorship of the nuggets that the Cobras had unearthed. The raw power and deep soul-infused warmth of the set made the album an essential no-brainer buy for anyone who had a love for the heart and soul of rock n roll. I wondered who had the records that they were covering, and how they agreed on the keepers and rejects. According to Mary: “Steve Shaw and Jeff Meier (from their original line-up) are both lovers and librarians of great music. For us there are no ‘rejects’ – just ones that hit it much better”. Given the almost obsessively left field choices the band made, I wondered if obscurity was a key ingredient in their choice of material. “No” said Mary. “What we care about is the song. Regardless of who wrote it or when – a great song is a great song”. As for what happened to the ones that didn’t make the cut – were they just discarded? Rachel: “well have you ever found yourself next to a girl you once said ‘never again’, and there you are….next Tuesday!”
2001 saw the release of their follow-up for the same label ‘Life, Love and Leaving’. The standard of the first album was easily matched and again the band hit paydirt with every track – the album plays like a stack of your favourite singles dropping down one after another – a perfect party record. 2004 saw the release of the ‘Seven Easy Pieces’ EP, followed by Baby in 2008. Something ironically perfect about the Cobras modus operandum occurs on this album! It’s the one time they recorded an original song, ‘Hot Dog’ – which sounded like yet another superior unearthed treasure. Given how well it turned out I couldn’t understand why they didn’t write more. Mary: ”Once we proved that we could do it, it really didn’t matter one way or another!” I pressed her on whether that could perhaps be seen as a lack of ambition. “It always seemed to me that the persons that wanted us to write our own songs were guys at the record companies, who were maybe waiting eagerly for their part of that”. I wondered if the constant discussion of their role as covers specialists was irritating? “If we didn’t tell people they were covers they wouldn’t know – when we did ‘Hot Dog’, during interviews in Europe, people would ask ‘do you think you will write’ and since they had a promo copy of the record in their hands with no info, we would tell them we already did, its in your hand! The fact that they couldn’t tell which one it was, made me and Rachel convinced we had done it and had nothing to prove. Don’t people realise how much music they listen to that was not written by someone in the band? I really believe that every band should choose a cover that represents them and do it well, and then if your songs are not as good, or better than your cover, go back and start over. I can almost always tell when a band I don’t know is doing a cover, even if I don’t know the song. Sometimes I’m wrong, and happily so!
‘Tied and True’ came out on Bloodshot in 2007 and the Cobras were still riding high on coverage in the music press etc. There was an extended period as the flavour of the month – in the UK in particular. Why did they think that moved on? Mary again: ”People’s tastes like our own are constantly changing – it’s like Brussels sprouts!’
The band’s output has been very limited since that time, with the commensurate drop in their profile. I wondered if they thought they could have achieved more if they’d been pushing as hard as some bands seem to do. Mary: “We were never hungry for success – just good music – and maybe that’s why we had success. Success can be measured many ways – as far as Rachel and I are concerned we were better than we thought. Many people think it’s easy to do covers. I would argue with them ‘Let’s see you do it’. I mean anybody can go get songs and do them, so why don’t they? Right now there is an artist with big dollars behind her, and on her last album did three of our songs exactly the same way we did. Talk about lack of imagination and no shame! I would be embarrassed by this, but hey I guess they have ambition, right?”
I asked if she was referring to Samantha Fish, who had recently made a big show out of having members of the Detroit Cobras play on her album. Indeed she has covered three lesser known gems that the Cobras had already brought before the public, even opening up the album with one. I would suggest it smacks of a profound lack of ambition and confidence from Fish to not only appropriate Cobras’ material but also former band members. Perhaps in reality the blame lies with her producer, Bobby Harlow, who apparently chose the songs for her – instead of trying to make her the next Detroit Cobras why not the first Samantha Fish? The ironic thing about this is that the only two members of the Cobras who can say with certainty that they are in the Detroit Cobras are Rachel and Mary- they are the Detroit Cobras.
I asked if the drop in profile has limited the availability of opportunities for the band in recent years. Mary was defiant on that one – “We are doing as much as we choose to do – but we are definitely planning to gig a lot more this year.”
Given that it is ten years since their last non compilation release surely they must be geared and primed for a return to the recording studios? Mary confirmed that they were recording but with no label or agenda at present but they are “definitely thinking in terms of releasing a series of 45s”.
One of their most inspired covers was their intense reworking of The Strokes’ ‘Last Nite. I could easily see them reworking a lot of modern stuff into the Cobras own unique vibe. Putting soul into songs that don’t have a lot is a rare skill! Mary’s reply was unexpected – “Rachel has a wonderful plan to rain down hell as a dance cover band – sadly she’s not kidding!” I actually think anything that they put their minds to cover would come out sounding like the Cobras – such is the strength and depth of Mary and Rachel’s integrity, passion, soul and strength of self belief. Their commitment to making great music out of whatever the raw material may be is total. For anyone unfamiliar with the band’s work you have a major treat in store.
For us long time fans, the prospect of some killer new releases around the corner to complement the high quality vinyl rereleases of the first two albums is fantastic news!
Mark McStea April 2018