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SPIRITUALITY, PUNK AND SPELLS: THE CULT OF DEATH VALLEY GIRLS

Death Valley Girls band lineup

Words by Jess Fynn

Death Valley Girls are into magic. Witchcraft. The occult. Paganism. They travel through cities like wanderers in the desert, looking for signs of lost souls and falling under the hypnotic spell of their histories. 

Brighton was the last city to be turned Christian, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Bonnie Bloomgarden tells me, a fact she learned from a friend on the Death Valley Girls most recent European tour. She enjoys the idea of people lost in a cause, fighting until the bitter end. Their shows are part church experience, part freakshow, a gospel created from their four studio records Under the Spell of Joy (2020), Darkness Rains (2018), Glow in the Dark (2016) and Street Venom (2014), every night a new service. 

Over the phone, Bonnie is soft spoken and giggly, asking as many questions as she answers, open to the world and its wonders. Speaking on behalf of the band, she shares her thoughts on spirituality and freedom, the Los Angeles music scene, and how punk became the new sport for outsiders.

In an interview Death Valley Girls gave in 2018, you say: “Don’t wait for Rock n’ roll to come to you. Make your scene.” What does subculture as a scene or an attitude, mean to you?

The thing that punk did was create a sport. It was a scene, something that we could all agree on. Of course, fashion is such a big part of that. Your fucking boots – that’s you! That defines you more than your religion or your talent. Your boots, your jacket – that defines your style. You find other kids that are unique, that have their own boots and jacket. You don’t find people that have the same clothes as you. 

It’s easier now to find places and communities that are outsider because of the internet, but it used to be really hard. I remember as a kid, there was everyone else and then there was us. There was a goth, a punk, a Ska kid. All those different scenes came together, as long as you weren’t a square. It’s such a good community and it’s so important because it’s more accepting of everything. If you want to try and be weird, no one cares in the punk scene. What you like, who you’re into, how you feel, how you present – be it more. Be exactly who you are. That doesn’t really exist outside of that scene, or at least it didn’t used to.

 

Freedom and personal rebellion have a strong connection to punk history and what we do at Underground. You recently released a split 7” with a cover of your track ‘The Universe’ and a new single ‘When I’m Free’. Could you talk about the theme of freedom and its relationship to this project?

The last two years I’ve felt like I was under mind control or something crazy. Hearing these songs we wrote, it felt like they were trying to tell me: “dude, you’re free. Wake up, wake up. The power to change, it’s all within you.” ‘When I’m Free’ starts out: “Nothing can happen / to me anymore.” It’s this idea that everything happens for you. It’s switching your mind to be like, everything is happening for you, it’s not happening to you. It’s so weird that it’s almost like me, asleep, writing these songs to wake me up. 

The record is a split 7” with Le Butcherettes, who covered ‘The Universe,’ one of our songs. It was insane because in the beginning, we had a dream list of bands we wanted to tour with, or even just play one show with, and they were one of those bands. To have them cover a song, it was like being under this weird spell of thinking: what is reality? Getting sent that audio of Teri Gender Bender singing that, and it’s such a cool version! And then Peaches did a remix of ‘When I’m Free.’ I don’t even understand how that happened, but it’s exciting.

 

What does freedom feel like for you, Bonnie? 

I’m a really present person. Not even in a good way. I don’t think about the past or the future, really. I think freedom maybe, is the ability to explore the past and the future, but still be present. Not having to avoid anything. That’s what I’m working on at least. Being free to explore my mind without having blocks and things around it. What do you think freedom is?

 

I imagine music is close to that feeling of freedom. Say you’re on stage and you’re not thinking about anything other than the music, or if you’re in a crowd and you’re lost in the moment and what that feels like. It has to be very sensory. 

That’s really cool that you said that. I think you’re totally right. The last two years were a complete prison for me, for everyone. Everyone’s experience is different, obviously, but I forgot that I liked anything. After this tour I remembered that being on stage is freedom because you’re fully nowhere. You’re so present that you’re not anywhere at all. You’re not in your body, you’re not thinking of anything about your body, anything about the past, anything about the future. I guess that’s freedom. I think everyone deserves to have that. A time and place where they’re not conscious of their woes or their body or anything else. I totally forgot there was anything I liked. And there wasn’t really a substitute for that, but I feel like you’re right. Music for most people is freedom. You just let go. You can listen to anything you want, and at any time choose to feel any way. That is freedom. You’re right. Thank you for reminding me of that. 

Death Valley Girls Live music performance

Do you believe in the law of attraction, or hold any other spiritual beliefs that focus on the idea of interacting energies?

Hell yeah! I believe in everything. I definitely believe in the law of attraction. I just don’t know where it comes from or what exactly it is. I’m bipolar and so I’m not totally in control of all of the different things, but when I have the power of control, I can use my mind to make anything happen. Not anything, but you know what I mean. You’re so powerful. Everything is within you. You’re capable of doing anything. 

The simplest test of that is when I got my dog. Every morning, we would wake up and smile. Oh my god, I have a dog. After about a month, I went on tour, and I still woke up happy every day because I had trained myself to just wake up happy. I didn’t need the dog anymore. It’s just repetition. And intentionality. I like to do that in our music. I like to place little things in there as reminders. If you go through life without intentionality, that’s fine. But if you use it, you can totally make things magic. It’s happening whether or not you believe it, I guess is the main thing. Do you like that stuff?

 

I do. I believe in the law of attraction. The idea of people coming into your life when certain energies interact, and then leaving once those energies no longer reinforce each other. That has been a helpful rationale for me.

For me, it changes all of the time and I learn so much new stuff. At any other point in my life, I would have laughed at myself hardcore, but I’ve just learned so much over the last two years, and over my whole life. I didn’t know I was spiritual. I didn’t know what it was. I just thought it was emotions, but it’s energy, and energy is really the connection. Now I have a podcast and I do so many interviews with people that speak about alien abductions or psychics, and at first I was doing it just to see, but now I believe there’s something out there. Whether or not it’s a simulation, or perhaps we’re a video game. There has got to be some kind of multi-dimensional thing happening. I think it’s more fun to think that way anyways.

 

How has your relationship to spirituality evolved since becoming a musician?

As a teenager, there was no way anyone was going to tell me what to believe. I just thought: I’m a kid, why do I need to know if God is real? I’ll worry about it later. By the time I was actually interested in religion and spirituality, I was by myself and able to process it. I think that for the most part, people are taught to fit in, taught that fitting in is a prize or something. It’s not. It’s the opposite of the point of being alive. The point is to be the most true you, and to take that as far as you possibly can, and change the world. And help other people change the world. That’s freedom. 

 

How would you describe the music scene in Los Angeles, and could you talk a little about your personal affinity to the city?

I grew up in Los Angeles, moved to New York when I was seventeen, and then later moved back to L.A. When I moved back, there was not a good music scene. It was very complicated music, more dramatic. I like songs, just songs. The scene slowly started to get punk again, in the sense that anyone could play, and everyone was playing. When I was in New York City, there were maybe like four bands that had a girl in them. I was one of them. There were the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, us and maybe two other bands that had a girl. By the time I came out here, like ten years later, there were countless. There are so many good bands here. You could go to a show any night if you wanted to. I always wanted to be one of those people who are like: I’m going here tonight, I’m going there tomorrow, but I never find out what’s happening until it’s happening.

 

Death Valley Girls have had quite a few musicians pass through the band, and I imagine bring to it different musical energies. What did working with those different musicians bring to the music and the evolution of your sound?

We’re not purposefully trying to sound like anything. Some bands know what they want to sound like, and that’s their favourite music to play and to listen to. We just make the music that comes out when it comes out. I’ve always wanted it to be more of a singing band, just to have the most amount of people sing. Some of the bass players or drummers we’ve had are so good at playing or writing bass, which meant that we had to play with them, but there was always that missing piece of having more vocalists. I think finally, at this point, we just recorded a new record, and the last record Under the Spell of Joy, we recorded with a bunch of singers. We had a kids choir. I love the way it sounds to have loads of people sing in unison. It’s my favourite sound in the world. Without really knowing it, that’s why we’ve gone through loads of people. Just trying to find someone that feels comfortable singing an equal amount. 

 

There is something almost religious in that image, of multiple voices singing in unison. 

It’s like chanting. 

 

What references make up Death Valley Girls’ style and aesthetic?

I’d like for people to not know if we’re from the future or the past, if we’re even really there, if we’re a cult, or time-travellers. We want people to do a double-take, like what is that? We definitely want to make people a little freaked out. Right now, I’m super into this cult visual: eyes that are all big and saucer-like, and they’re really dressed down, but they have cool sneakers on. It’s also what you portray energetically. I kind of want to move into a more futuristic phase, like we’re a future gang that’s going to come and break up fights or something. Something like that.

 

Have you enjoyed the process of seeing how far you could take your music and your art?

Yeah. Performance is an incredible and strange art form. There’s nothing like it. If I’ve learned anything in the last two years, it’s that there is nothing like exchanging energy with people. There is nothing like going into a room full of people that need to expend energy, and maybe don’t know how to do that in other ways, without drinking or without getting wasted. That exchange is so different every night. Every city is different. It is kind of like a religious experience in a lot of ways, where they come to hear our gospel, we share it with them and they get psyched. It’s like a church experience, but also like a freakshow. 

 

What is something that used to scare you but doesn’t anymore?

That’s funny because I feel like I’m afraid of more things than I used to be. To be honest, I used to have the worst stage fright ever. I couldn’t even open my mouth and say one word. I went to school for jazz, and I would skip every performance I had. I could not even speak on stage. If I went on stage, I would be breathless.

 

So when did that change for you?

I was in my first band when I was twenty-something. After three shows, I asked myself: are you a fucking musician or not? You need to choose. Now.

Death Valley Girls guitar and bass
On Key

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