Rachel Nagy talks Detroit Cobras, Lafayette Coneys, soul music, and more
Personally, I’m a fan of rants and divergences during conversations, that’s why this interview with Rachel Nagy of the Detroit Cobras, which appeared on dane101.com on October 2, 2016, has earned itself the top spot on my list of favorite interviews of all time. It might be second only to my interview with Kelley Deal. When I originally wrote up my questions for Rachel Nagy I’d planned for a 15-minute interview. Thanks to her rocket fuel drenched brain and stream-of-consciousness way of speaking, we were on the phone for a solid half hour. I wouldn’t trade a second of it.
We unintentionally covered everything from how she copes with road rage (she was on her cell phone in Detroit traffic), moving back to Detroit from San Diego, hot dogs, digging up a former soul musician from a crack house, and why you should never come at an ex-butcher with a broken bottle…and lots more.
The Cobras rework soul music from the 50s and 60s into rollicking rock and roll. They defy the title of a cover band as anything they touch they make their own. And even the biggest stick in the mud would find it hard to resist the urge to dance and shake at one of their live shows. Cobras Fact: The band’s one original song “Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat)” was inspired by UW-Madison alum Chris Martel’s website “WatchMeEatAHotDog.com.”
Rachel Nagy: We’re about to have a beautiful thunderstorm…
D101: You’re in San Diego, right?
Rachel Nagy: No, I’m in Detroit. I had been in San Diego for probably…I don’t know…a good six to eight months and that was a relationship thing and as we know relationships have a tendency to end. Especially when you leave for tour and just don’t bother to come back.
D101: Well, I imagine the atmosphere in Detroit is better for the music you do.
RN: Yeah, and my mental health, strangely enough. It’s like, “Oh hi, I live on a boat in this beautiful pristine bay looking at seals jumping in and out of the water and the occasional dolphin. We live right across the street from Sea World, so you can hear all of the animals making their noises and every night at 10 o’clock we got to watch fireworks from Sea World. We just go outside, didn’t even have to do any special maneuvering…just go outside on the deck of the boat and watch your fireworks every night.”
Yeah, it was a terrible life. And of course, having a business that we built together, doing really well with that and driving around on our motorcycles, 75 degrees every day.
Yeah, it was horrible. So after all that Detroit is better for me.
D101: Right, right.
RN: When you’re born in Detroit you’re fucked from the beginning, man. They must put something in our skulls or brains, that’s it, it’s all over.
D101: Does everyone always end up back there?
RN: You got it, you can’t escape and we love it because we’re sickos. Very, very strange phenomena, I should get someone with a research team from U of M to study the “can’t get out of Detroit” phenomena.
D101: I wanted to start off actually asking you about Hot Dogs. I’m an acquaintance of the guy who started the site WatchMeEatAHotDog.com. So I sent him an email telling him I would be interviewing you and asked if there were any questions he wanted me to ask. One was where’s his check?
RN: (laughing) Yeah, more like where’s ours for free advertising.
D101: Then he told me to ask, and he said you would know what I was talking about, do you prefer Lafayette Coney Island or American Coney Island?
RN: (laughing) Ahhh…Lafayette of course.
D101: So they are hot dog stands in Detroit that are right next to each other?
RN: Its the funniest setup. They are right there. They’re Coney’s, hot dogs with chili on them. People will actually get violent about their preferences. It’s the strangest thing…it’s like…its a freakin’ hot dog! It’s lips and assholes. As long as it hasn’t been left in the sun rotting or its really horrible or its made of all assholes – its like, it’s a hot dog! Get over it!
D101: People are really passionate about hot dogs.
RN: Well, as the song says, I can eat one or three, but that’s about it.
D101: The Detroit Cobras do a great service by mining the stacks for long-forgotten songs from the 50s and 60s, I was wondering how you go about deciding the songs you want to perform.
RN: Well, obviously you like what you like and it’s almost that natural thing where you put something in your mouth to eat it and you’re like “Yum!” and you eat some more or you’re like “Yuck!” and you spit it out. Then there are things that are in between, you know if I have to eat it I will. There is a lot of that in soul music, too. There’s a lot of formulas that are very much the same. You can find the same song over and over again. You have to be careful for that. And you have to be careful because some things are sacred. And we also don’t want to be a Motown Revue, you know.
That’s the funny thing when people call us a cover band, it’s like, if we’re a cover band, I bet you don’t know any of these songs. Usually cover bands are at the corner bar playing Creed. And songs everyone knows and wants to sing along with. Usually people are pretty amazed, even those that are very deep into their music, They’re usually pretty surprised to find out what songs are what.
The snooty critics will be like “Oh yeah, they do the version of blah, blah, blah by blah, blah, blah” and they’ll get it wrong. Its like ah-ha, you asshole!
D101: That’s the thing about that music is it is so hard to find out who actually wrote it. Like a lot of that Stax Records stuff and things like that, you’ll hear one version and think that is who the original artist is and then a year later find out you are totally wrong.
RN: There’s been a lot of cases where there will be a version of a song where the original will be good, but then a girl group will do their take on it and it’s even better, you know? That’s kind of cool.
With us, sometimes we try to be very faithful but other times we take extreme liberties. But usually it always becomes something completely different, it definitely always becomes ours. It’s another thing that sets us apart from a Motown Revue.
D101: Is that pretty much all you listen to at home? 50s and 60s music?
RN: yeah, I’m terrible, if it wasn’t for a guy was seeing I wouldn’t listen to anything new. But thanks to him he’s turned me onto some bands lately. I’ve been listening to the Bronx, I think they’re out of L.A. and Drive-By Truckers, they’re pretty interesting. Another great one, The Sword.
D101: I’ve heard of them but I’ve never heard them. They were in town a few months ago.
RN: You should have gone. We went and saw them, I am not even kidding it was the best show, best live show I have seen in I-don’t-know-when. Not cause of anything crazy or special that they did, they just rocked. We danced our asses off and it’s like heavy metal. Just really, really heavy, dark ya know – chucka, chucka, chucka, chucka – and it is just wicked, awesomely great, but you can dance to it. You can totally rock to it. I used to be a metal fan, like Metallica and Slayer, there is still a soft spot in my heart for that stuff and they just do a great job of it. So melodic, tough as hell, but it’s got a beat and I can dance to it.
D101: I’ll have to add them to my check out list.
RN: You should definitely do that – AWW!! Come on buddy! You’re going to be an asshole! Thanks! Fuck you, too! Yeah, FUCK YOU!
D101: Are you driving?
RN: Yeah, fucking prick! There was a wide open space, wide open, as I’m getting over he speeds up. So now – this is why I will never own a new car because I like the option of going – BAM!!! Ya know?
Yeah, you need to watch it when you’re driving your brand new Volkswagen, there you asshole! I could fuckin’ run up your ass and not even care, you’re gonna care when your fuckin’ fender crumbles…sorry…a window into the violence of Rachel. Whoopsie…I mean “God is Love!”
D101: (laughing) No problem, carry on, have a nice day.
RN: (laughing) Here, have a cookie!
D101: I read that you met Jackie Del Shannon, have you ever met any of the other writers of the songs you do?
RN: We have…we’ve gotten quite a few responses. The guy that wrote “Hey Sah-Lo-Ney” he loved it. He loved our version, we call it “Hey Sailor” on the record and he actually differed to us and said “I love your version of ‘Hey Sailor” also known as ‘Hey Sah-Lo-Ney.” He actually sent us some more music that he had written. Unfortunately, there was a reason it was one hit. We were excited, we were like “Yes! We just hit the gold mine!” but it was more like ‘oh’ – fast forward – ‘oh’ skip – ‘oh’ skip.
We were bummed, then he died and his brother tried to pull a fast one, He wrote us and said: “It was really me who wrote ‘Hey, Sah-Lo-Ney’ and I got some more music for you.”
Then we were like “never mind.” The compliment was great in the beginning but then we were being stalked by the original artist and his brother!
But…yeah, there’s been an amazing amount of…and of course now I can’t think of them…but the best one I love the most, of course, because she’s my God…Irma Thomas…supposedly, it was somebody that we know who she is apparently acquaintances with one of Irma Thomas’ best friends…okay this is how shit ends up in the Enquirer, people talking like this…but she said that Irma Thomas had heard some of our songs and actually liked it. Now I don’t know if this is actually true, but in my heart of hearts and in the small little voice in my head I believe it’s true, it has to be true. That would be the best thing in the world for that to be true. I would quake in her presence, it would be like meeting God or your biggest hero.
D101: Have you ever tried to reach out to any of these people to collaborate or anything?
RN: No. Our old bass player got into that, a long time ago when he was still in the Cobras he had a thing for Nathanial Mayer, who’s from Detroit. Back then, when we still played “Village of Love,” we started hanging out in this bar on the east side, a really bad part of town and…cause we would just do that go into old crappy bars cause it’s out town…
D101: They have the best character.
RN: Exactly. Dusty, she’s a bartender…she was a spark man, a little firecracker…then one day out of the blue Jeff starts talking about Nathaniel and she was like “Awww, shit, that bum, he’s my cousin.” And he was cracked out and fucked up and everything and Jeff had this huge obsession even before she said that, cause he almost shit himself when she said that. he had this thing like “I’m gonna find him, I’m gonna get him to play again and I’m gonna be in his band.”
So he’s going to go into these crack houses and shit and it’s like “Okay Jeff, whatever, dude. This guys gonna say yes to whatever you want to hear and he’s gonna rip you off. He’s gonna want money and he’s not going to do anything for you.”
And she basically told him the same thing, “Look, baby, you don’t want to fuck around with those people, he’s hanging around with bad people.”
But I guess in the last year or two he found him and started playing with him. And I guess they started putting out a record and everything. It’s pretty funny, but, yeah, Nathaniel’s pulled some fast ones, because he’ll go off and smoke crack, not show up for the gig and Jeff has to give him all sorts of money – so pretty much everything we said was going to happen – except Jeff never got beat up, I don’t think.
D101: But they’re still playing?
RN: I think they may have actually put out a record, on Fat Possum even. I think, but I’m not certain.
(Jeff Meier and Nathaniel Mayer put out the album I Just Want To Be Held in 2004 on Fat Possum)
D101: You’ve been doing this for nearly a decade. How do you deal with all of the line-up changes? How do you and Mary keeping grinding out the material and putting on amazing shows?
RN: Ahh…yep…cause we’re insane.
It’s weird, every time we get it together and its perfect and everything is going swimmingly, people will quit or have a stroke or have a baby. It’s hard to get five people’s lives to line up. We’re not kids. It’s a hard thing to do. The thing is there is no shortage of people who want to play with us, but they have to be right. People think, “Oh, there covers it’s easy, what’s the problem?”
It’s actually harder. When people are playing original songs they have the freedom to fuck up. They can change something. With us it is something very specific that we’re after. Its someone else’s thing and we want you to do it in a very exact way.
Other people, they may love the music, but when they start playing it – sometimes they realize it and sometimes only we realize it, unfortunately – they don’t understand it. They don’t understand what makes it work.
D101: They don’t have the heart.
RN: Yeah, some people just don’t have soul. Or drummers that don’t have swing. And it definitely is. I mean, people think Mary and I are nuts when we talk, but it is a lot of intangible stuff that you can’t put down in words or speech and say, “Yeah, those are the right notes, but you got to…swoop…” I’ve gotten into, by no choice of my own, into interpretative dance. Just because I have to show people, physically with my body, what I want the music to do. it started with “Baby” on the last record. Mary is actually encouraging me, so now they have come to depend on me. I look over and they are all watching me and I’m like, “oh great, now I have to do the dance.” But you know what, it works. It expresses exactly what’s needed.
D101: Can we see some of that when you come to Madison?
RN: (laughing) I don’t know.
D101: I’ll be yelling “do the swoop dance!”
RN: You know what, if you do that Mary probably will kiss you.
D101: So what can we expect when you come to town this time?
RN: I don’t know, what can you expect? Hopefully a little tighter of a band, just expect a good time..oh, look, someone is nice! How nice of you.
D101: In the car?
RN: Thank you!
You know it’s funny in the last interview I did the person asked: “What’s one of your biggest pet peeves?” And the first thing that popped in my mind was when you let somebody in or you do something minor to disadvantage yourself, for someone and they don’t give you the wave or a nod or acknowledge it. That always pisses me off. So I always give a nice hearty wave.
D101: Or on the opposite end a very hearty middle finger?
RN: Oh yeah, I scream and people. I fuckin’ get into it. It’s funny one boyfriend I had a while back, he was like “God, just settle down.” You don’t see me road raging though. I yell, I get it out of my system and it’s over. I don’t cut someone off, I don’t get revenge. I just yell at them and its over. I think my way is much more effective.
The best thing though, you may have heard, I used to be a butcher. And you carry your knives with you in a toolbox. And then one day, I didn’t even cut this guy off, and I got in and we got off this exit and this guy steps to me. He actually gets out of his car. he’s yelling “fuckin’ bitch, blah, blah, blah.” And his girlfriend gets out with a bottle. She breaks the bottle and starts coming towards me. All I do is I flip the latch on my toolbox. I look down and I see two really nice scimitars, you know those nice curved ones?
RN: And I roll down the window, held them both up and I say, “I’m a butcher mutha fucker, wanna go?” And they both just went turned around and got the fuck in their car and ran the red light.
D101: That’s classic.
RN: It was, it was great, it was such a gratifying moment. You want to step to me, I know how to cut you apart in 16 different ways. I can make filet out of you mother fucker. You want to step to me with your manhood and a broken bottle.