Touring is a dedicated art for Bonnie Bloomgarden, Larry Schemel, Alana Amram and Laura Harris of Death Valley Girls – an art consisting of electrifying, often out-of-body experiences that shape a sound they themselves classify as an “acid-tripping science experiment”. We caught up with the band at last month’s Desert Daze Festival in Joshua Tree, California to chat about their eccentric collection of cool guitars & basses, and why being on tour is the luckiest gig in the world. (Photos by Ryan Hunter)
Guitar Center: Tell us about your main instrument.
Alana (bass): I play a Rickenbacker 4003 bass. We purchased it before a tour in 2005. It’s been dropped down stairs, fallen off stages - and it’s still in perfect working condition. Same strings since the day I got it.
What was it about the 4003 that fits your style?
A: Lemmy played one, although I sound nothing like him. Also, Bruce Foxton from The Jam played a Rickenbacker black & white bass. Tom Petty, too - all the cool guys played a Rickenbacker.
What’s the typical care and feeding for your instrument?
A: I give it a little wipe down every once in a while. I’ll dust it off. That’s bass-ically it.
Tell us about your cymbals.
Laura (drums): They’re Paiste Giant Beats - best cymbals ever. Patrick Keeler of The Greenhornes played them – I saw him play with them and it just sounded so good. I had to have them.
How do they work for the band’s style?
L: They’re kind of dark and washy - the hihats are really crisp. They just always sound good on recordings or live – generally pretty tough even though they’re thin. They take a lot of beatings on the road.
Any tips for cymbal/kit care on the road?
L: Try not to bang them around - get a good, hard case. You don’t have to smash the really little ones so hard because they’ll crack. You can polish them, but I kind of like how they sound when they aren’t polished. They have great bells, too.
“Tele” us about your Tele.
Larry (guitar): I have a Fender '72 Tele Custom Reissue. I actually got it at Guitar Center. I usually play Fender guitars – I have a Jaguar and a Mustang, too. I wanted to get the Tele because I really wanted the sound that Syd Barrett had with a tough Joe Strummer or Keith Richards thing. With the Tele, I was able to get that. It’s a dynamic guitar. It has an intense, treble-y, ear-piercing tone. It’s not just a one-trick guitar.
Bonnie (vocals): It’s a guitar of the gods. When you become immortal, you use a f***ing Tele.
How do you take care of it on the road?
Larry: I don’t tend to change my strings often because I like the sound. I tend to just wear them until they’re dead. It’s taken a beating over the years, but I like that I don’t have to baby the guitar – it’s a tough guy. I don’t have to be too precious, which is great. I’ll bring her in for a set-up after tours.
Tell us about your Hagstrom guitar.
Bonnie: I have a Hagstrom and I love it. It’s a 1962 Futura. Oh boy, do I love it. But it comes from a sad place. I, too, used to have a Fender guitar. I BOUGHT a 1975 Mustang when I was 14. It was orange with really weird white stars drawn on it. Someone had shaved off the paint and made it their own. It was my first guitar. I bought if for $250 and I wrote every single song on that guitar for 15 years - and then she was stolen from me. I didn’t know where to go or what to do, so I went to a guitar store, looked up and I saw this Hagstrom. I went back the next day and said “That guitar rules – I love it.” They do rule – they give off weirder sounds than I ever knew were possible. I like both Fender and Hagstrom.
And how are you about caring for it on the road?
If something’s broken it’ll probably fix itself. You don’t change your strings, you’re only asking for trouble. God tells you when it’s time to change your strings. The earth will tell you when it’s time to do something different. I do get it set up between tours, once every six weeks.
Do you remember the first piece of gear you ever played?
Alana: The first thing I had was a really weird little kid bass. One of the ones you learn on - the poor thing is long gone and very broken. But when everything fell apart on it, I had to learn how to put it back together. It was cool for kids to start on. Then they can keep getting more exciting things.
Do you remember exact moment you realized that music was what you wanted to do with your career?
Bonnie: Not yet, but I’m hoping one of these days. [laughs]
Larry: I remember when I was first able to play an E chord - pressed the distortion and that sounded so gnarly. That’s when the light bulb went off – I was like “This is it, this is that sound.”
Alana: It’s power.
Do any of you have cheaper gear that’s surprisingly durable for the price?
Laura: Nothing for drums. [laughs]
Larry: My main thing is my BOSS Fuzz Pedal. It just gets the gnarliest sound. My baby is the amp – it’s an Ampeg GVT112. It’s super loud - has reverb and an awesome gain on it. It’s light but super tough. It’s been on tour endlessly for the last few years. It’s the sound I always wanted to get from an amp. I’ve played Fender and Marshall, but the Ampeg is so cool.
Bonnie: I want to get the Orange amp we just used for Jam in the Van.
Alana: A microphone – when you’re on tour every night, it’s something you’ve got to put your mouth on. So I bought my own microphone from Guitar Center – it’s a Shure SM-58. It’s the greatest mic & the best for vocals.
Laura: Gaff tape is really helpful. If you’re playing a drum and it sounds messed up, you can always use toilet paper and gaff tape to make it sound workable. I actually have another awesome workhorse story about a Guitar Center purchase – I’ve had my DW5000 Kick Pedal for forever and it’s the only kick pedal that works every time. I just broke it last spring, so we stopped at a Guitar Center and I was thinking “They’re not going to have this piece.” But the guy went through his junk box, like the best person in the world would, and found a Frankenstein way to fix my pedal.
A: The employees are GC are the best when you tell them you’re on tour – you can go anywhere and say “Hey I’m on tour!” They’ll help you out – it’s the coolest thing.
Do you guys practice on the road?
Bonnie: We turn ourselves off between shows – we’re just like jelly people. If we have emergency situations we’ll turn it on and fix the emergency, but then we just turn ourselves off. Power down.
How do you handle it when something goes bad on stage?
Bonnie: There’s no such thing as…
Alana: …a mistake.
B: It’s reality. You get to play music that day, and that’s what you get to do. if you’re lucky, they’ll be a million more days like it, and it’s never going to be the way you want it to. Every day you just have to have fun and remember that there’s somebody there who’s going to see your concert. You can’t worry about things happening outside of your body. For me, the best shows are an out-of-body experience, and the worst shows are a super in-body experience when you’re super aware of little things. Just try to have an out-of-body experience, get through the show and have fun. And don’t complain after - never complain.
Larry: Yeah, don’t be wrapped up in it. Every night, every room is different. If you’re having a good time and your band is all together on the same page, it doesn’t matter about the monitors or sound. If you are having a good time and people are having a good time, that’s what counts.
B: Don’t worry about what you want to eat tomorrow, or where you’re staying – never worry about that stuff when you’re playing. People are there to have fun. They don’t know you hit some weird string, or even what monitors are. When I was a kid and I saw shows, I didn’t know what monitors were. It would have bummed me out if I had gone up to the artist after the show and they said “I couldn’t’ hear myself!” I’d be like “Hear yourself? Why do you need to do that?”
A: Exactly, I’d be like “Why don’t they just turn those speakers on stage around...?”
B: I remember the first time I saw a band drive up in a van and unload at a show. It really clicked – those dudes drive around the country, do this s*** every night and I loved their show. That’s so cool - and then you get to go somewhere else tomorrow?! That’s the coolest thing ever. You should just be happy you get to play music.
Lastly, what did you guys listen to on the way over to Desert Daze?
Bonnie: We’re at a festival – we don’t really listen to anything beforehand. We’re trying to listen to what’s here, get psyched, soak it all in – sometimes the van is a cool place to not listen to music.
Alana: Yeah, we listen to air conditioning…
Larry: Laura has good stories.
B: We just like to talk all day. Even if we drive 8 hours a day, we’ll just talk - which is fascinating.
A: We have a lot of catching up to do.
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