Saturday, 7 February 2009
Poison Ivy Rorshach!
I have been really torn up about Lux Interior's death in the hospital a few days ago, and thinking about Lux and Ivy the last few days motivated me to hunt through my filing cabinet for this old interview transcription.
It's an interview I did with Poison Ivy Rorshach of The Cramps back on February 23rd, 1992; she was in Providence, RI, on tour at the time, and I was in Ottawa, writing for Trans FM (which was the magazine of CKCU 93.1, Carleton's University radio station). Portions of this interview appeared in the paper at the time.
CKCU had a weird little rubber-lined booth there at the station that you'd squeeze into, and then you'd pick up the phone and speak to whomever at the appointed time, and the interview would be recorded and theoretically ready to air.
I freely admit here at the outset that I asked really dumb questions, and said really embarrassing things - not the least of which was describing The Cramps' back catalogue as sounding "hollow" right at the start of the interview.
Luckily, Ivy must have realised I wasn't actually mean or ignorant, just incredibly clumsy with words. Things improved thereafter and, in retrospect, the first lady of rock'n'roll guitar was very generous with her time indeed.
My sincere best wishes to her at this time, and my greatest respect to the greatest couple in rock'n'roll, Lux & Ivy.
On the new album "Look Mom! No Head", you've achieved a very full sound - and I guess that's very much your doing as you produced it. Obviously the bass shows more prominence, because you didn't have bass until recently --
Ivy: Well, we did since "Date With Elvis". I played bass on "Date With Elvis" and... the other one on that. But we didn't have a bass player like this one though (Slim Chance), so that makes a big difference.
There seems to be a move away from the more hollow sound of your earlier albums. Was this intentional, or was this just the way things worked out?
Ivy: Um, OK. I guess I don't understand what hollow means in relation to sound.
Well, I think it's a really cool sound on the first few albums. It's hard to describe.
Ivy: For us, "Songs The Lord Taught Us" - we felt, even though the production on that is fascinating, it didn't showcase The Cramps for what we are, which is a tough rock'n'roll band. It didn't get what we do live, which is rock. It didn't really capture that.
It definitely had a creepy atmosphere, and that has a certain kind of appeal to it. But, at the same time, it didn't really show us for that (rocking sound). And then after ("Songs The Lord Taught Us"), we didn't know much about production either, and we were limited by budget restraints.
Do you ever think about going back to a creepy sound?
Ivy: We kind of like trying to do it all at the same time. I think we want the presence too, cuz in our early stuff, you couldn't - I think the vocals really suffered on our early stuff. You couldn't hear what Lux was saying or singing. I think there's just more presence now. But yeah, we've always liked to have a creepy edge to our music.
How did you hook up with the two new members (bass player Slim Chance and drummer Nickey Alexander) of The Cramps?
Ivy: Through word of mouth, mainly. We had met Slim Chance before, when he was in a band called The Mad Daddys. He was the bass player, and I really loved his bass playing in that band. We'd met him before cuz we knew the singer in that band.
We were just trying to get members who were really dedicated. We'd got to the point where we felt like Lux and I were kind of carrying the thing. The rest were acting like a back-up band. We just wanted it to feel more like it did when we started, like a real gang.
So have you got that now, do you think?
Ivy: Yeah, I do. I know I do (laughs). Those guys are crazy. Yeah, we're able to do songs now we couldn't do before. We'd wanted to do "Hipsville 29 BC" for years. We were never able to really get in a groove with it in the past.
And has the new line-up changed your live show?
Ivy: Yeah, it has. It really has. I know I go out on a limb more than I used to be able to. I feel freer and we play off each other more than we have in the past - in that sense. But, in other ways, it hasn't changed. It's still just us, you know. We've always gone out there with no props and just ourselves.
How did you decide to get the Reverend Horton Heat to open the show?
Ivy: We were made aware that they were available, and we had seen them do a show in Los Angeles at the Blue Saloon, and it was a real wild show - so that sounded like it would be a great opener. They're pretty frantic. They're all over the place (laughs). Guy lays on the floor and plays guitar and stuff.
Do you listen to a lot of Sub>Pop?
Ivy: Ah, not a lot. To be honest, I prefer the more Horton Heat kind of sound. I do like some of that music...a lot of the bands from that area (Seattle) seem like they're trying maybe too hard to be original. Too many chord changes and things that aren't really set in a groove that I can hear. But, you know, some of it's good stuff.
Do you play "Alligator Stomp" live?
Ivy: Yes, we do.
And do people ever actually, you know --
Ivy: Do the Alligator Stomp? (laughs)
Ivy: In some places they haven't. It seems like it hasn't totally caught on. They do something, but it's not like what we think the Alligator is, this dance where you literally have to be on the floor and knock people down. It was a dance that was (laughs) semi-popular in Cleveland back when the Dead Boys and Pere Ubu were in a band called Rocket From The Tombs.
I think this guy David Thomas, who used to be Crocus Behemoth, I think he started it or something. But it was this Ohio dance. People were doing it there. It was called gatoring.
Cool. That's one of my favourite tracks on the new one.
Ivy: Yeah, it's fun. It's fun to play.
Is there any one place where you consistently have the weirdest crowds?
Ivy: Umm, golly... Spain is the weirdest, Barcelona. They're, ah (laughs), they're very high. We're told that they take mescaline there, which is something you don't hear about anywhere usually. It seems like Lux'll just do some minor gesture with his hand and a wave of people'll fall backwards or something. It's a really strange kind of energy and there's people sitting on each others' shoulders and stuff.
Their culture was very cut off for years under this Franco regime, and now they've just gotten the equivalent of London in the 60s, Swinging London. They're just, uh - all flaming youth there right now (laughs).
A lot of the bands I talk to say they prefer playing in Europe to America.
Ivy: We don't. We love playing America. In a way, we're happiest here. There's great crowds here and it feels more like home, like...(sighs). In some ways it's similar, but in some ways, Europeans understand our background more, the roots of our music. Oddly enough, most Americans don't seem to know their own history.
But, at the same time, somehow it feels better, just for the moment at hand, that America feels like it's got more of a rapport. It didn't at first, you know. I mean, it took Europe - popularity in Europe - to bring attention to us in America. But now that we've got it, it's... I don't know, I just love playing America.
Do you have a favourite place to play there?
Ivy: I really like New Orleans, cuz I like the city a lot too, and then I like the crowds. There's a club there called Tipatina's and it's always just like a sweat bath. It seems really hellish in a good way.
Some of the smaller places up north... We feel really excited about being in New York again, and it was good - but we were more excited the next night when we played Trenton, New Jersey. It was (laughs) like a wilder rock'n'roll crowd, and a grimier venue and everything, and it just felt like old times.
Is it important to you that your albums be available on vinyl? Are you a vinyl purist?
Ivy: I wish they were. The only way they're available on vinyl now is through import - because you can't really make the record companies here do it. They claim to lose money and I guess it's true, because they don't even have the outlets to sell it themselves.
It's just evolved to that point. I certainly do miss it. I think it's even more important that people see a 12" cover. That gives more importance. I think the package is important.
Do you prefer to buy vinyl?
Ivy: I love both. I do like the way some things can sound on CD, but in some ways I prefer vinyl. The one thing I do like about CD, it's not the format itself, but see - the CD market has caused record companies to reissue a lot of old blues and old material that probably never would've come out and never would've been possible for anyone to acquire on vinyl even, because it would just be too hard or collectible.
Now it's available, and I think that is influencing culture. I'm hearing a lot of bands... I keep wondering if that is why bands are getting into guitar more. Maybe it is giving young people a chance to hear that kind of music. So, you know, there's a good side to it too.
Are you still collecting?
Ivy: Any form. Vinyl, CD, everything we can get our hands on, at all times.
Can you just run down a few of the ones that have most impressed you of late?
Ivy: There's a Bo Diddley CD called "Rare & Well Done", it's quite good. Some stuff I'd never heard, and I'm a big Bo Diddley fan too. The Howling Wolf box set's real good. I'm trying to name stuff that people can find, you know.
I could name rare stuff, but - oh yeah, the Trashmen have CDs out. One's the Trashmen live, you know the Trashmen who did Surfin' Bird? One is a live performance on a CD, and another is some rare album or something that's come out on a CD. This label called Sundazed, they offered a CD called "Surf 'N' Drag". It's called "Surf 'N' Drag Volume One". It's been out like three years and there's no Volume Two but anyways, it's really good.
The new album was recorded in Hollywood. Do you still live there?
Ivy: Yeah, we do, yeah.
This is kind of a dumb question, it's just personal interest, but have you ever met Winona Ryder?
Ivy: No, I haven't. I like her movies. I really like her vibe. She seems kinda eerie. I really liked Beetlejuice, real kind of Charles Addams vibe to it.
Why did you decide to have Iggy Pop guest on "Miniskirt Blues"?
Ivy: Well, we got lucky with that. We'd desired to have him do it, this duet on that song, and we'd met him the previous year. Done some festivals together and found out he was also a fan of ours. We're of course big fans of his. And then later when we wanted to see if he'd be involved in the song, we couldn't get a hold of him because he was touring.
So we just went ahead in the studio in Hollywood. And when Lux went out to buy some wine, he ran into Iggy buying some beer! He was rehearsing next door at S.I.R. for some tour or festival that he was gonna be doing, and he came and stopped by the studio, and when he got there, he said, "is there anything you want me to sing on?" So we didn't even have to ask him, cuz we kind of weren't sure if we should. He just did that song real briefly, one take. Got outta there, said, "gotta run".
We just thought it would suit him cuz we were just trying to make a really heavy, grungy Stooges-kinda thing. That was fun.
I don't know if this is a touchy subject, but one of the funnier things I found in reading "The Wild, Wild World of The Cramps" was the various theories on what might've happened to Brian Gregory. Have you heard anything new, or --
Ivy: No, and a lot of that initial thing was hype from the record company, when they thought they still had him signed as a solo artist, and they were trying to hype a solo career cuz they thought he'd want to have one. It turned out, he - you know, I mean, that didn't, umm - no, I just, I mean, he had drug problems and stuff, and just faded away.
It's probably an understatement to say that The Cramps have some unconventional, albeit more pure, ideas about rock'n'roll. I always hear you really hate the idea of benefits or things like that, or politics. Would you mind talking for a bit about what rock'n'roll means to you?
Ivy: It isn't so much against benefits, just using rock'n'roll as a political platform is not the purpose of rock'n'roll.
I also am very suspicious of the motives of...celebrities who use their celebrity to promote that. It seems like what they're really trying to promote is their own celebrity. I think it's pompous, you know, besides being corny. Maturity begins at home, and I think you should really take care of what's around you first, and that no one should question that.
A lot of big causes, that "We Are The World" thing with Ethiopia - for all the money raised, they couldn't even get it to the people because of the politics in that land, you know? There's just so much going on in our own country. I almost think people would let someone starve who's sitting right next to them and not, you know...
Also, it's just not the purpose of rock'n'roll to sing about something like that. Rock'n'roll is a certain type of music and it celebrates being in the body now. It's Bacchanalian. Whatever we're concerned about, we should take care of, but I don't think it should be a public platform.
Do you consider rock'n'roll a lifestyle as well as a form of music?
Ivy: Seems to be, yeah. It's a real all or nothing kind of thing, it has to be. I mean, we're always The Cramps. We're at different intensities. We're at our most intense when we're on the stage, we're most concentrated. We're at a different form of intensity in the studio and maybe we're less intense on some other occasion. People say you have different sides to you, and I don't feel like that. I think it's just different intensities. It's just stepping on the gas here and there.
What do you think of the allegations a lot of rappers are making that white rock'n'rollers really ripped off blacks in the 50s?
Ivy: It's unfortunately naive and it's an example of Americans not understanding their own culture. I've heard that criticism about Elvis Presley in particular, which is really a shame. He didn't rip off anybody. He actually was incredibly original. He synthesized many styles of music in a very innocent way, and no one was doing what he was doing.
He was a freak, he was from outer space, he was a pioneer in his day. It's a shame that he's not recognized as that, that he's been trivialized so much. I think it's misplaced frustration to blame him for something like that. I can understand the frustration, but I think they're misdirecting their wrath. I just wish people understood the origins of rock'n'roll more than they do.
He's becoming a scapegoat.
Ivy: He certainly is. What he did was phenomenal, no one else had done it (laughs). There wasn't anyone, black, white or purple, who was doing what he was doing. It's a shame that that's just one more way he's been trivialized.
You know, people focused on his health problems or his mortal failings to begin with as a way of putting him down. And now this is just one more new way. I think he was too intense for anyone to realise how significant he was. It'll probably take a hundred years for people to look back and realise.
A lot of the strength of rock'n'roll innuendoes - especially sexual innuendoes in the 50s and early 60s - came from the conservatism of the time. The Cramps have made an art of (lyrical innuendo), and I was thinking about this last night, and I thought it was really funny - because you've got things like 2 Live Crew, where people are being so blatant, and yet The Cramps are very subtle and I think it works. Do you ever think about that?
Ivy: Not consciously. I think what we do is natural. Sometimes I see bands being so blatant, I think they're trying to be outrageous. We don't try to be outrageous. We're just expressing ourselves in a natural way.
That blatant language (sighs) - it almost seems like, if you can't think of something to say, then that's a cheap way out or something. It's just easy to swear, and somehow it doesn't seem (laughs) romantic enough or something. We feel we're more traditional, like Howling Wolf or something. It should also be seductive. There's a point where something's so blatant it won't be seductive anymore.
Do you think that's why it still has that power? Because people still want that?
Ivy: I think so. I think that's why a lot of blues songs can appeal to me now, something that was from the 50s. Because of that same kind of innuendo that you're talking about. It's sexy, rather than confrontational. It's just more seriously about getting it on, rather than getting in a fight.
The Cramps have always had what I guess is a healthy fascination for serial killers. This may sound funny, but do you have a favourite?
Ivy: A favourite killer? Is that what you mean?
Ivy: For me, I would think Ed Gein. It sounds strange, but in a way he was just culturally different from the people in his area. He was reading a lot of books about cannibalism and headhunters and other cultures - the things that he did are actually common practises in some primitive cultures and in other countries, or maybe in another era. And since he was living alone, he was a total loner... In a way, you can almost look at it that that's what he was doing.
Then the thing that's amusing about him is that he never denied what he was doing. People would say, "gosh, we haven't been able to find Mary Hogan", and he'd say, "oh well, Mary's just hanging upside down in my shed right now". And they'd go, "ha ha, you're so funny", you know. And he knew that he could joke that way - so he had like a sick sense of humour (laughs) about the whole thing.
He was in a town full of really boring, dumb people and it's almost like (laughs) he had to amuse himself. Strange as that sounds, in a way it almost sounds like he did what he had to do. I don't feel that way about more vicious... There was just something about him that didn't seem vicious to me. He's just hunting for dear (laughs).
Have you ever heard of Starkweather? Charles Starkweather?
Ivy: Oh yeah. Yeah, I read that book. That's an interesting story. He ended up worshipped by all these girls.
I thought that might be a more Cramps type guy, cuz he was --
Ivy: Real, yeah, James Dean kind of era. And again, I think he was driven crazy cuz he was insulted so much for being short and having - didn't he have a speech impediment?
Yeah, and bow legs.
Ivy: So he was just ridiculed to the point...you know. I think he was driven beyond the brink.
Are you still really into horror movies?
Ivy: Oh yeah, all the time. Last night we watched "The Unearthly".
Have you seen any newer ones lately?
Ivy: I guess the last new thing we saw was "Naked Lunch", which we both liked a lot.
Do you go to the movies a lot, or rent them mostly?
Ivy: We go to them when we can. We don't get to see much when we're touring, but as soon as we get off the road, we like going to the movies. We liked "The Addams Family". It seemed like not many people did, but we thought it was good.
You and Lux met through hitch-hiking. Is this something you'd recommend?
Ivy: No, not now. And I know it sounds odd to say that, I was doing that. It was the mid-70s in Northern California. Even at that, looking back, I figure it might not have been that bright - but at the time it was pretty common practise. It seemed like a natural thing to do. It was kind of a time and place situation. No, I wouldn't advise, no. (laughs) Stay away from bars, pills and freeways.
Do you ever see a time when you won't want to do The Cramps?
Ivy: Not that I can think of. We don't plan our future as much as a lot of other bands, but I think that makes us enjoy what we're doing right now more. Maybe that makes us last longer - because we're digging it. That was the thing, getting the new members, we just wanted to make sure we were digging it right now.