R&B Revival. Garage Soul. Punk Blues. You could throw any one of these descriptors at The Detroit Cobras and hit the truth, but what you could never accurately call them (despite an entire discography built on other people’s songs) is an unimaginative, one-trick cover band.
Cranking out raw, vintage tunes with unpracticed swagger, smokey-voiced Rachel Nagy — successor to Cobras founder Steve Shaw — has built a rock-solid reputation of…well, solidly rocking, and of effectively keeping the spotlight reliably fixed on the music.
From her porch in Pennsylvania (backed by a faint raucous from dog, Moe), Rachel re-tells the story of her “accidental” career, and describes the privilege and satisfaction of winning new fans with old songs.
So, was playing music and being in a band a lifelong dream of yours?
It was never a goal or a plan of mine; it was very accidental. Friends of mine kind of started something and I was always around…I guess one night they actually got me drunk enough to do it (laughs). That was pretty much the start and it just continued on somehow in a very natural way. One door would close and another would open; other life plans fell through but the music would just keep going. Seventeen years later, I’m like, ‘Wow, really?! Where did all this time go?’
How did The Detroit Cobras become The Detroit Cobras? Was it your intention always to just focus on covers?
Yeah, that was the whole point for us. It was all about, ‘This is the music we enjoy and this is how we do it.’ A lot of the artists we cover are either dead or not playing anymore so this is how we keep them going. What we never intended was to be a working band; it was just something to do for fun and we basically were looking to be our own jukebox, you know? It turned into more — and that was surprising.
When did you first realize it was turning into something more?
Like, our second show or something (laughs). We played a show at home for fun — before the days of YouTube or Twitter or anything, mind you — and next thing you know, someone in New York called and asked if we’d do a show there. We were like, ‘No! This is not about buying a van and living on the road and spreading the word.’ (laughs) It was strictly for our own enjoyment and the fact that other people started digging it was just a cool benefit.
So how did the word get spread if you weren’t spreading it?
We’ve always been the kind of band where someone who works in a restaurant or a bar likes us and puts us on so they can hear it as they work — and then others hear it and dig it too. It just grows like that.
The people that I come across that are fans of your band always seem to be the ones who are really big music fans and super knowledgeable about various genres…Have you noticed you’re something of a ‘music insiders’ band?
(laughs) It’s interesting…We’ve been around for a long time and when we first started — and obviously the meaning of the term ‘hipster’ has changed a lot since the nineties — it was hipster kids that dug us. They liked the cool music we did, garage and punk and that kind of stuff, and were weirdos just like us. Now, it’s interesting to see how the crowd has changed. We get older people, really young people, and even Moms who come up and say, ‘Oh my 8-year-old daughter loves you. Can you sign this for her?’ It’s awesome! I mean, I’m not on some mission to change the world through music (laughs), but if a 13 year old is looking to us instead of Britney Spears, I’ll take that as a great big high five.
(laughs) It’s true though…There is definitely a core group of people that have been into us since the beginning and support how we do things. There is an underlying sense of community when I go into a bar and the bartender’s like, ‘Hey I know you. I like you!” It’s much better than walking into a mall and having sixteen-year-old ‘Mean Girls’ rocking out to you at the GAP. (laughs)
And this way you get free drinks, too.
You got it…those are the people you need! (laughs)
I was having a conversation the other day about your band with my boyfriend – I turned him onto you a few years ago and you’ve since become a Sunday morning ritual in our house — well, you or Pixies, depending on our mood…
Well, that’s good company, thank you!
(laughs) You’re welcome — and thank you. Anyway, he said to me, ‘Sure, The Detroit Cobras play other people’s songs, but they don’t just ‘do covers’. They make these songs theirs.’ Do people who aren’t really familiar with your work dismiss it when they hear you cover other people’s material?
You know, it would be one thing if we were a Motown review but how we do it is different. We do obscure stuff, or songs that may have been passed over when they were first released. People do covers so that the song is easily recognized and people can go, ‘Oh I know that song!’ and sing along to it at the corner bar every Friday night. There have been people that don’t know that we do covers because we don’t exactly crow about the fact, and when they realize it, you get that, ‘Oh, you’re just doing covers!?’ response. They kind of turn their noses up.
Well, as much as I patted myself on the back for being in ‘The Detroit Cobras Club,’ I didn’t realize until I began my research for this interview that Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat) [from 2005's Baby] is actually one you wrote yourselves; it blends so seamlessly with the others.
That’s good to hear — and that’s always been the point. We’ve had people in the band at various points who are like, ‘I wrote a song and I think we should try it,’ and it’s like, ‘Unless you are so immersed in this music that when you do write a song and that’s exactly what comes out — I don’t want to have to hurt your feelings, but…no. We’re not about giving you a voice and a platform for your music. You can start your own band.
But, it’s high praise to hear that Hot Dog blends in because that was entirely the point of it. Once we did that, people would ask if we’d write more original material, but you know, there is so much amazing shit already out there. We’re not going to write something just for the sake of writing it and say, ‘Okay, now gimme some publishing here.’ That doesn’t hold any attraction for me. I want to find something that is truly great,give credit where credit is due, and not spit out a copy of a copy of a copy.