“Excuse me, sir. Do you have a minute to talk about rock and roll?” The question comes somewhat meekly during a break in an otherwise vicious wall of sound. Wearing a sharktoothed sundress, Rebecca Bortman looks more Alice in Wonderland than garage rock heroine. Nevertheless, she and her monochrome bandmates that make up lo-fi outfit Happy Fangs serve up the good word of rock and roll with a feverish bite.
The night is still young at the Silverlake Lounge in Los Angeles. At 9PM on a Tuesday, I’m usually plopped on my sofa for new episodes of “Agents of Shield” rather than crowding the stage at a seedy cash-only bar. Yet here I am, downing my second glass of house bourbon that I’m sure contains more corn syrup than alcohol and fixing my attention on a small afterthought of a stage near the back of the bar. Somehow these unique charms are the perfect setting for the San Francisco-based trio. Faces streaked with paint like indie poppers marching into battle, they set the club ablaze with a fiery intensity that makes this sleepy Tuesday night feel more like a Friday blowout. They take the stage armed with nothing more than a fuzzed-out guitar, drums, Rebecca’s searing vocals and a wall of expertly-crafted feedback. During a lull between songs, Rebecca even calls attention to this, naming the feedback the fourth member of Happy Fangs. “Don’t ask it to go,” she says. “Ask if it’ll do an encore.” And many encores it does, fleshing out each track with a suitable helping of garage punk fury.
Their thirty minute takeover of the Lounge is criminally brief, but they wring that time for all it’s worth. Halfway through their set, they write a song on the spot (called “Brontosaurus Nightmare Milkshake” at the drunken request of several audience members) that sits comfortably among their previously recorded work. Though Rebecca insists afterward that it wasn’t one of their better impromptu creations, I found myself bobbing my head along regardless. Rebecca also undergoes a wardrobe change mid-song, prompting her winking question “Who wore it best? First half of the set or the second?” If she were asking me personally, the finale actually wears it best. Signing off with current single “Hiya Kaw Kaw,” Rebecca donned a pair of stark black and white wings, nailing their tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” in the nose like a balled fist. The band soared on the intensity of their performance (pun intended), so much so that I felt sorry for the bands that still had to take the stage.
You wouldn’t peg Rebecca and her bandmates Jess Gowrie (drums) and Michael Cobra (guitar, and yes, that is his legal last name) for the spitfire indie punks that blew up the club on a Tuesday (make your Drake jokes now). In fact, I didn’t either. Prior to the show, my roommate and I raided an unassuming whiskey bar across the street to partake in five dollar Old Fashioneds — again, going out on a Tuesday has its advantages. Sequestering ourselves in a corner booth to people watch, we locked in on a trio of hip-looking twenty-somethings sipping drinks and complaining about nothing as most twenty-somethings in Silverlake are wont to do. Had I known that this unassuming posse was about to rock my paradigm of Tuesday nights forever, I might have done more than silently watch between sips of my Kid’s Meal sized cocktail like Dexter Morgan trailing his next target. It’s easy to forget that behind the music, our favorite artists are just people. They’re just as inclined to indulge in happy hour while complaining about the indignities they suffered at the hands of the awful wedding photographer they hired. And as it turns out, I’m not the only one who was spying. I caught up with the members of Happy Fangs after the show to talk music, drum machines, and unfair super powers, and Rebecca instantly pegged me as the creeper across the bar.
“You were at the Thirsty Crow before the show, weren’t you,” asks Rebecca, more an observation than a question. It all clicks. I guess my skill of remaining inconspicuous isn’t as MI:6-worthy as I previously imagined.
Though they reign from the City by the Bay, they know the neighborhood as good as most locals (if I can even call myself one after a measly two and a half years in LA). A young band on the road has to have many tools at their disposal, and I’m not just talking about guitars, amps and the tech-savvy to get in and out of a venue with minimal hiccups. It takes knowing the geography, whether that be the best place to grab a drink on a Tuesday before the show or how to win over a crowd that might be there to see someone else. Happy Fangs also have more than a few secret weapons up their sleeves. For one they have roots in many of the cities they frequent. Their tech crew for the evening consists of a few local friends who have swung by to help the band unload, set-up and run the merch booth. According to Rebecca, this isn’t an infrequent event. “We have crews in different area codes,” she jokes. For those of you who have ever tried to wrangle a couple able bodies into helping you load a U-Haul know that it’s often harder than booking Bono to sing at your niece’s birthday party. So to have that outpouring of support, especially when it requires physical labor, is particularly telling of how good they are.
But where did this band of anti-indie poppers come from? As it turns out Happy Fangs sprang from the ashes of other bands like a soot-black phoenix. Michael had shot and directed a music video for Rebecca’s previous group and the two formed an instant connection. Once she went solo, he approached her and asked if she wanted to record a few demos with him. So the two took to the internet and invaded SoundCloud, but it wasn’t long until the infant band snowballed into something bigger. “We somehow booked a show with Blood Red Shoes, one of our favorite bands,” recaps Michael. “And suddenly we were like ‘Oh shit, we better do this for real.’” He got a drum machine a week before the show, programmed it and the two took the stage with fuck-it abandon. The lineup of man, woman and machine was similar in scope to fellow garage revivalists the Kills, but the band had yet to reach their full potential. Having played a few shows, Happy Fangs decided they needed to amp things up. “I said I want a drummer,” continues Michael. “But she has to be female and she has to hit hard as fuck.” Jess Gowrie aces both of those tests brilliantly, tearing through their set like she has a vendetta against her kit. And, as she and Michael reveal, a lot of Happy Fangs’ hard rock edge is her doing.
“We had mutual friends, but they were hesitant to introduce us at first,” explains Jess. “I was into playing harder stuff than Rebecca and Michael were doing at the time, so my friends thought I wouldn’t be interested. I think it was the right time in my life when they finally asked or I might not have said yes. Since I joined this project has gotten a lot heavier.”
And it all seems to have worked out in their favor. They just released their freshman album “Capricorn,” a fuzz-heavy distillation of my rocking Tuesday night and are currently in the throes of a winter tour. Afterwards, the band plan to start writing for a new record with the possibility of releasing a deluxe version of “Capricorn.”
Aside from that Michael was excited to announce that immediately following the tour, Happy Fangs will be going into the studio with producer Jeff Saltzman of Killers and Blondie fame to record a new track. “We’re really stoked about this one,” says Michael. “He’s all about finding bands that he likes and he hand selected us to be on a compilation for OIM Records. He’s been around for quite a while and it’ll be a blast to work with him.”
At this point in our talk the 10PM band kicked into full swing, a jangling alt rock group indistinguishable from the thousand others I’m sure played elsewhere on Sunset tonight. But they were loud, so it was time to wrap things up.
“If you were to have a super power, what would it be?” I shout above the din. Granted, not the most important question of the evening, but a staple in my set all the same.
A grin wipes across Michael’s face. “I’m gonna go with the fucked up thing as opposed to the nice thing that’ll save the world. I’d want venom because my last name is Cobra.”
Fair enough. And as for Jess, “Time travel because I don’t belong here. I belong in the 70’s.”
For our sake though, it’s a good thing Happy Fangs and their music exist in 2015.