Death Valley Girls’ Waking Dream
Band taps out of traditional songwriting and tune into a new spiritual consciousness on fourth LP
Bonnie Bloomgarden of Death Valley Girls isn’t one for writing songs as much as accessing them. She’s fascinated by the Akashic records — the concept of a metaphysical plane that holds all information of the human experience past, present, and future. If you follow this philosophy within their latest record, all songs have already always been and will be written.
“None of us know the record that well,” Bloomgarden confesses to me from Los Angeles. “We’re all gonna learn it at the same time that everyone else does.”
While drawing from the same musical and aesthetic reservoir of punk, psychedelia, the occult, and the bizarre, Under the Spell of Joy is a far more experimental effort than the band’s previous records, due in equal part to the challenges of releasing a record during a pandemic and their unique songwriting process. In previous years, it was normal for the band to spend over half the year touring, finessing musical notions into songs before heading into the studio.
In four unprecedented months off earlier this year, the band became obsessed with the magic of singing in unison as they listened to Ethiopian funk, early American and gospel music, chants and spells, while practicing manifestation. Writing the record was largely subconscious work, driven by the idea that every experience lived in a life can influence behavior and output. Despite her usual aversion to writing lyrics in advance (“I just wait till the day we have to sing all of the words and then just try and channel it really, really, really fast”), for three months, Bloomgarden and the band considered what they wanted to say; the words and the music would come later. They spent just a month “trying to make the record out loud outside of our heads” and recorded the album in a week, just before the United States began implementing lockdowns. “One week later, and I don’t think we ever would have been able to finish it,” she says.
The concept of singing intentionally in unison resonates powerfully as social gatherings and live concerts have become dangerous. Rooted in guitarist Larry Schemel’s propulsive riffs and a soundscape of saxophone, Wurlitzer, organ and a children’s choir, the largely-improvised album is a brief, potent seance into the communion of a live experience.
Under the Spell of Joy lurches into consciousness on “Hypnagogia.” Named after the liminal space between awake and asleep, the song focuses directionally on falling asleep (as opposed to hypnopompia, the process of waking.) It’s the record’s first sleepwalk into its spiritualist search for pure consciousness, with the many inevitably melting into a single voice.
The light-as-a-feather-stiff-as-a-board titular track and the slow march of “The Universe” are Bloomgarden’s favorites of the album’s affirmations. Grafted from a T-shirt given to her by a friend, “Under the Spell of Joy” conjures the magic of interpersonal connection: how approaching someone with joy allows them to feel it too. By contrast, she says: “If you’re shy — and I mean, I’m a super shy person … — and scared and holding back, and that’s what you bring to someone, you’re almost giving them all of the choice of how to treat you.”
Growing up with Black Sabbath and Devo and Buzzcocks and Billie Holliday, music was a catharsis for Bloomgarden, but not something she felt trained or outgoing enough for. “I don’t know if I was supposed to sing or anything, but I definitely decided I was gonna,” she says.
Formed in 2013 by Bloomgarden and Schemel (and his sister Patty Schemel of Hole, who no longer plays in the band), Death Valley Girls was never meant to be a fixed entity. Bloomgarden jokes that they’re a “20-piece band” now, factoring in everyone who played on the record. She reflects on their early days as an exercise in manifestation: “All we wanted to do was go on tour,” she begins. “All we wanted was to put out a record. All we wanted was to go to Europe … All we wanted to do was meet Iggy Pop.”
Death Valley Girls are incredibly good at tempering their heaviness with a good dose of playfulness. But what sustains their magic is the otherworldly current of healing and communion, musical, physical, and spiritual, that pulses throughout Under the Spell of Joy. “I have enjoyed the delights of mental illness for my whole life,” Bloomgarden laughs. “I want to make music that people can feel safe in, and they feel like they can grow stronger with.” Music, like all movements, has always been about bodies in space with each other, and the things they hold to be true when you squint.
“We believe in kind of weird stuff,” Bloomgarden says coyly.” But her adamance against loneliness and desire to create magic for others isn’t weird at all. On the penultimate track “I’d Rather Be Dreaming,” when Bloomgarden repeats, “I like you no matter what you do / I like you, it’s true,” you believe it.