ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 2, 2000
By Steve Newton
Psychosexual. Psychosomatic. Psychobabble. Psychobilly? You’ll find all but the last word in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, because California demento-rockers the Cramps coined the term psychobilly themselves back in the mid-’70s. Since then it has become synonymous for many with twisted Cramps tunes like “Goo Goo Muck”, “Creature From the Black Leather Lagoon”, and “Eyeball in My Martini”. But according to guitarist “Poison” Ivy Rorschach, calling from the L.A. home she shares with vocalist Lux Interior, the term has come to mean different things to different people.
“It was just something we used to put on our posters,” she points out, “like a carnival buzzword that meant that we mixed up rockabilly, voodoo—you know, a bunch of things that we’d been into, but it was really just rock ’n’ roll. I think ‘psychobilly’ to some people now has evolved to mean a specific genre of music where bands play super fast, and it involves standup bass and mohawk haircuts and things. And that’s cool too, but that’s not what we do, and never was.”
The latest recorded example of the Cramps’ own brand of psychobilly is 1997’s Big Beat From Badsville, which was dedicated to late TV-horror host Ghoulardi and includes such freaky tracks as “Hypno Sex Ray”, “Sheena’s in a Goth Gang”, and “Haulass Hyena”. One reason the band has been so long between albums is that it was trying to terminate its contract with Epitaph, a popular label that many acts would die to get signed by. But the Cramps had their reasons for wanting out.
“In our case,” Rorschach explains, “the guy who signed us [Brett Gurewitz], who originally started that label, loved our band, and then he had some personal problems, evidently, and the guy who took over from him didn’t seem like as big of a fan. He kind of turned the label to a different direction—a successful one, you know, they have Tom Waits and Merle Haggard, and I really dig Merle Haggard—but a different one than when we were signed. We had no problem with that, and those artists, but what we do have a problem with is being neglected, and that’s how we felt.”
Cramps fans should be happy to hear that a new album is expected by early next year. Hopefully the band can bounce back from its Epitaph episode and return to the manic vibe of its full-length debut, Songs the Lord Taught Us. That acclaimed 1980 release was produced by legendary Big Star vocalist Alex Chilton.
“He showed us that recording could be fun,” says Rorschach, “because prior to that we’d had some bad recording experiences. And I know people who’ve been in bands for 20 years and still hate recording; they think it’s a very uptight experience. But with Alex we learned that you could treat it like a party, just keep it loose, and that that’s actually how you’re gonna get the better performances.”
As anyone who’s seen the Cramps in concert can attest, they have no trouble bringing that edgy, anything-goes party vibe to the stage. When the band plays the Commodore Ballroom on Sunday (November 5), in the rhythmic company of former Celebrity Skin bassist Sugarpie Jones and drummer Harry Drumdini, who knows what will transpire? A venue of that type certainly puts the band in the right mood for mayhem.
“We’ve done a lot of festivals and bigger shows,” Rorschach says, “but it’s a different kind of situation, it’s not just our crowd. We like doing our own shows, and places like the Commodore are just great. A lot of modern venues are just like a box or something, so we especially like doing the kind of older, vintage rooms that have a lot of style and atmosphere to them.”
The last time this scribbler saw the Cramps in concert, 10 years or so ago, Interior left the Commodore stage wearing nothing but his shiny black pumps. But doffing his duds is far from the wildest deed the singer has perpetrated on-stage.
“Once when we were in Germany,” Rorschach recalls, “Lux kept hackin’ at the stage with a mike-stand base—he’d do that sometimes. Apparently he weakened the floor by doing it, and he jumped up in the air in the middle of a song and disappeared. We couldn’t figure out what happened, but he went right through the floor. And then he crawled out again and kept on singing. I don’t know if the audience thought it was part of our show or not. That was really strange.”
Rorschach will inevitably show up on-stage decked out like a kinky cigarette girl, but don’t expect her to get too involved in the shenanigans. She leaves that type of action to the highly capable Interior, and is content just to riff out on her trademark orange 1958 Chet Atkins–model Gretsch.
“I love playing guitar,” she proclaims. “I could be happy just sittin’ on a porch, playing guitar.”
“Poison” Ivy Rorschach sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.
On the Cramps’ status as a cult band: “I’m not sure exactly what defines a cult band, but we have a lot of loyal fans that followed us for a long time. And a lot of people became aware of us through more underground means, I suppose, because we’re not as accessible through mainstream media. I guess that makes for a cult.”
On her biggest guitar influences: “Link Wray, Duane Eddy, and Davey Allan and the Arrows. And, less obvious, Ike Turner is a great guitar influence. He is, and he’s also responsible for just a lot of rock ’n’ roll existing. And that guy’s got an unfair bad rap. Believe me, it’s a frame-up.”
On where the Cramps get their artistic inspiration: “Lux and I have always been reckless and sought out thrills, taken risks, probably blown our minds in certain pursuits. It’s only from living this way that we come up with this stuff.”