On the new album Under the Spell of Joy, Los Angeles-based band Death Valley Girls takes their vintage rock sound to new psychedelic heights. The self-described “space-gospel” record mixes rhythmic chanting, a children’s choir and some great classic guitar riffs to create a strong and unique album that will lift both the mind and spirit. mxdwn spoke with frontwoman Bonnie Bloomgarden about live stream concerts, dreams and what it’s like to create an album as one records it.
mxdwn: It’s been a difficult year, was Under the Spell of Joy written before or during the shutdown? Did COVID-19 affect your creative process?
Bonnie Bloomgarden: Yeah, well we finished recording maybe like three days before the shutdown. So every single day, as hard as it is and as horrible as it is, we are just filled with gratitude and gratefulness and thankfulness that we got to put this out there. I don’t know how I could have survived these past six months if it was spent waiting. Pretty much everything is spontaneous and live and so, it’s like you never know until you get in the studio if you’re gonna have a record. So waiting six months to know whether or not anything could happen would not have worked. I would have lost my mind.
mxdwn: I know a lot of artists have seemed to thrive amid quarantine while others have opened up about the pressure to create in a crisis. Did you feel some of this inspiration or was it a challenging time creatively?
BB: Before this happened, we knew we had the longest amount of time that we were gonna have off of tour in like four years. We had a few tours that got canceled, but we knew we had from like December to March. You know, we knew that for a fact. We all knew we had to start looking at time differently because usually we are on tour every other month, so when we are home we could treat that as like a cocoon and not really accomplish anything, but it was okay because that’s what you need after a tour. After constantly steering the highways for eight hours a day and then doing soundcheck and it’s so loud and you just need to be pressurized. So we already knew we had to change our perspective, we wanted to live better lives in some way. So we spent those four months just thinking about how to live better and then that got extended six months more. I’ve just been taking the time to really think and just figure out what I wasn’t doing good enough for myself. I have lots of issues I didn’t deal with before and that was fine if you leave every other month, but when you’re with yourself for many, many months, it’s a great opportunity to fix those things. So you don’t have to bring them with you anymore.
mxdwn: Did it feel weird to then, to record and have this time off and then have all upcoming shows get canceled? What’s it like with the album coming out and not being able to tour behind it?
BB: Well, I think it would be different if it was just our band, if we were the only band that didn’t get to tour. That would suck. But there is a real opportunity here, it’s horrible but also the way our system was running wasn’t working, the music industry wasn’t working. We were barely getting by and accepting that. I think we all need to work in a different way. Even though touring is the most fun thing in the world and connecting with people is the best thing in the world. It’s also a very silly way to make money like “I’m going to go with four people in a van around the country. We’re going to sell these physical items and that’s how we’ll make money.” It’s awesome but there should be a way to make money not on tour. So it sucks because we lost our job in that sense, but it’s good because we’re being forced to think of a new way to look at our job. I mean it totally sucks obviously, but you can’t just sit around saying it sucks.
mxdwn: What new perspective do you think you kind of got from this then? What are you going to take with you when things hopefully open back up?
BB: There’s so many things that I feel like we took for granted before. The main thing I noticed that I miss about not playing shows is getting to talk to people about stuff they’re excited about, sharing that energy and keeping them in that energy and excitement and just being involved in the most exciting part of people’s days. Just that feeling of teaching people about this topic and being excited about this topic and we’re playing rock ‘n’ roll and people are excited about rock ‘n’ roll. I didn’t realize how much I would miss that and how it’s even more than just playing. I think there’s a way to be excited with people when you’re not physically with them. I think there might be a way and I want to figure out what it is. I haven’t quite figured it out yet.
mxdwn: With that in mind, what was it like doing the live stream performance for the Levitation Sessions? Do you have any other live streams planned for the future?
BB: Well that was amazing because it totally made me realize that talking to the people afterwards (during the AMA) and seeing people’s comments during the performance was so cool. I didn’t think before that a live stream show could be fun or exciting. But I started to watch them and realized like “oh it’s cool!” So we are doing an Amoeba in-store thing, not actually in store obviously, but we will be doing an Amoeba stream (Wednesday October 7th). I know it’s gonna be fun and the cool thing is that before we were just responsible for showing up and playing, but now since it’s beforehand, we are in charge of the sound people and the way it looks and where it is. So like, conceptually, I think this is an exciting time because we can make it so exciting. Like the Levitation thing was built around learning how to astral project, and like the Amoeba one is going to be its own thing. So we have a few exciting things coming up.
mxdwn: The astral projection element of the Levitation performance was really cool. The new album has an almost transcendental feel and both the sound and visuals actually reminded me a lot of astral projection. How has that been a part of your life, creatively or otherwise?
BB: I’ve practiced and tried a lot, but I’ve never astral projected on purpose. It happened to me once just naturally and then every other time I try there’s a point you get to where you start to like vibrate. And that’s when usually the more trained person can leave, but that just gets me too scared when that starts to happen, like I shoot straight back in. And it’s pretty frustrating but there’s a bunch of people that are really good at it. But most of them have done it since they were kids so I think it just takes a lot of practice. Have you ever done it?
mxdwn: I have actually tried it, I got into it during quarantine because a friend recommended an album about it. So it was really cool then when I got to hear your album and learned about the Levitation live stream, and like it all kind of came full circle. I think it’s really interesting, I wish I had the patience and endurance to do it.
BB: That’s so cool, congratulations! There have been so many things like that, like weird synchronistic things, where it comes full circle. I’m sure if you keep doing it, it will become like second nature. Like everything else, at some point it becomes effortless, but until then it’s frustrating.
mxdwn: So did that have any part in the creation of or music on Under the Spell of Joy?
BB: For this record the kind of thing I wanted us all to do was to just channel it, like the music and the words and everything, at the moment that we recorded. So I spent like three months just thinking and trying to get in touch with Akashic Records and like trying to really learn how to communicate with spirit guides and stuff. I’m not very disciplined, but I just didn’t listen to any music or watch anything—at all—for like three months and just sat with thoughts. We knew that album was called Under the Spell of Joy, so it was just trying to channel the songs. We knew we wanted it to be like a chorus of people singing it. We knew we wanted people that got the record to sing to it and for it to be like spells and chants to get better at all these things. All of these things including astral projection or anything to get you into those parts. Like “I’m going to go meditate” so then there is a song that helps you with that, and like “I’m gonna manifest my dreams right now” you know and so we just really tried to like channel these songs that would be a good starting place for you to have words to say to do these different sorts of things.
mxdwn: Throughout the album, you utilize some great choral elements, what made you want to move in that direction and what was it like working with a children’s choir?
BB: They were so professional, like they came in and nailed it! They’re so good. It was just these kids that came to shows before and their parents had gotten in contact with us and were like “Hey, is it okay if they can see what a soundcheck is or whatever.” And if you write a record this way it gets to be terrifying, you’re like ‘”oh my god, like we have nothing. And we’re about to go in and like we have nothing to send the saxophone guy, like he just has to improvise.” Like it’s a bizarre way to do it. So with the kids, all of sudden I was like “oh we wanted a kids chorus’ but we don’t—we only really know like two kids like my nephews.” So then we were like “oh, let’s ask those kids from the show,” so then it ended up being a bunch of kids. And they did great like they really really listen and they have great energy and they did it super super fast. And their voices are perfect, all kids’ voices are perfect to me. It’s amazing. I love it. Yeah and then they came and did the photo with us so they’re all on the Billboard.
mxdwn: Yeah, I saw on Instagram how some of them are going to see the billboards and take photos, it’s just so cute.
BB: Yeah, you know it’s going to their heads and it’s awesome. My favorite thing in the world is singing with friends, like singing with people. That’s the part I like. And we’re listening to a lot of different kinds of music, like certain kinds of African music where it is a lot of singing in unison. And I just, I just think that that is so cool and so powerful and so fun. I wanted to make the record like that. We sing these songs, not on this record but on the other records, like a thousand times. A lot of them have meaning but a lot of them don’t. But just looking back it’s like what if every song had a super-specific purpose? And then singing it with intention and singing it a thousand times. And then if you add more and more voices to that how much more magical and powerful it becomes.
mxdwn: Speaking of being inspired by African music, you’ve noted that initial inspiration for this new album came from Ethiopian funk records, how did you first get into those?
BB: Our friend Will, who played on “Breakthrough,” he told us about them. We were just into the vibe of ’70s African rock and roll, just like uplifting and pure. I know there are other places that have that I just don’t know what they are. But yeah I think he turned us onto that. The unison of so many voices and so many people doing the same thing and it being uplifting seems very cool. Like I really love dark music, but for some reason I was like there is something super cool about joy.
mxdwn: Death Valley Girls has always channeled a very vintage sound, how do you balance this old school authenticity while still keeping your music planted in the modern-day?
BB: I don’t know, I mean I like old music. My favorite music is like all music from like 1900 to 1977. I feel like we are influenced by everything we’ve ever heard, but that’s what I’ve listened to the most and Larry and Ricky too. I guess that’s just in your bones. I don’t think we really set out to have any sound aside from knowing that we want to add saxophone or organ or synthesizer instruments that inherently sound like a certain era. But yeah I don’t really know, I’ve always wondered that too. Like when people have a super ’70s sounding band are they like “that sounds like this” or is that just who they are? It’s hard to tell.
mxdwn: “Hypnagogia” is such a hypnotic track and really sets the tone for the rest of the album. What inspired you to open with it?
BB: So usually when we play live we start with the song “Abre Camino,” which is the road opener and it’s like a spell for like good luck in everything, in work, health, friendship, love and it just kind of opens the road to success. And we always liked that, being intentional and opening up the show. And I think we wanted the same thing with that song because the hypnagogia, that’s the state where you also astral project from. And it’s like between sleep and wakefulness and it’s kind of like a hypnotic state. Basically, you do really good manifesting in that state because you can imagine and can visualize the thing that you want to manifest and you can imagine yourself in that state and you can kind of like, play around with it really well in that state of mind. So I thought that if we could put people in that sort of hypnotic state so they can be good so that if they desire to manifest they can go there easily if they play the song. And then in the breakdown of the song, my idea and what helped me manifest is practicing saying the phrase that I say and whenever something good comes through. For me, that phrase is “Oh shit! No way, that’s so cool.” So at the beginning of the song you can just listen and get loose and relaxed and then by the breakdown part you can say your own phrase because it’s like the right amount of time to kind of just start to imagine what I want and ask what is it going to feel like when I get it and what am I going to see when I get it, so that’s what that song is for.
mxdwn: Dreams and daydreaming come up frequently on the album, with tracks like “I’d Rather Be Dreaming,” “Dream Cleaver” and “Little Things.” What dreams were on your mind while creating the album? Do dreams ever play a role in your creative process?
BB: It’s actually kind of a sad question, because before this, every night every dream was of being at a show or a festival or a motel or some situation like before or after playing live. And it’s weird because at the beginning we did a survey after the first month of quarantine to see—because everyone seemed to be saying their dreams were so much stronger. So we tried to do a survey to see if it was because of fear, if fear makes your dream stronger or what makes your dream stronger. But actually, there was no common thread it turns out, which is weird. But yeah, we just like dreams a lot. I’ve definitely learned how to wake myself up if I’m writing a song in a dream or like singing a song or hear a song in a dream. But that’s always the worst feeling is if you write a song in a dream and then you wake up and you can’t remember it. The general dream state is written about but usually, it’s more thinking about dreams and the possibilities of dreaming rather than actual dreams.
mxdwn: The music video for “The Universe” has some great old school visuals, were there any science fiction movies or pulp images that inspired it or that you wanted to emulate in it?
BB: So all of that stuff is on a poster that comes with the record. It comes with the record and if you look at those images it will say all the credits on them. So that poster comes in the album or is just like the tape cassette art and it’s all just from there. Brad made the video, Larry made the outside art and Pickle and I made the inside art. I collect old magazines and most of it’s just like from old occult and sci-fi and smut magazines from like the ’60s and ’70s. I’ve always collected them, for so long but at first it was like, definitely an eBay obsession. I picked some up over the years at Goodwill when I was younger, but now it’s mostly while on tour. That’s like our first, most important thing like collecting magazines is like the most important thing in the world.
mxdwn: Under the Spell of Joy comes out on October 2nd, just in time for Halloween. As a band that has always had a haunting vibe, how do you recommend fans celebrate the season while they listen to the new album?
BB: I think it’s personal, there’s a different thing for everyone. Some music you have to drive to, like you don’t have a choice. Maybe you just want to sit down and light a candle or pet your dog and maybe listen to it alone with headphones or really, really, really loud without headphones.