garage trio is comin’ to your town. Gonna help you party down, in fact.
BY ROXANA HADADI
The Ettes do not give a crap about what you think.
Frontwoman Coco Hames, drummer Poni Silver and bassist Jem Cohen don’t get
bothered when other bands on the road with them fight amongst themselves, bitch
about how hard their lives are and complain like bickering children. They don’t
get riled up about critics who struggle to define their sultry, raw,
half-Ramones, half-girl-groups sound, which they very simply label “beat-punk.”
And most importantly – and most viciously – they’ll rip you apart if you every
try to control them.
“I don’t need somebody to tell me what to do or how to
write,” Hames, the group’s feisty, glamorous and exceptionally strongly
opinionated lead singer says. “If we had started when we were really young, on
a major label with all this money, I wonder what would have happened. But we
started on Sympathy [for the Record Industry], with no money and nobody telling
us what to do. Starting there and having a degree of success with that, you can
say, ‘I don’t really need anybody.’
“It didn’t occur to me that someone would tell me what to
name my album, or what to wear or say in interviews, but as it turns out, a lot
of bands are run that way, probably because it’s less stressful for the band
just to be told what to do,” she adds.
“It’d be cool if we were like that, but we just can’t act
like that,” interjects Cohen, the trio’s sole male member and the one who
succeeds in playfully pushing all of Hames’ buttons.
“Oh yeah, it would be cool to be a puppet,” Hames fires
“It would be great, if I could stomach that,” Cohen smirks,
and it sounds like the exchange is one that’s happened time and time again in
the world of the Ettes: Hames says something bluntly and openly, Cohen lightens
it up, the two of them spark at each other and Silver stands back and giggles
while it all goes down. (Oh, and round one: Cohen.)
There’s a comfort here that can only be born of too many
nights clustered together onstage, too many days driving long hours to get to
the next show (and picking up furniture at thrift shops along the way), too
many recording sessions spent ripping through tracks that sound like if The
Ronettes hung out with Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy and got hit on by Johnny
Rotten. Or, as Hames likes to describe it, “the ‘Peppermint Twist’ mixed with
leather and New York City and the late ’70s.”
And there’s a kind of familiarity that comes from an
us-against-the-world mentality the group has developed for years – bred after
Hames and Silver quit their jobs in film production and fashion design ,
developed while they toiled with Cohen on albums such as Look at Life Again Soon, the “Danger Is” EP and the current Do You Want Power and slightly mellowed
with a bit of mainstream success – like their sold-tour with Kings of Leon
earlier this year, the just-completed tour with Juliette Lewis, and a track on
the soundtrack of Drew Barrymore’s much-hipster-hyped directorial debut, Whip It!
When looking back on how it all started, Hames can’t help
but feel it’s been a long time coming – from when the band moved separately
from New York to Los Angeles in 2004, without a thought given to their friends’
or families’ doubts, and to when they slowly began to realize how much they
weren’t prepared for.
“We didn’t know anybody – our parents aren’t famous, we
don’t have a trust fund, we don’t have money, we don’t have an in to the music
business and we had no clue what to say when people asked about our music, ‘Who
do you think is going to listen to that?'” Hames says. “And we’re like, ‘Shoot,
we didn’t think about that.'”
But when the band’s reputation eventually reached the ears
of Long Gone John, the creator of label Sympathy for the Record Industry, their
luck began to turn. Cohen is quick to point out, though, that he’s convinced a certain
picture of the group – with Hames in a Lolita-esque black velvet babydoll
dress, holding a tambourine – had a lot do with John’s interest.
“I fucking hate that picture,” Hames says. “That dress I’m
wearing has no back to it; I found it on eBay, and it like, became this icon.
And people to the show and it’s like, ‘We don’t look like that.’ I’m not a
babydoll, Poni has lots of hair –
“Every single listing uses that picture,” Cohen cuts in.
” – I don’t think any of us could look less like that
picture,” Hames finishes firmly. (Round two: Hames).
And not only could the group look less like that picture,
they couldn’t fundamentally be less
like it, either. While Hames stands in the forefront of the portrait, looking
semi-vacantly tart-like as Cohen and Silver stand somewhat uncomfortably in the
background, this trio is all about an even playing field. Though they banter
back and forth like competitive siblings (Cohen’s an often target: Hames calls
him “old man” more than once, and Poni boasts of throwing water bottles at him
when he’s “being an asshole”), they’ll defend each other with a kind of fierce
“There were a couple of shows that – if we had the ability
to do it – we played in a straight line, and invariably, the focus is on me
because I’m singing,” Hames says. “I’m not a reluctant frontman – I’m not a
shoe-gazing whatever – and I really enjoy performing a lot, but I also really
like the people that I’m playing with. My drummer is not one I need to hide,
and my bass player isn’t one playing root notes.
“I would get bored if I were the only one,” Hames continues.
“It’s a little smorgasbord, and sometimes I feel like – if we play with other
three-piece – sometimes I feel like the singer is doing a lot of fucking work
to put the attention onto them. It would probably be a little easier if the
rest of your band was a little more remarkable. I certainly don’t mind sharing
the spotlight – I think it’s cool to have such a good band.”
Combine that kind of professional devotion with actual
personal affection (all three Ettes live on the same side of Nashville, hang
out together often, “basically never stop drinking,” according to Hames, and
want to “import all the cool people in the country” into their city, Cohen says)
and you’ve got a group that swears they’ll stick together to the end, no matter
how erratic their schedule gets. And with their most recent release, Do You Want Power, produced by Reigning
Sound mainman Greg Cartwright (who also plays on it) and out now on the Take
Root label, and plans for a new tour and record coming soon, that
unpredictability is sure to come into play again.
“In the next six months, we’ll probably move again, but we
have this fantasy that we’ll stay in a town,” Hames says. “But then comes the
next tour and the next move and whatever, and then we’re gone again. I don’t
know where it will be.”
And then – with a promise that we’ll all hang up the phone
at the same time and a countdown to prove it (“one, two, three, go!” Cohen
chants) – the Ettes are off, striding away into the great, underground unknown.
Coco Hames also blogs for Blurt. You can read
her column “Look At Life” here. She also penned an installment in our way-popular
recurring feature “The Most Fucked Up Thing I’ve Ever Seen,” which can be