The Detroit Cobras, Making Old Rock New Modern-day garage-rock bands often perform with an ear for the old-fashioned. But The Detroit Cobras' members don't just draw inspiration from early rock 'n' roll: They've spent the last decade or so plucking their actual songs from the genre's dustiest margins.
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The Detroit Cobras, Making Old Rock New

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The Detroit Cobras, Making Old Rock New

The Detroit Cobras, Making Old Rock New

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(Soundbite of song, "Nothing But A Heartache")

The DETROIT COBRAS (Rock Band): (Singing) Nothing but a heartache every day. Nothing but a heartache. Nothing but a teardrop all of the way. Nothing but a teardrop. All those guys...

HANSEN: A CD that recently arrived in our office has a list of tracks that seem to have been picked out of the dustbin of history. They're tunes made famous in the 1960s by a roster of singers from Bettye LaVette, to Art Neville, to Irma Thomas, to The Flirtations.

However, they are served up by garage rockers from the midwest, The Detroit Cobras. The disc, on Bloodshot Records, is called "Tied & True."

(Soundbite of song, "Nothing But A Heartache")

The DETROIT COBRAS: (Singing) I got a lot of those heartaches. I got a lot of those teardrops. Heartaches, teardrops, all of the way. Nothing but a heartache every day. Nothing but a heartache every day. Nothing but a heartache every day.

HANSEN: Cobras' Rachel Nagy sings and plays piano. Mary Ramirez plays guitar and they joins us from the studios of WOSU in Columbus, Ohio. Rachel, welcome to the program.

Ms. RACHEL NAGY (Lead Vocalist, Pianist; The Detroit Cobras): Thanks for having us.

HANSEN: And Mary, you too, welcome to the program.

Ms. MARY RAMIREZ (Guitarist; The Detroit Cobras): And you, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: I go - I mean, I'm a boomer, what can I say. And some of these R&B and Motown stuff is stuff I heard the first time around, and you've been covering this stuff from the '50s and '60s for wow, like over 10 years. But this...

Ms. RAMIREZ: No. Don't remind us.

HANSEN: But you, you know, you're not just going for the hits here. You're going...

Ms. RAMIREZ: No.

HANSEN: ...way, way, way deep into the archives. How do you find the material?

Ms. NAGY: It's a combination of things, just from our own record collections, friends, people who just give us more and more music, which is nice because you don't spend your whole life on your knees going through dirty record bins in the flea market like a...

Ms. RAMIREZ: Record collectors are proud to show their stuff off.

Ms. NAGY: Their wares, yes.

Ms. RAMIREZ: Yeah. So we actually get the best of both worlds, you know what I mean? People want show us what they got.

HANSEN: Yeah. What do you go B-sides usually?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RAMIREZ: Yeah. Every - you know, whatever. It's just like...

Ms. NAGY: There's no need to cover something that everybody already knows because...

Ms. RAMIREZ: Yeah. It's not a Motown review.

Ms. NAGY: You know you're never going to satisfy everybody if you do something everybody knows, I mean that's...

Ms. RAMIREZ: It's just no fun. You know, I'm not trying...

Ms. NAGY: It is no fun.

Ms. RAMIREZ: ...to do "Stop in the Name of Love," you know. You know, we have a very deep love for this music. So, you know, when something pops out at you, it's like, you know, when you put something in your mouth to eat it, it's like you either spit it out or you go, "Mmm, this is good."

HANSEN: Well, let's take one that - actually the Beatles covered this one. But you know...

Ms. RAMIREZ: You know what, we didn't know that.

Ms. NAGY: We didn't know that. This is a disclaimer on my part, I am a not a fan of the Beatles at all.

Ms. RAMIREZ: Yeah, but she knows all the words.

Ms. NAGY: Shut up, Mary. I do not. It broke my heart when I found that out. And that is the disclaimer on my part.

HANSEN: Yeah. "Leave My Kitten Alone."

(Soundbite of cat angry)

HANSEN: Yeah. Where did you get your inspiration, you know, not knowing the Beatles did it? Where did you...

Ms. NAGY: It was actually Little Wooly Johnny.

Ms. RAMIREZ: Yup. Little Wooly John, that's where the Beatles got it from.

HANSEN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "Leave My Kitten Alone")

The DETROIT COBRAS: (Singing) You better leave my kitten all alone. You better leave my kitten all alone. Now, I told you, bad girl. You better leave him alone. Don't you know, my kitten is a tom.

HANSEN: The band has changed over the years, The Detroit Cobras. But you and Rachel, Mary, have been with it from the beginning. How did you guys meet and did you always have these shared this interest in this kind of music?

Ms. NAGY: With me, I grew up around it and then, you know, you kind of wander off and you get into punk and, you know, rock and roll and then you come back to it as an adult. And Detroit is a big city with not a lot of people, so like-minded people find each other very easily and very quickly. So, you know Mary and I had been friends for a very long time. She...

Ms. RAMIREZ: I grew up on soul. My mother wouldn't allow no white music in the house. So I had to, like, go and find the Beatles, you know, and...

Ms. NAGY: And she ended up in Detroit. She was an army brat.

Ms. RAMIREZ: Yeah.

Ms. NAGY: She ended up...

Ms. RAMIREZ: So I then - but I came back to the thing I knew originally which is soul music.

Ms. NAGY: You always come full circle. So it's nice to be honest about it and go back to the original that, you know, the truly great, great stuff.

HANSEN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "The Hurt's All Gone")

The DETROIT COBRAS: (Singing) How many nights I've waited for you when you never, never, never came around. I cry myself to sleep most every night. But then you walk right in and everything's all right. Because the hurt's all gone when you hold me. Yes, the hurt's all gone...

HANSEN: Do you have top heroes in this genre? I mean, when you're looking for material.

Ms. NAGY: Well, on every single record we have, we always have an Irma Thomas song and we usually have a Five Royals song.

Ms. RAMIREZ: And that's the thing we haven't...

Ms. NAGY: When Mary and I are about 60, we're going to move to Vegas and we're going to have a Vegas act and it's going to be all Irma Thomas and Five Royals songs. We're going to be the Five Irmas.

HANSEN: You do a cover of "The Hurt's All Gone," which was done by Irma Thomas.

Ms. NAGY: She is my Beatlemania. She is everything to me. Wow, that sounded really cheesy. It's not like a Hallmark card or something but at Jazzfest in New Orleans. That's when I first understood Beatle mania. I always thought it was really dumb. Why are these girls, you know, screaming and crying and all that. That's just dumb. And Irma walks out on stage and I collapse and start crying and screaming and that woman just - she destroys me. And so, it's like, you know, just between trying to do her some sort of honor and, you know, put your own understanding and feeling into it.

(Soundbite of song, "The Hurt's All Gone")

The DETROIT COBRAS: (Singing) Yes, the hurt's all gone until you go away. Or can't you stay?

Ms. RAMIREZ: Musically for me is like trying to capture that thing that you love about it, musically.

Ms. NAGY: And they're intangibles, you know? It's like...

Ms. RAMIREZ: Yeah. You really want to capture that very thing that when you Listen to it makes you just feel so good, you know.

Ms. NAGY: Yeah. And it's not just the chord or progressions of the notes...

Ms. RAMIREZ: Yeah.

Ms. NAGY: ...or, you know, all the technical stuff. It really is the stuff in between the lines, you know. It's, you know, sometimes the guys get frustrated because Mary and I use all these, quote, unquote, "intangibles." You know, groove and feel and swing and...

Ms. RAMIREZ: Yeah, those intangibles.

Ms. NAGY: ...you know, and they start tearing their hair out but it's real. It's real stuff.

Ms. RAMIREZ: But you know...

Ms. NAGY: ...you know, and it's what makes it so good.

Ms. RAMIREZ: I mean, you should be able to tell somebody, you know, I want this to sound like I just fell down to my knees because it hurts so much, you know.

HANSEN: Right.

Ms. NAGY: There is such a sound. There is such a thing.

(Soundbite of song, "Try Love")

The DETROIT COBRAS: (Singing) Now when your man does you wrong, and when he stays out all night long. You'd better change. Take my advice. And treat him nice. And treat him nice.

HANSEN: Rachel, I have to ask you to explain something that I read, and obviously you always can't believe everything you read, you know.

Ms. NAGY: That's right.

HANSEN: But the quotation you have here is white women have no business singing.

Ms. NAGY: It's true. It's true.

HANSEN: Come on.

Ms. NAGY: Including myself. I carry a little gun in my pocket at all times, just in case, you know, I look at myself in the mirror for too long.

No, I don't know, it's just, white women - okay, my best example. Okay, go to a white church, listen to the choir. Go to a black church, listen to the choir. Now, which church are you going to be out of your seat and actually worshiping the Lord, you know? Probably the black church. A choir of white women is not going to inspire me to do anything but probably go smoke a cigarette behind the church. The church I grew up in was about 80 percent black and man, we were rolling in the aisles. You come out of there and you've got a high. You know, your head is busted and your dancing and it's, you know, it's a wonderful thing. And it's effortless, you know.

HANSEN: You seem really self-conscious about your singing abilities. I mean, haven't you grown comfortable enough with your vocal style yet?

Ms. NAGY: I've had to get used to it on stage doing it as opposed to dreaming of it and then having it happen because it was never something I wanted. It was never a dream of mine. You know, it wasn't like, oh, ever since I was a little girl, you know, I've always thought that I'd be in front of people and - you know. Sometimes I'll be on stage and I'm like what the heck am I doing here? I've had to grow into it, but I would say that "Baby," the record before the one we just put out was the first time I actually able to sit in a studio during mixing and everything and not cringe. It's taken me a long time to get comfortable with it and actually realize, yeah, okay, I am a singer.

(Soundbite of song, "As Long As I Have You")

The DETROIT COBRAS: (Singing) Born in darkness, had to find my way up to the sun. Had a lot of battles, some I've lost and some I've won. Let me tell you, boy. You ain't seen nothing yet. There's nothing in this world that I can't get. As long as I have you, as long as I have you, as long as I have you.

HANSEN: Do you think you might do original material in the future?

Ms. NAGY: You know, I like what we do. There's nothing wrong with what we do. I like what we do a lot.

Ms. RAMIREZ: We do what we do for a reason.

Ms. NAGY: But if I really wanted to, say, I want to write original album, I could just go backwards and find songs that nobody knows, you know. And just call them our own, you know.

Ms. RAMIREZ: That's one thing we've been very honest about.

Ms. NAGY: But if they come, they come.

Ms. RAMIREZ: Exactly. If it comes, it comes. If it doesn't, it doesn't. We do what we do because we really love this music.

Ms. NAGY: I mean, I have no problems with original - with covers. I just want...

Ms. RAMIREZ: But just to write a song, to write a song, you know. Who cares?

Ms. NAGY: I just wanted to, I mean, the whole thing started with - we just wanted to play the songs that you really, really like that you never hear on the radio, you know.

Ms. RAMIREZ: And you can't really go see live either - anymore, so.

Ms. NAGY: Exactly.

Ms. RAMIREZ: We're our own jukebox.

HANSEN: Rachel Nagy and Mary Ramirez from The Detroit Cobras. Their CD is called "Tied & True" and they joined us from the studios of WOSU in Columbus, Ohio. Thanks a lot. Good luck with this.

Ms. NAGY: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

Ms. RAMIREZ: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Nothing But A Heartache")

The DETROIT COBRAS (Rock Band): (Singing) Nothing but a teardrop every day. It's just me and him is just too slim. He got me all won. Can I get him?

HANSEN: The Detroit Cobras are now on tour. They play this week in Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore and other spots on the East Coast. To hear complete songs by The Detroit Cobras and discover more new music, visit npr.org/music.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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