Music News

In The Detroit Cobras' Quest to Cover Motown B-Sides, Many Musicians Have Been Laid to Waste

Garage-rock gal pals Rachel Nagy and Mary Ramirez have gone through a lot of men in their day. Drummers. Guitarists. Bassists. All kinds.

When an interviewer makes light of the fact, Ramirez playfully props her legs open, as if to receive yet another session-musician servicing. Nagy, her fellow creative principal in America's most uncover-y cover band, erupts in hearty laughter.

"It makes an appropriate statement, doesn't it?" Nagy, lead singer and almost-founding member of The Detroit Cobras, asks hoarsely. "Hey, at least we're not Liz Tayloring marriages. We're getting it out vicariously through the band."

If Nagy and Ramirez must Fortensky-ize the occasional guitarist, well, that's the cost of greatness, no? Over their 12-year partnership, Nagy and Ramirez have presided over roughly a dozen lineup changes, comprising 20 different musicians. They've also cultivated a rock-solid reputation for energetic live shows and bold multi-genre experimentation that belies their famously fluid roster.

The Cobras' artistic mandate is elegant simplicity itself: They cherry-pick old R&B and Motown songs from their personal record collections and re-conceive them as dirty-good proto-punk ditties. It's like Irma Thomas meets The Cramps meets Otis Redding meets The Pretenders, with an additional catch: Most of the songs they cover are obscure album tracks and B-sides. Few were hit singles.

"We didn't see any point in being a Motown revue," Nagy, a raspy, blond hell-raiser who joined the Detroit-based band shortly after its founding in 1998, says. "Once you've heard a song enough times, you've heard it enough times. We give ourselves a little room to play with (the covers)."

The result is something that sounds a little like vintage X with the John Doe vocals taken out — fresh but familiar, classic but kickass.

"We've come full circle," Nagy theorizes, presumably speaking for the whole of rock fandom. "At a certain point, you realize that the stuff your parents listened to was great music. We've got the punk filter, sure, but we're still trying to touch the essence of the originals."

Explaining the band's ever-revolving door of talent, Nagy blames simple economics: Many of the musicians are forced to look for "real work" to support their families. Though the Cobras tour steadily and have a tidy, passionately devoted fan-base, they all require "supplementary forms of income," she says. (For Nagy, that means hunkering down at her boyfriend's pad in Philadelphia when she's not touring and recording.)

One might speculate another reason: This is Nagy and Ramirez's band, and they aren't afraid to let you know it. As lead singer and guitarist, respectively, they pick all the music and act as sole creative navigators. Outside collaboration? Somewhat overrated, honestly.

"This is not a democracy," Nagy stresses. "I don't want you to bring me (songs). You eat, sleep, and drink the music and that's what comes out of you. I don't want to veer. It's our gig. Our thing."

By jealously guarding the ploughshares, Nagy and Ramirez have cultivated an impressively focused oeuvre. The production has gotten slightly more exotic since the early days — on the band's most recent album, Tied & True (2007), they get crazy and punish a timpani — but it's still the same source music, the same amped-up, coulda-been classics.

"I think my mom put it best when Baby (2005) came out," Nagy remembers. "She said, 'Wow, you guys have really grown up.' It's not like Phil Spector or anything, but there are a lot more layers going on."

You see, the Cobras are loyal. Loyal to their influences, loyal to the band's all-but-abandoned city of origin — potentially a rusted-out cradle for a reborn genre, Nagy likes to believe.

"That's the beauty of Detroit," she says. "In New York, you have to work five jobs just to pay the rent. Here, you can make music. We'll own this town by the end."

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Craig Outhier