The San Francisco trio Happy Fangs describes itself as a “raucous force of noisy guitar and anthemic vocals that thrill like the late-1970s sounds of X-Ray Spex, Siouxsie, & Suburban Lawns.” But when we finally get on the phone after a few delays (thanks, FreeConferenceCall.com), frontwoman Rebecca Gone Bad says the extra time waiting gave them pause to think about who else they might be in a fictional world. “We decided we’d be transplants, from the Ukraine,” she says, before laughing it off. “You can see we are very productive with our time.”
Productive doesn’t even begin to describe this band, made up of three former front people, all Capricorns, all artists, who have spent countless hours putting value behind their alter egos, comprehensive visuals behind their gritty sound and unmistakeable presence into their live shows, which always culminate with the debut of a new ‘Insta-song’ created on the spot (like those zoo molds but way better).
Boxx catches up with frontwoman Rebecca Gone Bad, guitarist Mr. Cobra and drummer Jess G. about meeting in the Bay’s Tenderloin district and discussing the fate of San Francisco bands while also saving time to chat about working at YouTube, honing makeup skills and divulging who the real riot grrrl is in this group.
How are you guys today?
Rebecca Gone Bad: “Great! We’re getting ready to hit the road. We are set to play a secret show in Palm Springs this week for a bunch of people who are anti-SXSW. They’ve invited us to a new conference called Yes by Yes Yes.”
I’ve never heard of that. What is this anti-SXSW conference?
RGB: “It’s at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, and they get a bunch of people together that would have otherwise gone to SXSW and they plan zero conference activities and sit around the pool. So basically the conference morphs back into a vacation. But there will be one musical SXSW thing happening there, which will be us.”
So are you guys anti-SXSW as well – I feel like you were recently there.
RGB: “We’re definitely not. We’ve played there a bunch, in our previous bands, too. Our thing is we always love to play new types of shows. Our whole concept is to do something dangerous, new, experimental.”
So you guys are from San Francisco; it’s not every day you hear about bands coming from there. What is the musical scene like nowadays?
Mr. Cobra: “Things have gotten so expensive here that it’s hard for bands to be from San Francisco, which is why you don’t hear about it a lot. Even the ‘bigger bands’ from here are moving away to like L.A. and there’s been an uproar over it recently. A lot of the venues have been closing down, too. It mimics what happened in the late ’90s, early 2000s during the dot-com boom when people were coming in and buying buildings, destroying them and turning the land into condos to make more money. But it grew back up. So although it’s happening again, it will likely make people stronger.”
Specifically you hail from the Tenderloin district, so you guys must be pretty gutsy.
MC: “Our rehearsal space was there for years but we recently moved away from it.”
RGB: “Actually our rehearsal space is where Mike and I met. We were in two separate bands originally but all practiced there. Things were born in room 13. But yeah many songs have been inspired by being in the Tenderloin district.”
Like what songs?
RGB: “I would say any songs that seem like you should fear for your life. I had a couple of incidents that caused me to never walk by myself there anymore. Our first EP especially has some pretty vicious moments on it, and I think the environment had an effect.”
I’m glad you survived! So had you guys seen each other’s bands prior?
MC: “Oh yeah, absolutely. In fact I directed a couple of videos for Rebecca’s other band. We did remixes between the two groups. And actually both of us saw each other’s first live shows. So it was a friendly atmosphere for sure.”
You are both front people. What was it about each other that made you know you wanted to collaborate?
RGB: “You know what they say about band practice space roommates – they make good bandmates. After I quit my band, Mike got word and sent me an e-mail and things happened naturally. We played the first year-and-a-half just the two of us and a drum machine because we had not met Jess G. yet, who’s actually on this call too. She’s just quiet.”
Jess G.: “I like being in the shadows.”
Jess, what was your background before coming into Happy Fangs?
JG: “I played in a ton of bands mostly out of Sacramento. I was also a front person in a band called I’m Dirty Too so technically we are all three front people and all three Capricorns that have joined forces.”
That’s a lot of personality. Tell us more about how that translates in Happy Fangs. You have such a strong aesthetic with costuming and makeup. What is the vision of what you wanted this band to be?
MC: “In the beginning it was to be simple and move beyond the constraints of having only two people. When Jess joined we were able to become a fully live band. Right now we have drums, guitars, vocals and we work with that palette. The look and feel started by answering how the hell do we look like we fit together? So we came up with a black-and-white look because we figured no matter what we can find things that fit us personally within that. It breeds a lot of creativity that we might not have otherwise done if we had all the colors to choose from.”
I’m hearing a lot of art terms referencing the band. Rebecca you were a previous art director/designer so did that visual focus come into play here?
RGB: “Mike and I are both designers, so we have visual opinion on everything but Jess is also an artist and goes along with it. I’ve always seen having a band as being the coolest design project because you get to create so many things for it. I love that we take our visuals to next level. We’re not going to get on stage unless we’re presented as worthy of being there because we have fashioned ourselves accordingly.”
Rebecca you also worked at YouTube, right?
RGB: “I worked there for three years on the first visual redesign of YouTube. Seven years into its history they had not had a redesign yet so I was hired to do that and make sure it looked nicer than it did. It was a lot of politicking and convincing executives that design was worthwhile. Now I work with other start-ups on creating apps and website consulting and logos, and I really enjoy it.”
So are you the one then who does the makeup for the band?
RGB: “If we’re lucky someone else does it. Usually I’ll start something and then I’ll convince Mike or Jess to also draw it on my face.”
JG: “I’m still getting it down, so I’m the third choice. But I notice that guys, don’t think you’re pulling one over on me. I’ve been practicing on paper.”
Besides looking good, one of the other things you do during live performance is you make-up a new song on the spot each time. How do you do that and what have some of the songs been about?
MC: “A friend of ours coined it Insta-Songs so we are using that title. It’s a way for us to be vulnerable in front of a crowd and help them realize we’re people and not just a band going through the motions. It tends to break down barriers when you have a crowd with folded arms or hands in pockets. They tend to let loose after that. So it’s a way to all be on the same level with everyone in the room.”
RGB: “It’s the ultimate compliment when the audience thinks the song is so good that we are lying about having just improvised it. Jess has a pretty good favorite—can you share it?”
JG: “Sure. So I’ve been starting the songs because it’s easier to layer them like that sometimes. I go for a faster beat to keep the energy up. But recently someone in the audience yelled ‘depression!’ and you can’t play a fast beat unless it’s like manic depressive. So I played the slowest groove, and I could see the fear in Mike’s eyes of what are we going to do, but everyone nailed it and it’s my favorite we’ve done so far.”
Your sound has drawn a lot of comparisons to Bikini Kill, Blondie and Siouxsie Sioux—do you agree with those comparisons?
RGB: “It’s interesting that it’s always female-led bands. I think there’s a lot of diversity in our sound, but I guess people are also trying to connect the vocals with something. There have been a lot of descriptors; I’m very complimented by all those. If someone thinks I sound like Debbie Harry I’ll take it.”
MC: “We also draw on a lot of influences that people aren’t picking up on, which is cool. Our newer stuff without the drum machine is more raw so it will be interesting what people will say when the new stuff comes out this fall.”
Are those the types of bands you grew up listening to?
MC: “All three of us come from varying backgrounds in music. I listen to everything from Johnny Cash to Cannibal Corpse and I really mean that.”
RGB: “I’ll name just one. On tour actually Jess created a fantastic musical moment for me when she introduced me to the bassist from Luscious Jackson, Gabby Glaser. That band was hugely influential to me when I was younger.”
JG: “I was more influenced by ’90s grunge like Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails. I never got into the riot grrrl thing. I think I was pegged in it because I looked punk and am a girl.”
RGB: “People also want to peg me as the riot grrrl but they have the wrong band member … and gender.”
MC: “Of everyone in the band I was more influenced by riot grrrl. Kathleen Hanna is a big hero to me. She’s fucking amazing and she did a lot for women not just in music but encouraging women to stand up and say what you want to say. I think she’s a powerful figure for our generation and there’s not a lot of them.”
So I can’t let you go without talking about these stage names.
MC: “Mine’s actually not fake, it’s my real name.”
Mike Cobra is your real name?
MC: “It’s my real name. It worked out perfectly.”
RGB: “The only time it’s problematic is when we have to rent a car.”
How about you Rebecca?
RGB: “I like that this band is my late rebellion in life. Much like milk goes sour I feel like I’ve gone bad, but maybe there’s some metaphor about cheese that can come out of the whole thing. …I like being called RGB too because that’s Roy G Biv, all the colors in the spectrum but we’re a black and white band.”
Jess, do you have one in the works?
JG: “I figured if one didn’t come naturally maybe I shouldn’t force it. I’m just waiting for Rebecca to name me. I figured let’s just go with the whole Madonna thing and drop the last name. Maybe it should be Just Jess.”
RGB: “But that’s putting you down.”
JG: “Okay scratch that from the record.”
So, what’s next for you guys?
RGB: “We’re working on a new release. Having a new member in the band we want to instantly share the sounds we can make with her. So we’ve been in the studio writing and recording. Maybe we haven’t stressed enough in this interview that Jess is amazing and changes our sound in an awesome way. Jess has only been here for 4 months but has already made such a huge improvement. I hope we weren’t shitty before so then we can only get better.”
JG: “You weren’t shitty before. I would have run so fast.”
Photo by Jen Cash of Calibree Photography