By Brian F. Johnson
“Every year, I say it can’t get any worse and every year, it does. I don’t know how worse worse can be. I thought it was the worst it could get, 10 years ago,” said Mary Ramirez, the guitarist of The Detroit Cobras, during a recent interview with The Marquee from her home in Detroit.
Ramirez wasn’t talking about Detroit’s blight, or its rebuilding, although she has her strong opinions on that, too. Ramirez was talking about commercial radio.
“The Cobras were a true reaction against the radio. If we could have heard music like the Cobras play we wouldn’t have done the music that the Cobras are playing,” Ramirez said.
The music that the band started playing in 1994 is a mix of soul, Motown, R&B and classic rock, that is literally stripped from Ramirez and her music partner in crime, singer Rachel Nagy’s record collections. The Detroit Cobras — with one song being the exception— play other people’s music, but more specifically they cover other artists’ B-sides and deep cuts, and they do so with such a raw and ferocious energy that the songs rarely sound anything like the original versions, but all of them end up sounding like Cobra songs.
The group, which, except for Ramirez and Nagy, notoriously changes its lineup, has released four full-length albums to date. For the current tour, the lineup will feature mostly Motor City players — mostly. “The current lineup has all members from Detroit — except, we use Cincinnati as a guitar farm, like the Tigers use Toledo as a hen club, we use Cincinnati for our guitar farm,” Ramirez joked.
The group was set to put out new material recently, but Ramirez said they ultimately walked away from the recording. “We tried recording a couple tunes recently and it didn’t go to our liking, so we went back to the drawing board and we kind of stayed at the drawing board,” she laughed. “Ain’t no sense in putting something out you’re not happy with, you know? I don’t care how much time and money you spend on it, you know when something is hitting and when it’s not and it wasn’t right.”
Living in Detroit, Ramirez knows a thing or two about things not being “right.” “Detroit is a fucked up place. Granted,” she said, “I’ll give you that. But there’s been some major progress and it’s coming back in sections. But what I think is fucked up is that for all the people who’ve done well in Detroit, musically — selling records — and you can go down the line from Jack White, Kid Rock, Eminem, Aaliyah, there’s no record label here now and you can buy five fucking acres in downtown Detroit for nothing now and no record company has moved here? The last company we fucking had here was Motown. They could have owned five city blocks and been in Detroit with a fence around them and a private road to the airport.”
To Ramirez, it all comes down to grit and honesty, and while she said she’s seen some great growth in her beloved city, she said that the gentrification of some areas is being overtaken by people whom she thinks are being too greedy and buying up too much land. “There’s a financial revolution happening here and people with money are moving in and starting their own businesses, and I don’t have a problem with that. Bless their hearts for trying. But I don’t like it when one person owns too much, and some of these people in the [city ad campaigns]that say ‘This is my Detroit!’ Hold on there, little buddy. The people who stayed in Detroit all along are a special kind of person,” Ramirez said. “I’m not saying that they had to be tough, but they couldn’t be that full of bullshit.”
It’s a somewhat ironic statement from a woman who has arguably made a career off of other people’s music, but Ramirez gives more than a hint of acknowledgement of that irony and says that to her, it all comes down to sincerity.
“Bands playing out, they don’t have to be great, they just have to be sincere,” she said. “I love a good idea more than I love scales. If you’re talented, we’ll see that. I think the worst thing a band can be is boring. You can be bad. You can be wankered — I’d appreciate that more than if you were boring. But you’ve gotta be sincere. Art without sincerity is just pure garbage.”
:: The Detroit Cobras ::
:: Larimer Lounge :: June 10 ::
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