War, Sex, Rock N Roll
CVLT Nation Interviews DEVIL’S WITCHES
Devil’s Witches is a one man band who is trying to remain anonymous. What we know so far is that his first name is James. He has created an album that has been critically acclaimed (in our small world of underground critics). His vinyl is selling out, and he has the cult merchandising brand Branca Studio on his side. His doom/stoner rock n roll record Velvet Magic takes us back to the late 60’s – a time of social injustice, protest, Vietnam, and the Manson murders.
I developed a unique friendship with this mystery man over a topic that we both have a strong passion for: the Vietnam War. For many years, I have developed an obsession with learning as much about this war as I can. The obsession comes from the questions I gained about my own father, who suffered from horrible PTSD after serving a year in 1968 as a marine. Growing up with someone like that is difficult, to say the least. As I got older, I wanted to understand my father more. So the obsession started, and now I could probably teach a college course. Most of Velvet Magic tells the story of a solider in Vietnam and a lusty lady, and though he has no ties to the war himself, Devil’s Witches does an impeccable job at taking you back to that time and place. It’s a wild ride. If you truly understand Vietnam, its aftereffects, and what these solders went through, you are sure to find an emotional tie to this record like I did. If not, it’s also just a completely bad ass record with great guitar solos, imagery and lyrics.
We semi-joke that you are a reincarnated solider who died in Vietnam. Explain where your interest and emotional ties started with the war and this period in time. For those out there reading this, you are actually from Scotland, correct?
Devil’s Witches: My interest in Vietnam began very young, and was from fictional media sources to begin with. I saw ‘Casualties of War’ on TV as a boy. I watched it because it said in the newspaper Michael J. Fox starred in it. I was obsessed with him because the ‘Back to the Future’ school dance scene inspired me to pick up a guitar. I had never seen anything like it before. Maybe it’s corny to people now, but it made me want to play guitar. So I was excited to see this movie ‘Casualties of War’… I was floored. It completely punched me right in the gut. I didn’t even know what this war was, but I felt it; the desperation, the frustration of young men far from home, tired, scared and not emotionally mature enough to be dealing with this kind of guerilla conflict. There were many young guys who didn’t even play sports in school, and now they were expected to handle guns and carry heavy equipment through dangerous terrain. That’s all before you even get to the Viet Cong. From there, I went onto watch all the films and documentaries and read all the books I could find.
I was explaining to you that my father was sent to Vietnam to help fight at Hamburger Hill. You said Apache Snow was about that battle. I am terrible at interpreting lyrics, so when I read them I was a little lost. Can you explain that song and the story in your head as you wrote it?
“Apache Snow” was the first song I ever wrote for Devil’s Witches. It became the archetype in a way for all the different nuances, sounds and even word play I wanted to use. Of course, after that things started organically taking on lives of their own, which I just allowed to happen. Lyrically, the title is the name of the operation that the US and South Vietnamese undertook to try and take control of the ‘A Shau Valley.’ It was a fight over the land that the Viet Cong used to transport supplies and stage attacks. The resulting battle was the famous ‘Hamburger Hill’ that was fought on the ‘Ap Bia Mountain.’ Both sides fought for control of this mountain, believing whoever took it would somehow be victorious. It was a brutal and bloody battle. During this time, back in the US there was mounting dissent against the war, with protesters staging all kinds of marches and activism. The lyrics of “Apache Snow” play on the futile nature of fighting over land, the hippy speak of anti-war protesters, anger from the soldiers towards these activists, but also the idea that maybe one of those protesters actually got drafted and was there – ‘Standing on the top of the mountain. I bet you feel really groovy now (really far out now)’. All are represented here in equal measure.
The part about the Indians is a reference to children playing ‘Cowboys and Indians,’ which is a very sixties thing. I’m playing with the word Apache, but using it to signify that these are just children in this battle. The chorus lyrics that read like lists of items and experiences were inspired by considering the weight that young men had to carry in this environment, emotionally and physically. I got that from the book ‘The Things They Carried.’ The lyrics ‘Heroin and Koon Sa smoke. Light up the village and grab a coke’; the first part is referencing the drug problem that a lot of guys developed in Nam that followed them back to the US years later. You could write a whole song just on that. Koon sa was a local term for cannabis, but Khun Sa was the drug lord of the east. He was the opiate warlord of the world. The second part of the lyrics is about American exceptionalism. There are many who are either pro- or anti-Vietnam. I’m in the middle. I recognize the mistakes the US made, but I still support the soldiers and feel for their struggle. I try to represent this in the track “Charlie got me killin’” on the Cherry Napalm EP. Narratively, in my mind, the Soldier protagonist of my story was in this in battle. This song is a real cluster fuck of a mash up of ideas, very symbolic of Hamburger Hill’s carnage. Ultimately, my character is ‘shot in the head’ and exits the war onto the rest of his story.
You have stated how important women have been in your life and to your inspiration. You seem to have a more personal understanding of women than most guys do. You live with women, and you were raised by your grandmother. I believe people misinterpret you because you use images of sexy women and love Russ Meyers’ films. There is more there though – I would feel safe calling you a feminist. Would you feel safe referring to yourself as one?
That is a very topical issue right now and everybody has different opinions about what they feel that word means. Some say equality for both sexes, some say the destruction of the patriarchy and others just downright confuse me. Here’s the thing though – the Women around me don’t say that word. I never hear it. From my sisters, friends, lovers, co-workers – you name it. It’s a word that just doesn’t come up. I hear it on the internet, on the TV, but in my life Women are kicking ass, regardless. Most of my bosses have been Women. My sisters work high profile, high paying jobs. I know sex workers that run their own successful companies and sex work on the side because they enjoy it. The Women I know desire and are successful at creating, loving, pursuing their passions, running businesses, debating politics, expressing themselves sexually without guilt, mothering children or not – you name it. That’s what I see, and that’s what I worship. I’ve said this before: Men and Women are not the same. They are equal in polarity. Meaning they have really unique and essential attributes, ideas, thought patterns, etc that contribute to life, but different doesn’t mean unequal. Nothing in the art I create is a law for other people to follow. If they think differently, then I encourage that.
There is a woman you tell stories about on this album. She’s witchy and she’s mysterious. What does she look like in your mind? How is she related to the war and the theme of the album?
The Voodoo Women is the other half of that polarity I mentioned. Talking about feminism, an unpublished article was written on her by a University scholar who described her as perfect example of practicing care ethics. I am not that educated on first and second wave feminism to discuss that, but she is based on all the amazing women I know. She doesn’t look like anyone because she can be anyone. She might even be you?
One of my favorite tracks is “Cherry Napalm.” It’s pretty clear it’s about a solider and how he is seeing the war at that moment. Did you get inspiration for that song from a particular book or movie?
That song was a result of my entire thought process towards the war in general. It’s mostly very literally my own feelings. I understand how young men can get violent when frustrated, but then I don’t excuse it. I am also devastated for the villagers of My Lai. My heart is ripped in all these directions. The day I wrote that song, I genuinely cried. It was an emotional experience.
Speaking of movies, what is your favorite Vietnam War movie? My father said Platoon was always the most accurate. He had issues with Full Metal Jacket because he actually worked at Parris as a radio repair guy as he waited to be deployed. He nit-picked but said Platoon was the most difficult to watch. You love film, so I am interested in hearing your opinion.
Platoon is great. Honestly I like them all. ‘Causalities of War’ will always be dear to me because it was my first. I think there’s something to be gained by just experiencing different things and looking for the productive in them. There’s also all the Namsploitation movies as well though that are pretty crazy. Films like ‘Rolling Thunder,’ ’The Extreminator ’ ’Missing in Action,’ ’First Blood’ – I love all those kinds of movies too.
What musicians are you listening to now that are current? I know you love Hendrix but is there anyone that has come out in the past 10 years that you love?
Ok, I hinted at this in a previous interview but didn’t say her name. Mostly every single Woman who enjoys Devil’s Witches that I’ve talked to is obsessed with her as much as me, and it’s Lana Del Rey. I feel like we could make the most epic album together that’s vintage and heavy and time-travelling. Our musical worlds are pretty far apart in mostly every way, but she’s the most legit person in music in the last decade. I got into her when the song ‘Born to Die’ to came out because the lower register reminded me so much of my grandmother’s singing. It haunted me and I was forever captivated into her Hollywood fatale universe. Anyone who studies writing learns about world-building. Lana Del Rey is doing this in pop music on a level we haven’t seen for a long time. Metal and Doom Women know what’s up with Lana Del Rey, and I think that’s so cool. Now if only I can get guest vocals on album two?
People ask you all the time to play live. Are you getting more comfortable with the idea as people are discovering the record? Will you be wearing a spooky mask and cape?
Haha no. I’m not against theatrical rock, but it’s personally not my thing for Devil’s Witches. I don’t think anyone actually wants to seeDevil’s Witches live. I think they think it will be good, but then all that magic will be gone. All those images the music and lyrics create, gone. It’s just me and some goons looking like imposters and dragging you back to reality.
What kind of negative criticism have you gotten? What is your response to it?
The negative response I’ve received is very minimal. All the reviews have been great. A couple of bigger labels wanted to talk about signing, but then they had gripes with vocal effects and nudity. Personally, I don’t care about bigger labels, so their opinion means nothing to me. Frank Zappa talks about this in an interview. He said in the old days labels were run by old guys with money who knew nothing about music, so they let us artists take risks without interference. Now labels are run by ‘hip young people’ who all think they are the authority on what music is good or cool and relevant. They assume because they are young they obviously represent every listener within earshot. Someone who believes they know what ‘good music’ is outright told me the album sounded shit before it was publicly released. I believed in what I made regardless of whether it was subjectively good. To me, its point and reason for existence outweighed everything else. But three pressings later, multiple end of year lists later, and…
Finally, Vixen or Beyond the Valley of the Dolls?
Damn that’s the million dollar question now really isn’t it. Haha… Ok, here’s the thing: ‘Vixen’ is pure Russ Meyer untamed and raw. ‘BTVOTD’ is a studio affair that Russ Meyer tried his best to be the real deal, but it is tampered with. It’s restrained in places that his other movies aren’t – for example, full frontal female nudity. ‘BTVOTD’ has a lot of shadows and deliberate angles to avoid showing too much. This bothers me in some ways, because Russ was a nude photographer. Showing the glory of the female body was a huge part of his career. But it’s a fucking good movie,haha… The wacky story, the soundtrack, the hip dialogue, the shock ending. It’s a movie that just lights me up every time I see it. Russ had major problems with FOX during and after this movie. Kitten said he was on the phone screaming at them. I feel like I’m betraying the artistic integrity of my ultimate hero to say that ‘BTVOTD’ is the best. But the truth is, I watch it consistently more than ‘Vixen’. Plus, Dolly Read has been so nice to me whenever I’ve talked to her. Then again, so has Erica Gavin… I refuse to pick.