Interview by DJ Johnson

"This is Ivy. Lux said you had guitar questions?" I was more than a little surprised, and anything but prepared. I had finished up my interview with Lux Interior only an hour or two before, and I was already transcribing from tape when the phone rang. Being the suspicious type, I had figured Ivy must have blown off the interview because she'd heard all the questions before anyway. Let's face it, The Cramps have been making great rock and roll records for two decades. That's probably several thousand interviews. Who could blame her for getting burned out on the whole process. But here she was, apparently anxious to talk about one of her favorite topics.

Poison Ivy Rorschach once said she admired anyone who declared themselves king or queen of their own little world, or words to that effect. She never had to declare herself queen. It was an unspoken fact acknowledged by all who witnessed The Cramps in performance. As the Gretch-slinging, garter-wearing head mistress of rock and roll, Ivy has probably been lusted after more than any other woman in the biz, and it's unfortunate that the public perception often stops right there, because behind the sex goddess image there lurks a mighty fine guitarist.

In recent years, Ivy's playing has finally been mentioned favorably in various guitar publications, but the press in general almost seems to be unaware that she even plays guitar at all. This is somewhat perplexing to Ivy, but then she's certainly no stranger to sexist attitudes, and that is most likely the root of the matter. We began with that subject.

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Cosmik: Ivy, your playing on Badsville is hotter than ever, and I talk to players all the time who list you as an influence. Not bad for someone the critics said "couldn't play." Are you surprised to find yourself getting that kind of recognition?

Poison Ivy: Yeah, it does seem like I'm getting it on this album, though I'm still surprised how little I... Like I've gotten recognition, from Guitar Player [Magazine], and this and that, but like you mentioned that you thought I must get tired of answering guitar questions, and NOBODY ever talks to me about music or guitar. It's actually weird that they don't. They say stuff like..."Lux's sidekick." [Laughs] What am I, Igor going "Huhuhuh, Lux, let's play 'Surfin' Bird'" or something?

Cosmik: Do you resent that a lot?

Poison Ivy: Well, it's just kind of weird, because they'll also say we're sexist, but they won't even comment on my playing as being unique, which I find pretty sexist.

Cosmik: It seems like there would be a paradox there, because the way you dress on stage would invite sexist attitudes, but the danger in your persona would make a lot of people afraid to approach you that way.

Poison Ivy: It does. Yeah, it does. No, I don't have problems. Some other band, some female guitar player, said she got hassled, but I don't. I guess I look like I would dish it back.

Cosmik: It just seems to me that you would scare them away from doing that.

Poison Ivy: I think we even get the kind of fans that wanna BE scared by us.

Cosmik: I can tell you really love the key of E...

Poison Ivy: I do.

Cosmik: Powerful chord, isn't it?

Poison Ivy: It is. I also love D. I love the D to E thing a lot. Something about going back and forth from D to E. Isn't that strange how if you change key, it doesn't seem the same? Cuz I know that color... like in sound and color there's supposed to be different frequencies, like a higher octave of sound is supposed to manifest in colors like green or red. That must just be something that you hear in a different chord. Yeah, I love E. I also love E because I like doing a lot of open things.

Cosmik: Like open string stuff, riffing and all that.

Poison Ivy: Yeah.

Cosmik: And you can obviously also kick ass in other keys, but it seems like even the songs in other keys touch on E somewhere in the meat of the riff. "Monkey With Your Tail," for instance, which is in F-sharp.

Poison Ivy: Yeah, I don't know why, I just always feel it's like home. It's like headquarters or something. [Laughs]

Cosmik: It's your anchor.

Poison Ivy: It must be. Cuz you're right, that song starts in F-Sharp and then goes back and forth on E. It's also partly to do with the keys the singer sings in. Which I think a lot of bands don't bother to do that, to play in good keys for the singers, because with a lot of bands, it's the singer that keeps me from liking the band. We'll always try like 10 different keys until we find one that's just in the pocket for the singer. I wonder if some bands do that, and I think they should consider it, because with a lot of these bands I think the guy can't sing, but the band's just not finding his key. You know, it helps.

Cosmik: On a lot of the indie punk records I get, the singers are just struggling.

Poison Ivy: I think it's like every man for himself. They don't think "maybe we should move that or adjust that." That's one thing we always do. We always experiment. Lux has a pretty good range, and he can sing things in different keys, but sometimes a song just sounds more exciting if he sings it higher. Or just the opposite; depending on the nature of the song and the tempo, it might sound more sinister if he sings it low. So we'll rehearse it in like three different keys, and they'll all have different feels to them. Even if he can sing all of them, maybe one of 'em, he's straining his voice, and sometimes straining his voice makes it sound more exciting, so we'll go with it. So we experiment a lot. I think we work harder than some bands in that department. Doesn't sound like it. The way it comes off, they say we have simple boneheaded songs that don't evolve, but there's a lot of work there.

Cosmik: Yeah, but they say it because it's not glossy.

Poison Ivy: I think it's like a cultural slur. When someone is from outside a culture, they'll say "all that music sounds alike," or "all those people from that culture LOOK alike," because they're not tuned in to all those subtleties. To a lot of people blues all sounds alike. I'm not tuned into the subtleties of reggae. I know there's a lot of it there, but it's just not my world. Or hip-hop. It's just all different for different people, and they should at least acknowledge that maybe they just don't know instead of criticizing. Maybe it's better just to back off and say "I don't know that."

Cosmik: I can't tell you how often I end up defending reggae to people who don't even know where Jamaica is.

Poison Ivy: Yeah, and any kind of music, you have to really be into it, and you have to figure if you're NOT into something, it could be because you, the listener, haven't really jumped into that world or that culture. There are types of music I like that I won't attempt to play or be influenced by. I like music from India, but it wouldn't be authentic if... I mean, how could I begin to be influenced? It's so culturally different. So I'm going to play what I think I can play authentically.

Cosmik: And would it even work in the context of The Cramps.

Poison Ivy: Not right now. I mean... [laughs] that might take about 50 years to incorporate it into the music.

Cosmik: Then again, The Cramps just might BE there in 50 years. [Laughs] So for now you continue to explore the power of the open chords and rockabilly and punk. I'm guessing that you're fond of Link Wray.

Poison Ivy: Oh, I LOVE Link Wray. Still. He was initially my biggest influence, and he still is. I hear more and more. No matter how long I've been doing this, I hear something new when I listen to him. Maybe because I'm not the same person, maybe I know more from playing longer. It enables me to hear more now, so it seems like I'm always hearing something new and getting influenced by some new aspect of Link Wray. He's just so... it's like guitar at the end of the world. So austere. And so much drama. You know, he makes the most out of the least, for sure.

Cosmik: So many guitar players follow the path of the intricate melody, which is fine, whereas it seems your focus has been the power you can get out of the open strings, and just finding the guts, the balls of an E chord, which is why I asked you about Link.

Poison Ivy: Yeah, that's probably what made me aware of it or tuned me into it, because my favorite guitarist is Link Wray, and I guess the thing I like in what he does is what I wanna do, too. I just like hearing a lot of strings splashing all at once. And just the austerity and the starkness of how he plays, you know? The drama that's created by not overplaying.

Cosmik: Exactly. Which is still the number one crime committed by the average guitarist, in my opinion. With all these songs in E and A, how do you manage to keep it fresh and dangerous sounding where so many other players can't?

Poison Ivy: I don't know. And I appreciate you saying that, because some people would say that we just keep doing the same thing over and over, which I don't think we do. So that means you're tuned into the subtlety of it, which is great. I don't know... We collect a lot of records, and I just hear a variety of things done in that key on those records. It's kind of a weird form of meditation, I guess, because meditation means just focusing on one thing for a very long time and finding all the different layers of it and all the different things you can get out of it instead of flitting from here to there. It's like "what ELSE can I wring out of this chord? Is there another way to attack it?" But I have a lot of inspiration. There's just such great stuff on records, so there's always somebody to [listen to], and there's an infinite amount of ways to play even the most cliched rock and roll. There are just so many angles. If what I do is fresher than what others do, I don't know what it is, unless they're just not listening to enough records to get inspired.

Cosmik: I think it goes back to not knowing when not to play, too. I listen to "Cramps Stomp," and there's so much power from chords just tailing off, just hitting a chord and letting it snarl and sneer.

Poison Ivy: It's a real joy to play 'em that way. I think some guitarists get led into an ego thing where they want to perform in some technical way, which even if you can it's not always the best thing to choose to do. I still like the idea of playing for the pure euphoria. My favorite thing to play, still, is rhythm. It's just so euphoric that I really get high playing. Certain things I play don't even feel like it's me playing it, and that's my favorite kind of playing. I think guitarists can get caught up in trying to be recognized for something technical or intricate that they're doing, but they lose the whole world of getting high just from playing when they do that.

Cosmik: Is "Haulass Hyena" in the key of A with the tape sped up?

Poison Ivy: It's got shifting keys. It was really hard to learn it, in a way, to remember where to go, and now I've got to learn it again because we have to go on tour soon. So many songs, I've recorded them and never played them since. I remember I got out every guitar boogie record we had... there's like "Earthquake Boogie," "Guitar Boogie Shuffle," the Larry Collins/Joe Maphis "Hurricane" and... I think I got out like 10 different guitar boogie records and I thought "can I cram all this into one song?" [Laughs] Our poor drummer, he's so good on it, but boy, when we first wrote the song we were like "okay, when this part comes you do like this, and then you stop, and then you..." and he was just staring into space. But then they did it, and they learned it pretty quickly.

Cosmik: They got it down. I was talking to Lux about the animal imagery tunes, like "Monkey With Your Tail" is my favorite track on the new album.

Poison Ivy: It's mine, but I don't know why. It's something really juvenile about it that I like, or jungly, or primitive... I don't know what it is.

Cosmik: The beast within... The wild thing.

Poison Ivy: Yeah. I really love doo-wop R&B vocal group stuff. It kinda reminds me of that.

Cosmik: Really? You're a doo-wop fan?

Poison Ivy: Oh, that's how we got into the record collecting, initially. Vocal groups. Then we just discovered rockabilly and everything else while buying that. It's still an influence, but it's an influence that's not recognized because we don't sing harmony. I get guitar parts from vocal harmony parts. We don't get ideas from regular sources. We'll get ideas for guitar parts from the saxophone parts on a record. Things that aren't obvious. I love sax, you know? We've never had one in our band, but I love sax. I don't PLAY sax, but I like it as much as guitar to listen to, like 50s rock and roll, the really obnoxious kind of sax.

Cosmik: The kind of sax with guts and balls.

Poison Ivy: Yeah, and like that baritone sax that sounds really dirty.

Cosmik: Tone that really vibrates ya.

Poison Ivy: Big Jay McNeeley... He's not baritone, he's alto, but he's really wild. He's wicked.

Cosmik: I was talking with Lux about the kinds of sounds you've absorbed into your music. With you guys it's all melted into a central sound so nobody would be apt to say "oh, check out the R&B influence in this one," but it's definitely there. There IS R&B. Like "Can Your Pussy Do The Dog."

Poison Ivy: Yeah. Oh, that and... "Ultra Twist" was totally like the Ike-ettes and that kind of influence. I'm trying to remember which song on this album is kind of like a soul song... Well, "Super Goo" went past that. By the time we finished that, it got pretty schlocky. [Laughs]

Cosmik: I loved your version of "Peter Gunn" on the Del-Fi Mancini tribute. (Shots In The Dark.)

Poison Ivy: I love the song "Peter Gunn," and that was an opportunity to do it. I don't know if The Cramps would have had an excuse to do it. Aside from just collecting records in general, we collect certain songs, and "Peter Gunn" is one of them. With some songs, it's hard to find a bad version. They're all really fascinating, but different. There are all these cool but very different versions of "Peter Gunn," so I've just always wanted to do that song.

Cosmik: I'm curious... What did you think of The Art Of Noise's version?

Poison Ivy: Well, I was about to say there's not a bad version, EXCEPT... That one just didn't make it for me. And I love Duane Eddy so much, but I just didn't see what... I guess it helped Art Of Noise more than it helped him. But there are some songs that are pretty hard to screw up, like that one, "Harlem Nocturne," and "Night Train." All the versions there are are just usually pretty great, and I just wanted to add my own.

Cosmik: How did you get involved with the Del-Fi project?

Poison Ivy: We were at a friends house, and he said he was going to be doing something for it. He had a list of what everybody was doing, and I was pretty amazed that no one was doing "Peter Gunn," so I just said "Oooo! Here's my chance!" Del-Fi seemed excited to have my track on there, too. They seemed like nice people, and they're based in LA, too. So it was easy to do.

Cosmik: I assume you collect surf records, also?

Poison Ivy: Yeah.

Cosmik: Did you get a little buzz from being on a label with so much surf history?

Poison Ivy: Oh, definitely. That was part of why I wanted to do it. I used to collect their records before we were IN a band, and I never thought I'd have a song on Del-Fi! I mean, that's probably a silly thing to get excited about, but I was even excited about having a record on RCA in Spain. Most people would think "well, that's a major," but to me, it was the label Elvis was on. "Wow, I'm on the label ELVIS was on!" So, yeah, it was great. Del-Fi had a LOT of cool stuff on it.

Cosmik: Is that a major buzz for you, having been a collector all your life, knowing that people are out there madly collecting all your stuff?

Poison Ivy: Yeah, it's weird. Some of the records are really collector's items now.

Cosmik: I asked Lux about this, too. You put out five or six EPs and singles for each album, and most bands don't do that. You guys make some of the coolest collector's items out there.

Poison Ivy: Yeah, and then there's the whole bootleg thing, too, which is vast.

Cosmik: Does that bug you?

Poison Ivy: Most of it does, because a lot of it is pretty bad quality. There are some that are pretty good, but most of them aren't. And they retitle songs because we have fans that'll collect everything. So they change the title of a song, and our fans take the records home and... like they'll call "Psychotic Reaction" something, like on one they called it "A Walk Down Broadway." So the fans think "well I never heard them do THAT song, I guess I'd better plunk down all my dough and buy this." Then they take it home and it's "Psychotic Reaction." It's mean. But other ones seem more fan oriented. Some are really slick and have bar codes, and you can tell it's just there to hustle money, and then another one will be like a real crazy looking fan thing by some psycho, and that's kinda more interesting.

Cosmik: [Laughs] That's a whole 'nother scary area.

Poison Ivy: Yeah, but it's kind of exciting.

Cosmik: You played without a bass player in the band for a long long time. Was it hard to adjust to playing WITH a bassist?

Poison Ivy: No, it wasn't, because it evolved in a real natural way on A Date With Elvis. We didn't have a fourth band member, and I had already done that song, "Surfin' Dead," for the soundtrack of Return Of The Living Dead. We were still between members at the time that we made that, so I just made a wall of guitar and included bass. They said they wanted it to be "real pop," but OUR notion of pop was like Phil Spector, not 80s pop, so we put that Phil Spector thing, that kind of "bomp...bomp-bomp... bomp...bomp-bomp" beat in there. Then, when we made A Date With Elvis, we still didn't have anyone. Also, the bass I played with was a Dan Electro 6 string, and I also played a little bit of Fender VI on A Date With Elvis. I only played a real bass on one song. But I kinda dug it. It seemed even more prehistoric, to me. It was simpler. It's kind of, in a way, given me more space to go from chords to lead and whatever. It hasn't really changed what The Cramps is. A lot of people think it has, but Slim [bassist Slim Chance] still takes solos on "TV Set," and he plays those breaks on "God Monster." That's the bass player, it ain't me. So nothing's different. It's just a different octave. In a way, we're still acting like a two-guitar band. He does very un-typical things for a bass. A lot of the fuzz is on bass. The fuzz pedal immediately takes all the low end out anyhow. So it really hasn't been much of a change. The place I notice the difference is on rockabilly songs. It's given them more power. It's nothing slicker. I've heard people say it's slicker. It's just that you have an octave. With Brian Gregory and The Kid, we had them playing bass lines on the guitar. They were playing everything on the 5th and 6th strings, just literally bass lines. Nothing's changed, in that way. To me, it's just more primitive and prehistoric and heavy, and it just evolved naturally.

Cosmik: Is gear a big issue with you? Are you into gear?

Poison Ivy: Yeah... Yeah.

Cosmik: What's your setup right now?

Poison Ivy: My 1958 Gretch Chet Atkins 6120. Usually I play several guitars, but this is the first time I played a whole album with that guitar.

Cosmik: Kind of gave it a cohesive sound, too, didn't it?

Poison Ivy: Oh, it's a great sound. I record with small amps. You get a bigger sound with small amps. I prefer that.

Cosmik: Like what?

Poison Ivy: Valco. Live, I play with vintage Fenders. 15 inch speakers. Real simple and tiny. Small gear, big noise. Now, everything's miked, so when you see the stacks it's all for show. It's got nothing to do with the sound that's being made at all. You know, not that "show" doesn't have its use, but that's all it is, it's just show.