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.
* * * * *
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.