Jem Cohen, the ascot-sporting bassist for the Ettes, has got it made. He gets to play energetic '60s beat rock, and, as the only male in the band, he gets to spend a lot of time with two beautiful ladies and travel around in a psychedelic van solving mysteries. Okay, I made up the last part. Nonetheless, the L.A.-based trio with a vintage look and sound seems to be having a blast and getting along as they head into the final weeks of a two-month tour through Canada and the U.S. Drummer Poni Silver quips, "Ask us how well we're getting along in another three weeks."
All three members, including guitarist and frontwoman Coco Hames, are from the East Coast but didn't meet until they were in Los Angeles. They are finding that La-la Land isn't the easiest place for a retro-rocking, non-trendy group to survive.
"It's hard because you're competing against the sons and daughters of famous people who have all of these connections in the music business," Cohen says. "Though the place is big enough for different styles, the scene is so fragmented." Hames half-jokingly adds, "We tour all the time because everyone in Los Angeles is so industry."
In 2004, Hames and Silver decided to form a band. Where the girl group in Dreamgirls drops the "-ettes" from their name, Hames wanted to embrace the feminine aspect of the name and "be the suffix." After trying out a couple of girlfriends on bass, the two decided on Cohen, sacrificing the gender purity of the group for band chemistry. Cohen says, "One of the reasons we do get along so well is that we love the same music -- Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, the Beatles."
After months of rehearsal and songwriting, the Ettes decided to cut their first proper record. They aimed high and far away. They contacted Liam Watson, who had produced Billy Childish, Holly Golightly, and the White Stripes, and arranged to record at his Toe Rag Studios in London. The Ettes financed the trip themselves.
"We wanted to do it and didn't think about what would happen next," Hames remembers. In London, the group got to meet their musical idols, Childish and Golightly.
Soon after, the Ettes were able to convince the Sympathy for the Record Industry label to release their debut, Shake the Dust. Though the label is based in SoCal, many of its acts hail from Detroit or, in the case of Jack Yarber's multiple projects, Memphis. In fact, Falling James Moreland, Courtney Love's first husband and noted transvestite punk rocker/critic, recently wrote, "Let's hope we don't lose this ever-touring group to Detroit or Memphis. The Ettes fit in better with rootsy revisionists like the Detroit Cobras and the Oblivians than they do with most L.A. bands." He might have good reason to be fearful. The Ettes are indeed looking for a nice place to relocate. According to Hames, the phrase "shake the dust" is about moving on from the past.
One place the Ettes are considering is Asheville, North Carolina. Hames' folks live there, and it's also the home of former Memphian Greg Cartwright and his band the Reigning Sound. The Ettes aren't ashamed to admit their admiration for Cartwright's music, both the Oblivians (which Cartwright was a member of along with Yarber and Goner Records' Eric Friedl) and the Reigning Sound. The Ettes have even recorded a cover of the Reigning Sound's "We Repel Each Other." Their streamlined, poppier version lacks the raw power and emotional urgency of the original, but it does have a charm of its own.
Hames' voice, equal parts Ye-Ye girl sweetness and party-gal rasp, is much better suited to Shake the Dust's low-key, melancholy closer, "I Wanna Go Home." It would also seem to be a perfect match for "My Baby Cried All Night Long," a Nancy Sinatra cover that the Ettes have been working into their live repertoire. Hames, in a stylish baby-doll dress, could easily be Nancy Sinatra's understudy. The band's impeccably mod fashion sense is evident not only in their publicity shots but offstage as well. Hames says, "I dress the part every day. People need to understand that it comes from my history as a debutante."
To give you an idea of how many shows they have played on the recent tour, the Ettes' upcoming show will be their second in Memphis this year. Even with the relentless touring schedule, Cohen seems more than content in his role as the Jack Tripper of the garage-rock set.
"We are excited about coming back to play," Cohen says. "Everyone was very energetic in the audience, and we even attended a late-night dance party after the show."