Originally published in Noise and Color
What happens when you merge one of Vancouver’s most notorious musicians with a rustic punk rocker/biocultural anthropologist from Florence, Montana? A marriage of gritty small town punk meets whiskey-spraying rockabilly. Skyping from Vancouver, Brandy “Bones” Bates discusses her transition from small town rocker to upright bass wielding badass for Big John Bates’ newest musical creation.
Brandy and John first joined forces in Big John Bates and the Voodoo Dollz—a band ripe with sweaty hotrod blues and heavily influenced by dark rockabilly, complete with burlesque dancers in ripped-up fishnets. John approached Brandy after her college band, the Whiskey Wailers, opened for him. She was asked to join the Voodoo Dollz as their bassist during the height of the group’s fame. Thrust into the festival circuit in the summer of 2009, playing for tens of thousands of people, Brandy quickly learned how to beat her upright bass—and the crowds—into submission.
Brandy thumps a sexy upright Höfner bass with white body trimmed in black. As a Voodoo Doll, she’d awe the crowd with bass contortionism, slinging it around the stage, jumping from its sides, and even playing it behind her back, making people ask after the show, “Is that a prop?”
Brandy grew up in Florence, Montana, just south of Missoula. Her mother, whom Brandy affectionately describes as “foot-stomping music-loving,” insisted Brandy play violin. Brandy dropped violin in high school for the electric bass, though she didn’t start playing in a band until she moved away from home. “I didn’t know a whole lot of other musically inclined musical people,” she said.
Brandy’s musical opportunities opened drastically when she moved to Bellingham, Washington to pursue a degree in biocultural anthropology from Western Washington University. Here amongst her studies of social and biological sciences through an anthropological lens Brandy found herself in a scene rich with ideology and opportunity.
Washington—the “upper left”—has always produced a distinct sound, from its grungy days to its modern storm of northwestern hip-hop. The cloudy skies and abundant rain are a spawning ground for post everything: post rock, post hardcore, post indie, and a healthy dose of pop and rockabilly. Think Death Cab For Cutie, Idiot Pilot and a resurgence of the riot grrl movement reminiscent of the 90s in the greater Pacific Northwest.
It was in Bellingham among the musically rich that a friend handed Brandy an upright bass. “It just fell into my lap,” Brandy said. “Hanging with some friends turned into a career.”
Brandy continued to learn the upright bass when she and some friends began the Whiskey Wailers. When John approached her to join his band. Brandy had two years of school left. “I figured, why the hell not?” Brandy kept her role in the Whiskey Wailers and finished school with her B.A., all while touring with Big John Bates.
Of her time with the Voodoo Dollz, Brandy said rockabilly wasn’t really her thing, so she began writing some of the group’s songs. Under this new direction, Big John Bates transitioned into a different sound, ditching the burlesque dancers for a more stripped down, raw performance. Brandy describes the new sound as black metal and old country, while still retaining their punk rock roots.
“I’m a bit darker than John is,” Brandy said. “He sang about a lot of ex-girlfriends. I knew we could get a little deeper. I haven’t seen him this happy in a long time with some of the new stuff we’ve been writing.”
John’s musical career began in the mid 80s as the lead singer for Canadian thrash metal band Annihilator. He went on to front Big John Bates and the Voodoo Dollz for the better part of ten years, crossing continents with a caravan of devilish musicians and pin-up worthy dancers. John formed his newest band in 2011 with Brandy, bringing drummer JT Massacre and tuba/organist Khadijah into the mix.
The group derives its sound from Brandy’s fierce personality and vocals and John’s pension for the darker side of blues. On a release tour for their first LP, Big John Bates is gaining attention for their western post-rock—a genre Brandy coined as “rustic punk.” Released in September on Rookie Records, the “Battered Bones” tour will take the band across Canada, the U.S., and Europe for nearly three months.
Brandy and John were married last year. Of traveling with her spouse, Brandy said, “Because we are together all the time, we do have our fights, but we always have time to write with each other and focus on the band. If we weren’t together, the touring thing would be difficult.”
Brandy now lives in Vancouver, a move that was logistically difficult for her. “I was homeless for the last year and a half,” she said, explaining that making a living in Canada as an American musician is difficult. The government kept kicking her out of the country for being an “illegal alien.” Brandy mainly couch surfed while in Canada, trying to navigating the difficult immigration system to legally reside in the country.
Brandy describes the Canadian music scene as huge. “There’s so much going on up here every single night. Being from Montana, it’s overwhelming.” She laughs as she recalls drinking in a park for entertainment when she was a teenager living in Florence, so she’s quite happy to see the Montana music scene gaining momentum. “People in Montana are way more appreciative (of live music) than people in larger cities that are so used to their scene,” Brandy said.
The group has a few days off between their Missoula performance and the Billings gig. Brandy plans to spend time with her family and said John enjoys playing in Montana. “Even before I met John, Montana was one of his favorite places to play.”
Big John Bates plays the Badlander in Missoula on Sept. 29, and continues onto Billings, performing at Manny’s on Tuesday, Oct. 2. Be sure to ask about their new LP “Battered Bones,” available especially for their tour on orange vinyl.