Music Interviews

Interview: The Detroit Cobras

They’re a garage band who cover obscure ’50s and ’60s blues and soul songs.

Karaoke night that went eight years too far or, like their home town, a band steeped in musical heritage?

Midway through their first major UK tour, musicOMH joined guitarist Maribel Restrepo in Nottingham to discover where her band fit into the grand Detroit scheme of things.
She also had more than a few words to say on Eminem, The White Stripes, The Von Bondies and “Dubya”…

Rock City, Motor City, call it what you want – Detroit looks like hell according to Maribel Restrepo. Shaped like a bicycle wheel, each spoke siphons off into huge pockets of people. The rim of Detroit’s spokes is the city periphery, or 8 Mile as it was portrayed in the Eminem movie. On the inside lie the ghettos and homes of mostly black, blue collar Detroit. Crevices riddle the tarmac like moon craters. Freeways and out-of-town developments mean if you haven’t got a set of wheels, you ain’t getting anywhere. There is a public transport system, albeit a poorly one, stifled by the political influence of the motor companies.

On the other side of 8 Mile is affluent white suburbia. It’s a bleak picture that fits the stereotype to the T. But it has its benefits. Amid the regeneration projects and unsightly city, real estate retails at insanely cheap prices.

“Musicians come to live in Detroit because it’s cheap,” says Restrepo. “As far as music goes…there is nothing else to do out there, and the musical heritage almost inherits you. You have no choice, you can’t escape it.”

Restrepo’s tongue is straight from the street, and it lashes in rapid bursts: “You can burn a house and nobody will bother you. It is kind of the wild wild west, kind of raw. Detroit is freedom, man. If you wanna start a studio you don’t have to work that hard. For forty grand you can get a building!”

“Musicians come to live in Detroit because it’s cheap.” – Maribel Restrepo on why artists flock to the home of the White Stripes.

Restrepo and singer Rachel Nagy have been the core of a rotating Cobras lineup on and off for the last eight years. The Cobras have established something of a cult status in their lock picking of the dusty vaults of the ’50s and ’60s.

“I see myself as doing other people’s material,” corrects Restrepo, after I mention the word “cover”. “A cover band to me is somebody who plays songs so that people can recognise and give a common bond. Nobody recognises our songs for the most part.”

Artists like Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Deshannon and Mary Wells sit alongside the more recognisable likes of Otis Redding, Ike Turner and Marvin Gaye.

“It comes down to whether Rachel and me feel we can interpret the songs. It’s about feeling and how you feel about a song, and our show is kinda like that,” continues Restrepo. “We’re not a jukebox. We’re telling you about ourselves through songs that we like.”

“Nobody recognises our songs.” – Restrepo railing against the idea of the Cobras as a covers band.

She adds: “That was the golden era of songwriting. (And) Why do we listen to ’50s and ’60s stuff? Because that’s the s**t you can buy at the retail shops for a dime or a nickle.

Norah Jones has an incredible voice but I don’t have the time or the money to buy every record. I’m really very computer illiterate, otherwise I would download every record! I say do it. Because record companies are outrageous. It doesn’t cost them that much to make CDs. You are forcing people to act this way.”

“I would download every record! I say do it!” – Maribel Restrepo endears herself to the major labels.

Restrepo speaks proudly of Hot Dog, one of the Cobras’ few original numbers on their new album Baby, which emerged from a writing session with their hero Jackie Deshannon.

“I felt Hot Dog fitted with what we were doing and I thought that the job was well done. It doesn’t matter to me. I will always do covers. I love good songs. Do I feel the need to write my own? Not if it appeals to me.”

“I mean I like Baby, but usually when I like a band, I like their first records better. So what does that say about me? That puts me in a very difficult position. Actually the Stones give me hope because they wrote a good bunch in the middle there!

“I do like that about The White Stripes. I think Elephant is a very good record and I was glad because of that fear. I know Jack feels the same way when we talk – we talked (about it) last night. There is that fear. You gotta get worse sometime, because all bands get worse.

“Jason Stollsteimer… F**king wimp motherf**ker! I could beat that boy.”
– Restreopo’s take on White Stripes vs Von Bondies.

So what about that fight? (We had to ask) Did it split Detroit?

“It split people no worse than any bar fight. You have a bar fight in Detroit or wherever, you don’t cry about it. You a boy. You don’t call the ambulance or the police. You take your punches and you take care of your own s**t. That’s the Detroit way. But he’s (Jason Stollsteimer from The Von Bondies) not from Detroit. He’s a little razor boy. He moved down from Anharbor (college town north of Detroit). When you’re in the city, take it like a man. What do we think about it? F**king wimp motherf**ker! I could beat that boy.”

As a parting shot I ask Restrepo to sum things up in one word. She drops an evil grin before blurting out: “Dance motherf**ker, dance!”

Then in some twisted way, like much of our 90 minutes, conversation veers at the behest of Restrepo. The bitter taste of the US Presidential election is still fresh in her mouth. It’s gritty stuff, as expletive after expletive is launched.

musicOMH would be running an epilogue into the result, so let’s just say Restrepo is a passionate American whose affection for Bush Jr is on the same plain as Eminem; with the words hate, kill, evil, asshole, f**k and treason an appropriate summary of proceedings. Just don’t expect her and her bandmates to be playing Rage Against the Machine or Green Day anytime soon. You’ll find them where they are always to be found: in the bar, drinking and soaking up the music.

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