You can’t judge a book by its cover. Nor a band by its name. Except ... sometimes. When a band name starts with “The,” there’s a good chance you’ll hear some sort of rock and roll or psychedelia. An active verb in the name? A 99 percent chance of emo. Or if you’re lucky, crustcore. Any name that couples words like “bleeding” and “fetus” should be avoided at all costs. So what is one to make of a tag like Mother Death Queen? My first guess would be a bunch of big, hairy guys with Flying V guitars and too many crash cymbals.
Wrong! Before a Blackbird Buvette show in September, I knew that drummer Cara Tolino (The Roxiehearts, The Hopefuls) was part of Mother Death Queen. But when she and guitarists Ella Brown (Unit 7 Drain, I is for Ida), Amy Clinkscales (Gamelan Encantada, Jenny Clinkscales Band) and bassist Alexis Adams Vilorio marched in with instruments, I knew something good was about to happen. I was right. It ripped.
There’s a difference between “cover bands” and bands that play covers. Mother Death Queen is working up originals, but the covers are outstanding both in execution and choice. I mean, nobody wants to hear your band play “96 Tears,” but a well-chosen cover is like a secret handshake to other music nerds and a revelation to new listeners. The band has picked little-known songs of Nirvana, Sonic Youth, PJ Harvey, Liz Phair and—a Blackbird show crowd favorite (which shows it was a hip crowd)—The Amps.
The sound is post-Breeders but predates the deranged “metal is punk” mentality. Amy and Ella’s killer leads show a lineage from Mick Ronson through Crazy Horse to 7 Year Bitch. Alexis had previously only played one or two sets with Tony Sapienz (Unit 7 Drain). So Cara’s statement that Mother Death Queen is “publicly popping her cherry” is fairly apt.
Things began to coalesce when Alexis and Ella took a nine-girl trip to Palm Springs. “I propositioned that we mess around with some music, so we brought our guitars and amps,” Alexis says. “While the others were lounging by the pool, we broke them out.” Around the same time, Cara called Ella about playing music. A few practices in, the three agreed something was missing. That something turned out to be Amy, who figured a little grungy rock would be a sweet diversion from the Indonesian music project in which she’s involved.
Amy and Cara previously worked together in The Hopefuls. That outfit began when Ben Hathorne (Naomi) decided, as he told me at the time, that he was tired of dealing with “musicians” and—besides the experienced Amy—assembled a band with “some hot girls who don’t know how to play.” Thanks to his stellar songwriting and whip-cracking, The “Hopes” was one of the best things going just over a decade ago. Cara in fact remains grateful to Ben for “pushing me to do something I’d never done before.”
In Alexis’ living room a couple of weeks ago, Mother Death Queen practiced and I mooched beers. I didn’t catch any titles of the originals since they were mostly referred to as “that one that goes da-da-da at the break before the drum fill,” but trust me: These songs will lock smoothly into the Mother Death Queen set list. As smoothly as rocking your face off can be.