What do you get when two incredibly energetic performers — a guy and a girl who are each accustomed to being at the helm of a band, to commanding attention as the focal point of the room — decide to form a band together?
If the guy and girl in question are Mike Cobra of King Loses Crown and Rebecca Gone Bad (aka Rebecca Bortman), formerly of My First Earthquake, what you get is Happy Fangs — a band known for a ferocious, fiery, determinedly and cathartically fun live show, with music that owes equal debts to anthemic pop and classic ‘70s punk rock, and an aesthetic that’s maybe one part French New Wave, two parts experimental art school final. They also make up a new song, on the spot and with audience participation, once during every performance. Did I mention they seem to be having fun?
Ahead of their Noise Pop show this Friday at Slim’s — at which they’ll be performing for the first time with their third member, brand-new drummer Jess Gowrie — we caught up with the pair to hear about their influences, their onstage dynamic, and the importance of having cute girls dancing in the front row.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: I know Happy Fangs started when another project ended. How did the two of you meet up?
Rebecca Bortman: My old band shared a practice space [with Mike’s]…and when word went out that I was quitting, he sent me an email.
Mike Cobra: I contacted her asking what she was up to next, because if she said she was gonna stop making music, I would tell her that she shouldn’t, because she’s super talented.
RB: He was jumping in front of my talent train.
MC: And she sent back an email saying, “Well, I’m looking to start a band with just one other person and see what happens.” So I said, “OK, let’s do a couple demos.” We shared demos via email back and forth for a couple months before we decided to get together and start writing songs.
SFBG: So much of your energy and dynamic onstage seems to come from the contrast between you. Is it always harmonious, being a band made of front-people?
MC: As far as personas go, it’s true we’re very different: we say she’s the happy and I’m the fangs. But I don’t think we compete onstage, exactly. That’s part of our goal with adding the drummer, as well — she’s a very expressive, animated person, and we like to give people something to look at, even if it is competing. If anything, I think it keeps us on our toes.
SFBG: What did each of you listen to growing up? Do your influences complement each other?
RB: The one tape I listened to when I was young was The Big Chill soundtrack. Wait, also, [Michael Jackson’s] “We Are the World,” which has a B-side that’s Bruce Springsteen doing [Jimmy Cliff’s semi-obscure song] “Trapped,” live. Which is a really powerful song that gets really quiet, and then really loud. That song sculpted my desire to be on stage, Bruce Springsteen on the live “Trapped.”
MC: There’s one very first song that I remember listening to. I had an older brother, and when I was four years I would listen to his 8-tracks, with headphones, and I remember just rewinding and replaying this one song, one guitar riff, over and over again. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized it was Kiss’ first album. So I’ve been kinda stuck to that my whole life. I also got a lot of old-school country music, late ‘60s, early ‘70s music from my mom. And then I started listening to a really weird mixture of things as an adult, lots of punk rock, hardcore, metal. I say I like everything from Johnny Cash to Cannibal Corpse.
SFBG: I read another interview with y’all where you mention drawing inspiration from Kathleen Hanna, whom I also adore a borderline embarrassing amount. What is it about her work that strikes you?
RB: For me, the girl-punk, Riot Grrl stuff was all genuinely transformational for me when I was younger. I always think of that moment when a little girl realizes it’s not all about ballerinas and choo-choo trains…I love the idea of the moment when someone who’s maybe been proper and cute up until that point discovers her power — to me there’s an emotion of a five-year-old screaming [in our music]. This woman actually sent us this video of her daughter running around screaming [our song] “Lion Inside You,” and we were just like, “Yes! Do it!!”
MC: And for me, even being a guy, she was kind of one of the only people in the past 15 years who I feel like was very truly punk rock, in the sense of say, [Minor Threat/Fugazi frontman] Ian MacKaye, or Henry Rollins, in that she stayed very true to what she was, and she’s still doing it, still making music. She broke down a lot of boundaries, which is really inspiring.
SFBG: You both live in the city, yeah? Any thoughts on the current doomsday-ish conversation about how artists are fleeing SF because it’s so expensive?
RB: I want to be respectful and sympathetic to people who are leaving, because that totally sucks. I do have an affordable place to live in SF, in the Castro, and I know a lot of people are not in that situation. I also do think the culture of the city is totally changing. One thing that keeps us here is Mike and I also both work in an industry that’s here — we’re both designers. We kind of never stop working.
MC: I think San Francisco is a tough place to make music right now, and the situations where music venues are closing definitely affect everybody. And bands like Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall — I definitely understand why they would want to [leave], if you’re a touring band and thats how you’re making your money, you don’t want to spend it all on rent! That has definitely sucked a lot of the arts out of the city. At the same time, I think it’s a city that’s constantly been about change, from the time of the forty-niners. The same thing happened in the ‘60s, and with punk rock in the ‘80s, then metal…it’s a place of constant change, and I do think you kind of have to roll with it.
RB: Also, both of us are from much shittier places. I’ve been here 7 years, he’s been here 14, but we’re still in utter appreciation of the fact that we live in paradise. Yes, paradise is changing, but it’s still way better than Pittsburgh.
SFBG: You guys released a self-titled EP in October. What’s next for the band?
RB: Well, first, with this show, we have to haze our new drummer, Jess. This will probably involve some sort of vegan blood substitute. And we’ll be playing an awesome show with a bill of all female-fronted bands at Bottom of the Hill on April 5. Then later in the year, we’re going to record and release a full-length album, hopefully this fall, and go on tour — we’re going to Canada in the summer for a festival, so alert the officials.
SFBG: What else should people be on the lookout for at this show in particular?
MC: Well, it’s our first time playing without a drum machine, so if people haven’t seen us before, great; if they have, I think it’ll be a pretty big change in a really good way.
RB: The other thing I’ve been thinking about is people dancing at our shows, and how I wish it would happen more. To be totally sexist, I’ve noticed that having a couple of really hot girls dancing up front really helps. So girls, women, ladies, if you will dance, please come out. In fact, you can email us and we’ll put you on the list: happyfangsmusic [at] gmail.com.
Happy Fangs (w/ Cold Cave, Dirty Ghosts, and Painted Palms)
Fri/28, 7pm, $16
333 11th St, SF