Wicked pretty things

Photo by Jo McCaughey

You might think it’s damn-near impossible to find a band whose biggest influence is the laughably bad ‘70s girl-gang ‘sploitation flick Switchblade Sisters.

Well, then, you ain’t met The Ettes.

“It’s not a good film,” frontwoman Coco Hames says, laughing. “Just desert-punk chicks being total idiots. And that’s what [drummer] Poni [Silver] and I were all about when we met [in Los Angeles in 2004]. We’d get into fights at bars and stuff like that. We try to avoid that more now. You don’t think about that so much when you’re younger that if you throw a pint glass at someone, they may, I don’t know, get a major head laceration, and you might get arrested. And la la la la la.”

Good thing for us the coed three-piece (guy Jem Cohen plays bass) has the sound to back up that scrappy attitude. Pulling on the fuzztone swagger and primal energy of The Stooges over the haunting soul of dark, ‘60s country music, The Ettes are like a swift, Nancy Sinatra boot kick to the head. But the band also knows when to put away the knives. On Wicked Will, their fourth and latest album, Hames purrs just as much as she snarls, showing a surprising amount of vulnerability and confusion and pain under that cool, leather-clad veneer.

Much of that might have to do with her lyrics. This time around, Hames focused her aim entirely on women, writing songs from a variety of female perspectives, while at the same time writing about her struggles and frustrations with her own perception of womanhood. But it’s a distinction some listeners can’t seem to grasp.

“I’m a pretty direct songwriter in terms of lyrics and material,” she says. “I’m happy to leave songs open for interpretation, but there was this Daytrotter review where the writer got it so wrong. The guy totally got this vibe that we’re, like, man-eating, foot-stomping women, and that we’re going to fuck with everybody and kill all the men. And I was just like, ‘Uh, that’s not really what I was going for. But that’s one way to look at it I guess.’”

Not surprisingly, the band’s brand of beat punk and fem-vintage-chic has also endeared them to the ever-growing, all-girl roller derby scene. Their tune “Crown of Age” was even featured in the 2009 movie Whip It.

“A lot of our friends are into it,” Hames, who admits she’s way too uncoordinated to ever play the sport herself, says. “I think there’s just something about the female nature of The Ettes and the kind of rock ‘n’ roll we play that really rings true with roller derby. It’s a great sport. It’s empowering and fun and violent.” She laughs. “All those wonderful things.”

And the band’s also got a strong Asheville connection, thanks to our city’s own famous garage rocker, Reigning Sound frontman Greg Cartwright. The friendship started after The Ettes covered Cartwright’s “We Repel Each Other” on their debut record. Since then Cartwright has helped write a few songs with the trio, and produced its 2009 album Do You Want Power? And just last year, Cartwright and Hames teamed up to form The Parting Gifts, a one-off, garage-rock super group which also included Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and Patrick Keeler of The Raconteurs.

With The Ettes finally staking roots nearby in their hometown of Nashville — the band moved there from L.A. three years ago — hopefully we’ll be seeing more collaborations between the two songwriters. But for now, the country music mecca seems to be rubbing off on Hames in all the right ways.

“The Nashville thing has given me a reason to do my anti-pop-country,” she says, laughing. “The bookends of the new record are that kind of thing. They’re just kind of like, ‘Remember when country songs sounded creepy like this?’ The stuff that turned on The Cramps. That’s what I’m more interested in. Maybe the songs that I write now are a f**k you to all that new country. Which entertains me immensely.” 

Nashville, hide your pint glasses.

— Miles Britton is an Asheville-based freelance writer.

who: The Ettes, with Hans Condor
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, Sept. 2 (9 p.m., $8 advance/$10 doors. thegreyeagle.com)

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