20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.
“The Plague Garden would never have come to life in this incarnation were it not for the 2020 plague, which is not to say that I am thanking the plague for the album,” smirks Ryder Cooley, self-proclaimed “Faerie Queen” of New York-based dark carnival band The Dust Bowl Faeries. “I am grateful that something creative manifested out of this dark and dormant time.”
Birthed from the current COVID-19 pandemic but sourced from music that spans decades, genres and continents, the surreal and gorgeously intertwined vaudeville, cabaret, klezmer, and Eastern European music that this multi-generational five-piece presents is equal sprinklings of Gogol Bordello, David Lynch, Dresden Dolls, and Dead Can Dance. Mystical and ethereal with enough chutzpah to keep the party going and adding to the air of fantastical elements that surrounds the band, The Dust Bowl Faeries was founded by Cooley and Hazel, a disembodied taxidermy ram who has become the band’s mascot/spirit animal.
Starting in 2015 as an all-woman trio, The Dust Bowl Faeries is committed to working with as many women musicians and artists as possible, including their collaborative filmmaker Lisa M. Thomas from Thin Edge Films who documents and adds visual flair to the band’s unique and arresting visuals. Now a multi-gendered band, they have released two EPs (2018’s The Dark Ride Mixes and 2019’s Beloved Monster) and a self-titled debut. Fascinatingly oblique while retaining all of its universal appeal, the music of The Dust Bowl Faeries escapes and embraces all genres of music. It’s music that’s anchored in time yet timeless—a contradiction in theory but at the same time, an exercise in fluidity and continuity.
I got to speak with The Dust Bowl Faeries for this week’s edition of 20 Questions. They told me all about their group’s background, their new album The Plague Garden, what inspires them the most, and how being any gender is a drag.
You all have such a unique sound and stage presence. How did The Dust Bowl Faeries come to be?
Ryder: Dust Bowl Faeries started as an all women trio in 2015. It was really haphazard how it came together, or maybe it was destiny. Anyway, I was between bands performing with Hazel (our taxidermy ram/spirit animal). Hazel and I were offered a show at one of our favorite NY Hudson Valley venues, Helsinki Hudson. I went over to my friend Dennis’ to tell him the great news and he said, “You need a band.” The next thing you know, Dennis had solicited two amazing women to play with me: Sara Ayers (keys) and Rubi LaRue (lap steel). We practiced like crazy in Dennis’ enchanted garden and the first show was a hit. The rest is history!
Your music has been described as falling into numerous genres, including “dark carnival” music. What’s your history with that?
Ryder: I never could figure out how to label my music, and that’s because I don’t like labels! Except for maybe record labels, the good ones. Anyway, over the years I’ve called my music dark folk, gothic folk, psyche folk, etc. but at a certain point I realized that I needed to commit to something, so I decided to call it Dark Carnival Dream Music. There are a few other dark carnival bands/musicians/projects out there and we all share a morbid sensibility, but I wouldn’t say it’s quite a movement yet, so Dust Bowl Faeries are looking for other Dark Carnival identified musicians to affiliate with, please contact us and let us know you are out there, let’s take over the world (or at least, the cemeteries).
How would you characterize your new album The Plague Garden?
Ryder: The Plague Garden is like a patch of dark velvety brambles strewn with delicious berries, but watch out, there may be a few poison apples lurking in the shadows. If you are listening from the beginning to the end of the album you will join us on a whimsical faerie-tale adventure, yet each song also tells its own story. The album includes some new dark cabaret songs written during quarantine, like “Pandemic Tango,” and some older songs that have never been recorded, like “Cyanide Hotel” and “Candy Store.” Overall, the album is more up-tempo than some of our earlier releases, which is the direction that the band has been moving in, though we did throw in one very spooky ukulele song, “Ibex,” which is more reflective of some of our earlier recordings.
Who are your biggest musical influences? Do we hear them on the album?
Ryder: I’m an accordionist, so a lot of music that inspires me has some element of accordion: Astor Piazzola tangos, Edith Piaf’s French cabaret songs, old timey Vaudeville music like Josephine Baker and Eastern European influenced music like Alina Orlova & DakhaBrakha. Tigerlillies and Dresden Dolls/Amanda Palmer have also been an inspiration, and I always tell sound engineers that I want my accordion to sound like the accordion in Devotchka!
What’s your favorite type of song to write?
Ryder: I like writing sad songs, and creepy circus-y songs where the melody is bittersweet and the lyrics are twisted. Sometimes I write personal songs about my life, like “Sirens,” but those are the hardest ones to write.
Favorite movies of all-time?
Introducing the Dust Bowl Faeries’ film faerie, Lisa M. Thomas of Thin Edge Films.
Lisa: Ma Vie En Rose! It’s the 1997 film by Alain Berliner. I really like how the film plays with gender fluidity. It’s a story about a young boy who likes to cross-dress, but there are a lot of consequences for his behavior in his family/community (homophobia). The film also has a lot of fantastical sequences where the kid begins interacting with the characters he is watching on TV. However, my favorite genre of films is actually musicals, and I would love to write a musical with the Dust Bowl Faeries someday.
Ryder: I like old timey movies, like The Wind with Lillian Gisch and Pandora’s Box with Luise Brooks, and anything with Bette Davis, like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
The last book you finished?
Lisa: Says Who by RuPaul (a very quick read!) and Heavier Than Heaven, a biography on Kurt Cobain.
Ryder: Mirror of the Soul: Handbook for the Aleister Crowley Tarot.
In one word, how would you describe the theme of The Plague Garden?
If you had the chance to meet any celebrity, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Lisa: Audrey Hepburn, who was not only an iconic actress, but also a deeply political person with seemingly good values. I suspect you could talk deep into the night with her and never even scratch the surface.
One song that you will never be sick of?
Lisa: “Groove is in the Heart” by Deee-Lite.
Ryder: “Chelsea Hotel” by Leonard Cohen.
The last series you binge-watched?
Ryder: I don’t have a TV, and neither does Lisa! Neither of us watch too many series, but we’ve been watching a lot of old film noir movies together during the pandemic. We did watch one series called Carnival Row. I loved it (even though it was by Amazon). It has winged fae folk and ram-horned people who are both being persecuted. It’s beautifully shot with amazing costumes, I guess they had a big budget…
Favorite quote of all-time?
Lisa & Ryder: Patty Smith, “As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag.”
The most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?
Lisa: I went to Croatia during the Bosnia-Herzegovina war party because I had a friend there and I couldn’t fathom why she wasn’t leaving during this horrific war. I had so many questions about her life and why she was staying that she finally said to me, “If you’re so dang curious, why don’t you come see for yourself?” So I did. When I arrived in the fall of 1994, the border police put me through the ringer, but because I came all that way they decided to give me a five day visa under the condition that if I was still in Croatia after that I would be arrested and thrown into prison. Needless to say, I got my eyeful in 4 days and 23 hours and was on the train out of Zagreb before the authorities could make good on their promise.
Ryder: I snuck on the last boat to Alcatraz Island with a filmmaker friend on the 4th of July. I was wearing an old wedding dress and carrying a bird cage and a collapsed cake. The island was usually empty at night, but as luck would have it, the park rangers were having an overnight party on the island. This was before cell phones, so we were stranded out there. Another friend snuck out on a different boat to meet us and brought some unknown drugs that we took, which made us very paranoid. The fireworks were so loud it felt like we were in a war zone and it was cold and windy, with drunk rangers roaming the island, we really felt scared, like escaped criminals hiding in the bunkers. We made it through the night without being caught and shot some beautiful super 8 film at sunrise, then we got busted and carted back to shore. Fortunately, the rangers were too hungover to press any charges.
Favorite time of day and why?
Ryder: I like it when it’s dark and warm, like hot summer nights when it is pitch black outside and warm enough to go swimming or lounge around in a tank top and underwear.
One thing that’s inspiring you guys the most right now?
Lisa: Really good writers, because it’s hard to get to the essence of a thing.
Ryder: Cats, being outside, and fires. Gazing into the fire.
Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Lisa: My dad used to say, “Don’t worry about things that are out of your control.”
Ryder: Stop listening with your eyes (Pauline Oliveros).
Biggest pet peeve?
Lisa: People who don’t recycle, especially when they have access to recycling.
Ryder: No sound check.
Frozen yogurt or ice cream?
Ryder & Lisa: We are both vegan, but we like sorbet, any flavor.
One thing that’s been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
Lisa: I finally started going to therapy. Keeping busy has also helped, although now I am so busy producing TV shows that I am practically having a nervous breakdown!
Ryder: Working with Lisa on videos. She directed and produced our new video for “Candy Store” in August, during the pandemic, which brought the whole band together for a couple of months. It was so wonderful to see everyone and the video is spectacular.
What can we expect to hear next from you?
Lisa: We’re releasing “Vampire Tango” in December, a 16mm film that I shot with the Dust Bowl Faeries. The song is on The Plague Garden.
Ryder: The Dust Bowl Faeries duet is hosting a virtual vaudeville series called Wish You Were Hear. The next show is December 12th at 8pm and there will be more to come in 2021. We’ll also be releasing a couple of remixes in January/February 2021 with Floyd Fisher and Nicholas Kopp, and hopefully some singles of our favorite songs that didn’t make it onto the album. We can’t wait to make more videos with Lisa of course, and start playing live shows again, hopefully soon.
Stream The Dust Bowl Faeries’ new album The Plague Garden, out now wherever you listen to music.