Take Hammer Horror keyboards, bone-hard power chords, skittering dance-ready beats straight outta surf music, a rhythm section that works as one driving unit, and add scarylicious vocals—you’ve got 45 Grave. Fronted by Mary Sims, aka Dinah Cancer, 45 Grave were the first band to use the Baphomet as a logo (Venom and the Crue were late to the party), pumped life into the soundtracks of such movies as Night of the Demons and Return of the Living Dead and with the release of Sleep in Safety in 1983 sealed their rep as American rock and roll innovators. The band morphed from guitarist Paul Cutler’s outfit The Consumers, and with songs like “Black Cross” and “Partytime” carved a bloody swathe through the Hollywood music scene, anchored by the iconic Don Bolles, whose drums were hard to sort from the percussive bass lines of Rob Ritter, aka Rob Graves. After Graves’ death from an accidental O.D. in 1990, 45 Grave disbanded, but reformed in 2004. With Frank Agnew (brother of Christian Death’s Rick) handling Cutleresque guitar, Tom Coyne on drums and Brandden Blackwell on bass, Sims has artfully recreated the spooky fun of the original Grave experience, recording their second full-length, Pick Your Poison, for Frontier Records in 2012—just in time for a Black Christmas. Here’s the voice of Deathrock, Dinah Cancer herself, to bring us up to date.
Alex S. Johnson for Blue Blood: First of all, congratulations on the release of Pick Your Poison. How does it feel to have a new, full-length release after nearly 30 years?
Dinah Cancer: It feels great! Finally, after all this time and work, it’s done! I am very happy about how it came out! There is so much in those songs, from the past and from the present. It has been a long, long road and Pick Your Poison was the destination.
Alex S. Johnson: What’s it like to perform the classic 45 Grave tunes (and the new ones) in 2012?
Dinah Cancer: I started playing the old 45 Grave songs back in the Grave Robbers, around 2003. I left Penis Flytrap and felt like it was time. People were always asking for “Partytime” or Black Cross.” 2004 it was the 25th anniversary of the “Black Cross”/”Wax” single, so I started using the 45 Grave name again. What is great now is that I have a line-up that can play the old songs as well as the original lineup did. It took going into my little black book and finding Frank Agnew to get a guitarist that could play Paul Cutler’s parts correctly.
Alex S. Johnson: 45 Grave has been recognized and cited as a foundational band in Death Rock. Do you see Death Rock as primarily a local/West coast phenomenon, or bound to a certain time and place? Is it a lifestyle, a culture, a point of view?
Dinah Cancer: When we started out in 45 Grave and were playing around Hollywood with bands like Christian Death, we were coming from a background of 70’s Glam Rock and early Punk–Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Iggy Pop and David Bowie. Once the Punk thing got going in LA, it all got mixed up into this horror movie/anarchy thing. By the early 90’s what you call ‘Death Rock’ became more of a musical style. The guitars lay a certain way, the drummers played more tribal beats on the tom toms. The style has stayed that way for a long tine now, but the kitschy, fun parts are gone now. I can’t really speak about other places like New York or London. For us, Death Rock was an LA thing. It was the opposite of the way we usually see Los Angeles, all sunny and glitzy. We saw the dark side.
Alex S. Johnson: Between the demise of the first incarnation of 45 Grave and the new lineup, you sang with Penis Flytrap and the Grave Robbers. How would you compare (or would you) the experience of being in those bands with the new 45 Grave?
Dinah Cancer: Penis Flytrap was a very theatrical band. It was a show, but with music that was straight up Death Rock. We had dancers, and each show was a different theme. It was fun while it lasted, but it didn’t last that long.
Alex S. Johnson: Between the formation of 45 Grave and today, there have been several waves of horror media. Do you see a difference between the 80s horror movies/tunes/books and those of today? I’m particularly thinking of the revival of vampires and zombies, at almost saturation level.
Dinah Cancer: Oh God, you mean like Twilight? Vampires and zombies are all the rage now aren’t they? But it is nothing new. Vampires have been use for ages to show the same archetypes: the fear of lust, the need to control the dark side of humanity. Same with zombies, or any monsters. These days, just like in music, the fun and camp are missing in place of shock value and gore. It like it all though!
Alex S. Johnson: How have you managed to keep it fun and real at the same time? And what advice would you give an up-and-coming artist who wants to play in the dark?
Dinah Cancer: Just do what you want. If Goth is what you love, do that. If you love Punk or Death Rock, do it. Do it because you have to. There are a million reasons not to do music, but sometimes you just have to! That is when it is worth it, and that is the only way it will be ‘real’. That is what I have always have done anyway.
Alex S. Johnson: Thank you for the interview.
Dinah Cancer: Thank you.