When five years of touring skidded to a screeching halt in 2020, Death Valley Girls’ Bonnie Bloomgarden wasn’t prepared for the sudden shock of living without the blinding stage lights, drinking buddies and deafening noise of live performance. 

In hindsight, she believes that the mysterious fever that kept her bedridden for nearly half a year between October 2020 and February 2021 was a physical, mental and spiritual breakdown that she’d managed to race away from while on tour. 

In seeking to understand what was happening in her body, Bloomgarden consulted doctors, psychic healers, transcendental meditation teachers and plant medicine. Her ventures to heal her exhausted body and fractured spirit inspired the concept for the band’s latest album, Islands in the Sky.

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It is mid-afternoon in Elysian Park, Los Angeles, and Bloomgarden is at home with her dog. She does not deflect or defend, but thrills at the opportunity for a question to surprise her and prompt new trains of thought. Her home place, like this album, is a full circle back to her roots. Born in the city, she left at 17 and returned 10 years ago.

“Elysian Park is next to Echo Park. It’s the forest of Dodger Stadium, to be honest. There aren’t that many parks here, but this is a rare one in the middle of the city. I wanted to live a short walk away from a space where I could just lie in the grass,” she explains. “There’s more hawks and coyotes here than probably anywhere else in the city, and I love that.”

It is a world apart from the punk-rock and pop culture icons of New York that seduced the mind of a teenage Bloomgarden.  

“At 17, I was hellbent on going to New York. Ever since I learned about the Warhol scene and the punk scene, it seemed like the ultimate place to be. I really enjoy the energy there, where nobody is trying to get anything from you. I like that fast pace of people just trying to get where they’re going. Here, in LA, I feel like everyone is trying to do something energetically to everyone else. It’s very overwhelming.”

The woman she is now is not the woman she was in New York, she says. She had to leave the city to get clean and dedicate herself to songwriting, recording and bone-shaking live performances.

“I feel like every year, and particularly the last three years, I’ve learned and changed so much that it’s hard to imagine what it was like before, wandering the streets of New York. Now, I’m trying to get to the bottom of this spiritual mission I’m on.”

In her Cali-via-New York drawl, she self-effacingly adds, “Or whatever.”

She, along with the rest of Death Valley Girls, has evolved personally and creatively, but that signature soup of bluesy, kitschy doo-wop and rock ’n’ roll leaves no question that this is the same band that released their blitzing debut album, Street Venom, in 2014. Islands In The Sky, like Street Venom, was recorded, mixed, produced and engineered by Mark Rains, at Station House Studio.

Ten years after the Los Angeles garage rockin’ doom boogie brigade formed, their language of harrowing, howling harmonies, shuddering percussion and ghoulish atmospherics is concentrated into a tightly curated, but versatile, 11 songs.  

The surfy, garage rockabilly edge of “What Are The Odds” sounds like a punk-rock choir interpreting B-52s. It’s nostalgic, no-frills rock ‘n’ roll, with a wink to the camp theatrics of the new-wave icons, the Cramps and the’s. Elsewhere, the sprawling country croon of “It’s All Really Kind of Amazing” is immersed in jangly guitar, off-kilter harmonies.   

Under The Spell of Joy in 2020 divided critics with its scuzzy proto-grunge stylings, which harked back to the band’s origins, including ’90s grunge royalty. In 2013, Bloomgarden, Hole’s drummer Patty Schemel and her guitarist brother Larry Schemel joined up with bass player Rachel Orosco. A year later, after they released Street Venom on cassette, Patty went her own way, replaced by the Flytraps’ Laura Kelsey. Sophomore album Glow in the Dark landed in 2016, before Darkness Rains (2018). 

Between albums, they were on the road, which Bloomgarden has no regrets about. It exacted a price, though.

“We toured a lot, and I think it’s natural for everyone to grow, learn and heal, but to be really good at touring, you have to forego your personal desires to fit in, to be helpful and to be fully compassionate to the needs of everyone in the band,” she explains. “It’s really cool, but if you go for a month of not paying attention to your physical or emotional needs, you become good at that. When you’re off a tour, your emotions and needs become a hindrance. After five years, it was like, ‘Oh, my God.’” 

Bloomgarden struggled to find a doctor’s appointment, given it was peak COVID-19 and anyone with a fever was advised to stay away from doctors for fear of spreading the disease. 

“I did end up going to a bunch of different doctors, and they all had different theories — and one told me I had tuberculosis — but the consensus was that a surgical procedure was necessary, and that didn’t seem right to me,” she recalls. “I took all this medicine and peed green for months. I thought, ‘This has to have a spiritual and emotional basis’.”

[Photo by Neto Velasco]

When the combination of various prescription medications proved powerless to fight her fever, Bloomgarden decided to consult other types of healers. A friend encouraged her to attend transcendental meditation classes at the David Lynch Foundation, and she began to self-medicate once a week with plant medicine (a legal variety in California, she clarifies). A day in February 2020 shook her.

“I just looked at everything that was going on and cried really hard for the first time. Something erupted. I threw away all the medication, but I kept taking the plant medicine once a week, and my fever stopped. I’m not saying anyone else should do this, and I don’t think it’s any one thing that helped me to recover. I really think it’s all the things.”

She is careful about sharing her story, and understandably, since she knows the trauma of addiction and the problematic nature of seeming to promote or persecute particular substances. 

“In New York, I had a really bad drug addiction,” she admits, “Taking plant medicine to process and grow is a lot different than taking drugs to dull, numb and avoid. That’s really important to me. I haven’t had a drink or drugs for over a year. I haven’t sought to numb myself.” 

That vulnerability and readiness to face up to her past applied equally to her attitude to making Islands In The Sky. Rather than draw upon external sources of inspiration, she began with the concept of creating an album for herself in the next life.  

“I went to a multidimensional healer who told me I was a jazz singer in a past life. I thought, ‘If I knew who I was in a past life, I could hear myself.’ That lead me to want to make a record for my future self. So, [drummer and vocalist] Rikki [Styxx] and I followed this concept to convey a message to our future selves, to share lessons that we don’t want to have to learn all over again.” 

Most of the album was plotted out and prepared on New Year’s Day 2022, when Bloomgarden and Styxx based themselves in a cabin in the California woodland to write. They even had their recording date, Feb. 14, before they began writing.

“We practiced twice, then one of us got COVID, so we went into the studio without being completely organized. That’s how we always do it, though. We’re a goofy band,” she says.

As they have done in the past, the core band have invited their talented friends to add backup vocals (Kelsey R, Pickle and Little Ghost). Regular Cat Power collaborator Gregg Foreman provides synths, Wurlitzer and Hammond organ, Gabe Flores is on saxophone, and Mark Rains adds percussion.

There’s a tangible, livewire energy to the imperfect, multilayered textures they create through well-honed performances, solid friendship, and the less tangible nature of psychic connection. It all plays out in the studio, Bloomgarden reveals. 

“The stage is where we can all go at the same pace and do the same thing, but in the studio, we all have a way different pace. I like to channel it, leave it and move on. I love mistakes and variation, but if something isn’t getting done, I’m like ‘Arggh!’ I’m not fun in the studio. I’m trying to pull the purest thing from the stars. Everyone is psychically connected, and if someone isn’t being psychic, I’m like ‘Why aren’t you being psychic?’”

There will be the eye-rollers who can’t bear crystals, psychics, tarot and trips, and Islands In The Sky may not win them over. But it might and it should — it is a riotous, dirty rock ’n’ roll festival of fun from go to whoa, whether you buy into reincarnation and spiritual healing or not.

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