Leslie and the Badgers recorded their album while Los Angeles was on fire and began their residency at the Echo as the ash finally started to dissipate. Producer David Bianco let them use Bob Dylan’s microphone and they meet now for beers at Cole’s, where they would have fit perfectly opening for I See Hawks In L.A. not too long ago. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
How did your great-grandmother hide money from the Indians when she was traveling across Oklahoma in a covered wagon?
Leslie Stevens (vocals/guitar): I sang at her funeral—she died quite a few years ago, but she lived to the age of 103. She still had some black hair in her coffin! My other grandmother was like, ‘Lookit that!’ They’re all from Oklahoma—my great-grandmother had gone from southern Arkansas to Oklahoma in a covered wagon as a little girl and they’d get raided by Native Americans, so they’d sew the money into the hems of her skirts. Certain tribes were known for not harming the children. They’d take them and make them be part of the tribe, like Dances With Wolves. I’m part Native American on the other side of the same family—my great-grandmother’s daughter married into a family with Native blood. But I thought it was the same side and asked my great-grandmother, ‘So who exactly is Native American in our family?’ ‘That’s not my side!’ she said. ‘My side’s FRENCH!’
She sounds kind of bloodthirsty.
Leslie Stevens: She is the coolest woman. A pilot—she had boats and an airplane. This is all on my mom’s side. When my mother married my dad, my grandfather was like, ‘You’ll never make it working for the man!’
What’s the most work you’ve ever done for the man?
Glenn Oyabe (guitar): I can tell you about working in a crematory.
What was your favorite part?
Glenn Oyabe: It was great inspiration for writing really depressing songs. And I didn’t have the man in my face! Even though I worked for the man—in my mind, I AM the man.
Charlene Huang (violin): I was always taught to resist the man. My parents owned their own business, so they were the man! They were also immigrants and they definitely overcame a lot of adversity. So it’s really hard for me to work for the man now.
Leslie Stevens: Charlene and I met working for a German composer—Hans Zimmer.
Charlene Huang: I’ve always been fascinated with film music. Most of my favorite soundtracks today, they’re old Hans Zimmer films: Rain Man, Regarding Henry, even Point Of No Return. I feel kind of sheepish because a lot of artists I like today—even Nina Simone—I only know of them because of movies. In music school, I wanted to merge classical with film music and I was able to get an internship with Hans, and then I met Leslie. But we didn’t start playing music until a mutual friend died of lung cancer.
Leslie Stevens: We played her funeral. A wedding and a funeral—our first two gigs.
Charlene Huang: I went to see them play at Highland Grounds and I was completely blown away. And I had an instant connection with Glenn over there, who I consider my big brother.
Glenn Oyabe: That’s my little sister. We can’t stand on the same side of the stage; it’s an Asian imbalance.
Charlene Huang: In every picture we’re the Asian bookends.
Glenn Oyabe: I call it a ‘balance of power.’
Charlene Huang: I feel like there are three Asian people in the L.A. country scene and two are in Leslie and the Badgers.
What’s the oldest story that’s been passed down in your families? Like Leslie’s grandmother and the covered wagon?
Charlene Huang: A lot of my stories, they’re really supernatural. I think the closest word in English is ‘possession’ or ‘exorcism.’ My maternal grandmother had eight children, but one was a son who died—who was actually never born. My grandmother was tortured for years after that because she kept having a recurring dream where she saw the baby in a former life. She walked in the room and saw a Grim Reaper-type figure—a very dark figure—killing the baby by using it as a mop. And that’s why the baby didn’t ever live—it was dead before it was born! And I have an older brother, but the middle child between us was stillborn, and what my dad never told my mom was that after the baby was supposedly discarded, he donated it to science. It was in formaldehyde in a jar for years. During that entire time, she claimed to have a lot of hauntings by this child—she’d almost feel like she was suffocating. She ended up having to go to temple—they’re Buddhist—and the monks basically told her the same story: ‘He was trying to tell you something—he felt trapped, but once you knew and forgave yourself, he would be released.’ So it’s all these weird past life spirits haunting you. My mother became Christian in the last few years and started wearing a crucifix and claimed all these hauntings stopped.
Glenn Oyabe: My parents were interned during World War II. My grandfather ended up being camp police chief. My dad was I think 13 at the time, and he and his buddies snuck out of camp and were walking along the dirt road and saw a car coming. They hid in the bushes and the ranger drove past, then stopped and backed up because they were smoking cigarettes and the smoke was coming up from behind the bush. So they got rounded up. My dad would tell me stories: ‘If we’re here for our protection, why are the machine guns pointing in and not out?’ There was a great sense of community there. They lost everything and came back to nothing. All you could bring was what you could carry and that was it.
What was it like when you toured with Kristy Kruger—the tour through all 50 states to honor her brother who’d been killed in combat in Iraq?
Leslie Stevens: That was just me. I don’t know how deep into this I wanna get.
Ben Reddell (bass): During this period I actually played bass for Kristy on a few occasions, and I think the whole thing about the Iraq War is Americans do not want to hear about it. It’s shitty and we know things are fucked up—let’s not talk about it.
Leslie Stevens: I felt it was allowing people to be in touch with what was actually going on, but it was dark. I went to the house of the widow; I was with his children. This guy was a lieutenant colonel on the first day of his second term in Iraq. He was in a Hummer on his way to base and they hit an IED. Two lieutenant colonels—the highest ranking officials killed at that point in the war. Right after that, they passed that law about encrypting emails. They were almost certain it was planned.
What was it like performing music at those shows?
Leslie Stevens: Everybody assumed you were for the opposite side. Everyone who was anti-war thought you were pro-war, and every pro- thought you were anti-. It was the weirdest thing. I don’t wanna say too much that’s personal. I don’t know how what I’m about to say can be cloaked in a right way. I thought it was just so sad the way the widow would watch YouTube video of Baghdad. This was like two years ago and YouTube had just started and the Internet was a tool she was using to put herself in the place of a soldier. She’d put herself in Baghdad, looking at the fighting. I’m saying too much. I wanna respect her privacy.
Charlene Huang: I had a comment from a person at work—he’d never seen us before, and he’s very conservative. He was like, ‘Maybe Leslie shouldn’t assert her political views in the chit-chat between songs.’ But our progenitors are people like Bob Dylan—it’s our job to report things in music.
Ben Reddell: Woody Guthrie sure as shit wasn’t no shield-beating conservative.
Leslie Stevens: ‘This Land Is Your Land’ is exactly like ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ But there is an ignorance associated with a lot of this music. Right after 9/11, I was driving around and listening to this song: ‘I’m just a singer of simple songs / I ain’t a real political man / I watch CNN but I’m not sure I can tell you / the difference between Iraq and Iran.’ I found that enraging! How can you sing about killing people in a country when you don’t even know where it is?
Travis Popichak (drums): You get a lot of misguided left-wing folk who become anti-patriotic too—the exact thing Toby Keith is, but the opposite side of the spectrum. Bullshit with a different edge—anti-America, ultra-PC.
Leslie Stevens: When you play music, people expect you to have—to a certain extent—a political thing.
Ben, what did you mean when you described the band as ‘bourgeois country’?
Ben Reddell: I don’t know.
Charlene Huang: I’ve heard you say it’s the difference between ‘bar country’ and ‘art country.’
Ben Reddell: We have a little bit more top-shelf viewpoint of the artists we wanna represent. I don’t think people in Nashville are influenced by Mike Nesmith. I don’t think they’re influenced by Heads Hands & Feet. I feel this band is very well-versed in a lot of different kinds of music.
Who’s your favorite reggae singer?
Travis Popichak: Symarip—revivalist British skinhead music, anybody?
What’s the most beautiful thing that happens when old punk rockers go country?
Glenn Oyabe: It’s a translation of the true spirit of punk rock. It’s almost hand-in-hand with the true spirit of country.
Ben Reddell: Three chords, based in simplicity.
Travis Popichak: And they both have a long history of drug-related deaths.
Glenn Oyabe: It’s like raw spirit. It’s not pop music.
Leslie Stevens: There’s a simplicity to punk and this type of country. It’s the kind of shit you can write in a couple hours.
Ben Reddell: The first song I ever wrote was country: ‘I Quiver for Your Shiver and I’m Hoping for Your Touch.’ I was 13 and there was a girl I really liked and I was friends with her math teacher. It was Valentine’s Day and he let me into second period and I sang it! And of course she covers her face and barely says thank you and I was totally deflated. But to her credit—she was a good lady.
What was it like recording with the microphone Bob Dylan used?
Leslie Stevens: No big deal, you know—just another day! On the way in I did get nervous. I had this big hat I’d wear and one day I came in and they were like, ‘You look like a plantation owner!’
What’d you say to that?
Travis Popichak: She shouted at us to get back to work!
Ben Reddell: Dave would tell us amazing stories—the guy’s been immersed in the rock ‘n’ roll scene since the ’70s.
Leslie Stevens: He played with Fleetwood Mac when he was 19 or 20.
Charlene Huang: He also played in pick-up softball games with them!
What’s your most morbid song right now?
Leslie Stevens: ‘Old Timers’—it’s kind of insidious. It sounds really happy—a really happy melancholy melody—and it’s about someone getting struck by lightning and going brain-dead.
Charlene Huang: We’re always asked to play it at weddings. People aren’t clear on the lyrics. And it’s one of our most licensed songs!
What’s the funniest joke you’ve successfully told on stage?
Leslie Stevens: We once came to the intersection of Leslie Road and Badger Road in the middle of Oregon. So that night on stage I said, ‘We came to the intersection of Leslie Road and Badger Road today, and a few miles down we saw a dead badger on the road.’ And Ben goes, ‘And a few miles after that we saw a dead Leslie.’
Charlene Huang: We’d tell people not to mess with us because we have a band machete! Our friend did give us one, but basically because it came with a box of fresh coconuts.
Ben Reddell: And rum.
Is that the best weapon you’ve received as a gift?
Glenn Oyabe: Yeah, but I still have visions of owning a band gun.
How well-armed are you compared to the rest of the Echo Park and Silver Lake bands?
Ben Reddell: We’re armed to the teeth compared to most of these pantywaists!
One of the things real badgers hate most is being pried from their hole. Are you the same way?
Ben Reddell: Tell him about the terrier.
Travis Popichak: Not the terrier, the dachshund. It’s a badger hound—made especially for that. It grabs on to a badger’s ass! It became a whole sport before dogfighting. This is a tangent, but they’d drop the dogs in a hole and bite on the badger and pull it out, then let the badger go back in and see how many times they could pull it out in a minute. Quite the sport—the British came up with it.
Is that your favorite bloodsport?
Travis Popichak: Does dwarf-tossing count?
Depends how hard you toss them.
Ben Reddell: In Gummo there’s a really great scene—the guy starts wrestling a chair. I threw a party and it was blatantly awkward and no one was really talking, so I was like, ‘Well, hey—who wants to see me wrestle a chair?’
Leslie Stevens: It was the funniest thing—they had a real fight! He gets on top of the chair and the chair gets on top of him and finally . . . His roommate had a perfect set of perfect chairs from the ’60s, a matching set of four.
And now a matching set of three?
Leslie Stevens: He bent the legs of the chair and everyone cheered!
Glenn Oyabe: But the other three chairs still claim that he cheated.
L.A. RECORD PRESENTS LESLIE AND THE BADGERS WITH PAPERPLANES, BEST COAST AND SIAN ALICE GROUP ON MON., SEPT. 28, AT THE ECHO AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 8:30 PM / FREE / 21+. ATTHEECHO.COM. LESLIE AND THE BADGERS’ ROOMFUL OF SMOKE IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM LESLIE AND THE BADGERS. VISIT LESLIE AND THE BADGERS AT MYSPACE.COM/LESLIEANDTHEBADGERS.