nominated for outstanding rock artist 9th annual la music awards
Perform the following test and see what you come up with. Listen to any three songs on MTV (should you happen to luck into a programming moment where music is actually being played), then listen to any track on The Chicken Hawks’ CD, Siouxicide City. Which had the best production values? Which had the cleanest sound? Which ones turn the masses on, as witnessed by the chart entry? Which one had at least three guest appearances by trendy rappers that have nothing to do with that band’s music? Which one actually rocked? The Chicken Hawks, of Sioux City, Iowa, should only have scored in one of those categories, and it ain’t production value. You’re not going to hear big things from this band. They’ll never present awards at the Grammies. Such is the state of mass taste.
But for those lucky people who “get” the true spirit of rock and roll, the ones who know it should be fun, loud, simple and maybe a bit risque, this quartet is just the thing to help you get your ya ya’s out. This is a band straight ahead enough to fit perfectly on a label called Rock And Fucking Roll Records, after all.
Since 1995, Pete and Betsy Phillips have spent a good portion of their marriage co-prowling the rock and roll stage, playing for the wild young denizens of Sioux City and the rest of the United States. They appear as a fun-house mirror image of The Cramps, with Pete, armed with his Fender Telecaster or his Gibson L6-S, inciting the crowd with volume, distortion and attitude while Betsy, dressed in… very little, just plain incites the crowd. With the slam-bang battery of bassist Tammy Gunn and drummer Hot Rod Todd, The Chicken Hawks slam out straight forward rock with very little subtext. Songs of sex, anger, sex, sex and Minneapolis.
Pete Phillips has been involved in rock and roll for a long time, as a life-long musician and, for close to fourteen years, as a club owner who has frequently done battle with the Sioux City establishment. He says what he means and he means what he says, and if you don’t like it, he doesn’t much care. If you’re offended by, well… anything, stop reading now.
The following interview is laced with five sound clips from The Chicken Hawks’ album, Siouxicide City. You just need a Real Audio Player to listen. Where you see song titles that are linked, give a click and a listen. We’ll start you out with the album’s opening track, one that sets the scene quite well. So click and listen to “Stick It In”.
Cosmik: First of all, can you give us an idea of what life in Sioux City is like? Because I think a lot of people who haven’t ever been there might be picturing Petticoat Junction.
Pete: (Laughs) Yeah. Sioux City is kinda weird. It’s like about 100,000 people, so it isn’t quite a one horse town. It’s more like a two and a half horse town. It’s a city, you know… We have crack houses and all that.
Cosmik: Always a top feature in any city hall’s brochure.
Pete: It’s what you’d call hyper-mainstream, though. For a town of 100,000, there’s only one independently owned bookstore and probably somewhere between 20 and 30 cell phone stores. There are like six Taco Bells, six Burger Kings, six McDonalds, and maybe three restaurants that aren’t chains. It’s like one big chain store.
Cosmik: How about musically?
Pete: Aw, there’s nothin’ at all. Well, I shouldn’t say “nothin’,” but it’s close. It’s really hard to describe, actually. It’s a very strange place. Strictly white bread, or white trash. The scene here is strictly under 20 (year olds attending). I’ve done shows here for over fourteen years, but it seems like if you’re over 20, you stop listening to music around here.
Cosmik: That doesn’t sound possible.
Pete: Well, they listen to music, but just oldies stations. Loverboy comes to town and sells out our 5,000 seat arena. Same with REO Speedwagon. Most of those bands can only play clubs in big cities, but not here. 5,000 seat sell-out. You know what the big show coming right now is? Styx and Kansas. The real scene here is strictly under 20, and that scene is healthy and good, but when they turn 20, I dunno, they just start breeding and consuming wildly. And there are enough chain stores here to consume yourself blind.
[Pictured: Betsy Phillips.]
Cosmik: Well, all that considered, how does a town like Sioux City handle a band as wild and sexual as The Chicken Hawks? Other than the under 20s, I mean.
Pete: That’s who handles us, though. When we play, it’s all teenagers.
Cosmik: But what about the older people? Do they react?
Pete: Anybody that even knows what it is or who it is just thinks it’s kinda cute or something. They have no idea about anything.
Cosmik: They don’t try to shut you down?
Pete: They don’t try to close The Chicken Hawks down, but the city has closed my clubs down many times. They’ll find loopholes and pull old zoning tricks, kind of like what mayor Guliani did in New York City. Zoning laws from a hundred years ago that they apply to me and no one else to close my clubs down. They’ve been doing that to me for over fourteen years.
Cosmik: So it’s not specific to The Chicken Hawks, it’s specific to rock?
Pete: The city’s against shows in particular, and not necessarily The Chicken Hawks. They’re anti-youth and anti-anything that’s not completely mainstream.
Cosmik: How do you get around it?
Pete: It’s pretty hard, but I do shows in a Legion hall here. I’ve done that for the last three years, and they can’t touch us there because the Legionnaires like us, and the police can’t come in and shut down the hall because the Legionnaires own it. Before that, when I tried to play the clubs that I ran, it was a nightmare. But I’d much rather put a show on at a Legionnaires hall, at least in Sioux City, Iowa, because it’s much easier.
Cosmik: What was the plan when you and Betsy first formed The Chicken Hawks?
Pete: Funny thing, actually… There was a Crypt (Records) band called Fireworks that came through in early 95, and it had Darren Lynnwood, who had been in Blacktop. In Fireworks, his girlfriend was in the band with him. Then it dawned on me to ask my wife to sing. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before, but I just said “wow, why don’t you sing in a band with me,” and she said “sure.” It really formed pretty innocently. Watching Fireworks was like looking into a mirror image of me and Betsy. Before that, Betsy collected bugs.
Cosmik: So does she like this hobby better?
Pete: I dunno…(calls to his wife in another room) Do you like this hobby better?
Pete: Betsy looks at life in a band a lot differently than a lot of people would.
Betsy: I look at it like collecting bugs. (Laughs)
Pete: I don’t know what that means. I’ve never heard that one before.
Cosmik: Watch out you don’t wake up with a pin stuck through ya.
Pete: She didn’t know the difference between a bass and a guitar when we first started playing. She doesn’t take it real serious, she just looks at it as a lot of fun. Betsy’s a lot more into… what everyone in the band is going to wear, you know? If she likes a band, she really likes them, though. Doesn’t matter who the band is, if she likes ’em, she likes ’em because she’s having fun with their music, and that’s how she is in our band. She just has fun with the whole thing instead of worrying about all the garbage that other people worry about in bands.
Cosmik: Your music practically bitches at people who take anything too seriously.
Pete: Yeah, that’s one of our goals. We can be dead serious when we’re playing live, you know. It’s not like a complete exercise in bone-headedness or anything, but at times it almost seems like it is.
Cosmik: But the music is so much fun and so outrageous that it tells people to lighten up and have fun.
Pete: Yeah, that hit the nail on the head. That’s what we’re all about. But it seems like some people don’t want to have a good time.
Cosmik: The visuals might make people think of The Cramps…
Cosmik: But the music has some obscure influences, like The Gun Club, I think. What are some of the other ingredients?
Pete: Some of our influences we wear proudly on our sleeves, and if people say “that’s too obvious,” we don’t care if it’s obvious or not. Some are really obvious, like The Cramps and maybe The Rolling Stones.
Cosmik: Don’t shoot me, but I hear some AC/DC.
[Pictured: Pete Phillips.]
Pete: Oh, no, I love AC/DC! I saw them with Bonn Scott when I was 10 or 11 at Sioux Falls Arena. No, I don’t mind that reference at all.
Cosmik: Your music strikes me as a melding of Cramps attitude and AC/DC kick.
Pete: That’s pretty sharp. People would tag us as psychobilly, and I don’t see that at all. We don’t even have a stand-up bass player. When we started, especially, people would just look at us without having any idea what we were doing and say “psychobilly!” I’d say “nooo, we’re not like Horton Heat.” Not a blues band either.
Cosmik: Just because you have a little slide on the album?
Pete: Believe it or not, I really love stuff like Son House and Charlie Patton and a lot of the old blues guys. There’s only a little bit of slide on the album, but a lot of our new songs have slide all over them. I’m really influenced by Son House because he played really sloppy. He wasn’t a great technical slide player, but he was amazing because he played with great emotional depth while being really, really sloppy. And that’s how I at least try to fashion myself. Of course, (Johnny) Thunders was huge for me, too, and when people see the band they say “that guy really copies Johnny Thunders,” just attitude-wise, and I gladly admit it. Faces are a huge influence, too.
Betsy: Hanoi Rocks.
Pete: Yeah, Hanoi Rocks, too. All that stuff. But the attitude The Faces had is the one attitude I try to keep our band having. Take the piss out of everything and just have fun. When you looked at Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart in the days of The Faces, they were constantly laughing and finding the joke in everything all the time. They just wanted to write good songs and have fun. Everyone around them was writing 30-minute songs, like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis, all that fuckin’ nonsense, and they just said “naaaaw, we’re not about that. We just wanna have a good time.” That’s how we feel. All the musicians around here just completely hate us, and they especially hate Betsy because she really doesn’t know or care about the technicalities of music, but she’s gotten farther than any of them are ever gonna get in any of their stupid bands. They play all their Soundgarden derived crap and they just hate us.
Cosmik: What kind of reaction did The Chicken Hawks get first time playing live?
Pete: It was in Sioux City and we were opening for [The Voluptuous Horror Of] Karen Black. It was her second US tour and she just happened to play a club I was running, and I thought “hey, this’d be a good place to start.”
Cosmik: Had you already come up with the name at that point? Interesting name, by the way.
Pete: We didn’t even know what a chicken hawk was. I didn’t know a chicken hawk was playing for a guy who likes boys. I knew what a Nambla was, but not a chicken hawk.
Pete: North American Man-Boy Love Association. A pedophile rights organization.
Cosmik: That’s terrifying!
Pete: It’s horrifying, man. This filmmaker, Todd Phillips, who did the G.G. Allin thing, did a film called Chicken Hawks, about these guys who liked little boys. We hadn’t seen the film, though, and Betsy named the band after that little Foghorn Leghorn character. It was really innocent.
Cosmik: Which explains “Foghorn’s Blues.”
Pete: Totally. Karen Black, they were totally weird people from New York, and they said “do you know what a chicken hawk is?” Of course, we didn’t, and after they explained it to us we reeeeally thought the name was funny. We thought “maybe we’ll have these weird old bald guys come see us.”
Betsy: They usually hit on our drummer.
[Pictured: Hot Rod Todd.]
Pete: Yeah, he gets hit on all the time by these weird old fag guys. He’s kind of a burly young lad, ya know. In Dallas, this guy was hitting on him while he was playing. He was standing by the drum set and giving him beers after every song and saying “you’re just so great!”
Cosmik: As we drift into our first politically incorrect portion of the interview.
Pete: I don’t care who I offend. I love ferries. I don’t have any problems with gay people at all, but I love derogatory terms for anyone, and I use them all the time.
Cosmik: Can you take it, too? Do you have any derogatory terms for yourself?
Pete: Cracker. I’m a total cracker, all the way. I say that about us, and I use derogatory terms all the time.
Cosmik: So I take it at some point you learned to duck?
Pete: Learned how to duck… Hmmm… Naw, but I’ve been beat up a lot. People are too afraid to do anything nowadays, you know. Can’t say anything, can’t drink, can’t smoke. That’s one good thing about this city. You can smoke anywhere, anytime, as much as you want. Where most cities have restaurants with little tiny smoking sections, our restaurants have little tiny non-smoking sections.
Cosmik: And that’s a good thing about living there…
Pete: There are some good aspects of living here. That’s one of the reasons we choose to. It’s really cheap, there’s no crime, or very little serious crime.
Cosmik: Los Angeles must have been a shocker for you, then.
Pete: Well, I love LA, but not to live in, that’s for sure. This is my home.
Cosmik: How soon after you started the band did you head to LA?
Pete: About two and a half years, I think.
Cosmik: Was it just to get there and take your shot?
[Pictured: Tammy Gunn.]
Pete: Just for the hell of it, I spose. We didn’t have any pretensions of becoming famous or anything. That had nothing to do with the move. It didn’t have that much to do with the band, to be honest, it was just like “oh, let’s go see what it’s like to live there.” They’d just shut my club down, so we said why not.
Cosmik: There wasn’t even a glimmer of the rock circus in there?
Pete: I’ve never had any fuckin’ interest in signing a record deal and being a star or any of that nonsense. Who cares?
Cosmik: Indie all the way?
Pete: Well yeah. I don’t know how to do it any other way. It doesn’t even make sense to me any other way. If somebody offered me a huge deal, I might take it, I guess, but I just don’t care.
Cosmik: Well, if there was ever a label made for The Chicken Hawks, it’s the one you’re on. Just the attitude needed to name the label Rock And Fuckin’ Roll Records is qualification enough.
Pete: Yeah. RAFR is great. It used to be part of Flipside Magazine. In fact, the first five releases on RAFR were actually on Flipside. There’s a guy named Martin McMartin, who has written for Flipside for about ten years, and a year and a half ago he decided he didn’t want to answer to anyone at all, even though they gave him lots of freedom at Flipside. So he completely broke away and did it himself. He’s done our album, and Damnation, Toilet Boys, and New American Mob. They’re a totally great band.
Cosmik: How did you get together with RAFR?
Pete: About three months after we formed, in 1995, we went out there and played some shows just for the hell of it. We just decided to start traveling. The people from Flipside showed up and loved it immediately, which, to me, was totally amazing. I’d been reading Flipside since I was a kid, and here they all showed up. And they all fucking loved it. Amazing. I’d actually met Martin when he was managing The Humpers. They came through my club many times, and their guitar player, Mark Lee, is from Sioux City.
Cosmik: That I didn’t know. I love that band, though.
Pete: Yeah, it’s a weird story. They lost Jeff Fieldhouse, the original guitar player, right after they went out on their first north American tour. They just had Billy on guitar, and they came here and saw Mark playing in a band with me, and the Humpers came in and said “hey, this guy’s great! Get in the van!” Mark was like “cool!!!” So he joined the band, and now we have this sort of cosmic connection with The Humpers. So that’s how we got to know Martin. He was their manager, and they were slowly driving him insane. Eventually he said to us “you guys gotta put a record out,” and we said “okay.” We’re easy.
Cosmik: Why did you leave LA?
Pete: It’s not my home. Didn’t feel right. We were doing fine, no crisis, I just missed my home. It’s too big. I don’t like big cities. I’m a cracker, like I said. I can’t even write any songs if there’s too much going on around me. I like playing in big cities, and we’ve played in about every big city in America. Most of them more than once. But I can’t live in them.
Cosmik: I felt the same way about LA so I came back to Seattle.
Pete: But even Seattle’s too big for me. That’s one we haven’t played, actually. I don’t know why we haven’t.
Cosmik: I’m surprised you haven’t played Garage Shock up in Bellingham.
Pete: We probably will. I’m not sure exactly how we’d go over… and I hope you’ll understand what I’m about to say and that I don’t offend everyone, but some of that stuff is a hipster indie cred type thing. I mean, there are a lot of hipster goofs at that fuckin’ thing. I’m not even sure I could handle it, seriously, like the whole Big Daddy Roth thing. Estrus is cool. They’ve put out some great records. But there just some other stuff attached to it that I just can’t handle. There’s this whole hipster thing that I just hate. This isn’t directed at anyone at Estrus, cuz they seem like really cool people.
Cosmik: When I think of that scene, I think of Lord High Fixers, The Makers, The Nomads… bands that aren’t hipster posers. More like gutsy garage punks.
Pete: Right. It might not have to do with the bands themselves as much as the following. I have a problem with scenes in the first place. I’m anti-scene. That’s a great band, by the way. But I don’t know, to me it’s all just rock. I try not to be too self-conscious, and the Garage Shock thing is too self-conscious for me. I’m not sure if we would really fit.
Cosmik: So it’s more the attitudes in the crowd than the attitudes on the stage.
Pete: There! Thank you. I was having trouble getting that out. The bands are fine, but the people in the crowd wearing their vintage Clark Kent glasses… A lot of those people don’t like us at all because we just don’t pander to any of that bullshit. People like that pick up on the AC/DC element of our band and go “ewww!” We’d play Garage Shock, don’t get me wrong, but we’d probably end up unwittingly offending a lot of people. We wear leather and look more like Faster Pussycat than any hipster band, and we don’t give a shit at all about any of that.
Cosmik: But there’s a hip element to The Cramps, and they’ve played up there, I think.
Pete: But fuck, they’re above any and all… I mean, it’s The CRAMPS, dude! They’re living legends. Above and beyond all criticism and reproach, or at least in OUR lives, they are.
Cosmik: Oh, believe me, one of the most star-struck moments of my life was when I interviewed Lux and Ivy.
Pete: Right! I can imagine. Me, I get star-struck all the time. We’re fans. I’m a big fan. If I’m star-struck by someone, I’ll gladly admit it. I’ll just come out and say “man, I fuckin’ worship you!” I think a lot of musicians lose the fan part of themselves. I refuse to get jaded. I love it. I get too hyper and excited to lose it. If there’s one band we would love to tour with, it’d be The Cramps.
Cosmik: What a perfect double bill that’d be.
Pete: We’d love it. We were supposed to maybe play with them in Portland. We love playing in Portland. We’ve played there a lot. But we were supposed to play a festival and we were going on right before them, and it got fucked. We were totally wild and stoked about it, too.
Cosmik: Looking through these song titles I have to ask… y’all a little ticked at the people of Minneapolis for some reason?
Pete: Yeah, that song is funny because it’s over three years old now, and I wrote it because there were a lot of bands from Minneapolis that I was booking in my club at that time that had attitudes that were really fucked. Rock star attitudes. It was horrible. The mid-west, to a large degree, is still ruled by Amphetamine Reptile and Touch And Go and labels like that. At that time, three years ago, those labels were not interested in rock. They were interested in noise-rock, indie pop and all that stuff. A lot of the bands from around the mid-west area were real snob assholes, so I just wrote “Fuck Minneapolis” in response to all that.
Cosmik: So Minneapolis wasn’t necessarily the place, it just represented the whole mid-west in the song.
Pete: Oh… (laughs) … it was at the time. It’s funny, we only started playing there a year ago, even though it’s only four hours away. We’d already played LA and New York several times, and we’d never been to Minneapolis. We finally found a couple cool clubs that were alright to play, but First Avenue is the big club there, and I just fuckin’ hate it. Put it this way: The Humpers played there only one time, on their fourth US tour. They were on Epitaph and they had plenty of PR behind them but nobody there had a clue who they were. It’s just not a rock and roll town at all. It’s totally The Cows or Unsane or any band on Dischord Records or Touch And Go. The Cows sell out a 2,000 seat ballroom, or June Of 44 or some bullshit like that, but rock music is not happening there. So anyway, that’s what “Fuck Minneapolis” was about.
Cosmik: Bet you’re not too popular with those people.
Pete: The bands that would come down just hated my guts because I didn’t relate to them at all, or care about any of the bands they listened to. I tried to be cool to them. Believe it or not, I’m really easy to get along with, but in this particular interview I’ve had to talk about some pretty ugly things.
Cosmik: Doin’ my part to keep the world nice and shaky.
Pete: Yeah! But these bands… Just don’t tell me about music, ya know? I’d say “look, I don’t care about your band, or your look, or your sound, or anything you do. Here’s your money, you played a good show, don’t worry about it.” But they’d go on and on about the stuff they’re into, so I just wrote that song. Now I just don’t book a lot of bands from that fuckin’ stupid town anymore.
Cosmik: Well, I have nothing against Minneapolis at all, but I do like the song. There’s a vibe in your music that hooks me, especially in songs like “Heart Throb Man.” There’s a circular vibe all around you. What’s it like in the middle?
Pete: It gets me real turned on. Of course, that’s one thing about being in a band with hot women. I’m always turned on. Number one, my wife always turns me on. She’s very burlesque on stage. And Tammy’s also a pretty woman, so I’m always fuckin’ jazzed. It feels great. I’m always turned on and ready to go.
Cosmik: Musical Viagra.
Pete: Yeah, that’s it!
Cosmik: I imagine you all see a big line of wood and evil grins in the crowd.
Pete: Yeah, I think people kinda tend to go into shock a little bit, because here are these two hot women on stage in their underwear just cussin’ away. And they’re both pretty well endowed, too, so it must just be a fuckin’ nightmare for a guy in the crowd. Then me and Todd are just dirty bums up there, and it’s fun. I love it. The real cool thing about playing shows here is that we don’t play in the city that often, so when we do it’s a big event with hundreds of teenagers. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Chicken Hawks or John Cougar. These kids just go off! They have a blast. These little 14 year old goth girls that look like satanic witches have been showing up, and they love Betsy. They cry and scream. It’s not jaded, though, it’s really innocent. It’s rock and roll. It reminds me of when I saw AC/DC way back when and the people just went nuts. We try to bring that whole vibe to every place we play. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen because the city is fucked or the people are too uptight.
Cosmik: I haven’t seen you live, but people who have tell me you put on one hell of a show and do everything you can to get the crowd crazy. Giving everyone a good time is very important to you, isn’t it?
Pete: I say some things that are pretty cliche up there, but when I lean into the microphone and say “everybody have a rock and roll party tonight,” I’m not doing it to to be schtick. I really feel like that. In so many circles it’s not cool to say that, and sometimes when I say it people will blankly stare. “Where does this guy think he is? A Warrant concert or something?” Too many bands don’t say anything to the crowd, but me, I try to get them going.
Cosmik: Yeah, but the bands that say nothing and show no response to their audience at all, sometimes I wonder what they’re even up there for.
Pete: What are they doing? Why do they go on stage? Maybe they should just produce records. They’re wasting everybody’s time. People wonder why they get bored at shows, but it’s because of boring bands. And by no means am I saying that we’re the great white hope. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m just saying there are too many boring bands. There are some really great bands, too, but too many bands have no idea of stage presence or what they should even do once they get on stage. People don’t want to work for the money.
Cosmik: And that’s all some people are after.
Pete: And they always say they don’t care about it.
Cosmik: Do you?
Pete: I think a lot of people in touring bands lie about that. Clearly, we don’t do our music for money, but we do like to get paid. We can’t afford to do it out of our own pockets. We’ve gotten to the point where we have to get a guarantee of some money or it’s impossible to stay out [on tour]. People say “oh, I don’t care about the money,” and I say “aw, yeeeaah, you’re a fuckin’ liar.”
Cosmik: Do you run into a lot of problems with club owners not paying?
Pete: If we get stiffed at a show, I tend to go off. If it’s a hall show and nobody was there and the hall didn’t make any money, that’s cool. I understand that. But if we’re at a club and they don’t pay us any money, I’ll say [lowers voice] “you made five or six hundred at the bar tonight, so you’d fuckin’ better give us some money.”
Cosmik: I’d be afraid to stiff you guys. The Chicken Hawks have this aura of “I’d just as soon chew you up and spit you out.”
Pete: Well cool! Thank you for saying that. We want to have a mixed aura. “We want to have fun but we’ll also knock your head off,” you know?
Cosmik: And not too many mixed-sex bands can pull that off.
Pete: A lot of women in bands get pigeonholed into either the cutesie thing, like The Chubbies, or your like some kind of screaming, non-musical, early Hole-type band. When you have women who fit into neither category, women who are commanding and powerful on stage, that’s very rare.
Cosmik: Not enough role models for that, either, but there certainly are some very good ones.
Pete: Betsy takes a lot of her cues from Tina Turner, from when she was part of the Ike and Tina Turner Review. She gets compared to Tina from a lot of people who know what that was. She’s really powerful on stage. She doesn’t act coy or stupid, she’s commanding. People say “God, that’s your wife! Aren’t you afraid someone’s going to attack her on stage?” No, never. I think a lot of people realize if they ever tried it she’d just whap ’em in the head with her microphone stand.
Cosmik: So now we’ve had a primer for audiences and club owners that might deal with The Chicken Hawks in the near future. Things not to do to The Chicken Hawks. Don’t stiff ’em on the bill, don’t talk to them about your noise-rock CDs, and…
Pete: … don’t fuck with the girls.
Cosmik: Or Betsy’ll kill ’em.
Pete: And she would, too, believe me. She’d kick ’em in the face and whap ’em in the head. The Chicken Hawks’ girls don’t take any shit.
(C) 1999 – DJ Johnson
Pssst! Want one more quick lick on the Chicken Hawk stick? Here’s a clip of “High From Bastard City”. Bye now.