Channeling cult rituals with The Ukiah Drag

Scott Hunter

The Ukiah Drag

The Ukiah Drag on tour last fall. Photos by < ahref="http://www.imposemagazine.com/features/ukiah-drag-shot-by-nina-hartmann">Nina Hartmann

With its ominous drums, swampy guitars, Southern Gothic lyrics, and a vocal delivery that crosses Lou Reed and Black Francis with some version of the devil, The Ukiah Drag’s In The Reaper’s Quarters enacts a 36-minute journey through a landscape of dark Americana. The UD’s members all come from Florida, having previously played in Cult Ritual, Diet Cokeheads, Neon Blud, and American Snakeskin. In a way the band sort of picks up where American Snakeskin left off. “It was the leftover material,” says singer and guitarist ZZ Ramirez. “I never found people to write it with, and then I moved up to Boston with Brian and Tommy, and we kind of started it more as a recording project. It’s been an evolving thing, just finding the right people to do it, to have it transcend into a new project all its own.”

After that stint in Boston, the band relocated again, this time to Providence, RI. “It was a little more symmetrical with Tampa, in a way, or with Florida in general,” said the band. “Felt more comfortable than anywhere else in the Northeast.”

If The Ukiah Drag picks up where American Snakeskin left off, that doesn’t make them a simple continuation. Comparing American Snakeskin’s 2012 Turquoise For Hello to the UD’s 2013 Jazz Mama Is Cryin’ yields some interesting distinctions—while it’s easy to see the two records coming from a similar place, it seems the latter came from sort of examining the former with a microscope, fleshing the noisier parts out into more detail so that the album’s resolution, when it finally occurs, carries a lot more weight. As for In The Reaper’s Quarters, it shows The Ukiah Drag tightening up into an autonomous creature, a fully formed vertebrate rising out of the spooky primordial goo of Jazz Mama. Reaper’s Quarters achieves a new level of vitality—these songs don’t suck you in like quicksand, they hit you square in the forehead like a rock someone threw from nowhere.

The Ukiah Drag were kind enough to give me half an hour of their time. I spoke on the phone with Ramirez, guitarist Brian Hennessey and bassist Drew Eaton—everyone but the drummer, Tommy Conte. I’m working from a Garageband recording of a conversation that was on speakerphone on both ends, and it proved pretty difficult to distinguish consistently between the three different voices. So for practical reasons, and maybe some tacked-on philosophical ones (it’s a band?) I’ll dispense with personal distinctions and refer to the interviewee as The Ukiah Drag.

What’s the story with your band name?

Ukiah is a town just north of the Bay Area in California, it’s like a hundred miles from San Francisco. The first time I ever heard about it was in a Jim Jones documentary. That’s where he first camped for People’s Temple. And they had a commune and a farm and stuff out there. Eventually they moved to San Francisco.

It’s just a little town… Oh, and the Manson family, after shit kinda hit the fan with them, a whole set of them just migrated up to Ukiah and ended up there for a little while. And then Drag’s just uh, something to emphasize the vibe of the band I guess… But Ukiah is just a fantasy of sorts to me, this very haunted rural town area. A pretty intense scene, and starting the band, how everything was kind of feeling, (mumbles).

Oh gotcha, I didn’t know Ukiah had history with the cults and whatnot. Yeah, you guys seem to have a little fascination with uh, I guess, spooky cult stuff. . .

Yeah our thing is very, uh… It’s not necessarily the aesthetic of it all, but it definitely represents the darker side of—or no, just the eerier, stranger, kind of ostracized part of American culture that’s still very vibrant and high-minded and, you know, it’s… you’re still drawn to it, I don’t know.

Yeah and then speaking of cults, you (ZZ) were in Cult Ritual, which strikes me as pretty different music from American Snakeskin and The Ukiah Drag. Was there kind of a moment when you transitioned from hardcore into this kind of twisted Americana you’re doing now? Or were you doing them side by side ever?

ZZ: I was in that band when I was a teenager, me and Tommy were in that band… I mean to me, just because I was in both bands and wrote heavily for both bands it’s like, still the same stuff, just a little more mature, a little more refined. When you’re younger it’s nice just to have as stripped down and raw and powerful of an approach as possible, and over the years it’s just gotten a little more refined. Also, you keep playing music, it’s like you’re sharpening a knife.

Everyone’s palette expands over time. We’re definitely not a group of musicians that lack for a varying palette. We all have had different interests in music over the years, and this is where it’s at right now. I’m sure we’ll continue to grow, and listen to some weird shit. At the end of the day I feel like all of us consider ourselves musicians, people who are interested in music and not just in one particular genre. I like to consider myself a “sonic tagger.” [Laughs.]

We’re definitely not a group of musicians that lack for a varying palette. We all have had different interests in music over the years, and this is where it’s at right now.

That comes through, that breadth of interest, on this album, In The Reaper’s Quarters. I’ve been listening to it the past couple of days, it’s got a lot of cool stuff going on. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of recording it?

UD: Yeah, we went to Hudson, NY, to a studio called Future Past. It’s like a cathedral that was built in the 1860s, it’s been around forever and it’s huge. The ceilings are like, in the room we recorded in, like 65 feet or something? It’s all acoustically treated. The story from what I remember is this dude, Henry, I can’t remember his last name, he was Lenny Kravitz’s producer throughout the ‘90s and 2000’s, he had a studio in Midtown, in a big building and everything, and kind of wanted to move things away so he bought this church on the Hudson and ran it for a few years and our friend Ben Greenberg (producer, also in The Men), who was recording us, his buddy ended up taking it over and now it’s called Future Past.

So we went up there for a week to record. We were rehearsing, uh, pretty diligently beforehand and kind of getting our act together so when we went up there it wasn’t just like sitting in a really nice studio with our thumbs up our asses. So we spent a week recording an LP and we recorded an A-side to an additional EP. We slept there every night, and Hudson is a strange town in a way, it’s kind of like a yuppy beachtown with no beach. It’s quaint and it’s beautiful, it’s not without its charms. It was rather easy to just not get distracted and to focus on recording, which we did for maybe 14 to 18 hours a day, just like fucking with very, very rare equipment, and really taking advantage of an opportunity none of us have really had.

The Ukiah Drag

That sounds great! Livin’ the dream. So if, for whatever reason, people could only hear one Ukiah Drag song and you had to pick it, what song would it be? Do you feel like one of them stands out as a sort of crowning achievement?

The like, embodying anthem of Ukiah Drag?

Sure, the anthem. [Laughs.]

Well it’s funny for me to think of this, especially In The Reaper’s Quarters, as a song-by-song thing, because it’s kind of like one evolving, not track… but the album contains a whole story. The peak, or a very well-rounded song, would probably be “Final Prayer”, which is a long one. There’s a lot to put in there. I think all of us had just wanted to bring out more in something we’ve played a million times over, to show another side of what the song is, especially since this is the first time we’ve recorded it and playing it live is always a highlight of our set in a way.

Yeah that’s a great track, I’m excited to hear it live—there’s a lot in there that feels kind of ritualistic that I’m sure is powerful in a crowd. Speaking of the live show, what do you try to bring out when you perform? What do you want people to sort of experience?

Playing live is a funny thing, it has been with this band because we’ve been an evolving unit. When the band started, our first show, it was the first time me and Tommy had played together in a really long time, especially in a live setting.

We were still kind of figuring out what we wanted to do, and why the band, and we played a few shows that were fun to play, it was good to play, but we were still figuring it out… It wasn’t until Drew moved in on the bass and moved in with us, and we went on tour with Destruction Unit, and right around our second or third show I think things really clicked.

Since then it’s been a rising force, or just like… a trying to get off and feel like you got off kind of deal. We kind of trimmed a little bit of our setlist, and writing from there has been focused on that. Recording a record is cool, but there’s nothing like playing live and feeling it and really remembering why you play music, transcending the physical level, a set you can walk away from and feel good and not really talk to anyone and feel accomplished. The live set, for us—audiences are very interchangeable, certain crowds are always fun to play with and certain ones are just painful, but we’re a very tight unit, as far as each player goes. When we’re all feeling it, we’re all feeling it, and we feel it with each other. It’s kind of a selfish thing, we’re all playing to get our own rocks off. And you know, everyone’s welcome to join.

So do you guys all live together, the whole band?

Yes, we do. Yup.

Does that inform your writing process at all?

It’s convenient, because a lot of our songs have been written for a while. It’s like, you’ll venture over and have your guitar in your hand like, “Hey man, you wanna jam? Wanna work something out?” You know, it helps you gear up and bounce off of each other. When you’re a band, you’re a band, it’s not just one person doing everything. It’s like, if you’re not gelling together it can come off a little contrived. We all very much vibe off of each other. It makes our channeled consciousness project the way it does. We also rehearse in our basement. We jam after breakfast. We don’t fuck around with like… I mean if we have ideas we can just walk downstairs and whoever’s around can flesh it out at the time, as opposed to having to get everybody on board to be in the same place at the same time. It just makes it easier. We know where the other ones are most of the time, in one of three spots. (Laughter). It’s good, it’s a very brotherly vibe which gives me great feelings, makes life easier, especially when things are rough or one of us is having a rough time. The four of us have an understanding, and then when we’re on the road it’s like taking a family vacation (laughter).

Do you guys have a tour in the works to promote the album?

We’re hashing that out. At the beginning of next year, I think we’re planning on a pretty lengthy US tour. But we’re just having a couple shows now, and have some prospective trips and festival appearances lined up, nothing confirmed yet.

Brian and Tommy and Drew have a band, Cottaging, and they’re about to go on tour in a month because their 12-inch EP is coming out… so they’re going on tour and I’ll be waiting all alone and have the house to myself. I have a few projects that I’m working on, it’ll be nice to have time. All by myself (mumbles something, laughs.)

The Ukiah Drag’s In The Reapers Quarters is available now on Wharf Cat Records.

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