Friday, May 6, 2016

The Rocket Queens: A Tribute to Guns N' Roses, Chat with Lead Guitarist Lily Maase

Magdalena Baldych centerstage with Lily Maase jamming right behind her. Photo by Dana Melaver.

From the first echoing vibrations of that unmistakable intro, the Rocket Queens have the house hooked. Singer Magdalena Baldych slinks around the stage like a cat, growling like a tiger, welcoming us to the jungle and to the best damn Guns N’ Roses reunion party you could ask for. Arlene’s Grocery is packed with devout rockers decked out in their most hardcore finery to celebrate the reconciliation we thought we’d never see. And if you can’t see the real thing, the Rocket Queens are certainly a worthy substitute. Tonight they are playing Guns N’ Roses 1987 debut album, Appetite for Destruction, from start to finish, the longest set I’ve ever seen from a local band. 

Baldych, with the iconic red bandana haloing her hair, mirrored aviators over her eyes, and charisma like kerosene takes on her role as Axl Rose wholeheartedly as she snakes around the platform belting furiously. Lily Maase, founder of the Queens, appears possessed by Slash himself, with ginger curls falling around her shoulders as looks skyward and shreds a solo in “Nightrain,” seeming to barely touch the strings of her guitar while unleashing a hurricane of sound into the blue light. Marron Chaplin is the Izzy of the lineup, fingers flying through demanding rhythm guitar parts played with hypnotic precision. She tumbles down the scale with focused fire in their scorching rendition of “Welcome to the Jungle,” where rhythm guitar is the backbone of the song. Joan Chew works intuitively in the shadows to lay basslines frenetic with sexual tension in every song, one of the most important elements of GnR’s trademark sound. Co-founder Nikki D’Agostino’s keys and supplementary percussion are hidden beneath the layers of sound for most of the show, but stand out during special moments, such as the haunting and elegant intro to “My Michelle.” The only male in the group, drummer Don Berger, is a throbbing heartbeat pulsing renewed animosity into the music throughout the show with incredulous tirelessness. His thunderous intro to “Paradise City,” one of the most outstanding moments from the night, sends a wave of hands into the air, full on church of rock’n’roll style, and the second everyone starts singing together it feels like holy ritual. Maase’s solo in this number is so fluid and rapid and note-for-note true to Slash’s original work that it blows my mind. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is another killer moment in the set, with all strings onstage white hot as Baldych stalks the audience, asking “Where do we go now?” with swooping shoulders and a sultry rasp in her voice. A nuclear chemistry and telepathic synchronicity between all members give the lineup an authentic feel and plenty of opportunity for stage antics, such as Baldych miming fellatio on Maase during Appetite’s grand finale, “Rocket Queen,” following Maase’s epic eight-minute long solo. Their energy is incendiary and I’m not the only one who dances for, literally, the whole show. When I sum up the stellar musicianship, captivating showmanship, fan-pleasing setlist, the intimate charm of Arlene’s Grocery, and the audience’s earnest excitement, this adds up to one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to. Zero exaggeration.

Photo by Dana Melaver

Having interviewed Marron Chaplin a few months back for her band, Dead Rocking Horse, I already had a connection to one of the Rocket Queens. Chaplin introduced me to Lily Maase, who invited me to their rehearsal the following Wednesday. Eager to see what makes this band work, I set out for their rehearsal space in Williamsburg armed with questions. But over the course of a conversation with Maase, she answers most of them without being prompted.

I start by telling Maase how watching the Rocket Queens reminded me how complex and carefully composed Guns N’ Roses music really is. There’s a lot going on under that glitzy sheen of fun and debauchery. She laughs and agrees that most people don’t consider the difficulty level of the material, even some of the most hardcore fans. “Everyone that comes into this band- every single person that’s come into this band- has come in with a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of confidence and fallen smack on their butt within 30 minutes.” The band’s reputation for being party animals often overshadowed their musical abilities, similar to what Led Zeppelin experienced in the late 60s. Guns N’ Roses faced a lot of flack following the band’s dramatic unravelling in the early 90s, but the masterful conception of their early work cannot be ignored, especially if one is an observant listener. “There’s synthesizer all over Appetite for Destruction. You don’t think about it, but it’s there…There’s congas all over “Mr. Brownstone” …All these little things you don’t think of if you learn the music off of tabs from ‘Guitar Player,’” Maase points out.

Lily Maase, rocking that axe like a star. Photo by Dana Melaver.

Besides putting out hard-hitting records, Guns N’ Roses has always been known for putting on wicked shows. But even the apparent anarchy onstage happens with the goal of creating the best possible sound. Maase dissects Slash’s reasoning behind the theatrics. “If you look at Slash closely, a lot of the stuff that looks like antics from his perspective are actually facilitating him pulling off some of these things. A big one would be in ‘Don’t Cry.’ At the end of the solo, he does this big bend and he lifts the guitar, and lifting the guitar is actually what makes it possible for him to keep the bend in tune for that long…So a lot of his movements, the way he tilts the guitar, when he has his leg up on the monitor, it’s all about making certain things that are hard on the instrument easier…And it’s a show. Gotta move around.”

So Guns N’ Roses is a well-balanced musical breakfast of thoughtful composition and mythological decadence. But so are Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Nirvana. Why start a GnR tribute band? For Maase, it came down to inspiration from childhood. “I wanted to kind of honor the seven-year old girl who picked up the instrument for the first time, who just had this really pure interest in the guitar, which was just, ROCK AND ROLL!”

She was also unimpressed by other tribute bands in the scene. “I saw a couple other Guns N’ Roses tributes and was horrified by the guitar playing…I was really disappointed by the emphasis on the party part, and a couple of female tributes where the emphasis was on how sexy the girls were, and the sexiness of the girls made it okay for them to not play the guitar parts that well, which is this weird double standard where people think that women can’t play, but if they look really hot, they tell them that they’re great, and then they never get better at music.” Maase and the other ladies in the band certainly defy the stereotype that women are lesser musicians as well as the misconception that Guns N’ Roses’ catalog is easy. To be in this ensemble, you need to be a professional in skill and attitude. Solo male bandmate, drummer Don Berger appreciates the dedication to a professional approach. “If it was really about the attitude, the scene and the party, we would just be that bar band that kind of plays the progression to ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ and kind of flubs through the lead parts, and it’s just a big goofy party. But it’s way more personal and way more interesting to play this stuff at tempo, add the dynamics, all the fine-tuned details, the stuff with Nikki [D’Agostino], and when that all happens with the lineup onstage, it’s like you’re in the freakin’ band! You’re there! You’re there back in ’85 or whatever. It’s really cool. It’s like, I can’t be in that band, but this is the next best thing.”

Photo by Dana Melaver

So what does Maase look for in potential Rocket Queens members? “I would say the three things that are the most important for me are teachability, work ethic, and availability…I’m a teacher by trade… I have a way that I go about problem solving and running bands and I’ve spent a lot of time with this music, growing the music from when it was not as polished as it is now, and sort of looking at footage of us and going, ‘Okay, why does this not sound like Guns N’ Roses?’  And sort of coming up with a formula, or an understanding of how the music works, the different roles the instruments play. A lot of it has to do with the placement on the beats of where the instruments are, like Izzy’s a little bit ahead, Slash is a little bit behind, Axl’s really rhythmic, so…the most important thing is having someone come into the band that’s able to learn… the nuts and bolts that make the music work, and [is] willing to work with a musical director, which is basically what I am, kind of like it’s a theatre show or something…And the music is hard, and it’s a hard show. And we’re still adding new music all the time, so you have to have the work ethic to want to play this stuff at a high level.”

The current lineup is definitely a well-oiled machine and I wonder how often they get together to practice. “Rehearsals are really thoughtful and focused,” Maase starts. “In a perfect world [we would rehearse] once a week… This lineup really likes to rehearse. Other lineups have said, well, I know all the parts so I don’t see why I should have to be there. But knowing the parts is just a little bit of making the music. It’s that familiarity and fluidity and the subtlety.”

Marron Chaplin on rhythm guitar. Photo by Dana Melaver.

Tonight I get to observe part of the process that made such a brilliant show the week before. Only Maase, Berger, and Chaplin are playing tonight, helping to break in newcomer and fill-in vocalist, Kate Buenaflor, who will be singing with the Rocket Queens for several upcoming gigs. Following a run of “Dust N’ Bones,” Maase gives notes to all players and they pick up again somewhere near the end of the song. With each of Maase’s tweaks, all subsequent attempts on the outro are tighter than the last. No note is too minute to be discarded: tempo, timing and tone are all addressed before the moving on. “For me, the joy in the band is from crushing it, not from cutting corners or playing dress-up. It’s like, let’s get up and enjoy this music that inspired me to start playing the guitar when I was seven, eight years old,” says Maase.

Watching this stripped down rendition of “My Michelle” allows me to hear the bonded relationship between lead guitar and rhythm guitar, where the weight of Izzy’s part sounds like an earthquake and Slash’s part, the sonic waves that follow, soaring above the ground. The absence of bass in this song is particularly apparent; that missing layer of deep cushion between the drums and guitar makes me realize how essential every small element is to an outcome like the kickass show I saw last week.

Photo by Dana Melaver

I ask if Guns N’ Roses’ reunion has been good for the Rocket Queens. Maase says that it’s definitely led to more show bookings, and better ones. “I can’t believe how excited people are to hear us play!… We’re getting more offers for shows, and they’ve been better shows, and it’s partly because people are really stoked about GNR, and partly because this lineup right now is killing it. The band does have a reputation regionally [for] getting the job done. The reunion is definitely a lot of why we’re so busy right now.”

The band has a lot of work to do to prepare for the next few weeks of shows, so I should probably let them focus (after I hear Mama Kin, of course), but I’ve saved my most obvious inquiry for last: What does Guns N’ Roses mean to them?

For Chaplin, it’s about their message of being true to oneself, no matter what. “It’s that teenage dream of doing whatever the fuck you want…Guns N’ Roses, they were real musicians and they brought back Stones/Zeppelin style rock and roll when everyone wanted to be Eddie Van Halen…they starved and they were horrible people and did whatever they had to do to survive, and they just completely forsook everything the world tells you you’re supposed to do in order to live a well-structured life and have security and comfort, and they just played music they loved and believed in. And that’s always gonna be an inspiration.”

For Berger, they were a compass. “I remember getting their CD and thinking, ‘I just wanna do this for the rest of my life.’”

For Maase, they are a reminder that you can always improve upon your craft. “Slash has always been a thinking guitarist…he’s portrayed in so many ways as just being this stoned guy that was too fucked up to play half the time and…if you really dig into his playing, he played shit when he was eighteen, nineteen years old that people are still trying to figure out, and that’s where he started as a player and he kept getting better…He’s still getting better! And if that guy is bothering to get with the instrument on a daily basis and get to another level, then why [are] any of us above working like that?”

Marron Chaplin and Magdalena Baldych. Photo by Dana Melaver.

Talking to Maase and watching this band work has been an inspiration to me, as it would be to anyone who has ever wanted to excel at a skill. Their teamwork, discipline and enduring love for what they do is only starting to pay off and I’m stoked to see what’s in store for the Rocket Queens. You can check out their calendar here, and if you can make a show, you should bust out your bandana and get rockin’!

Don Berger on drums in the back, Magdalena Baldych center, and Joan Chew on bass to the right. Photo by Dana Melaver.

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