Oakland Valleau, the pompadoured bass player for the Raygun Cowboys, was standing in front of a field of fans under the California sun when his Bumble Bee died. His fuzzy yellow-and-black double bass, maybe dropped and cracked by careless roadies, fell apart in the middle of the Edmonton psychobilly band’s first song at the 2012 Ink-N-Iron festival in Long Beach.
“That bass had been in the band for like 12 years,” says singer and guitar slinger Jon Christopherson. “Luckily there were guys at the festival selling basses. They literally carried a bass across the field for us and we finished our set.”
The Raygun Cowboys recently gave the Bumble Bee a proper Viking burial: sending it out in style by burning then smashing it with a backhoe in a music video for the band’s new record Heads Are Gonna Roll!. Oh, yeah, Valleau plays a furry, cow-patterned bass now that the Bumble Bee is gone.
Instruments aside, the Raygun Cowboys are survivors. The band turns 15 this year, having surfed waves of rockabilly revival and then obscurity. Bands like Tiger Army, the Living End and HorrorPops—the biggest names in psychobilly’s heyday in the early- to mid-2000s—haven’t released records in years.
“The band has basically stayed the same over the last 15 years,” Christopherson says. “It’s the same core.”
If anything, the local band is just hitting its stride. The Raygun Cowboys recently signed to Montréal’s Stomp Records, an influential label for Canada’s ska scene. Heads Are Gonna Roll! is a rollicking ass-kicker of an album, rocking confidently from roots-rockabilly to punk to blues then old-school country.
The insistent slap of Valleau’s bass and Derek Thieson’s drums propel the sound, with the horn trio of Michael Johnson, Jonny McCormack and Nathan Connolly giving the band a brassy, Mad Caddies sound that sets it apart from other greasers.
It’s the band’s fourth full-length and the first record since 2012’s Cowboy Up!. Christopherson says the Cowboys have been laying low, taking the last couple of years off as he started his education degree.
“I’ve been a music maker all my life,” he notes. “So I wanted to be a music teacher.”
One of the standout tracks, “In These Walls,” came from one of his classes. It starts with the haunting sounds of First Nations pow-wow singing and drums before the band kicks in and Christopherson launches into a devastating story of a child stuck in the residential-school system: “In the cold / I walk and walk and walk / I hope I don’t get caught.”
The singer, who is Métis, was taking Native Studies classes and wrote the song for a final project—and after sharing it with the band, it made it on the new record.
“It’s dedicated to and is a tribute to the survivors of the residential school system,” Christopherson adds.
Now, with the powerful new album and a shiny-new record deal, the group is back on the road. The band is doing a cross-Canada tour and is keen to play through Europe again soon.
One reason the band is still in demand after 15 years? The music and the live show are fun. It’s for dancing—and people will always love to dance.
“The swing beat and the shuffle beat are huge parts of what we do,” Christopherson says. “When people come to a Raygun Cowboys show, it’s a dance show. You come to dance and have a good time.”
Fri, May 1 (8 pm)
With the Resignators
Pawn Shop, $15