Indy Week

As Bat Fangs, Betsy Wright and Laura King Outstrip Their Parentheticals

Patrick Wall Jan 31, 2018 7:00 AM

Bat Fangs guitarist Betsy Wright found herself with some time on her hands.

Ex Hex, the power-pop band led by Mary Timony in which Wright plays bass, wound down for a breather following a rigorous touring schedule following the release of their Merge Records debut, 2014's Rips. Staring down an extended hiatus, the ever-restless Wright wasn't up for sitting around Washington, D.C. with nothing to do.

"Music's pretty much the only thing I've ever cared about my entire life," she says. "I just can't get enough. I used to think that I wouldn't always be this way, but it's just not going away."

She returned to a collection of songs and riffs she'd be assembling over the years—songs that leaned toward arena rock and eighties pop-metal and didn't quite fit Ex Hex's sensibilities. Some of them were nearly fully fleshed out; others were little more than skeletons. But she couldn't find a drummer in D.C. to jam on those songs with. Some were a good fit but just didn't have time, Wright says, and some just weren't a good fit.

Eventually, she broadened her search. She had met the Carrboro drummer Laura King in late 2015. King was playing with Flesh Wounds, who were then serving as Merge Records boss Mac McCaughan's backing band the Non-Believers, who were playing a few shows with Ex Hex. It turns out the two had a lot in common: Wright started playing music when she was six years old with voracious listening habits, from the old 45s in her parents' basement to the hair metal hits of the day.

"That's the stuff I was into when I was seven and eight—besides, like, Madonna and The Bangles," Wright says. "I was obsessed with Bon Jovi and Poison and Warrant. I loved hair metal."

King keyed on the same things: She grew up about forty-five minutes north in Baltimore, and had her rock 'n' roll epiphany at age ten when she saw The Bangles performing live on MTV.

"That changed my life," King says. "I was like, 'I want to do that.'"

Not long afterward, her dad bought her a drum kit, and she taught herself how to play in her parents' basement, banging along to Guns N' Roses songs. She, too, was obsessed with hair metal—Poison and Bon Jovi, in particular—and developed her powerful playing style fooling around with hair metal riffs with her shredder friends in grade school. So, on a whim and still searching for someone to play with, Wright emailed a few of the songs she'd been working on to King.

"I was like, 'There's no way she's gonna want to do this," Wright laughs. "She lives so far away. She probably doesn't have time.'"

But King had time on her hands, too. Flesh Wounds had broken up in May of 2015 after releasing In the Mouth, and she didn't really have anything solid going on.

"When she reached out to me, I was more than happy to jump on board," King says. "At first, I was a little unsure how it was going to work, because she plays bass [in Ex Hex]. And then she sent me a couple of demos with her playing guitar, and it's like, 'Oh my god, she's a super shredder.'

Wright drove down to Raleigh in October of that year, she and King holed up in King's practice space, cutting a two-song demo with King's friend, home-recording guru Charles Chase.

"Everything really gelled," King says. "It was such a easy process, so we were like, 'Let's do it again next month.'"

By Halloween, they'd had a lead single, the snarling "Wolfbite." By Thanksgiving, Bat Fangs was a full-fledged band with more or less a full record's worth of material.

"Usually these things take a lot longer to develop," King says. "But when the chemistry's right, you just gotta go with it."

That chemistry is what makes Bat Fangs's brash, eighties-indebted riff-rock so immediately rewarding, like a huge endorphin rush. That their skill sets are simpatico helps, too: King and Wright's preceding outfits display a knack for blending bulldozing rhythms with and big riffs. But their parentheticals skew heady. King gives her brawn extra brains in the heavy improvisational drum duo Speed Stick. Before joining Ex Hex, Wright studied jazz piano at Bard College and earned a music degree from George Mason; later, she'd play keys in poetic New York City pop band The Childballads and guitar in swirly, dreamy Charlottesville-based rock band The Fire Tapes. That kind of "experimental, noisy, Sonic Youth-type stuff," she says, was fine, but it wasn't true to her roots.

"That's all good and cool, but the music that I've listened to and loved my whole life was not so much like that. I always thought that to be original meant I had to make something weird," Wright says. "And now, that stuff's just not that fun. And I want to have fun."

"You can't escape who you are, as a musician," King adds. "We were talking a lot at the time about hair metal, and classic rock 'n' roll, like Roky Erickson and stuff like that, and listening to a lot of that music. We are who we are, and how we play is how we play."

Recorded in January 2017 with R. Ring's Mike Montgomery at his studio in Kentucky, Bat Fangs's self titled debut revels in those roots, but it isn't solely motivated by retromania. Out of minimal resources—Wright's guitar, King's drums and very little bass—comes maximum impact. King and Wright whip through the nine songs on Bat Fangs in well under half an hour, riffing with frisky, infectious joy. Its songs recall the upper crust of upper-dial eighties rock: "Turn It Up" struts like Pat Benetar's burnout, denim-jacket-and-ripped-T-shirt rock songs; "Rock the Reaper," with its Marshall stack crunch and insistent hook, sounds like a mix of Scandal and The Cars. "Fangs Out" is pure Sunset Strip metal, all thundering toms and thick riffs; "Bad Astrology" and "Wolfbite" roil with tongue-in-cheek references to the occult, like Thin Lizzy fronted by Patti Smyth, or maybe Black Sabbath via The Bangles.

"A lot of people are like, it's a guilty pleasure or something, but I love that stuff," Wright says of her most deeply seated influences. "It's fun, you know?"

And guilty-pleasure listening is bullshit anyway, Wright adds.

"Like, what does even mean? That you're embarrassed or too cool to admit that you liked this thing when you were seven? No way," she says. "I liked Bon Jovi. I was seven! Like, millions of people like Taylor Swift. You're not the only one."