“I want this interview to be raw,” Ang Bocca tells me over the phone. “But not so raw it’s bleeding.”
We’d been to high-school together, back when a stage name meant doodling “Mrs. Timberlake” into notebooks, and the closest thing to a sold-out performance involved singing the national anthem at a school function.
I remember Ang most as the girl-of-every-talent. Tired by the time she came to class in the mornings because of early figure-skating practices, she would stay at school late into the evenings to rehearse for the next theatrical production.
“Once I started high school I was writing my own songs uncontrollably in the orchestra room on my lunch break,” Ang admits. “And I would fake sick on the ice during a lesson if a melody came into my brain. I wrote A LOT on the ice. There was so much free time and a lot of silence which really shaped me as a songwriter. Best thing that ever happened to me probably. All that money to be a human zamboni turned me into a …musician?”
Four years of college and a trip to London later, “raw” was the realization that there were no record deals, no studio contracts, no pop-and-rock star discoveries waiting.
Armed with only a demo tape – a Sara McLaughlin cover she’d recorded in her bathroom – and a few unsuccessful studio attempts, Ang chose the apprenticeship approach. She’d learn how to manage a band from the bottom up, climbing a musical ladder that was looking less like Jimmy Page’s stairway and more like Nickelodeon’s Aggro Crag.
One First Friday night found her outside the now-closed Volta Radio, filling the space it took to smoke a cigarette with musical interludes of children’s songs.
“Some guy came up to me and asked, ‘Are you in a band? Would you do a show for us?'” Ang reminisces. “I said give me a date, I’ll get you a band.”
Motivated by the promise of a radio gig to start taking her musician search a little more seriously, Ang turned to the city’s shelter for abandoned dreams in the hopes of patch-working a new one: Craigslist.
“I started looking for people who needed back-up vocals because I figured that would be an easy way for me to learn, and I stumbled upon the Rebel Yell,” Ang explains, this time over drinks at Smokin’ Betty’s, one of many in a long line of jobs that have kept her going in between creative projects.
Aside from gigs with The Rebel Yell, Ang was singing solo at open mics around the city.
“I wanted to meet musicians, be out and about so I could understand the scene,” Ang says.
But she met drummer and current band-mate, Barbara Duncan, through her work with The Rebel Yell.
“By the time Barb joined, I was already putting Ang & the Damn Band together,” she adds.
“She didn’t ask me to be her drummer immediately,” Barb collapses into laughter. “She waited a few months because she was scared to ask me.”
After hearing Barb’s backstory, I couldn’t help but understand why. With the sort of musical upbringing that wouldn’t seem out of place in a George M. Cohan biography – surrounded by musicians from an early age and a family with enough vocal and instrumental talent to form several bands over – Barb first saw the back of a drumset at the age of four.
“I was a really tall kid,” Barb emphasizes.
Weekends were spent in the empty North Philly apartment space below her mother’s. When the former tenants moved out, music moved in, in the form of saxophonists, trumpet players, violinists, guitar players, keyboardists, and anyone else who wanted to jam.
“Can you imagine growing up in your destiny,” Ang sighs.
With the addition of guitarist Ron Stoner and upright bassist Pete Beres, they were ready for their first public set, a promotional performance as part of a 1950s holiday party at the El Bar. Still newly-formed and unsure of its sound, the band spent the night battling with a small stage, while behind the scenes Ang helped burlesque dancers wrestle into stockings and glitter for the next act.
I didn’t see them live until May of 2011, when they entered a battle of the bands contest at The Legendary Dobbs. I kept coming back for more – partly to figure out what exactly I was hearing, partly to decide whether I truly liked it or I was feeling loyal to a friend.
I caught them at a Bettie Page tribute night at Johnny Brenda’s, at a drag show at The Barbary. I watched the crowds go wild screaming Ang’s name, while a bit of the actress teased itself into her performances. Sometimes soft and sultry – Marilyn wooing a distracted Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot – sometimes rough and rowdy – Joan Jett just not giving a damn.
“A lot of people have trouble describing what we sound like,” Barb says. “I always say look us up and tell us what we sound like. Whatever you see, that’s what we sound like.”
With musical influences that range from Johnny Cash and Rosemary Clooney to Cab Calloway and The Rolling Stones, I haven’t quite decided what they sound like either. But from my raw vocal cords at the end of their performances, I can tell what I sound like – a fan.
The lineup has changed a little since the days I first saw them play, with guitarist Brian McAleese now working with Ang and Barb. Yet the fire is still there as they work towards a record planned for August release, a Tarantinoesque soundtrack to life.
“The music video I have for [the song] ‘Trouble’ is completely gory and cheeky. But that’s who I am,” Ang adds.
Look for Ang & The Damn Band at Art for the Cash Poor 14, Saturday, June 8 at 1 pm.
All photos of Ang & The Damn Band featured on this page are by Brian Hunt of Ethimo Foto.