Somewhere between Boston and Asbury Park, Angie Lese is resting in the backseat of a Chevy Express van, her drums tucked into the 5-by-8 trailer that houses most of The Dead Dead’s gear, her mind focused on the fact that in approximately one month, she will quit her day job.
Lese has been a meteorologist for more than a dozen years, chasing her career — along with the weather — from West Lafayette, Ind., to Louisville to Nashville. As far as government jobs go, it’s a killer gig. Steady hours. Good pay.
One year after transferring to the Nashville office of the National Weather Service, however, she held a jam session in her East Nashville basement, bringing together a group of female musicians who, like herself, had grown up with the heavy-hitting sounds of hard rock. One of those players, Leticia Wolf, was already a Nashville staple, with years of local shows and a catalog of left-of-center pop songs under her belt. Wolf brought along two buddies — sister Mandy Wolf, back in the Volunteer State after logging time in LA as a production manager, and Mavis Turner, former bassist for the band Prim! — while Lese convinced her new roommate, guitarist Erica Sellers, to throw on some pajamas, grab her Les Paul Jr., and join everyone in the basement. The evening was a success, with the girls cooking up a handful of original tunes rather than focusing on covers. Another jam session was scheduled, except this time they called it a rehearsal. The Dead Deads had officially formed.
“Right now, I’m still a scientist for the government,” Lese says nearly three years later, talking over the hum of Interstate 95 as the band heads to another show. “I have a few weeks left of that job, and then I switch to this new career full-time. It’s surreal. I love the weather, but I love the band, too. And the band is where I need to be.”
All five members of The Dead Deads have found themselves in similar positions. Turner, the former IT project manager of a sewing company, turned in her resignation in January. Leticia Wolf closed her hair salon. Sellers gave up her gig at the United Record Pressing plant. Everyone is simply too busy these days to accommodate much more than touring, rehearsing, and the various demands of a rock & roll band whose fall schedule includes another tour with Bush — yes, that Bush, fronted by Gavin Rossdale and still adored by legions of Generation X females — and a string of headlining shows in support of The Dead Deads’ new album, For Your Obliteration.
Day jobs aren’t the only thing The Dead Deads are leaving behind. Over the past two years, they’ve all become increasingly known by their stage names, a move that downplays the girls’ past projects and, instead, remakes them as musicians who were born to play in The Dead Deads. (Call it the Joey Ramone phenomenon.) To her fans, Leticia is known as Meta Dead. Likewise, keyboardist Mandy is Hella Dead. Rounding out the group of pseudonyms are Billy Dead (Lese), Betty Dead (Sellers), and Daisy Dead (Turner), with all five bandmates adhering to a loose dress code comprised of ripped clothes, wild hair, and, most importantly, a black X drawn over each eye in liquid eyeliner. The X’s are a holdover from the group’s first gig together — a Halloween show at the Exit/In, where they billed themselves as the Dead Milkmaids and played a set of Dead Milkmen covers — and they’ve become as important to The Dead Deads’ appearance as, say, Paul Stanley’s star makeup.
“It’s similar to the whole idea behind KISS,” raves ET Brown, a SESAC manager and heavy metal frontman whose own band, Dark Hound, shared gigs with The Dead Deads during their rise up the Nashville ladder. “They each have an alter ego — their own character that they play. It almost turns the band into a gang, but it also highlights their individual personas. It’s like the girls are superheroes, and you can pick your favorite one.”
This summer, during the band’s first tour with Bush, it’s been easy to spot The Dead Deads’ fans out in the audience. Many of them have started painting X’s over their eyes, too. Meta Dead even uploaded an instructional video to YouTube in 2014, showing everyone how to apply a proper crisscrossed pattern of eyeliner. Meanwhile, Daisy Dead has begun doling out personalized “Dead names” to the group’s biggest supporters. Their fan base — an international, rabidly supportive group known as The Dead Corps — now includes more than 400 Twitter users who’ve received their own Dead handles, including Mastodon Dead (Billy Dead’s stepmom).
“We keep track of the names in a database and try to learn them, so when we see a fan at a show, we can call them by their Dead name,” Daisy says.
“The only time I’ve seen them perform without the X’s over their eyes was two nights before we opened The Basement East for the first time,” record store owner and club operator Mike Grimes says. “We were just about to open the doors to this brand new place, and we said, ‘Wait, no one has ever played here! We don’t know how it will sound. We need to get a band in here so we can tune the room. We need a band to christen it.’ The Dead Deads were our guinea pigs. They were the very first band to play this stage, and they did it in their street clothes without any makeup, and it still sounded fucking great.”
Grimes’ comments help illustrate a larger point: The Dead Deads are, first and foremost, a fiery, focused band. Take away the eyeliner, the pseudonyms, and the engagement with their fans, and you’re left with the group’s main attraction — the music.
Released in late August and produced by Helmet’s frontman, Page Hamilton, For Your Obliteration fires twin barrels of heavy metal thunder and pop candy — it’s a blast of melodic, metallic, muscular rock. The songs are thick — stocked with gang vocals, arena-rock choruses, grungy guitar tones (“I use a lot of Boss effects pedals . . . because of the ’90s,” Betty Dead says with a laugh), super-sized hooks, prog-worthy tempo changes, and the pissed-off punch of punk — and they’re delivered with a wink of an eye and a bang of the head. Conducting the crazy train is frontwoman Meta Dead, who coos her melodies one minute and snarls them the next. All in all, it’s pretty irresistible stuff.
“The Dead Deads are unapologetically themselves,” says Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale, who took the girls on their first national tour in late 2014, “and that’s a rare thing in our current state of music, where if you don’t look and sound like the ‘last big thing,’ no one will look at you. They embrace the idea that rock stardom was born by outcasts and innovators, not by people chasing radio and scared to accentuate what makes them stand out.”
Hamilton, a proud outcast himself, first met the Wolf sisters on the ShipRocked cruise in January 2016. Helmet and The Dead Deads were two of the dozen or so acts booked to play the weeklong trip, and the bands crossed paths on the high seas, somewhere between Miami and Mexico, when a radio program asked Meta and Hella Dead to conduct an on-air interview with Hamilton. The girls won him over.
“The interview was really funny, which I appreciated,” Hamilton remembers. “I could tell they were smart. One of the questions was something like, ‘When a band loves you and they try to imitate what you do and they’re terrible, how does that make you feel?’ Which is hilarious! And common! When I got home, they started sending me iPhone demos of their songs. I prefer rough recordings like that. A lot of people spend time doing really slick demos, and those are just all sizzle and no steak. But these songs they were sending were good. The parts were right. Everyone was playing exactly what was needed, and Tish was clearly a great singer and lyricist. It made sense to
Days before kicking off a spring tour as P.O.D.’s opening act, The Dead Deads flew to Hollywood, where they met up with Hamilton at NRG Recording Studios. There, in a Moroccan-themed room, the girls knocked out the first half of For Your Obliteration, their follow-up to 2014’s Rainbeau. Hamilton played the role of producer, big brother, and devil’s advocate, pushing Betty Dead to explore the full range of her guitar playing — “I tend to be more mathematical with my guitar parts,” she says, “and he helped me get out of my comfort zone and become a bit more crazy” — and convincing Billy Dead to straighten out the barreling, 5/4 groove in one of the album’s most complex songs, “Vending Machine Gun.” Two or three months later, Hamilton flew to Tennessee for the second part of the recording process. This time, everyone headed to Java Jive in Joelton, where the album’s final six songs were tracked.
“A different girl would drive me to the studio every day, and it was cool to hear what each person was listening to,” Hamilton says. “Every band I work with, I encourage them to listen to absolutely everything. The Dead Deads were completely open to that. They listen to a wide variety of music. I think it makes them much stronger, both as writers and players.”
It’s easy to hear that variety on For Your Obliteration, whose 11 songs range from the 1950s goth-pop balladry of “Murder Ballad” — cowritten with Cheap Trick’s Tom Petersson, the only outsider to receive a credit on the tracklist — to the alterna-pop angst of “Sympathy Sex,” which might’ve found a home on MTV’s 120 Minutes in 1994. Along the way, the girls make room for sci-fi lyrics, R-rated double entendres (“Get wet and watch the show” goes a line in “Acid Rain”), empowerment anthems, and death metal growls, often within the same song. “Honeysuckle Sam” kicks off like a long-lost Bangles single, all sunshine and soft-hued pop hooks, before careening into pop-punk territory, while “True Love” ropes a quarter-century’s worth of influences into its four minutes, drawing a line between the Shirelles, shoegaze, and Sabbath.
Meta Dead knows it’s a lot to take. “The X’s throw people off,” she admits, more amused than upset. “They think we’re zombies or something. They think we’re a goth band. But we’re just a rock band. Everybody in the band has extremely different musical backgrounds, so when we’re writing songs in a room together, we can try every idea. Every style. Either it rocks or it doesn’t.”
Back in early 2014, when The Dead Deads kicked off their first year of heavy touring, Meta felt the need to shield her bandmates from the harsh realities of a town that doesn’t always reward its oddball musicians. The Dead Deads offered something different — a glorious tangle of fishnets and fretwork, mascara and melody, Gibson solos and Godflesh inspiration. Here she was, about to unleash another band on the Nashville scene, knowing fully well that The Dead Deads might be too much for Music City to handle.
“It’s OK if people don’t like it,” she’d tell the rest of the group. “This stuff is pretty out there.”
By the fourth show, though, Meta changed her tune. People did like The Dead Deads. In fact, they loved them. And now, with a record in the can and more amphitheater shows on the horizon, the girls aren’t making any concessions. They’re Nashville’s own rock & roll super-heroines, and they’ve come to obliterate you. Long live The Dead Deads!