If Screamin' Jay Hawkins teamed up with a brothel band to play the after-hours club where all the last-call lonely gathered, the result might be a little like Gunwife Gone. But when Rachel Anne Warren's job relocated her to Boston in 2008, she wasn't sure what was going to happen to the band she co-founded with pianist/vocalist Lauren Aycock Anderson just a few years earlier.
Warren and Anderson met in 2004, when both were working on a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show produced by the Actor's Theatre of Washington in D.C. (The LGBT theater company became Ganymede Arts in 2007 but closed in 2011.) Warren played Magenta, Anderson was the stage manager; neither had ever been in a band. But Anderson mentioned she had a piano melody she had been playing around with, and Warren said she had these words she had written, so they grabbed a bottle of wine and decamped to Anderson's Silver Spring apartment and wrote Gunwife Gone's first song, "I'm Not There Yet."
The evening set the template for their writing relationship. Warren writes words and the occasional piano part; Anderson writes piano parts and the occasional lyric, and they trust each other with their ideas enough to allow the other to rearrange them to find what they're looking for. As the band grew, new members brought new sensibilities and understandings to the sound, enriching the group's overall mood. Both Anderson and Warren credit the group's first bassist, Josh Cocoros, with helping them organize the whole "band" thing. He helped them arrange and rearrange songs, taking ideas and fleshing them out into songs.
What started simply as a songwriting duo with percussion-provided at first by beat-boxer Shodekeh-had grown into one of the city's more engagingly entertaining live bands. Gunwife was a rock-oriented combo, fronted by two women who wrote on the piano. They were eventually backed by a rhythm section, drummer Ryan Rodriguez and bassist Dave Polimene, adept with anything from smoky jazz vamps to dark ballads to 1950s-swinging rock 'n' roll. Where a conventional rock group might revolve around the guitar, Tiffany Defoe's saxophone came in as the rhythmic accompaniment and the occasional solo. The classically trained Anderson's piano provided the main melodic thread to songs. Warren sings with the robust verve usually found in show tunes or soul songs. The songs themselves-"Everything Is Heavy," "We'll Never Fuck," "Backwards Forwards," "Cannibalistic Surgery"-could be a little, well, dark. And, oh yeah, Warren has a penchant for wigs and costumes, and often talks her bandmates into joining her in such pageantry.
But work took Warren to Boston. And life took Anderson to Denver. They planned a Halloween-related show in Baltimore for 2009, what has become an annual All Sinner's Night show, with hopes of keeping something together because, as Warren says, "we didn't want it to die because we loved it too much." They recorded an album in a DIY studio Polimene set up at his house, but Warren wasn't happy with her vocals. And the Anderson-Warren songwriting partnership wasn't happening as organically as it used to. It's hard to keep any momentum going when one is in Boston, the other in Denver, and everybody else in Baltimore.
Warren and Anderson both played in other bands while they were away but neither of them felt the same energy as they did with each other. "I remember sitting in my apartment and thinking, This is what happens-you grow up and stop doing that stuff," Warren says during an interview at her apartment, sitting at a table in her living room next to Anderson.
Her job moved her back to Baltimore in 2010; Anderson and her husband returned to Baltimore about a year ago.
"The guy I was dating at the time didn't even know that I did costumes," Warren says, recalling feeling like a creative outlet in her life had evaporated. "I didn't break out the sewing machine anymore and didn't really do much of anything creative, and I just had to resign myself and accept it. And when I was relocated back to Baltimore, I thought, What do I do now? I guess I'm too old. But within two months, it all came flooding back."
Now Warren and Anderson have been working on new material and getting Gunwife Gone back into the proverbial swing of things. The band played All Sinner's Night at the Ottobar last weekend, and this weekend it's one of seven bands playing the Anti-Death Fest, a fundraiser for the John and Amy Mewhiney Cancer Foundation, which raises money for lung cancer research. Cocoros and Rodriguez, who also play in the straight-ahead punk trio the Deckards, got Gunwife Gone into the Anti-Death Fest. Deckards bassist Paul Przyborski is married to Kate Mewhiney, the daughter of the late John Mewhiney, after whom Kate's mom named the cancer foundation. Mewhiney says the fest was her husband's idea, since their friends and peers-people in their late 20's and early 30's-aren't typically in the financial position to attend and contribute to the more formal fundraisers the foundation sponsors. This first Anti-Death Fest is a more accessible way to get young people involved in lung cancer awareness.
Warren and Anderson hope that the All-Sinner's Night and Anti-Death Fest shows are just the first couple of many they'll play with the band in the coming year. But there is still something in the group's DNA that hearkens back to the relationship between the two of them. "We get each other musically, but I think it's also that we like what the other one does," she adds.
Warren agrees. "I'm very visual and I feel like I describe things in a confusing way, but to me, it's perfectly clear," she says. "But [Anderson] seems to see what I'm seeing. Maybe we don't understand each other's nuances, but it seems like [she] can hear what I'm saying and interpret it for me."
They're aiming to get Gunwife Gone back into a more consistent unit in 2014, maybe even re-release their album with new vocals and work up a new body of songs. They feel like the band is starting to find its voice-even if they don't always agree.
Listening to Anderson and Warren talk about how they work, you hear two people who musically understand each other even though they're coming from different places. Warren jokes that while there are some artists they both appreciate, they don't really have the same tastes.
When asked for an example, Anderson immediately responds, "Tegan and Sara," and then laughs. "I don't like Tegan and Sara. I think they're whiny. And I listen to all this proggy metal that I'm sure [Warren] doesn't like."
This diversity of interests is part of the charm of Gunwife Gone, which, reunited, is brimming with new energy, as evidenced by the bowl of sparkly bits on Warren's living room table. She explains that she's working on her costume for the upcoming All Sinner's Night show. Warren explains that they're dressing in traditional kids' Halloween costumes-she's going to be a pumpkin-when Anderson lights up. "I just had a thought that we should dress as traditional punk rock as we can," Anderson says, since the Anti-Death Fest is taking place at the Sidebar. Warren looks unconvinced at first.
Anderson mentions "giant mohawks," which gets Warren's brain working. "As long as we go over the top," Warren says. "I'm always pushing for, if you're going to go, go big."
"Homemade T-shirts that say 'GWG,'" Anderson adds.
"OK," Warren says, sounding more convinced.
And then Anderson pushes it off the edge and adds the deadpan cherry on top: "We'll all shave our heads."
Anti-Death Fest takes place at the Sidebar Nov. 9 with Voodoo Pharmacology, Gunwife Gone (possibly with shaved heads), Thee Lexington Arrows (featuring CP contributor Alex Fine), Dead Mechanical, the Stents, the Mandroids, and the Deckards. For more information, visit mewhiney.org/anti-death-fest.