"Gonna get me religion, gonna join the Baptist Church/Gonna be the best preacher, so I don't have to work."
—Robert Johnson, speaking through late Gun Club leader Jeffrey Lee Pierce
Guana Batz lead singer Pip Hancox may not turn his collar around, but spreading the gospel of British psychobilly has been profitable enough that he's never had to look for gainful employment.
"It's worked really well. I've always said we've kind of ended up in the right place at the right time," the 37-year-old Hancox says on the phone from his San Diego home. "I started the band the day I left school and I have never really worked."
That's a pretty good statistic for any musician, let alone the lead singer of a British-based band who, though they defined psychobilly's infamously punked-up roots style, aren't all that well known over here, and haven't toured since '96.
Twenty-one years after Hancox founded the Batz with longtime friend and lead guitarist Stuart Osbourne, the foursome have left a string of out-of-print recordings and mythic appearances in their wake. Sparked by psychobilly's reemergence stateside (evidenced by the rise of young bands like Tiger Army, plus the occasional left-field spread in Spin and—no kidding—Vogue), they play Saturday night at the Doll Hut in Anaheim with ex-Stray Cat Lee Rocker as part of an after-NAMM show party.
"With the recent interest over here in psychobilly, we thought we should do a little bit more playing," Hancox says. "And this isn't a tour, we're just playing a couple of gigs."
Part of the reason for that is that the band is scattered. Half the current membership—which also includes bassist Johnny Bowler and drummer John Buck—still live in England. There are no hard feelings on the band's part, however; England's been good to them.
Starting in 1981 as Eddie Cochran acolytes who'd fallen under the spell of original psychobillyists the Meteors, the Batz quickly found their own niche somewhere between poppy American transplants the Stray Cats and the more hardcore Meteors.
"They were a little more hard-edged, and we were a little more goofy," Hancox says. "When I first started playing, I looked like Eddie Cochran and played a Gretsch. And then I saw the Meteors and it was like, 'I'm going to dye my hair green and get a bunch of tattoos now.'"
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The Batz appeal isn't just window dressing. Fueled by Osbourne's frenetic guitar playing—putting him easily on a par with Brian Setzer—and a true love for good rock & roll, the band has covered everyone from '50s rockabilly cat Johnny Carroll to Elvis Costello to, perhaps most notably, Bruce Springsteen, with an eerie, menacing rendition of his "I'm on Fire."
"The first couple of times we did that, people were like, 'What is that?' But we put it on a single, and it did well," Hancox remembers.
Sounds like something of a metaphor for the Guana Batz's career.
The Guana Batz perform with Lee Rocker and the Road Kings featuring Jesse Dayton at the Doll Hut, 107 S. Adams Ave., Anaheim, (714) 533-1286. Sat., 7 p.m. $10. 21+.