Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. For Milwaukee garage-surf outfit Devils Teeth, our current extraordinary times have called for—what else?—releasing a self-recorded “spaghetti western garage rock operetta inspired by the character Chong Li from the martial arts film Bloodsport.” You know. The one with Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Not that La Leggenda Di Chong Li—out April 2—is entirely a product of binge-watching ’80s action flicks during quarantine. A “Chong Li” demo has been kicking around the Devils Teeth repertoire since 2016, and work on the subsequent 7-track EP dates back to at least 2019. But what a perfect time to release the finished product: Opening with the exotica-tinged scene-setter “She Speaks To Coyotes,” barreling into the over-the-top “Chong Li” and “Ride Of The Devils Teeth,” and culminating in the cliffhanging “Shadows Of Chong Li,” the record plays like a fever-dream version of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack crossed with Ennio Morricone. To hear the band bellow “Chong Li! Chong Li! He’s coming for you!” once is to have it stuck in your head for days.
Milwaukee Record chatted with Devils Teeth (singer-guitarist Jon Hanusa, bassist Eric Arsnow, drummer Chuck Engel, and saxophonist Caleb Westphal) about their unlikely ode to Bloodsport, as well as playing in a band during COVID, crafting concept-album “mini-narratives,” and possibly returning to “balls to the wall rock ‘n’ roll.”
Milwaukee Record: Obvious questions: Why Chong Li? Why Bloodsport? You recorded a “Chong Li” demo back in 2016. What made you revisit the idea?
Jon Hanusa: Yeah, “Chong Li” was one of our first songs as a band. Why it’s called “Chong Li” was really more of a timing thing. I had a demo of the riff, I had just recently watched Bloodsport (for like the 200th time), I was listening to the demo in the car, and the idea of chanting “Chong Li” just popped in. That was about it. With that, Eric had turned me on to a great spaghetti-western comp series called The Ecstasy Of Gold. There’s a lot of over the top/grandiose vocals in there that helped inspire this, and ultimately the rest of the songs for the album.
It was originally intended as just our one-off spaghetti-western tune for the set list, but after Eric came up with another riff, we decided to make a sequel song to go with the original. After that, doing a trilogy just kind of happened naturally (again with another Eric riff). Soon after the idea of a concept album took form.
Once we knew we were heading in that direction, we sort of internally made our own ridiculous Chong Li fan fiction storyline. We officially call this a spaghetti-western garage rock operetta. Who knows, maybe we’ll create an avant-garde theater performance for it someday.
MR: The last time we heard from you was way back in April 2020, near the beginning of the pandemic, when you released a remotely recorded song called “Drop Down Gator.” How did the recording of this album differ from that?
Eric Arsnow: “Drop Down Gator” was first and foremost just a cathartic way for us to feel like we were still a band during the outset of COVID. It was a letdown going from seeing each other every week to very little at all. Chong Li was still happening during that whole process, we just were treating it differently because of the soundtrack-like nature. There was a lot more thought and intention behind the choices we were making. “Drop Down” was definitely more of a loose, carefree process and we definitely hope to tap into that for the next record. It definitely helps balance out all the time we invested with Chong and keeps the creativity moving.
MR: This record is clearly made to be listened to in one sitting, and you even call it a “rock operetta.” What appeals to you about a self-contained “narrative” record, especially in the era of singles?
EA: I don’t think we intended it to snowball the way it did. We’re all a form of story teller by trade as writers and video production folks, so from time to time we do approach things with a prompt in mind, typically stemming from a joke we started at practice or borrowing from some of the films we love.
JH: To go with Eric’s thought, yeah, not sure we intended to do something like this, and in this day and age who knows if people listen to music that way anymore. We’re really just going with the flow and doing whatever is fun to us.
With that, I always gravitated toward mini-narratives for all of our songs. I feel it helps the songwriting process to establish a “scene” or action. It gives us places to go in the song as we write. I certainly don’t think the listeners care what the “story” is, but the hope is it provokes some sort of visual idea in their mind.
Chuck Engel: Narrative aside, making a record like this has been a bucket-list item for me. Twenty years ago I was already obsessed with The Who when I stumbled upon a nine-song EP by The Mushuganas from Chicago that also had a fluid track-to-track feel. Basically I’ve always wanted to do this, but it took me this long to find a group crazy enough to actually follow through. Also, even in “the era of singles,” I remain a fan of complete albums. I’m more interested in what an artist or band has to offer in a collection of material vs. a single tune. It’s just how I listen to music.
MR: This record moves your previous surf-punk sound in a spaghetti western direction. Where to next?
EA: We have an eraser board in Jon’s basement where we practiced as of late. He recently updated it with all of our songs and there’s no shortage of ideas and themes we want to try out. In lieu of the Chong Li EP, we had another full record’s worth of songs written and ready to record before COVID hit. We tend to bend with whatever we find interesting or funny, and rarely want to make the same sounding record twice. There’s also a lot of songs that start out as jams we workshop over and over. “Ride Of The Devils Teeth” definitely started that way until we got it to a place where we felt like it became a completed idea.
JH: If I were to make a prediction, the next one is probably going to be more balls to the wall rock ‘n’ roll. There’s plenty of material done or almost done. Post-Chong songwriting, we’ve definitely been playing back into the Back To The Grave/’60s garage world with a bunch of catchy stuff.
After that I’m going to push for the ’70s kung fu/funk album inspired by things like West Side Story and 1990: The Bronx Warriors. I don’t know. We’ll see how far we can push things.
Caleb Westphal: During the time La Leggenda Di Chong Li was being recorded, we prepared almost enough new songs for another album—this one fitting more into the classic garage punk mold. Once everything locked down, we decided to take one of those newer songs, “Drop Down Gator,” and record it on its own and pair it with a music video. The rest of the songs are suspended in time, but at some point—hopefully soon—we’ll get reacquainted with them and they will form the basis of the next album. After that, as Jon says, we’ll likely tackle another genre or concept for the following album. It’s as if Devils Teeth must return to the well of rock and roll for replenishment, but after doing so ventures off into unknown sonic territory to see what it can find and create.
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