Ten years ago, Zombiefest began as a night of a monster (music) mash. When The Phantom Playboys moved their popular underground Halloween-inspired concert to Satellite in 2017, drummer and festival founder Jimmy Kaylis told encore he wanted to keep this monster music creation full of fun, laughs, and most importantly, original rock n’ roll. It was Kaylis who tapped rockabilly brethren Hillbilly Hellcats to headline this year’s Zombiefest on October 26.
“We had also heard the show mentioned through the grapevine for the last several years,” explains Hellcats frontman and guitarist Chuck Hughes. He’ll be joined by Lance Bakemeyer (upright bass, vocals) and “Mad Dog” Mike Minnick on drums.
The Hillbilly Hellcats are mostly a culmination of Hughes’ love of rockabilly and hits he heard as a kid. He remembers his mom had a bakelite radio she kept tuned in to the local top 40 station. “There were still rockabilly songs on the radio in those days,” he adds. “Then I heard rockabilly again when The Beatles covered Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry and Little Richard.”
He was reintroduced to the genre as a guitar teacher in the ‘80s, when some of his students wanted to learn the “Stray Cat Strut” by the Stray Cats. “I then bought the Stray Cats Albums and the albums from bands they covered—Gene Vincent, Johnny Burnette, Eddie Cochran, etc. I then decided I’d form a rockabilly cover band and do it for a year.”
Fast-forward 10 years and Hillbilly Hellcats was formed.
While they’ll cover anything from Stray Cats and Johnny Burnett to Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, their originals are mostly influenced by Hughes’ personal taste and style. His guitar playing evokes Danny Gatton, Chuck Berry, Brian Setzer and Charlie Christian, and his song lyrics are often tongue-in-cheek, such as in their most most-streamed tune on Spotify, “I Never Thought.”
“I was in a silly mood when I wrote the lyrics,” he divulges, “and in the back of my mind I was thinking I would evoke a little bit of Junior Brown stylistically. The song has self-deprecating humor. Another one we’ll likely [play at Zombiefest] is ‘I Wanna Be a Rockabilly Rebel.’ Once again, lots of tongue-in-cheek. A lot of our songs reflect the dynamics of living in the largely Hippie culture of Colorado, and being outsiders playing rockabilly.”
Zombiefest is the perfect backdrop for their longest song, “The Dark Side,” which Hughes jokes about getting used in a John Waters movie featuring a zombie high-school prom. “I Hate Music” is another tongue-in-cheek tune inspired by Hughes’ early days playing with cover bands on the nightclub/corporate functions/wedding gig scene.
“I regularly am approached by musicians who say my lyrics in that [‘I Hate Music’] really hit the nail on the head,” he tells. “It’s a mish-mash of thoughts and emotions experienced by every musician trying to support themselves commercially with a life in music.”
Hillbilly Hellcats music ranges from traditional ‘50s rockabilly to modern psychobilly, wherein a double-kick pedal drum is required. Of their entire catalog,1994’s “Early Daze” is the most traditional sounding rockabilly album. It features a single-kick pedal drum and led to Taz Bentley being hired as a session drummer for their 1996 and 1998 albums, which have a combination of double-kick pedal and Bentley’s metal and jazz sensibilities. Other Hillbilly Hellcats songs are pure fantasy, such as “Dead Man’s Party,” written and sung by bassist Lance Bakemeyer.
“Lance is one of the top players because of his hard slapping and speed,” Hughes describes. “We regularly meet bassists from successful bands who tell us that Lance was their first and primary influence learning rockabilly bass. Very few bassists can slap as hard and precise as him. Mike Minnick is the rare combination of drummer who knows Americana roots music styles but can also play fast double-kick pedal psychobilly.”
Zombiefest is also a Halloween-time celebration, so folks should dress accordingly if they want a chance to win the costume contest and $200 prize. While the Hillbilly Hellcats plan to dress as rockabillies, they may play a “Monster Mash” cover to keep with the undead holiday spirit.
Hillbilly Hellcats will tour New Zealand tour in January, as well as Eastern Europe in summer 2020. Hughes also is moving the band’s home base from Denver, Colorado, to Flagler Beach, Florida in the coming months, too. So he’s looking forward to playing around the southeast and exploring more genres in surf, blues, jazz, Hawaiian and country swing.
“I’ve been working hard learning pedal-steel guitar the last couple years,” he adds, “and checking out the great players at pedal steel conventions. I’ve also played the Maui Steel Guitar Festival several times in the last few years.”
This doesn’t mean the end is looming for Hillbilly Hellcats, though the band may continue to be resurrected with rotating members and guest players. “It’s just like a Broadway play,” Hughes notes, “where there are understudies who can play the part should a character be sick or missing. Otherwise the show couldn’t go on, and the show must go on.”