The Cobra Lilies are a Weird Folk singing and dancing supergroup formed from the ranks of some of Los Angeles’ most celebrated underground rock and folk bands. Lead by Eli and Mary Chartkoff (The Monolators), other Lilies include Ashley Jex (The Monolators), Pauline Lay (Divisadero), Andrew Duncan (Cat Hair Ensemble), Arlene Siordia (Smells Like Flan, Dorian Wood), Ema Tuennerman (Ema And The Ghosts), and Ken Ramos (Shiloe).
Many years ago, before he co-founded The Monolators with wife Mary Chartkoff, and years before he ever met Mary, for that matter, Eli Chartkoff got himself an interesting summer job: playing banjo for a regional Shakespeare company’s production of “As You Like It,” set, for reasons that were somewhat unclear, in the hobo camps of the American Great Depression. Without actually having any experience (or skill, for that matter) on the banjo, Eli found himself frantically strumming old Woody Guthrie tunes in front of audiences of 1,200-plus high school students. After this slightly traumatic experience he tucked the banjo neatly away in his closet and moved on to other things.
Fast-forward to 2007: after hearing a radio expose on the autoharp, an obscure pushbutton folk instrument, drummer and saxophonist Mary Chartkoff decided to find one and learn how to play June Carter Cash’s “Ring Of Fire,” prompting Eli to dust off his neglected banjo and relearn his folk repertoire. A new, acoustic-based band was in order, and so in the summer of 2007 Mary and Eli began performing at Mr. T’s Bowl in Highland Park and The Scene in Glendale as The Cobra Lilies, named in honor of the native carnivorous pitcher plant Darlingtonia californica, whose graceful leaves strikingly resemble a rearing king cobra.
Not content with playing the classics, Eli and Mary composed their own songs in the folk spirit, but with a dash of the Monolators’ punk grit thrown in: “Cop Car,” a driving minor-key anthem about a man who dreams of impressing his date by escorting her in a police car and letting her play the siren; “She Won’t Come Back,” a soda-shop ballad of a desperate man pining for his absent lover, a mermaid; and “There’s Always Love,” a bouncy hymn of infidelity, betrayal, and redemption.
Informal jams with like-minded friends in the Weird Folk and indie scenes lead to permanent additions to the Cobra Lilies’ ranks, and from a duo they quickly expanded to a trio, and then a quintet, and on and on with no apparent end in sight. Currently with twelve members, The Cobra Lilies are not so much a band as a dancing and singing ensemble, with group harmony vocals, jazz trumpet, a string section, accordion, ukulele, bass, and, instead of drums, tap dancing and Dutch clogging. Among the roster are singer and vocal arranger Arlene Siordia (Smells Like Flan), bassist Ashley Jex (The Monolators), accordionist Ema Tuennerman (Ema And The Ghosts), trumpet player Andrew Duncan (Cat Hair Ensemble), violinst Pauline Lay (Divisadero), guitarist Ken Ramos (Shiloe), vocalist and percussion Jade Dennis, tap dancer Alissa Newton and mime/dancer Alex Argote.
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