Part hazy, shimmering hippie death goddess, part snarling, shin-kicking Bad News Bear, Mariam Saleh is one of Boston rock’s most compelling and alluring figures. She is probably most well-known for the jangly thrift-store explosion that is the Fat Creeps, the psyche-pop duo she formed with Gracie Jackson, but more recently she’s been concentrating on Bong Wish, an all-girl barefoot lysergic boogie-raga blowout with flutes, violins, and teenage runaways in denim jumpsuits. There has literally been nothing like Bong Wish since Charlie closed shop at the Spahn Ranch in 1970. Despite being forty years removed from the sights, sounds and smells of the late ’60s desert-baked love/sex/death communes, they channel that particular freak vibe with eerie precision. Bong Wish is flower children hiding knives behind their backs, and Mariam Saleh is their fearless, steel-eyed, breathlessly beautiful young leader. It’s heavy, man.
But before we get to wishing upon a bong, let’s talk Creeps. It is, after all, where the story begins.
“The Fat Creeps was the first musical thing I ever did,” says Saleh. “I didn’t know how to play an instrument before I did the Fat Creeps. I started the band before I learned how to play. When we started, I was playing a tom drum and a guitar, and Gracie was playing a guitar, and we were both yelping, basically. I didn’t even know how to tune a guitar, but I kept writing all these songs. Gracie was really musically inclined, so she would basically just go with it, and that developed the sound. It really meshed well because she knew what she was doing and allowed me to not know what I was doing. It worked, it created this vibe that became the Fat Creeps.”
Despite their inexperience and one of the worst band names since Dracula Milk Toast, the duo’s quirky, groovy, broken-pop sounds eventually caught on. They released records (well, tapes mostly), toured, and created some alarmingly fucked-up videos. Things went pretty well, as far as first bands go. After building up a nice head of steam, the Fat Creeps had their most triumphant gig at last year’s weekend-long psychedelic freakout, the Fuzztival. It was also their last. So far, at least.
“People talk about that show a lot. I think people just picked up on how intense the set was. Because we both knew it was our last, but nobody else did. So we went all-out. We went full-tilt boogie.”
That they did. Amidst all the swirling light projectors, the two young friends weaved a musical tapestry that zigged and zagged through so many sub-genres, it was impossible to keep up. I think they invented “death surf’” that night. I mean, it was crazy. So why stop there?
“I wouldn’t say we’re finished for life,” explains Mariam, “But we are currently pursuing our own paths as individuals. We’re doing our own thing. I just think it kinda lost a certain feeling towards the end, and we both felt it. I think we both needed to do something else. I took a big break from music and she went right into starting a new band, Gracie. And they’re doing great.”
Mariam has not closed the door on Fat Creeps, and there may be a reunion/resurrection of some kind in the near-future. But at the time, she was finished. And after a five-month sabbatical – and let’s face it, a ton of weed – a new vision emerged. “I remember just being really stoned one day, and I thought of a really great band name, Bong Wish. It was the combination of a bong rip and a deathwish. It kinda fits the vibe. I mean, we have dark elements to us. I don’t wish for death or anything, but I think it’s an interesting play on words.”
With the name in place, it was time to write some songs. “I knew what I wanted in terms of music, and I knew what kind of vibe I wanted to bring to the table, and it just expanded from there. I was really into ’60s/’70s guitars. I was listening to a lot of The Byrds, a lot of Neil Young, a lot of Beatles, and just a lot of random one-hitters that I’ve heard over the years. I just went on from there. A lot of my words for Bong Wish songs are kinda earthy, kinda lovey. It really stems from being kind of a hippie.”
There is ample evidence that Saleh is, indeed, kind of a hippie. She’s got a pet rabbit. She brings her own mason jar full of tea to the coffeeshop. But Bong Wish isn’t all glowing afternoon light and flip-flops in golden fields. There’s a creeping menace in the music that belies the surface congeniality of the songs. Mariam Saleh is a hippie chick, sure. But she’s a hippie chick who knows how to throw a punch.
“I didn’t really go to school,” Saleh explains. “I didn’t go to high school, so I just partied a lot. I went to high school for a year, and then I got kicked out. I was getting into too many fights. I was just an idiot, really. I’d go into school and be like, ‘I don’t need to be here! You’re not teaching me anything!’ I got kicked out of there and I was put in this place called the ‘Blood Building.’ It’s where total fuck-ups go. I got kicked out of there, too. I had a lot of anger issues. So, I dunno. I was kind of a dick, and then eventually I discovered music.”
Like many once-wayward misfits, Saleh found music to be the salve she had always been searching for.
“Music definitely saved my life,” she says. “It made me a more peaceful person. There was a point when I was writing a lot of angry music and it helped, but now I’m at a point where I can just write without feeling compelled to get anything out. That’s the difference with Bong Wish, I think. I feel a lot more balanced now.”
With a clutch of songs finished, Saleh sought out like-minded souls/groovy stoner chicks to complete the vision. She found so many, she can’t even fit them all on stage at once.
“We have people jump in and out,” she says. “Like at this point I know so many great woman musicians, it’s just kinda ridiculous. So I just throw it out there, like, ‘Hey, you wanna play with us at this show?’ And they do or they don’t, you know? But there’s always four of us. There’s me, Anna Karina on bass, Molly on flute, and Kristina on drums. So it’s usually us four, and then we’ll have someone play violin, or come sing with us, whatever. It’s all over the place.”
Bong Wish, you see, is not just a band. It’s a collective.
“For sure. I’d eventually like to have 40 people on stage.”
A Bong Wish show is less of standard rock gig than it is an audio-visual experience. Somewhere between the GTOs and The Runaways, it’s a riot of peasant shirts and witch hats, smoke and gloopy light shows, breezy flutes and distorted acid-rock guitars, with Saleh as the grand ringmaster, like Frank Zappa, Kim Fowley and Joan Jett all wrapped up in one tiny, pleasantly stoned package.
“If you’re gonna put on a show, do it head to toe, inside and out,” she says. “I don’t want a Bong Wish show to be like seeing some people wearing rock band T-shirts playing in someone’s basement. I want there to be a theatrical vibe to it, I want to add artistic elements. I really just want to go crazy with it, just go all out.”
And she has big plans, too. More instruments. Bigger light shows. Wilder outfits.
“Yeah, eventually we’ll have some ridiculous costumes. Some kinda Mothers of Invention kind of craziness, for sure.”
Currently, the only way to experience Bong Wish is to see them live, but the band is currently in the studio working on their first album.
“What we’re going to do first is get three demos together and send them out to the world, because we don’t have anything out there yet. And then we’ll finish the record. I think I’m gonna throw a bunch of people in there and add some stuff. There’s definitely going to be some violin, some piano, I’m gonna go crazy.”
If ever there was an album begging for a gatefold sleeve full of forgotten stems and seeds, it’s Bong Wish. In the meantime, put on your finest ceremonial robes and catch a show. There is a distinct possibility that you’ll end up as part of a hippie cult, but it’ll be the good kind, with chicks and drugs and flutes. I think.
“Maybe we were all born at the wrong time,” laughs Saleh. “Everyone in the band has that vibe, like we’re all old souls, or something. But it works. We’re all pie-in-the-sky types, but in a very loving, very peaceful way.”
Well, okay. But that’s how the Manson Family started, too.