I’ve just walked into a stranger’s home in a rough Dallas neighborhood. There are bars on the windows, records on the shelves, and I'm sitting in the dining room under a sign that says Happy Fucking Birthday. I'm here to see the birthday girl, Aurora DeWilde, rehearse with her band Classic Cult. I position myself in front of a window AC unit trying to combat the sweltering summer heat that’s engulfing the home. Aurora shares vegan cupcakes with her band while opening her birthday gifts: a tuner and some homemade collages featuring inspirational female rockers. After the gift giving is finished and the “Happy Birthdays” are said, the group has some birthday champagne and starts setting up the living room for rehearsal.
Hearing the crackling of speakers as cables are being plugged in and the annoying twang of strings finding the right pitch starts to raise my anxiety. Aurora knows random facts about pedal circuitry and which guitars and amps give her the sound she needs, but Classic Cult hasn’t played a show and has nothing recorded. I have no idea what they sound like, and my mind is making a lot of assumptions. I try my best to carry on a casual conversation with the stranger next to me, but out of the corner of my eye I'm watching Aurora set up her gear wondering if she has a great sound or if I’m about to sit through a painful thirty minutes of polite smiling. Before I know it, the band is playing their first song.
Aurora’s guitar is raw, loud, distorted, and sopping wet with reverb. She’s playing an onslaught of slow and steady lead riffs - the first of which trails each time with a gradual lean on her Bigsby that moves my butt to the edge of my seat. Immediately I wish I could exchange my air-conditioned seat for a sweaty one across the room to get a closer look at her fingers. Far from a flashy player, Aurora’s style seems to step into the spotlight for a few seconds, but knows when to step back into the song and let the lyrics come into focus. Some of her verses use reverb-covered cleans with some rockabilly slap-back delay, but others use thick layers of distortion to sink into trench-like grooves of rhythm alongside the bass. The whole rehearsal is a mix of rock 'n' roll chords, catchy lead riffs, and the occasional solo. The overall tone is aggressive and meant to keep the momentum charging ahead. But as the rehearsal is winding down, the band shows me a side with less aggression and the tempo slows. Aurora’s guitar is still clean and covered in reverb, but the strumming is lighter and the chords resonate longer.
Overall the songs are rooted in a formulaic rock 'n' roll structure, but the chorus sneaks up on you like a killer in a horror flick, managing to creep up on you with an all-out attack. Aurora’s aggressive fuzzed-out progressions have me contemplating whether the audience will be dancing, punching someone in the face, or some weird mixture of both. Needless to say, as the rehearsal finished, I had many questions for Aurora.
As Aurora and I talk, it's clear where some of her angst and rough edges come from. Like many of us, her interest in guitar piqued when using it as a tool to attract a member of the opposite sex. A boy, who remains nameless, fueled an attention-seeking fire that put Aurora on a path to guitar. Aurora's mother however, despised guitar and wanted her to continue playing violin and also pursue a nursing career. As a result, when guitars were brought into the home, her mother would break them and throw them out. Luckily Aurora's father loved the guitar and would keep her well stocked by buying more and letting Aurora sneak them into the home.
Her early guitar playing focused on learning 60's singer/songwriter material, but she remained in a constant state of self-doubt because the other players - specifically boys - were better than her. She was consumed with insecurities and would go months at a time without playing.
While she was self-taught in her early years, the freedom of a car allowed her to take classical guitar lessons for a few semesters, but that style didn't really stick either. Shortly after moving to Dallas, she got a job teaching lessons and met some new mentors who helped her reach her current state of not giving a damn. No more giving a shit if the boys are better, no more giving a shit if they even take notice. Her playing and her sound are her own.
She made it very clear to me that her only concern now is to play the guitar as much as possible; she wants to learn anything and everything she can about how to play it better. She said around age 25 she "stopped being Neil Young and started wanting to be David Gilmour." She’s obsessively driven to be a better musician by learning the details of theory, the subtleties of how pedals work, and how she can mix and match different gear to get the sound she needs. Aurora explains some of this gear and musical obsession in a Q&A:
(All answers written directly by artist)
Before we talk about your gear, describe your playing style and your sound.
My style in this band is straight up rock 'n' roll. Lots of power chords but room for cool riffs and solos.
What are some of your practice habits?
I teach guitar 20hrs a week, practice with 2 bands a total of 6-12+ hours a week, and practice on my own from 1-4 hours a day. There's practicing and then there's playing. When I practice by myself I'm normally learning theory and applying it to my guitar and then try to learn a new song.
What is your current guitar and amp setup?
Gretsch Electromatic G5435T Pro Jet and 212 Fender DeVille Amp.
How did you decide the Gretsch was the right guitar?
I was playing my Tele at first and it wasn't giving me the bite I wanted since there is only one guitarist in the band. Not being as strong as most people, I needed a guitar that was lightweight. I used to have a strat made out of swamp ash that was so heavy my back and shoulder would hurt after each show. The Gretsch has 2 Black Top Filter'Tron pickups that are very impressive. To my ears they fill a niche between Fenders and Gibsons, heavier and darker than Fender single-coils yet lighter and brighter than Gibson humbuckers. The Gretsch's chambered basswood body is lightweight and has a warm sound. As soon as I played it I knew it was the sound I wanted for this project.
Why do you like the DeVille?
I bought the DeVille when I was 19 because my friend said that's what they used on all the late night shows. I just wanted the best gear and didn't know really what I was getting. Now I know exactly what I have and I love it except it's super heavy to lift and you cant really turn the volume knob past 2. My favorite feature is the versatility of the tone, from all different eras of classic rock and blues. You can also get a cool Dick Dale sound from the reverb. I've also never had to change a tube in the past 10ish years I've owned it, they are beasts.
Can you run me through your pedals and their signal flow?
Boss Chromatic Tuner, ZVex Distortron, Walrus Audio Jupiter Fuzz, Electro Harmonix POG 2, Mooer Hustle Drive Distortion, Moog MF Delay, and Fulltone Supa-Trem.
I know you like to interchange some pedals. Which ones are they, and why do you switch them out?
My Ds-1, Fulltone Full-drive 3, and Box of Rock. I bought the BOR even though my friend told me not to and to get the Distortron instead. Now I have both and kicked myself in the ass for it because the Distortron is what I needed even though the BOR comes in handy because you can step on the boost and distortion at the same time. My Mooer distortion is based off the Fulltone OCD and the OCD is based off the Fulltone Full-drive. It also has a boost if I need it but the Mooer has more bite and takes up less space on my board. If I want a thinner, grungier distortion, the Ds-1 is my go to. Nothing else sounds like it and it's perfect for 90's grunge.
If you can only use one pedal while you're playing in Classic Cult, which one is it?
My Delay! If I turn the mix knob up on my Moog Delay you get a really cool am radio sound and it has a drive on it I can use the overdrive pedal for my amp (That one doesn't count) and use my delay to get that rockabilly sound I use for most of the songs or just use my drive on the pedal. The rest would sound great playing clean or just using overdrive.
What's the story behind the label on your DS-1?
I was talking to a Dallas-based band and the guitarist had a DS-1 that he wrote "Heavy, Man" on for when he needed more rock. I loved that he did that and it inspired me to make a label that said "Rock Pedal" to put on mine to get some laughs or to spark conversation.
Aurora and Classic Cult are unknown underdogs waiting to prove themselves in a competitive Dallas music scene. Their first attempt to do so will be Thursday, August 27th at Club Dada when they will be sandwiched in a lineup between Ronnie Heart and Zhora. You can make assumptions about Aurora and her band based on this article, or you can head down to the show and find out first-hand what it's all about. I recommend the latter.