Posted On 12 Apr 2018
Meet the Chicago-based group called The Claudettes. Their March 23ed release on Yellow Dog Records Dance Scandal At The Gymnasium was produced by Grammy winner Mark Neill (Black Keys). Band leader / keyboardist Johnny Iguana has recorded with Junior Wells, Buddy Guy and a host of other blues giants along with his own punk-organ band oh my god.
Their sound is unique — jazzy, indie, hooky and there are three vocalists. The Chicago Tribune’s longtime critic Greg Kot has called them “A revelatory blend of jazz and blues, stirred with punk brio.” The Philadelphia Weekly said of their last album that “they attack the blues with the ferocity of punk rock.”
Johnny Iguana airs grievances about the numbing and divisive effects of an Internet-dominated world all across these songs. “Nobody knows how to talk to each other these days,” begins the song “Give It All Up for Good,” while “Bill Played Saxophone” follows American political nemeses through periods of smoldering bitterness and revenge fantasies. “Death and Traffic” begs for stories of saved lives and heroism amidst the onslaught of bad news, then “Utterly Absurd” bemoans the age of the hair-trigger Google search: “Thought dies as transmission rise…‘fast and now’ killed ‘I know how.’” And need anything more be said about the prescience of “Naked on the Internet”?
Neill invited the Claudettes to his Georgia studio after being introduced to the band by Dave Cobb (Grammy-winning producer of Sturgill Simpson and Lake Street Dive). The Claudettes recorded at Soil of the South for ten days, taking advantage of Neill’s vast knowledge and collection of vintage equipment.
The piano-guitar-drums core of each song was recorded in a single take, as were most vocals. Neill, who shuns the practice of building tracks in Pro Tools, had the band run through songs again and again until “THE” take arrived. Marxophones, mellotrons, rare fuzz pedals and an array of percussion instruments were broken out to finalize Neill’s vision for each track.
Learn more about The Claudettes in the following All Access interview:
How has being from Chicago influenced this band and the kind of music that you make today?
I moved to Chicago after getting hired to play piano for one of my idols, Junior Wells. The grit and soul of Chicago blues, together with the punk I grew up loving, helped forge the Claudettes sound. This is a great city in which to situate yourself as a band, too. It’s a thriving music city. Bands break big out of here that I’ve never even heard of. Lots going on.
Let’s talk about your recent album “Dance Scandal At The Gymnasium.” What was it like putting this collection together? Did anything surprise you about the overall process? What was it like working with your producer, Black Keys producer, Mark Neill? How did that collaboration come to be?
Mark sent me an email out of the blue, which was quite cosmic, as we were looking for a producer for our next album. Making the record presented some challenges, as Mark does things his way, but he was very sensitive to the songs and the lyrics, and did his best to set the right mood for each take, right down to the lighting and the records he wanted us to listen to before we started playing and singing. Recording always has some stresses, because you’re on the clock–and we were down in Georgia with him in new territory and had x number of days to get it done. I’m really psyched about the results. There’s a vintage element to this music, and he made a record that screams “’60s.”
How did the making of this album compare to your previous collections? Did you go about the process any differently?
This was our first album with the four-piece band that’s been touring. Previously, our records were mostly instrumental; now we’ve got three singers in the band. This was an entirely vocal-song album. So the arrangements and dynamics and EQ of the instruments all had to allow for that.
I know it’s difficult to pick but can you pick out a few of your favorite songs from this albums and talk about how they were written? How do you all generally go about writing your music?
“Death and Traffic” was written with the heaviest heart, hearing all the violence and death on the radio every day, and starving for stories about heroes and people being saved, not lost. Berit did a beautiful vocal take of that one. “Don’t Stay with Me” and “Give It All Up for Good” originated with piano riffs I wrote that I really liked, whereas “Pull Closer to Me,” “Naked on the Internet” and “Total Misfit” came from lyrics I’d written in my notebook. I like mixing it up that way.
Why do you think that Yellow Dog Records is the right place for this group’s music right now?
Mike Powers, the founder and captain of Yellow Dog, has the same philosophy as me: “Make music that’s honest, say what you want to say with the music and the lyrics–don’t write to carefully be a certain genre…don’t carefully stay within a box.” Now, that’s a dangerous way to go, ’cause you’re SUPPOSED to limit yourself that way–it makes it much easier to market and sell. But Mike/Yellow Dog and I can only go about this one way: make music that’s human, real, emotional, expressive and as weird as you really are…and then: work as hard as you can to get the music heard (play lots of shows, do your very best to promote the record…). Also, Yellow Dog prizes American roots music, and the Claudettes’ music is full of it: blues, jazz, soul and what they call “punkabilly,” too…
Johnny, I am curious to know how all of your different recording experiences has helped shape the kind of musician that you are today?
I’ve had so many countless recording experiences, starting with my own four-track experiments in high school to all the blues sessions I’ve been a part of to my albums with my bands oh my god, Them vs. Them, Software Giant and the Claudettes. I just keep learning how to be better at writing songs and how to arrange them to best make an impact. It’s the gift of music; I don’t know how people get through life without that kind of renewal that I feel every year.
How excited are you guys to get on the road this month? Have you played at these venues before? Where are you most excited to play at?
I like coming home from tour, and I like leaving out on tour. All that change is good. It’ll be good to warm up with these first shows and then to come back to Chicago for our big release show on April 27. Also, I lived in Philly and NYC before Chicago, and my folks live in Boston, so those are cities I’m excited to go to with the band. We have lots of new songs to play on this tour, too…five new ones written in the past couple months.
Where do you think you are all happiest- in the studio recording new music, on stage performing or elsewhere? Do you have any upcoming touring dates scheduled?
Personally, I’m happiest in my house at the moment that I’ve written a new song–when it’s time to make a demo of it, and then hear that demo take shape. There’s a new song now that didn’t exist just hours ago. That’s more of a high for me than any live show or studio recording. When Berit comes over and puts that beautiful voice down on my demos–that’s when the song is really born. As for the tour dates: http://theclaudettes.com/shows/
How do you think being a musician and in this band gives you all the most joy in life today? With everything going on in the world today, how do you think your music is a reflection of these times?
Getting to combine travel with music I’ve written makes me as happy as I can be. I get to travel a lot playing piano for others, but all I want to do is travel with the Claudettes. The lyrics in our songs speak plainly, I think–there are knocks on the Internet Age in there, there’s hope for more heroes and and fewer funerals, there are some healthy doses of hormones in some of the songs…all good, human stuff
Who are you all listening to these days? What artists have continued to inspire you and your music? Who would you absolutely love to work with in the future?
I want to work with Nick Launay. I love the Nick Cave albums and how the piano sounds in ’em, too. I got the new record by Palm–I just cannot count that stuff, but it’s “math rock” with a heart and soul, and lots of melody. My band-mates are always turning me on to new stuff…we’ll have long listening bouts in the van starting Wednesday.
What advice would you give to a young band just getting started today?
Sometimes it’s “get outta this racket!” Sometimes it’s “Play tons of shows and take lots of chances.” Sometimes it’s “Record your practices and your shows…the tapes don’t lie. That’s what you sound like. Improve as necessary.” Depends on my mood, which sure does swing–look out, Benny Goodman!
Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers about yourselves or your music?
These are the albums of the Claudettes: https://theclaudettes.bandcamp.com/ . There’s a whole lot going on there. Please listen and come see us live. I’m always stressing to my bandmates: don’t worry about mistakes, just put your whole heart and soul into what you’re doing up there. That’s why our live shows move people, and they do.