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Producer-led experiment pays off for The Claudettes

By bringing together all of his primary music influences in The Claudettes, Johnny Iguana jokingly admits that once again he’s “managed to fall between the cracks.”

There’s blues and jazz in his band’s music, he explains, yet there’s a punky spirit to it. And at the center is Iguana’s piano, not a guitar, so that might explain why Iguana says blues and Americana critics are having a difficult time reviewing his Chicago group’s latest album, Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium! (Yellow Dog Records).

Iguana certainly has company when it comes to playing blues with a twist. He notes that The White Stripes and The Black Keys have shown over the past 10-15 years how to approach it “if you’re going to do something bluesy and punky.” What The Claudettes do, he says, is more like “the Ray Charles end of things” in blues-related music.

The Claudettes have more in common with The Black Keys than putting their stamp on the blues. Mark Neill, who co-produced the bulk of the Keys’ breakthrough album, Brothers, was a key figure in the making of Dance Scandal, which he recorded, produced, mixed and mastered. Neill’s relationship with The Claudettes began when he contacted Iguana via email.

“He had a concept for what kind of band we are and how he wanted to approach the record,” Iguana says. “It was a bold concept: He considered us an acoustic band and had us play at a very quiet volume. We got to use all these old vintage mics, and he cranked his preamps up to get sort of a Wall of Sound [effect] on the drums. He really wanted to preserve the orchestral acoustic element of this band.”

Neill was very meticulous when it came to Berit Ulseth’s vocals, which he wanted done in single takes, with no comps.

“As he figured out what the melody was and what the intention was,” Iguana recalls, “he’d look up into the air for a few seconds, then spring out of his seat and get a stack of 45s. Then he’d play us a lot of ’60s music — early Aaron Neville, The Turtles, The Zombies.

“Sometimes he’d say, ‘Do you see what’s going on there?’ He wanted a certain emotion and a certain approach to [each] song, a certain vibe to the vocal performance. Then he would dismiss [Ulseth] to go to the other room and record.”

After the first day working with Neill at his Soil of the South recording studio in Valdosta, Georgia, Iguana remembers telling his bandmates, “This is only a sound experiment if we let him do it just the way he wants.” Had Iguana inserted his strong personality and argued about the approach, he felt Neill would have withdrawn “and it wouldn’t really be a Mark Neill production.”

“It was challenging at times partly because the clock was ticking, we’re paying for the sessions, and we’ve just spent 45 minutes listening to records— and I’ve heard those records [before],” Iguana says about his feelings at the time.

As for the rest of the band, Iguana adds, “I think they consistently found it stressful, but everybody was liking what they were hearing, and everybody was down to do the experiment.”

— By Chris M. Junior

The Claudettes on tour (schedule subject to change):

• May 16: Happy Dog — Cleveland

• May 17: Hill Country Barbecue — Washington, D.C.

• May 18: Bourbon & Branch — Philadelphia

• May 19: Rockwood Music Hall — New York

• May 20: The Lounge at Once Somerville — Somerville, Massachusetts

• May 25: Dakota Jazz Club — Minneapolis

• May 26: Total Drag — Sioux Falls, South Dakota

• May 27: Liberty Tree Farm — Stockholm, Wisconsin

• May 28: Brat Fest — Madison, Wisconsin

Photo by Jaka Vinsek

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