Interview: Johnny Iguana of The Claudettes

Chicago-based musical hybrid The Claudettes return to Columbus to play Natalie’s on Saturday, November 19th, at 10pm. Tickets are $10 and available here. Originally founded by pianist Johnny Iguana and drummer Michael Caskey in 2011 (learn more about their unique story here), the band grew to a quartet earlier this year, with Caskey departing due to other commitments, and bassist/singer Zach Verdoorn, drummer Matt Torre, and singer Berit Ulseth entering the fray. Between steady touring, the band recorded a new album in September with producer Mark Neill (The Black Keys’ Brothers plus albums by Old 97’s, J.D. McPherson, Los Straitjackets and more) – it’s due out in the first half of 2017. I had an extensive conversation with Johnny Iguana (furthest right in the picture) recently about the band’s sound, the new lineup, recording with Neill, and Iguana’s jazz background. Keep reading for much more:

With recent band lineup changes, has the band’s sound changed?

Johnny Iguana (JI): It’s important to me that the band stays in the jazz/blues/roots realm because that was the foundation of the group and there’s a lot more avenues and possibilities out there in the roots scene than if you do veer off into the indie rock rat race. I’ve played a lot of different kinds of music in my life, but this band needs to still be a piano-forward, gonzo Raymond Scott kind of a thing – otherwise it’s not what I’m intending. The great jazz writer Nat Hentoff had a great book called Listen to the Stories, and there were a few quotes in there that really stuck with me. One of them was: Some reporter asked Duke Ellington, “How did you have all those chart hits?” It was kind of an inane question. But he said, “I always looked around at whatever people I had in the band with me right then and said to myself, ‘What do these people do well?'” You have to play to the strengths of what human beings are in your band at that time.

So, I have a great bass player and drummer here at my disposal and the drummer had introduced me to this singer who actually went to the New School for jazz vocal instruction in New York City. I’ve taken some time to get to know them, and I’m writing for them. I feel like we’re inventing a kind of music based on the kind of human beings in this band at this time. I think it’s kind of beating your head against the wall to have a concept and then whatever people come and go in your band, you just make them play it. It’s just not going to be very good, because the other people aren’t being themselves. The reason we all love any artist of the past is, while they might have absorbed something from the past, they were being themselves all the way to the hilt.

What we’re doing is starting from a place of the Otis Spann/Ray Charles/Mose Allison/Bobby Timmons/Raymond Scott thing that I conceived originally, but I’ve listened to and played a lot of kinds of music, and so has everyone in this group, so we all observed what’s happening and what’s not. We spent a lot of time in my practice space hammering it out and I’m really excited about we’ve got here. This guy who recorded us just now in Georgia [Mark Neill] – by the time we left there, he had dubbed us “Keely Smith fronting Captain Beefheart’s Band.” I said, “Hey I like that.” Our vocalist is of the “Cool School” – she can belt it out, but generally she’s got a cool kind of approach, and the band is kind of nutty and red hot. [Neill] said he pictures her filing her fingernails up there while we’re just bouncing off the walls.

I tell everyone in the band, “I might tell you guys an idea of what I want or what I’m seeing, but you guys have to give me your ideas and figure out who you are and what you’re trying to say in life.” It’s a hard challenge to give to people, just to be yourself. The most cliched stuff is so often true. The most you can honestly express yourself and dig deep – “What is it you’re really saying, even if it seems outrageous? Who are you?”

I will tell you that we’re having a really good time getting into really good jazz venues and we’re getting asked back and we’re making a big splash, much more so than at blues venues. It makes sense – Blues is very narrow. What people consider the right look and the right repertoire and the right sound and tone for blues is kind of one thing. You can be kind of funky or R&B-ish. But jazz – A good jazz club that we just played at called the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis, they might have experimental jazz one night, or electronic jazz, or funky jazz, and they might have swing, and bop, and post-bop and all these different things. What is jazz? It’s like a million things now. It’s changed over the decades, but now, you gotta really look at that calendar. If you think you’ve just going to visit a town like New Orleans or Kansas City or St. Louis or Chicago or New York and go to a jazz club, you gotta look at that calendar – what’s it going to be? It could be so many different things. That’s why I feel [jazz clubs] are a little more open-minded. The [clubs’] staff are buying our records and coming up to talk to us, because there’s nothing tired, nothing lightly swinging about this group. It’s really alive – we’re on to something and we feel it, and I think that’s exciting to the people that inhabit those clubs.

How much has the band’s new lineup toured so far?

JI: We’re having an ongoing series of mini-tours. We’ve been on the road a lot together since May. We started all practicing together in the basement and working it all out in March and April, and we started into it in May. From May to December, we will have done a lot of shows together, and we will have gone from Minneapolis to Mississippi to Boston and back. We [were recently] recording and playing in Mississippi and Tennessee and Kentucky and Georgia, and we just came back from playing the East Coast last night. We’re going to be playing basically in the Midwest the rest of the year. I’ve been part of one particularly bad van accident in the past that wasn’t weather-related, but ever since then I’ve gotten really conservative about when I’m willing to get into a vehicle and drive around, and I don’t really do it in January or February anymore. So I’m going to spend January and February booking, writing and practicing, but we’re not going to really tour. If anything we’ll do a show in or around Chicago. So we’re going to wrap up our pretty busy season in December.

With all of this live playing, how do you feel the new lineup is coming together?

JI: To be totally honest, I know plenty of people that are fully qualified jazz and blues players – like our singer, she’s really great, and she’s a really educated singer, but she’s got her own style and a lot of personality. She listens to a lot of different music and she’s really interesting. I’m excited to be working with her and writing for her. The drummer and bass player have played in a lot of different kinds of groups. The drummer has played in a country band and indie rock bands, and he’s a pretty young guy. The bass player has been playing a long time like I have, and he’s played in lots of different groups. But they’re not really experienced “roots” players, like jazz or blues, but they love it. The drummer’s favorite stuff in the world is the JB’s, and the Meters, and that kind of R&B. So he loves it, and he’d much rather be playing that than being in a rock band.

I decided that I want to work with these guys and share a lot of records with them and play. I’m a big Mike Watt fan. Mike Watt was [a bassist] from Minutemen (and fIREHOSE) and they were the first California punk band to roll in obvious jazz and funk elements – there’d usually be a major segregation between punk and funk. It was not hip at all to be playing funk or jazz in the punk scene. But there were bands in the 80’s that started mixing up all that stuff, and Mike Watt was one of the pioneers of that. I always thought that Zach reminded me of him, so I said, “This guy’s going to be really good at this.”

[The bass player and drummer] both knew the Claudettes – I’d played with them in a different group – and they were both really into it. So we spent months together listening and playing. Just now we’ve gone from being able to play compositions to something more. We mix our sets between vocal songs and instrumentals. The instrumentals are mostly original, but we do our own spins. You know how Booker T. liked to put his own spin on all kinds of pop music, and it would still sound like Booker T. and the MG’s? They would do really cool arrangements that were just really groovy. It could be versions of songs from Westerns, or The Beatles, or whatever it is. We do the same thing – we have a certain burlesque blues piano thing where we do versions of everything from Neil Young to Grandmaster Flash to Link Wray to Santo & Johnny, and just all kinds of music. We also do certain Tin Pan Alley stuff: “California, Here I Come” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Once I developed the Claudettes’ sound, I’d hear a song and think, “I have an idea – I have an arrangement for that!” and it just ends up sounding like the Claudettes to me.

Only really recently has something clicked all the sudden. I told the drummer that it’s really not enough to just know the composition and play it correctly. People can feel the beat. Once you’ve established the beat, you need to be able to turn it upside down and inside out and abandon it, even though the pulse is still moving through it. Only if we are having an exciting, chancy time up there are people gonna care when we’re playing these instrumentals. If it’s just easy and you play it correctly, it’s just boring. It’s kind of a challenge I laid out there: “OK, we’ve been playing together six months now, we know the changes, there’s no more questions, we’ve talked about the dynamics. Now I want you to take some chances. I want to just be up there without a net.” Only really recently have I turned around after or in the middle of a set and said, “Yes!” I’m just going off, and they’re not lost when I go off, they’re just with me for the ride now. I think it’s just great when you hear a group in that zone where they’re excited about what they’re doing and it’s still chancy to the group. The songs I’ve written I feel great about, but it’s really what’s happening with the instrumentals that’s exciting to me at this moment. We seem to have arrived somewhere where it’s going to be different every [time]. I think that’s why people want to see a band twice – when you see that the way they play a certain composition is different each time you hear it, that’s better than if they’re identical.

How was the experience recording with Mark Neill?

JI: Hard to put into words. It was daunting, it was stressful. He’s got very, very stiff guiding principles on the correct way to record, and the correct way to manage a recording, and the correct way to produce a record. He’s got very strict principles and they’re unwavering. On day 2, I said to myself, “I know a lot of musicians that would have left here.” Because this guy’s an eccentric, he might be offputting to some people. Usually when a band that knows what they’re doing goes in the studio, they basically just make sure that the sounds aren’t distorting, they set everything up right, and they hit “Record.” And if you get a good take, then you move onto the next song. And if you think you can do better, you try another take. He didn’t do it that way at all. He listened while we were in there and made some adjustments. Then he’d go in the control room, and we’re practicing and I’d say, “OK, I think we’re ready for a take.” And he’d say, “No you’re not. You’re getting close, but keep playing.” 45 minutes later he’d say, “OK, rolling.” Every time, we got it in one or two takes. I think he was right – Once he hit “Record,” we were at a place where we were playing it really well, and we’d fixed some problems.

He made us record at half the volume we’d normally play in the studio. We had no headphones, and the singer was singing live in the room – not to record, but just to guide us through, she didn’t have a microphone. So the drummer had to play quietly enough that he could hear me on an acoustic piano all the way diagonally across the room as I was kind of leading the band. The drummer and the bass player are playing in the other corner. So we were playing at “acoustic lounge” level, even though some of these songs are thumping. The reason was that’s where [Neill] could turn up his pre-amps, and use these vintage microphones, and that’s just how things end up sounding warmer and bigger, and the instruments sing, including the drums. We went in the control booth and our mouths were open. It was sounding like a Phil Spector record. The bass drum was like a big, orchestral, singing instrument. Usually, you’re used to it sounding like “Boom,” but instead it was like “Boommmmmmmmm,” like a big, long pitch. He was really meticulous about how things were tuned together. When I did some keyboard overdubs, he would slightly alter the frequency because to his ear it wasn’t matching the floor toms.

It was tempting to argue with this guy or stand up for ourselves, but we realized early on that this was only going to be a valid experiment if we just let him have his way, all the way. Because you know what we can’t argue with? All of his records sound great. And I can see that he led the way on those sessions. He told us that many of the drummers that the bands brought in he couldn’t use, and he sent them away and got a different drummer because they couldn’t play to his specifications. They were more like “rock guys,” and that’s not what he wants. He’s really into rockabilly and blues. He’s kind of a time warp.

It’s taken a while to get these mixes, but I think they’re going to trickle through soon. I’m dying to hear them more than I ever have before. I’m always in the studio when the mixes are done, but his principle is: He produces the record, he gets out of you what he wants, and then he wants you to leave, so he can make the final track himself without any input. That’s the way he does it. Again, if I can listen to his albums and say, “They’re spotty. I like this. I don’t like this,” then I’d be concerned. You can not love some of the compositions, but that’s not his fault. As far as the sound, and the magic singing drums – the drums are kind of what separate the men from the boys, it seems. The drum sounds on records vary so much. If you get warm, big sounding drums, that seems to be half the battle. Our drummer is probably the most excited in the group to hear [the mixes]. [The recording process] for him was an adjustment, but he was able to do it, and Mark ended up complimenting him a lot as a drummer.

How did your musical background and environment shape your vision for the Claudettes’ sound?

JI: I grew up in Philly, so that was the home of Jimmy Smith, and Jimmy McGriff, and Shirley Scott, and all the great organ players. I always could appreciate and almost imagine playing like Jimmy McGriff, but I couldn’t imagine playing like Jimmy Smith, he’s just too much in outer space, and he’s too much of a wild jazz innovative genius kind of guy. Whereas “Groove” Holmes, and Jack McDuff, and Jimmy McGriff, and Bobby Timmons are 60/40 jazz/blues, where I can understand them and feel it, and see where they’re coming from. And I love Monk, but the bluesier-leaning side was what I got excited about growing up. Probably because, from age 15, I was in blues bands. In Philly, Lee Morgan and Coltrane, there’s so many players from around the Philly/New York area, that you get introduced to that too, depending on what crowd you’re hanging out with. So I loved a lot of that music, but I couldn’t imagine playing it. It was almost like I could speak Spanish, and then all of a sudden, there was a notion of learning Portuguese – that sounds too hard. How many things am I going to be good at in life? I was in blues bands and punk bands since I was 15, so I could see entering the jazz realm via the blues realm, but not becoming a full-on, fully qualified jazz man. Like, “‘My Funny Valentine?’ What key? OK, D flat, got it. Go!” I don’t know how to do that.

I’ve been writing music since I was a teenager, and then I got really into Raymond Scott and that kind of “cartoon music” sensibility. So the Claudettes thing that happened, even though I intended it to come from this Otis Spann, S.P. Leary, 60’s Chicago blues thing – I love classical and the blues-jazz crossover stuff so much that I found that the instrumentals I was coming up with, even though I developed a “sound,” I feel like it’s got something in common with that Raymond Scott thing. Where this part sounds like Turkish music, then this part is big stompy [cartoon music] with its own personality, and then this part is really light and delicate, then this part is heavy swinging jazz. Kind of all over the place, but it all sounds like Raymond Scott. That’s where I feel like the Claudettes took some things from the jazz-blues crossover stuff, but it’s as much informed by rock and punk and classical things that I love too, and I don’t want it to sound like one thing. That’s one reason I decided from an early point that I was going to stick to acoustic piano. I’m not going to have synthesizers, and electric piano, and all that stuff. I’m gonna see how much I can get out of one tone. I’m gonna keep it simple, tonally. All of it still is just acoustic piano.

What are a few of your favorite jazz albums?

JI: I have collections – I’m not that good at knowing what album that things originated on. I really, really love Mose Allison, and I’ve seen him live a couple times. So I have the best of the Atlantic years [compilation]. I do have Bobby Timmons’ This Here Is Bobby Timmons, which I love. Jimmy Smith’s Organ Grinder Swing, Jimmy Smith’s House Party I seem to remember.

I make a speech from the stage sometimes before I go into a Jay McShann number that I do that, when you’re a kid, sometimes you have an album that you think is a famous album, but it turns out that it’s quite obscure but you just happen to have it. I have one that was a 1973 session between Jay McShann and T-Bone Walker that happened in France. It’s just so joyous – I don’t know if they ever played together otherwise, but it’s so good, and it’s so fun. Jay McShann is so underrated as a piano player. We play one of those songs, called “Roll ‘Em,” live. That album made a big impression on me growing up. I’ve also got Brother Jack McDuff’s The Honeydripper, with Jimmy Forrest and Grant Green. I have some Reuben Wilson that I really like a lot. I also love Hank Marr – someone brought a Hank Marr disc over to my house.

I love a lot of organ players. I’m playing all piano [in the Claudettes], but left hand particularly – when I was 15, the band I was in, the bass player was the best musician in the group. He moved away with his family. He was so good that rather than get another bass player, I became the bass player with my left hand. I already knew what he did, and it just didn’t seem possible to replace him. So since I was 15, I’ve been the bass player in a band. So though we have bass in this band, I’m very often doing the bass line, and he might be doing other parts on the bass guitar. Those organ players – I used to get up and physically rewind the cassette over and over and over again. “OK, I figured out the bass line for the first 10 seconds, now the next 10 seconds!” And then I’d figure out how to transpose to different keys. By the time I was 15, I was no longer outside playing sports and games on a sunny day – I was doing that, inside all day.

Anything else you’d like to say to Columbus jazz fans that are thinking about coming to the show Saturday?

JI: The only speech I make to the band before we go out is, no matter what we’ve been through during the day (if we’ve had a long drive or anything stressful), is: “Nobody worry about making mistakes tonight. Someone’s gonna make some mistakes. Someone’s gonna forget a lyric. The drummer’s gonna go to the wrong part. But if we go out there and have a swagger, and we’re excited about what we’re doing and we really listen to each other and feel each other and we’re up here putting our heart into it, then it’s gonna be a big success.” We don’t ever take the stage without remembering that. And discussing it. Because it’s depressing to do everything you have to do, carry all that stuff – I have a lot of equipment – drive all that way, and then just go up and forget, and go through the motions or just play things correctly. You gotta think about, “What are the words you’re singing? What do they mean? Why are we doing this song?” Tap into it! And realize that life is short! I think, “How many more times am I going to be in the time of my life where I’m healthy, I’m with musicians I want to be with, we got along great in the van and we laugh a lot? How many more times am I gonna get to do this, and we’re in a good place, and I don’t take it for granted?” So when we go up on stage, I think we bring all of that with us, because not taking it for granted is really important to me.

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