What are you working on right now and why are you excited about it? Right now, I’m writing, writing, writing. The Claudettes already finished our third full-length album (our first two albums and EP are here), which will come out later this year. It was produced by Black Keys/Old 97’s producer Mark Neill. It’s something special, I can’t wait for people to hear it. But I’m so inspired by how the four-piece (two-singer) lineup of the Claudettes has come together over the past 12 months that I’m now really dialing in how to write for THIS assemblage. That’s the ticket to the best music right there: not just having songs and parts you write just to be writing, or because you have ideas that excite you, but also knowing the musical strengths and sweet spots of the musicians and singers who are actually in the band with you RIGHT NOW. I like to quote Duke Ellington, who said he scored all those hits because he always asked himself, “What do THESE guys do well?”
Did you grow up with music in your family? My mother listened to a lot of classical music, but loved rock music, too. My uncle played and worked in music, and still does. I never stopped playing after I started classical lessons at age 8 (continuing to age 13, at which point I had bands for the rest of my life).
Was there a live concert experience that impacted you early on? The aforementioned uncle was a road manager and significant creative influence for the Cars. I went to see them in Philly, where they opened for Foreigner. Seeing Ben Orr backstage with a feather boa, sunglasses and a woman on each arm…even at age eight, I said to myself, “That looks cool. I want that.” As of now, my personal record is one woman. But I’m working on better and better songs all the time.
What was your first public performance? I remember playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” at a piano recital, and I messed it up badly. The demon in my head kept asking, “Hey, buddy boy? What’s the next chord? I bet you’ll forget it and blow the whole thing.” To this day, live performance for me is still a contest with that demon. As long as I don’t provoke him into asking me those questions, all goes beautifully…but it does happen sometimes, at which point I just smash all the keys and proceed with anger at myself as my primary motivation.
How do songs come about for you? Very often, I have words in a notebook that develop from a single lyric to a full song. Sometimes, I then write music to accompany those words. Other times, I spontaneously come up with new music (often by just happening on one unusual or even accidental chord change), then go upstairs to flip through my notebook and see if I’ve got something that seems like a match.
Do you have any day-of-show (or pre-show) rituals that help you get in the right mindset to perform live? Truth be told, I like a couple drinks. My drink is two drinks: a bourbon and a beer. It puts me just right. There is DEFINITELY such a thing as too much, and it turns me into a sloppy player. There’s good sloppy, as in the best blues, but then there’s just messy. I do like to remind my band mates to not worry about perfection…it’s much, much, much better to put your whole heart, soul, joy and sadness into this performance than it is to get all the parts and changes right. That kind of perfection without a wellspring of emotion is boring to the audience and it’s especially boring to me.
Who is on your musical Mount Rushmore? My teenage musical heroes were Junior Wells (the blues band I was in at age 16 in Philly took 2/3 of our repertoire from Junior Wells’ “Hoodoo Man Blues”and “South Side Blues Jam” albums and his other recordings), Mike Watt (of Minutemen and fIREHOSE) and Joe Strummer (The Clash, of course). I managed to join the Junior Wells band soon after I finished college (I met him in NYC, then moved to Chicago when he asked me to join the band) and I got to tour with him for three years, and record with him, too. My band oh my god ended up opening for Mike Watt at the Double Door and his band mates told me that we were the best band they’d played with on that tour (which was probably around 70 dates). Mike and the band slept at my house once (on another occasion, when I just went to see them at Double Door). Mike stayed up late with me, talking about music, Minutemen and D. Boon. I gave him bad parking advice (I found out that night that the Ford Econoline is a bit taller than the Dodge RAM; as a result, they had to park on the street), and their van was ticketed and was just about to be towed when Mike walked over to the van to check on it. Great job impressing your heroes, dufus. And oh my god was on the short list to open up for Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros when I was driving home from the dentist and heard a Clash song. Then, I changed stations…and heard another! “Yes!” When the third station I flipped to was playing the Clash, my heart sunk…after the song, they announced that he had just died at age 50. I was so, so sad that he was gone, and that I didn’t get to complete my triumvirate of wished-for hero experiences.
What advice do you give to young musicians seeking their path? I’m not qualified to offer advice, ’cause I’m not satisfied yet myself. Just practice a lot, record the practices and know that those practice recordings don’t lie. If the Jimi Hendrix Experience made a basement tape, guess what? They wouldn’t be saying, “Oh, you can’t really hear the bass, that’s why this doesn’t sound that good.” Nah, the best artists sound spectacular, no matter what the mix. To sing or play the best, you need to do it a lot. Ray Charles practiced scales when he was 65 years old…daily, so he said.
You are to perform at the Grammy’s but they want you to do a cover, what tune do you choose and why? I don’t know. I feel like I’d promise a cover and then switch over to my most demented instrumental…you know, Elvis Costello SNL-style. I think this cover-song culture we’re in is weak and lame. People singing “Superstition” on “Vermont’s Got Talent.” “Oh, he’s WON-DA-FUL!” The world needs a new crop of songs and singers…get to work…
You and a friend are given to access to a time machine called ‘The Day Tripper’ in which you can attend any concert in history — what are your coordinates and who do you bring with for the ride? I’d probably set the machine for ‘Pedro in the early ’80s and see the Reactionaires evolve into Minutemen, and talk to D. Boon a lot after the sets. I wouldn’t need to bring anyone with me, I’d just go talk to the band about tones and chord changes and influences and great records.