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A Dirty Dozen with JOHNNY IGUANA from THE CLAUDETTES – March 2021

| 26 March 2021 | Reply


According to a recent press release: “Produced by Grammy winner Ted Hutt (Violent Femmes, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Devil Makes Three, Lucero), High Times in the Dark won ardent acclaim upon its April 3, 2020 release by Forty Below Records. The fifth release by Chicago-based “garage cabaret” band The Claudettes, High Times in the Dark was named Album of the Week by L.A. Weekly, earned four stars and a spot on “Favorite Rock Albums of 2020” on and won rave reviews in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe, the UK, South America and Australia. Two songs were recorded during those album sessions but saved for future standalone release. One was “Different Drugs (Song for Bill Hicks),” which came out on October 2, 2020. The second, set for release on March 26, is “Kept Them in the Dark,” a song that Claudettes pianist/songwriter Johnny Iguana wrote just after the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 went into effect. Like so many others, the Claudettes were robbed by COVID-19 of a jam-packed 2020 full of gigs including two European tours. The band have chosen to write and record prolifically during the pandemic rather than engage in online streaming performances. They will post news of new shows (which will commence in June 2021) and upcoming releases on their website and social media in the coming months.” We pianist Johnny to discuss new music, influences, and more…

Photo credit: Timothy Hiatt

1. Tell us a little about your latest release.  What might a fan or listener not grab the first or second time they listen through?  Are there any hidden nuggets you put in the material or that only diehard fans might find?

Our drummer Michael Caskey is such a master at obfuscating time signatures and always staying groovy even amidst complex music that even musicians might not recognize that the song is in the unusual time signature of 7/4. It switches to 4/4 for the bridge, but otherwise the song is in 7 and yet is very funky… we had a good strong lock between bass, drums and piano, and Berit just floats above it, unruffled.

2. What got you into music, and can you tell us about the moment you realized you wanted to be a musician?

I had an inkling that being a music was exciting when my uncle got our family backstage passes to The Cars when I was a child. Seeing Ben Orr of The Cars with dark shades on and a feather boa draped around his shoulders, with a woman under each arm, as he sauntered down the hallway in the backstage area of the Philadelphia Spectrum when I was eight years old: that made me look forward to a rock ‘n’ roll life, and I started practicing piano even harder.

3. Building on that, is there a specific song, album, performer, or live show that guided your musical taste?

That Cars show… I also got a charge out of seeing Fugazi, the Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Clash, Husker Du… all when I was a kid. Then I discovered blues, got a fake ID and started hanging out at the Philly jazz clubs, and soon playing them.

4. Who would be your main five musical influences?

My biggest inspirations were Junior Wells (whose band I joined), Mike Watt (who slept at my house, and my band got to open for him in Chicago), Otis Spann, Joe Strummer and Jimmy Smith.

5. If you could call in any one collaborator to do a song with, who would it be, and why?

I might ask Cory Henry, just so I could learn something from him. What a keyboard wizard. The kind of player who makes you want to give up, or practice 10 times as much.

6. How would you describe your music to someone who’d never listened to you before? What is the one comparison a reviewer or fan has made that made you cringe or you disagreed with?

I’ve coined our distinct genre as “garage cabaret.” It’s got one foot in the garage-rock/punk club, and one in the ritzy jazz cabaret. People compare us to Ben Folds Five because we have piano; it doesn’t really make me cringe, but it’s not accurate. People usually don’t know what to compare us to.

7. When your band is hanging out together, who cooks, who gets the drinks in, and who is first to crack out the acoustic guitars for a singalong?

We don’t really have a guitarist, or carry acoustic guitars with us. We have a vegan among us; the rest of us eat most anything but prize eating in a healthy fashion while on the road. It pretty much never happens that we cook together. We usually eat at a restaurant, and seek out Asian restaurants, as there are good vegan options. We like our drinks, but not before the show… the music is challenging to play… maybe it seems boring, but we take the stage sober… drinks are for nightcaps, for us, for the most part.

8. When was the last time you were starstruck and who was it?

I don’t think that’s happened to me, as I have played and toured with such legends of blues and in doing so been around THEIR admirers like actors, rock/pop musicians (who come to see the blues artists). But I was once with my mother in Chicago when she pointed at a car and screamed, barely able to talk, “ROD STEIGER!!!!!” It was Rod Steiger.

9. What is the best part of being a musician? If you could no longer be a musician for whatever reason, what would be your dream job?

At this point, I’m fully committed. I’ll always be a musician. Perhaps next would be to drive and collect the money from the promoter for my 13-year-old when he’s grown up and a more successful musician than I ever was. Brass knuckles… all that.

10. What is one question you have always wanted an interviewer to ask – and what is the answer? Conversely, what question are you tired of answering?

I always thought that if I could interview musicians I love like Bob Mould, I would ask them about chord changes… in his case, the Add-9s… who was HIS inspiration for those voicings that dominate their sound? I’d ask about chord changes and voicings. I think that my favorite music has striking chord changes, and pop records that get rave reviews but have threadbare chord changes put me to sleep, or else anger me. A good chord change can make me cry even better than a good lyric or vocal performance can.

11. Looking back over your career, is there a single moment or situation you feel was a misstep or you would like to have a “do over,” even if it didn’t change your current situation?

Well, I wish my band’s practice space hadn’t burned down, and that we hadn’t got into that vicious van accident wherein everybody broke bones (and the drunk person who hit us died), and that we hadn’t had all our stuff stolen in Buffalo. But those aren’t missteps. If had a time machine, I’d start by timing my trips to avoid those catastrophes. I really am focused on the future and hoping that our band is ready to claim our part of the Roaring ’20s Mk. II that are coming.

12. If you could magically go back in time and be a part of the recording sessions for any one record in history, which would you choose – and what does that record mean to you?

I would certainly like, now, to be able to go to some Chess sessions directed by Willie Dixon, and fill in when Spann couldn’t be there. I do think it’d be a trip to hear/watch Hendrix lay that guitar down, but I don’t think I’d add anything to those tracks; better to be a fly on that wall. When Junior Wells and Buddy guy got to yuckin’ it up in the studio (as on “South Side Blues Jam”), I’d have loved to have been there, though no one could outdid what Otis Spann did on that one. I could probably have had fun rocking some organ on “Mclusky Do Dallas,” if they’d have let me add that.

BONUS QUESTION – Due to the current world situation with COVID-19 / quarantine / shelter in place, what have you discovered you miss the most from your life before the pandemic struck?

Touring, touring, and touring. We Claudettes had two European tours (and counting) deleted by COVID. There’s talk of building one for 2022, but that’s a long way away. I hope this year starts to feel better and better, in the country and in our tour van.





Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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