The Claudettes: “Garage Cabaret” At Its Best

Chicago blues/punk quartet release their most stirring album yet

The Claudettes (Photo: Timothy Hiatt)

Although trying to pigeon-hole Chicago-based band The Claudettes’ sound is rather difficult, it’s fun to try.

Featuring nimble-fingered pianist Johnny Iguana (real name Brian Berkowitz), the endearing voice of Berit Ulseth, versatile bassist/guitarist/vocalist Zach Verdoorn and ebullient drummer Michael Caskey, the quartet create a potpourri of musical flavors on its fourth studio album High Times in the Dark (released April 3 via Forty Below Records).  

Helmed by Grammy-winning producer Ted Hutt (Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys, Violent Femmes), High Times in the Dark’s 11 eclectic tracks run the gamut of various genres such as piano-driven Delta blues to improvisational soul/jazz to punk to rock to ’60s pop to classical. 

Sometimes, Iguana (also of punk/blues band oh my god) finds the interesting labels journalists place on the band to describe its sound to be quite amusing.

“It just reminds me of the notion that we’re hard to market and difficult for anyone that’s in the music business to ally with because you’re supposed to fit into an algorithm for a band,” Iguana explained to Rock and Roll Globe during a recent phone interview. “Every time I read people focusing on the combination of genres, it’s sort of a reminder that I’m probably like a failed businessman because I haven’t done the correct thing and make it exactly one thing.”

 

VIDEO: The Claudettes “Declined”

Forming a decade ago, The Claudettes have been slugging it out on the Chicago Metro/Midwestern bar circuit ever since. In the band’s novelty early days, they played almost everywhere; from dive bars to delicatessens. Even a Staples office supply store, a Blockbuster Video and several independent record shops. Playing live is where the band truly feel at home. 

“The only thing that matters is that while we’re up (on stage) is that we put our whole hearts into it,” Iguana explained. “Our best shows have a lot of really rocking, stomping songs, but also whisper-quiet, pin-drop quiet (songs and) ballads that have a lot of emotion in them. That’s where we really shine the most because I love that. It would be dishonest to not have a wide-ranging show like that. I want it to express that range of feeling and emotion and energy that I go through and I feel like it’s a slice of life that way.” 

However, with the current state of the world dealing with Coronavirus pandemic, cancellations of thousands of small club gigs, concert halls and musical festivals have become the norm for an unspecified period of time. Fittingly, the new album’s title, High Times in the Dark, is the perfect metaphor for how the band feels about the state of the world today.

“Over the course of making the record, so much happened involving illnesses and deaths within our immediate realm of the people in this band,” Iguana admitted. “Also, the country is just so embroiled with partisan rage and you hear about the roaring ’20s and the ’60s and people say, ‘What a great time to be alive.’ And it just doesn’t feel anything like that. Everybody’s so upset and gloomy.”

Instead of succumbing to the world’s gloominess, the Claudettes realized that they were in a position of having the privilege of making wonderful music together.

“It feels like a great gift that we play music,” Iguana said. “High Times in the Dark is internally and externally what we felt like. It’s us staring down from that… that real chance for depression or anger seeping into something. But instead, we rejoice at being with each other and recognize how ephemeral it is being in a band.”

The Claudettes High Times In The Dark, Forty Below Records 2020

The Claudettes really made fans stand up and take notice of the band on its 2018 third full-length album Dance Scandal in the Gymnasium!, produced by yet another Grammy award-winning producer, Mark Neill (The Black Keys). On High Times in the Dark, Hutt brought his down to earth persona and musical expertise to the studio, which totally impressed Iguana.

“When I spoke to Ted, he was really into not only the idea of this album of music, but the fact that it revolved around the piano,” Iguana said. “He just immediately fell for the record and then had to decide whether he could commit to the time. His time is worth the most. It was incredibly harmonious working with him. He worked within my budget. He came out to Chicago, recorded in the studio, it was walking distance from my house. He actually stayed at my house. I think everybody involved recognized that we were all sort of in the same boat. We all believed in the record and the band and we felt like that if we all threw in our ideas and our time into it, then we’d feel pretty good about the results.”

Some of the band’s lyrical inspirations on High Times in the Dark have a playful and humorous vibe, while others are social and political commentaries. Some tracks are metaphorical analogies, while some songs are even angry — but not blatantly angry. Although no one song is the sum of its parts, there’s a commonality in the sonic universe across the entire record.

“There’s a different story for every song here,” Iguana explained. “There are some songs here that are downright angry, but there’s more songs that (aren’t). But even the ones that are angry are kind of like groovy songs. Then there are a bunch of songs about love and being hot for somebody, and then there’s “The Sun Will Fool You,” which is really the most completely lonesome and desolate song on the record. Ted (Hutt) wanted to live in a ’60s and not ’90s universe as far as what effects and amps, regardless of the whether the song is about love or political ire. We didn’t want to be too divergent with completely different sounds and vibes across the song. We have one sound on this record and I really like it. I could tell that once we found it that it was right for this.”

The Claudettes in Technicolor (Art: Ron Hart)

With a new booking agent, new management, the new album and a new record label, the Claudettes are now in a position to get their record out to a bigger audience.

“I think that the label would probably say that they’re going to do what they can to help get the word out and to get the record distributed,” Iguana said. “I think it’s going be our own continued rise within the music and how we present ourselves as a band. I don’t think in this case the label is going to determine that, they’re just going to be a good supportive group. I think if we all work hard, this record’s going make a big splash.”

 

 

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Kelley Simms

Kelley Simms is a Des Moines-based freelance writer and a graphic designer/illustrator at a daily newspaper. His bylines have appeared in many diverse publications such as The New York Post, Outburn Magazine, BraveWords, Powerplay Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Hails and Horns Magazine, Consequence of Sound and Illinois Entertainer. Reach him on Twitter @simmsbury.

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