The Claudettes: Roots Rockers Pen Standards for a New Generation

Frontman Johnny Iguana talks about the band’s new album The Claudettes Go Out!

The Claudettes (Image: Forty Below Records)

Pianist Johnny Iguana started The Claudettes as a duo, with drummer Michael Caskey, 10 years ago.

They played instrumentals based on the blues standards Iguana loved. Over the years, players came and went, until the band settled down to the current lineup – Iguana on piano;  Zach Verdoorn on bass, bass VI, guitar and backing vocals; lead vocalist Berit Ulseth and drummer Michael Caskey.

“It’s incredible to me that the four of us have been together for five years,” Iguana said from his Chicago home. “Most bands, like The Beatles and The Clash, only stay creative and productive for a short period of time. This project had been going for 10 years, in various forms. It’s something to be grateful for.”

Although the band was originally blues based, Iguana soon incorporated elements of all the music he loved including jazz, country, classical, soul, R&B, punk, rock and pop. On their new album, The Claudettes Go Out!, Iguana’s songwriting blends all these elements into a sound that brings to mind the pop standards of the 40s and 50s. It’s music for sophisticated listeners.

“I’m a grown up,” Iguana said. “I’m not a young punk anymore. When you’re writing, you’re so involved with each new idea, each shift in style, that it’s only in looking back that you can get a sense of the ground you’ve covered or the approach you took. 

The Claudettes The Claudettes Go Out!, Forty Below Records 2022

“These songs were written before, during and after the pandemic days. I started to compile the ideas, then went on the longest drought that I ever had in my songwriting years. Finally, I managed to return to writing, with some effort. What came out of those years were songs that reflected a completely  different outlook. We all found ourself wondering – ‘What is this life on earth now?’ We make our living by playing in crowded rooms. Now the idea of a crowded rooms seems antiquated and dangerous. 

“Luckily, we’d already been on the path of performing and perfecting some new songs when things shut down. I began composing in piecemeal fashion, sending tracks back and forth to the other band members and piecing them together. I was concerned that they might not have the sound of a cohesive album, but I found it not to be the case. It was cut in two sessions that took place over two years, between 2020 and 2021, when we managed to record live in a room together. 

“Sometimes you think the best session would be a whirlwind in a studio that captures a time and place. This album comprises two years of creativity spread out over time, but it’s still the same four people, with the same instruments. If you’re on an emotional roller coaster, you have to be honest about it and it came off that way. The feelings were bratty, despondent and angry; then amorous, hopeful and upbeat, so an album of one emotional color wouldn’t be realistic over this period of time.” 

One session for The Claudettes Go Out! was supervised by Grammy nominee Anthony Gravino (Kurt Elling, Charlie Hunter) and the other by Grammy-winning producer Ted Hutt (Violent Femmes, Old Crow Medicine Show). Despite the long incubation time, the album has the upbeat feeling of a live set, with arrangements worked out by the band during the recording process. “I try not to send the band an ornate demo,” Iguana said. “I just give them the piano, with a simple fake drum beat. I don’t want to poison their process with my suggestions.” 

The album opens with “A Lovely View.” Iguana’s piano plays a simple melodic line, as Ulseth swoons over her attraction for a guy she saw working in a clothing store. Caskey adds a subtle heartbeat to intensify the song’s longing tone. “It’s half dreamy and romantic, half delusional,” Iguana said. “Call it a pandemic-era song of solitude, yearning, fragile mental health and addiction.”

 

VIDEO: The Claudettes “Exposure”

“Exposure” is a kinetic mover, with Verdoorn laying down driving, punky surf guitar hooks to compliment the chanting male chorus, as they describe the tension between the band’s desire for more media exposure and better gigs and a sane private life. Iguana’s driving piano and Ulseth’s upbeat vocals bring a positive sheen to the tension of the COVID lockdown on “Dozing in the Crypt,” a mid-tempo rocker. “The song is macabre, yet groovy,” Iguana said. “It’s danceable as it defiantly insists all is well, despite obvious evidence to the contrary.”

The Claudettes Go Out! shows the band’s mastery of every era of American music, from the roots of the blues, to today’s modern pop.

“We take a lot of flak for our eclectic approach from the business side of the music business,” Iguana said. “The marketing department wants you to check off a few genres to fit into, but we have a lot elements to us. The drummer and I listen to classical music. I found Junior Wells when I was 23 and played with him for a few years. Then, I was in a punk band. I write and play what I like. It’s not a good idea in terms of anything, except being true to myself, musically. There is a Claudettes sound, but it has a lot of elements to it. When we play blues festivals, some people come up and ask us to sign everything. Others say we tricked them and say ‘I don’t know what that was, but it wasn’t the blues.’ I’m not interested in having Zach shredding a lot of blues solos all night long. I’m into songs and good musicianship, not of a bunch of people showing off their technical expertise.” 

 

 

 

 

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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