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Feature – The Claudettes

| April 9, 2020

Symphonic cartoon-music maestro Raymond Scott meets titanic blues pianist Otis Spann meets punk iconoclasts the Minutemen. The Stooges meet Burt Bacharach, without the horns. French yé-yé pop at the old west saloon. These off-kilter combinations aren’t deliberately ironic; they’re legitimate attempts to make an elevator pitch for Chicago’s baffling, delightful, and utterly unique band The Claudettes. The quartet has borrowed from the Sundays’ twee indie-pop, mashed up Otis Redding and Pink Floyd, nodded to jazz and blues masters alike, and stolen a drum fill from Steppenwolf. Despite all odds, the band’s haywire musical compass has pointed the way toward a sophisticated, satisfying, and quixotically cohesive sound. The Claudettes are grand champions leading a genre of precisely one band.

“Recently, I decided on ‘garage cabaret’ for our sound, says Claudettes pianist/songwriter Johnny Iguana. “I like how it captures the punk spirit mixed with silky, jazzy sounds we employ. But it’s still not perfect. It’s admittedly hard to define, and that causes music-biz problems. How about, ‘Hard to name, easy to love’ as a band slogan?”

“No, wait,” says Iguana with a laugh. “That stinks.”

The Claudettes began in 2011 as a piano-drums duo by Iguana and Michael Caskey, both of whom are veterans of Chicago post-punk legends oh my god. The pair was initially an instrumental endeavor with a theatrical component, posing as an evicted barkeeper’s house band willing to play anywhere, anytime. The Claudettes thrilled listeners at Buddy Guy’s Legends and confused shoppers at a Staples office supply store. They refined their formula, adding singer/dancer Yana Atim for 2015’s No Hotel album. Caskey was called away in early 2016, and Atim departed that same year. Iguana went through another pair of drummers. More on the drummers later.

Later in 2016, however, the pieces began falling into place by both kinds of luck. Good fortune brought Iguana into contact with singer Berit Ulseth. The band released a third album DANCE SCANDAL AT THE GYMNASIUM! (helmed by Grammy-winning Black Keys producer Mark Neill) in 2018. “I had known drummer Matt Torre from yet another one of my bands, Software Giant,” says Iguana. “Matt told me that he had also been in a country band and that the band’s backup singer was woefully underutilized. He said she was a magnificent singer back there in the shadows.” Both Berit and Matt joined The Claudettes for the DANCE SCANDAL album. Matt soon left and was replaced by Danny Yost, a longtime friend and bandmate of Claudettes bassist/guitarist (and additional oh my god alumnus) Zach Verdoorn.

Bad luck removed Danny Yost from the drum throne due to health issues, paving the way for Caskey’s nonetheless welcome return. “A whole lot of heartache and drama led us right back to where we started, with me and Michael Caskey together in The Claudettes,” says Iguana. “But this is a ‘two peas in a pod’ situation. I don’t have to explain any musical ideas to Michael. Our sound together really is The Claudettes. That was the original idea for the band: me being me in a bluesy way on acoustic piano, and him being him with all his chops and personality, both of which are outsized and prodigious.”

The stabilized Claudettes lineup has built power during two years of steady work and hard miles, producing its crowning achievement. Fourth album High Times in the Dark is packed with memorable melodies, stunning performances, and stories that are witty and wise, as well as touching and timely. “We are aware of the dark mood of these days,” says Iguana. “Despite that, we’re determined to celebrate the things and people we love. We’re going to have fun.”

“I find myself increasingly writing songs in the thematic vein of the Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize?” Songs that celebrate–not mourn–the precious, fragile, ephemeral nature of our most important alliances like marriages and bands. I want people to try to remember to be romantic and loving and thankful during such blips in time.”

For the first time, Iguana wrote songs specifically for Ulseth’s voice. “I’ve really gotten to know her sweet spots in terms of octave range and what kinds of phrases to accent or avoid,” he says. “It makes the demos so exciting for me to see songs arrive as I’d envisioned, with her singing them so beautifully. It’s like, ‘My plan! It worked! It’s alive!’”

The song “You Drummers Keep Breaking My Heart” tells a tale years in the making, reaching back to Iguana’s history with oh my god. The lyrics recast Iguana’s history in the rhythm section as one fractious and failed romance after another. “Every verse in the song is true, about my past drummers leaving me in some way,” says Iguana. “Whether by death, illness or as one lyric says, ‘one got sick of me, the other just got sick.’ But I thought it was a good idea to have Berit sing as if they’re her past boyfriends, rather than my past bandmates.”

“The Sun Will Fool You” is a tender and perceptive observation with roots at home. “My nine-year-old noted that the February sun in Chicago was big and bright but offered zero heat,” says Iguana. “‘You know, the sun will fool you,’ he said in the car. It made me think about people who everyone thinks are warm, but they’re actually brutally cold. And how all of us, sometimes, turn on that cold and hurt those we love just to gain advantage or exact revenge. It’s a uniquely human skill that causes a lot of pain.”

Ulseth shines on shades of star-crossed romance, including the rockabilly “Bad Babe Losin’ Touch,” the restless tango “I Swear to God I Will,” and the brash kiss-off “Declined.” “Berit loves to sing country and has that warm, pure country tone, and yet also went to jazz school for vocals,” says Iguana. “I think she’s ideally suited for torch songs, and she’s got an air of mystery that adds an extra layer of seduction.”

Bassist Zach Verdoorn steps forward to sing lead on “I Don’t Do That Stuff Anymore,” an evocative portrait of teenage years and their combination of lust for life and near-death experiences. “Zach and I had shared stories of dramatically dumb choices made during our high school years,” Iguana says. “We talked about a fondness for those times, but also our collective head-shaking at the almost unbelievable recklessness. Also, Zach has a beautiful voice that I wanted to feature. There’s a real vulnerability to his singing.” Verdoorn burns up the fretboard on “24/5,” a comical song in which Ulseth urges an overzealous lover to give it a rest, already.

The album’s impact aligns with the band’s overall purpose. Iguana wants The Claudettes to spark joy despite contrary circumstances, and he figures what works for him will work for others. “Travel around in a van playing music you’ve written. This is my advice to myself and everyone else. Just figure out a way to do that. I don’t know how people get by without music.”

– Jeff Elbel

The Claudettes record release show at FitzGerald’s was postponed due to stay at home orders and will be rescheduled


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