Not Squares. Never Were.
The Claudettes Are Just a Really Damn Good Band
The Claudettes are one of the most delightfully unclassifiable bands currently running. They formed in 2010 as an instrumental piano/drums duo pounding out a tight, cartoonishly vaudevillian hybrid of Chicago/New Orleans-steeped blues, jazz and soul music, occasionally accompanied by nutty theatrical flourishes. The addition of a charismatic female vocalist/dancer prompted a brief flirtation with sassy French yé-yé music. The current and, thus far, most stable lineup boasts a different frontwoman as well as a guitarist/bassist – with their style incorporating more depth and variety than ever. Pianist Johnny Iguana even describes his playing on the group’s next album – which they recently finished recording – as “classical-esque” on many songs, a vibe rooted in 1960s and ‘70s pop on others, and an overall “autumnal,” melancholy mood reminiscent of “The Sun Will Fool You,” the stunning heartbreaker that closes their latest long-player High Times in the Dark with such lingering enchantment.
Make no mistake: The Claudettes are no novelty act. And High Times in the Dark ranks among the finest albums of 2020. The quartet expands its musical and emotional range to great effect, juggling genres with such dexterity and inspiration they’ve baked up a style all their own. Lead singer Berit Ulseth finds her confidence on this one, captivating all within earshot whether with breezy pop elevations, sly cabaret seductions or wistful reflections that melt you where you stand. Guitarist/bassist Zach Verdoorn lends texture and flavor – and his co-lead vocal turn with Ulseth on the sobering rumination “I Don’t Do That Stuff Anymore” makes it one of the album’s highlights. Original drummer Michael Caskey is back in the fold after several years pursuing other projects; a Magna Cum Laude graduate of Western Michigan University’s school of music, he brings a jazz bippity-bop to the sound. And Iguana – who writes all the band’s material – dominates on the keys, zipping and dipping with the moods; his technique has such a playful aspect to it, that barrelhouse boogie-woogie influence really lends their music a fun, giddy core that holds your attention. The ties to their blues roots are still evident, but they’re bleeding into palettes of so many other colors now. You know how Blondie was such a great, fun, powerful pop band that went in so many different musical directions but kept their focus and their personality? Or how NRBQ gleefully absorbed any style and made it work for them? In their own way, with their own particular sound, The Claudettes have evolved into something comparable.
Iguana’s been tinkling the ivories in one form or another since he started taking lessons at age eight, around the time his family moved from New Jersey to a Philadelphia suburb. At that time he was known by the name his parents laid on him: Brian Berkowitz. “By the time I was 12 I was startin’ to play with some friends, and getting books full of music. I was playing everything from Michael Jackson to Rush on the piano, playing like [Rush’s] ‘YYZ’ on the piano!” he laughs. “I started being in bands when I was 13 – you know, my mother bringing me to practice. And then by the time I was 14 and 15 we were doing a lot of our own songs.
“I got my fake ID when I was 15,” he continues. “I was down in the city all the time, going to clubs and seeing all kinds of bands. I found a route where I could drive down to the city in 28 minutes, and I just took full advantage of the pre-hologram fake ID days and went to see music as much as I could.”
Another significant revelation came at that pivotal age, when Berkowitz’s uncle gave him some old blues records, including Hoodoo Man Blues by Junior Wells.
“My friends and I just completely flipped for [it]… you know, we thought Chicago blues was probably something pretty old-timey, but something about that Hoodoo Man Blues album never sounds tired or antique or anything. It just sounds like discovery, like they were onto something… When Junior sang ‘Snatch It Back and Hold It,’ it’s got so much spittle in it! You know, he’s just in the mood for love, and he’s feelin’ totally cocky out there on the stage, and the world was his. And the band’s nice and kinda sloppy, hahaha! It hit me the same way that punk records did. I didn’t see much difference. You know, I’m a big Hüsker Dü fan, and my wife likes Motörhead, and I’ll hear some Motörhead and be like, ‘God, these bands sound similar to me!’ You can call one metal and one punk, but there’s a lot of similar energy, and even tone. And even chord changes.”
Brian joined his first blues band by the time he was 16, which is how he came to be Johnny Iguana: everyone in the band took on a reptile-themed stage name. Upon graduating from college with an English degree, he moved to New York City and took a job writing the back-cover text for books. His life completely changed, though, when he happened to meet his blues hero Junior Wells, and Wells invited the 22-year-old to move to Chicago and join his band. “Johnny Iguana” came out of his brief retirement – for good.
“For a while, I felt sort of completely leading a blessed life, because not only did I join the Junior Wells band, but I had Otis Rush’s number in my address book – I could call him and say hello, and it’d be Otis Rush on the phone! I never would’ve believed that as a teenager,” he remembers. “[Wells] kind of took me under his wing, and really gave me a lot of solos, and demanded a lot from me in a very encouraging way. He would just point at me onstage, to take a solo. I wasn’t really good enough to be in that band when I joined. I was good enough when I left, but when I joined I was mostly just very enthusiastic and familiar with his music, and they liked me and they liked that it meant so much to me, and they knew that I would work hard and not just be like a jaded musician who doesn’t really care and a gig’s a gig. I wasn’t that at all. So that was a really beautiful welcome into that whole scene.
“I [played with Wells] for three years. And, to tell you the truth, when I joined the band there were veterans of the B.B. King band, Albert King’s band, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ band, just all these veterans of all these great groups, and they had a lot to teach me, and they were a lot older than me. And then over time membership changed, and it became more people like me – it was almost like a ‘youth movement’ in the band. And I started not being as excited about it. I was like, I wanna learn from these people who can really teach me, where I can learn almost by osmosis, and not just people like me.”
Playing with Wells led to Iguana lending his keyboard talents to recordings by a host of other blues greats in the ensuing years, such as James Cotton, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Eddy Clearwater, John Primer and Billy Boy Arnold, the latter two of which he recently reunited with for an album celebrating Chicago blues (more about that later). He also had a few indie rock bands, the most successful of which was one called Oh My God. A bass-and-organ-based duo formed in the late ‘90s, augmented by various other players over the ensuing decade, they released several albums, toured heavily and, like The Claudettes, were eclectic style-hoppers, if decidedly more rock-oriented and avant-garde.
By the time that outfit dissolved, Iguana longed for a return to rootsier blues and jazz styles, not to mention acoustic piano.
“I was really inspired by these Otis Spann/S.P. Leary duo recordings that Otis Spann did for this [mid-1960s] compilation series called Chicago/The Blues/Today! They were half and half instrumental and vocal tunes, and it was just piano and a drum set, and Otis Spann was very unusual in that he was not only the king of the Chicago blues piano players, but he was also, for my money, maybe the best Chicago blues singer out there. Just an incredible and beautiful singer. You can’t find anything where he doesn’t just sound sublime,” Iguana enthuses, calling from his Chicago home with his 18-year-old cat complaining about something in the background. “I knew I wasn’t gonna be a singer…but I wanted to see if I could make a record that was just piano and drums, that was compelling all the way through… I knew it wasn’t gonna be straight blues. There’s no point in trying to compete with my heroes that way. And, you know, I grew up on Hüsker Dü and Minutemen and Meat Puppets as much as I did Otis Spann and Muddy Waters, so I knew it was gonna be kind of all of that, and my love of classical and some of the things that cross over into jazz, like Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff, and Bobby Timmons and Mose Allison… So the compositions that came out were kind of like cartoon music, like Raymond Scott – sort of a bluesy, jazzy underpinning, but it’s kind of out there and idiosyncratic, and has its own voice. That’s kind of what I settled on for the first couple of Claudettes albums – kind of a vaudeville/burlesque kind of blues thing [with] a little bit of a trippy vibe to it.”
After a few years playing assorted Windy City and Illinois dive bars, including the one in Oglesby, Illinois that inspired the band’s name, the rollicking and witty Infernal Piano Plot…Hatched! captured that instrumental incarnation of The Claudettes in 2013. Two years later, No Hotel augmented the debut’s approach with their yé-yé flings, courtesy of Nigerian-American singer Yana Atim.
“She actually was mostly a dancer and a makeup artist and a costume designer,” Iguana laughs. “But I knew that she would be striking as hell onstage – I mean, she had a Grace Jones kind of a look, and an ability to walk into a room and have everybody shut their mouths. She would come up and just basically dance to some of the instrumentals. She had a particular passion for French yé-yé music – you know, the French ‘60s music that was mostly rooted in American R&B and blues, but with cool French guys in berets and sunglasses. And there were also a bunch of female yé-yé singers, and she just loved that stuff. She didn’t really speak French, but she spoke it a little, and she was able to sort of learn it almost phonetically, and she brought a bunch of those songs to the table. But that was relatively short-lived. We weren’t all that harmonious a group of human beings, apart from the stage, so it was not destined to last a long time.”
The lineup fluctuations resulted in a new drummer, Matthew Torre, who recommended they try out the singer for a country band he’d played in. Berit Ulseth was a trained jazz vocalist, “but she loves singing country, and so she’s kind of a studied singer, but mostly she can kind of just woo you with one note,” Iguana points out. “She’s got such a warm tone… I’m really lucky to be able to write for a singer like that, where I just wanna bask in that voice. She’s gone from good to fantastic [since joining].”
Their first album with Ulseth (and other new addition Verdoorn, who’d played with Oh My God for a spell), 2018’s Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium! greatly expanded The Claudettes’ sound and instrumentation, with more serious, emotional songs suited for Berit’s voice. For the recording of that one, the group traveled to Valdosta, Georgia to record with Mark Neill, who produced The Black Keys’ 2010 breakthrough Brothers as well as albums by Old 97’s, Deke Dickerson and Los Straitjackets, among others. Why is Neill producing records in Valdosta, of all places? Well, for one thing, it’s where he and Bruce Joyner went to Valdosta State University before splitting for San Diego in the late ‘70s and forming a short-lived garage/punk band (Neill on guitar, Joyner on keyboards and vocals) called The Unknowns, who recorded for Sire and Bomp. Obviously, he feels more at home in sweltering South Georgia, where the palmetto bugs are the size of chihuahuas – much to the horror of The Claudettes, whose Airbnb accommodations during the sessions turned out to be a trailer.
The creative stretching of Dance Scandal proved to be a key shift in direction for the group, and there’s certainly some terrific material on it. But there’s something lacking about it, too… it just doesn’t gel in a compelling manner. Johnny attributes part of that to Berit’s discomfort with the recording situation.
“Mark is actually a really great musician,” Johnny says. “He’s just a really good rockabilly/Western Swing-but-also-loves-punk kinda guitar player. And he was a real interesting guy to work with. But that was Berit’s first time in the studio, and their personalities were not a great match, and she was kind of cowed, I thought, during it. She was a little bit daunted, and hesitant. [Neill] also had us listen to a lot of other music before the vocal takes, and I think it just kind of tired her out. And you can kind of hear it. And I remember thinking, ‘Man, we just didn’t get what I know she can do on this record.’ Because I think she was somewhere between shy and frightened. And there’s only so much you can do to coax someone out of that.”
Whatever issues conspired to diminish Dance Scandal were clearly exorcised by the time they made High Times in the Dark. Produced by Flogging Molly founding member Ted Hutt, it’s a crafty, kickin’ joy from curtain-up to curtain-down. The entire band, and most certainly Berit, shines and lets loose with assured, experienced intent. They know exactly what they’re doing, and it just sounds wonderful.
“[Hutt] had an energy that was slightly silly, very smart and funny, and just relaxing, and [Berit] felt very comfortable. And you can hear it. You can hear the comfort of somebody. When the album was finished, Ted Hutt went back to L.A., and the last thing he said to me was, ‘I think this record’s gonna get Berit really, really well known.’ He was just kind of blown away by her, because she just was so great in the studio… It’s really a moment in time where… everybody in the band felt really good about the songs, and they weren’t like old, hackneyed songs for us. We had not been playing them that long. But we practiced them a lot, and made demo recordings to see what we could do better, and actually Ted came in with a lot of ideas… We were all feeling really good, and feeling confident, and loved the sounds we were hearing. It wasn’t pins and needles or anything like that. You’re hearing swagger and happiness. And then we’ve got a couple of the really downbeat songs and had to get into that zone, too, and change the lighting in the studio and that kinda thing, but we were feeling kind of on fire at the time, and that’s hard to manufacture.”
More recently, Johnny’s released another project close to his heart: an album on Delmark Records named Johnny Iguana’s Chicago Spectacular, which is sort of a return to the jumpin’ blues piano style of the early Claudettes but with full instrumentation. A handful of tracks from Infernal Piano Plot are revisited, in fact (Caskey’s among the players), along with numbers originally done by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Roosevelt Sykes and Otis Spann, recorded with a living who’s who of the Chicago blues scene, old and young and in between: Lil’ Ed, Bob Margolin, Billy Flynn, Phillip-Michael Scales (B.B. King’s nephew), Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, John Primer, Billy Boy Arnold and others.
“We really wanted to make a great Chicago blues piano record, and kind of spotlight the giants of the past here, but also include my own voice on the record, musically speaking,” Iguana enthuses. “It was another session that I’m just really thankful for. Everyone came in and was in great spirits, and was really inspired by how great everything was sounding, Two of the lead singers on it – Billy Boy Arnold and John Primer – are 85 and 75. Billy Boy turned 85 six days ago… You know, as a kid, he took a harmonica lesson from the most mythical Chicago bluesman there is, the first Sonny Boy Williamson, in the ‘40s. He played harp on Bo Diddley’s classic sessions. And his old original singles from the ‘50s, they’re kind of punky. People kind of… expect him to do this elegant, old-timey stuff, but if you listen to his ’50s stuff, it’s gritty. It’s really gritty and kinda grimy and garagey. I love it! So was the Sonny Boy stuff. The first Sonny Boy’s stuff, it’s not folky, old-timey music… You know, all over the world there are these duos and trios of people playing garagey, bluesy, punky stuff, and that’s where it’s rooted. It’s not square. And it never was.”
Photo by Timothy Hiatt.