Johnny Iguana is the pianist and founder of The Claudettes, a band from Chicago with a new album out this year from Yellow Dog Records. Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium, the group’s third album, strikes some very strong chords with a unique sound that draws from different influences like blues, jazz, rock, and more. Aside from Iguana’s powerful piano chords, the band comprised of Berit Ulseth (vocals), Zach Verdoorn (bass guitar and vocals), and Matt Torre (drums). The Claudettes are currently on a new tour that will bring them to cities in the Midwest, the East Coast, and even across the Atlantic to Europe.
How do you feel about coming to the East Coast for the tour?
I grew up in the East Coast, so I always have a special place in my heart for our East Coast swings. Lots of good old friends to see in the circuit of Baltimore, DC, Philly, New York, Boston. It’s that good old stretch over there. I love doing that! I’ll be out there in about one month from now.
What was the piano like that you played on for the album?
That’s funny. On arrival, I told the producer (Mark Neill) I had a nightmare that his piano didn’t even have the right number of keys and that it was screwed up in different ways. This band started out as piano and drums and it evolved over time to take on other instruments and singers, but the piano is still really central to everything. I couldn’t really verify that this piano would be anywhere between playable and enjoyable for me for this record until we got [to the studio].
I made a beeline for that thing as soon as we walked in. I don’t think I even took my backpack off. His piano is kind of not a famous brand piano. I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into, but he assured me it was a really good piano. I think it’s a Japanese piano. It was pretty unassuming looking, right in the corner. But it played great and worked for our purposes. We just recorded the way Mark had us record. It was almost like a jazz band. We played very quietly, even though we played with a lot of intensity but we had to play quietly because he used old vintage mics and preamps. The only way to get the sound you want is to play at a quiet volume level even if it’s a rocking song. We played almost like an acoustic, jazz band volume, even though that’s not the way the record sounds.
Where does the album title come from?
It came from the instrumental [track], which has some oo-ing and ahh-ing. The first two records put out by the Claudettes had almost all instrumentals on them. I really love the art of titling instrumentals. Usually after the music is complete, it takes me quite a long while to finalize the title because it has to feel right. For that particular tune, I wanted something that had like a retro feel to it and picturing a high school dance with chaperones like in the early 1960s. It was the imagery I had in my head with a sort of panic or urgency to it. It had a spinning newspaper headline in my head: Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium! As the album finished, I felt it was a good title for the energy of the album.
Have you recorded other albums with your newest singer, Berit Ulseth?
We did an digital only EP with Yellow Dog first. I don’t like driving the van in the winter. It is icy everywhere and I’m safety conscious having been in some accidents, but I also don’t want to hang it up for the winter. We filmed a bunch of videos that winter, kept writing and practicing. We recorded ourselves around my piano playing a stripped down, unplugged setting. It sounded so good Yellow Dog wanted to put it out in an EP. It just won an Independent Music Award for best Live (Performance) EP a couple of weeks ago.
What was it like to bring Berit into the band?
The drummer that was playing with us at the time played in a country group with her. She was singing mostly back-up vocals. He told me, “Man, sometimes she let loose at the studio and really sang out. She’s really something special.”
It was at the time I was looking for a singer. I had her over and I had songs I’d been writing. I set up Pro Tools on the computer with a microphone and I said to her, “Here are the parts. Let’s do some test recordings.”
In roots and blues and anything that crosses over there, there’s a tendency to have singers really belt it out. I’m thinking Alabama Shakes and a number of bluesy groups, especially with female singers where you’re supposed to be a red hot mama or a diva. What I really liked about Berit was that the music is excitable and hot, yet she is cool and above it all. It was why Mark Neill our producer prepared us from the beginning with me like Louis Prima and her being Keeley Smith. I’m too much energy and bouncing off the walls while she’s rolling her eyes at me. That would be the correct dynamic for this group.
She’s a really great singer and she has a tone that is really earthy and warm, like Patsy Cline or Carole King. She studied jazz vocals at The New School in New York. In the van, she is our Spotify DJ, constantly playing new indie rock and different music. She has a wide array of music she loves, which she brings to the table. It would have been boring for me to put this band together with bluesy players in Chicago, because there are already so many here. I wanted a band with distinct personalities. That’s where an interesting band and a unique sound comes from.
I’ve seen the album described in your press materials as addressing “the divisive effects of the Internet-dominated world.” How did the idea come to you for the album?
I didn’t have a concept for the album in that respect. I had a bunch of songs I’d been working on. The last song of the album, “Utterly Absurd,” has these lines in it: “Thought dies as transmission rise. ‘I’ll look it up’ has devoured ‘I know’. Fast and now killed I know how.” When I was a kid growing up, I felt like you’re supposed to exercise your brain as much as you could and cram as much information in there. Writers were expected to know basic characters and plot lines of the Bible and Greek and Roman mythology. Now it’s a Googling world, which seems disappointing to me. That’s a general “Ah, kids these days.” But I think older people are more liable to Google and be on Facebook than younger people I know. My parents – I kind of regret we’re Facebook friends because I cannot post anything on there without my mother reading it right away and commenting. We don’t agree on everything either. You can’t unfriend your mother, can you? (laughs)
How did you develop an interest in the piano?
Speaking of my mother, she and I started piano lessons the same day with the same teacher when I was eight and she was like 35 in New Jersey. She was doing well. I was struggling and then I started getting excited about it and taking off. She plateaued and quit in a huff. I had lessons for five years with three different teachers. I got so obsessed with it. It didn’t matter what the weather was, I’d be inside at the piano all day. My mother was driving me to band practice by the time I was 13. In band, we were writing all our music by the time we were 15.
The only time I really stopped was when our band got in a really bad accident, which is why I’m so safety conscious. A drunk driver hit us at noon on a Friday and I had to take a year off to fix my hand. It’s as gruesome as you might picture it where my wrist wasn’t in the right place anymore and bones were broken … In order to get your hand working the right way again, they start you on physical therapy the day after your surgery. There was a big, tough Chicago cop who was crying at class because both of his wrists were broken. They make you take a hammer and let it fall this way or that way…
Whenever I play on a good tour, it’s always in part of my mind: being thankful that I can play. Days before the surgery, I met with the surgeon and he said, “I cannot promise you that you’ll be able to play piano again.” I was completely broken because that’s where my heart is. I was glad to be the star student of physical therapy class for six months.
What’s a lesson you’ve learned over the years as a musician?
I really love new chord progressions and all the time I’m learning new voicing and different ways of speaking the instrument on piano. I spend a lot of time experimenting … listening to our vocal harmonies and practice tapes to see what could be better. It’s endless fun for me. My band mates are really excellent players and singers. It’s a blessing to be in the van with them and go do all these shows together. I wrote a song that sums that up. It’s not on this album. It’s a new one called “The Show Must Go On (and Then the Show Must End).” It’s about putting everything you can into what you’re doing in life with the knowledge that it’s ephemeral, it’s fleeting. People and relationships don’t last forever. Count yourself lucky if you’re in a group and a time in each of your lives where you’re brought together. You have triumphs together and make some recordings that are permanent. It’s something to be proud of and happy about.