Step into the Claudettes’ ‘Garage Cabaret’

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

You can certainly feel the hurt coming off High Times in the Dark, the Claudettes’ fifth album out April 3 on Forty Below Records. Take the album-ending ode to a low-down lover, “The Sun Will Fool You,” on which Berit Ulseth’s tender vocals and Johnny Iguana’s gentle piano playing combine mightily and magnificently to wreck you.

But as the album title indicates, hope and fun are also plentiful on High Times, which is delightfully propelled forward through a sound the band has dubbed “garage cabaret.” “Bad, Babe Losin’ Touch” and “Creeper Weed” are shining examples of this rough and groovy mix.

The Chicago-based band were due in Milwaukee at Shank Hall on April 2, but the show has been canceled because of the COVID-19 outbreak. On the plus side, which seems to be difficult to locate these days, you can listen to Iguana perform that same day, April 2, at 7:30 p.m. CST on Facebook as part of Americana Highways’ Live Music From the Quarantine series. The performance will be archived on the organization’s Facebook page, where viewers can also contribute to musicians.

Iguana, who wrote all the songs on High Times in the Dark, talked to us recently about the Claudettes and their wonderful new album:

Was it a love of Roy Orbison or something else that brought The Claudettes together? The Claudettes began as an instrumental duo (piano and drums), playing a gonzo/burlesque/vaudeville-style blues. But we evolved into the quartet we are now: a vocal group led by Berit Ulseth but still centered around the piano, and rooted in blues, jazz, rockabilly and other American roots music but extending into classical, indie rock, punk and all the other music we love. Despite all that, I think we have a very unified, distinctive Claudettes sound that’s at once familiar and unlike anyone else.

As a band noted for your live show is there a stage or event where you would like to perform or would have liked to perform? I love playing blues and jazz festivals, where the roots of our music is felt and understood but our unique, vibrant songs and the emotions we wear on our sleeves have more of an impact than groups who mostly prize musicianship and pure tradition. I’ve played Montreux otherwise and would like to see us there. I’d like to play the Love Supreme festival in the UK. I’d like to play New Morning in Paris. The Jazz Cafe in London. I’ve played these places with blues bands, and the Claudettes would have more of an impact there than anyone I’ve previously played with in those venues. I think our songs and Berit’s singing speak directly to people.

You call your sound “garage cabaret.” Can you break down what that means to you? We have a punky spirit and energy, but our tracks are centered around acoustic piano and feature the sublime, warm, understated vocals of Berit Ulseth. We've got one foot in the garage and the other in a jazz lounge. Our decibels aren’t high but our energy and emotional content are. Violent Femmes (speaking of Milwaukee) did the unthinkable and came out of punk/new-wave as an acoustic band. That was revolutionary and highly effective, and they also had the SONGS to make their mark. With us being a punky roots band built around the piano, and also, I believe, having the songs to really reach people, I think the Claudettes are a very special band in that same way. I somehow feel objective about this, which I know is absurd and is the way everyone feels about “their baby,” but there we are.

Pianist Johnny Iguana worked with Junior Wells, Buddy Guy and other blues legends. Did any of the legends you worked with ever give you any advice or instruction about music or life that you'll never forget? Junior Wells just had this greatness to him, even in the daytime at a diner while we were on a 35-day tour. And he expected you to be ON YOUR TOES on stage. He issued out solos like a gunslinger, suddenly pointing at you and you’d better just rip, right away, or be chastised, live on stage, and maybe even fined (I kid you not). It’s hard to express what he taught me, but he and several other band members (who’d played with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Albert King, James Cotton and more) just taught me to be comfortable and cocky on stage and to not overplay and to entertain even as I practiced musicianship.

What is about drummers that lead to breaking hearts? That’s just my own personal history: drummers leaving me at a time where I had no replacement (a result, at least on one occasion, of my insistence on PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE), drummers succumbing to alcoholism and dying young, drummers suddenly leaving due to catastrophic health conditions. I think it’s a coincidence that it's all drummers who’ve broken my heart, but it sure is uncanny. But rather than write a song about that, literally, I liked the idea of asking Berit to sing about failed romantic relationships with a series of drummers. All the details of the song are based on true events and people.

I love the title High Times in the Dark, which seems to touch on the healing power of music and reflects the songs in the album well. Are there albums or artists that you typically turn to in “dark” times? Thank you. I spent a while trying to determine the right title for this set of songs, and that emerged as the most honest. The darkness of this time on Earth, and in America, and the dark events that have happened to the people in this band—it’s a lot to contend with. But you should see us at a good band practice. Last week we poured Manhattans and had such a great band practice. We would like a career out of this, but the birth of a new song is what keeps us all inspired and motivated to be together, on stage, in the studio, in our practice space. I have a new song (for the next album, I hope) called “The Italian Masters.” It's about the thankfulness I feel for the instrumental compositions of composers from 250 years ago, who seemed to presage how I’d be feeling today. I feel a connection to them, a gratitude, an understanding. Berit texted me at three in the morning that she was obsessed with this new song. That lit up my life. May I share the lyrics?: THE ITALIAN MASTERS Thank heaven for the arpeggio Her phrases betray what I’d never say As the notes die away, my love And long live the ostinato Your rhythms let slip what would never pass my lips My fingertips speak my love The Italian masters somehow knew How I'd want to play for you And this they encrypted In their manuscript And, oh, to hear you, sostenuto Hiding in your blur are the words that seek expression My tones are confessions: my love The Italian masters knew from the start The Italian masters perfected the art Of predicting my heart Of depicting my heart Of helping all future players Peel back the layers To get to the core of the song Ignore all my bungled words This melody is what I meant all along I’ll even share an unlisted YouTube video of us recording a live demo of it. Why not? As for artists who I turn to: it’s mostly Chopin. I've been playing it with tears in my eyes, and it’s like a cleansing. When I was 14, it was Echo & the Bunnymen’s Heaven Up Here album.

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