On their head-spinning new album, The Claudettes summon vaudeville blues, ’60s soul and Cramps-like psychobilly. Behold “Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium!,” the band’s third full-length for Yellow Dog Records and first to feature their touring lineup of piano, drums, “Bass VI” guitar and three singers. Be sure to check out “Don’t Stay with Me” from the release embedded below.
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Sean Ritchie: Let’s start off with your childhood. Talk about what it was like to grow up in New Jersey and later Philadelphia. Where would you go around the area for vacations?
Johnny Iguana: When I was eight we moved to Philadelphia, so we would go to Brigantine and Atlantic City – Wildwood too. I remember the Brigantine Castle when I was a kid. That was a really big thing. It was the scariest place you could go. People would run out of there screaming. We would go down to the Jersey Shore in high school. The guys with their hormones would take the car down to there trying to get lucky. That was always exciting. I think it was only an hour and 15-20 minutes from where we lived.
Wildwood is probably where we went most often. We had friends that were in Ocean City and some others that went to Rehoboth [Beach] in Delaware. That’s where they measure the waves. I was big into the Phillies. I grew up there, and I didn’t realize until after leaving the east coast that I’d miss the sandwiches and the pizza.
When I moved out to the Midwest where I am now in Chicago, my dad would come out to visit and would want to get pizza. I’d tell him, “Dad you’re just going to complain about it.” They don’t know how to do bread out here. I don’t know what it is. In the Midwest there’s no bagels. But, seriously, I get into arguments with people all the time who say that Chicago pizza is the best. I actually think Chicago is the worst pizza town. In New Jersey or Philadelphia, any corner place will have pretty good pizza, where it’s just the right texture. Just forget any kind of “bready” food out here though.
SR: Being from New Jersey myself, I couldn’t agree more. Continuing with Chicago though, what lead you to move out and stay there for as long as you have? What draws you to the city?
JI: There’s something about the east-coast circuit of Baltimore, [Washington] D.C., New York City and Boston. It’s really tough as a musician and it’s really tough to make any money. There’s a sort of attitude there. When I moved out to the Midwest I thought it was kind of slow-paced. The movie “Fargo” had just come out, and I thought that’s what people talked like out here.
Moving from NYC to anywhere though is going to seem slow, but Chicago is a great place to be a musician. The Midwest circuit is much more friendly. You’re more likely to play in front of crowds and making money is more probable out here. Plus, of course, just being in the blues scene here is like a trade here. People come from all over the world to see it. There’s a lot of full houses and great musicians to play with.
Being in the city of Chicago, and doing the cities around here is possible to make a living. It just seems a lot easier here. It’s also about half the expense as living in New York or Boston. I have a house out here with a van and a car in the garage. That’s just not possible in NY. I just had a small studio apartment.
SR: That makes a lot of sense. So, where would you send a first-time visitor within the city?
JI: It just depends what they want to do. Matter of fact, somebody the other day sent me a text and said they were coming into Chicago and wanted to see a blues show, but they don’t want to leave the town. I just think it absurd to pick a venue like that. It’s not about the blues club that you go to, it depends on the human beings that are there. It’s about who’s playing where. If anyone’s asking me to recommend something, I’m immediately going to look at the calendar of who’s playing. There’s something for everyone to do in Chicago, it’s really a multi-various city. There’s all these different pockets of neighborhoods. I guess that’s true for a lot of cities, but it sure is true here.
SR: I wanted to bring it into how you got your start in music. Was it through family or friends? What was your initial exposure to it? How did you eventually get inspired to create your own.
JI: My mother and I started piano lessons with the same teacher on the same day. I was eight and she was probably 32, something like that. She did well at first and I kind of struggled, but eventually I took off and she was stagnant, so she got frustrated and quit. I went on to do five years of lessons from eight to 13. By 13, I felt I didn’t need any more lessons, and that’s when I started making bands.
I was in sort of cover bands at first, and then at 14 or 15, very early, we started writing some songs. By 16, we were doing all of our songs. I got into some blues records and I started playing in a blues band. By the time I was 17, I was playing late-night shows on school nights in bars, very much illegal.
Back then, my friends were not only using, but making fake ID’s, so we were getting into all the bars in Philly when we were 17 years old. This was when it was pre-hologram, so they were pretty easy to make. I got really deep into playing live gigs from a really young age. I still enjoy doing that, but it’s really the writing of the music that I enjoy the most. It’s also the musicians in the band that I want to write for. The Claudettes are so good, and they’re such great people. I’m really excited for all the music we’re going to be writing and playing.
SR: That ties into my next question, you have your “Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium!” album coming out March 23rd on Yellow Dog Records. Talk about that release a bit and how excited you are to have it out.
JI: It started off as just piano, drums and instrumentals, but over time it turned into more than that. We have two really great singers in the group, so I’ve been writing for them. Out of the blue I got an email from Mark Neill who put out the Black Keys’ biggest record called “Brothers”. He produced a lot of other big bands. He had gotten wind of The Claudettes and said, “Hey, if you ever want to make a record, let’s do it.”
It was at the time I was writing all this and making the record, so it was incredibly cosmic timing. We went down there and he had all this vintage equipment, so we really got this rich sound. We didn’t want a bright, modern, compressed, indie or alternative rock sound. We wanted more of a record that you can turn up and it has a timeless feel to it. So, we recorded down there with him and we finally got it all sequenced. And, we’re already getting some pretty nice reviews.
Generally speaking, I take the winter off as far as shows go, especially in the Midwest and having a rear-wheel-drive van. I don’t mess around on icy roads. It’s also such a busy spring, summer and fall, that by the time winter comes the band is whipped out anyway. Sometimes, you schedule a gig and then there’s a foot of snow and you can’t get the van out of the garage. They don’t plow the alleys here in Chicago either. You’d have to begin your journey shoveling multiple feet of snow. Not for me. So, we’re about to go right into playing shows starting on April 4th. It will the first time we have played since mid-December.
SR: Switching it into your personal travels, when you do have some downtime are you more of a beach guy? Are you trying to be near a city? Or, are you trying to be secluded in the mountains somewhere?
JI: Woody Allen had a line in “Annie Hall” where he really tried to underscored what he city guy he was. He was not an outdoorsy guy at all. He said, “I’m two with nature, not one with nature.” I tend to use that line sometimes. When I was young we would got to the beach and Wildwood, but over time I realized that being in the sun and sand, with the oil all over your body, is torture for me. I am the furthest thing from a beach guy you know.
If I’m taking on a vacation I’m going to a city I’ve never been to. I want to go to one that has a lot of history and architecture. I want to go and see that. I don’t necessarily want to go to the institutions, I want to go to the places where the people go.
In the last few years I haven’t taken much, as far as vacations go, with so much traveling just for music. When I’m off I just want to be home, but over the years what I’ve done, is when I’ve had a short European run of shows with a blues group, I’ll invite the Mrs. out to come to the last show. So, she’ll meet me at the last show and then we’ll extend the trip and go somewhere. That way, my plane travel is already covered. The first night of lodging is covered too, so it’s economical.
There was another time I was in Beirut, Lebanon for two days, my wife had come with me. Then after that was done we went to Spain. We decided that we hadn’t been to Spain in a while and the international flight from America was covered already. It was nice to experience a totally different culture in Beirut and then follow that up with a place like Spain. That’s the way I’d like to do it.
SR: That’s definitely the smart way to do it. I heard that you’re also big into food. What are some of the cuisines that have surprised you in the world? Have you gone somewhere that you had your doubts about the food, but you ended up loving it?
JI: I’ve been in a lot of parts of Spain. I got to go to San Sebastián and then Hondarribia, which is in Basque Country near France. So, the cuisine there is Spanish, but it’s got a French influence. There’s one dish they call “pincho” that combines Spanish and French ingredients. That’s really good and it’s not expensive. Before we go I’ll always be doing food research leading up to the trip. Wherever I go I want to try whatever the locals eat. It’s really important to be in good shape to enjoy every meal, because some of the best experiences is having dinner abroad. I’ve eaten snails in caves in France with the ocean lapping up onto the beach. I’m not missing something like that.
SR: Absolutely not, something like that is unforgettable. I love to ask well-traveled people if they have any destinations that they haven’t been to, but still want to hit. Are there two or three on your list?
JI: I like the idea of going to Russia, because that’s where my ancestors are from – Lithuania too. I’d like to go there. I took a lot of Russian literature in college. Both my dad and my sister have been to Israel, so I’d really like to get there. One of my friends who is really well traveled said that his favorite trip was to Istanbul. He saw one of the wonders of the world. It was stalactite/stalagmite caves in Turkey. He said that between that and the city it just amazing. I would really like to go there.
I know in recent years it’s gotten a bad rap, because there were bombings in the airport. All the people were saying it’s a really unsecured airport, so it’s kind of been off my list. Although, my parents freaked out when I told them I was going to Beirut. I then researched that zero American tourists had been killed there. It didn’t really happen. And, our security for that trip was the police. I was so glad we went there, because we went out on a boat in the ocean. There were belly dancers and we a great dinner.
SR: Lastly, I know you have a busy next couple of months with your album just releasing and your run of shows starting, but is there anything else upcoming that you want to touch on?
JI: No, just whoever reads this should go to The Claudettes website to see where we’re going to be, because we’re going to be traveling from the Midwest to the East Coast, as well as in Europe for a few dates. We’re going to be traveling far-and-wide. We put a lot of heart and soul into our music, because we know how precious and fleeting life is. It’s a really special experience. A lot of people have come up and talked to me about how they’ve been moved by it.