The Claudettes begin a whole new era with the Chicago group’s upcoming third album, Dance Scandal At The Gymnasium!, whose “Give It All Up For Good” is premiering exclusively below.
The 12-song set, coming March 23, showcases a different lineup of the band, one that’s been honed via live performance during the past two years and that showcases vocalist Berit Ulseth. But that’s only made the Claudettes’ distinct and idiosyncratic blend — punk, blues, R&B, rockabilly, some jazz — more potent. “I want to be original and striking and expressive within a roots setting,” pianist and songwriter Johnny Iguana tells Billboard. “That’s where the band originated, so I don’t want to get too far away from it. It’s important to me to have the word ‘roots’ or ‘blues’ in the description. But I want to be able to argue our way into blues festivals, jazz festivals, any great venues in those musics we’d consider the ‘roots’ sound.”
Iguana and company — which also includes Zach Verdoorn on bass and adding guitar to the mix on Dance Scandal and drummer Matt Torre — got help in this endeavor from producer Mark Neill (the Black Keys), who was referred to Iguana by Dave Cobb. “For this record I wanted another set of ears, someone to bring ideas and use the studio as an instrument,” notes Iguana, who helmed the Claudettes’ two predecessors. The group certainly got that when it recorded amidst the vintage gear at Neill’s Soil of the South studio in Georgia — almost to a fault, according to Iguana.
“It was an interesting experience, not always relaxing,” Iguana recalls. “(Neill) has a very, very, very rigid sense of principles of what’s right and what’s not when you record. Once he heard the melody and lyrics we came up with he would sit us down and play music for hours, endless 45s of the Turtles and the Zombies and 60s recordings, and then let us go in and start a take.” There were tensions over time (“I’m like, ‘We’re paying for this. The clock is ticking!'” Iguana says) and even a few fights about mixing. But all was forgiven when the final version of Dance Scandal came through.
“We had to kind of conform and say ‘This is an experiment. This guy makes great records; I don’t want to fight for ego’s sake,'” Iguana says. “Once I put the record aside and then came back to it, it felt like a pretty magical thing. It makes no concessions to modern, brittle, over-produced, over-compressed indie rock. It’s really warm and alive and really what we wanted to sound like.”
Iguana points to the exhaled breaths in “Give It Up For Good” as a result of the Neill boot camp. “It sounds like the Zombies’ ‘Time Of The Season’ or Jimi Hendrix on ‘All Along The Watchtower,'” Iguana says. “He managed to get a really dry kind of funky, tight recording and have these moments of long reverb trails.” And with its opening lament that “nobody knows how to talk to each other these days” and observation that “everyone around me is going inane,” “Give It Up For Good” stakes out a bit of social commentary as well.
“It kind of developed from when I go to hand out band flyers,” Iguana explains. “People are so tuned into their devices and virtual friends now. I walk around the bars here in Chicago and say, ‘Hey, my band’s playing down the street Friday night,’ and people are so stunned someone would be in their space like that. It’s, like, shocking behavior. How did that happen?” The song then expands to address characters coping with various struggles — “Everywhere I look now everything is failing into place” — as Iguana tries to balance encouragement with reality.
“You know, we always say that when sometimes life gets you down, so you’ve got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, get back on the horse and the crowd claps. That’s not the way it works,” he explains. “A lot of times you feel like just slinking down the road with your head hung low. You have days and stretches in your life where you don’t necessarily get back up. The original title was ‘(Pick Yourself Up and Dust Yourself Off and) Give It All Up For Good,’ but that was too long.”
The Claudettes take Dance Scandal on the road starting April 4 in the U.S., with European dates planned for the summer. The audiences continue to get larger, and Iguana enjoys the exercise of turning newcomers into believers. “When we have gotten onto these blues festivals some people are confused but a lot of people come up to me and are excited about it,” he says. “They recognize the touchstones that are in there. We still do instrumentals and we have a big repertoire and we do covers; We can lean on some of that stuff to not scare people, but they always sound like the Claudettes. And that’s OK, I want to do some scaring of people.”