Hi Johnny, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
Hangin’ in there. Playing a lot of piano and recording a lot. Looking ahead with grave concern about live music and theater, but firmly crossing fingers for a return in 2021.
Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Land of Precisely Three Dances”?
I had recorded that composition of mine as a drums-piano duo (with Claudettes drummer Michael Caskey) on the Claudettes first album, “Infernal Piano Plot…HATCHED!” (2013). When producer Larry Skoller and I began talking about making this piano-blues album of mine, we hit upon the idea of combining vocal blues classics with my own Claudettes instrumental originals, but newly recording those instrumental originals with Claudettes drummer Michael Caskey and Bill Dickens, who is one of the world’s most acclaimed, accomplished bassists. “Land of Precisely Three Dances” is one of four original instrumental compositions of mine on “JOHNNY IGUANA’S CHICAGO SPECTACULAR!,” and this track in particular came out just WICKED-funky. Bill and Michael laid down such killer grooves for me to piano-pound over. And I had fun making the video from footage of all three of us playing the song, utilizing some animation Dan Bigelow made for me, and taking it all in a nice ‘n’ psychedelic visual direction. I think the music is very cartoony, as is “Motorhome” on this new album, so animation is a natural.
Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
It’s an instrumental, so: just sitting at the piano ’til I found something exciting.
How was the filming process and experience behind the video?
I had filmed me and Michael playing the song, and then I asked Bill to send me a video of him playing it on the bass. Dan Bigelow was a “Metalocalypse” illustrator, and he created the recent Claudettes video “The Sun Will Fool You” (along with Talon Nightshade). That was an animated video that took over a year and a half to draw and animate. Dan sent me some really fun piano-themed animations, and I used Vegas Pro to sew it all together.
The single comes off your new album Follow – what’s the story behind the title?
I don’t know what “Follow” is, but “JOHNNY IGUANA’S CHICAGO SPECTACULAR!” seemed, to producer Larry Skoller and me, to be a natural, given the almost carnivalesque wild ride that this album is.
How was the recording and writing process?
The recording sessions were just magnificent, and that is so rarely the case. Everyone was so happy to see each other–Billy Boy, Lil’ Ed, John Primer, Kenny Smith, Billy Flynn, Matthew Skoller…they all have known each other for years and I think everyone was so happy to hear us all sound so great together in a really good studio (Shirk Studios, Chicago). I was glad, too, to introduce Claudettes drummer Michael Caskey to John Primer and to Bill Dickens. All of the above sounded so excellent together. We just sailed through the sessions as planned…even better than planned. I had already written the four instrumentals, and we found a new way to play ’em with Bill Dickens and Michael Caskey working together with me. Larry and I spent some time on new versions of the blues classics, too, putting the piano at the center of the music, as this album is a tribute to the past heroes of Chicago blues piano and the classic records they left behind to inspire.
What role does Chicago play in your music?
In this case, Chicago played a massive role, as this album is a tribute to the Windy City blues piano masters, from the late ’30s to the ’60s. And, of course, all these musicians on the album are Chicago musicians (though Bob Margolin doesn’t live here; he recorded remotely, in North Carolina…he did, though, of course, tour for many years with Chicago icon Muddy Waters…so: this is a Chicago album in every way).
You brought a group of special guests into the lineup – did you handpick them or how did they come on board?
Larry and I determined who we wanted to sing and play on every song. It gave me great pleasure that everyone I asked to be on the album said “yes,” and also delivered the performances I was hearing in my head, and then some…
What did they bring to the table?
Billy Boy nailed “You’re an Old Lady” in two takes, just perfecting that Sonny Boy Williamson style, as I knew he would. He had to work a while to get comfortable with the Broonzy song “Hot Dog Mama,” but I just love the results…it’s the perfect album closer. Ed and I knew each other and I had recorded on his album, but this was really special having him record these Otis Spann and Elmore James songs. I love his singing and playing, always and especially on this album. Billy Flynn brought that vintage blues sound to everything he touched here, and Kenny Smith sounds like a blues record every time, having learned/absorbed the music from his dad Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and also having now played and recorded for so many years. Michael Caskey is my right-hand man, and brought his own unique compositional drumming sense to the tracks on which he played. Matthew Skoller, too, is a longtime musical partner of mine, and he nailed “Stop Breakin’ Down” as a perfect tribute to our mutual hero Junior Wells. Bill Dickens just dropped jaws with his virtuosity on the bass, John Primer again proved himself to be the Real Deal (on both guitar AND vocals…he BELTS it OUT on “44 Blues” in particular), and Bob Margolin sent us such nice ‘n’ sludgy guitar for “44 Blues”…the perfect accompaniment for the practically Surround Sound piano we captured on that track. So: everyone brought their own thing, and it was very exciting for me.
After being on the scene for such a long time – how would you say you have evolved as an artist?
I’m composing and practicing all the time…figuring out some other guys’ tricks but mostly refining my own artistic voice, and that’s a constantly evolving thing. At some point I’m gonna need to get more elegant on the piano…this pounding style is gonna wear down my bones eventually…
Would you call this a continuation or rather a new chapter into your musical career?
Both, for sure…I’ve probably played piano/organ on 25 or 30 albums by other blues musicians…I’ve put out albums by my bands oh my god, the Claudettes, Them vs. Them, Software Giant…but this is my first blues album under my own name. I have to say: it’s even better than what Larry and I first conceived…I think we both think that. Good planning, great execution by all…huzzah!
As someone who has been well instructed into the sound of Blues – do you seek to stay truth the sound or always look for ways to play and blend with other genres?
I can’t help but knock down genre barriers…I just love so much…growing up in blues bands but also punk bands…playing pop songs but also classical since I was eight years old…being such a long-time fan of indie-rock bands but also jazz greats…so, as it says in the liner notes: this album has a lot in it…bits of all of the above…but, ultimately, it is a blues album.
Where did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?
On the Claudettes albums, I write all the music and lyrics, and inspiration comes from everywhere…things heard on the radio, things that occur to me as I wake up (my first thoughts of the day) or late, late, late at night when I should be asleep…other times, I write music first and lyrics are more of a sonic/rhythmic consideration. As for this album, I didn’t write any lyrics…just music. But I’m busy creating another Claudettes album with my Claudettes bandmates right now, and it’s full of lyrics that are very emotional and music that’s very spacious and melodic…I’m calling it the Claudettes’ “classical album”…it’ll be called “The Waves.”
What else is happening next in Johnny Iguana’s Chicago Spectacular’s world?
The future has never seemed less certain in my lifetime, and that’s not ideal. I don’t see any upside to COVID-19 and what it’s meant for music and theater. My job, like so many of my friends and colleagues, is to stay safe and healthy, keep my mind in a bright place if possible, and write and record as inspiration comes. Can’t force it. As for a future full of live streaming and online concerts: I’m not excited about it. All my Claudettes band mates prize travel and in-person experiences. So, I hope that’s back soon.