116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Given Johnny Iguana’s track record, it would be all too easy to assume that his current band, The Claudettes, traffics in blues and R&B.
This is, after all, a musician who spent his early 20s playing keyboards, onstage and in the studio, with the legendary Junior Wells, and has since worked with Otis Rush, Koko Taylor and Keb’ Mo’. He also was nominated for a 2021 Blues Music Award for best instrumentalist, and released a solo album, “Johnny Iguana’s Chicago Spectacular!” that featured blues heavyweights like Bob Margolin and Billy Boy Arnold.
But none of that accounts for the ever-changing moods of The Claudettes, a band whose music reinvents itself from song to song, or even within songs, in ways that defy categorization.
That incurable eclecticism comes naturally.
Iguana — whose non-blues influences range from avant-garde composer Raymond Scott to Minutemen bassist Mike Watt — began playing with future Claudettes Zach Verdoorn (bass, guitar) and Michael Caskey (drums) in a punk-rock band called Oh My God. Meanwhile, singer Berit Ulseth was studying to be a jazz vocalist at New York City’s prestigious New School university, before jumping ship to join a Chicago country band.
The Claudettes — coming to CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids on Oct. 14, the same day the Chicago band’s newest album comes out — began racking up rave reviews after Black Keys producer Mark Neill manned the console for the band’s 2018 “DANCE SCANDAL AT THE GYMNASIUM!” album.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune called the musicians “a skewed cabaret band of blues, jazz and rockabilly (with) a sensibility that feels equal parts James Dean and David Lynch,” while NPR described the sound as “blues and everything after, all tastefully and artfully blended together.”
Lately though, critics have taken to calling The Claudettes’ music “garage cabaret,” which is how the band described itself in promotional materials for the 2020 album “High Times in the Dark.” The term has since been making the rounds in the music industry, including a Melbourne music agency that put out a press release headlined “Look Out Garage Rock, Garage Cabaret Is Now a Thing.”
The Claudettes, meanwhile, have moved on. “The Waves,” one of the standout tracks on the forthcoming “The Claudettes Go Out!” album, sounds more like Philip Glass producing Mazzy Star or, you know, whatever. The rest of the album sounds completely different.
During a break between rehearsals for the band’s tour, Iguana took time out to talk about what comes next.
Q: Let’s start with the most obvious question. I did a Google search for “The Claudettes” and “garage cabaret,” and it came back with 586 results.
A: (Laughs.) Good.
Q: But when I first heard the term, I had this image of novice musicians who sound like Gogol Bordello with Tom Waits singing through a megaphone. The Claudettes doesn’t sound anything like that. Do you ever regret putting that out there?
A: It’s funny that you should ask that right now. We’ve been on an email chain with our label and the PR person about the next album, and the label said, “What do you think about scrapping garage cabaret? Because that’s not what I’m hearing here.” And when I sat back and thought about the new album, I had to agree.
With that last album, I was racking my brain trying to come up with a good descriptor for this band. And if you listen to the whole album, I think there are moments when you can hear that. There’s a punkish element to the band, but Berit is kind of like a Julie London (type) of figure. She generally doesn’t ever do what I call confrontational singing, like a lot of roots and blues singers that want to show you how many notes they can hit and how brash and loud they can get. She just keeps cool, no matter what. So there’s that kind of contradiction where it’s a hot band with a cool singer, which I really like.
Q: So how will you classify your music this time?
A: Well, when you’re on Spotify, you’re supposed to pick from like seven choices of what genre you play, and then within that you might pick from 20 subgenres. I mean, we’re not blues. And we’re not blues-rock, God forbid. So I think they’re calling this next record indie-pop, which kind of makes me feel OK. Although that does put us in this huge basket of bands, especially when you compare it to roots music, which has a much smaller playing field.
Q: The arrangement on your new single (“Park Bench”) has this kind of baroque pop thing going on. Is that an actual string section?
A: I originally demoed the string parts on a Korg keyboard. Then I played it for a friend who does a lot of orchestrating, and he suggested a woman who plays viola and violin, and another woman who plays cello. So yeah, those are real strings.
Q: Tell me about touring with Junior Wells. Were you the only white guy in the band?
A: In fact, yes. It was nine African Americans and me, and I was also a lot younger than everyone else. They had played with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Magic Sam and B.B. King, so I had a lot to learn from them. And I was typically youthful in that I played too many notes, because I was so excited. They would sit me down and say, “Man, just hold the chords down, don’t be riffing all the time. Yeah, we know your fingers move fast, but stop it.” They were like, “Here’s some friendly advice: Shut up.”
Q: That’s not necessarily bad advice.
A: Yeah, they were totally right. I mean, every situation is different, but when we go out onstage, it’s not about the musicianship and the complexity of the songs. It’s about leading with the heart. Like any group of people who’ve been together for years, we deeply care about each other. And I think our shows are really special because that comes through, and we couldn’t hide it if we tried.