Interview: The Claudettes play blues music like rock stars

The groups most recent EP, No Hotel is available on iTunes -- image via the Claudettes
The groups most recent EP, No Hotel is available on iTunes — image via the Claudettes

The Claudettes

Club Hancher at The Mill — Wednesday, Sep. 16 at 8 p.m.

Originally a piano-drums duo, the Claudettes recently became a three-piece band after adding vocals to the mix with singer and dancer, Yana, who makes her debut appearance on their new album, No Hotel.

Despite now having a singer, much of the album features only the heavy-duty piano and hard-hitting drums of pianist Johnny Iguana and drummer Michael Caskey, who describe their fresh, bluesy rock tunes as “Ray Charles on a punk kick.”

Iguana made time to sit down and talk with Little Village about the group’s distinctive sound. Iguana and Caskey will be playing at The Mill this Wednesday, and then with the Lucky Plush dance production for two nights at Space Place Theatre.

The regular gig that kind of kick-started the Claudettes was at a dive bar. What is the difference between playing a small bar scene like that and playing larger venues?

When you play a dive bar; it’s kind of good and bad. The bad being that the sound usually isn’t that good and it’s not that often that you’ll meet a true music lover. On the other hand, you’ve got kind of a guaranteed population in there, because all of the local people will go have a drink on a Friday or Saturday, so you’ll definitely have a crowd. Actually, our whole stage set up is kind of a comment on our inevitable return to the dive bar. Michael, Yana, and I went to France and played two sold out shows in a theatre, and then shortly thereafter we were back in a little bar. So, our stage set up has a Bud Weiser bar and we have scrolling drink specials all around us and we’re like “ah, this is what we recognize.” We bring that stage set up to ANY stage that we play.

What have you learned from playing smaller gigs for a crowd that was there simply because it was the only bar in town, as you said, and playing for people who showed up just to see the Claudettes?

I think that anybody that comes to see the Claudettes on purpose or happens to be in a room where we are playing that night, I consider pretty lucky in the scheme of things because they’re going to encounter people that, by the time we’ve driven somewhere, put up posters all day, and all of that stuff, by the time we get to play the gig, we’re almost like a starving man with like a meal and a napkin tucked into our collar. No matter what kind of music people like, if they find themselves in a room where we’re playing their hair will stand up on their arms because there’s definitely an electricity. We don’t bring it because we have a particular career ambition tonight, you know? There’s just a really, really healthy, great relationship with music that we’ve got.

Yana’s recording debut was on No Hotel and now, she’s the group’s singer. But, in the beginning, what was the appeal of making solely instrumental music?

Since I was a kid, I’ve been playing in blues band and kind of punk, new wave, and rock bands. The music is presented as a bluesy or jazzy thing, but it’s kind of almost a masquerade. Our music is equally informed by things that aren’t blues or jazz. The concept was for it to be just piano and drums and kind of limit ourselves that way. We like to see what we can create with limited tones. It’s a challenge, but I think we get a lot of mileage out of it.

For instrumental music like yours, how do you go about choosing song titles?

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I often feel that instrumental passages of tunes with vocals is where I really get taken away to another stratosphere, where I close my eyes and I really fully forget I’m in that room. I get to a place where I can think of things that upset me and then I get really sad and find how delicately I can play the piano. For instrumental music, it’s a whole set of that, you know? Sometimes I’ll sit down and say I’m going to write and I’ll try but find nothing. Other times, I’ll just be practicing piano and all of a sudden I’ll stumble onto something and then four minutes later, I’ll have a new piece and it’s such a good feeling. It’s still the highest high there is; it’s better than a good show or a recording. It’s just a moment of summoning something new. I try to choose a title that does indicate what the vibe and the effect of the piece of music is.

What is your ultimate musical goal?

I’m lucky because I get to travel playing piano in blues groups all around the world; the Middle East Asia, Europe South America, and it’s great. But, to combine music that is really ours and we created just to please ourselves with being invited to travel the world and play in theatres, venues, and festivals overseas and meet people there, eat the food, and experience the culture, that’s my goal. It would be great to say that my goal is to make a living and not have to have jobs other than this, but really, that to me is what makes the world go round.

What should people planning on coming to the show know?

For this performance, we’ll only be doing instrumentals. We won’t be with Yana doing vocals. But, the first speech I give to a sound man is don’t confuse us with some sort of lounge-y piano-drum duo, like our music is just nice and wholesome. We want you to turn us up, as if you have a band with three guitars and bass and drums – make us sound like that!

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