Photo: Jaka Vinsek

Day of the Iguana: The Claudettes’ Keyboardist Johnny Iguana Talks Blues, Being a Better Person

Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium! solidifies Chicago quartet's eclectic mission, lineup, and blues-affected sound.

Dance Scandal At The Gymnasium!
The Claudettes
Yellow Dog

Les Paul’s journey from guitarist to electric guitarist has long been described as a matter of the man from Waukesha wanting to make sure his mother could distinguish him from other players on the radio. Johnny Iguana, pianist and leader of The Claudettes, can lay a similar claim for one of the major transformations in his own career.

“I tell people that my parents are a cross between the Costanzas and the Seinfelds”, he says. “But they’re definitely Jewish. I’ve been playing in bands since my teens. My mom would come up to me, especially when I joined the Junior Wells band, and say, ‘I couldn’t hear the keyboards!'” It would have been difficult because Wells typically carried nine players in his group. Iguana’s response? He formed oh my god, a group that placed loud organ run through a Leslie front and center.

But the piano is really where it’s been the whole time for the Chicago-based musician and so he decided to go one or two quieter and form The Claudettes in order that he might place greater emphasis on the more subtle but sophisticated elements of his instrument.

“I wanted to do something where you could hear the piano but I also wanted to do something that was a showcase for my piano playing so that maybe I could get some gigs from it”, he offers. “I figured, ‘Hey, if Neil Young or Elvis Costello ever need a piano player, I want to be one of the people that’s considered.'”

Trained as a classical musician (he and his mother actually started lessons on the same day), Iguana (born Brian Berkowitz) was playing blues by his teens but managed to squeeze in some punk gigs along the way. “This started as a blues project”, he recalls, “but with how diverse my tastes in music are the band couldn’t help but spiral in different directions pretty quickly. Our first album, Infernal Piano Plot … HATCHED, has a blues element to it but it’s also got a Vaudeville/Tin Pan Alley melodrama element which you can hear in a lot of the chord changes.”

The group was initially Iguana and drummer Michael Clasky, though they were joined by vocalist and dancer Yana for the 2015 outing No Hotel.

“She liked to do a lot of ’60s songs. She was like Josephine Baker to our bordello band and I thought it was really cool on stage”, he recalls.

Within two years, the group had transformed once again, to its present incarnation, the one heard on the latest LP, Dance Scandal At The Gymnasium! with Matt Torre on drums, guitars and basses provided by Zach Verdoorn and vocals from Berit Ulseth.

When he speaks of his bandmates, it’s often less about their skills as players (their talents are a given) than about their strengths as human beings.

“I populated this group with people I want to be around”, he offers. “I don’t have the strength for many more new assemblages. I’m always on the lookout for band morale. Our singer really hasn’t been out there road dogging it. She’s made it pretty clear that she wants to do strategic gigs.” It helps that none of the Claudettes rely solely on the band for their daily bread. “This is an artistic enterprise”, Iguana notes, “and if something great happens with it professionally, then that’s excellent. But it’s not like we’re blues bass players in Chicago. If you’re that person, your goal is to have 30 gigs a month.”

The days of building a following by playing out of the way dive bars in C and D markets are essentially over for Iguana. The appeal of green rooms without toilet seats and filthy microwaves having worn off sometime around his first series of jobs on the blues circuit.

“None of us are at a point in our lives where we want to go out and do 200 shows unless there are, like, 200 theatres across the world that we can line up” he notes. “Almost all of us have done that for years. The best benefit I see from that is getting better and better as a band. I don’t see that it builds your audience in a way that’s commensurate with the number of hours you’re on the road. I did have a time in my life when I was counting the number of gigs per month. That’s just not a priority for me. I’d rather do one fantastic gig than 20 soul-killing ones.”

Having grown up in the Philadelphia, Iguana earned an English degree in college. He continues to work as a freelance writer when not gigging or fielding questions about the founding and evolution of his band. That he landed in Chicago, he says, was something he could not have predicted for himself. Had it not been for the call to join Junior Wells’ band he might not have made it out to the Midwest.

“I had just finished college and was living in New York City. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life”, he says. “In true Manhattan style, I had a bedroom that had a twin bed with a keyboard set up next to it. I could sit, stand up and get out of that room. That’s how big it was, probably eight foot by six. I was writing cover copy for books and met Junior at a time when he was looking for a piano player. I was lucky because when I was growing up in Philadelphia the band I was in drew two-thirds of our songs from his work. When he invited me to join the band it wasn’t just about having a great gig. He was a specific hero of mine.”

Only 22 at the time, Iguana was soon traveling the globe with the late blues legend. It was, the pianist says, a deeply educational experience. “I was the only Caucasian in a nine-piece band, the other members were a generation older than me. The sax player, Doug Fagan, was this guy I’d heard on an old cassette of Buddy Guy and Junior on Vanguard. That was from 1970, before I was born. He was on that record and I was in a band with him.”

Others had resumes that included stints with BB King, Magic Sam, Albert King.

“This is who I was on the road with”, Iguana says. “I would have not believed it had you told me that three years before when I was playing three sets a night, wearing a suit and tie and was playing for high school friends in Philadelphia.”

Wells was especially welcoming, the keyboardist remembers. Others weren’t always so sure.

“I remember that when I was in high school I got into trouble a few times. I’d wake up in the morning and I’d see a chair facing my bed and go, ‘Oh, no! My dad told me we were going to talk about this in the morning last night.’ That ghostly chair. I’d have the same thing with the Junior Wells band except it would be the trombone player saying, ‘Who do you think you are coming into this band and playing like that?'”

The problem, it turns out, lay in his solos.

“Junior really liked having me in the band and took a shine to me but he did something that he’d do to every new guy, he’d give me almost all the solos. I was playing too fast, too busy, I was overexcited. There’s a way cooler, funkier, more soulful way of playing than just demonstrating the scale over and over” says Iguana. “They told me about playing beds, just holding chords on the keyboard to be the canvas instead of noodling all over the place. I got it handed to me. I also learned a lot about improvisation and spontaneity. We’d play on some very big stages and I’d get a solo in a very quiet song and everything you’re doing is being listened to by thousands of people which is very different than playing in a chatty bar.”

Since those early days, Iguana has worked with Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Van Morrison and others. He’s also become a dedicated bandleader and songwriter.

“All I really care about is self-expression and writings songs that are very pleasing to me”, he says. “There’s a couple of quotes that I keep coming back to. I read in a Nat Hentoff book where someone asked Duke Ellington, ‘How did you score all those chart hits?’ That’s such an inane question to ask a towering icon who’s in front of you. Duke said, ‘I just looked around at the people who were in my band at any given time and asked myself, ‘What do these guys do well?’ That, too me, is a total guiding principle.”

He adds, “You look at the personnel of any group that’s been around for an appreciable period of time and there’ll be so many different members of that group. The way to be best at any time isn’t in telling them to play what their predecessor played, it’s about what that person does well. ‘What is this singer likely to sing about and put her heart into and do convincingly as a result.’ If you just go, ‘Here’s the repertoire!’ That’s just not realistic.

“The only thing that matters is moving people. I tell my bandmates, ‘Don’t worry about mistakes. I know the music I write sometimes is a little complicated, a little intricate. All I want you to do is go out there and play with feeling. If you make 11 mistakes but you put your heart into what you’re doing, I’m going to be so happy. Everyone who came tonight will be so also.’ I think that’s really, really important at all times, to recognize what human beings you’re surrounding yourself with at a given time.”

The human beings that Iguana has surrounded himself with for Dance Scandal At The Gymnasium! decided to make a record that planted Claudettes more deeply in the roots family than ever before. Though perhaps a tired modifier for such sounds, organic seems appropriate here. Producer Mark Neill in particular played a role in creating a record that didn’t sound overblown, bombastic, made in an era when tracks have in many cases supplanted songs.

“Mark had a definite concept”, offers Iguana. “We would do a bunch of run-throughs on a song, then he’d make some comments about how it was sounding in the control room. He’d adjust some mics, tune the drums, tell us when we were rushing this part or that part or were getting too loud. We’d eventually roll and get the song in one or two takes from that.”

In all, most of the songs were completed in less than a dozen run-throughs. “Musically, there wasn’t any coming. It was all single takes. The vocals were mostly same. Mark felt that the vocals were the most important thing so he’d go over the lyrics and melody quite a bit. He’d play us a bunch of records that he thought would touch on what he wanted to get across. Julie London, The Turtles, Zombies, early Aaron Neville”.

If those listening sessions were at times taxing, the quartet ultimately agreed that as the producer he should be given some room to flex his ideas. The result is one the bandleader says he can live with quite happily.

“Everybody really had to step up and play with a combination of precision and feeling”, he notes. “Mark had us record very, very quietly. That’s the secret of how he gets such as big, rich sound. We played at conversational level, jazz combo level. Even on songs that are pretty intense. It’s kind of like the hard you hit the drums, the shrimpier they end up sounding. I really remember the orchestral bass drum that we used, you can hear it singing in the room, especially on ‘Stay With Me’. It has a particular pitch to it and a lot of sustain”.

There were flourishes added with melodica or organ, to which Neill would add little touches.

“I didn’t know he was running the organ through an old ’50s Plate Reverb. Everybody would be standing in the control room and I’d come back and listen. I didn’t know that what I was playing was captured so that it would sound like a vast canyon or something”.

This fits with the sensitivity that Iguana tries to bring to the group’s live shows. If a few mistakes in a loud boogie number don’t bother him, the quiet, broke-down ballads are another story.

“Everyone’s nightmare is when you get to the point where you’ve created an atmosphere and you’ve brought people into a realm and it gets destroyed by fumbling and you’ve got to start again”, he says. “I tend to spend a lot of time on chord changes when I’m writing, not just in terms of what the change is but what’s in the bass. All the root notes and how you can change the color by changing what the left hand is doing even if the right hand is pretty definitive. Then, when it comes to live performance, I almost get the shakes. If Berit is out there singing her heart out and the room is silent and I hit the wrong chords, it’s a disaster. I worry about betraying the singer” he concludes. “It’s like pantsing somebody or something.”

As for the group’s future, he sees hope in the European market, where he and his mates are already amassing festival dates. There will be some domestic ones, too, as time allows, as long as the gigs line up at a pace that allows everyone to stay sane. Time, Iguana says, is something he’s more aware of now.

“I just wrote about a song that’s like the Flaming Lips’ tune ‘Do You Realize??’ I used to get into fights with my dad and then I realized that he lives 1000 miles away from. He’s of a certain age and we might get 50 more times together or it could be 11 more times. I’m going to do my best to be good and kind and make the most of every time we’re together because everything is numerical like that. It just is”, Iguana notes. “I wrote a song called ‘The Show Must Go On and Then The Show Must End.’ The last time we played it, it was going to be our last show for four months. Our singer, who is usually pretty mysterious and enigmatic and on the cool side hugged all of us and had tears in her eyes. Basically, you just never know when something you love is just over. If you approach music that way, with that in your heart at all times, you’re going to move people all along the way if you recognize that in your own heart.”