Chicago’s the Claudettes return with their fifth album, High Times in the Dark, on 3 April via Forty Below Records. Produced by Grammy-winner Ted Hutt (Violent Femmes, Old Crow Medicine Show), the album provides a particularly potent batch of compositions that highlight the quartet’s undeniable chemistry. Johnny Iguana’s piano remains a driving force within the group while Berit Ulseth’s inimitable vocal style remains front-and-center throughout this latest batch of material. With co-founder Michael Caskey and guitarist Zach Verdoorn rounding out the band, the Claudettes have stepped comfortably into their finest moment yet via High Times in the Dark.
The new single is “24/5”, which spotlights the group‘s ability to marry humor with uncompromising musical ferocity. Speaking from his home in Chicago, Iguana discusses the piece’s unlikely introduction. “It’s got a jazziness at the top that might be a little arcane for some people,” Iguana says. “When I play it live, I say that I’m offering complimentary champagne music. It’s a supper club jazz intro, which then gives way to a pretty punky little number. It was written on piano, but the guitars kind of took over. Berit has a great vocal on that one.”
The lyrics, he adds, came along somewhat unexpectedly. “I wrote the lyrics live on Facebook,” he recalls. “Some [veteran rock band] had a new album coming out, and the songwriter had a song about how much he loves his wife. It was called ’24/7′. My partner belongs to a pool league and goes out, shoots pool, and I do a lot of traveling. I think there’s a great joy to private time. You’re apart, then come back together, and it’s great. I decided to write a song about the joys of private time and about how 24/7 seems like a bad idea. Romance is great, lovemaking is great, spending time together is great but so is solitude.”
What do you see as the major differences between this new album and the last one?
Even before the last one, I decided that I wanted to start making records with producers for a lot of reasons, some of which are purely musical. When you find someone who has made a lot of records that you enjoy with a variety of artists, you can be intrigued by the idea of, “Me plus them? What would that equal?”
The last time, when I was looking for a producer, Mark Neill reached out to me, after having been introduced to us by Dave Cobb, who is his friend. We went down to Georgia and recorded that last album with him. I think that’s a very swampy, ’60s-sounding record. This time, I reached out to the agent of Nick Launay, who has worked on a lot of Nick Cave records. He was booked for years. But the agent listened to our music and said that among the producers he worked with Ted Hutt was the guy who should do this record.
I soon agreed. More recently, he’s worked with Old Crow Medicine Show and Devil Makes Three, but he was a founding member of Flogging Molly, produced Dropkick Murphys. So he’s had a split down the middle between roots music and punk music. That’s kind of where the Claudettes are.
When Ted and I spoke on the phone, he said right off the bat that he was intrigued because we had a rootsy rock record, but it was based around the piano rather than the guitar. He came out, and we listened to all the demos, then went into the studio together. He had such great energy. He was relaxed and silly and funny. He put all of us at ease, but especially Berit, who’s singing. I think it’s really important for the singer to feel totally comfortable, not stiff. That happened, and I know that Ted was really wowed by her in the studio.
Just as the last record had a ’60s sound, so does this one, but Ted was really driven to make sure that all of the sounds and the tones lived in the same sonic universe. He thought some of the pedals that Zach had gave the record more of a modern rock sound. Ted had the idea of splitting some of the parts between bass and guitar, and we could right away hear what a good idea it was. We write songs and work in emotions, but Ted has in his mind how the track is going to sound and how to get where he thinks it should go.
Does the stuff that wound up on the record represent everything you’d written since the last one or did Ted pick through 25 songs?
Somewhere in between. We wound up with 11 tracks on the record, and we probably had 15 to start. There were few that, right away, Ted eliminated. It wasn’t that he didn’t like them; he just thought they didn’t sound like the same album or even in the genre. We’re a pretty eclectic band, but there was a song that he thought sounded “proggy” so he put that in the “maybe next time pile.”
Two of the songs we had to cut for time. We wanted to make vinyl, and we wanted to have one tracklist, not one for vinyl and one for CD. Eleven songs seemed enough. When I was a kid, we had 60-minute cassettes, and most albums would fit on one side of those. More often than not, things seem too long rather than making it feel like you were cheated because something was too short.
Those two songs aren’t dead. They’re just not on this album. The label wants to follow the release of the album by putting those out. I don’t know if I’d use the word singles because I think of a single as something with pop appeal. One of them is one of my favorite moments we had in the studio, but it’s a six-minute song.
Were there any surprises in terms of the songs that he chose?
There’s a song called “Kept ‘Em in the Dark” that’s in an odd time signature that’s also a pretty angry, finger-pointing political song. It’ll come out after the album. But it wasn’t one of the songs I thought was near the top before we went in. But the track came out really great. Ted really zeroed in on the guitar sound. Some people have already mentioned a 007/James Bond sound on this record: There’s a stabby, ’60s surfing thing. That song, to me, sounds like a lost James Bond theme.
We made demos in my basement. Michael, our drummer, is pretty good at recording. He brought over a preamp and mics. We recorded ourselves like we would in a studio. We knew that the way we were singing and playing those songs was going to be 90 percent the same but with better sonics and finding “the take”. But “Kept ‘Em in the Dark” had the biggest gulf between the demo and the ultimate track. It was really stylized in the studio.
Ted had this great idea to go into a room at the studio with high ceilings with a floor tom and do a lot of big floor tom flourishes. It gives a kind of Wall of Sound feel. There are a number of those on the album. I think it provides a cinematic sweep.