Low Cut Connie took its share of jabs for being a party band. There were those who dismissed some of the group’s early work as sex-obsessed or downright sexist. On the other hand, there were early champions who recognized that what Adam Weiner and friends were up to was carrying a particular torch that’s been central to rock since Chuck Berry burst onto the scene way back when.
Despite some early love from the critical community, there were trials and tribulations, lineup shakeups, and a distinct shift in focus. Low Cut Connie may have first projected the image of a band, but by 2017’s Dirty Pictures (Part 1) it was pretty clear that it was Weiner was in charge. He was leading the band in a direction that expanded its sound. Yes, there was plenty of sleaze oozing from the grooves and a deep dedication to R&B, blues, and the howling, yowling rock ‘n’ roll that Little Richard and Berry practiced back in the day, but there’s something headier happening too.
“Montreal”, from the first Dirty Pictures, had more in common with Kurt Cobain than J. Geils, summoning images of that Leonard Cohen afterworld Cobain sang of in “Pennyroyal Tea”. And there was that heart-stopping cover of Prince’s “Controversy” which wasn’t just a fine tribute to the Purple One but also a tap into the zeitgeist.
Weiner and his mates returned to Memphis’s famed Ardent Studios to track Dirty Pictures (Part 2), emerging with a lean, focused effort that solidifies Wiener’s reputation as a diverse writer whose dedication to the craft of writing places him in rarified company. (He’s penned a number of songs with Dean Ween, which are spread across the guitarist’s The Deaner Album and Rock2. Wiener calls his friend, “One of the greatest guitar players I’ve ever seen or heard and one of the most creative musicians I’ve ever worked with.”)
There is a mythology surrounding the group that may obscure the hardships for some. Barack Obama chose the song “Boozophilia” for his Summer 2015 playlist; Elton John and Howard Stern are devoted fans. And there’s the cheap piano the group spent years lugging around the country, Shondra. It’s clear, speaking to Weiner today, that having a former president, a radio legend, and one of the finest songwriters of the last century in your corner isn’t bad, but none of that defines Low Cut Connie. There are, the frontman will tell you, still rivers to cross and mountains to climb. Still, there are signs of improvement: There are now three pianos in the rotation, one for the East Coast, one for the West Coast and one for when the group travels to the United Kingdom.
What’s becoming abundantly clear is that although Low Cut Connie keeps good company, it’s ultimately those songs and the unit’s high power live shows that matter most.
When you made Get Out the Lotion did you think that it might be the only record or did you think there might be some longevity for Low Cut Connie?
There was absolutely no plan to be a band. There was no name. There was no logic. It was a terrible clusterfuck of people from different countries and continents and cities. I brought them all together for a wild weekend in Florida that turned into an unexpected album. All that despite the fact that I’d been trying to get something going with my music career on my own. Of course, the little throwaway side project thing is the thing that took off. There was no method to the madness. It was just madness.
It must have felt good to have a record that was well-received critically, though.
It was a very confusing time. I had a fulltime job, and there was no intention of taking that band on the road and making a run at it. Then, all of a sudden, there was this outpouring of goodwill and interest in the band. It took a while to figure out how to do it for real. I hit pretty much every speed bump along the way that you can hit. But we had this little bit of wind in our sails which was that goodwill that we got in that first year from press. Not the industry, but press. There was also a little tiny bit from radio.
We were able to ride that little bit of wind to survive over the next few years. Over the last few years, we’ve had to learn how to grow. But survival is really success for a band. Just surviving, sometimes, is the greatest achievement of them all.
You’d been in other bands before so I would imagine there was part of you that said, “don’t let this stop” as you gained momentum with Low Cut.
You don’t want to throw any roadblocks up. We got reviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air in, I think, the fall of 2011. It was a game-changing day for the band. I had to take off a week from work to ship hundreds and hundreds of CDs out of my apartment. Everything was done from my place, through PayPal. We didn’t have a real website. It was a crazy thing.
You get a first look from a lot of people in the music industry, but you’re only new once. People did take a look at us once, and most of the industry itself passed. We didn’t get signed to a label. We did not get management. We didn’t get an agent. I didn’t have a publicist. Didn’t have a radio promoter. Really didn’t have anything.
Then the real work began, which was educating myself as to how I could promote myself and the band. I ended up starting my own label out of desperation. I managed the band. I booked the band. It became a kind of one-man wrecking crew. It was a crazy time. Now I feel very fortunate that we’re at a level now where we have a team.
We’re still DIY in that it goes through my label but we have a fantastic agent and management, and it’s finally grown well beyond me.
Part of the Low Cut Connie story is winding up on Barack Obama’s summer playlist and Elton John saying nice things about you. You also had the press early on, but you didn’t have major power in your corner from the first day.
Not even close. We did a radio interview in Colorado, and somebody said, “Wow, you guys took off like a rocket.” But that’s completely not true. The number of gigs that we played to ten people or less went on for years, not months. Years. We’d pull into Detroit or Ashville or Cleveland on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and go into the dive bar, and there’d be eight Low Cut Connie super fans who were all looking at each other like, “I thought these guys were big.”
We’ve only sort of recently graduated from that. And that tells you something about the industry in 2018 and what it really actually takes to build something sustainable. I think there are those performers who did get a quick rocket, the elevator ride all the way up to the top floor. But that’s about one in 10 million.
The others, like me, have to build brick-by-brick and climb rung-by-rung just to get to the level where you can sustain it. From here forward, from where we’re at today, seven years in, it feels easy, even though we’re the hardest working band out there, it feels easy because now we have fans.
Now when we show up in a city, there are more fans there. People follow us. The distance from zero fans and zero tickets to 200 fans, 200 tickets in a city is a 100 times greater than 200 tickets to 2000 tickets. That’s a hump that millions of acts never get over. We’re finally over that hump, and now the work becomes about how we really expand the message.
What role do you think the musical direction has played in your success? Because, in 2011, I couldn’t think of something less fashionable than what you were doing.
I think it’s less in fashion now than what it was in 2011. In 2011 you could look at the charts and name some rock stuff that was still hitting. Now, there’s almost nothing rock that bubbles up. It’s sort of over but that’s not a bad thing for us because we’ve got our little corner of the sandbox and more and more people check us out, especially young people, and they act like they’ve never seen anything like it before.
And maybe they haven’t.
We play colleges, and most of the music they’re exposed to is not rock ‘n’ roll. So, when we do our thing, it’s really fresh to their ears and their eyes.
The other thing is that what we do with our live show is a no-irony, full-bodied heart and soul experience. And that’s very much out of fashion. It’s not very common these days to see a band where the singer believes every word that they sing and there’s no mask, no gauze in between. We pride ourselves on that, but it’s terribly out of fashion.
My sense is that by the time you got to Dirty Pictures (Part 1), there had been a lot of growth. I loved the other records but “Montreal” was a song where I took notice and said, “No one’s really doing that kind of song right now.”
I hate to use the word maturity, but I guess, as I age, maybe I am maturing. I don’t know. I’m fighting it. Since Low Cut Connie was only a side project at first, it was only a segment of what I could do. I think Robert Christgau was the first person to review our album and he called us scuzzball. It was a flattering review, and he meant it as a compliment but every review for a couple of years after that was scuzzball or sleazeball, scuzzbucket, sleazebucket. We got tagged with this red-blooded rock ‘n’ roll, party band thing. People would use the words frat and kegger. Anybody who knows me knows how far that is from the truth.
My approach to music is very similar to that of probably my greatest hero, Prince. Like with Prince, it’s party music, but there’s a lot going on there. Prince really isn’t in the party; he’s the puppet master for your emotions. He takes you up, he takes you down, he takes you left, he takes you right. It’s this opening up of channels and feelings for the crowd. With Dirty Pictures, I wanted to show that there was more going on with the band that what people had thought. I wanted to expand our range.
You covered “Controversy” on the first Dirty Pictures, and I always try to point out to people that when Prince released that song, he was saying stuff that wasn’t being said. I feel like, all these years later, it needed to be said again.
I sing it every night and feel like it was written yesterday. I think it says something about our culture and our world that an artist like Prince, and he’s certainly not alone, had this vision and this openness of spirit that was so crucial for that time and is so badly needed right now. I think our world and our culture tries to contract, become less open, more uptight, more divided. But I think people need that feeling of openness; they crave it. We try to make that happen every night.
You returned to Ardent Studios in Memphis to make Dirty Pictures (Part Two). Do you feel the history of that place when you’re there working?
James, our lead guitar player, played Big Star guitarist Chris Bell’s guitar on a lot of the songs. We’ve gotten so close to the people at Ardent that they were excited for us to do that. We used some of the instruments that Jim Dickinson had played on Big Star’s Third. We decided to cover Alex Chilton’s “Hey! Little Child” from Like Flies on Sherbert. That’s a love-it-or-hate-it album, but it’s a very influential one for me.
We’ve made a gesture toward the history at Ardent and Memphis on this album. It’s funny, we had no intention of it, but there’s a very ’70s Memphis vibe that came out in the music.
Listening to all the records you’ve made I’m always struck by how it’s the songs that come out on top rather than the production. They’re not overstuffed.
It’s that Sam Phillips approach. We’ve become good friends with Sam Phillips’ son Jerry and his granddaughter Halley, who just did a thing with us at Muscle Shoals. When Jerry heard “Dirty Water” off Dirty Pictures (Part One) he said, “Man, my dad would’ve loved that shit!” I think it’s very much in the spirit of how Sam Phillips approached recording, which was all live in the room, one take. You try to conjure something magical.