Riveting Riffs Logo One The Claudettes - High Times in the Dark
The Claudettes Photo One

Riveting Riffs Magazine has over the past sixteen years interviewed artists from various backgrounds and genres and we are proud to say that recently we interviewed an Iguana, Johnny Iguana to be exact. Johnny Iguana, a stage moniker that he adopted when he was sixteen years old when he joined his first Blues band called Stevie Lizard and his All Reptile Orchestra is the songwriter, pianist, bandleader and co-founder of The Claudettes (co-founded with drummer Michael Claskey). The Chicago based band released their fifth album, High Times in the Dark, this spring.

The new album is not a theme or concept album.

Johnny Iguana explains, “I am always writing and I got on a really good streak. I read a really great quote once in this book called Listen to the Stories by Nat Hentoff who was a great Jazz critic. There is a quote attributed to Duke Ellington and when he was asked how he managed to write all of those chart hits he said, I just always looked around me and at what particular musicians I had in the band at that time then I asked what can these guys do well. I think that is really smart. A lot of people just write and they have types of songs they want to do and whoever happens to be in their band right then is charged with playing them.  I always try to zero in on people whose ships have crossed my path and at that time in life and ask what do they really do well? Where do they really shine?

The more you work with someone you get a (better) sense for that. I got in a really good zone for the songs that I could write well for Berit (Ulseth, the singer). She brought a couple of cover songs to the band when we first met. I could see why she brought them and how they were up her alley to sing. I figured out what kinds of notes they were on the piano and what kinds of phrases.

Berit is my favorite singer. This is the second album we have recorded with her. She recorded DANCE SCANDAL AT THE GYMNASIUM! (Yes this is supposed to be all in capital letters) which came out in 2018. She really came alive on the (current album) and she was a lot more comfortable in the studio.”

The Claudettes Photo Two He goes on to say that he got into a really good zone and did a lot of writing. A year passed by and it was time to start thinking about recording another album and he already had fifteen songs written. He refers to the songs on this album as a snapshot of what was taking place in the world around them during the year or so that it took to write them.

“The first album, a significant portion of the songs had already been written when I met Berit and then I wrote more. This was 100% with her in mind. We have a great process when she comes over here and I have a demo. I will put something down in the falsetto range and I will warble on the recording to give her an indication. She will then go through it line by line and she will double it and then take it home and we are ready to go. We did a lot of work on the initial ideas for the songs.

When we met with producer Ted Hutt he listened to us play all of them and then we narrowed it down to twelve and finally the eleven songs that ended up on the album.

By the time we got to the studio Berit had the easiest time of all of us, which is amazing, because usually you have trepidation on vocal day, as it is hard to capture the emotion, the pitch and everything that you want to get right. She has an amazing perfect pitch. She really tapped into these songs and it was such a pleasure to be there on vocal day to hear her nail it.”

The one thing you notice immediately when you listen to the music of The Claudettes is the cool, calm demeanor of Berit Ulseth, even when she is singing a song that packs a punch, such as “Bad Babe, Losin’ Touch.” In the more up-tempo and sometimes intense piano driven songs, her vocals are almost like the calm in the middle of the storm.

“That is exactly what I think is unique and special about this band. We are a hot band with a cool singer. So many hot bands or bands that play something in the roots realm are something kind of bluesy or R & B. You are used to hearing singers who are in your face. They want to show you how melismatic they can sing and how many notes they can hit. I call it confrontational. In Chicago you will have some confrontational Blues singers who will come over to your table and sing at you. To me it makes me kind of shrink up. For a lot of people there is a red hot mama disease. I love how she has a coolness. (With Berit) you think of Julie London and Patsy Cline. It is like she is singing you to sleep with a beautiful tone.

It is quite amazing; because when she talks she has this Midwest way about her and to my east coast ears she has a very pleasant and friendly voice. When she sings something happens and she has this voice that is perfectly suited to Country music, which is what she was singing when she joined the band. She was in a Country group. She loves Country, but she also went to The New School in New York City, which is a really renowned music program. She went there for Jazz vocals, so she is a studied Jazz singer. She certainly learned a lot there.

Our manager Guy that I alluded to us working with, his dad was Billy Eckstine, the great African American Pop crossover Jazz singer who was a huge star. He was known for having one of the best Jazz bands in the country. Guy has worked on Herbie Hancock records as a producer and he has been in A & R for Sony and Verve. (He talks about the first time Guy heard Berit sing and he said) There is something almost wrong with her; because her pitch is so on it’s almost eerie. It is a great combination of being a gift and she has worked at it. One of the things that make me happy is when I have a new song idea and I when I send it to her, she will send me a text at three in the morning and she will say I am obsessed with this new song.

We’ve had a couple of songs that we work out and then they never made our set list or we played them once or twice live and we don’t find them as compelling as other songs. We have a really big repertoire now and we can play a one hundred minute set one night and then the next night play a set and not even repeat a single song.

As for how the songs first begin to germinate and then how they evolve Johnny Iguana says, “I also keep a notebook of certain phrases that entertain me. I will think about how to turn that phrase on its head and use it in an alternate way. Usually, it will flourish into enough words for a song. When I am sitting down at the piano and I come up with the music and then I will come up with a phrase to go with that music. It flowers from there. Other times I have gotten ideas from things in the notebook. I have written some songs on an airplane or in the van when I am not driving. There is a certain fear that your well will run dry.

I have a really good piano and it is really good to sit at. I spend a lot of time there. I think it is really important that anytime you have an idea to record it, because you think that you will remember it, but you won’t. At least I won’t. You think you will remember the gist of it, but it is the nuances that make it so special and you have to capture those details. If you don’t later on you will think I don’t know why I thought this was so special and it is because you forgot to document the nuances.  It usually goes through the process of phone voice recorder, then a proper demo with Pro Tools and the laptop and then getting the band together in the basement after they have heard it. After that we work it out with real people and record it. Then we listen to it. No matter what the recording quality you will know when the song is moving and that it has arrived no matter what the fidelity is or the recording is like. You just know the arrangements and the parts are all fitting right (For reader clarification and later it is recorded in the studio).”

When asked about the album title High Times in the Dark he says, “Over a period of time some awful things happened within the band’s families. We are talking about life changing illnesses and deaths of very close people. This took place, before there was anything apocalyptic like is happening at the moment (To put this in context for future readers this interview took place at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020). Everything had been humming along as far as the world was concerned. Also, certainly in America with the deeply divided camps that you read about and see all of the time, it doesn’t seem like a whole lot of factions are saying that this is a great time to be alive, like it was in the roaring twenties or the late sixties or something.

Nonetheless we in The Claudettes have a lot of fun and my mantra is when in doubt go out, but it is suffering at the moment. Every time that I can go out to listen to music or to see any kind of theatrical exhibition I am so glad that I did. There is way too much Netflix and Amazon in the world and staying home. It is a very troubling time for me at the moment.

We love doing shows and we love traveling. We were set to go to Germany and the U.K. for some shows this month (May). We were very disappointed to have to cancel the shows in Germany and in London and elsewhere in the U.K. There was also work on a more extensive tour when all this started to happen (COVID-19). The agent had to cancel an unspeakable amount of concerts. Imagine having an entire month booked in Italy and that was a complete and total teardown.

The title connotes having some fun and taking your chances, to have some exotic experiences no matter what darkness seems to be attempting to descend.

We are also all night people. Jimmy Smith the great organ player from my hometown of Philadelphia used to call musicians who couldn’t quite keep up with him on the bandstand, day people.  You know people who say, I am a day person and by seven a.m. I have had my coffee and a workout. I am bright-eyed and bushy tailed. Jimmy Smith had no patience for day people. He thought that was the lame end of the human spectrum. (He thought) that all of the fun stuff happens at night. You can take High Times in the Dark that way too.”The Claudettes Photo Three

Let’s go back and talk about that song “Bad Babe, Losin’ Touch.”

“With that one I woke up laughing, because I had a very vivid dream that The Claudettes were driving. We were pulled over, because we were being arrested for a hit and run and none of us had any idea what they were talking about. We couldn’t recall any kind of disturbance on the road. What happened (in the dream) was some vehicle struck a pedestrian and a witness heard a Classic Rock and Roll song “Bad Babe, Losin’ Touch,” coming from that vehicle. They pulled us over, because our vehicle matched the description. In fact there was a CD in the CD player in the van with that song on it. Then I woke up.

In the dream I had heard some of that song, but it didn’t exist. I had to then write it. When I woke up I thought it was in the Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley “Jail House Rock,” sort of like Rockabilly meets Rock and Roll. The chorus line was in my head already and I had a sense for the vibe of the music. I wrote that one really quickly.

It is fun to play on the piano. You know the Patti Page song called “Conquest” (first recorded by Corky Robbins). (He sings a few lines) I wanted to give Berit a vocal feature at the end of (our) song when there is a dramatic drum roll and she sings the chorus and really belts it out, as we are waiting to do the final coda. I love how she sings on that song. Generally, she does sing with that cool approach. She slinks along with that sly and seductive way of singing, but when there is a feature and a moment for her to belt it out she can surprise you.

About the location, we decided we were going to lead with that song and have it as a single, so we needed a video. I know this guy Joe Martinez in Chicago and he has great cameras and lenses. He has worked on a lot of music videos and corporate things. He is very professional and he has a lot of good energy. We did our photo shoot at a place called Barrel House Flat. It doesn’t exist anymore, but it had this vintage look to it. When it came time for the video, Zach (guitar / bass) was able to get this gay bar called Berlin in Chicago for us from the afternoon until the evening. They have police lights and a disco ball and smoke machines. We had plenty to work with, which is why we knew it would be a lot of fun to do the shoot there,” he says.

Speaking of Zach Verdoorn, Johnny Iguana says, “He toured with me in my previous band and he is a person who laughs a lot. The energy of the people is really important when you are going to be in a van for all of those hours. You are going to eat together and sleep somewhere together, so it is really important that the energy of the people is positive and a good match. It is as much of a priority for me as musical skills. In the past (with other bands) there has been too much emphasis the other way.

Zach is one of my favorite people. I knew him as a bass player, but he played guitar when he was young and he came up with the idea of using an instrument called the bass VI which is like a baritone guitar. It is a hybrid of a guitar and a bass and he is able to play bass lines and higher string parts that are more like a guitar. It is a guitar with six strings that is tuned down an octave and it has heavier strings on it.  It doesn’t go quite as low as some bass and not quite as high as some guitars. It has most of the range of both of them. It has been used for a lot of years. The Beatles and the Kinks used it.

That is how we (do things) live, but in the studio we break it down and he plays the guitar and the bass. He is such an effortless musician.”

The sassy song “Declined,” is metaphorical, as the video and the words both describe the woman portrayed as declining the job application of a man and also declining the advances of a would be Romeo.

Johnny Iguana talks about the song, “I thought it was amusing. I wrote this song a couple of years back and it was before there was a #metoo. I think I happened upon the phrase dear sir thank you so much for that generous offer, but I just envisioned the kind of man that might be coming on to somebody and it might be best to respond to that on official company letterhead. Something like I wish you all of the best in all of your future endeavors. I thought of as many kinds of those phrases as I could and then my favorite part was coming up with delivered, sealed, signed meaning Signed, Sealed, Delivered, Declined and trying to come up with words that rhymed with declined.

At first I had a music video in which Berit was going to be a boss interviewing male applicants and one after another she stands up to shake hands and he seems to have the job, she opens the door and he walks through it and it turns out there is an alley and there is a dumpster out there. Another one was she stands up to shake hands and he walks into the break room and everyone is there and yells surprise and they have noisemakers, party hats and a cake and it is his retirement party. Somehow, as he is being hired he is also being let go. It is having fun with female empowerment. They were fun ideas for the video, but then I realized I had some really good performance footage in the studio of us playing “Declined,” so I went on line and I found a bunch of clips from the forties and fifties of nervous men at jobs and job sites being interviewed by women. I had a fun time making that video. Berit was so in command singing it and it was fun juxtaposing (her vocals) with those vintage scenes of defeat.”

The mood changes, as the album High Times in the Dark winds down and closes out with the pretty song “The Sun Will Fool You.”The Claudettes Photo Four

We have looked and we do not see a co-writing credit for Johnny Iguana’s son, but served as the inspiration for the song.

“I have a twelve year old and at the time I wrote that he was nine and one-half. We were in the car and I was driving him to school in February. He suddenly said you know the sun will fool you. I said what? He said look at that the sun is so bright and so warm looking and yet it is five degrees (Fahrenheit or minus 15 Celsius) outside and it is freezing. I really liked the sound of those words The Sun Will Fool You.  I quickly thought about how I sometimes find myself and I know other people do too, when you are cold to people who love you. It is almost like a contest of will sometimes, depending on where you are in your relationship. Animals don’t do it. They either attack you or they leave you alone. People can be really cold and a lot of times it is a type of abuse. We talk about domestic abuse and where someone is hit and there is violence, but there is also a killing of the soul over time, by people who are not warm people. People become trapped in a relationship and they deserve better. I wrote this song about someone who is long suffering (at the hands of) someone who other people think is the life of the party, but they are not.

I wrote the words first and I spent a long time on the music. It is not like a verse, chorus, verse, and chorus, bridge layout it is just like a dream sequence that moves and evolves. It transposes and it moves keys. Berit loved it and she did a great demo of it.

When we went into the studio we got the take we wanted with the piano and later we added some strings to it. We had her do some vocal takes. We all remember being in the control room, when Berit was in the vocal booth. We couldn’t see her, but we could hear her and our jaws were agape, because she sounded so hurting. She went to the place that song needs. That song is worthless if the singer doesn’t sound neglected. She sounds like she is really trembling at times. That is what the song needs. That is a single vocal take and it was very dramatic.”

The Claudettes were formed in 2011 by Michael Claskey and Johnny Iguana.

“Our first release was in 2013 and our first four recordings were on Yellow Dog Records out of Memphis. I think we started calling ourselves The Claudettes, before we started recording and as early as 2011. Our first album was in 2013 and then another in 2015 and then we became a vocal group by the time the 2018 record came out.

This lineup of The Claudettes is it for me. It has evolved a bunch over the years, but this is what it is going to be for as long as we are together. Right now it is a little bit fearsome, because there are so many mom and pop businesses and so many bands that are in the same boat of how are we going to get through this? It will be a life changer for months or more. Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of dates that have canceled (due to COVID-19). I hope after this everybody in the band will find it to be a precious thing and maybe more. I certainly do,” he says.

As the borders open up and hopefully not long after venues find a way to respect health concerns, but to also restore music to its rightful place, in front of audiences sitting in seats or dancing, The Claudettes are a band that you will want to make sure is on your concert list. They will be back in Europe, count on it.

We only had the opportunity to speak with Johnny Iguana, but if the rest of the band is as engaging and personable is he is, then they will be just as much a treat to meet off the stage, as they will be to watch and listen to while they perform.

Please take time to visit the website for The Claudettes, through which you can also purchase their music. Remember good music continues to live when we support good artists. Return to Our Front Page

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This interview by Joe Montague  published May18,2020 is protected by copyright © and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine All Rights Reserved.  All photos are the the property of The Claudettes unless otherwise noted and all  are protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved. This interview may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine.