An Interview with Chicago based piano-drums duo of The Claudettes reconcile of blues and modern rock

"It (Blues) endures because it resonates with many folks' suffering and their subsequent delight as music provides escape from unpleasantness."

The Claudettes: The Bunny & The Iguana 

Johnny Iguana on piano and Mike Caskey on drums are the Claudettes. Claudette owns them, and sells beers on their stage via her Russian sales wench Tatyana. In addition to touring internationally and recording albums with his cult-favorite rock band Oh My God, pianist Brian Berkowitz (aka Johnny Iguana) has played live or recorded with Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Koko Taylor, James Cotton, Lil’ Ed, Carey Bell, Billy Boy Arnold, Lurrie Bell, John Primer, Billy Branch, Carlos Johnson, Sugar Blue, Dave Myers, Eddie Shaw and performed everywhere from Beirut to Buenos Aires to the Montreux Jazz Festival and has had strange musical encounters with Van Morrison and Jeff Healey.

Drummer Michael Caskey (a.k.a. Bunny Patootie) graduated magna cum laude from Western Michigan University's school of music. After graduating Magna Cum Laude from Western Michigan University's school of music - under the tutelage of jazz great Billy Hart - Michael has performed with artists as diverse as Chuck Mangione, Koko Taylor, Toni Tenille, Danilo Perez, Marvin Hamlisch, and John Sinclair. Currently, Michael is a part of Eastern Blok, a pan-cultural ensemble that has performed throughout the U.S. and Europe and has presented masterclasses at numerous educational institutions. A Downbeat magazine award winner and five-time Detroit Music Awards recipient, he currently plays with Balkan fusion band Eastern Blok and teaches Music and Rhythm in Dance at Columbia College in Chicago. Since moving to Chicago, Michael has played with numerous local artists including Grazyna Auguscik, Oh My God, Heritage Blues Orchestra, Striding Lion Theatre Company, Hood Smoke, Leslie Hunt, Ron Perillo and more. Tatyana Prozorov is a 30-year old native of Novgorod, Russia and lover of Chicago blues. She was a bell ringer in the community bell choir when she was 13. She moved to Chicago at 18 and now sells beers and neckties from the Claudettes stage in an effort to pay off her debt to Claudette, her landlord.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Johnny: I discovered it as a teenager after my uncle gave me cassettes of Junior Wells and Jimmy Smith. I started playing in blues bands at age 15 and have never stopped. Just like playing classical music (which I started when I was eight), it expresses the inexpressible and soothes the soul. That is why instrumental music, both classical and in the case of the Claudettes, is sufficient: the music speaks without words.

Michael: When I’m playing the blues, it just feels right, as if i am getting back to the music that excited me about playing in the first place.

How do you describe your sound and progress, what characterize the Claudettes philosophy?

Johnny: The Claudettes music started as blues but I decided to erect no walls between genres. My love for soul, jazz, classical and punk came through, and steered songs in new directions. The music is grounded in the old but not committed to it. Anything goes, as long as the chord changes and changes in dynamics and mood sound right to me as I'm writing the songs.

Michael: I would like for my sound to channel those rhythms and feelings that have been around for thousands of years - since humans began expressing themselves in the first place - through drumming, singing and dance.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Johnny: When I was 23, I got hired by the Junior Wells Band and I moved from New York City to Chicago. Junior, along with Mike Watt and Joe Strummer, was one of my three greatest musical heroes. It was exciting and scary, all of a sudden being in a band full of veterans of the bands of B.B. King, Magic Sam, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Buddy Guy…

Playing in the '90s, when there was a full-fledged blues revival, was exciting. Traveling the world with Junior (and also with Otis Rush), I got to play packed theaters and festivals from Greece (Thessaloniki) to Europe to South America. I still travel a lot with the Grammy-nominated group "Chicago Blues: A Living History," which features Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch, Carlos Johnson and Lurrie Bell. I hope the Claudettes start traveling internationally in 2014. We should. The show is exciting, and everyone starts dancing.

The worst moment was when a drunk driver hit my band's van in 2007, in the middle of a sunny Friday afternoon. The woman was killed (I believe she was asleep at the time) and everyone in our van suffered serious injuries. My hand was broken and displaced and I couldn't play piano for a full year. I was told I might not be able to play again. So, I'm thankful for each day I can play now.

Michael: This period of my life is pretty interesting, actually. I have a lot of different things happening. I am in several cool performing projects, as well as improvising and recording/producing music for modern dance. I just made music for an independent film, "The Other One."

"When I’m playing the blues, it just feels right, as if i am getting back to the music that excited me about playing in the first place." (Photo: The Claudettes at Buddy Guy's Legends)

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Johnny: I hope that's true. In the United States, it has a small but devoted following. The following was bigger in the '90s. Then again, music clubs of every kind were better populated in the '90s. It's due to the economy and the omnipresence of the internet, I think. I hope people start wanting to go out to music clubs again. Blues will always reach SOME people because it's so immediate, simple and human. There are a lot of mediocre blues players and singers out there, though, probably because the music is so simple. It's easy to be proficient in the scales and the general language, but only a few can really speak through it, and also know its history. Blues should be wielded carefully.

Michael: The blues didn't come out of a vacuum. Simply put, it's a combination of European harmony and African rhythms, married in a people's enslavement. It endures because it resonates with many folks' suffering and their subsequent delight as music provides escape from unpleasantness.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Johnny: Right now, I must say that the Claudettes shows we're doing are the best jams. The music is good and getting better every day, and we're in "a zone." I think 2014 will give me the best gig experiences I've had. In the past, playing the main stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2012 with "Chicago Blues: A Living History" was a highlight (the whole bill was Bob Dylan, then us). I met Quincy Jones backstage that night, and he was there at the late-night jam session, too, during which I played with Charlie Sexton. Playing the Taste of Chicago to 500,000 people with Junior Wells (right before Santana) was memorable, too.

Michael: Nothing very specific comes to mind. I’ve had wonderful times playing for thousands of people and equally inspired experiences playing for very small intimate audiences. Larger crowds usually do not make me nervous. but I can get nervous if someone I know who is important to me is listening! I am happiest when the sound and acoustics are good.

"I miss the time when you had to ask permission from the artist to record their performance. Now anyone with a camera/phone thinks it's their right to video-record anything, at any time." (Photo: Johnny Iguana, Mike Caskey and Tatyana Prozorov)

What is the best advice ever given you?

Johnny: I read some good pieces of advice in a book called "Listen to the Stories." One Kansas City musician said that if you reach the age of, say, 28, and a person walking down the street can't hear your music coming out of the club and be able to say, "Oh! That's Johnny Iguana in there!," then you've lost your way. He was saying that, unless you have your own voice that speaks for YOU, why play music at all? It's important to learn from the greats, but don't keep copying them your whole life. Almost no blues musicians follow that advice; it's part of the reason that my playing and my Claudettes upset some people in the blues scene. It's not a carbon copy of Otis Spann or Big Maceo or any other blues icon. Also in the book, Duke Ellington was asked how he scored so many hits. He said, "I never decided to play any particular kind of song. I just looked around me at the band members I had in my band at that time and asked myself, 'What do THESE guys do well?'." More bandleaders and bands should follow that advice. There's a human element, and people have unique limitations. Listen, and don't force any musician out of their comfort zone. Use their comfort zone to make music that speaks.

Michael: The drummer is the conductor of the band, or the shepherd of the band.

Style is the most important thing. Develop excellent time, and you can never listen hard enough.

Are there any memories from Koko Taylor which you’d like to share with us?

Michael: Playing with Koko was very special. It was near the end of her life. The band was hot, and of course we played "Wang Dang Doodle."

What do you miss most nowadays from the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

Johnny: I'm not really missing much, other than the days when people lined up to buy CDs. It's not greed, it's just trying to make a living playing music. I once sold 80 CDs to a room of 100 people. That makes it a lot easier to get by. It'd be great if all bands started making vinyl again and all music listeners decided that they were done with free downloads. But I don't see that happening. Subscriptions are the way now, and it leaves artists with pennies while company bosses make millions. Still, I'm hopelessly devoted to music. Maybe I'll win the lottery, and can keep money and survival out of the equation.

Michael: I miss the time when you had to ask permission from the artist to record their performance. Now anyone with a camera/phone thinks it's their right to video-record anything, at any time. Nowadays, someone will just stick a recording device in your face, possibly posting their recording online, later without your permission.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Jazz and Punk-Rockabilly music?

Johnny: Music just swirls around in my head, and as I'm writing a composition, I am often surprised where the chord changes take me. If the direction pleases me, it wins out. Guys like Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Mose Allison and Bobby Timmons blur the line between blues and jazz. I don't know how to sit in at a proper jazz gig, playing bebop, but I know that organ-trio stuff and I go out of the straight blues bounds, and people tend to call those excursions "jazz." I grew up equally loving the Minutemen and Meat Puppets as well as Otis Spann and Junior Wells. So some of the Claudettes endings and energies and bridges seem to be taking on elements from that music. From rockabilly and also from the Chess and Sun studios, I always loved that slapback echo, and wondered, "why don't they ever put that on the piano?" I tried it, and it sounded great to me, and that is part of the Claudettes sound: echo on just about all the piano, sometimes light, sometimes heavy.

Michael: The connective tissue through these musical legacies is the artist's need to express himself. All this music is very connected by human experience; suffering, joy, birth, death, etc. For instance, where would the backbeat be if people did not subjugate one another?

I wish the world were far more just of course! But at least we have great art to show for our faults.

"The Claudettes music started as blues but I decided to erect no walls between genres. My love for soul, jazz, classical and punk came through, and steered songs in new directions."

Let’s take a trip with a time machine for the next 24 hours, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Johnny: As always, I'd like to go one year in the future, to see what music I've created, what choices I've made and how my band is doing. Have I made smart choices, taken big chances? I hope so.

Michael: I would love to have heard Chopin or Mozart or J.S. Bach improvise. We know that they were great improvisers.

I would love to travel to a time when, if you heard music, it was because people were playing it (ie, before recording technology). I would love to see how music affected people then.

The Claudettes - official website

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