Pianist Johnny Iguana talks about Otis Rush, Junior Wells, Van Morrison, Jeff Healey and the Claudettes

"Blues will always reach SOME people because it's so immediate, simple and human."

Johnny Iguana: The Keys of King Lizard

Johnny "Ig" Iguana - born Brian Berkowitz - grew up in Philadelphia, where he studied piano from age eight and played piano and organ in blues bands from age 16. He moved to New York City at age 22, where he met one of his greatest musical heroes, Junior Wells. He was hired by Junior after auditioning live at the Boston House of Blues, and moved to Chicago in February 1994. Johnny has appeared on album with Junior Wells, Carey Bell, Koko Taylor, Lil’ Ed, Matthew Skoller, Eddie Shaw and many others. He is the piano player in the Chicago Blues: A Living History band and has performed on CD recordings and all their tours. His fellow musicians in that group: Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch, Carlos Johnson, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, and Billy Flynn with special guests including Buddy Guy, James Cotton, and Magic Slim.

He has performed on stage with nearly all of the above plus Otis Rush, Lonnie Brooks, Sugar Blue, Otis Clay, Van Morrison, Jeff Healy and more. All along, Johnny has also had his own decidedly non-blues rock bands, usually playing his distinctively grimy overdriven organ. First came Stevie Lizard & His All-Reptile Orchestra (late ’90s). Then came the nationwide cult favorite oh my god, who have toured and recorded since 2000. His band Them vs. Them, formed with JQ of the Q Brothers, recorded and performed between 2005 and 2008. The Claudettes is a new project duo with Johnny Iguana and Michael Caskey on drums.

A short list of Johnny’s major musical inspirations: Otis Spann, Jay McShann, Ray Charles, Mose Allison, Bobby Timmons, Mike Watt, Bob Mould, Joe Strummer, Captain Beefheart and Junior Wells. Johnny is a proud carrier of tradition (including the Chicago blues that uprooted him from his East Coast home and planted him firmly in the Windy City) but is even more proud to have developed abusive organ tones and a highly rhythmic, very “in-the-moment” piano style that sounds like no one else.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

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.

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

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.

"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."

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

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.

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

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.

"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."

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

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.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

I can't recall any meetings that were particularly memorable. But 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.

Are there any memories from Junior Wells and Carey Bell which you’d like to share with us?

Carey just had the biggest sound you could imagine. Junior was like a little kid, or maybe more like a teenager. He liked practical jokes and women, and too much gin. He'd try to sneak a double gin before hitting the stage by peeling a $50 bill off a big wad of cash enclosed by a dollar-sign diamond money clip. He'd wait 'til the road manager, his nephew, left the backstage area, then hand me the $50 and say, "get me a double Tanqueray, no ice, and get yourself a drink, too." I really did love that man. He never drank during the day or late at night…just to take the edge of before performing. But since he didn't eat much and was very thin, the double Tanqueray would sometimes wreak havoc.

Which memory from Otis Rush, Van Morrison and Jeff Healey makes you smile?

Otis Rush, out of nowhere, told me how to escape if a lion starts chasing me in downtown Chicago. Jump into a swimming pool, he said. Van Morrison did not like my piano playing (we were together in a piano bar in Newport, South Wales). He referred to me as "that bloke over there pounding on the piano." I'd heard he'd quit drinking at that time (about 1995). He had NOT. White wine was his drink of choice that night…lots of it. Jeff Healey played on stage with the Junior Wells Band, and I predicted this would happen: Junior pointed at Jeff to take a solo, and became angry when Jeff didn't take one. Jeff, of course, was blind. God love him.

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

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.

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..?

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.

"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. "

Do you know why the sound of organ is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

Some bass players have told me that the best bass players, the ones they learned from, are organ players. Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff and Jack McDuff…and I think Groove Holmes was the best organ bass player. It's all just laid out there on the organ; for some reason, the key of F works best. There are great tones you get out of a Hammond and Leslie. One feels funky right away, sitting down and hitting a couple notes and chords on those things. It does a lot of the work for you. Personally, I think it's a lot harder to play a good solo and pound all night on a piano than it is to sound exciting on a Hammond/Leslie combo. You can just hit chords and play runs on a Hammond and people think you're special. Pounding a piano all night is hard work, and it's easy to sound like "that bloke over there pounding on the piano." I hope Van gets to hear me again. I've improved a lot.

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

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.

Johnny Iguana - official website

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