Chicago-based pianist Johnny Iguana talks about Otis Rush, Junior Wells, Delmark Records, 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. 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.                                                                 Johnny Iguana / Photo by Lee Ann Flynn

Johnny Iguana's project The Claudettes released a new album titled "High Times In The Dark" (2020). Johnny Iguana's piano still propels the Claudettes' rockin' roots music, but Berit Ulseths' sublime voice steals the show on the band's fifth release. Produced by Grammy winner Ted Hutt, this atmospheric album conjures images of Julie London and Allen Toussaint in a '60s hot-rod band. It's a seductive swirl of vital yet vintage sounds the band calls "garage cabaret." Claudettes co-founder Michael Caskey is back, bringing dazzling drum skills to the studio and ebullient personality to the stage. In the wake of a series of sudden tragedies and deaths in the band's realmand amidst a national mood of pessimism and contention Johnny and Michael lock arms with Berit and bassist/guitarist Zach Verdoorn to create an album that wears its heart on its sleeve but (like the band's much-talked-about live shows) overflows with humor, love and a lust for fun. All songs on "High Times in the Dark" were penned by Iguana, who has recorded with blues giants plus his punk-organ band. With this album steeped in American roots music and a piano-powered approach that stands apart from the guitar-driven bands, the Claudettes push forward with a blues-jazz-soul sound that's original and alive, with rock 'n' roll drive and punk spirit. His first-ever Johnny Iguana blues piano album "Johnny Iguana's Chicago Spectacular" coming out on Delmark Records on August 21. It features Lil' Ed, John Primer, Billy Boy Arnold, Bob Margolin, Kenny Smith, Billy Flynn and more...

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues, Soul and Punk Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

When I was 15, I was getting into Minutemen, Husker Du, the Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, Wire, the Clash...and then my uncle sent me Jimmy Smith's "Organ Grinder Swing" (I was then living 20 minutes from Norristown, Pennsylvania, where Jimmy Smith grew up), Junior Wells' "Hoodoo Man Blues" (I became obsessed with that album immediately and soon was playing almost every song on it in my first blues band) and a cassette mixtape he made featuring Otis Spann with Fleetwood Mac (featuring Peter Green, who we just lost this week), Lonnie Mack, the Treniers and more great stuff. And so I started playing in two bands at once: one playing punk/new wave, and one playing (mostly Chicago) blues. Ever since, I've enjoyed being in two scenes at once: the blues scene, and the punk/indie-rock scene. I don't enjoy "blues-rock." But I love good blues, and good rock. The Claudettes is my way of wrapping all that up into one thing--the energy and spirit are punk, but the instruments and the sonics are roots music, blues, jazz, soul...

Where does your creative drive come from? How do you want your music and songs to affect people?

I consider myself a solid piano player, not a virtuoso or even a top-tier player. I play with lots of feeling and heart and energy, though I'm still learning the cerebral, "music major" part. I have a long way to go, but I do practice and learn and improve all the time. I think of myself increasingly as a composer and songwriter. I think I have a voice and am able to find chord changes that match the emotion and intention of the words I write. There might be codes and mysteries embedded in the songs, but they are honest songs and more and more I think they are reaching and affecting people. It helps when you have a singer at your disposal as the Claudettes do with Berit Ulseth. She can sing difficult, chromatic melodies with ease, and her voice is a soul-stirring instrument.

"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." (Johnny Iguana / Photo by Connie Carroll)

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.

How do you describe CHICAGO SPECTACULAR? Are there any memories from studio sessions which you’d like to share?

I was very pleased when Larry Skoller, who has produced three Grammy-nominated albums (all by groups that he conceived and put together), offered to produce my debut blues-piano solo album. Then, I was excited when Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Lil' Ed, Bob Margolin and the other guests on the album agreed to come play at the sessions. I felt that there was a magic at these sessions, and that everyone sounded the best I've ever heard them. Finally, I was thrilled when Delmark--who put out albums by Junior Wells, Otis Rush and Magic Sam that I have on my record shelf--said they wanted to put the album out! This is deeply satisfying for me. The album is rooted in classic Chicago blues piano, and celebrates that history, but four of the track are my own compositions, so the album tells my story even as it tells theirs. Wait 'til you hear this thing...we set out to make a fresh, new album that also makes people feel the way the old blues records do. That's a 100-year-old, very beat-up upright piano, made in Chicago. We could have used a brighter, clearer, conservatory-quality instrument, but we took the vibe over the clarity/perfection as a trade-off. Too many people use immaculate grand pianos for blues sessions, because that's what the studios have. Those are better suited for classical and jazz. I chose this studio for a few reasons (Shirk Studios in Chicago), but the primary one was that piano.

Why do you think that Delmark Records continues to generate such a devoted following?

Julia and Elbio could easily have stepped in and just kept things the same at Delmark. But they clearly recognize that the music business has changed a ton and is changing every day still. There is no easy answer as far as how to proceed, but they are looking to innovate, to maintain the blues/jazz legacy of Delmark but also to keep up with the times and stay ahead of the curve. They're working eight days a week to make sure the Delmark label not only survives, but thrives. That's what it seems like to me...it's hard to get them on the phone or by email, because they're always working, posting, coming up with new campaigns and forging new partnerships...I wish them the best, especially now that I'm a Delmark artist!

"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." (Photo: The Claudettes)

How do you describe High Times In The Dark sound and songbook? What do you love most about this album?

Ted Hutt (Violent Femmes, Old Crow Medicine Show, Lucero, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly, The Devil Makes Three) has spent a lot of years as a producer working with artists who walk the line between punk/indie-rock and roots music. On paper, that made this a very good fit (him producing "High Times in the Dark"), and in reality, it went even better than I'd hoped. He and engineer Stephen Shirk made the sonics just right, and Ted also brought compositional changes to the table and demanded some extra bridges and rhythmic changes that he was ready to fight for, in a good-natured way. We had a batch of songs we felt very good about, and it was a joy to hear them take shape in the studio. "24/5" and "Declined" and "Creeper Weed" found the grooves and power they were looking for, "I Swear to God, I Will" and "I Don't That Stuff Any More" found the mystery/atmosphere they needed and Berit had our jaws dropped with her vocal on "The Sun Will Fool You." I think the album is an emotional journey that is like "a day in the life" of a human--angry, amorous, lonely, amorous again, frustrated, cocky...I'm all over the place with my emotions and my energy, and so is this album...it's a rollercoaster that I think people have been enjoying.

What would you say characterizes Chicago Blues Scene in comparison to other US local scenes and circuits?

I'm sure there's a tight community in scenes all over the U.S. Certainly in Chicago, there are a lot of shouts of joy and hugs of affection when musicians walk in the room. Many of us have known each other for 20 or 30 or more years. I do wish that more people crossed over from one scene to another. I think only a handful of people in the city are liable to go to a punk show, then a blues show, then a jazz jam, then a classical concert, then a synth-pop show. I grew up loving all that stuff, so I do...but most of the blues lovers and blues musicians don't see a whole lot of other stuff, and most indie-rock aficionados would never set foot in a blues club. I hope when shows return that people will start exploring a wider range!

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the late greats Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, and Eddie Shaw?

I spent some time with Lonnie, back stage and on stage, but only just a little with the other two. The people in Chicago I've spent the  most time with are Matthew Skoller, Billy Boy Arnold, Lurrie Bell (and some shows and one album with his dad Carey Bell), John Primer, Carlos Johnson, Billy Branch, Billy Flynn, Kenny Smith, Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Dietra Farr...I've been on stage with Buddy Guy a bunch of times going back to the mid-'90s...Junior was one of my favorite human beings I've met, in addition to being a hero of mine. So delightfully silly and playful. I've had great times full of late-night laughter with Carlos Johnson, Matthew Skoller, Billy Branch...let's just say we like our Cognac.                                                      Johnny Iguana / Photo by Lee Ann Flynn

"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."

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

I'm still trying to figure out if I have any lessons for anyone. Mostly, you need to always practice your instrument and you need to speak with your own musical voice. And even with all that intact, it's still an extremely difficult choice of professions (even without a pandemic). And yet: here I am, with no plans to change.

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.

"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." (Photo: Johnny Iguana & Junior Wells, Chicago IL)

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.

"I'm still trying to figure out if I have any lessons for anyone. Mostly, you need to always practice your instrument and you need to speak with your own musical voice. And even with all that intact, it's still an extremely difficult choice of professions (even without a pandemic). And yet: here I am, with no plans to change." (Johnny Iguana / Photo by Katharine Kitty LeClair)

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.

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.                                        (Johnny Iguana / Photo by Janet M. Takayama)

"I grew up loving all that stuff, so I do...but most of the blues lovers and blues musicians don't see a whole lot of other stuff, and most indie-rock aficionados would never set foot in a blues club. I hope when shows return that people will start exploring a wider range!"

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.

What is the impact of Blues and Soul music on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

It is true and it is wrong that many, many blues festivals program all or mostly white artists. This music, like jazz, came from African-Americans, and there are PLENTY of African-American artists to book into these festivals, from teenagers to Billy Boy Arnold and Jimmy Johnson who are in their 80s and 90s. I think, for the most part, that white and black artists are both glad to see each other in the scene and support each other, but the racism and lack of opportunity facing black America at large is also a problem in blues/roots music. I like to think that the winds of change are truly in the air right now. I like this post someone made on Facebook after U.S. Congressman/Civil-Rights leader John Lewis died recently: "Glad to see so many Republicans are fans of the Civil Rights Movement, 'cause we're in the midst of another one right now!"

Johnny Iguana - official website

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