As a teenager growing up in Chicago, pianist Johnny Iguana had three heroes: blues singer and harmonica player Junior Wells, Clash frontman Joe Strummer and Minutemen bassist Mike Watt. While Iguana knows his way around the blues piano and even toured with Wells, he injects punk energy into his playing with The Claudettes.
While Iguana initially formed the Claudettes in 2011 as a blues drums-and-piano instrumental duo inspired by pianists Otis Spann and S.P. Leary, the group has since grown in size, adding vocalist Berit Ulseth, bassist/guitarist/singer Zach Verdoorn and drummer Michael Caskey. The outfit's scope has also grown to incorporate punk, rockabilly, indie rock, soul and roots music along with the blues, for a style Iguana calls “garage cabaret.”
“The people that really respond to us are listening to the lyrics and hearing the blues and jazz and soul that’s in it and finding something familiar in it that way — but also something fresh and alive that justifies its existence,” Iguana says.
The Claudettes will play a four-day Colorado run that includes stops at the Soiled Dove, the Black Sheep and the Trinidaddio Blues Fest in support of High Times in the Dark, the 202 album that the band made with Grammy-winning producer Ted Hutt, who has produced albums for Flogging Molly (which Hutt co-founded), Dropkick Murphys, the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones and, more recently, the Devil Makes Three, Old Crow Medicine Show and the Violent Femmes.
Iguana, who was a 2021 Blues Music Award nominee for piano player of the year, says Hutt was interested in producing the Claudettes because of their “unique piano-centered approach...and the fact that it's kind of rootsy, because he works with a lot more punk and indie rock, but he loves real roots music, so he was really attracted to it.”
Hutt, a Brit who’s based in Los Angeles, flew out to Chicago to work with the Claudettes at a studio near Iguana’s home. Iguana says Hutt created a relaxing environment with his dry and witty sense of humor.
“He also had really good, strong ideas,” Iguana says of Hutt. “And he kind of gently persuaded us to use [them] in terms of arrangements of the songs and even changing some of the lyrics that he found kind of clumsy. Usually, I would probably fold my arms and be kind of territorial about that kind of thing, but I thought, ‘What's the point of bringing out a producer who made all these great records and arguing with him about his ideas?'”
Iguana notes that Ulseth has perfect pitch and a beautiful warm tone, so that "it's easy to be lured like a siren into the rocks”; nonetheless, on the last few Claudettes albums, there were times when she seemed to be holding back a bit. For High Times in the Dark, Hutt encouraged her to take her vocals to the next level.
“She was so relaxed and confident in the studio under his watchful eye and way with his kind of combination of encouraging her but also really compelling her to really go for it,” Iguana says. “If you listen to her vocals on that album, there's a lot of almost winking and seducing, like the lines that are where she's supposed be a character. Whatever the intent was, he really dialed it in.”
While the Claudettes will play songs from High Times in the Dark, they’ll also dig into another album that already recorded and scheduled to drop next year. There’s also another disc’s worth of material in the works, some of which the band will be testing out live.
“We aren't cut out for just playing the same set year after year, month after month,” Iguana says. “It's only fun when there are songs in the set that you're nervous about that are so new that just seem so complicated and difficult until you got them under your belt. And then it’s just like anything else, but at first it's kind of like a certain high you get from the danger of playing them.”
The Claudettes and i.O. Underground play at 8 p.m., Wednesday, August 25, at Soiled Dove Underground, 7401 East First Avenue. Tickets, $15 to $20, are available at Eventbrite.