I had the pleasure of sitting down for beers with Lionize’s bass player Hank Upton before the opening act went up at the Beat Kitchen. A pleasant enough guy, he seemed more interested in getting his burger down than making small talk. After a while keyboardist Chris Brooks and drummer Mel Randolgh walk up and we share a round of beers, lead singer Nate Bergman joining us later. After business introductions it’s clear that they’ve got a few things to attend to but are in no rush to either start or finish an interview. Later, we trade jokes while smoking cigarettes outside the club. This all sounds very mundane, but that’s the point. They’re normal guys. Four everyday guys from D.C. who have released music and toured non-stop since 2004. A quartet of your average music fan who play above average rock and roll. Never once did they talk about their talent or their stature in the industry. What could have been stiff and automatic ended up being akin to their live show, casual and free flowing. I spoke with them over beers in the Beat Kitchen’s green-room.
Heave: We’re glad to have you here in Chicago but this isn’t your first time. You’ve played the Beat Kitchen twice, the Double Door, the Metro, Cubby Bear, Kuma’s Corner – you’ve seen a good landscape, any favorites?
Mel Randolph: I really enjoyed Kuma’s, the block party we played with Clutch. From the staff to the food, the whole day was a blast.
Hank Upton: The Metro was really good. I had heard about it before, they live up to their reputation. That’s one of the best places we’ve played so far. It reminded me of the 9:30 Club [in DC]. I’d like to do anything, really…the Cubby Bear, it’s a sports bar, which isn’t the most conducive to being a music venue. I just like being close to Wrigley Field since I’m a baseball nerd. I would like to play anywhere in Chicago close to Wrigley Field or involving a baseball game in some fashion. I’ll take the White Sox, too.
Heave: You’ve had some time in Chicago, is there anything you’d like to see or do?
Hank: We’re always husltin’ in and husltin’ out.
Mel: We’ve been fortunate that when we’re playing we’ve always been around a lot of stuff. When we have time before the set we can walk around and check things out.
Heave: What time did you guys get in today?
Mel: I, dunno, hours ago…I don’t even know what time it is.
Hank: We didn’t have the chance to do anything since we had to go to Guitar Center.
Heave: Oh? The anchor store in the city?
Hank: Yeah, the one with the $35,000 Stratocaster on display.
Heave: Yeah that one’s a treat, there’s a lot of characters, regulars who like to come in and play.
Hank: I saw some guy who was dressed head-to-toe in leather, Eddie Murphy-style playing a Squier. I thought, “Why not go for the expensive guitars if you’re done up like that?” Maybe he was gonna shred too hard and didn’t want to break anything.
Heave: I have a nephew, he turned seven recently. His dad tells me that he’s into heavier music, jam rock especially, so I burned him Destruction Manual. He tells me that when his friends come over he tells them it’s his Uncle’s band and not to be jealous. I hope you guys don’t mind if I take credit at least for a little while.
Mel: (Laughs) No, go ahead.
Heave: How do you guys like to spread new music, not just your own music, to the youth?
Mel and Hank: (in unison) Word-of-mouth
Hank: 95% word-of-mouth, talking to our network of friends and people talking. We’ve had a leg-up with some marketing and an internet presence but definitely word-of-mouth.
Heave: As far as internet presence goes, I’d like to discuss digital media in the context of things like modern piracy. I had your entire collection purchased but my hard disk crashed and I lost everything, and couldn’t re-download it from where I had purchased it so I hit up the Pirate Bay. You live on your record sales and merch at shows; how does this stuff make you feel as an independent artist?
Mel: Personally, it makes me want to work harder so people slowly find out who we are.
Hank: As a normal internet user something like SOPA, on the face of it, was a terrible idea and it was endangering the entire concept of free speech on the internet. When you’re in our position as an independent artist who makes their money on purchases, you can see the other side of it. Everything you produce and distribute is taken for free. It makes your life harder. People taking, stealing, whatever you want to call it, it’s inevitable. There’s nothing you can do about it and things like SOPA are so much more negative than good for people like us. You bought those records and lost them. Download it, I don’t care if you give 100 people for free. You bought it, it’s yours; distribute it to whoever you want to. Just buy it from us in the first place!
Heave: If people are buying your music digitally – I got it through Amazon – how would you prefer they do it?
Mel: You’ll get a better feel live.
Heave: You have the rare quality as recording artists where your live show and your records sync up really well. You’ve done a good job of bringing that live show to the records. You also release regularly, with two albums in 2011, Destruction Manual and Superczar. What is the writing process like, how do you guys bring that much energy so regularly?
Mel: We just show up and our hearts are in the same place. It just pours out of us.
Hank: We don’t have much of a process. Me and Nate will write the lyrics. We collect stuff along the way, on tour or things we want to try. Riffs we want to thieve – since all art is just taking from something else and making something else. We get in a room, we have the lyrics, Chris will flesh out a melody and we just play it over and over again. There’s a ton of stuff that we write that never ever makes it anywhere.
Heave: Nothing we’ll see as B-sides? Do you feel it just doesn’t measure up to your name?
Mel: Not really, There’s a few things we’ve thrown out that I could see being recycled.
Hank: Yeah definitely! If you look at “Vessel” on Superczar, the bridge of it, that’s from a song “Abyss” we used to play. That riff was a big part of that song and that song went away and adapted into that. We do a lot of surgery with bits and pieces. We do have a basic guideline: play for a while, here’s the lyrics. Generally, the harder you have to work at it, the less awesome it is.
Heave: You guys have had the good fortune of working with guys like Chali 2na (Jurrasic 5) and Tim Sult (Clutch). Do you guys have any names behind you for Superczar?
Hank: We had J. Robbins again, who produced Destruction Manual and a bunch of the Clutch records. He is super easy to work with and has a great ear. We had the guys from Streetlight Manifesto, Nadav Nirenberg (trombone) and Jim Conti (alto saxaphone). Seriously, world-class, scary good horn players. The path from Space Pope and the Glass Machine to where we’re at with this record has been to whittle down the amount of guests and what we can do live. It’s a process, finding our identity and our sound. I can’t pretend we’re going to sound the same in five years, we grow as a result of it.
Heave: Are there ever any growing pains?
Mel: Not so much, we’re still constantly developing our sound as we go along. I feel like we’re almost there. I’m very happy with the newest record.
Hank: When you spend time in a practice room you definitely get stuff where somebody wants to try something that sounds like a terrible idea. Then you’ll have stuff that accidentally works, or you spend three hours working on something that was fine before you started messing with it. There’s definitely internal clashes if you care about what you’re doing. Distance and time are good. We’ll flesh some things out and practice for a week, then take the weekend off. Either you’ll come back impressed…
Mel: …or you think of something else. The point is trying different things.
Hank: We’re going to know when it’s good or not. We all tend to agree on the end product even if we don’t agree on how we got there.
Heave: As far as clashing goes: you guys tour a lot. How do you keep the peace spending so much time in a confined space together?
Mel: The infamous question…
Hank: Off the record?
Chris Brooks: You can’t just say that in an interview! Everything’s on the record.
Hank: That’s the interview get-out-of-jail-free card!
Heave: I promise I won’t print it.
Mel: (laughing) Home remedies…we’re a team, we’re all cool. It’s a family thing.
Hank: Much like a family, you’re gonna want to kill each other occasionally. It’s the same story with most bands on tour. Half the time you’re a bunch of brothers trying to beat up the world, and the other half you spend beating each other up.
Heave: While touring how do you guys stay sane, how do you keep occupied?
Mel: Lots of internet.
Hank: Internet. Chris used to play a lot of poker online.
Heave: Was it the one that got busted for money laundering?
Chris: Yeah, it was my money they were laundering!
Hank: It was so illegal, I used to play a little of that too. I’m a bigger baseball and hockey fan.
Heave: Any favorites?
Hank: Nationals and the Capitols. I play a lot of fantasy sports and I try write a lot of lyrics on the road.
Mel: He’s actually been trying to ghost-write for somebody.
Hank: Yeah, I want to ghost-write rap lyrics. It’s ridiculous because I absolutely know I can’t rap but I could probably write really good lyrics for somebody who can. So, to anybody interested who’s reading this, hit me up.
Heave: Any projects on the horizon?
Heave: We’re looking to put out a live album, which is cheap but, logistically, very difficult. We expect to have another record out by the end of this year. We’re going on our first European tour. We’re playing a 4/20 show with GZA and Bad Brains in D.C. That’s a tour poster I’ll try to steal.
Heave: You’ve played with the Bad Brains a few times, what was that like?
Mel: Back in 09 we did a tour with H.R.’s side project, Human Rights, that was before we toured with Bad Brains. We developed a relationship him first and then met Dr. Know. They’re real cool. Earl [Hudson, the drummer] is cool, he’s got his own thing going on.
Hank: They’re scary good.
Mel: I could watch them all the time
Hank: The first time we played the 9:30 Club, it was a big deal for us because we’re from the area. When we get to our dressing room, H.R. is asleep in a bunk bed there. He climbs down and Nate asks him if he wants to sing “I and I Survive” with us. He says “Your wish is my command” and that’s all we say to him the entire night. If you look at the footage, it’s on YouTube, he comes out and absolutely destroys it. The best I’ve ever heard him sing.
Heave: You’ve played for Lee “Scratch” Perry and have toured with heavyweights like Clutch and the Bad Brains. What else is next?
Hank: I’m sure I’m not shocking you when I say we’re not a big band. If we broke up tomorrow we’d be able to say we played at a lot of cool places with some incredible people. We’ve done Bonaroo and Warped tour. I think touring Europe will open up some new doors for us. We want to get into the jam market. You know, Umphrey’s McGee type bands. Thats why Bonaroo 2010 was so cool for us.
Heave: How do you guys feel about genre titles? I’ve heard stoner rock or reggae applied to you.
Mel: I just prefer straight-up rock & roll. I really don’t care for the term stoner rock, it’s a little cheesy. We’re just a rock and roll band inspired by different genres and discovering our own sound.
Hank: Calling us reggae might confuse people. They’re expecting a certain thing. The Police played reggae but nobody calls them a reggae band. I’d rather have people throw labels at it and try to figure it out than just dismiss it as stoner rock and be done with it.
Heave: So you’re on the road, what’s the most embarrassing song in your media player right now? I’ll volunteer that I’ve got some Skrillex on me.
Mel: I’ve definitely got some…
Hank: More along the lines of your film collection.
Heave: Are we talking The Notebook, or what?
Hank: He’s into Legends of the Fall.
Heave: That’s a good movie though!
Hank: I’m just hating, cause it’s fun to hate. One of mine is Billy Joel’s Songs in the Attic. When Billy Joel is all drunk and coked-out in the 70s it’s a lot more edgy. He put out a very hip record.
Heave: So now that you’ve accomplished all this and continue to tour like crazy, what’s the major goal?
Hank: The goal is to make grown-up money. To not need parents and girlfriends and live like human beings. To get apartments and houses and support ourselves. Beyond that the big goal is to be a band that can make records for a long time
Mel: That people will come to see for the live show. You get more out of it than having one or two songs we might get on the radio.
Heave: How do you feel when you see yourself on Pandora or Last.fm?
Mel: That’s very cool.
Hank: …seeing the artist they relate you to. The double edged sword of it all, like the whole SOPA thing, is unlimited access. With unlimited access you also have unlimited content being generated. The cost of of recording and the difficulty of producing music has decreased so the quality will decrease.
Heave: One of the great truths of art is that 90% of what is created is crap and 10% are diamonds.
Hank: That’s a very salient point, actually, perhaps with the pool expanding so will the amount of diamonds.
Heave: The internet has provided this great forum for anybody to create anything and show anybody else. We get that huge bunch of crap…
Mel: If you put in the research you’ll find those diamonds.
Superczar and the Vulture is now available on the band’s official website.