The Boondoggles were, bigger than the Beatles, for a week at least.
In 1995, both the Zephyr and B-97 added the Boondoggles to their playlists, an unprecedented phenomenon for an unsigned local bands “It was when the Beatles’ new old song “Free as a Bird” was out,” says guitarist and vocalist Robert Johnston, laughing, “We have the B-97 playlist they sent in to the Gavin Report, and we were ahead of both the Beatles and Hootie and the Blowfish!”
Achieving Beatlesque success-or even Hootiesque-is a dream of most bands, and the Boondoggles are no exception, but unlike most bands, the Boondoggles are pursuing that dream on their own terms. With a new CD in the racks, the radio friendly 2nd Heaven, the Boondoggles are preparing to make a serious run at the success of peers like Cowboy Mouth, Better Than Ezra and Deadeye Dick.
“We’ve been focused on recording this CD for eight or nine months,” says Johnston. “Now it’s time to get out and play.”
Johnston founded the precursor to the Boondoggles — Moving Targets — in 1990 after graduating from college. A veteran of trios in which he was the primary songwriter and vocalist, Johnston wanted to play in a band that featured two songwriters and vocalists for a change. He called his friend Dave Hirstius, who, like Johnston, had built a reputation fronting trios. Hirstius recruited Billy Schell to play drums, and the band went through a series of bass players — including a pre-Cowboy Mouth Fred LeBlanc — before convincing John Malone, a bandmate of Johnston’s in the terminally preppy Up Front, to join on bass.
“At that point, I remember thinking that our lineup was exactly how I wanted it to be,” recalls Johnston. “Two months later, Dave calls me the day after Christmas and says, ‘I’m moving to Chicago to go to medical school.’ “
The Boondoggles are used to that kind of adversity. Take for instance their name. They assumed it after being threatened with a cease and desist order when they innocently sent a promo kit to a label that already had a band named Moving Targets. Talk to the Boondoggles for any length of time and you’ll hear stories worthy of Spinal Tap II, all delivered with self-effacing humor.
“We’ve definitely got an underdog mentality,” Johnston says. “And we know that there is a worldwide conspiracy to undermine the Boondoggles.”
But more so than most bands, the Boondoggles can afford to laugh at their troubles, All three hold professional jobs; Johnston is a maritime attorney. According to Johnston, for a long time their day jobs were a source of self-consciousness.
“There are bands who won’t let us open for them because we’re not serious enough for them,” Johnston says. “But I think anybody who doesn’t have to starve for their art and willfully does it is making a mistake. I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish while holding down serious employment. I think the fact that we just made a record we feel good about shows that it can be done on our terms.”
And those terms are non-negotiable. Unlike most bands that feel that touring is the only road to success, the Boondoggles fully intend to let their product do the walking.
“We’re not going to go out there on the road without a contract to get discovered,” Schell says. ‘That just doesn’t happen, or if it does, it’s one in a million. Our dedication to what we’re doing is as serious as anybody’s, but some things have to be on the table because we have a lot to give up.”
“If you sacrifice your quality of life, you put a very short fuse on how long you can keep doing it,” Johnston says. “Most of the bands that started at the same time as us have broken up. For the bands that quit their jobs and go out on the road, if you don’t get to that next level of success where your life gets more comfortable within 18 months or a couple of years, you quit. That seems to be the progression.”
“There’s two ways of doing it,” adds Malone. “Of course our goal-all bands’ ultimate goal is to sell a million albums and be famous and be able to do it professionally throughout your life. And the two ways of going about that are to get on the road and work your ass off and hope to build a following, or to do what we like to think is the other alternative-to get together a really solid group of songs, put it together in a form that is very marketable to a wide audience, put it out and let it speak for itself.
“That’s another way of making it to the top and we don’t have to kill ourselves.”
The Boondoggles are banking that their latest release, 2nd Heaven, is the product that’s going to take them there. Recorded last year at Sound Services in Metairie with their longtime friend and engineer Marc Hewitt, 2nd Heaven features 10 slices of tight, radio friendly guitar rock. While their debut, Every Dog Has His Day, was simply a collection of their best songs, 2nd Heaven was assembled as a complete, unified whole. Thus tempos vary from the upbeat to the more moderate, and styles range from power pop to roots rock to acoustic ballad. “Dig A Little Deeper” has the rootsy feel of Sonny Landreth, “Away With Love” is a cover of a Peter Holsapple tune. The balance of the record, highlighted by “Next Best Thing,” “Swimming Upstream,” and “Waste of a Good Weekend,” are uptempo rock songs with melodic hooks and clever wordplay in the tradition of Paul Westerberg.
The record also features guest performance by Holsapple and Radiator Dave Malone, who just happens to be John Malone’s dad.
“He’s always been extremely supportive,” the younger Malone says of his dad. “He always wants me to bring him our stuff to listen to. He likes our music, he likes what we do and he was a real big part of helping us finish up and put the finishing touches on the record.”
For now, the Boondoggles plan to hire an independent promoter to sell 2nd Heaven to commercial radio. Following the path of Better Than Ezra and Cowboy Mouth, the band hopes that solid radio airplay will inspire a label to pick up 2nd Heaven .
“There’s a lot of people out there who look for CDs like we have,” says Malone. “They try to cultivate bands like ours that they can promote. If we give them something that takes away half their job. But even if 2nd Heaven doesn’t get picked up, Robert Johnston is still happy with his rock career thus far.
“I had a discrete set of things that I really wanted to do in my life as a musician when I started playing guitar a long time ago, and I’ve gotten to do pretty much all of them,” Johnston says. “Selling a million records is a goal I’d like to achieve, but at the same time, writing good music and making something you’re proud of is its own reward. I enjoy the cottage industry thing we’ve got going. We’re not like if this doesn’t get picked up, we’re dead. I’d happily put out record No.3 on Gulf Shrimp Records. I think a lot of people are looking to sell a million records to radically alter their lives in some way. We’re not really doing that. It’s really just about the music. I know that’s a cliche, but that’s only reason that you can do this and have it sustain itself. If you’re happy, you can do it forever.”
St. Elizabeth’s, the Catholic orphanage turned museum/residence by novelist Anne Rice, seems like an odd enough place to meet Peabody, the local power-pop band comprised of four 20-something musicians. But it turns out to be the ideal spot. The sunny disposition of this highly-charged group proves to be the perfect counterbalance to the dark, gothic surroundings.
Appropriately gathered around a restored confessional booth, the band pulled up several red velvet chairs to talk. White Karen Protti, the lead singer, applied her make-up for a publicity shoot that would follow the interview, Chris Bailey, her husband and the band’s drummer, kept things on track. Steven, the guitar player, his leg in a newly applied cast thanks to a rollerblading hockey accident two days before, propped himself up and Jimmy Legnon, the only non-original Peabody member, also gave us their perspectives.
The nucleus of Peabody was created in the late 1980s when Kennerite Chris Bailey met West Banker Karen Protti at the University of New Orleans. They formed a band, calling themselves the Edge of Memory, and began doing covers (of such artists as Sinead O’Connor, Susie and the Banshees and the Sugar Cubes) in local dumps and dives. Later, and joined by friend and original bassist Lou Carollo, Bailyand Protti played in a group called Habit’s Hat. After their guitarist left, the trio dissolved the band and began thinking about putting together an all-originals band.
On the other side of the UNO campus, guitarist Steven Dennis, from St. Bernard, had posted flyers all over town looking for people to form a band. The four got together, hit it off immediately and began writing songs.
“After we met Steven,” Protti recalls, “we liked him so much that we went back out and tore all his flyers down so that nobody would call him.”
Peabody played their first show in August 1990 at the Warehouse Cafe opening for local favorites Fresh Young Minds. The only bad thing about their inaugural gig was that Protti and Bailey were late.
“We were coming from my cousin’s wedding,” Bailey says. “We had to get dressed in the van. It was nuts. Karen was getting dressed and she had her butt sticking out the window half the time. It was a mini-van so there wasn’t that much room.”
Says Protti, “I was a nervous wreck and totally frazzled by the time we got there. I mean Chris is always cool about playing but I get fried. During the show, Steven and I were like statues and someone came up to us during a break and said, ‘You know you guys gotta loosen up a bit.”
“It all worked out though,” adds Dennis, “because the crowd that night was full of our family and friends and a lot of people that we knew.”
In December of 1990, Peabody played their first show as the headliners act at Jimmy’s Music Club and the band hasn’t looked back since.
Since its inception, Peabody has prided itself on its performances and professionalism. Says Dennis, “We’ve seen so many bands that don’t seem to have it together and it comes across almost like they don’t know what they’re doing or don.’t take it very seriously.”
Bailey agrees: “It definitely has an effect on an audience because if you come across as not being prepared or half-assed, the audience can tell.”
“That aspect, the professionalism, is what attracted me to Peabody,” says Legnon who took over for original bassist Lou Carollo in August 1996. “I looked at what a professional outfit this band was and I quit my job as an x-ray technician. I figured that if I was going to take my shot at making it in the music business, I wanted to do it with a professional group like Peabody.”
And, contrary to the Marilyn Manson-inspired school of outrageousness, Peabody projects a good wholesome image. On stage, when Protti takes nips from a .thermos, it’s not some home brew but rather hot herbal tea for her throat. This is band that is secure in its reputation.
“I think that our attitude,” says Dennis, “stems from the fact that we don’t really like the whole shock value thing that some bands go for.”
Adds Protti between dabs of rouge, “And we’re not into that ‘we’re-so-cool-because-we’re-in-a-band thing.’ I hate that! I think it’s crap!”
Whoa! Stop the presses. Crap from a member of Peabody. Sacrebleu! This momentary slip-of-tongue is followed by nervous glances around the sacrosanci chapel to see if any vampires are stirring. Thankfully, it is daytime and we resume our discourse. But, while we’re on the subject, why are we here in the first place?
Dennis explains, “Our good friend Ritchie Champagne is vice president if Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat Fan Club and he had us play for one of their Halloween parties a few years back. It was a very mixed crowd but amazing. In a lot of ways, it’s like a Jazz Fest crowd in that you get a lot of people from all over the world and it helps out in getting recognition.”
The juxtaposition of a well-scrubbed band like Peabody playing for such a, ah, diverse crowd, caused some initial anxiety.
Says Dennis, “Yeah, the first year, the warm-up band was dark, gothic and then here comes Peabody. We had the prime spot just before Anne’s big ceremonial presentation but the crowd just ate it up.”
And so have fans at the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival which has asked Peabody back again this year, the fourth time since 1990. The group will play the second weekend on May 3.
Legnon says, “This is my first Jazz Fest so I’m really jazzed.”
Bailey adds that besides being fun, it’s also good business. “Blockbuster sets up this consignment tent where we can sell product and we just sell a ton of it after we play.”
To date, the band, through its own means of distribution, has sold over 6,500 units of its second CD, Lost in Old Rivers, and nearly 2,000 units of its current offering, Heroine. Their first CD, Our House Recording, is completely sold out.
Peabody writes and produces their own material usually at the Bailey/Protti household in Kenner, a place called Our House Recording Studio.
Says Bailey, “Somebody will bring in a progression, it used to be just Steven, but now Jimmy and. occasionally me. Then, together as a band we’ll work it out. And then once we feel like we’ve got some structure to it, we’ll try to put lyrics to the song. That’s when it kind of officially becomes a song for us.”
Dennis says, “Chris will write the lyrics and then Karen works on phrasing and delivery with some revising along the way.”
“Somewhere along the way, I’ll have a fit,” Protti says, “I’ll be saying, “Aw, I don’t know if I like this.'”
“No, you usually say ‘I hate this’!” Chris adds. Says Dennis, “The great thing about Heroine is that we got a chance to bring in additional musicians to enhance what we wrote.”
One play of Peabody’s current offering verifies Dennis’ point. In addition to the fme musicianship provided by the band, the CD also features Jennifer Kelly performing some solid oboe work on the title track while Lord Damien Youth does background chanting on “Blue.”The horns of Reggie Murray and Mark Mullins fill in nicely on “Wouldn’t You?” and listen for the subtle accompaniment of strings provided by Mike Stang (violin), Michael Bowen (viola) and David Pepper (cello) on “Tell Him,” “Heroine,” and, appropriately, “Broken Strings.”
Peabody played over 120 shows in 1995 and another 200 dates in seven states by the end of last year. Among their shared bills, Peabody has played with PJ Harvey, Better Than Ezra, Jack O’ Pierce, Peter Holsapple, Alex Chilton and Cowboy Mouth just to name a few.
“You wouldn’t think,” says Bailey almost apologizing, “that on the surface of it all, Cowboy Mouth and Peabody would go together but it’s been great! Every Cowboy Mouth show that we have ever done are always jammed packed and nuts.” Plus Fred leBlanc (the drummer/frontman of Cowboy Mouth) has been very helpful in his ideas and support.”
Protti curls her hair as the interview begins to wind down. The photographer-loads her film and tests her lights.
Over the course of their band life together, what has Peabody learned over the years?
“To relax,” says Protti, “it’s what I heard at my first gig and what I still try to remember today.”
“Don’t listen too much to what other people have to say,’ says Dennis. “Do your own thing,” says Legnon.
“Listen to people who are successes and not failures,” says Bailey, “because you’ll have a million people telling you what to do and they’ve got no clue of what’s going on. You have to listen to people who’ve been there before.”
Peabody’s got big plans for the future. A north-eastern tour is in the works and there’s talk among the band about going back into the studio during the summer to see about recording a new CD.
But, for now, Karen Protti’s all made-up and dressed up and the band is ready for their new publicity shots. Besides, daylight is starting to die and this reporter is anxious to get out of St. Elizabeth’s before nightfall. But, like they have for the last seven years, Peabody decides to stay, as always, taking chances and staying on the sunny side of life.
“In the beginning people kept telling us we were a pop band,” says Melissa Giorgio, bass player for Flux. “We were like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ But then we realized it: We are a pop band.”
That’s a manifesto of sorts for the four members of Flux. Since going public a year ago, Flux has staked largely uncharted territory for a New Orleans band, combining the volume of Weedeater and the syncopations of Rigid with sophisticated guitar textures that evoke Sonic Youth, Swervedriver and Jawbox. Vocalist Zac Wilson, meanwhile, screams with hardcore intensity.
Yet for all their fury and underneath layers of noise, guitarist Ben Curtis’s songs hide melodic hooks that show Flux’s true colors: they’re pop and they’re proud. In New Orleans, that’s a hard combination for some people to fathom, especially among the cliquish rock crowd.
“We had a really hard time breaking into the scene,” Curtis notes. “When people hear that something is ‘pop,’ they kind of want to shut it away without actually giving it a chance. I think that happened to us for a little while, but now that we’ve been playing with bands that aren’t necessarily like us, that’s opened up a lot of audiences. It’s gone full circle I think. Now, even the death metal people like us.”
While the current lineup, has been playing for just a little over a year,the roots of Flux extend back to 1991, when Northshore natives Curtis and Wilson met at the Southeastern Louisiana University. The two musicians immediately recognized shared musical interests, but they never got around to actually playing together. A couple of years later, Wilson relocated to Washington, D.C., and Curtis moved to New Orleans.
“I was taking the bus everywhere when I first moved to the city because I was broke,” Curtis says. “I was listening to everything with headphones, and I started listening to Sonic Youth and Swervedriver — with all these crazy layers and melodies — and I fell in love with that stuff.”
Still, it took hearing one more band before Curtis recognized the direction he wanted to move in. “When Jawbox’s Your Own Special Sweetheart came out and I heard the song “Savory,” that really changed my perception. I was like, ‘Man, that’s what I’ve been hearing in my head the whole time.’ “
Curtis was recording songs by himself with a four-track and drum machine when Wilson visited him for Mardi Gras in 1993. Curtis ended up convincing him to stay in New Orleans to write songs.
A year later, Curtis and Wilson brought a tape they’d made with a boombox to Robinson Mills at the Egyptian Room studio. Their idea was to find out how much a prop-
er demo would cost, but Mills had other ideas .. “We dropped the tape off with Robinson and he called us back a day later and was like, ‘Look, I really like your stuff. I want to put your song on this compilation CD I’m doing.'”
The CD in question was N.O. Tradition, a collection of local underground bands released in 1994 and featuring stalwarts of the scene such as Evil Nurse Sheila, Rigid, Weedeater, Burnversion and Nut. Flux contributed “Stratus,” a four-minute sonic pop gem that clearly marked them as a band worth keeping tabs on. Yet while the other bands on the CD continued to perform regularly, Flux remained curiously absent from the scene.
“For a while there was this mystique about us-‘Who the hell are those people and why aren’t they playing?’ ” Wilson says. “The whole thing came about really strangely.”
“That worked to our advantage,” adds drummer Keith Hajjar. “We made a lot of fans off of that one song. It built suspense.”
It wasn’t so much building suspense as the lack of a drummer and bass player that kept Flux out of the clubs. The rhythm section they used to cut “Stratus” didn’t work out, and finding musicians willing to travel Flux’s sonic road proved difficult. “Zac and I were really into it and very determined to do what we were doing,” Curtis explains, “but the other guys weren’t as into it as we were.”
After N.O. Tradition came out, Curtis and Wilson hooked up with Hajjar, and Lawrence Thompson and Chris Dufour of Nailboss joined the band. That lineup did result in an actual live performance-opening for ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer at the Varsity in Baton Rouge-but once again it failed to stick. Wilson dropped out the band due to personal differences, and Curtis paned ways with Thompson and Dufour, relegating Flux to a duo of Curtis and Hajjar.
In 1995, Flux finally began to take some semblance of shape. Hajjar recruited Melissa Giorgio, formerly with local pop outfit Odd Fellow’s Rest, to play bass, and Wilson returned to the fold. For a brief period the band changed their name to Delux and added Michael Blum on guitar, but by early 1996 they had settled into their current form — Wilson on guitar and vocals, Curtis on guitar, Giorgio on bass and Hajjar on drums. Finally, three years after forming, Flux is starting to click. Cunis and Wilson’s songwriting is growing, and audiences are beginning to take notice. In February, the band cut a four-song demo at manager Jim Ford’s studio that they hope to use to attract a producer who wants to work with them and — significantly — is a big enough name to attract some attention to them.
“I don’t know if anybody in this band knew that there were any commercial possibilIties to what we were doing,” Curtis says. “In the beginning, we were totally opposed to it, and then people would tell us that some of our stuff could be on the radio. So we thought about it, but it wasn’t until after the first recording session that we all did together that we thought well maybe this could make us some money.”
“I think that is something that is big to us,” adds Wilson. “We wouldn’t mind if this gave us some kind of success commercially. Not that we would purposely ever write something [tobe commercial] …
“Okay, I’m lying now.”
Finally, the band is beginning to gain the kind of recognition they hope for. “When we played the Howlin’ Wolf, the one comment we got from [owner] Jack Groetsch was, ‘You guys were louder than Sonic Youth.’ ” says Wilson proudly. “And if you don’t like our pop music,” adds Giorgio, “we’ll just turn it up louder.”