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Scott Lucas sounds ironically sad as he sings "Lucky," slowly playing the circular, tremolo-warbled guitar wash of the folksy, 45-second ditty and uttering plaintively: "Pack up the cats and move to the city/Leave the jocks and their bars behind/ I move with nothing left to prove, to you/Such a lucky time, nothing left to prove."
On the cut from Pack Up the Cats -- the most recent album from Chicago-based band Local H -- a choir of cats yowls behind Lucas and his guitar. Perhaps they don't want to move to the city. No matter, the vocal kitties are just a sound effect, and those pictured on the CD sleeve are merely symbolic. The phrase "pack up the cats" is a homey euphemism for picking up a household and a life and relocating, which Lucas did just prior to recording the album more than a year ago. "Lucky," however, is one of only a few down-tempo songs on the otherwise hard-hitting album of punkish, postgrunge rock, and in this case the cat reference is strictly metaphorical.
"That was really, really an uncomfortable shoot for me, because I hate cats," Lucas, age 29, says of the sessions that produced the jacket art. "They were kind of freaking me out." You'd never know it looking at the pictures of Lucas and former bandmate Joe Daniels, who in one shot are seen kicking back in their pajamas at a breakfast table surrounded by ten live feline models.
Knowing the band's history, you'd also never guess that drummer Daniels would be out of the picture -- literally -- by the time the initial support tour for the album ended earlier this year. Lucas and Daniels had played together since high school in the mid-'80s in their small hometown of Zion, Illinois, where, after slashing the lineup from a four-piece with dual guitars to just Daniels and him, Lucas added bass pickups to the body of his guitar in lieu of finding a replacement bassist.
"It just got to the point where I was like, you know, we can either sit on our asses and wait for a bass player to come along, or just do this," explains Lucas. "I've got a bass pickup on my guitar, and it goes out of a separate jack into a bass amp. The bass pickups pick up the bottom two strings, so you make sure that all of the chords have one of those two strings as the root note."
Still he needed Daniels to provide the pounding, propulsive backbeat for his tunes, demo tapes of which were good enough to land the power duo a deal with Island Records, which released the Local H debut, Ham Fisted, in 1995. The arrangement worked out fine until earlier this year. "It's a matter of Joe not enjoying himself," Lucas says of the split. "And it just started to get to the point where I started to wonder if, you know, I was."
Upon reflection, says Lucas, he was more sure than ever that he wanted to write, play, and record music. "I was determined to not let anybody ruin that for me," he says. "I was committed to not playing anymore unless the drummer just kicked ass, basically."
After Lucas unsuccessfully auditioned six replacement drummers, a friend suggested he call up Brian St. Claire, formerly the drummer for Chicago rock band Triple Fast Action, for which Lucas had temporarily played guitar in the past. That band had since called it quits, and St. Claire was eager to hop back behind the drum kit, which he did a few months ago. "Right away we started writing songs, and we've got half of the next record written already," Lucas notes.
Local H will play a handful of its new tunes when it takes the stage during the Buzz Bake Sale November 7 in West Palm Beach. In 1996 Lucas played the inaugural Bake Sale, put on by Palm Beach County radio station WPBZ-FM (103.1). Back then the altrock station was playing songs from Local H's breakthrough 1996 album, As Good as Dead, including "Bound For the Floor" and "High-Fiving MF."
The latter tune refers to the same "jocks and their bars" left behind on Pack Up the Cats' "Lucky." As Good as Dead was written when Lucas still lived in Zion, on the Illinois-Wisconsin border about an hour and a half from Chicago by car. "The entire record was about small-town life," he says. "This record is sort of about getting out of a small town and becoming a little fish in a big pond."
His "pond" was Chicago, and the song cycle of Pack Up the Cats traces, in semiautobiographical fashion, the journey from a little fish's yearning for acceptance to the happy bliss of near-stardom to jaded rock-star burnout.
On "Lucky," the album's third track, Lucas' character declares an end to slaving away on stage in small-town bars for unappreciative crowds. A few songs later, the protagonist is trying to fit into his big-city surroundings on "Hit the Skids or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Rock." "No one cares and no one calls/There's a party in the bathroom stall/Everyone is telling jokes that I don't get at all," Lucas sings in his serviceable, if not especially memorable, tenor.