Heeeere, Kitty, Kitty
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.
During the chorus the careening guitar ruckus quiets down, the tempo slows, and the wonder of multitrack recording allows Lucas to harmonize sweetly with himself on the lines, "I wanna know who you know, wanna see what you're saying/Have a field day today, no real reason." The guitar shifts back into high gear as Lucas screams gruffly and repeatedly, "I'm all alone," before partaking in a little foreshadowing: "Hey, what'ch you wanna pay for me/I'm in love with rock and roll, but that'll change eventually."
Twangy slide guitar alternates with staccato rhythms and heavy chords throughout the song, which gives way to the fuzz-distortion and dissonance of "500,000 Scovilles," on which Lucas declares: "I'm living well, I'm working out, I'm eating right."
"There's references to starting to live well and the money starts to roll in and things are going good," Lucas says. "And then you've got 'Fine and Good,' and it's definitely everything is going great, and then at the end of that song there's sort of a reference to trying to convince yourself that you're happy and that things are great."
Part of that convincing involves altering reality through drink and drugs, which is dealt with on the following track, the melancholy, acoustic guitar interlude "Lead Pipe Cinch." Over beautiful, delicate strumming, Lucas intones, "There's somethin' in my mind won't let my heart and head and mouth connect/ Somethin' in my mind won't let my heart out of the darkness yet."
Lucas won't let on whether this part of the story line is truly autobiographical, but he admits that the idea behind his loosely structured concept album is nothing new. "Money starts to change things, which isn't a new theme," he says. "You can find that in anything from [David Bowie's album] The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars to [the film] Boogie Nights. I was definitely trying to go with that, and that was the arc of the record . There's sort of, like, a sadness when people have got something that they enjoy and then it becomes tainted for them and they can't even stand to pick up the guitar. But on the other hand, you can protect yourself from that. And you can separate the fact that business is business and the music is something completely different from that."
The pragmatic Lucas has certainly learned to balance the two, and he has no sympathy for players who can't or won't. He hits the subject hard in "Laminate Man," a straight-up rocker with pounding piano-chord flourishes. "It's definitely about this guy who is completely not about the music anymore," Lucas explains. "He's just sort of into music more for the status.
"Which takes you right to 'All the Kids [Are Right],'" he continues, "where the band is completely burned out and everybody is fucked up playing shows and playing really bad shows and just kind of letting everybody down, and everyone is kind of seeing that this band sucks now, that they've kind of lost it."
Which, according to Lucas, is why he was so adamant about finding the right drummer or not going on at all. "I've invested so much of myself into these songs," he says. "I realized that I didn't want to let this go, and I didn't want the band to deteriorate in such a way that the shows started getting bad and the songs got bad because everybody involved wasn't 100 percent into it, you know what I mean?"
If you don't, a good hard listen to Pack Up the Cats should set you straight.
Contact John Ferri at his e-mail address:
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