It almost sounds like a bar joke – what do you get when you have grown men wearing 18th Century noblemen outfits (powdered wigs included) and another set of grown men dressed in thrift store old lady dresses?
Punchline? There isn’t one. Because what you get is two bad-ass punk rock bands, the Upper Crust and the Grannies, and if you don’t get “it,” the joke is on you.
Geographically, the two bands couldn’t be more different. The Upper Crust calls Boston home, while across the States in San Francisco are the Grannies. However, the two bands are longtime friends who took their shows across the Atlantic last year for a tour together. The lords in the Upper Crust and the ladies in the Grannies had such a good time, the idea of recording an album together was birthed by Saustex Records, who stepped up to the plate and recently released the split album ‘Lords & Ladies.’ Along with the split release, the two bands once again packed up the gear and headed out together on the Lords & Ladies Across the Colonies Tour.
We sat down with the Grannies’ guitarist and friend of Innocent Words Sluggo Cawley to talk about ‘Lords & Ladies,’ the current state of music and being a family man.
Innocent Words: Did the idea of this split album come from your tour with the Upper Crust in 2015, or was this something new?
Sluggo Cawley: Hmm, first question and already my memory is being tested. I’m pretty sure that it was our label head, Jeff Smith’s brilliant idea. We Grannies were of course honored to be featured on the same disc as the Upper Crust, whom we greatly admire.
Innocent Words: How did you meet up with the boys in the Upper Crust?
Sluggo Cawley: Well, let’s see; I first became aware of them back in 2010 (not quite sure how I missed noticing them for the first 15 years of their existence) and with the tiniest bit of exploring realized that they would be a great band to play with. More research determined that I actually knew some of them from back in my Boston days. The drummer, Jackie Kickassis (Jim Janota), had been in the Bags, whom my Boston band, Hullabaloo, had opened for a few times. The Lord Bendover (Nat Freedburg) was in much bigger and more popular bands than my Hullabaloo. He was in the Flies, the Titanics & the Satanics, and was someone I had always looked up to. I still do.
Cut back to 2010. I introduced myself to him online and tossed out the idea of his band touring with us on the West Coast (and we could share our equipment) and the Grannies touring with them on the East Coast (and we could share their equipment). He agreed that this would indeed be beneficial to all parties.
We never really got around to this grand idea for the next few years until I brought it up again at the beginning of 2015. The Grannies had our debut Saustex album coming out in January 2015, and we needed to tour to support it. So Nat and I set up a three-day East Coast tour together; New York, Boston, and Portland, Maine. A mutual Boston friend, Tim Catz, heard about the mini-tour and asked if his band, White Dynomite, could also be on it. We both said, “Hell yeah!” and The Triple Threat tour of spring 2015 was sealed.
The first date of the tour was at the Bowery Electric in NYC, and when we showed up to the club, we met the Upper Crust fellows milling about their van looking dejected. They had somehow managed to lock it, with the engine running while double-parked. They had called AAA and were waiting for them. But they were also due onstage for sound check. I told them to go sound check, and we’d watch the van and wait for AAA, who never came. Eventually tiring of this, I sent our singer Dean in to get a coat hanger, and as Nat exited the club he caught us successfully breaking into his van. I believe that the Grannies’ stock went up a couple notches in his book right then.
We all became pretty good friends on that short tour, and based on that, we hatched a longer European Tour for that fall. The Upper Crust, despite being a band longer than us, had never toured Europe proper. We had done it three times already, and after having toured Europe with the Hickoids back in 2013, we found that we rather enjoyed having another band’s company on the road.
The gentlemen of the Upper Crust and us Grannies had a grand time cavorting around Bavaria, where we stayed for a couple days as the sole residents of a huge off-season ski lodge near the Alps.
Innocent Words: A term thrown about to describe both the Upper Crust and the Grannies is “costume rock.” Can you define this?
Sluggo Cawley: I suppose that “costume rock” is accurate enough. That said, problems with that label abound:
1. As far as I’ve noticed, every band wears a costume. Blink 182 bought theirs at Hot Topic, the Stone Foxes bought their stage wear at the local retro-hip-clothes shop, etc. ad nauseum. Everybody tries to look like something.
2. Labels seems to diminish what we do to something akin to a joke. Which is OK with us. If you see us a joke and have fun, then that is fine. If you look a little harder you might find more substance. But we do realize that we walk a fine line, and let me tell you, being the eye-candy that we are while walking that fine line fucking takes skill.
We use costumes to give people more for their ticket. We put on a SHOW. Sometimes that show is us being drunk and confused; sometimes we rock harder than a “non-costumed” band; sometimes we interact with the crowd; and sometimes we ignore the crowd and amuse ourselves. You won’t see the same show twice, I guarantee it.
Well, it would appear that I’ve become all prickly and defensive about this “costume” stuff, but I really should explain that these are not costumes per se, but rather HERO OUTFITS. That’s right folks, we step in these hand-picked (albeit at the local thrift shop) outfits and are instantly transported into ROCK WARRIORS. In the half hour we are allotted onstage we solve all the world’s problems and take all your pain away. Of course, it all comes flooding right back the minute we walk back off stage, but hey, that’s why we’ve kept at it since last century.
Also I’ll just throw this out there – I have been in bands since 1979, and this band where we all wear dresses is the ONLY band I’ve ever had women come on to me. Lots of them. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Innocent Words: If you played ‘Lords & Ladies’ for someone who didn’t know a thing about you, but loved solid punk rock music, I think they’d love the music, but some, they can’t get past the costume rock. Why is that?
Sluggo Cawley: You mean like Maximum RNR? They gave us a review of our first album saying something like, “The music is great, but the costumes are dumb and not punk rock.” If you can’t get past the “costume,” maybe we’re not for you. Although I’d be curious as to what you do listen to where people don’t wear costumes? Nude rock?
Innocent Words: Are the outfits a blessing and a curse, so to speak, when trying to draw new fans?
Sluggo Cawley: Playing music is a blessing and a curse. Touring is a blessing and a curse. As is most of life. I don’t really pay it any mind anymore; I just accept it. Way back in 1999, when we came up with the brilliant concept of the Grannies, a major part of looking like thrift store retards was the de-macho-izing of it. We had watched as the punk of the 1970s that was totally inclusive of women, strangeness and weirdness of any variety, etc., got slowly but fully homogenized by the 1990s into MEN with muscles, tats, short hair. It was all about toughness. You want to be tough? Put a fucking dress on and get up on stage at a scum punk black metal gypsy squat in Germany. Yes, we did that in 2005, and they loved us.
We aim to “Edutain” our audiences, and if we can fuck with them in the process it makes it more fun for us, which after all is said and done us having more fun is what it is all about.
Innocent Words: You are a veteran of music with a wide range of influences. How do you see the current state of bands right now? Do you miss full bands like I do? It seems like “bands” – singer, guitarist, bass, drums – are becoming dinosaurs.
Sluggo Cawley: Yes! I‘m with you on that stance. I guess it makes me/us old and curmudgeonly (and dinosaurs), but I really dig hearing a BAND, not two people playing a laptop. Two-people bands really bug me; White Stripes – Jack [White] is obviously talented, but fuck, get a bassist, otherwise it all sounds like a crappy demo tape. Of course, he did eventually add musicians, and surprise, it sounds way better. Same with Black Keys, though they seem to have been smarter about the whole adding other musicians the entire time.
That said, I do try really hard not to just blanket diss all new music, because there is always great new music coming out all the time. Just recently I was reinvigorated watching a band called Blue Anarchy from my town of Oakland, California play Gilman Street, record a demo, and go on tour. The drummer was a schoolmate of my oldest son, who are currently both 12. The singer/guitarist and the bassist were young women aged 13 and 15, I believe. They wrote many originals, as well as covering early Distillers (an old fave of mine) and Green Day.
Innocent Words: Were you already in the Grannies when you met your wife, or did you have the explain to her why you had a lot of thrift store dresses in your closet? What do the kids think about ole dad getting into grandma gear and rocking out? Do they have any aspirations to follow in your footsteps?
Sluggo Cawley: My wife Laurian was the singer in the band Ain’t that we had together previous to The Grannies. We put out a couple albums, toured the USA and Europe, and were around from 1992 to 1998. Laurian (AKA LoLo RidingHood) sings backup on almost every Grannies’ album. During the Grannies first European Tour in 2005 (when our first son learned to walk in Rotterdam) Laurian had to sing with us on stage one night in Belgium. Dean had partied so hard the first part of the tour that his voice was completely shot. So Laurian grabbed some of our extra crap, suited up and played with us. The set went surprisingly well, and in fact, so well that when we tried to leave the stage the full crowd kept pushing us back. I watched as one fan pushed against Laurian’s chest (thinking she was a guy, of course) and got a funny look on his face.
And to answer your question, naw, she’s totally OK with me running around in a dress. She grew up in Portland, Oregon hanging out with Poison Idea, so she’s at least as punk rock as me, if not more. So far our boys think it’s no big deal, i.e. they don’t see anything weird about it. Our younger son Blixa wears a kilt to school sometimes. I remember one day my older son came home from third grade and incredulously remarked, “Dad, I mentioned the Grannies at school today and NOBODY had heard of you!” But he wears our T-shirts as much as he can, though nowadays I think at least part of it is because they have bad language on them. He roadied for us at our Gilman show last weekend and afterwards said that we were the best band of five, so at least he still thinks I’m cool. I am, however, prepared for that to change when and if he goes his own way in his musical choices. And I’m sure that our kids will have to deal with getting teased about their Dad’s band at some point.
Innocent Words: If I were in the Grannies, what would be my name?
Sluggo Cawley: Blanche Davidian.