Interview & Photos by Sluggo Cawley of the Grannies
It is New Year’s Eve at the TD Garden (formerly the Fleet Center and before that The Boston Garden) in Boston MA, home of both the Boston Celtics and the Boston Bruins. But tonight, a band of 18th century Aristocrats immaculately coiffed in long powdered wigs, white breeches, beauty marks, white stockings and frilly blouses take the stage. They park their champagne flutes and strap on their Les Pauls, their Fender bass and proceed to pummel the attendant and ever subservient masses with such classics as “Let Them Eat Rock;” “Tell Mother I’m Home;” and “Class Up the Ass.”
Aerosmith will follow these lads later tonight, but before they do, drummer Jackie Kickassis busts into a drum solo. Because they are from the 18th century they are using coal-powered Marshall amplification with servants busily shoveling faster at every guitar solo. This has produced a virtual cloud (well OK, it’s really dry ice) hovering just about 10’ above the stage. Drummer Kickassis goes for his classic drumstick toss move and this time, taking full advantage of the 50’ foot ceilings, he chucks them high. To his horror, the sticks disappear completely into the fog. Ever the consummate optimist, not to mention professional, he reaches both gloved hands skyward and the sticks miraculously land back in his grasp and he continues his pummeling without so much as missing a beat.
Could the Upper Crust ever be more relevant than now?!
I think not.
Perhaps you haven’t been paying attention since 1995? If that is the case, please welcome the Upper Crust – Boston’s hard rock version of Downton Abbey – and allow me to bring you up to speed.
The members adopt the personae of 18th century aristocratic fops and sing songs from that perspective. They use titles of nobility, wear powdered wigs, don period costumes, and maintain a snobbish attitude both live and recorded. (They frown on my behind the scenes photography as well). Combining Bon Scott-era AC/DC, Kiss and fictional heavy metal band Spinal Tap, there’s as much rock as mock and a serious abundance of worthy riffs and double-entendre wit. The group originated from a Boston surf rock band called The Clamdiggers. Other related bands were The Bags, The Titanics, The Satanics, The Flies, The Oysters and Seks Bomba.
The Upper Crust – Lord Bendover (Nat Freedberg) on guitar and vocals; Count Bassie (Chris Cote) on bass and vocals; The Duc D’istortion (David Fredette) on guitar and vocals; and Jackie Kickassis (Jim Janota) on drums and percussion – has appeared on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and the “Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.” The music video game Guitar Hero included the band’s signature song “Eureka, I’ve Found Love.” The band has also guest starred in an episode of “Codename: Kids Next Door” (“Operation: P.A.R.T.Y.”) on Cartoon Network. Jack Black is a fan and has flown them out to L.A. to perform.
If you are not impressed yet, well then, I am going to have to ask Nat Freedberg about the pig…
“Pig started small, rapidly got big, and lived for 15 years or so on a carefully curated diet of beer and pizza. He was well loved,” Freedberg said about Pig. “He lived in the house until he got too big and moved out in the yard into a barn full of hay, blankets and cats. He would make up his mind about people as soon as he met them, and if he didn’t take to you, you would be chased around the kitchen table. He was very good with children, and appreciated the visits from the school across the park, as well as the local firemen and police, who adopted him as their mascot. I still panicked every time I saw a firetruck outside my house, but it was always just a social call on Pig.”
Innocent Words: OK, let’s get back to the rock. Your last album, ‘Revenge for Imagined Slights’ was back in 2009, so tell me how this year’s new release, ‘Delusions of Grandeur’ came about?
Nat Freedberg: It came about in response to two things – the Duc began writing new material, and you and the Grannies urged us to make an album together. That album, ‘Lords & Ladies,’ ended up being a separate project, as we realized a new Crust album was achievable, we hoarded the bulk of our new compositions for the long-overdue, brand-new 13-song album, ‘Delusions of Grandeur.’ Once we were in the recording studio we continued to write new songs. The whole process was done in several months… it’ll have been a year in the works by the time the record was released.
Innocent Words: I notice that ‘Delusions’ was recorded by one of my long-time heroes, David Minehan (of the great Boston band The Neighborhoods. David also recently toured as second guitarist with the reunited Replacements). How was David to work with? And did you do the entire album with him?
Nat Freedberg: We did the whole album with David, he was an absolute joy to work with. We have rechristened him the “Viscount du Volume.” He’s got all the technical skills you want in a producer/engineer and all the intangibles: super nice, fun to work with, creatively in synch. The atmosphere in the studio, Woolly Mammoth in Waltham, MA is comfortable, unhurried… an excellent place to make music.
Innocent Words: As I’ve had the unmitigated pleasure of touring with these lads around the world and I’ve heard some of the new material live, would you be so kind as to give me some idea of the origins of the following new tunes; “Little Castrato.”
Nat Freedberg: “Little Castrato” was written in the studio. We’d had the title kicking around for some time with most of the chorus, but the body of it came tumbling out very suddenly, like afterbirth, and it was learned and recorded in short order. The lovely and formidably talented Hayley Thompson King on operatic vocals aided us. Watch for the forthcoming video, which will feature Hayley as the castrato in question.
Innocent Words: “Heads Will Roll.”
Nat Freedberg: The Duc brought “Heads Will Roll” to practice one evening and it was straightaway recognized as a standout rocque track, a classic in the making. The Lord Bendover’s personal favorite on the album. The bolero intro, break and solo, the driving hard rock chordal riff, the Duc’s vocals, his guitar solo… it’s a classic cut.
Innocent Words: “Frippery and Foppery.”
Nat Freedberg: Also, written in the studio. “Frippery and Foppery” is unlike most Upper Crust songs. It’s a reflective ballad, if you will, which sways between the hard rocque and the psychedelic foofaraw, with a taste of soul; sung by Count Bassie, the man of the thousand-decibel voice.
Innocent Words: “I’ll Be Wintering Elsewhere.”
Nat Freedberg: The Duc strikes again with “Wintering Elsewhere,” a perfect bit of old-time roque and roll, accented with a little barrelhouse piano from guest artist James Rohr.
Monsieur Le Duc: It is the inestimably rare Gibson Moderne, of which it is said only four were made. I have one. The rest I have caused to be found and destroyed. Not at all surprising you have not seen it’s like.
Innocent Words: Lord Bendover; can you tell us about the cover art? I find it very compelling and a nice update of the perennial hard rock ‘devil horns.’ I also notice that the hand is not tiny.
Lord Bendover: The cover art is our new logo, the pinky salute popularized by Count Bassie, which originated in the upraised finger when taking tea or dabbing with a frilly napkin at the corners of one’s mouth, and resembles the “rock” sign, but with the advantage of having to lift only one finger, and that the smallest and easiest of them.
Innocent Words: Count Bassie; Why dost thou frown so at the audience for the entirety of thee performance? And how do you sing in such a high register? And lastly, is it true that Eddie Vedder flew you out to Chicago to perform?
Count Bassie: As for my voice, I was gifted with a set of pipes (as they say) that could reverse entire weather systems and handily shatter bombproof glass when put into effect. I don’t know where it came from; I am blessed, it is a great good fortune. It is largely because of these innate talents that I am flown all over the world to perform with lesser artists.
Innocent Words: Jackie Kickassis; Is it a fact that you turned down both Nirvana and Pearl Jam in the early 1990s?
Jackie Kickassis: No comment, except to say that it is a true and well-known fact. I was not taken in for a second by either offer, as I knew that shortly the Upper Crust would form and I would no longer have the time to indulge in frivolity.
Completing three tours with these guys affords me being able to personally attest to their utter and complete commitment to their craft. I’ve witnessed a Detroit crowd beg and continue to beg them for a fourth and fifth encore and seen/heard them spontaneously bust out songs they wrote in 1995 (and unpracticed since then) and perform flawlessly. I watched them awe a crowd of anarchist punks mixed with refugees at a packed to the gills squat in Leipzig Germany. Though admittedly rare, a spotty attended concert can occur on the road and I saw them perform to two people in Memphis. They did not skimp on any aspect of their performance; another band might not have bothered with the pre-show hour-long outfit ordeal; but they did. Another band might’ve cut their set short, yet the Upper Crust asked the two fans, who’d driven from Indiana for the show, what song they would like to hear played last? The fans yelled out a pair of songs and Lord Bendover promptly announced, “Well then, we shall play them both.”
Thursday May 25 @ Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco
Saturday May 27 @ Funhouse in Seattle WA
Sunday May 28 @ Dante’s in Portland OR
Sunday June 11 @ Thunder Road (w Dwarves) in Somerville MA