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The release of Hey, Killer in April marked the 25th year of Local H, but the album’s sustained intensity hardly suggests a band mining its past or settling. Written and recorded in quick succession last fall, it’s the kind of spontaneous, stripped down rock ’n’ roll record that would normally be tagged “back to basics,” except this one covers too much ground. On “One of Us,” the band doesn’t bother to neutralize the power of their playing but it could still be the album’s crossover pop moment, with its shivery guitar solo climbing to impossibly higher notes (as much Beach House as power ballad) and its keenly emotional vocal turn. Scott Lucas’ performance recalls a song he once covered, Concrete Blonde’s “Joey,” in the way he seems to isolate the exact moment regret gives way to weary acceptance (the song also confirms him as a belter to rival Johnette Napolitano). Titles like “Mansplainer” and “The Misanthrope” suggest the evil men sketches of Big Black, with the latter’s jackhammer drumming certainly fitting the bill, but instead of playing a part, Lucas rages in the second person. The one-two punch of “City of Knives” and “Freshly Fucked” crystallizes the album’s attack, which abates only for the atmospheric lulls of “Leon and the Game of Skin” and acoustic closer “I Am a Salt Mine.”
Where recent Local H albums have followed a clear thematic design, Hey, Killer deliberately avoids such an approach. If a theme emerges, it’s in the details of the album’s language. Opener “The Last Picture Show in Zion” is an opportunity for Lucas to eulogize his Illinois hometown, but instead the song’s “no ghost in your ghost town” refrain denies the allure of romance and nostalgia, setting the pace for an album that’s lived in the moment. While Lucas shapes the band’s creative identity, his drummer defines the energy. It can’t be an accident that such a visceral, relentless album is the first recorded with new drummer Ryan Harding. He hasn’t sparked a creative rebirth, exactly, but he has set the band’s clock back to zero.
Scott Lucas talked to me from outside his practice space in Chicago and answered some questions about the new album:
GS: It’s funny that the new album starts with a song about a movie theater closing in your hometown [see Lucas’ movie fandom on display at Chicagoist, where he’s a regular columnist]. Was that a true story about Zion?
SL: Yeah, that’s the place where I saw my first movie. That’s where I’m from, and that’s also the place where I had my first job. They tore it down last year, and a bunch of people sent me stuff through Facebook, like pictures of it, news articles related to it.
GS: What was your first movie there?
SL: I believe it was Young Frankenstein, and if it wasn’t Young Frankenstein, it was Bambi. I remember seeing both of those movies, but I’m pretty sure it was Young Frankenstein.
GS: Is that kind of like a deal breaker for you, a town with no movie theater isn’t a town to live in at all?
SL: [laughs] Yeah, right, exactly. I don’t have family there anymore so there really isn’t a reason for me to go back. It wasn’t like it was a bastion of culture in the first place. But there’s something about losing that last bit of soul in that town, that to me it might as well be a ghost town now. That definitely was the point where I was like, oh, well, there’s absolutely no reason for me to ever come back here again.
GS: So it’s a ghost town but there’s “no ghost in your ghost town”?
SL: Right, and there’s the idea that’s been floated by a bunch of film purists, they describe movies as ghosts flickering on the screen. Especially when you look at an old movie, people who are dead, you’re looking at ghosts on the screen, and so that’s kind of what that is. You’ve got this ghost town but there’s nothing in it. You’ve bulldozed away the last bit of culture that was there and you’ve taken away all the ghosts.
GS: To me that line kind of seems like a way of saying you’re not going to romanticize your town.
SL: In a way, that’s been the way from the first record, where we refuse to romanticize it, and in a way that almost romanticizes it, where you talk about it as a place where you grew up and you couldn’t wait to get out of there. But it’s not like we still live there, it’s not like it’s Springsteen and Jersey. But that’s something we’ve always tried to get across with that town. The whole thing about ghosts, and “ain’t no ghost in the sky,” could also be a double-edged theme about religion, and it could also be about blues songs and ghost riders in the sky and all that kind of stuff. On one hand, it’s sort of a song that does fall in line with those sorts of blues songs and country songs. On another hand, it rejects those songs as being bullshit. I’ve always believed in having your cake and eating it too.
GS: And then the only thing to do from there is just to make this really terrific, straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll album, right?
SL: The last two records were very concept driven and sometimes a song will be pitched because of the lyrics or there’ll be a song written around lyrics or something to further the theme. Whereas this, there are themes that pop up all through the record but that wasn’t number one. Number one was just to follow the song and to keep every tune going and cut out the stuff that didn’t need to be there, and just make a record that was cohesive in that way.
GS: But you do seem open to the idea of themes emerging. Has any theme emerged for you, as you’ve thought back over it?
SL: The last record was about politics and that seemed to really get people riled up and upset and I thought, well, what could be worse? Let’s make a record about religion, and that would get people even more upset. So there was that idea and that was discarded, but some of that has come through on this record. There’s this holy trinity of ideas on the record, and it’s religion, and death, and the blues. I think all those things combine anyway, I mean you kind of can’t have one without the others. If you listen to the record, every song mentions at least one of those things, religion, death and the blues. That’s kind of what the record is about, but we really didn’t want to harp on a concept. The idea of this was more about the tunes and letting you figure it out for yourself.
GS: You’ve said Ryan Harding was pretty instrumental in getting this album done. What do you think he brings musically to the band?
SL: I mean, just a lot of energy. It was fun to make this record, like almost completely the entire time it was fun, and that’s down to him and his affability, and having everybody in the same city, him and me and Andy Gerber, the producer, and just being able to get together and focus on this record and get it done. If we didn’t all live in the same town I don’t think we could’ve gotten it done. We set a definite deadline for ourselves to get this record done and everyone was really focused on making it happen. That’s not easy, especially over the holidays, but we were able to do it, and that’s pretty much the only way it would’ve happened.
GS: Is that the quickest you’ve ever made an album?
SL: Maybe, as far as writing and recording. Almost. I’ve been going through that 25 years thing [reminiscences of Local H’s history posted on social media] and realizing how quickly As Good As Dead was written and recorded. That was very similar to what happened with this record, I realized. We were done touring and within two or three months we’re in the studio and we have these songs put together.
GS: I saw you guys in Minneapolis last summer, at the Triple Rock [Scott remembers]. You seemed to be having a lot of fun and I could tell right away that Ryan was a good addition to the band, really powerful.
SL: The idea there was to tour as much as possible and to play together as much as possible and do a little bit of recording. So we did a couple of EPs, just to get us in a position where we’d be comfortable enough to go into the studio and make something that was good. It was important to get the chemistry together before we went into the studio.
GS: And you were starting to work through some song ideas for the new album.
SL: Right, we had “One of Us” and we had “Misanthrope.” Those songs were written, and we had recorded earlier versions of them. We knew we had two tunes, so we just had to get the rest, and that was just going through all the ideas that had been cataloged on my phone over the year and putting them together. Everything just came together really quickly.
GS: I wanted to ask about Lorde [New Zealand pop star whose “Team” the band covered for an EP last year]. Do you listen to a lot of pop music normally or was that just a random obsession that came out of nowhere?
SL: Once in a while. Someone told me, check this out. When I started listening to her I had no idea that she was on pop radio or whatever. I had no idea how big she was, and I was like, oh, this is pretty cool and I just kept listening. I’m pretty open to anything and I always have been. I think that’s important. It’s more important than covering or listening to music that sounds like you already. There’s just kind of no point in that. If you want to learn stuff that you don’t know, you listen to or learn other people’s songs that are outside your comfort zone, and that kind of gets you thinking outside of this box that you’ve made for yourself, and then that keeps fresh ideas coming in. You don’t have to try to sound like those bands. In fact you should try not to sound like those bands. But if you know who you are you can fuck around with anything and it’ll still sound like you.
GS: I thought it was cool that you did “Team” by Lorde because in a way it’s like the flip side of “High Fivin’ MF” from back in the day, like a view from the other side of the stage. Is that part of what grabbed you about that song?
SL: What grabbed me about the song were the lyrics about small towns and shitty cities. That stuck with me. It felt like an early Local H lyric, like something that I could really wrap my head around and get behind.
GS: Have you been on the record about who “One of Us” is about?
SL: Yeah. I was walking to a… not really a wake or a funeral, but a bunch of friends were getting together remembering this friend of ours, and so the song started coming together as I was walking across town to go to that place. Pretty much by the time I got there the song was over, and I wanted to remember this person in sort of an unapologetic way. When people die young there’s this idea that they shouldn’t have lived a life that made them die young, and I didn’t want to go about it that way. I wanted it to be sort of a celebration, a defiance, and remember her that way, and not try to have it be a cautionary thing.
GS: I’ll be curious to see if it has a long life in the way people use it to remember people from their own lives.
SL: I would certainly be honored. It was definitely a song for us, for me and my friends, and our little scene. That’s the only way to write a song, for me anyways, is to have it be as intensely personal as possible, so that it almost doesn’t relate to anybody else but you and your circle of friends, and I think that’s when things start to get universal, like when people pick up on little details. And when you sand those edges off, I think the song loses its meaning and loses its reason to exist.
GS: So what do you have planned for the upcoming tour? Is it gonna be a straight up new album setlist?
SL: It’s gonna be very heavy on the new record but we also wanna touch on all the stuff. We’re in rehearsals right now. We’ve got a huge list of songs and I think every night we’ll just go with a skeleton and sort of take things out and put things in, in order to make it interesting to us and in order to try to hit everything on the record. It almost reminds me of when we went out and did that all requests tour, where we had a huge list of songs and people would pick, only this time we’ll be the ones doing the picking.
GS: I have this theory that every horrible winter in the Midwest results in a Local H album, so how was the past winter in Chicago?
SL: It was supposed to be really cold, but the thing about it is we kind of missed it. I almost feel like I missed the winter. Not that I missed it, but it passed us by, because we were working on the record and doing all this stuff. So that was cool. Everyone was kind of sick of the winter but I was like, oh, I forgot all about it. So I don’t know. It’d be nice to make the next record in the summer or something like that, so we’ll see what happens.
A few weeks before commencing a final leg of touring for the new album, Local H played a stand-alone show at Minneapolis’ Triple Rock on August 7. No amount of touring seems capable of diminishing their energy, but being safely removed from its grip made them especially fearless and inexhaustible. By the time I finally left the venue, they were a few medleys deep into the encore, testing their limits, turning a concert formality into a real feat of endurance. Namely, Lucas kept his guitar humming while Harding thrashed his set in what appeared a climactic gesture to end the show, but with each final thwack he’d find a reserve of energy and start the cymbals vibrating again. I stayed long enough to smile at the audacity, but not long enough to discover the depths of his reserve.
When Local H played the same venue last June, with little new material on hand, they gave no particular nostalgic preference to any section of their back catalog. They’re not haunted, basically. This time, “All the Kids Are Right” and “The One with ‘Kid’” fought for space in a main set that was pulled almost exclusively from the new album. By contrast, the encore was unpredictable, the band indulging in a number of crimes they seemed quite capable of getting away with: covering local legends (The Replacements), fishing for material, moving toward no foreseeable conclusion, playing until they collapsed apparently. The cover of “Bastards of Young” was pretty much perfect until, by Lucas’ own admission, it lost momentum somewhere along the way. In possible atonement, he then burned through his own classic anthem of waiting to be forgotten, “Bound for the Floor,” with almost exaggerated intensity, as if trying to scare up a ghost.
Local H is on tour into September:
Aug. 29: Daredevil Brewing Co. (Speedway, IN)
Aug. 31: 1st Ward (Chicago, IL)
Sept. 10: Stickyz Rock and Roll Chicken Shack (Little Rock, AR)
Sept. 11: Scout Bar (Houston, TX)
Sept. 12: Panther Island Pavilion (Fort Worth, TX)
Sept. 13: Rose Music Hall (Columbia, MO)
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