Local H-ero returns

 

February 22, 2002

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

 

Eighteen months ago, Zion native turned proud Chicagoan Scott Lucas was sitting around without a drummer or a record label. Joe Daniels, his longtime partner in the tuneful but hard-rocking duo of Local H, had quit the band, and the group had parted ways with Island Records. The future seemed uncertain, to say the least.

Now, Local H is back with a new drummer, Brian St. Clair, formerly of Triple Fast Action, and a new label, Palm Pictures, founded by former Island head Chris Blackwell. It's been four long years since the release of the group's last album, "Pack Up the Cats," but it was worth the wait: "Here Comes the Zoo" is as strong as anything the band has ever given us, propelled by massive guitar riffs and great chant-along choruses.

I spoke with Lucas from his cell phone as he walked through the security check at the airport in Phoenix, where he'd been doing some preliminary promotion for the album, which will be released on March 5.

"I can't believe I'm talking to you from the airport," he said. "This is the most rock 'n' roll interview I've ever done in my life!"

Q. No, that would be if you were talking to me from the back of a limo while being ministered to by a beautiful blond ...

A. [Laughs] I think this is as about as good as it's ever gonna get for me!

Q. So, you've made another fantastic record. But a few months ago, you were sitting around without a label or a drummer. Were you thinking, "Hmmm, I'm going to be washing dishes soon?"

A. I wasn't sure what to do. But once we got Brian, I was pretty confident, and we started writing songs like crazy. The songs we had to leave behind for this record were amazing, because we only wanted to put 10 on it, like [AC/DC's] "Back in Black."

Q. As a songwriter, you seem to have an innate flair for crafting great melodies. It's like you get up in the morning and spit out five hooks before breakfast.

A. The first band that I really loved was ABBA, and I've been listening to them like crazy lately. This is probably where I got all my sissy pop stuff, just being a total freak for them. Those songs are amazing--even songs like "The Name of the Game." It's unbelievable how great that song is! Incredible! And then there's things like "Dancing Queen," which everybody knows is one of the greatest songs ever written.

To me, you can dress it up however you want, but a great song is a great song, and that's pretty much it.

Q. It seems that in the current rock spectrum, the hook has been almost completely devalued, especially in the nu-metal world. I mean, hum a Slipknot song for me.

A. I think that's probably always been there. Think about Led Zeppelin; that was a band that was all about the riff, and it wasn't really about great melody-based songs. Even the Stones at a certain point were just about the groove and not necessarily about melody. I think sometimes too much melody ruins rock. One of the things we tried to do on this record was have no songs in major keys. We just wanted to have a hard-rock record.

Q. Still, there's always that hook in the tune. And I'd disagree with you about Zeppelin: The hook doesn't have to be a vocal melody. Some of those guitar riffs or even the drum or bass parts act as hooks.

A. Well, see, maybe the people who are listening to [nu-metal] can hear those hooks. It's just that I'm not gonna sit down and listen to it and hear the hook, and I don't care to.

Q. Was there a moment after Joe left when you asked yourself, "Should I keep pushing ahead?"

A. The weirdest thing was when [roadie and backup player] Gabe [Rodriguez] called me up and said, "I'm not gonna be able to go on the road. They offered me this great job and I've gotta take it." That was the point. I was like, "Man, how can I go out on the road without Gabe?" That was the one time where I was like, "I can't do this." Everything else was pretty easy. Being off of Island was not a curse. It wasn't a big deal. It was like, "You don't want us? OK, we don't want you." Everything that's happened to us seems like it was a bad thing and then it turns out to be a great thing.

Q. But did you ever consider calling it something other than Local H?

A. No. I'm not ready to stop. I want to make "Led Zeppelin IV." I don't want to start all over and do this thing again. I've always got this thing in my head about the arc of all of your records, and your career. I wanted this record to have a relationship to the last one, and I didn't want to start over. If you listen to this record, it's the fourth Local H record, and I'm not sure that I would have done anything differently if it was called something else.

Q. Was Brian the obvious candidate to replace Joe?

A. Yeah, he was pretty much the only one. We spent a week trying people out, and that was pretty weird. Then I called Brian. He was out with Cheap Trick [on the road crew], and he said, "I'll be there tomorrow." He played "Cool Magnet" and that was it. I was like, "Call Cheap Trick and tell them you're not coming back!"

Q. How did you link up with Palm Pictures?

A. It's the label that Island was--it's what we signed to originally when we signed to Island. Chris [Blackwell] is the kind of guy that doesn't like to be told what to do. I always say he thinks he's James Bond, living out of Golden Eye in Jamaica and thinking he's this international man of mystery. And he kind of is! He's not going to be in a situation where there's shareholders telling him what to do. So, he left Island and started Palm, and a guy who'd been working radio for us at Island went to Palm, and we always liked him, so that was that. Island had Sum-41 to work on and they didn't know us and they didn't think that we could do anything.

Q. The music business has changed so radically just in the time you've been it. I mean, a band like Wilco gets dropped from its label for "only" selling 500,000 copies ...

A. Yeah, but they're doing fine! Their record is coming out, everybody wants to hear it, it's gonna be great, and they're gonna go out on the road and sell out places. They're a great band and they've got a great career. That's what I want. I want to be like Wilco. People come to see them and really like them. What could be better? Who cares about anything else?

All I really want is to make the records I want to make and have people come see us. If I can keep doing that, great, and so far, it's been OK. People who bitch and whine about pop and rap-rock, it's like, what are you in this for? Don't complain that Britney gets more magazine covers than you, because if I was in charge of magazine covers, I'd give them all to Britney, too! I don't want to see some old [jerk] on the cover.

Q. Yeah, but do you want to listen to that Britney record? I've heard it!

A. I'm not gonna listen, but when the video comes on, I don't turn the channel. [Laughs]

Look, when I grew up, most of the stuff I was listening to was not on the radio, and I didn't care then and I don't care now. I didn't hear Iron Maiden on the radio. Big deal! That's not what I got into, and that's not what I care about. I want to sell a lot of records--hell, yeah!--but there's certain things I'm just not willing to do. If you want to sell a million records, we all know how to do it: Write one of these new monster-ballad tunes like the sensitive tattoo rockers, and warble and sing like a cow. It's not a secret.

Q. It seems as if you're constitutionally incapable of writing a ballad.

A. Nah, everybody can do it. At this point, it's no big deal to write a great pop song, because everybody and their mother can do it. I'm like, "Let's make rock 'n' roll!" That's what [the new song] "Rock & Roll Professionals" is about: How everybody is just a little too eager to sell their songs to AT&T and the S.U.V. makers. Everybody talks about how rock íní roll is dead. Well, you killed it! Youíre the people who did it!

I saw Led Zeppelin on a Cadillac commercial the other day, and it breaks my heart. When Buffalo Tom does it, you understand; they never got a penny. But Zeppelin? Itís crazy. You have people like Lenny Kravitz who are selling tons of records; why does he have to give a song to a commercial? Nobody gives a [care], and I kind of think people should. Itíd be nice if people actually cared.

 

Q. Youíre not making tons and tons of money. If somebody came to youÖ

 

A. Somebody did come to us a few years ago--Coke. It was a pretty easy decision. ďDo I want to sell Coke?Ē No. I just donít give a [care]. I donít need to prove anything. Iím not making a ton of money, but Iím making enough. If I was super broke and I had a crazy drug habit, maybe Iíd sell my song. But Iíve got my habits in check, so itís O.K. [Laughs]

 

Q. Getting back to your melodies, I think of Local Hís best songs the way I think of ďLouie, LouieĒ or the early Kinks hits. I have no idea what those songs are about, and I donít care. Do you care about lyrics?

 

A. I do care about lyrics, but I cannot stand when I hear somebody dissecting their lyrics and thinking that theyíve written high art. They are rock lyrics, and they are stupid! Iím in the middle of your Lester Bangs book, and he was right: Rock should be stupid!

 

Q. Well, you have to remember that Lester Bangs doubled back on himself all the time. He also lauded the deep, spiritually transcendent poetry of Van Morrisonís ďAstral Weeks.Ē

 

A. And so will I! Iíll double back on myself, too, and thatís the thing: My lyrics arenít stupid, but I donít care if people listen to them or not. Thatís not the point. I do it for myself. Thereís something going on, and Iím not even really aware of what it is at the time. Every time you write a song, youíve got the chance to say something, or you can just blow it on some trivial piece of bull. Iím kind of into that working-class guy getting [screwed] type of thing, and thatís what most of my songs are about. And a lot of the songs on this record are about getting old, losing your edge, and selling out, and I think those are worthwhile topics to talk about it.

 

Q. Isnít it frightening when you see somebody your age or younger give up the will to keep investigating new books or movies or music and just slink off to the suburbs?

 

A. Yeah, but usually the whole thing is that theyíre just lazy. Everybody whines about there being no good music or no good rock bands. Theyíre out there, theyíre just not on the radio and you canít just turn on the TV and see them or pick up a magazine and read about them. You have to dig for them, and thatís fine. But people get old, and they donít care. Thatís the way it goes.

 

Q. I prefer to hang out with the people who havenít given up the ghost.

 

A. Yeah, but I understand people getting tired and saying, ďI canít stand another night of sitting through three bands that I donít give a good goddamn about!Ē But once you stop doing that, I think you should stop complaining about it.

 

Q. Youíre going to tour behind this album?

 

A. You bet. Non-stop. Weíve got a couple of Alien Ant Farm gigs next week. That will be fun.

 

Q. [Laughs] How do you open for Alien Ant Farm and keep a straight face?

 

A. Iíve really got nothing against them. What Iíve got to do is keep my mouth shut! The one thing Iím gonna try to do from now on is not mouth off about anybody, because I cannot shut up, and what good does it do me to slam some band? Nothing. Itís silly, and they hear about it anyway, and then they become huge rock stars and we donít get to open for them.

 

Q. But thatís always been part of your charm!

 

A. Yeah, you think so. You donít care! It makes good copy, but then itís, ďWhy did you say this?Ē Because itís true!

 

Q. The topic of community runs through this record once again, as it did on the last one, with ďAll the Kids Are Right.Ē Do you still think itís possible for music to bring people together?

 

A. Where do you hear the community on this record?

 

Q. Just by making fun of ďThe Rock íní Roll ProfessionalsĒ or the preachy Christians in ďHands on the Bible,Ē youíre suggesting that thereís got to be an alternative.

 

A. Yeah, O.K. Probably the thing that points most to community on the record is that weíve got all these different people guesting on it [Josh Homme, Wes Kidd, Jerry Only, Samantha Sermaker, Shanna Kiel]. The greatest thing about rap is the fact that they get this whole crew together and theyíre all on each otherís records. Thatís great. I was like, ďOn the next record, weíre gonna have all these special guest stars.Ē Itís just people that are in bands that we like, and itís cool and itís fun.

 

Q. Do you think the idea of a community based on music matters to kids today?

 

A. I think the kids care more than theyíre given credit for. I canít really analyze it, but I really think kids do want to hear something good. Now, most people donít care, and thatís not any different than itís ever been. Ninety percent of everything is [crap]. But some people care enough to find the stuff that isnít.

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