These days, life seems anything but calm for raucous local garage rockers, The Living Blue. They changed their name (previously The Blackouts), signed to Minty Fresh, received top honors for their music in a national talent contest, had their songs played on MTV and The WB, and shared fame with the likes of The Strokes, Iggy Pop and The New York Dolls. They also recorded a brand new CD, Fire, Blood, Water, to be released on Oct. 11. But fans and curious observers alike don’t have to wait that long to get a taste of the new music – it will be available at the band’s CD release party Sept. 29 at the Highdive. Singer/guitarist Stephen Ucherek took time out to answer some questions in preparation for the event.
Buzz: The kind of music you make tends to stir urban, big city images, but you come from the very small Odell, Ill. How did growing up there affect your music and functioning as a band? How were you perceived when starting out?
Stephen Ucherek: I think growing up in small town USA gave us a bit of an edge, so to speak. We’ve always had our roots in skate/punk culture. Joe and Mark turned me on to a lot of early underground music. I remember Joe wearing a Dinosaur Jr.
T-shirt in high school, and then hearing “The Lung” for the first time. It caused a change in my life, the way I thought about things. And mainly it changed how I thought about music. It was the first sort of “culture” I was exposed to – indie rock.
Joe turned me on to the Minutemen as well and all the early West Coast punk, SST records, etc. We took all that influence and added a bit of rock and roll swagger. Early on, we were gettin’ into the Cramps, and Link Wray which eventually had us getting into the psychedelic garage era bands. Bands like the Creation, Wimple Winch, Pretty Things, you know. I think people thought we were wild rock and rollers early on. We were, though. We’d wear all black, skin-tight clothes and play this loud as shit stomp rock with a ton of attitude. We used to play all the Urbana house parties …
I think people just thought we were crazy, and wild, and
unpredictable. That’s OK by me, though.
Buzz: When and why did you come to Champaign-Urbana? What was the music scene like here when you arrived? How easy or difficult was it to develop a following?
Stephen: We moved to Champaign in ’98 … Mark was in the art school at the U of I, and Joe and I were workin’ and practicing/writing every waking moment. My older brother, Creech,
as he is sometimes known around town, was in the band at that time playing bass. Getting a following took time and work. We were a little rough around the edges sometimes, and all that “wild and unpredictable” stuff can tend to make it a little harder.
But people around town have been very supportive. We’ve lived here for seven years now, so it feels like home to us.
Buzz: You’ve cited some obvious bands-The Kinks, The Animals,
The Cramps- as influences, but what about others? Is there anything that we might be surprised to learn has influenced the Living Blue sound?
Stephen: Joe is into a lot of 80s new wave, like Human League and Factory Records stuff. We’ve been diggin’ on this German band lately called Can. Our good friend Brandy lives out east, she turns us on to a lot of good Northern Soul stuff. I like
a lot of current bands too … more recently I fell in love with an Aloha album. I’ve been diggin’ a lot of the stuff coming out
of the West Coast. Lots of psych guitar rock … Warlocks, Gris Gris … and Dead Meadow on the East Coast. It’s a pretty
exciting time for indie rock. There are so many bands, it’s great. Everyone is out there getting in the nitty gritty, getting our hands dirty.
Buzz: Tell us about some of the songs on Fire, Blood, Water.
Any band favorites?
Stephen: I love “Murderous Youth”… the fuzz lead in “State
of Affairs” is off the hook. “Greenthumb” makes me smile.
“One Beat” makes me dance. “Secrets” scares me. “Conquistador” takes me to far away places. We love playin’ the songs live.
Buzz: The CD manages to continue the garage rock crunch that you’ve come to be known for, but also mixes things up a bit, with songs such
as “Tell Me Leza,” which has power-pop leanings, and “Greenthumb,” which showcases some vintage psychedelia. Does this come naturally or do you write with the intention of stretching your sound?
Stephen: Joe and I write the songs, so I think any mixing up of things is due to us evolving and growing as songwriters. “Tell Me Leza” had been in my head for awhile. I love the feel of that song. “Greenthumb” is one of Joe’s – it’s a melancholy song. We wrote it initially on piano and guitar. Erin (Fein) of Headlights plays the organ and piano on that song. She really gave it a certain charm.
We got this ’67 Vox Jaguar organ in Rantoul for $100! We knew it had to make an appearance on “Greenthumb.” It just fit the mood so well. Erin plays with such confidence and feel. I love that song. It’s actually about Joe’s family and what they’ve been through in the past five or so years. We are constantly learning and growing as musicians, friends and band mates. I feel like this is
just the beginning.
Buzz: How does the songwriting process generally work within the band?
Stephen: Joe and I get together and blend our ideas, and then we bring that to the rhythm section and take it from there. Schroder is a rhythm machine, he plays with this jumpy energy, but hits the skins like Bonham as well. He’s got a lot of style in his playing, which I think is important for a “rock drummer” to have. Andrew is the finest bass player we’ve had as of yet, so we’re very happy with how things are working. Andrew is a hard worker on top of that.
Buzz: What’s it like working with Adam Schmitt? What kind of effect has he had on your sound?
Stephen: Adam has taught us so much about production,
engineering, etc. But also as a person, he’s the sweetest man in the world. He’s a hard worker, and in this business people usually tend to only “work hard” if there is a nice paycheck involved. Adam does it for the love. I think we’ll work with him for quite a while, it just seems to click. And we’ve become good friends over these years, as well.
Buzz: Since being signed to Minty Fresh, have your experiences
as a band, in both recording and touring, changed? How so?
Stephen: Well, we got to do this record at a nicer studio.
We recorded at Gravity Studios in Chicago. They have this old Neve console, lots of great gear. We did the whole record to tape, which is essential for a guitar band. That made a huge
difference. Signing with Minty Fresh really boosted our
confidence in ourselves.
Not having much of the industry around C-U made us branch out to the big cities, and do things like the Little Steven’s Battle of the Bands thing, which turned out being very good for us. I never thought we’d end up on MTV though, which is great. It’s opened a ton of doors, we’re grateful for that and feel it is our duty to continue on in that realm. Minty Fresh signed us without all of the usual major label stuff. Looking back, we had no idea how “getting signed” or “shopping your record” or all that stuff worked.
Maybe we were naive, but we always believed if we worked hard, and made music that was honest and passionate that everything else would just fall in place. I think Minty Fresh liked that about us. I think people have this misconception about being in a band. There is nothing glamorous about being in a ’79 Ford van in 95 degree swamp weather, stuck in traffic on the lower east side with a killer hangover and nothing but an orange to re-hydrate my shriveled body. But we’d have it no other way!
Buzz: Your songs have been featured on WB and MTV shows, and you’ve also performed on MTV2. How has this kind of exposure affected you? Have you noticed an increase in recognition?
Stephen: Yeah, people know who we are from all over
the country and in Europe. Not a lot of people … yet. But
I have gotten e-mails from kids in Germany and stuff that have heard about us from that exposure. Now, with a real record label behind us we can actually get our stuff out to those people.
Buzz: Where do you hope Fire, Blood, Water takes the band? What can we expect in the future?
Stephen: Well, I know it’s gonna take us on a lot of touring. We’re headed out to the West Coast in October and then back to the East Coast before the end of the year. Having a record out nationally means national tours, and we are really stoked to get out and support this record. The songs have stayed fresh throughout these past few months. They get better every night we play them. Joe and I have been writing/recording new stuff in our down time as well. We all feel really good about this record, in a lot of ways. So yeah, you can expect us to be touring and making albums and stirring up trouble for the next decade … at least.