Long after the Mileys and Macklemores are forgotten, anyone coming across the music of The Del-Lords will instantly recognize a Grade-A cut of rock ‘n’ roll, a well-muscled sound full of attitude and heartache with lines running back to the 1950s Sun Records roots and 1970s proto-punk but existing in a now that doesn’t tie it down in any one period. This is a band that makes rock relevant to daily existence with a rattle and hum for the working stiffs and everyday lovers. Their songs and the direct, clear cry of the tautly wielded instruments and ruggedly human voices just work so, so well – a testament to how hard it is to make the fundamentals cut a rug without dressing them up in whore’s paint and frilly outfits. A gut level veracity resides at the core of what this New York City quartet does, where conviction and loud guitars grin and offer up tunes to anyone ready to get down in the streets with them.
As enduringly excellent as The Del-Lords’ 80s output remains – the uninitiated are instructed to check out 1984’s Based On A True Story, one of that decade’s under-sung classics – the band’s first new album in 23 years, Elvis Club (released May 14), is, in the Impound’s estimation, the best damn record they’ve ever made. Elvis Club is the sort of slab perfect for The Stooges’ tour bus, quality drinking holes nationwide, and contemplative leather clad rockers everywhere, a thumping, sneakily thoughtful master class in what a classic four-piece rock band can do. This set fully establishes the band’s return to active service this decade after a long hiatus, and cements their spot alongside fellow travelers like The Smithereens and The Mother Hips as keepers of a flame radio and the mainstream press rarely fan appropriately.
From the instant classic opener “When The Drugs Kick In” through the insanely infectious “Flying” right to the end, Elvis Club is one dead solid killer after another, music born from the varied, substantial experience of Scott Kempner (lead vocals, guitars), Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (guitars, vocals), Michael DuClos (bass, harmony vocals) and Frank Funaro (drums, percussion, harmony vocals), whose huge, varied resumes include Kempner’s crucial work with The Dictators and Dion, Ambel’s extensive production/engineering work (though DI encourages y’all to check out his unsung 1995 solo album Loud & Lonesome for a nasty American answer to Rory Gallagher’s heavy rock), as well Funaro’s ever-great stick work with Cracker, Joey Ramone and others. A subtle air of romance hovers in spots, not nostalgia but an appreciation of what endures and how challenging and rare it is to make love – or music for that matter – that lasts. It is a lock for Dirty Impound’s Favorite Albums of 2013, and if there’s any justice, plenty of other roundup lists, too.
We shot a few questions to Ambel and Kempner and here’s what the songwriting phalanx of The Del-Lords had to say.
What is an Elvis Club and how does one obtain membership? Seems like folks have been trying to get into this one since the mid-1950s, and more than a few have died trying.
Scott: Unlike my nickname, Top 10, and as Damon Runyon would say, as for the name ELVIS CLUB, a story goes with it. In the early days of the band, back in the early 80’s, at a few junctures, the four of us found ourselves living under one roof. Eric and Manny shared a railroad flat apartment on East 13th street in the East Village, and often so did Frank and myself. Four of us splitting one can of beans and one can of rice between us.
Meanwhile, our rehearsal space, which was also part clubhouse, office, laboratory, and hang-out, was up on 8th Avenue, in the Garment District, near the Port Authority. A big twelve story former warehouse that had been made into what was essentially an apartment building, except no one actually lived there. Lotsa bands & un-affiliateds (FLESHTONES, THE IG, THE dBs, and get this, MADONNA!!! This is true) rehearsed there. You could split the rent with a few other bands, so you worked out rehearsal schedules, storage, etc., and we were up there on the 6th floor. It was also a neighborhood heavily served by hookers of all shapes and sizes and all else.
No matter what time of day or night, those ladies were out there workin’ it. Back to your question: One day we are walking from East 13th and 1st Ave. to rehearsal – we walked the two and a half miles both ways often, as we were, as Abbott & Costello would say, “financially embarrassed”. So, one day as we reach 8th Ave., one of the hookers looks at us: four black leather jackets, jeans, boots and sneakers, AND a big old pompadour sitting up on each of our heads, she says right out loud, “Whoah, what is this, The Elvis Club?” Not AN Elvis Club, but THE Elvis Club. That is actually from whence this album title derives. Thirty years after the fact.
The Del-Lords have been back together for a few years now and it would have been easy enough to just play the old tunes to old fans as a live act. What prompted the new album and what was it like working on a full-length release again after more than two decades?
Scott: This whole thing reignited with most of the songs in place first. We didn’t get together to play originally. I had gotten together with Eric with the idea of him producing some songs that I had written. There was also the idea of the two of us going out and playing some shows – in Spain, and here at home. You gotta have something else to sell out there these days, and it is truthfully half of a touring artist’s income. By this point, Frank had come aboard, and so had Manny, to what might have turned out to be just Eric and me. So, Eric and I put down some skeletal tracks for a few songs, and the process was suddenly underway.
The idea of going out to play shows after such a long time between drinks without new songs is not one I, nor would I expect Frank or Eric, have any interest in. What would be the point? I take this stuff very seriously. I may or may not take myself too seriously sometimes, but I know FOR SURE I take rock ‘n’ roll VERY seriously. I have my own aesthetics, my own sensibility of what is cool and what is not, and, basically, the present and the future justify the past, and vice versa. To go out and only play songs that are at least 20 years old smacks more of a one-time only benefit situation oldies-style celebration of the past, as opposed to truly revving it up and taking it back out of the garage and onto the street. Everything we do is, to us, within the context of what we’ve already done, so we all feel that if we are gonna put our good name on something it needs to be worthy of our own history. This was the first time since the first record that we had such a relaxed feeling of control, intent, and lack of outside pressure of any kind. It galvanized us in a new way.
I would say this was the best recording experience of the band’s career. With Eric in charge, and the rest of us feeling extremely confident in his being in the producer’s chair, the tone was set from the get-go. Nothing felt labored or forced in any way – a very easy, upbeat feeling of community and purpose. We recorded together, we ate together, we laughed a lot, and we could all feel we were playing better than ever, both as individuals, and as a band.
Eric: When we decided to accept the offer to go to tour Spain in 2010 we decided we wanted to work on new songs as opposed to just doing the old ones. For me, working on Scott’s tunes and playing with the guys again was a real joy. Making the record at my recording studio with my well oiled team made it that much more fun and satisfying.
Given the wide experience you guys have in different bands, as solo artists, etc. what is it that makes The Del-Lords appeal to you? What is at the core of your chemistry as a quartet?
Scott: A band is the pure essence of rock ‘n’ roll, both metaphorically and literally. The chemistry comes from the humanity at the heart of it. It is this particular set of guys from whence the chemistry emanates. Who we are comes through in the music. The songs provide the vehicle. Chemistry is an elusive thing, and cannot be willed into existence merely by putting the “best” players together, much like an All-Star team will never have the chemistry of a team that plays together every day. On the other hand, to try and nail it down, define it, shape it, and put it in a box is impossible. That is why, as Little Steven says, when it is there you do everything and anything to keep it together because it is a rare gift, and, in most cases, it is a once in a lifetime occurrence more precious than gold.
Eric: Aristotle said it very well:
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
A real band is a truly special thing. Different than a ‘project,’ different than a front guy and some sidemen, it’s like a relay race. Can’t be beat.
Props for naming a tune “Everyday,” particularly given that it sounds like something Buddy Holly might have knocked out if he’d lived into the modern era. There’s also a whiff of Roy Orbison to this one, and both guys float in the backdrop of a few Del-Lords compositions. Are you fans of ol’ Buddy, Roy and early rock ‘n’ roll in general? Why do you think that stuff endures and inspires still the way it does?
Scott: It is funny that you pick up the spirit of Buddy Holly here, although I know the song title is a clue. The truth is I wrote this one with Dion, and it was specifically written for a scene in a screenplay written by Chazz Palmintieri for a biopic about Dion that Chazz was gonna also direct. The song was written for the scene where the Winter Dance Party tour hits Clear Lake, Iowa. The bus pulls into the motel parking lot, and upon entering the lobby the guys are met with the first TV reports of the fatal plane crash that took Buddy, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. Buddy had given Dion his guitar to take to the hotel and, when Dion, in a state of shock from the news gets to his room, takes out the guitar, tries to remember that new song Buddy played last night called “Everyday,” and can’t quite remember it, this is what comes out. Poetic license, yes, but it’s a song about friendship, so it is fitting that Dion remembers it this way.
All the first generation rockers, like the great bluesmen, Hank, Cash, Woody, etc. are like holy men to me. Their words and music are scripture, and their movements guided by heaven. They are my spiritual sustenance.
The Del-Lords’ drummer does just what a rock foundation should – play to the songs with strength and instinctual restraint. Tell us a bit about playing with Frank.
Scott: Everything starts with the drummer. There is no such thing as a great rock ‘n’ roll band without a great drummer. We have Frank. I have never played with a more simpatico, song-oriented drummer. I have also never had the connection with another drummer the way I do with Frank, especially as it pertains to this band. Frank seems to get better almost time we play together. Frank always plays from within the song, and he is always there at the service of the song, as opposed to the other way around. That is a greater and rarer talent than one would think. Plus, he is my brother, and that too is not to be underestimated in regards to the contribution Frank makes.
Eric: The songs come first. Frank is a superlative “song player”. While recording, we had four great guys (Keith Christopher, Jason Mercer, Steve Almaas and Michael DuClos) play bass with us. It always felt like the Del-Lords with Frank leading the way.
You’ve got “NYC” smack in the middle of the band’s signature logo. What’s so important about New York City? How does it define who this group is?
Scott: NYC, perhaps more than most cities, is never just the place you live; it is also the place that lives with you, like a roommate, like a badge, like a burden, and like a brother or sister. It is in everything we play, and it defines us to a great extent. The songs themselves would be different if not for our town, and we, too, would be different if we came from anywhere else.
Eric: Rock and Roll at its most elemental has always been a hybrid that borrows from different musics (like country and blues). New York City has always been a big part of the hybrid that is The Del-Lords version of rock and roll.
The first time I heard the name “The Del-Lords” I thought it sounded like a gang from the movie The Warriors. Does this feel like a gang after all these years? Does the Three Stooges association still have any resonance?
Scott: Talk about holy men! The Three Stooges are, as Kerouac said, “holy goofs”. They are part of our fabric. A band is a gang. I always felt that a band name had to satisfy three criteria: it needed to sound good as a band name (duh!), it needed to sound like a gang name, and it needed to sound like a bowling team. Mission accomplished!