The Iguanas Get Serious
(April, 1998 OffBeat Magazine feature)
by James Lien
In the midst of one of the first New Orleans weather events of the year that could qualify as an afternoon spring storm, the members of the Iguanas have assembled at bassist Rene Coman's uptown home. Out on the side porch, water beads on the oil-painted boards and turns all the plants a dark and lustrous green. Inside, ceiling fans twirl dangling from high ceilings. The front room contains several keyboard instruments, including an exotic-looking organ that looks like it came out of a church decorated in jetset '50s style. Guitarist and singer Rod Hodges takes a seat on an angular, space-age couch that's also straight out of the 1950s, while saxophonist Derek Huston slouches in a comfortable red modernist chair that vaguely resembles a large red sea shell.
Their history thus far: The members of The Iguanas -- Hodges on guitar, Joe Cabral on sax/guitar/ vocals, Coman on bass, Huston on sax and Doug Garrison on drums -- traveled various individual paths that ultimately led them all to New Orleans. Floating around the city's music scene in various other bands, they eventually hooked up with each other in a way that was almost inevitable -- for one thing, they all seem to be almost exactly the same height. Combining their various influences, they created an infectiously danceable blend of Tex-Mex, R&B, swamp-pop, honky-tonk and rock, and christened themselves the Iguanas. Playing clubs like Café Brasil and the then-relatively new venue Rock 'N' Bowl at Mid City Lanes, they swiftly developed a tremendous cult following. Soon they were touring all over the country packing crowds in wherever they went. Now they're back with their fourth album together, Sugar Town. Prior to recording the CD, the band parted ways with its record company, Margaritaville Records. Rather than sign on with another major company, they've made a bold move and decided to release the record themselves on their own label, Blowout records.
Twenty or thirty years ago, the idea of a musician having their own record label and releasing his or her own records would pretty much either be a pipe dream of the extremely rich or an act of desperation. There were always plenty of unknown people putting out their own records, but for an established, successful musician somewhere in the middle to put out his own product has always been considered something of an anomaly. But things have changed quite a bit in the last few years, with more pressing plants, recording studios and small local record labels emerging to fill all the various roles needed for someone to make their own record. As a result, more and more musicians are putting their business acumen to the test and releasing their own albums themselves, thus evading the pitfalls and tribulations of the big record business.
Saxophonist Derek Huston explains: "We'd all done records before, we'd all had different experiences with them, even before this band, so we pretty much knew everything that went into them all down the line. Since we were free of any kind of obligation to a record company, we realized that this was an opportunity that we could act on, to do our own thing our own way." Adds guitarist and main songwriter Rod Hodges, "And because we're all a lot more hands-on with the business end of things, it just kind of evolved naturally." Derek continues: "It was an idea that we bounced around for a while, looking at the way the whole business is evolving. We went in to do a demo tape, just for a couple of companies that were interested in hearing new material. In the process of doing this demo tape, we found ourselves saying, 'Man, we should just make a record!'"
"Ani Di Franco is a real famous example of that right now. John Prine did it, you know," says Hodges. Derek had some friends who were doing their own thing, too. "I remember Le Roy talking about it, too. This guy I used to play with up on the East Coast is the saxophone player for the Dave Matthews Band. They started out putting out their own records, and now they control their own destiny."
"In a way, the whole experience is that everybody has to work harder to do it ourselves, but it's a lot less complicated than having all these other steps in the process," Huston continues. "But it doesn't feel like you're working harder because you're excited about the whole thing. I think the whole band's pretty excited right now." Rene agrees: "This is a fair kind of way for bands to do it, that have the resources and can actually get it together themselves. It's the workers taking charge of the means of production," he laughs shaking a fist in the wind.
While The Iguanas did everything, from cracking open the box of the first spool of recording tape all the way to deciding where the bar code goes on the back cover. "We had always had a lot of say in how our music is presented, probably more so than a lot of bands out there," says Rod. "On the other records, we actually did a lot of the artwork ourselves, anyway. A lot of it is stuff that we made the decisions on when we were involved in a big bureaucracy, it's just that now you don't have to fight a big battle for something really obvious." Derek picks up: "Before, you would come to a
consensus on an idea, and then you had to talk fifteen people from the record company into doing it, each of whom had a completely different idea of what you wanted, whereas now, once it's decided you just do it, and it's done. And a record company could have an agenda that's not the same as the band," he warns. "They might have all kinds of crazy ideas that have nothing to do with what you're intending musically."
The Iguanas' philosophy of doing things their own way has obviously influenced their incredibly distinctive Tex-Mex, Latin, swamp-pop blend of music, which is more in evidence than ever on Sugar Town than on any other Iguanas' record so far. It's probably their most diverse-sounding record, and also probably the most fun to listen to. That singularity of their sound has also been the most likely reason why the band's music has found its way into a number of film and television soundtracks. So far, Iguana music has been heard in the movies Fools Rush In ("Para Donde Vas"), Phenomenon ("No te Olvidare" and "Para Donde Vas"), Jimmy Hollywood ("Don't Treat Her Mean") and Under the Moon ("Para Donde Vas") as well as the TV show Homicide ("Boom Boom Boom") and even on the Olympics. Hodges definitely thinks it all has to do with doing things their own way: "We haven't really ever tried to follow any kid of trends, or gone for any sort of commercial sound, so it hopefully comes out sounding kind of unique. All you've got to do is try and do something that's you-at least it's going to sound different." "It's always been an Iguana brain trust, as far as guiding our careers," says Rene. "For better or worse, mostly for better. I guess [making our own record] was just another thing that we kind of plug into it. Not every band has the kind of work ethic that we have. Not many musicians do! All the people that work in the studio with us were amazed at how hard we would work. We'd sit in there and do tons and tons of takes, try things a bunch of different ways, or whatever it took."
"I think a lot of musicians are basically like little kids. I mean, some of them are literally kids, too, but I mean figuratively. They want everything done for them," says Rod. Rene takes a more serious slant. "You have the music part that everybody prepares 20 years or 10 years for. I talk to my father -- my father plays music too. I was bragging to him once about how much some bandleader paid, I was breaking it down per hour, you know. He was saying a master mechanic makes $50 an hour, asking me how much continuous study and training, and how much time does it take to become a master mechanic. Two years, maybe? You think after two years you can be a master musician? And even after 15, 20 years, you very well may not make $50 an hour! The point being, that you spend all this time mastering your musical craft, but if that's all you do, you're still screwed!"
"We're real fortunate that in spite of that kind of iconoclastic stance or whatever, there's always been an audience that responded," sums up Joe Cabral. "And been very enthusiastic and supportive, too. I mean, Café Brasil, that's a good crowd, you know what I mean? People keep coming back, so that's really a good sign."
We've sold a lot of records right out of the trunk, you know, regardless of whatever is happening with record companies or not. We're always out there playing, working," says Derek. "We have a really great booking agent, have to put that in there," he says, leaning towards the tape recorder. "Actually, it was kind of an interesting convergence of mishaps, almost. There was kind of a booking snafu, where the booking agency thought we were booking ourselves in New Orleans to just stay home, and we thought they were booking us out on a tour, so six weeks or a month beforehand, we realized, 'Oh, man, we don't have any dates for this whole three weeks.' And a week before that gap we started working on the demo that would become the record. It turned out to be perfect, giving us this chunk of time to make that leap."
"It's really just a matter of knowing how the band should be recorded," says Rene, when asked about what's different about Sugar Town. "Finding the best way to represent the band. In the past, our first two records were really meticulously put together, with a lot of overdubs. That's one way of making a record, but for this band, especially, which is such a live vibe, and a live phenomenon, that something was lost in translation. We wanted to do as much as we could live, and it came out sounding totally great. So we kind of realized that's the way this band has to be recorded. And the album really benefits from being done that way. "We tried a lot of things, taking out all the baffles and walls, playing in the room together live, the way Cosimo Matassa used to do those Fats Domino records."
The sound on Sugar Town is the most colorful-sounding, and it does have the most "live" feel of any Iguanas record. There's a greater spectrum of different sounds and interesting musical textures, an approach that's very reminiscent of late-period Los Lobos. Rod explains: "It was just us, so we had the time and if we wanted to experiment, or try a different amplifier or a different guitar, we could just fool around and try whatever we wanted. It was just a lot looser down there [at Chez Flames studio]." Rene adds, "One of the things that tape picks up the very best is vibe, it picks up vibe ten times more than it picks up notes, you know. It's important to do that, it's hard to re-create in the studio. We were conscious of keeping that loose Iguana vibe present, trying not to make that shift from bandstand to recording studio. We tried to make ourselves feel in the studio room like it was six or seven rows deep out there of beautiful people dancing!"
"We deliberately tried to keep things loose and organic," agrees Rod. "A lot of people, when you hear them play a solo on a record, it's one bar from this take, one bar from that take, all cobbled together. People would be surprised if they knew how much that goes on." "The most important thing is to make it sound like music," says drummer Doug Garrison. Joe Crabal agrees. "Super Ball was definitely an effort in that direction, but this one is better, I think. It's a real 'up' record, I think. It feels pretty groovy when you listen to it."
"A bit less than half of the record was stuff that we had been playing live, we always do that, work things up onstage first. People come up at gigs and say, 'What's that song? When's that gonna be on a record?'" says Derek. "Then the bulk of it were things that we had been working on in rehearsal or were still writing after part of it had been recorded. It's an important part of how we do things, that we were able to go out and play gigs, because that's what we like to do, that's what we enjoy." He definitely thinks that the live element is the place for The Iguanas to be. "It's pretty overwhelming how supportive people are of us around the country, in a really good way, you know. The crowd that comes out to see us, almost anyplace we play, is a really cool crowd. It's nice people, they'll turn up in all different places around the country, beautiful, you know, 'I met my wife at your show'..." "Or they say, 'I met your wife at your show,'" cracks Joe with a wicked grin.
"I like that kind of word-of-mouth thing," says Rod. "The people come to see us because they want to hear us. They weren't bombarded by advertising. That's the way it used to work, you know. I mean, DJs could just play a record and people would call in, and it was a hit. So they'd play it some more! Because people liked it, not because somebody paid money. Well, people paid money to get records played then, but it was more open to new stuff, too. There was more direct involvement. Things could really happen on their own."
As far as the split with their label, the band runs down the details of what will happen regarding the other Iguanas' recordings, for the benefit of fans who still might want to buy them. "Super Ball is still available," confirms Rod. "The other two, technically they're out of print, but we still have some for sale at our gigs." "We bought all the remaining copies, so we're selling those off the stage," says Derek. "At the moment, we're the only place that you can get them." After eight years as a perennial New Orleans favorite, it looks like the Iguanas are now poised to become their own little cottage industry.
"You know, I could even see there being a real Blowout record label someday, with other artists putting out records on our label," says Rene Coman, leaning back on the sofa with his hands behind his head in the universally-recognized position of the daydreamer. With Coman's session musician and production experience, it's not so far out of an idea. Joe Cabral gets up from the couch and laughs. "Yeah, and you can sit down and listen to all the tapes that people will send in when this gets printed."
NOTE: The Iguanas later licensed Sugar Town to Koch Records who assumed licensing and distribution.