Claude Coleman Jr. Breaks Down His New Album
Feb 06 2017

Claude Coleman Jr. Breaks Down His New Album

By: Finn Turnbull

Anyone who’s ever seen Ween knows that the drummer, Claude Coleman Jr., is one damn talented individual. He’s been working with them since Chocolate and Cheese (1994), recording, touring, and even helping engineer, like he did with The Mollusk. However, what you might not know is that this multi-instrumentalist has also been hard at work for years with other musical projects, the main one being his own band, Amandla. 

Amandla has been around officially since about 2000, but it seems that Claude has had the concept in mind for a long time. His first release was Falling Alone in 2001, followed by The Full Catastrophe in 2006, and now he is finally releasing his third album Laughing Hearts. 

The music he writes for Amandla is impossible not to like, because there is something there for everyone. The style ranges from hard, distorted rock to heartfelt blues, R&B, funk, even pop, country and rockabilly. Laughing Hearts is a perfect example, as it contains all of the above. This album would be appropriate to listen to at any time in any mood. Sweet, memorable lyrics accompany the most refreshing songs; Claude’s third album is a masterpiece. The production is outstanding, which is to no surprise because Claude performed, recorded and engineered almost everything himself. In addition to the fantastic instrumentation, Claude also has an amazing voice. His soothing tones in both falsetto and natural vocals, are paired perfectly well together in harmonies that bring each song to a new level of solid sound. The record is romantic, charming, spacey, relaxing, upbeat, energizing, trippy, and super soulful all at the same time.  

Now that Laughing Hearts is ready for release, Claude has assembled himself a full band and they just had their first mini-tour through New Orleans and three towns in Texas with The Dean Ween Group. Live, Claude plays guitar and sings. His other bandmates are friends and musicians he’s worked with for years. On guitar and backing vocals is Shareif Hobley who actually recorded additional guitar, vocals, and keys on Falling Alone and The Full Catastrophe. On keys and synths is Simon Thomas George who plays with Claude in a funk group called The Digs. On bass is Jon Sullivan, who recorded the bass for “In A Lovesong” on the new album. On drums is Kelli Strawbridge. 

The group played with Dean Ween Group at Tipitina’s this past Wednesday and they simply killed it. After the show, I had the privilege of sitting down with Claude to discuss Laughing Hearts in great detail. Claude has many friends and admirers, so the discussion proved difficult without an appropriate amount of hilarious interruptions from fellow musicians and fans: 

What goal or ambition did you have for this album?

“I don’t think I had any ambitions. I don’t know if anyone ever does. I think you’re just writing and writing and creating, and you’re going through all these experiences and filtering them out in music and songs and expression- and you just keep at that. Then before you know it you’ve got a collection of songs and a bunch of music that, you know, seems to comprise a record. Then you’re like, “Oh ok, this is a record.” Then try to flesh it out with a couple more songs and top it off or complete it somehow. I think it’s an organic, unknown process that happens on its own. It seems to create itself- with me anyway. Some people go into the studio just to write records and they work like clockwork and stuff, but my process is more organic and it happens as it happens and when it happens, and before I know it I have a record.

The last [album] I did was called The Full Catastrophe. And that took me like four years to make just because I went through a near-fatal car accident and I had to relearn and reacquire all my skills to be able to play and write and record and stuff. I had to relearn how to walk, and talk and swallow, memory functions and everything. All of this stuff I’m still kinda struggling with now. But then, [Laughing Hearts] is sort of the second chapter in a massive breakdown of my life. I had divorced from my wife. 14 years we were married. And Ween had broken up, so the floor in my life just fell from beneath me and I was without a lot of the things that I had been going with for a long time. So, in a sense, it was like another near-fatal car accident. [Laughs] And so this [album] took me just as long to do. When I divorced with my ex, I left New Jersey and I went to Texas and I just sold everything I had. I sold my wife’s belongings, my recording studio, my wood shop (I’m a carpenter), just everything I had, and I just piled my guitars, my hard drives, my computer, and my clothes into my Subaru and lived out of my Subaru for like two years. Then I went to Austin and I stayed with some friends out there, a really wonderful family whom I love dearly. They let me live in their house. So I was just living at their house, making this record. Never had any plans about anything after that. I just had this music and all I knew was that I wanted to record and make this record and that the songs were some of my best songs. I guess I just sort of assumed everything else would fall in line after that, and it kinda did. But, I didn’t really have any plan or any forethought at all. I was just winging it, just going for it, because I had too, you know? There was just nothing else I could do.”

Claude Coleman Jr. Breaks Down His New Album

Follow What Brings You

“The chorus line is “Follow what brings you here.” That’s kind of about my experience with just leaving everything you’re accustomed to and becoming untethered and having nothing to bind you to where you need to be. Just getting in a car and going and running, on some kind of notion that you just needed to do it. Line by line, it sort of tracks my journey. When you do that kind of thing, when you drop everything, you know what you have and you kind of purge your life. Then you run, you know? And the first line of the tune is “Run away to a life in theory.” But when you do that, it’s like, you’re the first person who meets you when you get to the next place. Because you can’t escape anything really, even yourself.”

(At this moment, Alex McMurray looms out of the green room and proclaims Claude’s wisdom. “If you think that there’s some wisdom up there,” he says, “this is the wisdom, man.” We heartily agree that it is here in the stairwell. “It’s in the stairwell of our lives,” Claude says, and then Alex disappears singing “This is the stairwell of our lives!” to himself.)

“At the same time, it’s kind of a call to arms. Talking about that lesson is saying you sometimes have to do that. Maybe in order to have that lesson. You have to follow what brings you to wherever you go. The other thing about this tune is this was a ‘top-off’ tune, where I had a group of songs not quite enough to make a record. Since I was in Austin I really wanted one of my guitar heroes, Kirk Kirkwood to play on something on the record. I had asked him to be on while I was there, we had some Mexican food one day and talked life and he’s such an easy dude he was down without hearing anything, and truth be told, I really didn’t have the song for him yet. So I literally wrote that song for Kirk Kirkwood to play on, it came out naturally, I’m a Meat Puppets fan big time, it was styled for him. He came in, and just added the most amazing cosmic sounds and slide shreddage that only he does. It was magical.”

Summer Road

“The woman I was married to was a New Zealander, so we spent a lot of time in New Zealand. In New Zealand and Australia, the seasons are reversed there. Our winter is their summer. So, our Christmas is summer time there. And that’s kind of the theme. Like, being there for Christmas in the summer. That’s a real fun time. New Years Eve is really fun, too. A lot more fun in the summertime. Of course, New Orleans residents, that doesn’t really apply to you. It’s kind of warm all the time here. (“Yeah this is winter,” I say) Yeah, like right now it’s winter so, you know, I have a long sleeve shirt on outside. [Laughs] But yeah, that’s kinda what a lot of that is about. Just my ex and the life we had together and the times we spent in New Zealand. It’s a beautiful, magical place. I might want to retire there. If I’m ever going to retire. I don’t think that’s possible for musicians. It’s sort of a foolhardy concept. But yeah, that’s what that song’s about. It’s just happy and joyful. Kind of how it was to be cruisin’ around at Christmas in the summer, having cookouts on the beach, driving up and down the coastline, and exchanging gifts with Santa Claus hats on, you know? Jumping in the water. It’s fun.”

Laughing Hearts

“So the title of the record is a reference to a Charles Bukowski poem called “The Laughing Heart.” It’s a really inspirational poem in its own way. It comes across in the Bukowski way, its kind of edgy and rough and it’s slightly obscene, but it’s really powerful and really motivates you, and it’s really energizing. The laughing heart is basically everyone’s soul that should just be joyful and laughing through the process of shit in life. And so The Laughing Heart is everything that my record is about. It’s everything that everyone’s life should be, I think. You should be a proud laughing heart, full of sunshine, and embracing everything coming your way. That’s the tune that defines that record and kind of defines the making of it.”

Stay Awake

“Stay Awake is a song about a friend of mine. It’s kind of unrelated to the whole divorce concept record, which this record became sort of. It’s about a friend of mine, we dated for a brief period. To be honest, she had an insatiable sexual appetite. It’s about how some people make being sexy and dirty really cool and easy and fun and awesome. And you don’t have a hang-up about it. Yeah, that’s a tribute to her.”

Drawdown

“That’s kind of a super intense divorce tune. That’s written for my ex. She was my muse for nearly 20 years. I wrote that song in Hawaii. It was a particularly rough time for us. It was particularly rough because we were away and we were separated. When you’re touring and you’re having issues or problems with your partner, it’s really really heartbreaking. You can’t really sleep well, it’s really disruptive to your psyche, and you’re just trying to survive and maintain on the road. I wrote that during one of those periods. [Hawaii]’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. Watching the sun go down over paradise. Actually a lot of the lines and lyrics in that tune are about that, sunsets over sorrowful places. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world, yet I was at the most sorrowful place in my life. So I was writing about that contrast of those emotions.”

Talking Sweet

“I wrote that about a particular friend of mine who is kind of a prick. And some people are such pricks that when they’re being nice and genial, it’s actually like a hint that they’re actually about to be incredibly horrible and mean. And it’s almost like a flag to run. It’s like a forewarning, because you know it’s full of shit and something evil and destructive and nasty is going to follow.”

In A Lovesong

“That’s another tune I wrote for my ex, and it’s about how I write every song about her. I go to the river and I’m writing music and what am I writing about? I’m writing about her. What is it? It’s a love song. One of the chorus lines is [Sings] “Could it be a love song? Sounds like a love song...” It’s just like, I’m always spending my time writing love songs about the woman I love. Which is beautiful, and so that’s what it’s about. There were so many more songs back in the day that were so unabashedly about love. “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” you know what I mean? Or like “Pardon Me, I Love You.” or whatever, you know? Some point along the way, in society, it became unhip or something and I think that’s lame. We need to bring that back. I thought, I’m going to write this song and it’s a love song, yes. I’m not going to cloak it with some sort of poetic, figurative metaphor. It’s a love song and I’m gonna call it a love song.”

Lolina

“Ah.. [Laughs] That tune is another tune that’s not so related to all the upheaval and divorce like the rest of the music. That tune was when I was going to the bank in Austin. Mexican woman in Texas, particularly in the southwest, are a bit different than certain other parts of the country where they look almost Indian and Incan sort of. They kind of resemble the women in those calendars like at taquerias. Just tall or statuesque; strong bodies. They’re just absolutely stunning. They’re these goddesses, really. And I was like cashing a check or something when I’d just got tossed. I saw this woman, and sometimes you just get goofy. Us men, as we are, we can fall in love in like half a millisecond. The end of the chorus of that tune is “This never ever happens all the time.” Standing in line, I was just absolutely captivated by this amazing female creature made by, you know, the heavens. [Laughs] I just went into my car, started writing, and I think I finished that tune in a night. I love that tune for some reason.  Then a lot of it is about my traveling. Going out there and just driving through the plantations, and driving through the farms. Just on my own, not knowing what I was doing, just driving and driving. But then, you meet Lolina. That’s a fictional name, which I think is kinda nice. I don’t know if Lolina exists.”

Rest of Your Story

“That song is written for my mother, who in a sense, did the same thing I did. She decided to leave New Jersey, which is where we grew up, and before I left, she left. And she was sort of doing the same thing. We followed similar paths in the way that we were just kinda going into the unknown. We didn’t really have any certainty about what was going on, but we just knew we needed to leave. So, she sold her house and I remember helping her pack up for like a week. Helping her move, just getting all her things in the truck and stuff. Just taking it in, just feeling that transition and all of that uncertainty. It had a little bit of sadness with it, as well as being kind of exciting. The tune that I wrote is about how it must have been for her when we left for college and moved out. It was a kind of like that experience for me, watching her leave where we had grown up and decide to try live a life anew. And she did an amazing job. She’s my hero. Both my parents are my heroes. I felt that I had a really awesome place with everything that happened to me on that record, and I love her very much, so I wanted to have that song on there. I wrote that song for her.”

Forever For Always

Claude’s bassist, Jon Sullivan, chimes in with “That joint is tight!” Then offers us some Tito’s vodka before incoherently comparing Claude’s songwriting depth to something Mike Tyson once said about Muhammad Ali. Something about drinking waters and drowning. Here’s the actual quote: Tyson on Muhammad Ali - “No man like him. There just isn't, everything that we have, he supersedes us, even our arrogance and our ego...I'd say from a boxing perspective, Ali is a fucking animal. He looks more like a model than a fighter, but what he is, he's like a tyrannosaurus rex with a pretty face. He's just mean and evil, and he'll take you to deep water and drown you. He's very special, the best in the world.” Now, if that’s not a shining testament to Claude’s music, I don’t know what is.

“Yeah, that’s totally about my ex. The idea that she’ll always be my wife and she’ll always be the only wife I’ll ever have, no matter how many times I get married. [Laughs] She was sort of my queen and I think that however it ends, even when you separate it’s just sort of said and done like that. That’s not to say that I won’t fall in love or anything like that, but just “forever for always,” you know? She’ll always have that place in my life. I spent nearly a quarter of my life with her, so you know, unless I do that again, which I guess is possible, for the interim that’s the way it always be with her. I wanted to close the record out with it. It’s kinda dark and sad, but I think there’s some beauty to it that everyone can relate to. That helps deal with the sadness. It’s darkly beautiful.”

(Bonus Track) I Get Around

“Yeah, that’s just a bonus track. The last record I did, I had a bonus track. We did it tonight, it was called “Back Down.” Kind of a swingin’ rock tune. So, I decided to write another similar tune and have it as a bonus track. I think I just might keep that. I’ll just put a bonus track on every record that’s like a rockabilly tune. Maybe I’ll do a record that’s just that kind of shit, but I just wanted a bonus track. And actually, the guitar player in Dean Ween Group tonight, Joe Kramer, does the solo on that tune. You can tell because he just shreds. He’s just a ripper, man. He’s funny. He’s a mild-mannered guy, a rep for Yahama, but he’s just one of the greatest guitar players we know. He just shreds. He’s a flawless, amazing player. I gave [I Get Around] to him and he gave it back to me in like an hour or something like that. [Laughs] That’s just a fun tune to escape the malaise of fucking seriousness and shit, you know what I mean? I do think I kinda need to do a record or two of just like light-hearted stuff. No more Full Catastrophe’s. So that’s my way of kind of lightening the load, especially after Forever For Always.”

Claude says the album comes out February 14th, Valentine’s Day.

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