Features | Interviews

Lewis and Clarke

By David Greenwald | 20 June 2005

The father of both a baby boy and an excellent debut album released this week, Lewis & Clarke’s Lou Rogai has a lot to be excited about. His album, Bare Bones and Branches, is a restless, lush collection of fresh-sounding folk songs that gives Sam Beam a serious run for his money.

Over an afternoon phone call, Rogai shared his fascination with Jandek, the collective approach to recording, and the mysterious origin behind his alias. And Mötley Crüe.

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David Greenwald (CMG): So your first album, Bare Bones And Branches, is finally coming out this week. That must be pretty exciting.
Lou Rogai (LR): Absolutely, absolutely. it’s been a while coming down the pipe, so, I’m getting ready for it.
CMG: Bare Bones And Branches was originally released in Europe by Delboy Records. How is the new version different? I know there are a few different songs.
LR: Yeah, there’s a lot of alternate takes on it, and I think there’s a few new songs - I can’t remember if it’s three, I think there’s three different songs. Some songs that are on the Delboy release are not on this release. So, it’s nice, it flows differently. It has different mixing and artwork, and an extra year and a half worth of being able to sit down with songs that were not finished at the time and actually mix them. That changed them up a little bit.

CMG: Why the name Lewis & Clarke?
LR: That was actually from my grandmother. I was doing some shows solo style for a couple years and my brother was originally playing drums with me. On most of the Bare Bones album, he played drums. My grandma, we went to visit her before a tour once and it was under my name. She was like, “Oh you guys, you’re going out west, you guys are like Lewis and Clark,” kind of making her grandmotherly joke. We were like hey, we should keep that as a name. And it was kind of also an exploratory reference; the more we thought about it, we liked it. But it’s been interesting where, in Europe, people thought we were trying to take on an Americana name, where originally we were kind of doing it in more of a post-modern way, y’know?

CMG: Why the extra “E” then, at the end of Clarke?
LR: I dunno. We just liked the way it looked, I think. It was just a stylistic decision there. Just seems like it’s the way it should be spelled to balance the “E” in Lewis. Also, giving another hint that (the band is) a different type of thing.

CMG: You said you’d been playing some solo shows. Is Lewis & Clarke a full band now, or how does that work when you play live?
LR: It was originally just an extension of what I had going on solo, and basically it’s now it’s more like a collective. Whoever wants to perform and tour, that’s how we do it. Actually for the past year, we’ve had a pretty solid line-up, so it usually is a band. At its purest concept, it’s the songs…that’s the old faithful for most songwriters.


CMG: Bare Bones And Branches is really lush, you have a lot of instruments going on and it’s these really filled-out songs. Did you always want to turn your songs into that, or where you planning on being more stripped down initially?
LR: Yeah, originally it was stripped down. Then the more I would record a song, I’d hear things and the process would be to just fill it up, the way you hear it, and whoever was around at the time would have ideas and suggestions. It’s always interesting to try to turn your little vision into a project, so it’s been interesting doing that, going from the singular to the collective. Starting out with the songs, if anyone has any ideas to kind of round it out, it’s always nice. But on Bare Bones, I definitely had a lot of lush specifics in my head that I recorded, like any parts I multi-tracked on my own, those were all things that I had in mind. It gets kind of boring just hearing a guy and a guitar once in a while, unless he’s like finger-tapping with his toes, it’s kind of all the same sometimes. It felt like I was cheating myself sometimes if I just didn’t add anything to it.

CMG: I wanted to ask you about a couple of the songs. “Bathtime Blues” seems like it’s a pretty serious song, there’s serious content, but the title is pretty understated. It’s almost like it’s sort of sarcastic to me. Is that what you were going for?
LR: I wouldn’t say sarcastic. I don’t think any of the songs really have a sarcastic tone, but more of what you meant, in that you can take a completely heavy situation and make it fulfill your own cliché by titling it. Or, I think that’s kind of representing taking a situation and trying to ease it on your own and trying to make something heavy a little bit lighter of a load for yourself, and that’s basically what it was at the time. So, yeah, that’s an interesting one, glad you picked that up.

CMG: Another that I really like is “Dead And Gone,” and I noticed that the chord progression is pretty similar to Elliott Smith’s “Angeles,” so I was wondering if you were a fan of Smith at all.
LR: Yeah, I’d never even heard that song before, and it must have seeped into my unconscious because a friend of mine pointed that out. He said, “Yeah, I played that at my house a lot of times when you were there, it sounds similar,” and I was like, “wow,” and then when I listened to it, I did think it sounded similar. I’m just glad it didn’t turn out like “Louie Louie” or something like that.

CMG: What kind of music do you listen to?
LR: Right now I’m listening to Gary Higgins. He’s got this project from 1973 called Red Hash, and that group Six Organs Of Admittance did a cover and coincidentally at the time - are you familiar with the Red Hash album?
CMG: No, I’m not.
LR: Oh, you would really dig it I think. A friend of mine bought it at a radio station record sale some years back and he made a copy of that, and I love it. It’s funny to see that it’s coming out now. (I listen to) a lot of local stuff, a lot of friends’ music --- Pearls And Brass, they’re a rock band from Nazareth. I grew up listening to a lot of Donovan and Sandy Bull, and Leonard Cohen --- stuff my parents listened to. And I really liked Mötley Crüe a lot when I was in fifth grade.

How about you, what’ve you been listening to lately?
CMG: I really like the new Okkervil River.
LR: I haven’t heard that…My friend Travis plays drums in Okkervil River. I like that band, I think they’re great. Brother JT, I don’t know if you heard that track on the Jandek compilation. (Down In A Mirror: A Second Tribute To Jandek)
CMG: Yeah.
LR: Incredible, JT’s music is great. Really off-beat. So you like that compilation?
CMG: Yeah, it’s good. I was wondering how that got put together and how you became involved with it.
LR: My friend Eric who runs Summersteps Records, he turned me on to Jandek a while back. He was doing the compilation and so that’s how that happened. As it turned out, he was putting out the Lewis & Clarke also. He turned a lot of people on to Jandek - the movie that was made, Jandek On Corwood, he was interviewed in that. I think by doing the tribute, he really helped spark a lot of interest by getting contemporary artists to kind of nod their head at what Jandek was doing. Have you listened to any actual Jandek stuff?

CMG: I have “Somebody In The Snow” and I’ve listened to it a couple times, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten.
LR: That’s not as difficult of an album. But it can be tough. You have to listen to it alone.
CMG:
It definitely feels like very solitary, painful music.
LR: Yeah, that’s the whole thing, and some people don’t want to face that. Some people hated our track on that compilation, too pretty or not haunting like the original version. But y’know, that’s the translation, that was the beauty of the tribute compilation is that you can take your own interpretation of how he was feeling, what he was going through at the time. So like, lyrically it is painful stuff. I like how everyone put in melodic twists though, because it has to be listenable, you know what I mean? You can’t just reiterate what he’s done, it’s been done already, so I think it’s special to have your own version of it. You can’t please everybody though. You really can’t, you just got to please yourself.

CMG: I think it’s really good. I definitely plan to look into his catalog more because of it.
LR: That’s the whole thing with Eric, and the way he did that compilation, it introduced people to that guy’s mystique. Imagine sitting there and writing, churning out your writing, let’s say you’re really into writing poetry for 30 years, and then all of a sudden someone puts together like a little tribute, that’s like a serious honor for him.

CMG: Do you see Lewis & Clarke being a full-time gig, or is it always going to be something that you’re sort of doing on the side?
LR: Well, sometimes it’s not on the side, sometimes it’s more in front than anything else in my life. It’s honest to say that it’s well more than full-time than work, y’know. The only thing that comes before it is my family, my son and my wife. As far as a success, it is what it is, just to create it, that’s the success. If someone wants to dig it up later or dig it up now, appreciate it at some time, as long as it remains what it is, then I feel that it’s a success and anything else is just a grace. I’m happy where it is now, of course it would be great if everyone loved it and wanted to buy lots of the records and we could play to nice, full rooms of people every night. It’s also very satisfying how it is now, just to be able to churn it out.

CMG: Do you have any plans to play a national tour? I’m in California and would love to see you get out here.
LR: We’ve played in LA before. We’ve played at the Echo, we’ve played in Santa Monica too, a couple times. But uh, I’ve been busy with the baby and we’ve got some more new recording so, to find time away, I think it’ll be this fall. We’re going to do a Midwest tour this summer, but I think we’ll be on the West coast in the fall sometime. We’ll definitely get around to coming through. The new lineup is a little bit different than what the record is. We’ll be playing slightly different versions and a lot of newer stuff because we have a new album almost finished. It’s real nice.

CMG: When do you think that’ll come out?
LR: Hopefully it’ll be out by next winter. And that’s with --- Dave Ulrich is on drums, he plays on Bare Bones on a couple songs, and Russell Higbee plays harp on Bare Bones, and Eve Miller plays the cello on the new record too, so that’s coming along.