By Brian Tucker
Eric Lawson, singer and saxophonist for local rockabilly band The Phantom Playboys has a faint memory about Elvis Presley. He was scolded around age three by his mother for sneaking into the cookie jar before dinner. He responded by singing the chorus of “That’s Alright Mama.”
“That probably was my introduction to rockabilly,” Lawson said. “I grew up listening to 50s and 60s rock and roll, as well as classic country. Stuff like Roy Orbison, Everly Brothers, Hank Williams, Willy Nelson, Johnny Cash the list goes on. Elvis was and is a staple in my father’s music collection.”
They’ve grown from a five-piece band with two guitarists to just one after adding trombone player Maaike Brender à Brandis who also sings. Brender à Brandis notes that modern rockabilly bands forego horns despite the genre’s history of using them.
“I carry horn lines through every song,” Brender à Brandis said. “It’s common for groups to have one horn as saxophone but I have yet to see another group with just trombone.”
Brender à Brandis sings lead on “Look at that Cadillac,” a surprise (and charmer) on the album. Imagine The Andrew Sisters’ singing with hmmmph on The Stray Cats swinging tune from the early 80s. Her singing is reserved yet cool, and with a little teeth by ending lines with a cat’s growl.
“We wanted Maaike to sing lead on a song,” Lawson said. “We were listening to (it) on the way to practice. Singing it (while) setting up, it became obvious we had to do this song, Maaike had to sing it, and it had to go on the album.”
Jim Kaylis’ combination of steady drumming and high hat crash on the song is great. He continues the attitude with rollicking instrumental “Psyclone,” a tune sonically illustrating their fun making the album over three days at Rick Miller’s Chapel Hill, N.C. Kudzu Ranch studio. Miller (Southern Culture on the Skids) also plays guitar on TPP’s “65 Caprice” and “Baby Likes Booze.”
“(Kaylis) and Rick have known and played gigs together for over twenty years,” Lawson said. “We’re very lucky to have Rick record this album. We wanted him to throw in a little something on guitar and his rhythm guitar makes me feel like I’m driving that car.”
Lawson sings with an array of personalities, whether hubba-hubba style on “’65 Caprice,” near spoken word delivery (“Devil’s Socks” and the title track) or as prowling wolf. On “Pretty Corpse” and “Wildcat Ways” Lawson is fiery akin to a hybrid of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and The Cramps’ Lux Interior.
Baby Likes Booze never sits still, whether defiantly on “Pretty Corpse” with Lawson declaring “I ain’t gonna leave a pretty corpse behind!” or echoing author Jim Thompson on “The Stalker” as a fella (who likes to say “gee whiz”) watching a beauty that “won’t give him the eye.” Lawson snarls on it, baited by Jake Horton’s gritty guitar work and Brender à Brandis’ alley steam horn playing.
Band members continually lend character throughout the album, like bassist Jones Smith and Kaylis creating a sultry groove on the title track. Its narrator details a devil doll covered in tattoos, a drink in each hand and who “looks dangerous.” It’s a carnivorous tune that came together organically at practice with Horton playing jazz chords and the band following.
“I said keep going, I think I have an idea for this,” Lawson said. “I went home, sat down and the lyrics just poured out. It’s fun to play live because it’s a bit different.”
More with Eric Lawson and Maaike Brender à Brandis
Has the band exceeded expectations?
Lawson: This band has been an absolute blast from the beginning. We’ve had some member changes over the years but we’ve always been a five-piece. When we added trombone and dropped down to one guitar, something clicked and sparked a whole new vein of creativity.
How did Rick Miller come to record the album?
Lawson: Jimmy and Rick have known and played gigs together for over twenty years. We decided to ask if he’d do it and he said yes. We’re very lucky, he doesn’t just record anyone. All around great guy and really knows his stuff. We knew we wanted him to throw in a little something on guitar on one song.
Brandis: The Kudzu Ranch is tied in with a record label of the same name that puts out Southern Culture on the Skids albums. Rick is a legend in the N.C. music scene and it was an absolute honor to work with him. He is so knowledgeable of all types of music and musical styles, as well as musician’s individual styles. And his studio and equipment are world class. We had a great time with him. He is extremely easy to work with. To cap the week off, we played at the 16th annual ElvisFest which is a charity event.
Recording an album is no small feat, there are so many elements that have to be perfected in their own order or the record won’t hold up. Getting a solid bass and drum track is essential for layering all of the other elements like guitar, horns, vocals, on top. These things take time.
What music was playing around the Lawson house growing up? What was your first introduction to rockabilly?
Lawson: I grew up listening to 50s and 60s rock and roll, as well as classic country. Stuff like Roy Orbison, Everly Brothers, Hank Williams, Willy Nelson, Johnny Cash the list goes on. Elvis was and is a staple in my father’s music collection.
Having seen the band live, how hard was it to capture that energy in the studio?
Brandis: It can seem difficult to perfectly capture the energy of The Phantom Playboys’ live show in a studio album but we are very excited about the album. This group has been through some lineup changes but we believe we’ve got the winning combination. These fellas are talented and so much fun to be around. Our time in the studio reflects this.
You play trombone in the band.
Brandis: I do play trombone. Lots of modern rockabilly bands forego the use of horns despite the style’s history with a horn section. But other bands embrace the history. Our singer, Eric, plays alto sax on choice songs but I carry horn lines through every song. It’s common for groups to have one horn manifested as a saxophone but I have yet to see another group with just trombone.
We have been described as a rockabilly band with notable punk, surf, ska, blues and jazz undertones, but we jokingly refer to the band as “Maaikebilly.” I also sing choice lead vocals and carry background vocals. Eric and have a Johnny & June type feel on stage.