Sunday, July 22, 2018

An American Drummer in London

Outside my father's childhood home. (Photo: Roger Ebner)

With the jet lag finally disappearing and my internal clock somewhat back to normal, it’s time to reflect on one of the greatest musical and personal experiences I’ve ever had.

Last week, I flew to London for the first time to take part in a special private show by The Ladyboys, a band featuring my dear friend and Pigface bandmate Martin King (Test Dept/Subgenius/Dogtablet). This particular show also featured Pigface saxophonist and Chicago resident Roger Ebner.

My friendships with Martin and Roger began through the Pigface 25th anniversary shows at Reggies and the House of Blues in Chicago in November 2016. Martin toured with Pigface in the late ’90s (a few years before my arrival in 2001), and Roger was a new recruit. The three of us had become Facebook friends leading up to the gigs, but we truly began hitting it off when we met up in Chicago. I’ve kept in touch with Martin in one form or another almost daily since that time, and Roger and I have become close friends and frequent travel buddies. (Best of all, the three of us are currently working together as part of a 12-person recording project that will be releasing a dog rescue charity single in the not-too-distant future.) When Martin extended an invite to me late last year to be a guest drummer at the next Ladyboys show, it was an offer I simply couldn’t refuse.

Exploring London with Martin and Roger

I had more than just this amazing musical opportunity in mind for my trip. My father grew up in Redbridge, and my childhood was filled with stories of his life in England prior to his arrival in the US five decades ago. Unsurprisingly, visiting London had been a dream of mine since I was a kid. On July 17 – my 41st birthday – Martin was kind enough to drive me out to my dad’s childhood home. It was incredible for me to connect with my family roots, and I’m beyond thankful that Roger snapped the photo of me outside the door of the house that appears at the top of this piece. 

There’s so much to remember from my stay in London – the food (Black Pudding! Fried Slices!), the pints, the wine, the great conversations, the sights – but what struck me the most was everyone’s intense politeness. From my Ladyboys bandmates to the sweet lady who served me breakfast in Camden Town, everyone enriched my experience through their kindness. Of course, I must put Martin and his lovely wife, Penny, at the top of the list. They were extraordinarily warm and giving hosts who truly made me feel at home. What wonderful, wonderful people they are; I cannot thank them enough. I must also thank the queen of the castle – Martin and Penny’s beautiful greyhound, Connie – for allowing me to occupy so much of her Mum and Dad’s time during my stay!  

My birthday dinner with Martin, Penny and Roger

Obviously, “Ladyboys” means different things to different people (and is a word I wouldn’t recommend running through Google if you’re solely interested in learning more about the band!) In this case, the moniker was inspired by The Ladywell Tavern, a boozer that’s been frequented by the core members of the group for ages. Years ago, they decided to play occasional gigs for fun. This particular show was the first such occasion since Martin’s 50th birthday three years ago. The set was comprised of an eclectic list of covers of The Clash, Iggy Pop, Magazine, The Undertones, Joy Division, Davie Bowie, The Velvet Underground, etc. The show – held at The Lexington in Islington – was invite-only, and attendees were encouraged to donate funds towards Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. While several Ladyboys have performed a fair share of proper professional gigs over the years, this was meant to be a laid-back evening of good mates playing music and enjoying themselves. 

The all-important pre-rehearsal at The Ladywell Tavern with Roger, Julian, Roberto and Martin

The Ladyboys’ loose nature was reflected in the sole rehearsal I had with them, which consisted of a lengthy stop at The Ladywell, kebabs for dinner and plenty of wine – and a few songs thrown in here and there! Every member of The Ladyboys was good-natured and great fun to be around. Practice took place at the home of one of the guitarists, John. He’s a devoted veterinarian who was busy helping animals in need before and after rehearsal. While the rest of us were having drinks late in the evening, he was back out on a call. That is a man worthy of profound respect.

John from The Ladyboys with a special appearance by Roger's fingers

There were seven of us at the rehearsal, but the final live Ladyboys lineup boasted at least 12 people. Much like a Pigface gig, players and singers came and went from the stage throughout the performance. And much like Pigface, it was a thrill for me to be a part of a great set with people I only met days – or minutes – before showtime.  

Meg Lee Chin (Photo: Neil Gaffney)

For me, the greatest highlight of the gig was the appearance of someone I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years. The immensely talented Meg Lee Chin was one of the core touring members of Pigface when I first played with them at The Limelight in NYC in November 2001. Her classic 1999 album, Piece And Love, was a critical part of my college soundtrack, which made sharing the stage with her in ’01 a huge honor. Aside from a brief backstage chat that evening in New York, I hadn’t crossed paths with her for 17 years. It was exciting to see her walk through the doors of The Lexington to join us for soundcheck – and fantastic to talk with her at various points throughout the evening. She was in high spirits, which showed in her unforgettable performance. We were firing on all cylinders by the time she hit the stage to front our renditions of The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” and her presence elevated an already incomparable night to new heights.  

With Meg Lee Chin (Photo: Pete Jones)

After several years out of the spotlight, Meg is making new music again. It’s an overdue and very welcome return. Here’s her latest video, which was posted on YouTube late last month:

A truly gifted musician, Roger was a critical part of the show’s success. His playing is always of the highest possible caliber, and it was amazing to share this adventure across the pond with him. (As he exclaimed to me more than once during our trip: “Hey, Joel…We’re in London!”)

Roger Ebner (Photo: Neil Gaffney)

One of the best parts of the week was meeting Martin’s Dogtablet partner and Ladyboys bassist, Roberto Soave. Although he has some pretty tremendous musical accomplishments under his belt (including stints with The Cure, The Associates and Shelleyan Orphan), you certainly wouldn’t know it from his humble, friendly and relaxed nature. A great guy and one hell of a musician!

Joel and Martin back in business (Photo: Neil Gaffney)

Shortly before the gig, I looked at the two drum kits set up on stage and couldn’t stop smiling. When I first met Martin a few short hours before the Pigface rehearsal show at Reggies on Thanksgiving 2016, neither of us had any idea which songs we would be playing – and if we’d be drumming on that material together. (This lack of pre-show information is pretty much standard practice on Planet Pigface). Without any planning whatsoever, we eventually found ourselves drumming side by side on “Steamroller” (a song I hadn’t listened to in years!) and “Suck.” There I was, playing alongside someone I just met and breaking my drum-duet cherry in front of a packed house at the same time. We were thrown into the fire together, and we fucking nailed it. That telepathic magic returned the following night at the House of Blues when we hit the stage to do “Steamroller” a second time. Being able to play with Martin again was a great birthday gift. He is a powerful and groove-laden beatmaster, and bashing away next to him has been the highlight of my 32 years as a drummer. I hope we can do it again.

Selfie time with Mike and Rob

In addition to providing a lifetime of onstage memories, the gig gave me an opportunity to finally meet some longtime friends in person. I’ve known iconic artist/designer/videographer/photographer Mike Coles (Killing Joke/Malicious Damage Records) for years, both as an interviewee and as a social media friend. It was a pleasure to finally sit and have a chat with the bloke. Mike brought along his mate Rob Moss, whose band Headcount was a regular part of my life’s soundtrack when I lived in Los Angeles years ago. Also, it was absolutely fantastic to finally get a chance to hug Pete Jones (Public Image Limited/Brian Brain/Department S), whose long history with me includes his exceptional bass playing on my 2011 solo EP and on a single by the Effectionhate project I had a few years ago with my then-wife. I’m so pleased our paths finally crossed in this way.

Having a laugh with Pete Jones (Photo: Rob Moss)

As I wrap this up, I must thank Pigface bandleader Martin Atkins for bringing so many great people into my life through that group. Those special friendships made the London trip and the gig with The Ladyboys possible. Pigface brings out the best in its members - as musicians and as people - all because Martin had a crazy and beautiful idea 27 years ago.

Late Killing Joke bassist Paul Raven once told me he made lifelong friends through Pigface. I’m honored to be able to say the same.

Ladyboys performers: Martin King, John Hackinson, Roberto Soave, Roger Ebner, Meg Lee Chin, Joel Gausten, Jim Norman, Mark Valance, Julian “BBC” Blythe, Jamie McQuillan, Jeremy Tishler, Paul Frederick, Pete Curtis. Emcee: Neil Gaffney  

A few Ladyboys in action - Left to Right : Roger, John, Jamie, Joel, Julian, Martin and Roberto (Photo: Gemma Margaret)


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