…And Then There Were III – The Immortal Lee County Killers

This is an older interview of mine, presented here for archival purposes. The writing is undoubtedly different to the present, and the review style may differ between publications. Enjoy, if that’s the right word. 

Some days, rock requires a hearty constitution. You have to be in your prime to handle the mammoth toll of The Road and The Rock, and all the debauchery and seat-of-the-pants flying that that entails, to be ready to belt out screams, high kicks and overdriven, amped-gig freneticism.

On other days, you sit on your porch and comfort your cat during a thunderstorm. That’s what The Immortal Lee County Killers III’s vocalist and guitarist Chetley Weise was doing on the day that I caught up with him.
As a VW Beetle trundled down the street, sounding like a landing aircraft, Chet – or El Cheetah, as he’s sometimes known – spoke about the blues, bad reviews, and about heading down to Australia for the second time in 2004.

The band’s been hard at work since they’ve been away. They’ve solidified their lineup with the addition of an extra vocalist (and keyboard player), Jeff Goodwin, and have recorded their follow-up album to the dirty bluesfest that was Love Is A Charm Of Powerful Trouble. So it’s with some anticipation that the band return to our shores to play a couple of shows, eager to show off their new look, developed sound, and galvanising stage presence. It should be a treat for audiences, too.

“This is a return to Australia, but this is the first time we’ll be there as a three-piece, so we’re looking forward to playing pretty much 90% new material,” says Chet. We’ve added an organ – a Hammond B3 kinda sound – and Jeff, the player, also sings, so with him we’ve basically added three instruments. His left hand plays the bass keys, his right hand plays the harmony and the chord structures, and he can sing. It’s definitely added to our sound”

The Killers’ first tour of Australia, back in March, was marked by displays of hard-arsed rock intercut with a sweet dose of Southern gentlemanliness. It was also the band’s last tour as a two-piece. Though Jeff had become one of the band, he didn’t accompany them as they zoomed through the country. Chet relates why:

“We had started rehearsing together, but we hadn’t really worked out the kinds yet. And also, that particular tour, we were coming down there to support Love Is A Charm Of Powerful Trouble, so for that particular tour, we decided to remain a duo, and to play the songs from that record. It gave us a chance to do a kind of last hurrah for the two-piece. We didn’t want to come down there and support a record and not play any of the songs off of it.

“When we decided to add Jeff to the band, we decided that we were going to write all new songs and approach it as yet another beginning… and we didn’t want to go through learning the backlog of songs! That’s why we did it.

“With this band, we’ve always been into evolution and revolution – everything that’s happened to us has been unexpected and spontaneous, literally. It’s made my head spin and that was one time that we could actually say ‘Hey, let’s make this the finale for the two-piece, and say that’s our last tour as a duo, and put The Immortal Lee County Killers II to rest and properly tour on this record, so the next time we come to Australia we’ll be The Immortal Lee County Killers III and be debuting new material and get them ready for a new album. For once, we actually got to calculate something.”

He chuckles.

Looking at the band’s history – there’s been a lineup change for each album so far – it seems that turmoil of some description seems to be necessary for the band’s survival. Is it likely that the band would ever reach a point where the lineup would be solid, or are they likely to continue growing into a more fulsome musical collective?

“I don’t ever want to put limits on the band. That would be a dangerous thing for me to do because I know as soon as I did that, next year someone would be calling me a liar!” the guitarist laughs. “But as far as I am concerned, I feel like everything that The Killers have been doing has led up to this particular point. I feel as if we’re at the closest point to the music I have heard in my head, and the music that I’ve wanted to make, than we have ever been. If The Token One, the drummer who played on the second album and this album, quit, then I wouldn’t want to do it any more. If Jeff quit, I wouldn’t want to do it any more. I feel as if we will continue to go through changes, but I think it’ll be more along the lines of these three musicians experimenting more with different kinds of music, influences, songwriting and presentation. Like I said, I don’t think that anything that’s happened to us has ever been planned. The name ‘Lee County Killers’ is very specific; it’s very regionalistic. And the reason that is is that I never thought we would be playing outside of Lee County, Alabama.”

So did the band ever think they’d be touring somewhere as far away from their point of origin as Australia?

“Oh God, no! Like I said, I never thought we’d be. The Lee County Killers’ first official show was at a barbecue at Doug’s – the original drummer’s – back porch. We’ve certainly gone a long way from that to playing Australia for a second time. It’s funny – I like to tell people that I like our name, but if we had had a rock and roll crystal ball and had some foresight, I probably would’ve tried to think of something else, because explaining to folks in Japan what Lee County is… I’ve done it too many times! There’s no way people are going to know what Lee County is unless they’re from Alabama. And I don’t even live in Alabama any more. I don’t live in Lee County – I live in Nashville. But The Immortal Nashville City Killers doesn’t have the same ring.”

This sense of regionalism is something that’s influenced the way members have come and gone from the band, too. It seems the band’s grown out of a tightly-knit local scene, while their burgeoning success has seen them overstepping state and international lines – a far cry from their homely beginnings. Chet explains the organic, close way the band developed.

“The first drummer, Doug Sherrard, in a true example of irony, works in Nashville now in one of only five vinyl record pressing plants in the United States – the pressing plant that presses The Lee County Killers’ vinyl. So Doug is still making our music, but it’s more of a hands-on approach. But he never was planning on touring – that just wasn’t in the cards for his life. That’s why he couldn’t stay on. And The Token One, we had played in bands together before. and he had sold his soul to rock and roll a decade ago, so he was ready to come on board. And Jeff, who’s playing with us now, he was in a band called Man … Or Astroman? And he dropped out of Man… Or Astroman? at that time because he wasn’t ready to sell his soul for rock and roll. He was actually my roommate when I mixed the first Lee County Killers record, he set up first Lee County Killers webpage. He was at our first show. He’s been there since the beginning. I’d always been talking about how it’d be cool to play with an organ player, because I’ve always loved The Doors. I’ve always been really into the jazz player Jimmy Smith and Sun Ra, and Jerry Lee Lewis. The piano, the keys has always been an instrument I’ve been into – Booker T and the MGs… you can’t beat an electric, B3, or barrelhouse piano, and it just so happened that Jeff reached a point in his life where he could just drop out of society again and just remortgage his soul to rock and roll and that’s how it’s ended up. Me and Jeff and JR have known each other forever.”

Bands constantly talk about having known members forever – but in the case of the Immortal Lee County Killers III, it’s nothing but the truth. Keyboardist Jeff has been working hard with the band since they first came together.

“Jeff was with us, helping us sell merchandise and drive the van when we played the South By Southwest festival in Texas that got the band signed. He was at the show when Dave Crider from [record label] Estrus saw us and wanted to put out our record. That’s how this band’s always been. This lineup, it’s new, and all the music’s new, but yet it’s not to us. We’ve been together, listening to the same records and kinda involved in the same things for years, but now Jeff’s finally picked up an instrument and has started playing with us.”

Is it an addition that’s changed the way the band writes? Chet says it has, thanks to the richness of the extra instrumentation, but is quick to lay to rest the idea that he’s the sole brains behind the outfit.

“The writing dynamic has definitely changed because Jeff is also a songwriter. All three of us write songs. Just because I am the primary vocalist, nobody should be mistaken or misled that I’m the primary writer. That’s by no means correct. Jeff’s a songwriter also, and there’s at least three songs that he kinda originated, and the rest of the band finished off – that’s how we do most of our writing. JR may come up with a guitar lick or a drumbeat and the rest of us will fill it out. Jeff’s done that for several songs and the instrument in itself, the organ, it’s got some bass keys, he can hold some extended chords. It frees me up to do some things. He and I can start doing countermelodies off each other. As a duo, all of our countermelodies were vocals versus guitar, or our harmonies. Now, we’ve got three voices that’re either doing countermelodies or harmonies and we’ve got two melodic instruments that’re working off one another. And I think that because Jeff’s been with us from the beginning and knows what we’re into, it’s changed our songwriting but it has not changed what we’re about. We’re not gonna come down to Australia and all of a sudden people start saying that we’re Oasis or something.”

So, to borrow a riff from Jon Spencer, the blues is still number one with the band?

“We’re still certainly taking from blues,” says Chet. “And I think with the organ we’ve added a bit more of the soul music – you know, on our second album, we did an Otis Redding song. And with the organ, we’ve delved a bit more into our LSD-ness, or our psychedelic-ness. We’ve really been able to paint those kind of pictures. It’s growth. Evolution, rather than if we’d’ve taken a 180-degree turn and tried to play pop. It’s more like jazz – there’s a little bit more of a freer space for us to work in and for Jeff to work in, but we certainly aren’t a jazz band. When people see us, we’re still The Immortal Lee County Killers, we’re just part three. So I’m pretty excited about it. I’m very confident that, five years from now, if people ask me what album they should listen to to start off – and I’ve got no idea of where we’re going to be five years from now, musically – but if someone asked me what album should I start with with The Immortal Lee County Killers, I’m quite confident that I’m gonna say to start with the ILCKIII. I’m very happy with the two albums we have before this, but things were taking us in a direction towards where this was happening. People say that there’s a million stories about the person they’ve fallen in love with, that if they hadn’t hitched a certain ride that night, they wouldn’t have met he or her. It’s kinda like that with this band. It’s just been a very chance relationship between us and the world. And thankfully, I think luck’s been on our side.”

Of course, luck is only part of the story. The band’s legendary live performance and honest-to-God good-blokeness has held them in good stead, too. Is this live aspect what the band are looking forward to most about their gigs in Australia?

“Whenever we go out and play anywhere, whether it’s the back porch in Alabama or the Meredith festival in Australia, the first and foremost thing we look forward to is the act of playing music, and hearing what people’s reaction is to it,” he offers. “Being that we do play original music, and we’re conveying ideas and thoughts with listeners, it’s a dialogue between us – it’s a conversation. And when it connects, it’s a great thing. And when it connects in a place that’s as far as possible from where we’re living, it’s even better. And it doesn’t always connect, and when it doesn’t, that usually makes for some pretty funny stories.”

An instance where the band didn’t connect with people was, famously, when an online music zine reviewed their disc and lambasted them as being poor blues imitators. It’s a review that’s now – proudly – linked from the band’s website. Is that the kind of funny story Chet means?

“Yeah, exactly!” he laughs. ”We didn’t connect with them, did we? Have you ever heard of Ken Vandermark? He’s an amazing musician. If you get anything out of this interview, other than me just rambling on, then check out a Vandermark 5 album. The New York Times says he’s the most important jazz player today, blah blah blah. He’s really good. But one thing he told me -and this is the kinda guy that Ken is … he’s won all these awards as a jazz player, and received all of this acclaim, but when I met him, we were drinking beer in a bar in Chicago, talking about Led Zeppelin … and one thing he told me is that when you write a song, when you put out an album, when you put out your music, you know you’re doing something wrong if one of two things occur. One, is that everyone likes it, or two, if no-one likes it. I think we’re doing pretty good. We seem to polarise people. They either jump on our train and really appreciate what we’re doing.

“Usually, we become friends with the people who do dig listening to us. That’s the kind of band we are. People, when they get into our music, there’s this kinda dialogue and connection, and usually anyone who likes the songs that we play, we can usually go and hang out with them at their house after the show, and it’s like we’ve known them forever.”

Is that something the band are expecting in Australia?

“It’s happened to us in Australia – in every city we’ve played. That’s probably the second thing I’m looking forward to most about coming down to Australia – it’s visiting old friends and making new friends. People either really like us, or they hate us so much that they certainly don’t want us to come back to their house after the show. In fact, they’ve probably already left the show after the third or fourth song!”

The call comes to an end. The cat is placated, the rain still falls, and Chetley Weise, bluesman and good bloke, begins preparations to come to Australia. Check him – and his two compatriots in fucked-blues mayhem – at the following dates… but don’t forget to stay longer than four songs!

[dates removed because there’s no way you can attend a gig that occurred ten years ago]

First published on FL in December 2004.

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