An interview with Lizard McGee

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Clichés are clichés because somewhere underneath the surface there is some truth to them. In the case of “you can’t keep a good band down” I dare say there’s definitely more truth there than meets the eye/ear. For people who carry in their DNA a predisposition to write and play music there is almost nothing that will stop them from answering the call when they feel the need to get it out. As John Lee Hooker said, “It’s in him, and it’s got to come out…”

Columbus, Ohio’s Earwig is an extension of singer/songwriter/guitarist Lizard McGee and his Lizard Family Music imprint, and it’s an underground indie rock band on a “micro-indie” label with a history dating back to the early 90s. One of Ohio’s best kept rock and roll secrets, and criminally under-recognized in the so-called “indie rock” world, Earwig should be revered alongside the likes of 90’s icons like Sebadoh, The Grifters, Mule and so on.

Gibson Under Mountain is the band’s fourth album on LFM, and it exists as a result of Lizard’s continued vision and the band’s perseverance. Lizard tells the story of the album title: “The album title came in a dream… I’m sitting in the center of a huge movie theatre… a white light glows through the movie screen, filling it with large block letters… name your album GIBSON UNDER MOUNTAIN.” And from there, all the songs subsequently came from dreams and dream imagery.

Lizard’s songs are solidly emotive, as rock music goes, partly due to the dizzying melody lines, and over the course of all their albums they have recorded some enormously catchy, sticky power-pop-rock with swelling sardonic substance deep inside. The first song on Gibson Under Mountain, “Trees” immediately stands tall among the very best Earwig songs, with a sleek, trebly guitar sound and Lizard’s always appealing and idiosyncratic vocals, his beautifully painful tone rising into the stratosphere of emo-riffic rock singers. It’s a fucking great opener with a subtle wallop-you-in-the-head kind of hook.

From there, Gibson Under Mountain touches on all sides of Earwig’s sound, from the radio-ready rock of “Star Cross’d” or the syncopated power-pop of “Not About You” to the infectious urges of “Glorious & Gloom” and the gorgeous gray-white undertones of “Next Christmas,” a stunningly good song. And, closing the affair is the lovely, noisy, heady “Rumplestiltskin,” a song that vibes like a meeting of the Violent Femmes and The Pixies.

A lot of Lizard’s songs melt into your brain almost instantly and become part of your cerebral cortex upon first listen. Their seductive melodies float in the air and wrap themselves around your head in an amorphous, hazy bliss. It’s a rare gift for any songwriter to be able to do that, no matter what genre(s) they may be working in. I recently got the opportunity to ask Lizard some questions about the band and their music. Turns out, he’s a really good egg too. Enjoy. You can stream or download the album at Earwig's bandcamp.

What are the origins of Earwig the band, and the name?

When the time came to name the band, I decided upon method that I had heard was used by one of my favorite bands, R.E.M. The idea was that you close your eyes, randomly open to any page in a dictionary and point at a word…that random word would be the name of your band. So we went down into the basement and dug out this very cool, huge old dictionary that I had from my family. I closed my eyes, opened the dictionary and stuck my finger on the page. When I opened my eyes, the dictionary was filled with earwigs. I don’t remember what word I landed on, but we decided to call the band Earwig because of that.

Who are some of your musical influences/favorite songwriters?

I really like everything Thom Yorke does. I love R.E.M. and New Order. When we started out, I was very influenced by punk bands like Husker Du balanced against British new wave bands and the bands on labels like 4AD. Currently, I really dig the last Metric record and the Grinderman albums.

How has the vision for the band evolved over the years?

It hasn’t always worked, but I’ve tried to keep things minimal. Like having the band be a trio. I just really enjoy playing with that format, as a live band. At times, when I’ve thought we were lacking in certain areas, I’ve tried to write more hard-edged songs, or more sentimental songs. I guess I kind of go back and forth. I think early on, there was more of an emphasis on guitar sounds, more solos and tinkering with the songs. As we went on, I leaned towards trying to cut the fat out of the songs and take out anything that might be unnecessary. Things got more economic. With Gibson Under Mountain, to me, that idea has reached it’s climax. I think for the next record, I want to really branch out and take more chances, be less economic and shoot for “Grandiose”. Hopefully it will be a bit weirder.

How have the changes in the music business affected Earwig’s approach to making (and marketing) music?

We’ve had our run-ins with the “music business” but largely have always done everything ourselves. From running a small record label and trying to promote the band on less than a shoe-string budget, I’ve become very interested in the developments that happen in technology and how that drives change in the music business. Where things are now, having our own website and an effective method to sell our music ourselves online, is very good for us. I don’t deal much with record stores, like we did in the beginning. Now people buy the record one of two ways. They either get a digital download or order the physical CD directly from me. The challenge is getting the word out so that people actually know about the band and then get a chance to hear the music. I don’t run very many ads in magazines, because they seem to generally not be worth the investment at this level. I do try to stay very plugged in to what’s going on now in the music business and look for alternate ways to promote the band, like through music licensing, commercials and song placements. Those are all great opportunities to get Earwig’s music out there and even though they are easier to get involved now than say ten years ago, it can still be an uphill battle. It can be tough, being the guy who writes the music and the guy who has the job of marketing it and selling it and trying to turn a profit. Sometimes the business concerns can start to creep over and influence the writing. I try not to let that happen.

Can you share a few of your favorite moments/shows/horror stories?

There was the time on tour, in Las Vegas, when the club owner (it was a dinning club, old people were sitting around eating when we were setting up to play) where we were booked offered us $100 extra not to play the gig. Like idiots, we played anyway. Everybody left and club owner cried.

Or a few years ago when we were playing in New Orleans and decided to stay up all night at a local bar (because the bars there were open 24 hours) after we had played to an almost empty club down the street. A random guy walked in around 4am and we struck up a conversation. The bass player, thinking he was being witty, dropped the title of an Earwig song into the conversation. The guy said, “You know, that’s the name of a song by a band called Earwig.” No kidding, we said “That’s us!”. He had missed the show, but we wound up staying at his house the next day. He even had some of our records on vinyl.

But one of my favorite shows has to be when Earwig was hired to play a graduation party for a family in Delaware, Ohio. It was a family of brothers and every year they had had our friends Ugly Stick play the party, but this year the graduating brother wanted Earwig to play. It paid well and we were paid in advance. So I was horrified to wake up on the day of the show and realize that I had a sore throat and had lost my voice and couldn’t sing. There was no way we could cancel, so we went anyway and just hoped for the best. The show was at a VFW and we set up in the corner and started playing. After a few timid songs to start with my voice very weak, the kids started to pile up near the band and get rowdy. I gave the microphone to them and let them sing a song. Then I started belting out and magically my voice came back and it ended up being an incredible show.

Later that same year, we played a rural YMCA show set up by some local high school kids. Apparently, the kids that set up the show were the “weird kids” and had an ongoing beef with the “jock kids” from their high school. Before long a gang of the “jock kids” from the high school showed up and threw a cement block through the plate glass window in the back of the hall, rushed in and started to beat people up while we were playing. That was pretty awesome and even more so when the bands and the audience all rushed to the back and had a huge gang fight with them and the cops came and arrested people. It was like a scene from West Side Story.

What are you listening to lately?

Lately, I’ve been on a binge listening to a lot of Kate Bush. Especially Hounds of Love. I really like that record. Other than that, I’m into a British band called The Macabees. like the new Metric record a bunch. And the new Jimmy Eat World record has gotten a lot of play at my house. Oh and I’m digging on Lightning Bolt.

Actually! My favorite thing that I’ve found recently is an album of music from all of the old Godzilla movies. I just love the sound and the vibe of those recordings, plus it has the monsters making sounds too. It’s great.

What’s on the immediate Earwig agenda?
The main thing is still getting the word out about Gibson Under Mountain. We think it’s a grand record and we worked very hard on it for a long time. So we’d like for people to get a chance to hear it. Earwig has a new 4 song EP called “North High Alumni” that will be available on our badncamp page. It’s being mixed right now. We have a new bass player, Costa, who is super talented. We’re catching up, re-learning some old songs with him. I’ve just got my home recording set up running on my computer. So I’m going to be working hard the next couple of months writing new songs. That’s really my focus.

Something that’s always in your refrigerator?

Tofu. Love the stuff.

Without thinking about it too much, what is your top ten desert island discs/records list?

Prince, Purple Rain
Kate Bush, Hounds of Love
The Smiths, Meat is Murder
Echo and the Bunnymen, Ocean Rain
R.E.M., Lifes Rich Pageant<br />
New Order, Brotherhood
Radiohead, The Bends
The Shins, Wincing the Night Away
Tom Waits, Mule Variations
Remy Zero, Villa Elaine