Folkie Johnny Irion embraces Americana rock ‘n’ roll in U.S. Elevator
“My first band, Queen Sarah Saturday, was a rock band,” says Johnny Irion, one half of a songwriting duo with Sarah Lee Guthrie. “We landed a major-label deal when I was 19, but we always tossed a few acoustic things into our sets. When I started collaborating with Sarah Lee, we never set limitations on our style. There was always a hint—sometimes more than a hint—of rock in our arrangements.”
Guthrie (Arlo’s daughter and Woody’s granddaughter) and Irion are still collaborating, but Irion was feeling the need to get in touch with his rock roots again: “My friend Zeke, who was in Queen Sarah with me, suggested putting my rock songs and folk songs in different settings. He said, ‘Don’t muddy the water. You want to see the bottom of both streams.’ I’ve always wanted to do another rock band, so I started thinking about making a rock ‘n’ roll record.”
Irion tracked down his old friend, bass player Nate Modisette. They put U.S. Elevator together. “We had a couple of rehearsals,” says Irion. “They went really well, so we decided to make an album.” The new band’s eponymous debut is a crunchy, aggressive collection of rock tunes that tips its hat to the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Doors more than anything in the folk spectrum. The album was recorded live to analog tape, using a vintage 1,000-pound, 24-track Studer A-80 tape machine that once belonged to Jackson Browne.
“The guys in the band are carpenters by day, so they’re strong,” says Irion. “We lifted (the Studer) up three flights of stairs to a rehearsal space, but you could hear all the other bands rehearsing. We took it back down to Nate’s house and started working. We set the band up in the kitchen and living room and played together, without headphones. We’d write a song, get two or three takes down, and pick the best one. Then we’d erase the extra takes and go on to the next song. We didn’t have a budget, or a lot of tape, but it was a lot of fun.”
Tim Bluhm of the Mother Hips came down from San Francisco to produce the album. “He knows how to run a tape machine and oozes California cool,” says Irion. “He walked into the room and helped everyone get their game up. We wrote songs with him; he made us sound like we’d played together for years.”
The album’s Americana-fl avored rock is loud and forceful, but with a melodic, midtempo quality that suggests the Band. “In the studio, we were just scraping the surface of our sound,” says Irion. “Since we’ve been playing the songs live, they’ve become more reckless and aggressive. We’re destroying the songs now, and I’m exploring my vocal range. My melody zone with Sarah Lee falls naturally into the space McCartney would take up. Now, with the band, I’m going for the lower Lennon parts. It’s exciting to have an outlet for that side of my singing.”