by Kevin Finn
Lenny Lashley has long been one of the most beloved figures in Boston rock, largely because of the good times his bands provided. Whether with the raucous and raunchy punk of Darkbuster or with the country stomp of The Piss Poor Boys, it was impossible to leave one of Lenny’s shows without a smile on your face. Often, though, there was a sense of melancholy in the music. It was often buried beneath the surface, but it was there. With Illuminator, his tremendously moving record released in June under the moniker Lenny Lashley’s Gang of One, those feelings of sadness and loss are brought to the forefront. It’s as honest and bracing a record as you’re likely to hear anytime soon. It’s also really, really good.
Lenny was kind enough to sit down for a chat at The Midway Café to talk about the new album while we watched the Bruins dismantle the Penguins.
Noise: There tends to be a pretty good amount of time that passes between your releases. Are you a perfectionist, or are there circumstances that tend to cause the gaps?
Lenny: Pete Steinkopf from the Bouncing Souls produced, engineered, and recorded the whole album. He’s in Asbury Park, and they have a pretty heavy touring schedule. I was also playing a lot of shows then, too, so it took a while just to do the recording. It was also a matter of shopping it around, and nobody was really interested. It was a frustrating deal for a little while. I would have had it out two years ago if I could. All in due time. Things happen for a reason.
Noise: I’m a huge Bouncing Souls fan. How did you get hooked up with Pete?
Lenny: Darkbuster did a bunch of gigs down in New Jersey over the years. There was a guy who ran a place called Club Deep, a buddy of ours named Joe Koukos . He was always a big supporter of Darkbuster. Then he moved over to The Stone Pony for a bit. He eventually got burned out with all that and started a record store of his own. He knew the Souls. He came up with the idea of doing a seven-inch and got me in touch with Pete. I was there for about all of thirty seconds before I told Pete I had enough for a full album. I asked if he’d do it, and I said I’d pay out-of-pocket for it. He was down, and that was it.
Noise: You certainly have some pretty impressive people playing on the record. You’ve got to be feeling pretty good about that.
Lenny: That’s a shot in the arm, right? Those guys having done what they do so well and for so long and then to be playing backup on this stuff?
Pete played a bunch of guitar, organ, and percussion and other little knick-knacks. He cracked the whip and made me try to sing good for like 14 hours in a row. Joe Sirois from the Bosstones played drums on six tracks. Mike McDermott from the Souls played drums on a couple of songs. It was a real collaborative effort.
Noise: The feelings of sadness and loss really hang over this record.
Lenny: It was written over a tough time. There was the nervous breakdown I had in Europe and then a couple of years of solid reflection trying to think about things, going through a breakup with my ex, losing our dog. My whole life I’ve written about how I feel at the time and hoped that somebody could get something out of it. I’m sure that people all over the world are going through similar experiences.
Noise: I feel like a lot of that sadness was in the Darkbuster songs as well, but that it was tempered by the humor.
Lenny: That and probably hidden by the effects of alcohol. It had more of a crying in my beer at the end of the bar feel , while this is more of deciding to take the bull by the horns and coming to terms with things. It’s much more palpable.
Noise: Is it harder to write songs like this that are a little more blunt, or is that part of the healing process?
Lenny: For me there’s the immediacy of getting the emotion out. With something like the passing of a friend, it can be tough to even get through the writing process without breaking into tears. There’s definitely something to letting the emotions come to the surface and hopefully not having to suffer with them too long.
Noise: Do the feelings still come back when you play those songs live, or are you able to separate it a bit?
Lenny: Certain ones like “Hotter than July” from the seven-inch. That was written about Jon Johnson, the bass player from The Piss Poor Boys, who passed away; it gets hard not to think about him. It always brings me back a little bit.
Noise: “White Man,” like on many of your songs from the past, references other people’s songs.
Lenny: Yeah, I’ve been doing that forever.
Noise: Is there a particular reason you use that as a storytelling device, or is it just meant as a tribute?
Lenny: Obviously it’s partly a tribute, but sometimes it’s easier the way I write to have a line in my head from another tune. That one, “White Man,” fell together really easy lyrically once I was stealing some Clash lines and thinking about the tour in Europe. It just kind of pieced together. It rhymed nice, and it seemed to flow easily. I like that little trick. Sometimes people aren’t so familiar with Clash stuff. It’s a good little brainteaser for me.
Noise: Do people really not catch on to the obvious references to bands like the Clash and the Ramones?
Lenny: It goes over some people’s heads. People still hear the Piss Poor Boys’ “Beat on the Brat” and think I’m doing a cover of the Ramones song, but I’m just ripping off a bit of the chorus. The rest is not anything like that song.
Noise: “Happily” is my favorite song on the record.
Lenny: It’s a lot of people’s, actually.
Noise: I really like how straightforward the description is. When I hear breakup songs, I’m used to hearing complete woe-is-me stuff or total bile being spit at the other person.
Lenny: Well, that’s the easy way.
Noise: I think the approach of just laying out the facts humanizes the feelings and the situation.
Lenny: It’s all a matter of perspective. If you were to ask the other side of the equation, then maybe her interpretation would be a little different. There was really no malice intended. It was just a feeling, a description of what was going on and a way to deal with it. I also liked the strangeness of it being called “Happily,” yet being such a sad little tune. I still sometimes listen to it and want to cry.
Noise: As much as you generally keep the anger out of things, “Recovery” seems to be about as pissed off a song as you’ve done.
Lenny: It’s a reflection of what I was going through. I had a couple years when I got sober and kind of went at it from a certain angle. Truthfully, it was enormously beneficial for me to look at things from another perspective, which I had never done before in my life. I was a shell of a man. I was scared of my own shadow when I came back from Europe. It took a good long time to start to feel like myself again. And in that process, being the rebel that I am, I found things that I didn’t quite agree with. It’s tough to get your head around listening to people thinking what they say is right and then seeing them not doing what they’re saying.
Noise: That applies to a lot of life.
Lenny: It’s my little pet peeve. The other side of it is that I did get a lot of good things from it, like letting that kind of stuff go. You’re better off focusing on what you’re doing. What the other guy’s doing isn’t so important. It’s important for me to say that it’s not a jab at anybody doing anything for their betterment.
Noise: Are you planning on taking the show on the road?
Lenny: I’m hoping. I have a record release on July 12th. Then I have one more show, and I’m out with the Street Dogs for a month. Depending on their schedule, I’m guessing it will be a little bit of time before they’re ready to go back on the road. That said, I hope to get out and do some touring. It’s difficult to do it DIY. Hopefully, I can get a booking agent to get me on some decent support shows. If not, we’ll definitely do it the other way and grind it out. It’s a lot tougher playing in front of 25 people on a Tuesday night in Syracuse than it is opening for the Dropkicks. That’s just a fact of the beast.
Noise: Going back to the Street Dogs. That’s a pretty big deal jumping on that train. How did that come about?
Lenny: I’ve been friends with them for a while. A couple years ago I did a 27 show run with them. Tobe Bean, the rhythm guitarist, had put it out there that he was going to be stepping down and going his own separate way, so I texted Johnny Rioux. A couple months went by and I hadn’t heard from him. I noticed they were putting together some European dates. I texted Rioux, said I didn’t want to be pushy or anything, but I’d love the chance. I’ll come down and try out, whatever you want to do. He texted me back, said, “Jesus I don’t know how I missed that first text.” He said he had talked to the guys, and they thought it would be great. It seems like a natural fit. We get along so well. You know where everybody is at. Everyone has each other’s back. I really look forward to being a better musician and not being a frontman for once in my life.
Noise: That’s got to be a big change, probably a welcome one.
Lenny: Other than the 150 songs that I have to learn, I think it’s going to be great. I think people can get the frontman mentality where it’s like I’m the guy. This is going to give me a new perspective where it’s like I’m just a cog in the wheel trying to make this thing better, which in the past, maybe I had trouble getting my head around.
Noise: I think that’s about it. Anything you’d like to add?
Lenny: I would like to say that I’m happy that the record is finally out and that people can hear it. I’m very thankful for the support of the labels and Pete and Joe and all the other people who played on it.
Noise: That’s all I’ve got, Lenny. Thanks for your time.