Ahead of their latest gig a West Leeds-based vintage band have spoken to community reporter Michelle Corns about the history of popular music, weird and wonderful instruments, and their own unique style.
The Devil’s Jukebox are a (mostly) Armley-based band, who have amassed a hardcore group of followers: as much for their vintage, sartorial elegance and showmanship as they are for their music, which has a ragtime/blues theme with a modern twist.
Their shows combine musical talent and unusual instruments with a kaleidoscope of colour in the girl’s sparkling costumes. Lead vocalist Zeke is the perfect showman, meandering through the audience as he gives an effervescent performance.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Zeke and Lotus, ahead of their next Leeds performance and gained an unexpected insight into the history of rock music. As they join me online, Lotus is looking striking in a red dress, casually sipping from a huge mug of tea. I apologise for interviewing them in my Princess Leia pyjamas – one of my staple outfits since lockdown part one.
I think the last time I saw you guys was the cricket club in Bradford and then you started playing in weird places in the middle of nowhere.
Lotus: Weird places in the middle of nowhere love us (laughs)
Zeke: Well it’s an odd thing – it’s like out towards Sowerby Bridge, Halifax and places like that, there seems to be a core of people who are arty, so they want stuff that’s a bit different – in Leeds there’s a massive dance scene, a small goth scene, a whatever scene, but as far as what we’re doing it’s out of step with any one scene, it’s those places like Hebden (Bridge), where it’s always been an arty place, so there’s some arty people that live there, so when somebody sets up a bar or something it’s not like “Ooh, we’re just gonna do a Weatherspoon’s and we’re not gonna put bands on.” They make the effort and do little mini festivals and stuff like that, so it’s an arty place, so therefore because we’re a bit…wrong…or a bit weird, we seem to go down well!
So, I was trying to describe your style to someone (the editor of WLD, as it happens!) and it was difficult to find a description. How would you describe your musical style?
Zeke: Basically, there’s like a reasonable sized scene of bands that are vintage bands, so they’ll play 20s stuff, 30s stuff, some of them will do 1940s swing and if you think of them as being the equivalent of…erm…indie bands, in the 1980s. So there’s a reasonable sized scene, a reasonable number of people who are into that kind of stuff, yeah.
Lotus: And it’s got a certain kind of definition to it as to what those bands are gonna sound like.
Zeke: Yeah…then if you think about the indie scene back in the 80s when we were kicking around, back then if you were an alternative band, you were outside of that a bit but effectively you are still on an independent label, so you’re still playing (air quotes) ‘indie’ music – but you’re weird, you don’t fit in with all of that. So, I guess we are kind of the weird band for that (vintage) scene, because most of them play straight up covers, a lot of it is for things like swing dancing and stuff like that – whereas we’re a bit more theatrical, a bit more cabaret-like, humorous.
Zeke: So, I guess if you were going to describe us to someone. It’s a bit 1920s and 1930s music but with an alternative take on that!
Lotus: Certainly alternative instruments and without some of the misogyny and racism, we’ve gotten rid of some of that!
Zeke: I mean you don’t get that with modern bands obviously, but a lot of our stuff we take old songs and repurpose them. So, if you’ve got songs that are written in the 20s, some of them are like…
Lotus: And I’m not using that verse!
Zeke: Yeah – I’m taking that lyric out because its massively offensive or whatever!
Lotus: I used to go to the Jazz Club just off Armley Ridge Road and a band came through there and they played this song and the guy said, “This is the most misogynistic song I’ve ever heard!” and he got very grumpy about it – then played it anyway! But yeah…even some of the second generation jazzers who are in their 70s have had to wrestle with some of the lyrical content of the original 1920s material.
Some people would probably complain that you are being woke!
Zeke: Well, primarily I’m writing new lyrics to give our songs our own voice, often to add a fair amount of humour, but it’s a massive thing isn’t it, where people throw those names like ‘woke’ and ‘snowflake’ around.
Lotus: When mostly it’s just about being nice to people!
Zeke: With these songs some of them are very old, and some of the lyrical content is offensive for the 1920s, so it’s very ‘out of order’. So much so, I think most people regardless of their political affiliations would not be happy with some of the lyrics. Also, you know what it’s like – if you are left of field, to have abuse hurled at you in the street. Like when I was a teenager and I was wearing a lot of make-up… I know what it’s like to be chased by ignorant people because in their minds I might as well be gay – because that is their mindset. So, you grow up with the attitude that ‘OK, if these guys that wanna kick the crap out of me, also want to kick the crap out of people because they’re gay or black or…whatever it is…well, they’re just wrong!’ It just kind of educates you into thinking that, I guess, beyond just empathy.
Lotus: A lot of people don’t like difference and we’ve always been really attracted to different, and we are perhaps in a minority, the rest of the population isn’t always keen on it…
Zeke: When I was younger, I was going out with this girl who was taller than me and had a blonde Mohican, these guys started shouting at us, calling us lesbians and then one of them said, “Oh, one of them’s all right though, that little one with the dark hair – she’s quite pretty!” (laughs). But that was the late 80s…
Back to the present, how did lockdown affect the band? Did you continue to rehearse online? Did you just have a break?
Lotus: Well, we put out an album.
Zeke: Yeah, the way we sell most of our music is at gigs, so we had just finished recording, got it pressed and bam! No more gigs so that was great! We didn’t practice much at the start, because one of our members is 80 years old and we didn’t want to be near him, when we were all isolating. He mainly plays the clarinet and saxophone and has done so since he was 15. He’s lived in West Leeds for most of his life.
One of the main concerns is that we have our first gig since before lockdown coming up soon and I used to get involved with the audience and I’m sitting here, trying to figure out what I’m gonna do differently. I didn’t grow up going “Oh, I’m gonna just stand here behind the mic stand like ‘Wet, Wet Wet,’ I grew up liking performers who engage more, “Oh, Iggy Pop, Lux Interior (The Cramps), Shannon Selberg (The Cows).” And you can trace it back to the antics of Wynonie Harris in the 1940s or Frankie Half Pint Jackson in the 1920s
So is this a one-off gig or is it part of a tour?
Lotus: We are doing a series of gigs that every time I organise one, one drops off (laughs). We had one a month planned up till February, but November is now dead because the lantern in Halifax is very sadly no more.
Zeke: Basically, before Covid we had just got the right kind of momentum for us, which was doing a show every three weeks and occasionally twice a month. We were doing this for fun and we had built up a stretch of stuff where it was pretty much a year of being able to do that. Then lockdown happened and it’s a case of ‘who do I contact?’ Who’s actually still going as a venue? What’s happened to the promoter, which venues are actually open or not, so you’re just trying to fit it back together again. Also, some members had medical issues so we needed to make sure that we would be able to play before booking a huge tranche of them.
Lotus: So, we’ve practiced for a fair amount of time, with just a core three of Zeke and I and Jim, then we brought the rest of the band in. The other members also had kids who were being sent back to school, so they were most at risk of catching Covid.
So how did you maintain the momentum, during lockdown with the rest of the band?
Lotus: We are in this band partly because we’re all friends, so we maintained that relationship anyway…
Zeke: We are doing this because we want to play live, so obviously that’s the part that’s taken away from you. It’s not like other bands that I’ve been in – like an experimental noise band – where you make a sample, add some stuff to it, recording… and put it out on the internet. If you are doing that, then you can just carry on as normal, but when primarily, what we do is play live and the recording side of it is just something that we do every now and again.
Lotus: And we’re not exactly writing songs.
Zeke: No, we are basically like the Cramps of the 1920s and 30s. A lot of the Cramps stuff, they took old songs and changed the lyrics and mashed some together. We do the same thing – we take old songs and then change the lyrics, change the arrangement. Some of the songs are so famous, that I’ve kept the chorus and changed the verse so that the verse now passes comment on the chorus and maybe means the chorus is different to what it originally meant…or at an angle from its original meaning.
Lotus: But we’re not sat there writing totally new stuff.
Zeke: Sometimes our bass player will bring us something that’s a bit more gypsy-jazz, sophisticated. Jim has a book that’s about 40,000 pages thick that is traditional jazz songs that he’s always played, he’ll come to us and go “We should try this!” We’ll give it a go and the thing that makes it interesting is that with Jim they are all popular songs that are played in a traditional jazz canon, this means you have drums, piano, bass, clarinet, trumpet, trombone and a banjo and we don’t have that as a line-up so that means that we have one solo in a 3 minute pop song, we’re taking old tunes and turning them into a pop format, if they’re not already. Lotus brings dirty blues stuff, Scarlet likes tangos. I’m the singer so I shut up and do what I’m told!
Lotus: What a lot of these songs were originally written for was dancing so they were meant to go on for a while, every member taking a solo- but we only have one soloist.
Zeke: Often they didn’t have a dedicated singer, so the musicianship was all, it was more about improvisation and soloing, rather than the song or the emotion behind it, sometimes…
Lotus: Jim handles the improvisational aspect mainly, but our set-up means the songs are pithier and more focused on the song…
Zeke: You know Louis Jordan? They made a musical about him called Five Guys Named Moe. You had big bands with about 25 people in, and then after the depression, no-one had any money to pay them like a 1,000 dollars because they had so many members, so Louis Jordan had the innovation to strip a band down to the smallest number of members, then would say: “I have five members in my band, and you only need to pay me 250 dollars”. He worked out that all he needed was a singer, drummer, guitar, bass and maybe a piano…
Lotus: It leads to the idea of the power trio, and the pop band format… we’ve been in bands before, working with drum, bass, guitar… At some point you must have seen Mondo Suave.
Quite a few times because you used to do a lot of the burlesque shows...
Lotus: Yeah, but I think that was more of the beginning of Devil’s Jukebox, but we used to play the Duchess (Of York), a lot as support because we got on alright with big John Keenan. That was another band that should have been a Nick Cave, swamp blues band but we got it so heroically wrong and at the wrong time. The people who liked us, liked us a lot and we still get recognised from Mondo Suave. We split up in 2002.
Zeke: The other week, we were walking in Armley, and someone leaned out of a car window and shouted, “Mondo Suave!” I was wearing a hoodie at the time and facing away from the road, how did he even recognise me?”
Some people might be surprised to hear that you have day jobs.
Lotus: I was made redundant just before lockdown, so I’m a lady of leisure.
Zeke: Our keyboard player has her own interior design company: The Monkey Puzzle Tree Very beautiful stuff, has been in high-end design magazines, that kind of stuff. What she is doing is taking local designers and realising their designs, basically. She’s doing a lot of hard work getting that out there. Her biggest thing was a design that someone did, that was like Lowry, and she has had that turned into a print on cork wallpaper, so I believe it works as soundproofing too. And of course, Jim is retired now, he worked on the railways for most of his life.
You have some pretty unusual instruments, tell us more about those.
Our bass player was drafted in to play the wash-tub bass but it only had one string and was doing his back in, so he did some research and got a banjo bass, they were around in the 20s and 30s and then a normal double bass became more successful and they stopped making them. It’s a banjo, but the size of a double bass. Gibson made banjo everything, all kinds of sizes from ukulele, to the bass, and made about 200 of the basses. If you want an original, they’re eye-wateringly expensive, so our bass player found someone who was making modern copies of them. Every time we play a gig, old guys who are into musical instruments are going up to him going, “I’ve never seen one of these before.” That kind of particular.
Our keyboard player plays the harmonium and the only time you will see one of them is in a traditional Indian band with a sitar, etc. Basically, church harmoniums used foot pumps, then when we were sending the missionaries over to India to try to convert people to Christianity, they realised, “Oh I can’t take this dirty, great thing that’s like a piano all the way over to India.”
They built small ones and the guys over in India said, “Oh, we like the sound of those,” and then it became a part of their traditional musical set-up.
Lotus: Scarlet’s current one, actually came over from India in hand luggage – believe it or not! It’s quite heavy.
Zeke: But it’s essentially a way to take one to a gig, that is not the size of an upright piano.
Lotus: Or messing with electronica, which is not what the point of this band is. We’re an acoustic band. We did get an early review which said, “That girl’s playing that accordion all wrong!”
Zeke: I mean, it is kind of like an accordion, as in you’ve got bellows like an accordion, but –
Lotus: It’s not an accordion! I thought as a review, we should have put that on our website (laughs).
Zeke: That girl’s playing the accordion all wrong!
How many people are in the band now?
Lotus: Five because we have a dedicated vocalist…
Zeke: I am absolutely rubbish at playing any musical instrument. At the start, I used to sometimes play the washboard – which was a bit of extra percussion, but we’d be playing, and I’d think “I’m dragging this band out of time now aren’t I, so now we have a couple of songs, that I play the Hooterphone on, (a cross between a trumpet and a kazoo!) and that’s it!
We do play festivals, and sometimes everything is mic-ed up so the drums are the same, the bass is the same etc and then we come along, they ask what we’ve got for our drums and we go, “Well, we’ve got a biscuit tin lid, that I’ve drilled to the top of a suitcase so that when Scarlet’s playing it with brushes, it will go boom, tcsh, boom, tcsh, boom, tcsh!” We’ve just got a microphone, stuffed in the suitcase (laughs).
Lotus: You learn how to get it through to sound engineers, it’s taken a while, but we really know what we’re doing now. Some engineers are used to acoustic bands. We played the Green Note in Camden, which only does acoustic – mainly folk stuff and it was the first sound engineer who said, “Oh yeah, I’ve mic-ed up a harmonium before. Yeah – clarinet, no problem!” He put the mic in the right place.
Zeke: Yeah, cos with a clarinet, you take your clarinet (proceeds to demonstrate), and you think the sound comes out of the end, but it doesn’t it comes out of here (points to the tone holes). It comes out of the whole instrument, so the best place to put it, is half-way up. If you put it there (point to the bottom), it tends to feedback and is not the best sound.
Lotus: Festivals can be fun though when they go right. We did one out near Skipton. (Turns to Zeke), can you remember what it was called?
Zeke: Was that the Moor Festival?
Lotus: Yeah, and we just turned up, registered and they said, “Right, get on that tractor trailer and they’ll take you and your gear. Now they had a track round the outside of the festival so that all the tents were in a circle, and you went round the outside of the festival to the back door of your tent. So, on the way to the stage, there were all of us sat on the back of the trailer with all our gear – with Jim, with his chair that he always brings with him so that he has a chair of a certain height, sat there on top of all our gear, playing as we are driven round the festival.
Zeke: It’s a good way of advertising, “Come and see this bunch of lunatics!” I think the best one we played was one where, you know Ian Dury and the Blockheads, well Ian Dury is dead now, so they had Phil Jupitus fronting them and we were on before them and that was really good.
Lotus: Yeah, you could have either Ian Dury’s old roadie as the frontman or Phil Jupitus, but I’m guessing the difference in price, most people chose the former. (laughs)
Zeke: Yeah, you were in effect, paying twice – you were paying two to three grand for the band and I’m guessing maybe another two to three grand for Phil Jupitus- because people know who he is!
Lotus: The way the festival was set up was that only the main stage played while everyone else was setting up, so you didn’t get anyone playing whilst another band was performing. There is nothing worse than playing in basically, a tent, whilst the tent next to you is playing dub reggae and you are playing inky-dinky, tiny sounds in comparison. You are like, “I’m gonna have to play in time, to Iration Steppas – because there’s no other choice!”
Zeke: Yeah! You’re playing a 1920s tune and they are playing Boom, dsh, ba boom, boom, boom!” and you are like, “Ok, I’ve gotta go at that speed, have I?” It’s one of the reasons why I don’t enjoy playing as a three-piece anymore- we like to have a bottom end, the bass, the drums. It’s just not as much fun, I really enjoy having Jim there too, he’s just such a good musician.
One thing that we did do, just before lockdown, was an album.
Lotus: Available now folks!
You can catch the Devil’s Jukebox live at the Northern Guitar Cafe on Saturday 23 October.
To find out more about this vibrant, unique band and their upcoming gigs – visit: https://www.devilsjukebox.co.uk/
To see Scarlett/Charlotte’s designs visit: https://themonkeypuzzletree.com/.