Every so often you listen to an album and then and there you’re committed for life. It’s happened for me a handful of times. Earliest on, it was The Jackson Five’s Third Album. Then came Carole King’s Tapestry, Earth Wind and Fire’s All ‘N All, Heart’s Dreamboat Annie, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Nirvana’s Unplugged, Hole’s Live Through This. Then a decade or so went by where nothing struck me as forever-worthy.
In 2011, the events manager at the Wilmette Theatre handed me a music CD by someone with a glamorous name. Lola Balatro. I’d never written about music. What would I say? Who is Lola Balatro?
Like Blondie and Monty Python, it turned out Lola Balatro isn’t a person, it’s persons. They’re unexpected, original, and equal parts heavenly and devilish. They say they’re “the planet’s premier post-grunge acoustic com-rock group,” but I believe that’s them being modest.
Lola Balatro is Jeff Madden, Paul Thomas and Cork Kangas. They took their name from a stage name used by Cork’s aunt, a World War II-era burlesque dancer.
I went home from the Wilmette Theatre that night and listened to the album. Immediately, I was entranced. There would be no problem knowing what to say. It was one of those rare albums. Every song on it is a hit. I wrote, Lola Balatro’s “musical hooks are so dangerously catchy, you may wonder how you lived without them.”
Their songs cover everything from questions grappled with by a concerned international community (“Name That Panda”), dinner dilemmas (“Questionable Beef”), dubious brags (“I Got 2 Black Friends), the rock star life (“Rock Star”) and the lovely, philosophical “Hey Now,” my ringtone for years, which somehow fuses gorgeous harmony with metal exclamation points:
Hey now, life is straight up hell. Making castles in the sand just to watch them wash away. Hey now, don’t let them see you cry. When life gives you lemons … suck ‘em up! There’ll be brighter days.
Speaking of brighter days, they’re coming. Lola Balatro has big plans for 2016. On Wednesday night, March 30 at 10:00 p.m., they’ll be featured on The Justin Kaufmann Show on WGN Radio 720 AM.
Then on Thursday, March 31, they’ll headline the Lola Balatro Night Of Unrelenting Splendor at MCL Chicago Comedy Theater at 3110 N. Sheffield at 8:00 p.m. I am still awaiting word of whether I’ll be allowed inside after I threw my entire underwear drawer on stage in 2013. So go see them Thursday. You’ll wonder how you lived without them, too.
Jeff Madden kindly exchanged emails with me and answered questions I only now had the nerve to ask.
Q: How did Lola Balatro first get together?
A: Cork Kangas and I first met in kindergarten and discovered we had a shared interest in rock stardom. And crayons. I later met Paul Thomas at a party hosted by the late Conrad Bain. Our mutual distaste for Emo and corporate rock led us to form an alliance, melding our musicianship with our need to express something honest for once to a populace just looking for art that didn’t con them or try to sell them a minivan or a cheeseburger or a lie. Then we asked Cork and he said, “sure”.
Q: When did you know you wanted a life in music?
A: Everybody wants a life in music. Only a few will admit it.
Q: Who were your early influences?
A: Well, very early on it was always The Stooges, New York Dolls, Ringo Starr, The Ramones. Of course, Gordon Lightfoot is a constant presence.
Q: Each song on the Lola Balatro album stands out for its lyrics, music, vocals and originality. What is the secret to creating an album like that? How would you advise other musicians?
A: There needs to be a sacred bond between the band members that can’t be taught. In our case, it was formed when we got high with Ray Stevens on a Ferris Wheel. After that the script wrote itself.
Q: What item is a must-have on the road?
A: Monogrammed beer bong given to me by Dan Haggerty.
Q: If you could be stranded on an island with anyone who would it be?
A: Sting. Just to ask every morning how his bottle plan is working.
Q: Favorite hangover remedy?
A: Yasmine Bleeth.
Q: What is the schedule at the Lola Balatro fantasy camp?
A: Monday: Meet and greet
Tuesday: Presentation: Do You Choose a Tattoo or Does it Choose You?
Wednesday: Calisthenics, Party
Thursday: Panty/bikini-brief tossing competition to win the right to buy Cork smokes
Friday: You’re free to do whatever, the band left last night
Q: What is the significance of the band’s neck tattoos?
A: In my case it means a job in retail is unlikely.
Q: What is your next tattoo?
A: A crown of thorns around the junk.
Q: What color is your mood?
A: Angsty grey
Q: What is on your grocery list right now?
A: Motrin, almond milk, Febreze
A: 1967 Corvair, Chiclets, gambling losses
Q: What is the worst or craziest thing that has happened at a gig?
A: Well, one time a chick came up on stage and puked. She had to be pulled offstage but not before exposing herself to Cork. I officiated their wedding.
Q: What would your fans be surprised to know?
A: I’ve never sneezed. Not once.
Q: What are you reading?
A: The complete works of Pearl S. Buck.
Q: Who is your favorite muppet?
A: Is this a serious question? Scooter.
Q: What were you doing just before you got this email?
A: Binge watching Lou Grant episodes on my phone.
Q: What do you like most and least about being based in Chicago?
A: I enjoy the harsh winters. After the pretty holiday snowfalls when the real winter says, fuck you, just kidding, time to live in a black sludge-covered hellhole for 3 months. I don’t care for hot dogs as a rule.
Q: Please tell Chicago why attending this concert is a must.
A: Attendance is mandatory. If you’re not there we’re going to call you out personally on stage and call you a pussy.
Q: What does 2016 hold for the band?
A: More new music. New venues. More eyeliner. Continuing to change the game. By the time we’re done they’ll need a new edition of the rule book. And did I mention I’m getting a crown of thorns around the junk?
The Lola Balatro Night of Unrelenting Splendor is Thursday, March 31st at 8:00 p.m. at MCL Chicago Comedy Theater, 3110 N. Sheffield Ave. Tickets are $10 (plus $1 service fee if ordered online.) Tickets here or call (773) 610-5930.
The evening will be hosted by Martin Morrow. Music by FYF Crew, Erin Lane & Will Coleman, and CJ Sullivan with practical comedy from Jessica Cloud.
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