Earwig mainman Lizard McGee is heading to the UK this month to play a series of shows in support of new solo album Spooky Jets At A Distance.
The British dates will be the first performances outside the US for the Columbus, Ohio, musician, who’s been making and releasing records on his own LFM label since the early ’90s.
Born out of frustration at the time it was taking to mix Earwig’s ambitious 2016 album Pause For the Jets, McGee’s new solo record is a stark, lo-fi re-working of the same songs.
While the full band album is a high-concept, sci-fi juggernaut of effects, squalling guitar solos and bursts of Japanese dialogue – think Bladerunner meets The Flaming Lips‘ Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots – the aptly named Spooky… is a very different beast.
A haunting, crackling howl from the wilderness, it sees McGee accompanied only by a battered old six-string guitar and the chirping of the crickets outside his woodland home.
Stripped bare, the songs acquire new meaning and vulnerability – the message more direct, personal and emotive.
McGee’s guitar switches deftly between chugging power chords and sinuous lead licks, as his voice – pitched somewhere between Neil Young, Tom Petty and Placebo‘s Brian Molko – shines through.
Matt Catchpole caught up with McGee to discuss his dream-inspired songcraft, his reaction to the terror attacks on London and Manchester and the real truth behind those Wikipedia rumours about a collaboration with Jay Z.
So Lizard tell us about your new album – what prompted you to do a solo version of Pause For The Jets?
Pause For The Jets was a very artistically ambitious album for Earwig. It took much longer to mix than expected, because we switched engineers in the middle of the project. Because of these delays, the album came out about a year later than I had hoped. There were a few special people that I really wanted to hear these songs, so I decided to just make a quick and dirty recording to send to a few friends. I stayed up late on a full moon and recorded each song solo with just an acoustic guitar. Listening back the next morning, I thought it sounded pretty neat. I got such a good reaction from the people that heard it that I decided to release it as a solo album. Spooky Jets at a Distance is my intimate, ethereal solo version of the fully produced Earwig album. It’s the same songs in the same order.
The inspiration for the album came after you battled a life-threatening illness. Can you explain what happened to you and how you came to write the songs?
I had a chronic disease for more than 10 years that just kept getting worse. I have an over-active immune system and eventually developed an immunity to all of the medications I was taking, so they all stopped working. Over several months with no treatments, I dwindled away to 118 pounds (just over 8 stone) and spent two months in the hospital and had four major surgeries to save my life. I’ve always had very vivid dreams, but during the time of my illness and trying loads of new hardcore medications, I started having especially vivid dreams in which I was searching for a magical guitar called The Enigma Guitar. Every night the dream would pick up where it left off the night before and develop further as I battled to save the multiverse from nefarious villains and eventually I rescued the Enigma Guitar.
Are you fully fit and raring to go now?
It took about a year to fully recover from the surgeries. But I feel great now! I was just outside tearing down giant oak trees with my bare hands! Seriously, we’re back to normal gigging and rocking out at very high energy levels.
That’s good to hear, so what’s this Enigma Guitar thing again?
The Enigma Guitar is a fantasy artifact from the dream world called “The UnReal”. The very first guitar riff was played on the Enigma Guitar and it has the special power to manipulate soundwaves and matter to create great harmony or great discord in the multiverse. It’s pretty powerful stuff. In the book, Earwig saves the Enigma Guitar from the evil clutches of the Dyslexia Society and then the band is charged with keeping it safe, protecting it and using it to create music that can help save the world. One of the main villains was a mysterious white witch named “Silverheels”. There was a group of bass guitar wielding assassins called the ‘Joy Division Cobras’ and we fought each-other with magical guitars. These dreams are the basis for a novel that I’m writing now about the beginning of Earwig and how we eventually battled to save the multiverse from evil demons. The book is called My Own Secret Service. I am not finished with it yet. “Pause For The Jets” tells the same story but with songs. Each song relates to a character or section of the story.
You say a lot of your songs come from dreams – have you ever tried dream analysis?
I’ve never tried it professionally, but I have looked into it. I’ve read a few books on the subject. I think it’s fair to say that I’m driven by deep-seated desires.
So what are these Wikipedia claims that you worked with underground producer James Z? And that James Z is an alias for Beyonce’s other half Jay Z?
This is a great question! We have an extensive Wikipedia page for an unknown independent band. It was created by a mega-fan and has occasionally been updated with some facts and also some wild fiction. I think that Jay Z story stems from an inside joke! I’ve never met him, but I have been known to rock 99 Problems.
Are you looking forward to your first UK shows?
I’ve never played outside the US before. So this is a monumental trip for me! I’m very excited to actually make it to London and play gigs in the UK.
Are there any British bands you admire?
I’m a huge fan of The Smiths. I’m going to have my picture taken in front of the Salford Lads Club in Manchester for sure…I probably love British bands way more than American bands in general. My family all loves the music of The Maccabees. We have tickets to see them at their farewell gig in Manchester and coming to that show was the impetus for this trip.
How do you feel about the recent attacks on London and Manchester?
It’s the worst feeling in the world. It’s so utterly pointless and misguided. All of the suffering and violence that is perpetrated in the name of politics and religion, money, greed and hatred is maddening. Music is a solace and fortress of solitude, so to have this viciousness directed at something that exists to bring people together is especially cruel and disheartening. After these attacks I’m always on the news, eager to find out everyone is safe. It’s heart-breaking. But I’ve followed the reactions of the people in London and Manchester and I’m always incredibly inspired by the response. When people rise above ignorance and hate with wit, courage and kindness for others it shows how amazing humanity can be sometimes. My heart goes out to London and Manchester, to anyone in the world that suffers from similar ignorant madness. The recent concerts and reactions from the music community have been great. I do take to heart the incredible reactions from these communities. In the end it strengthens my peaceful convictions and my desire to connect with and understand others.
How did you come by the name Lizard and how did Earwig first come into existence?
The name Lizard came to me from a dream when I was a teenager, right about when I started the band. Earwig has been around for a long time, toyed with being signed to a major label but ultimately remained independent. We’ve changed members a few times and the current group is a creative force to be reckoned with. We are having a blast making new music. Constantine (Hondroulis), the bassist, is a musical genius. My daughter James sings in the band now and we’ll be playing together in London.
How would you describe your sound for the uninitiated?
Earwig has been described very aptly as “A reckless underground rock and roll band that deftly straddles the line between great songwriting and high energy performance of bands like Nirvana and The Who.” We have several albums, some are more straight-ahead indie guitar rock, whereas “Pause For The Jets” is more experimental in its sound…we touch on influences from Coldplay to Kate Bush to Bruce Springsteen. It has a lot of guitar solos.
You recorded a cover of Do They Know It’s Christmas early on in your career – what was the thinking behind that?
Ha! That would be my love for all things British coming into play again! I actually have the 7-inch record of Do They Know It’s Christmas and it’s a favourite song of mine. We usually play it around Christmas time. I think it’s a great song.
Who influenced you growing up? What made you want to pick up a guitar?
Seeing Purple Rain was a big influence on me. I have also loved Radiohead, REM and lots of punk and New Wave bands. But Prince has been so central to my inspiration. There are no less than three glaringly obvious (to me!) Prince references on Pause For The Jets. The octave voice and organ intro on our song Silverheels is a direct rip-off (I like call it an “homage”) to the intro to Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy. The Japanese dialogue and drum beat that starts out our song All My Sins Are Blotted Out is a mirror image of the suggestive exchange between Wendy & Lisa before Prince’s Computer Blue.
How did you feel when you heard that Prince had died?
I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news that Prince had passed away. It was in the morning and I was driving in my car. They announced it on the radio. I was shocked and had to pull over. It took some time to recover. It was a very surreal day because then the radio started playing Prince songs all day long. It’s one of those things that when I stop and think about it, it’s hard to imagine that he really has died.
You’ve had your own label, LFM since the band first started – does the Do It Yourself approach give you greater freedom as an artist?
I started out by releasing Earwig’s records on my own indie label LFM Records. That same DIY spirit has influenced every move we’ve made since. I’m punk rock at heart. It certainly does offer a greater level of freedom and creativity. Though it doesn’t work as well to pay the bills as a cash infusion from a major label, but who cares?
What’s the music scene like in Columbus, Ohio?
Columbus has a great, diverse and cooperative music scene. We’re very lucky that Columbus has a great independent commercial radio station called CD102.5FM. They bring in great music from all over (including the Maccabees, Muse and more!), but they also play Earwig in regular rotation along with those big name acts. It’s really helped us gain a good following back home. I moved to southern Ohio though. I live in a remote wooded location with no neighbours. Just me, my family and Bigfoot. And a few chickens and cats.
What are you working on at the moment – do you plan to finish your novel?
We’ve already begun to write the next album. I’d like to finish the book, but it’s easy to get side-tracked. Currently I’ve decided to concentrate on this short UK tour and promoting my solo album. When I get back to the States we will begin shooting a music video for the Earwig song Shine and we’re planning o make it a big Science Fiction extravaganza. That will be released this fall (Autumn).
- Spooky Jets At A Distance is out now on LFM Records as a digital album or as a limited edition CD
- Lizard McGee plays four UK dates in London, Sheffield, Perth and Leeds from June 23-July 1. To find out more visit his website here
- Earwig’s Pause For The Jets is available on Anyway/LFM Records. For more details visit their website