by CHRIS WEBB
If Taildragger didn’t exist, the rock-n-roll gods would have to invent them for our own good. Their dynamic and driving brand of rock is supercharged and commanding. Recently nominated with five other bands as “Best National Act” in the L. A. Music Awards and recently featured in Hard Rocks Magazine, Taildragger, the self-proclaimed “Full-Service Rock-N-Roll Band,” continues to play it loud and love every minute of it.
The boys in the band, Jon McGee (lead gee-tar, lead vocals), Mark Hendricks (bass, vocals), and Rob Hulsman (drums, vocals), whose personalities are as distinct and energetic as their music, have come a long way together. From their college days when the three of them would jam as the Cosmic Corndogs to their brief brushes with international fortune and glory (McGee and Hendricks with Black Cat Bone, Hulsman with Nine Pound Hammer), through the breakup of those bands, these guys have always been in contact.
“When we found ourselves suddenly bandless,” McGee says, “it was only natural that the three of us get together and form Taildragger.”
The resulting trio is amazingly versatile and has an incredibly full sound. In 1997, after a couple of cassette releases and after working diligently for several years, that sound came to life on their first disc, Anywhere Nowhere.
McGee describes the release of Anywhere Nowhere as “a real turning point for the band. It took a long time to get that record out, but when we finally did, the band felt recharged and refocused.” Hulsman adds that the disc “has been really good to us. The reason that there are so many tracks on that disc is we weren’t sure if we’d ever be able to do it again. So we wanted to make it the best it could be.”
The band also contributed a popular track to last year’s ACE Holiday Party, a disc that helped raise money for The Child Care Fund and The Autism Society of the Bluegrass.
After receiving very positive response from those releases and after performing extensively for the past couple of years, the band is preparing for the release of a new live disc in July and a video soon after.
McGee admits, “I’ve been promising that we’d put one out for quite a while now, but it just never happened.”
The material on the live disc was actually recorded in February of 1998 during a big blizzard. The band was scheduled to play that night with Greg Martin of the Kentucky Headhunters, so they’d arranged to have the show taped. Due to the inclement weather, the show almost didn’t happen. The opening band couldn’t make it, but somehow Taildragger did and played two sets, the first without Greg and the second with. They sat on that recording for quite a while and had basically canned the idea.
But, as McGee explains, “in recent months, I decided to take a stab at mixing it and after dusting it off for a second listen, we decided it sounded pretty good. Other than the fact that Greg plays on about half of it, it’s a good representation of our live show. “Obviously, there’s more improv. Every night we play is a little different. We also do four or five cover tunes that aren’t on the studio disc and we also have extended a few songs into long jams. We only hope that everybody will have as much fun listening to it as we did recording it.”
Hulsman adds, “It’s cool to let people hear that other side of us. The best bands have always understood the difference between the studio and the stage. And I’d like to think that we understand that as well. There are times when we’re really walking a tightrope- really putting ourselves on the line up there. I don’t think you see that so much anymore.” (Though you’d still have to show up in person to see him trash the drumkit.)
“The live disc offers listeners something different from the studio stuff, so they can get a feel for what a show is really like,” Mark comments. “The weird thing about [our] songs is that they tend to evolve long after we started playing them. Our live show has a feel that draws largely from an improvisational basis, so the songs naturally evolve into something really tight. Each song has structure, but there are parts where we can each get a little crazy and I hope the audience can connect on those parts. I hope that that energy comes across because when the band is into it and the audience is into it, there’s nothing like it. Those are the moments I’d like to try to achieve more often.”
Yet another medium where Taildragger will soon leave a scar is the video market, with the release of “The Taildragger Home Grown Movies.” Incorporating candid band moments, live footage, TV footage, studio footage, on-the-road clips, and home movies, they hope to create something unique for the fans, but also something that can be enjoyed by newcomers as well. The video may also include a montage containing snippets of the various and numerous occasions on which Hulsman has trashed his drum kit over the years. But the fun doesn’t stop there.
During the studio sessions for Anywhere Nowhere, Hulsman and Hendricks grew bored and decided to make a fifteen second clip that included Hendricks in a robe bearing a striking resemblance to Jesus -while Hulsman, who’d recently shaven his head, was naked, covering his privates and speaking gibberish through a device that altered his voice. This frightening moment has been dubbed “Jesus and the Space Alien.”
Another humorous video occasion was when McGee heard a radio advertisement inviting people to come to Lexington Mall to make their own music video. He went down to check out the set-up, which boasted a big green screen where people can pick a song from a catalog, put on costumes, pick the background scenery, and lip sync along with the music. Unable to resist, they naturally took advantage of the situation.
“We dragged some equipment over to Lexington Mall,” Jon says, holding back his laughter, “and begged them to let us use one of our own songs. They let us do it and I remember one where we had a magic carpet behind us. It was great. That’s probably the goofiest you’ll ever see us. We were having the time of our lives while a slew of soccer moms waited in line with their kids for a chance to get their little angel up there to sing ‘U Can’t Touch This’ or the ‘Theme from Annie.’ We blew about two hundred dollars that day. And it was like seventy dollars a pop. We just couldn’t get enough of it. In those days, our gig money was pretty skimpy. So we at least blew the money from three or four gigs. But it was definitely memorable.”
Will the video include footage of the band playing in drag? Who knows. Perhaps. But one moment that won’t make the video is what the band refers to as “The Taildragger Sex Show.” This particular event took place at Lynagh’s last year when the band decided to use some screens that Mark had built for the stage. Ideally, these screens were to be backlit as go-go dancers shook their stuff from behind, leaving the audience to watch their swanky silhouettes dance on the screen. On said night, there was some sort of miscommunication and the dancers didn’t show. “So we decided to leave the screens up,” Jon remarks, “and put colored lights behind them and invite people from the audience to come up and enjoy them. We’re not afraid of a little audience participation at a friendly and fun show. Taildragger always delivers for your entertainment dollar.”
“People ranging from large tattooed men to young scantily clad college girls took turns dancing. As the night progressed, we continued to rock and people continued to drink. And in classic fashion, the drunks got braver and braver. During the solo section of the song ‘Mexico’, we’re jammin’ out, working up a good drool and we start hearing these sighs and ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahhs’ from the crowd. I open my eyes and notice that the audience isn’t looking at us. They are fixated on the screen behind Mark. We look over and there’s a couple who had stripped down to nothing. The girl had already performed oral sex on him, which we missed. By the time we turned around, to our surprise and everyone’s, they were doing the nasty and having a good time. Finally a bartender came up and hosed them down and that was that. But the show went on. As always, Taildragger delivers.”
It sounds like these guys really are a “Full Service Rock-N-Roll Band.” But it hasn’t all been fun and games. It took a while for the band to feel confident about what they are doing. Rob points out that “It sounds cliché, but we’ve really grown musically. If you’re going to play rock-n-roll in a semi-improvisational manner like we do, it takes a while for a band to get to know each other musically speaking.” McGee adds that, “It takes a while to anticipate what the guy across the stage is going to do. It’s one of those things that can only happen when a band stays together for a while. We’re at a point now and for probably the last year where we feel confident about the band and the disc and that we can pursue the next level. We could easily play one gig a month in a local bar from now on. But maybe something will turn out. Either way, we’re happy to play.”
“The years can really make a difference,” Hulsman replies. “We went through a short phase where we thought we had to adapt ourselves to whatever club we were in or whatever audience was listening to us. Now, we can go to a club and sound like us and not feel like we have to cater to anybody.”
“We’ve always tried to explore ourselves musically,” says Hendricks. We’ve tried not to pigeonhole ourselves into certain genres. Instead, we want to focus more on what we want to sound like. The more you play in a band with the same guys, the more you get comfortable with them as musicians and friends. We’ve all been in bad situations in previous bands and dealt with certain conflicts. But we’ve reached a point where we can speak our mind and be creative on all levels, collaborating freely with each other. And that helps you gain some confidence. I’ve never felt better about a band I’ve been in. I couldn’t be happier playing with anyone else.”
Keeping a band together for six years sounds difficult. But when you love to play, it’s a little easier. “I know to some degree I’ll be playing some form of music for the rest of my life,” McGee states. “I might be pickin’ my nose and pickin’ my ass and pickin’ bluegrass under the old shadetree when I’m 70, but I’ll still be playing. Hopefully I’ll be able to play rock-n-roll as long as I can possibly stand it…or as long as the audience’s ears can possibly stand it.”
“We’ve been successful doing things on our own and on our own time,” McGee continues. “Our six years together have been great and we really appreciate all the support we get from our friends and fans. That’s always been the way we’ve measured success.” McGee admits that that sounds corny, but only because it’s a nice thing to say. Hulsman brings up “nights where we’re worrying about bills and personal stuff and we had to set up in some dump and ten people show up and those ten people get into it. That makes us the happiest guys in the world. When we started out, we were lucky to have anyone watching us. We’re happy to still be up there playing for people.”
Jon builds on that by pointing out that “it’s not about how many people show up. Five people can show up and we’ll still have a great time. Granted, you don’t want every gig to be like that, but it happens. We just love to play.”
Interpersonal communication can also make or break a band and the members of Taildragger know all about that from experiences in previous bands. Thankfully, those days are long gone and they can focus on the music. Hulsman’s appreciation for the current situation is obvious. He says, “There’s no other people I’d rather play with, without a doubt. I love these guys,” he says sniffling. (Pretty sappy stuff for a guy who once flipped off Sebastian Bach of Skid Row and almost got the stuffing beat out of him). “Me too,” adds McGee in his most fragile and emotional tone. “I love these guys.” Also caught up in the sentimental onslaught, Hendricks manages to choke out a few words. “I feel really blessed to be in a band with guys I like, with guys who are the caliber musicians they are.”
After overcoming the obstacles of their previous bands and after paving their own way with a new one, Taildragger has yet another small roadblock to overcome. Problems have arisen regarding their name. It seems that some group in Sweden has a name that is very similar as does an older blues musician.
McGee explains, “It seems that there’s this old blues man whose nickname is ‘The Taildragger’. He spent some time with Howlin’ Wolf and even sounds a lot like Howlin’ Wolf. But he killed somebody and spent most of his life in prison and never released anything. Well now he’s out and his debut release is out. Looks like we’ll have to be careful with the name. That could be trouble. We’ll just have to wait and see.” He pauses, then mutters, “I’ve been known to kick some ass. If I have to, I will. I don’t care that he is 70-80 years old, he won’t mess with me. Old men and Swedes, they don’t scare me.”
Looking ahead, Taildragger is already planning and recording for their next studio effort. This as yet untitled disc will once again feature production work by David Barrick of Barrick Recording in Glasgow, KY. Barrick has been a key figure in helping the band achieve that “Taildragger” sound. Seven songs into the new disc, they hope to have it mixed and mastered by winter 2000.
In the meantime, the band can be found playing around town and promoting their upcoming releases. Currently, McGee continues his search for old gospel quartet albums. No yard sale is safe. Meanwhile, Hulsman continues to collect wrestling dolls. He insists on calling them action figures. And Hendricks is doing a public service in helping with some construction on the old High on Rose bar. Once again, Taildragger delivers, stopping at nothing to please their fans.
Ricky Nelson once sang, “If you can’t rock me I’ll find somebody who can.” And now we have.
Taildragger plays July 10 at Lynagh’s opening for Bare Jr (son of Bobby Bare). July 22 in Louisville at Rudyard Kipling’s opening for Big Jim Slade. Look for the new CD and Viceo in stores July 26th or get info via http://www.TaildraggerRocks.com.
Paradigm Shift Records
On their second CD release, Taildragger offers up a live set that lives up to even the purest rock-n-roll expectations. Every listener will instinctively be stomping and playing air guitar within seconds. Jon McGee is at his guitar slingin’ best, playing each note with exhilaration and crushing power, baffling everyone with his dexterity and his raw, growling voice. The rhythm section doesn’t let up either. They may even manage to make ya swang just a little.
As always, Taildragger likes to keep things unpredictable. This particular live set consists of many tunes from their Anywhere Nowhere disc, including the lazy swagger of “Persuade You,” the lascivious “You Can’t Help Me,” and the unrelenting “Dog Gone Your Hide.” Other highlights include a seven minute extended version of “Mexico” that’s a real screamer and “Sweaty Betty,” a song previously released only on a Taildragger cassette. Though these songs aren’t new, they further demonstrate Taildragger’s definitive command of the rock/blues idiom.
Several choice covers are also included. Their interpretation of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil” cries out with a fiery vengeance while their version the Stones’ “Silver Train” is nothing short of impeccable. A rollicking rendition of Ike Turner’s “Takin’ Back My Name” is also included, as is a send-up of ZZ Top’s “Bar B Q” that provides plenty to savor. A special hidden track closes the album in Taildragger style.
The members of the band manage to breathe life into a genre that in recent times has felt more or less moribund. The joy here is not any particular part or solo or any one song, though some are knockouts, but rather the band itself and how well they play together. -Chris Webb
On the Web
Another way for fans and friends to connect with them is through Taildragger’s website, http://www.taildraggerrocks.com. (notice the double r is not a typo). Hendricks comments that the “website is continually getting better and all the credit there goes to Jon. Until now, he’s done everything on it. Rob and I are planning on being more involved with it, though. A website, for a band in general, is a great avenue for promotion and advertising and reaching the fans. It’s a great tool. Hopefully, people will get the same vibe off the website that they get from our music.”
Having recently obtained their own domain name and with fifty megabytes to fill, Taildragger has big plans for the website.
“We’re currently redesigning the web page entirely,” says McGee. “It’s going to feature MP3 and Real Audio files of old live recordings and demos as well as some Quick Time Movie clips, not to mention pictures, contact, bios, gig listings, merchandise, and more. Boosting our presence on the web is ultimately a good thing. We’ve benefited from it already, connecting with people like underdogma.com who now distribute our CD as well as connecting with people all over the world. So it can definitely help a band.” -CW