facebook // web // youtube //
"You know the downward spiral is essentially a chain reaction.
One thing begets the next. A man has a weakness, he's flawed. That flaw leads him to guilt. The guilt leads him to shame. The shame he compensates with pride and vanity. And when pride fails, despair takes over and they all lead to his destruction. It will become his fate... Something's gotta stop the flow. "
"If you like some gnarly country Rolling Stones and Dave Edmunds and crazy Iowa hillbilly rants from an overworked and underpaid blue collar psycho then this is your Exile on Main Street."
Flowing like literate punk rock gospel medicine show shouters, Illinois John Fever (IJF) swangs and rolls, gees and haws, steps, stops and hollers words out of a dirty, yellowed, cloth-bound book of handwritten lies scrawled across the back of a 'Stones & Son House of Used Cars receipt, a stack of gold-embossed bar napkins, and a couple faded funeral programs.
Illinois John Fever play pre-war music, but they're not about to say just which war. Like an alt punk rock post-grad-student folk blues hymnal whittled out of Exile on Main Street, a turbo Corvair, and a lot of books, IJF make music for car crashes, for Saturday night knife-fighting -Mumblety-Peg or otherwise- or driving through the woods at night, or drinking in the big booth in the back of the bar by the jukebox, or for a good-timey literary society keg party out by the old round barn with the dextrous Gennell braying and bossing, and drummer Hall so in the pocket his beats sound drunk.
Illinois John Fever is Sean Preciado Gennell on guitar and vocals, and Bobber Hall on drums. Hailing from Iowa City, Iowa, Gennell and Hall make their own small town mid-west country blues, akin in theory to fellow Iowan Greg Brown's soulful storytelling folk blues, if only Brown was once a bookstore busking punk.
Below is an interview we did slowly over the last few months:
#### Interview w/ Illinois John Fever #####
RS:: (Rick Saunders) The first question that comes to mind is why the Hawkeye state, fellas?
SPG:: (Sean Preciado Grinnel) - Singer, songwriter, guitar player for IJF) I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago, and never dreamed of moving here. I came because of the University’s writing program only to find out the undergrad program was kind of a racket for the graduate program, in that they only took kids from Iowa. So I went to graduate school in New York. Once I learned about the rackets out there, I moved back here.
RS:: Based on your lyrics and delivery I was wondering if perhaps you were in Iowa for its renowned writing program. It's amazing how many notable authors have come out of that scene. Your songs seem very character driven, like rural, poetic short stories.
SPG: That’s not how we started out, but that’s where we’ve gotten to, or maybe back to. Before IJF, both my fiction and music festered and frothed with meaning, with very-important-shit, and I needed to break that off to go on living in the real world. When IJF started, we went for delivery over meaning, for spirit over substance, maybe, and with lots of hard to catch hollering. I took my early cues from Royal Trux, most likely. We wanted to sound raw and frantic, like the music played when a truck crashes off the freeway. Music for knife-fighting, or driveway fires. But we’ve grown a lot: The characters are all folks driven to mostly hard ends, and their stories are told so as to carry the weight for the delivery if that makes sense.
RS:: Case in point, your song Champ Jackie.
SPG:: I’d written a short story about a boxer whose life’s glory was having beat Champ Jackie in the ring. The name came out of the air and drew me in, making me interested in his story, the champ who was sure he could beat anybody, and lost. And while I didn’t base the song on anyone in particular, I’ve seen camps like the one he’s living in after prison. This was back when I was driving a cab. And I mean it like it sounds, just a weird pop-up of tents on a dead-end road and populated with drunks and other people with no place to go.
RS:: I hate to even spoil it but tell me about the opening line, which is you shouting a capella, Bring The Ghost Home Now!
SPG:: Oh that -- haha, that's Bobber's only line in our entire catalog. It was something he'd holler while we wrote the song, and it stuck. Like an incantation for calling the dead.
RS:: It's great. It fits the album so well, and makes one cognizant of the fact this ain't no old timey potpourri country blues whatever. You do bring the ghost home...I don't know what it's a ghost of but...
SPG:: I've pressed Bob on this and we both agree he's hollering up the ghost of Champ Jackie. But we also agree that the 'ghost' was always more than that, and that hollering it up is part of our ritual, and that bringing up the ghost is at the heart of our mission.
RS:: Let's talk influences.
The great Dale Beavers compared the album to Exile on Main Street? Are the 'Stones high in the playlist?
BH:: (Bobber Hall) - The Stones are imprinted in our DNA since early childhood, never really listened to them intentionally myself. I think Sean and I were both most influenced by early 80's to mid 90's punk rock, post-punk, and psychedelic. Sean? My formative years influence playlist probably looks like The Ramones, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Joy Division, Bauhaus, Hendrix, Fear, Sex Pistols, Warsaw (more to come, need coffee 😉 )
SPG:: I’ll draw from any well that will quench a thirst, and I visit the Stones a lot. Especially their early 70s material. I like anything dirty and weird and dangerous. Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, for example, which turned me onto Pink Anderson, not coincidentally. DK is also in my list of punk favorites but I love Big Black, Circle Jerks, Naked Raygun, ST. Sometimes I admit I still listen to the Exploited. Growing up in Chicago, I was lucky to hang around WaxTrax and Medusa’s so got sucked in by industrial and techno. Of note, that droning, noisy, psychedelic machine-driven stuff is likely what later drew me to Fred McDowell’s style.
RS:: Do you hear a connection between them, industrial and Fred?
SPG:: I hesitate to draw any direct connect between them. I mean, from intent to instrumentation the genres are far apart. That said, I do think there is a kinetic energy between the two. And I'm sure old purist farts from either sideline will call me a tourist for saying this, but here goes:
Take "Headhunter" by Front 242, which uses mixed time signatures. The knifing bass line sticks to 4/4 and contrasts with an atmospheric twinkle dotting out a longer rhythm on top. At the chorus a deeper bass line drops in at 8/4 with lyrics also delivered in different time signatures. The mood is intense, the song is about a guy who captures other people and sells them, but the beat doesn't want to kill you. And it compliments yet refuses to match the bass riff, none of that dmp-dmp-dmp-dmp. (Is that how you spell "EDM?")
Now take Fred McDowell's "Shake 'em on Down." Specifically the '64 version played with Johnny Woods, and recorded by Chris Strachwitz. Our pal Dusty Busch claims the greatest songs played never get recorded, but here's one that got caught. The fucker just hops like a spring-loaded machine. Fred nails the 1-2 bass line while working that slide, his shukka-shukka, and he's muting a bunch of notes that get expressed more like elements of rhythm.
Meanwhile, Johnny's harmonica tone beautifully meshes with the jangle of the guitar. The rhythm pushes and drags, kind of shoving around but at a clip. They just sling it back and forth like they're on a wire all day, and never mind for how many measures.
What appeals to me about both songs is that they use complimentary and contrasting rhythms from which the song emerges as something alive, like a confluence of rivers. So while I don't categorically think the genres of Hill Country blues and Industrial dance have much to do with each other, I do find them appealing for similar reasons. And producing that same confluence of rhythm and tone is something I think we've been chasing for as long as I can remember.
RS:: How'd you guys get started playing, both together, and personally? Was there something or someone that locked it into place for you?
SPG:: I picked up guitar 25 years ago, same year I moved to Iowa. I thought it was a good way to woo the ladies. So for a while I pushed out a lot of emo-driven, cafe-styled acoustic songster stuff, but soon as I put a band together we were rocking “Careful with that Axe, Eugene.” This scared the shit of my small circle of fans, and ultimately became the direction I’ve headed.
Ten years later, I met Bobber while driving cab. We’ve always been on the same spiritual wavelength, despite our differences in personality. There’s more to the story though suffice to say all good marriages start in friendship, not fucking as it were. I knew he played drums but we wouldn’t jam until 2006. And I wouldn’t learn until six months later that he was the first (and last) drummer for the Iowa Beef Experience. On a personal note, I was listening to IBE at 15 years old, and I abruptly realized I’d been playing with one of my heroes.
SPG: It’s about 50/50: I’ll write some songs head-to-toe. Other tunes are a mix, where I‘ll work up a riff and some changes, and then we arrange together, which I prefer. I steer away from the James Brown school and just let anybody play whatever they want to play, so long as it sounds right for the song.
RS:: Tell me about the band name. Is it a riff on WKRP's Johnny Fever...or...?
SPG: Our name was inspired by Fred McDowell telling how he was born in Tennessee but everybody calls him ‘Mississippi.’ I’m from Chicago, so there’s some of it. But it’s the dissonance that clicks for me. Kind of like how we’re white punks playing traditionally pre-electric black music. And music that traditionally marketed the skill of its artist on the basis of his wellsprings. Plus, you ever heard of Iowa John Fever? Me neither.
RS:: I'm coming over to your house tomorrow. You've got a five-disc cd player. What music will we listen to? Also, I'd like to borrow 3-4 books. What do you recommend?
SPG: Georgia Blues Today; John Jackson’s “Blues and Country Dance Tunes from Virginia”; T-Model’s “Pee-Wee Get My Gun;" this Joseph Spence mix tape I put together; Pussy Galore’s full cover of “Exile on Main Street.” And since that last record is fairly unlistenable, we can opt for any related Royal Trux records. (For books) “Manhattan Transfer,” John Dos Passos; “Play It As It Lays,” Joan Didion; “The Freelance Pallbearers,” Ishmael Reed; “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” Chester Himes; “Candide,” Voltaire.
RS:: What is The Museum of Jurassic Technology?
SPG:: MJT is an art installation out in Century City, CA. Among it’s interesting exhibits is a miniature mobile home gallery and an entire wing dedicated to Athanasius Kircher, which includes a bell wheel that produces the most incredible natural sound I’ve ever heard.
RS:: How's the music scene in Iowa? Anybody good we should know about?
SPG:: Iowa City has always had a burgeoning music scene. Check out Closet Witch, Acoustic Guillotine, Middle Western.
RS:: Y'all play The Deep Blues Festival, America's premier fest for punk-infected and alt-blues in Clarksdale, Mississippi this weekend.
SPG:: We play Friday, October 12th at 11am at Cathead and Saturday, October 13th at 2pm at the Rock and Blues Museum.