John P. Strohm goes solo
by Jonathan Perry
Even after 12 years, membership in four bands (including a founding stake in
three of them), and a recording résumé any indie rocker would
trade his or her Blake Babies vintage T's for, John P. Strohm says he still had
something to prove when he set out to make Vestavia (Flat Earth).
Because, even though he's fronted bands in the past, he considers the
just-released Vestavia to be his first proper solo album.
"This is the first one that I can say is really all mine," explains the former
Blake Babies/Lemonheads guitarist by phone from his home in Birmingham,
Alabama. "It was the first time I wasn't going to be able to blame anyone else
for how it turned out. I wanted to take a step forward and make the best record
I've ever made because I'd gotten tired of being obscure."
Vestavia, which Strohm named after a numbing strip of malls and
subdivisions in a suburb of Birmingham, pulls together the various styles the
guitarist began exploring during his post-Blake Babies years guiding Antenna
(which he formed with then-girlfriend and ex-Blake Babies drummer Freda Love,
now of Mysteries of Life) and Velo-Deluxe. It also finds Strohm settling
comfortably into the sort of roots pop he began exploring last year with a
bunch of friends who billed themselves as the Hello Strangers on
Caledonia (Flat Earth). Strohm's "Wouldn't Want To Be Me" and "Drive
Thru," for instance, wouldn't sound at all out of place on a Tom Petty or Wilco
album. He hasn't completely jettisoned his fondness for Jesus and Mary
Chain-style fuzzbombs -- "Jesus Let Me In," in particular, is one Vestavia
track that recalls the noise-pop delirium of Velo-Deluxe. Overall, though,
the album comes across as a clear-eyed bid for a wider audience, the result of
a decade's worth of work buffed and spit-polished to a sparkle.
"That was kind of the agenda going into it -- to bring everything together,"
says Strohm, who, prior to writing the material for Vestavia, toured as
guitarist for old friend Evan Dando's band, the Lemonheads. "I wanted to make a
record that was accessible and easier to get your head around than maybe some
of my others. I think the lyrics will be easy for people to pick up on. But at
the same time, I also think that anyone who's halfway into my music will be
able to listen to this album and not think it's a lame compromise."
The warped wit and charm that Strohm brought to the Blake Babies repertoire is
still in evidence on Vestavia. In fact, the creepy guy with the box
under his bed from Strohm's Blake Babies tune "Girl in a Box" could very well
be the same dude whose ass is parked in front of the tube in the new "Drive
Thru": "Someday you say that you'll be gone/And I believe I might be sad/But as
long as they keep the cable on/You know, things won't get too bad." Elsewhere,
bizarre juxtapositions abound. "Eva Braun" is a distastefully funny number that
takes football great-turned-needlepoint-icon Rosey Grier's school-assembly
message of perseverance through faith and applies it to Hitler's mistress. And
"Ballad of Lobster Boy" is a tender homage to a murdered real-life circus
performer ripped straight from the tabloid headlines.
That Strohm played the bulk of the instruments himself on Vestavia is a
new wrinkle. It's the first time he hasn't worked with a band since, well,
since never. "It was really, really hard," he confesses with a laugh. "To get
the right feel for the song you're working on is tough. It's much different
from when you're generating ideas and energy with other people in the room. All
I could do was sit around my apartment and play the songs on guitar and imagine
what kind of production I could give them. There was a lot of mystery
Does he miss those days, tearing through "Out There" and "Cesspool" with
Juliana and Freda at the Rat?
"Oh yeah, totally. But it's not like some pathetic high-school football star
longing for his glory days. That was really a special time and there were some
incredible bands around back then. At first it was intimidating to me. I used
to go to the barbecues that T.T. the Bear's Place had and I'd check out all
these great bands like the Volcano Suns and Christmas. But eventually I felt
like, 'Yeah, we can do this too.' "