Lizard McGee and his band Earwig are the very definition of DYI and have been making waves both in Columbus and the national music scene for parts of three decades. Earwig will be playing the Big Room Bar Saturday October 15th with The Kyle Sowashes and Bava Choco. This interview originally ran in May 2016.
Details on the new Earwig record and more at www.lizardfamily.com
Questions by Colin Gawel
- Before we dive in, tell everybody about the new record and the best way to get a copy or to hear the music?
This record is a Sci-Fi rock opera and all of the songs relate to a short book that I am writing (a rock and roll memoir) called “My Own Secret Service” which tells the story of Earwig and how the band began in the basement of a Columbus orphanage and ended up fighting demons in an alternate reality... and eventually used the power of a great song to save the multi-verse. It’s a true story, of course. It’s very experimental for us. James joined the band while we were making the record and she sings on many of the songs (she's from the alternate universe). We are a 4-piece now. That spiced things up a bit. It’s a departure from the usual Earwig record. It has a lot of Japanese on it because in the alternate universe (the mirror image of Columbus is called Capital City and it exits in an alternate universe called ‘The Unreal’) everyone speaks Japanese. Yes, it’s a concept record. Go ahead…call it a comeback. Also every song has a guitar solo or guitar break which takes me back to the early days of Earwig. I like playing guitar.
As of this writing, the record is being mastered by Fc Bester who is from South Africa and masters records on his 1992 era PC in his basement. I’ve never heard anything he mastered but I’ve met him and I trust him because I can tell he’s part-crazy. We recorded it with Eric French in his basement and with Paul Abbot in the hallway outside of a dentist’s office in Clintonville. One song, we recorded the day we wrote it (All My Sins Are Blotted Out) on an iPhone at our practice space. I added a bunch of over-dubs in a garage somewhere in Ohio. Then Tom Boyer (GBSRecords.com) and I mixed it. Tom is a genius and a very talented guy, he fixed everything. We are co-releasing the new album with Anyway Records which is something we’ve been wanting to do for a long time but the timing has never been right until now. That means that the album will be available through Revolver distribution, which is good for getting the record to more people. The album will be available through all of the usual digital and streaming channels (iTunes, Spotify etc.) and we have 2 music videos. The release date will likely be mid-Summer. But the BEST place to find it early, order the vinyl, download the album or find out anything about what we’re up to is always www.lizardfamily.com
Before reading further, let's check out the video for "Wasted on You" featuring Lydia Loveless.
- The first single off the new record, "Wasted on You" is an instant classic. Tell me about writing it. Was it in the morning? The night? On guitar or just in your head? Did it happen quickly or evolve over time?
I have a friend named Amy (Amy Turn Sharp). She is a wonderful poet and a great friend...and we had talked about writing a song together for a while. The genesis for this song comes from those conversations. It came very quickly, once I had the basic idea and sat down to write it. Like most Earwig songs, I thought about it for a long time before actually sitting down with an acoustic guitar. I wrote the song in the morning, but only wrote “place-holder” lyrics for the second verse. My thinking was that they were too straight-forward and easy and I would come back and write something different, something deeper. Over time, I got used to the second verse and it stuck. It turns out that they are very deep. Like most Earwig songs, it’s a relationship song. But it’s based on real-life circumstances and it also relates to the story of the two main characters in my novel (My Own Secret Service).
- Did you immediately that this song was special? Have you felt that way about other songs you have written? Were you surprised it got some much love on CD1025?
Because I was writing from a more right-brain, spontaneous level…I was spit-balling and collaborating, just putting most of the lyrics in as place-holders, I didn’t over-think them. They were just the first things I thought about to get the point across. They weren’t poetic. The lyric "I'm only saying this because it's true. I still want to be with you. You mean the world to me and baby I'm sorry.” is far more direct and plainly spoken than I would usually write. But it’s one of my favorites now and not over-thinking it contributed to making this song more direct and relate-able lyrically. “Used Kids” was sort of similar, it came directly from a dream... so I woke up and wrote it down without too much thought. I absolutely love CD1025, you know how that is. We had a great response there with "Used Kids" and I tried to replicate that with our last album (Gibson Under Mountain) but nothing happened. We worked hard to make sure that people heard this song and it just clicked. We had tons of requests. The response from the station and the listeners was huge, the biggest yet for us, which was exciting and cool. A little aside…I gotta admit that I did examine the details behind how “Used Kids” did so well and connected with listeners on the radio. I designed the structure of Wasted On You (before writing the lyrics) with a similar skeleton. It has the same arrangement and chords in the verses and the bridge. That part was very purposeful.
- How did you get the idea to have Lydia Loveless sing on the track? Were you guys friends from before or did you just call out of the blue?
Earwig had played with Lydia’s first band, Carson Drew (with her sisters and her dad on drums) at Bernie’s Bagels. I had always kept her in mind but had not heard any of her solo records until the same month that I was writing "Wasted On You." I don’t remember why, but I had just ordered all of her albums. She was on my stereo daily at the same time I was writing this song and when I envisioned it as a duet, she was my first person I thought of. It was a bit out of the blue. I did not know her well, but I reached out to her and asked her and she said yes. Earwig’s drummer at that time, George Hondroulis, was friends with Todd May (who plays with Lydia) and now George actually plays drums with Lydia Loveless.
- Lydia is very busy these days, did you guys actually record together in the same place or did she add her vocals at a different time?
We recorded them together at the same time. I recorded all of the other vocals and over-dubs from this record at my house, in my garage (Moonville Recorders). When I knew that Lydia was on-board, I wanted to make sure it was special, I wanted us to be together. I also wanted it to be very easy and professional. I called my friend Tom Boyer, a wonderful producer in Columbus. Tom does fantastic vocal sessions, has a great ear and has great gear. Plus he’s in Columbus, where Lydia lives (I live in southern Ohio). We set up the microphones for the vocal session face-to-face and sang the duet directly to each other in real time. We did a couple of takes, but it was very quick and it was important to me that we sing to each other at the same time, not separately. I had heard a story about George Jones and Tammy Wynette recording a duet this way (they were married at the time) and it just seemed like a great way to go.
I really wanted us to be in character and deliver these lyrics to each other. It was the same for the video, which turned out great. I sang my lines directly to her and she sang her lines to me. I really concentrated on her and focused on delivering the lyrics with real emotion behind them. She did the same. Lydia was fantastic to work with on this song and the video too, she’s a real killer. I’m a big fan.
- Can you get us up to speed on the current Earwig line-up and how it compares to previous incarnations of the band?
Earwig started as a trio, which has a sort of magic of it’s own. By the time the first record happened, we were a 4-piece. It didn’t last long and Earwig has been a trio for a long time...until James joined the band officially about a year ago. James is a big Earwig fan (she's my daughter) and we had talked about her singing with Earwig for fun. We did a couple of shows with her singing lead/back-up vocals. We did a show at Skully’s last summer, it was super fun and we just decided that we should do it all the time. At that same time, George was leaving Earwig to join Lydia’s band full-time. They tour year-round and he gets paid, so it made sense. Nick Nocera (he runs Alison Rose t-shirt shop with his wife, Alison) was a friend and a drummer so we asked him to sit in with us for a few shows. Costa (Costa Hondroulis, Earwig’s bassist and George’s brother) and I liked Nick so much, we asked him to join the band full-time and he accepted. He plays in a few other local groups (Winter Makes Sailors, Joel Walter Band). It sounds cliche, but I’m more excited about Earwig right now and more excited about this new album than I have been in a while. We all are having a blast and we really have a great time hanging out.
- Can you remember the first Earwig gig? Where was it and how did it go?
Earwig’s first gig was at Apollo’s. We had just recorded our first EP in my garage on a 1/2” reel-to-reel tape machine. I remember this gig because at the end of the song “When You’re Dying” I sang so loud and hard and long that I actually passed out while I was standing up and fell over into the wall. The band kept playing and everyone thought that I was screwing around and that it was part of the show. This has become a sort of tradition as over the years... there’s usually that moment in the show where I do something spontaneous and dumb… all in the name of Rock and Roll. I have done things like bite down on a cymbal just before the drummer makes a big crash (turns out it was a bad idea, chipped tooth), climbed on top of my amp and dove over the drum kit at the bass player (he wisely moved and I landed with my face in the monitors and broke my guitar) and decided to be a super punk rocker and fist-punch an air duct during the middle of a guitar solo (it was actually made of concrete and I broke my hand).
- Who are a couple of bands you have shared the bill with that really stand out?
I don’t know. We’ve played with a lot of great bands that I really like. We opened for Archers Of Loaf a few times and that was cool. To me, being in a band and playing shows is a lot about hanging out with your friends. Some of the best shows I remember were from the early days of running my record label LFM Records and we had a tight-knit scene of bands. Earwig, Monster Zero, Preston Furman, Bigfoot, Ugly Stick, Parsnip…we would play shows as fundraisers and pool the money to press more records. We would do tours together. Making friends with other bands from out of town is always nice. We had great shows with The Boy Wonder Jinx/Goner from Raleigh, NC. and Ditch Croaker from NJ.
- Tell us about an Earwig show that sucked.
Thinking back about those LFM shows, some really incredible things happened. It was a lot about the idea of making your own fun. One particular show kinda sucked but it was amazing too… we rented a YMCA in West Columbus to host an evening with LFM bands and some of our friends, more punk bands from Cleveland. A big group of outcasts from the area high school came out and they were basically the group that had organized and promoted the show. Unbeknownst to us there was an apparent feud of West Side Story proportions in that area between the Jocks and the Punk Rockers. Halfway through Earwig’s set a group of Jocks showed up to deliver a mass beatdown to these punks. They launched their surprise-attack by throwing a cinder block through the large plate-glass window at the back of the hall. I remember looking out over a mass of kids and seeing that huge window just crash to bits and, like a nightmare, some dickhead football team pours in through the hole and starts tearing into the crowd. It was a bit of bad luck for them though because the Cleveland crew was hanging by the back of the hall and they had brought along a crew good old boy, heavy hitting, lumberjack punks with them who immediately took the situation in hand and basically laid waste to the Jocks. I threw my guitar down and ran back to the action but it was over pretty quickly with most everyone scattering. The police were called, we lost our deposit and were banned from the YMCA. Epic show.
How about a show that was really great?
There was a family in Delaware that had 4 sons, each one in a different year of high school. Every year they, as one son would graduate, would have a big graduation party, rent out the VFW and all of their family and kids from the high school would come. Every year they asked Ugly Stick to play the party. On the fourth year, Ugly Stick couldn’t play and the family asked if Earwig could play. I was excited because this show was a legendary thing to us at that point. It was an honor to be asked. The mom from the family contacted me early and sent me a check for $300, they were paying for all the food, had rented a PA and a sound guy…the works. Their grandpa who was in the war was even going to be there. It was a big deal.
I got nervous the week of the show and for some reason lost my voice the day before the gig. I couldn’t sing loudly at all, it was terrible. But there was no way we could just cancel the show or back out at that point. We arrived the next day and set up to play and I had knots in my stomach as I sang the first song. It was okay, but by the second song I basically couldn’t sing and had lost my voice. I stopped and apologized to everyone and said that I had lost my voice. I felt horrible but the kid that was graduating and his friends and brothers all came right up front, took another microphone and basically sang the whole show with me. His family was really cool and the grandpa even got up and danced. Everyone had a blast. It was a negative that turned into a positive through the gracious, good attitude of Earwig fans...just a really great energy and it turned out to be a fantastic, fun show.
- What are a couple of your favorite rooms to perform?
* I always liked Apollo’s, I played a show with a young band called The Wire there once.*
I liked Stache’s. The Metro in Chicago is cool. We had a lot of fun playing at Bernie’s even though it was so shitty. I love the Newport and we have played there a few times, but always somewhere on the floor. We have never played on the big stage. I’d really like to. I love the Newport.
--Let's take a break and enjoy some music before we continue--
- Switching gears, another really popular Earwig song is "Used Kids" written about the record store now getting ready to move off campus. Where did you get your records growing up? What were some of your first records you loved?
When I was a little kid I joined the record club and sent in a penny and got 10 Elvis records. The record club sent me bills and tried to make me pay more than that penny and I remember that my mom wrote them a letter and told them I was a kid, that it was their fault and to leave me alone. The first 7” records I bought were ‘The Gambler’ by Kenny Rodgers and ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ by Queen. Then I went through a phase when I bought a lot of Duran Duran cassettes. I’ve always been a huge Prince fan since I heard the album Controversy. When Purple Rain came out I would walk to the local record store and buy every Prince single on 7” the day they came out. I still have all of those. They have incredible B-sides and the Purple Rain record is on purple vinyl. I still play those. I probably have more John Denver records than anything else.
- Along those lines, do you still play records today? Where do you live? Describe your house.
I live at a secret location, deep in the woods of southern Ohio. It’s a magical, haunted place and I love it. It is a little blue house and I have done a lot of work on it. When I found my house it was abandoned and empty. Strange things happen in the woods, the previous two owners/tenants actually died there at the house. I have no neighbors and it is beautiful here. It’s a bit like a farm but with only dogs, cats and chickens. I drive 3 hours round-trip to Columbus for band rehearsal. I have a 9-hole golf course that is part on my property and partly in the woods. It’s true.
- You moved to California and toured the West Coast for a time. What took you out there?
In 1999 Earwig’s bass player moved to NYC and I moved to California (the Bay Area). My wife had been offered a job as an office manager at the new internet division of a large newspaper. I found a job at a recording studio called Avalon and I also worked at a haunted house called The Winchester Mystery House. That was very cool.
- Why did you return to Ohio?
We had been living dirt poor in Ohio and decided to move to California and save money to come back to Ohio and buy a house with. That’s what we did. We had just released Perfect Past Tense. I kept the band active the whole time I was in California. I did solo tours from AZ., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oregon and Seattle. The whole West Coast really. I also met a great guy (Raj Kapololu) and he played drums with Earwig. We performed as a duo and played clubs and colleges mostly around the Bay area. He was a great drummer and I split the output of my guitar and played through a guitar amp and a bass amp (Local H style). I talked to a lot of A&R guys during that time as it was right when there were a few labels interested in signing the band. Most of my trips to LA were about that. But nothing ever panned out. We did end up with songs in a few movies and some ads. I also would go busking in SF and Santa Cruz, which was a lot of fun…playing on the sidewalk and meeting crazy people. The plan was always to move back to Ohio. I wrote a lot of songs in California and we made some recordings on the sly at the studio I worked at (I had the keys and we would go there and record through the night). But I was itching to get Earwig back together in Ohio. It took a few years once we moved back but things finally coalesced with a new line-up.
- You have always been hands on both with the music and the business side running your LFM Records. What is your least favorite part of running your own label?
I’m very Do-It-Yourself oriented. So I’ve always loved having my own record label put out our records, booking our own tours and things like that. But it has turned me into a bit of a weirdo, I’m sure. It becomes hard to let go of anything and have other people help. I’m learning, though. The worst part of the label is the self-promotion. When you have to create a compelling argument for people to pay attention to you and then say “Hey! Pay attention to me!” or “I think my record is really good!” it can seem very disingenuous and it’s not a natural thing to do. Plus people want to hear those kinds of things from a third party, not from the artist themselves. It’s a really hard line to play and not feel like you are begging people for attention.
- With all the changes in technology over the years, has that made running LFM easier or more confusing?
Both. I like to keep up on trends and see what is working in the music business now and adopt that method. It’s hard because my initial reaction is usually the very codgerly response to new technology and new methods. I typically feel like the old way was a better way and this is all stupid and not “how things are supposed to be.” But in reality there are a lot of new ways that people want to listen to and consume (buy) new music. For instance it used to be a very gauche move and you were a sell-out if you had your music in a commercial. But that really interests me now and I think that as lame as advertising can be, there are some very cool artistic ads and that is often how fans are exposed to new bands.
- If you pick a single Earwig song off each record for people to listen to, what would they be. You can pick three of the new record.
Dead Slow Hoot (1st EP) - Dinosaur Song (also our first 7”)
Mayfeeder - Sleep Standing Up
Perfect Past Tense - Drag
Center Of The Earth - Japanese Girlfriend
Gibson Under Mountain - Shiny Morning
Pause For The Jets - Wisdom Teeth, Silverheels, Holy Ghost Letter