Can you imagine Muddy Waters singing the lyric “If your heart went public I’d buy a hundred shares of stock?”
Both guitarist Jeff Schroedl and vocalist Jeff Taylor laugh at that image. Their band, The Altered Five, create hard driving electric blues that pays homage to the music’s colorful past while referencing contemporary life. It’s a balancing act.
Jeff Schroedl: “We try to bring some modern elements into it. There’s a song on the Cry Mercy album called “Urgent Care.” It’s a made-up blues scene about a woman. Hey, man, I need some urgent care to fix the situation, yet urgent care isn’t a term that existed more than a decade or two ago. So, we can only write blues from what we’ve come across and things like that.”
Jeff Taylor says he likes the strong groove on “Your Heart Went Public” from The Altered Five’s latest CD, Charmed and Dangerous. “We thought it was pretty interesting when we started messing around with it. It’s such a strong groove, an amazing tune. I remember when we first pulled the guitar out and started messing around with it. I remember when he (Jeff Shcroedl) came and he handed me the lyrics. I remember that day. So, it’s cool to see the song evolve like that, and to go to shows and there’s hundreds of people (who laugh). I love that song. It’s really, really nice to have that kind of feedback.”
However, “Three Forks,” also on Charmed and Dangerous, has an 80-year-old reference point. It’s named after the club where Robert Johnson was poisoned in 1938: “Watch out, Mr. Johnson/Lord have mercy on your soul/Let me try to grab that bottle in time/Pour that white lightnin’ down that Highway 49.”
“It’s really weird,” explains Schroedl, “I just had this line one day called ‘Take me to Three Forks.’ That one actually is one of the easier songs. It just kind of wrote itself, but then we put it to this beat roughly of (Robert Johnson’s song) “Crossroads” and I said, ‘This is not cool. We can’t do this.’
“That’s when I thought, ‘Maybe it will reach out,’ and it did. We reached out to Concord Music, who own the Johnson publishing, and they were really cool about it. They said, ‘Hey, you know what? Thanks for keeping the legend alive, and it’s pretty different anyway, but we appreciate you acknowledging it,’ and they registered the song. They said, ‘50-50. We’ll give Johnson the music and you the lyric.’ I never really talked to Steven (Johnson, Robert Johnson’s grandson) about it. I know he has it and has heard it, and they’ve sent it to him. So, I don’t know what he thought about it. I don’t know if he likes it. I just don’t know.
“Once we decided to do the song, I was careful as I could be about the facts, and I did some research. For every word I sing I don’t think there are any lines in there that are out of character for what happened.”
“On My List to Quit” is a rant about all the things Jeff Taylor, the singer, is doing wrong from picking fights in a barroom to seeing two women too many. Included is the line “One job’s no good/Some day I’m gonna tell ’em where to go.” I asked Taylor if the Superintendent of Schools had heard that song.
Taylor’s day job is Principal of a school in Wisconsin.
“Aha, ha. Here’s the thing. You know, the school district has been very supportive. They have the music. They have come to see the band once in a while. (The superintendent) made no comment whatsoever. He loves the music. Of course, I always make sure that they have CDs available for them and the school board, and things like that. So, this has been a very transparent thing. They have come to the State Fair to see the band in the past, and so they have been very supportive of the stuff I’m doing on the side, so (he didn’t) have any comment for it.”
If you think Taylor’s day job is a jaw dropper, Jeff Schroedl’s day job is being executive vice president of Hal Leonard Corporation, the world’s largest creator of music publications and music education materials. According to the publisher, “Many of Hal Leonard’s bestsellers and flagship series were created under Schroedl’s guidance, including the revised Hal Leonard Guitar Method, FastTrack and Play Today; the company’s many popular play-along series; its educational piano and Broadway publications; all drum and jazz books; instructional DVDs and more. He spearheaded the idea to publish legal versions of the notorious Real Book fake books, and also struck deals creating imprints for two of the nation’s most famous music school, Berklee Press and Musicians Institute Press.
“Schroedl has played an active role in negotiating the company’s rights acquisitions for the past decade. He will expand in that capacity as well, helping to secure song rights from an array of media companies, music publishers, rights holders, and artist managers, with the company’s overall publishing plan in mind.”
“Schroedl has served on the board of the Music Publishers Association of the United States since 2011, and in 2010 was recognized as one of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s prestigious ‘40 under 40.’”
Schroedl insists that his vice president’s hat at Hal Leonard has no impact on the success of The Altered Five. That said, the band is the only group to have signed with Blind Pig Records since that indie label was sold to Orchard in 2015, and the group’s last two albums were produced by Tom Hambridge who has taken Buddy Guy to new heights as his producer and songwriter on recent CDs including Guy’s career defining Blues Is Alive and Well released a month ago.
“(My day job) helped me be aware of things, but I really try and keep it separate. A lot of people don’t even know what I do,” says Schoedl. “I’ve dealt with (Robert Johnson scholar and guitarist) Scott Ainslie and his books. He has no idea that I even play guitar. He probably doesn’t even remember me anymore, but he worked on the early Robert Johnson books. So, we’ve been doing Robert Johnson books here for years.
“Yeah, I’ve worked on books with everyone from Bob Margolin to Albert Cummings. I flew Albert out here and did a video. I don’t even know if Albert knew I played guitar to be honest with you. Maybe he does. Yeah, I just (learned) the artists in that relationship so I just kind of don’t do that, but Jumpin’ Joe Kubek, I did a video with him. He knew about the band, and he was cool about it. We’ve done a lotta blues, but obviously we do a lot of other music, too.”
The Altered Five IS good enough to stand on its own. Schroedl writes most of the lyrics and Taylor is credited with co-writing the songs sometimes along with the rest of the band. He has a rich baritone voice brimming with bragadocio in the tradition of Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley and can pull off lines about being a wanted man with a double-barreled chest and a ring tattoo who is “Charmed and Dangerous” and wants to be “your bad boy.” Schroedl’s guitar has a B.B. King tone, is a bit busier than Luther Allison, but nicely propels the songs.
“First of all, I’m writing, and Jeff contributes, too,” explains Shcroedl. “Occasionally, they start with him, but I’m writing a lot of these lyrics, and I’m writing for JT to sing ’em. I can’t sing “Blood Hound Dog,” I can’t do that. I can’t sing that. I’m not believable. So, I’m writing for his voice and him and the band and things like that, and I do agonize over it. Sometimes, the idea’s there. People want songs they can understand, songs that can make them smile. You can have great instrumentation, but without the song, it’s going nowhere. So, we put songs way at the top of the list of the most important things we’re doing.”
Jeff Taylor elaborates. “The process is interesting. We have so many different influences, right? So Jeff takes his time, and we have a definite process to what we’re trying to do now as far as writing the songs, and it’s easier and, yeah, over time we’ve developed a way to convey that message a little more quickly, but I’m just thinking about the conversations that he and I have about I gotta find another line for the second verse, and how that can take a while and how meticulous that can be sometimes, and so we started laughing because it’s been painstaking at times, but it’s all well worth it when we can get that message across to the listener a little faster. So, it’s worth putting the time and effort into the lyrics and writing them.”
“People oftentimes say blues is such a simple song,” adds Schroedl. “It is when you boil it down and get it to that point. People often don’t recognize how difficult it is to take a concept and simplify it so that it just works as a blues. Some of the blues are simple not because it was simple to do, but because it’s a different style of writing. Like “Mint Condition” comes to mind, and “Get Out of My Business” from the last record. Those are songs that sound very simple, but they weren’t that simple to get there. It takes a lot of moving things around to try to get it to all work, but when it works, it sounds simple.
Tom Hambridge first produced the band’s 2015 Cryin’ Mercy CD – the debut release for OmniVibe Records – with dramatic results. All of a sudden after 13 years they went to number 3 in the iTunes blues store and number 1 on the Roots Music Report blues album chart. The release earned “Best Self-Released CD” at the 2015 International Blues Challenge.
The group’s work with Tom Hambridge, while admittedly a tad intimidating to Taylor, has been a rewarding experience where the fabled producer stayed in the background and let the band take the lead on their original material.
Jeff Taylor: “It was our first time with a real producer and we were really nervous, and I think the thing I always try and come back to is the way he used what we had, right? He didn’t make a lot of these whole sweeping changes. He respected the work that was done, right? He just came in with a ton of ideas to just make it better, and so on the last two albums that’s what he’s done, and that’s the most gratifying thing about it is he respects what we did and just made it cool, and so that was the biggest takeaway for me.”
“When we were gonna record Cry Mercy, our third album, we knew we had to do something different,” explains Schroedl. “We wanted to take a step up, just always keep growing, and so we decided, ‘Let’s get a real producer this time. “I had mentioned that to Bruce Iglauer, and it was Bruce actually. He said, ‘You guys, Tom might be a good fit for you guys,’ and I said, ‘Well, I don’t know if he’ll work with us. He’s Tom and Buddy’s guy, and all that stuff.’ But Bruce was nice enough to e-mail Tom and say, ‘Hey, meet Jeff and you guys should talk.’ and Tom got back, and we chatted a little bit, and he checked out the band a little bit. He took us on, and we really appreciate him doing that, and it’s been a great relationship now for the last two albums.
“With us, we’re one of the only albums that I can recall seeing from Tom where we’ve written all the material. A lot of times he’s taxed with writing a lot of the songs which is great. With us, who knows if that will happen at some point, but to date he’s kinda let us do our thing. We’ve walked in with the songs all ready to roll and kinda brought out – let me back up a little bit. He’s very quick to hear a song and know just the right thing to say. He doesn’t say things you second guess. He does it and you know what? He’s right, and I’m amazed at how quickly he can grasp a song in its entirety, music and lyrics, and make a suggestion. It’s really something else.
“On “Eighth Wonder” we had a break going into the guitar solo, and Tom said, ‘You know what? Let’s not break there. How about playing through there to keep the momentum going,’ and, sure enough, it was a simple but very nice change.”
Jeff Taylor: ““Look at What You Made Me Do,” is a different kind of thing, and my idea was just kinda show some versatility with the band, sort of a different kind of song, and so he used little things. He used brushes if you wanted quiet. Our music is kind of hard driving, and so we really wanted to kind of fill in modern lyrics, really contemporary lyrics, and so he agreed with that, but he was so full of ideas.
Hambridge also plays drums on all 13 cuts, even though Schroedl’s brother Scott plays drums on their YouTube videos. “Tom was on Cry Mercy record, explains Schroedl. “If we do another record, (our current drummer) Lana Arber will play on it, but Tom just played on it ’cause we were sort of in between. The videos on Charmed and Dangerous are the same music. We’re lip synching it if you will.”
I sarcastically suggest Dick Clark would be very proud of the band.
“Yeah, trust me. We’re on the cheap on our video thing. We don’t get the time to do that when we’re actually recording.”
The Altered Five have been on three different labels for four albums. “We really appreciated Cold Wind Records out of Minneapolis,” says Schroedl. “A lot of good stuff in the late ’80s and early ’90s, from the beginning. So, we started there, and (the label head) passed away actually, and then we connected with another local entity and different distributor on the third album, and that eventually kind of led us to Blind Pig. Blind Pig was acquired by the Orchard, and we had a relationship with The Orchard. It’s just kind of a stepping stone really, but we’re thrilled, and they’re very happy I think and have done a lot.”
Charmed and Dangerous is Blind Pig’s only release since their Orchard acquisition in 2015. A Blind Pig press release at the time characterized the worldwide distribution deal as follows: “the first artist to join the roster of the esteemed blues/roots label since it was acquired by The Orchard, one of the largest independent distributors in the world.”
“We’re very happy to be working with Altered Five Blues Band,” added Chris Lauterbach, Director of Owned Repertoire and Special Products for The Orchard. “The new tracks sound great, and we think their music adds to Blind Pig’s rich 40-year history.”
The music industry magazine Billboard quoted former Blind Pig co-owner Jerry Del Giudice as saying, “The worldwide reach that The Orchard has achieved will benefit our artists and their music immensely, both today and in the years to come.”
Shroedl: “Yeah, yeah. I figured by now there’d be one or two more (Blind Pig releases). I haven’t asked them about it, but yeah, we did the 40th anniversary CD. They released that a few months back, and we had a track on that, but, no, I haven’t seen them release another album.
“When the new Blind Pig signed us, they went to the guys (old owners Ed Chmelewski and Jerry Del Giudice) to kind of get their blessing, and they gave the thumbs up, and I think the guys were a little bit involved in the 40th anniversary collection, but I’m not really sure. We’re talking to different (group) of folks. You know, Blind Pig now, and like I said, they’ve been really good to us, but I don’t know what their plan is really. I know that they want to keep the label alive. So, that’s a good thing, but I don’t know what that really means.”
So, how do two guys who both have demanding days jobs keep a fine-turned band with good original material going for 16 years? They don’t get a lot of sleep. “You gotta keep at it,” says Schroedl. “Jeff and I talk every couple of days. We get together almost every week. You gotta keep working at it. You gotta make progress all the time. So, it’s little steps and before you know it, you look back a couple of months and later and it’s like we wrote another three songs.
“We’re gigging year-round, and Jeff’s great about making himself available. We just did eight shows in nine days in Germany and the Netherlands last month. We flew in. We did a show the same night we arrived. So, that’s the kind of schedule we’re on. So, on no sleep we ended up going to the soundcheck, doing the gig and whatever. We did two more gigs after that before we had a day off. We literally did eight shows in nine days and then flew back.”
Jeff Taylor: “The first time I told Jeff, ‘Listen. School comes first. I gotta plan the summer and I started becoming principal and doing this whole thing.’ So, it’s just scheduling. Jeff’s been amazing at really trying to fit that time in, but it’s scheduling and trying to stay organized. I also love the band, so I gotta do what I gotta do to stay in it. We were working on the album and staying some late hours, and I’ve been tired, but it’s all been worth it. It’s a labor of love, so to speak. You gotta do what you gotta do to stay around. So, it fits the scheduling. You gotta pay attention to that.”
Sleep or no sleep, these guys have no plans to stop what they’re doing. “We’re actually playing and actively writing. We’re always working on new material, and we’re testing a couple of the songs out live already, so we got half a record written,” says Schroedl. “We’re trying to always get a little bit better and stretch out a little bit, but we kinda are who we are and would be remiss if we didn’t bring up the other guys in the band. I think the soul of this band is built from the five of us. Everybody brings something different: Mark Solveson on bass, Ray Tevich on keyboards, and Lana Arber on drums. So, we kinda all do what we do, and it sorta comes out who we are. I think around the third album we kinda figured out what we do and how we do it best. So, we’re just kinda learning on that and seeing what comes up.
“We make sure that everything we do in the studio we can do live and sometimes even cooler live when it’s stripped down. I guess from an equipment standpoint we’re all trying to get the best sound. I don’t know if I’m saying that very well.”
Visit Altered Five’s website at: www.alteredfive.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.