Luke and Max Savage spent the last four years moving onward from doing time as back-up guitarist and tom-drummer (respectively) in Zola Jesus to carving deep into their own sonic territories as psych-rocker Dead Luke and lo-fi folkie Max Elliott. (Each have full-length solo albums coming out by year’s end.) Now the two longtime bandmates have joined forces with keyboardist Chad Lueck and drummer Ben Nelson to form The Lonesome Savages, a mighty punch-up of fiery, pre-Beatles rock ’n’ roll, where the spastic energy of early Jerry Lee Lewis collides with the filthy rockabilly lining of The Cramps, spitefully wrapped in a snakeskin jacket of wild reverb. Over the past few months, the Savages have been tough to ignore on the Isthmus, frequently playing out their catalog of obscure covers (Kip Tyler’s “She’s My Witch”), not-so-obscure covers (Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally”), and a growing collection of originals that work seamlessly with them. In advance of the band’s Sept. 24 stop at Mickey’s, The A.V. Club caught up with Luke and Max to discuss their love for Little Richard’s “devil music,” the band’s upcoming seven-inch for Kind Turkey, and why it’s sometimes easier to start a band with people that can’t play at all.
The A.V. Club: It seems like The Lonesome Savages project is slowly overtaking both the Max Elliott and Dead Luke material in priority. What would you say the biggest difference is in working on this project versus the others?
Max Savage: We’ve been putting a lot of time in. They are tighter songs, so we have to know when we’re stopping and makes the ’lax thing with Dead Luke kind of difficult. We have to put a lot more work into this and be more productive.
AVC: Looking at your Bandcamp page, it seems like the Savages have assembled quite a catalog of covers, ranging from Johnny Burnette’s take on “Train Kept A Rollin’” to Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” which are stylistically inseparable from your nasty ’50s rocker and lone original on the website, “All Outta Love.” What is the ratio of covers to originals these days?
MS: We’ve started making more originals, so it’s probably half and half. We did the covers until we were pretty inundated on that kind of style, and then you start the originals and it just comes out.
AVC: You also take on Little Richard’s “Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave.” What drew you guys to Little Richard?
MS: He’s the most intense out of all those guys. He’s earlier, and he rips in his vocals. I was reading that Little Richard once tried to write a song that was so fast so that this one guy that had covered “Tutti Frutti” couldn’t cover it. But yeah, he’s insane, and his vocals are unbelievable.
Luke Savage: I think Little Richard struggled with playing rock ’n’ roll. He quit a bunch of times.
MS: Well he was getting big and then shifted over to just gospel. He was religious. A lot of those guys—Johnny Cash, Elvis—were doing this gospel music, but then did rock ’n’ roll, which was considered devil music, which it is. It’s definitely devil music. So then Little Richard stopped.
LS: The devil has more fun.
AVC: Which cover do you find yourselves the most stoked about?
LS: “Night Train.”
MS: “Night Train” is fun; we put a lot of our own stamp on it.
LS: Yeah, it’s the song the high school band plays in Back To The Future. It’s great, but we do it faster.
AVC: Who did “Night Train” first?
MS: I don’t know. Some of that old rock stuff is hard to peg down, and folk songs, too. Usually the first guy that played it didn’t actually write it, and then other people are covering it and so on. Unless it’s Little Richard, he wrote all his own songs.
LS: Paul Revere And The Raiders had a version of it on Steppin’ Out.
AVC: Any immediate plans to switch it out with Guns N’ Roses’ “Night Train?”
MS: We probably will. We were planning on doing that, actually. Thanks for breaking the surprise, though! [Laughs.]
AVC: With all the reverb and walking guitar parts, do you consider yourselves to be a “rockabilly” band?
MS: It’s kind of more just influenced by rockabilly. That stuff is pretty bass-heavy, and we don’t have a bass player. Also, rockabilly is kind of half country and half rock. We are mixing up rockabilly and surf so that it can kind of translate to a lot of people. If we were doing straight-up country songs, some people would be kind of alienated by that.
LS: Like people who aren’t white; you lose them as soon as you move into country territory. [Laughs.]
MS: But The Cramps are definitely a big influence, and just doing that kind of surf, rock, and Chuck Berry kind of stuff.
AVC: The recorded material on the website has a real warm, analog quality to it. What’s the recording process like?
LS: All the stuff on our Bandcamp page was recorded on a four-track. We just do everything live. No overdubs or anything like that. Bobby [Hussy] has been the one recording us lately, and he just sets up mics all around.
MS: Early on, we did the vocals separately because we didn’t have enough mics. But now we can do it all at once. We have room mics, the drums are mic’d, and he just makes it sound incredible. He’s a magician. We actually have a seven-inch coming out on Hussy’s label Kind Turkey in November.
LS: We actually have like a full album’s worth recorded, but the seven-inch includes our tune “All Outta Love,” Kip Tyler’s “She’s My Witch,” Slim Harpo’s “I Got Love If You Want It,” and Johnny Burnette’s “Train Kept A Rollin’.”
AVC: In both Dead Luke and The Lonesome Savages, the drummer only plays one or two drums. What’s the motivation behind keeping it so stripped down?
LS: When you’re playing music, the hardest thing to come by is the right drummer. Somebody that knows how to play a full kit, is decent, and also tasteful—not just there to wank off. But I figure if you just take the floor tom and snare and then take someone like our drummer Ben [Nelson] who never knew how to play drums before this band, we could just kind of teach him how to do that. You can kind of turn anybody into a drummer that way.
MS: That’s how I started in Zola Jesus, Dead Luke, and Absinthe Minds; doing syncopated drum. It also came from the fact that we only had access to a floor tom. But now one of our friends lent us a snare, so we have a snare. But now the snare has become a more integral part of the sound. It’s a real primitive sound.
AVC: So it stems from more of a punk rock ideology?
MS: Well, our keyboardist Chad [Lueck] is another example. He basically does bass lines and lays down the straightened melody when Luke goes into solos or lead parts. He had never played piano in a band before this. We told him right away, “Just play like Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard,” and he was like, “Wow, thanks a lot, guys!” [Laughs.]
LS: Yeah, he hadn’t really played piano before.
MS: He has come leaps and bounds. A big part of being in a band is taking people who don’t how to play instruments and putting them right in. [Laughs.]
LS: I think that’s easier than trying to find experienced musicians. It’s easier to find friends who like the same music and teach them how to play.