Local H On Music-Biz Bullshit, Toxic Nostalgia, And 20 Years Of Pack Up The Cats
Tracking Down is a Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
In Alternative Nation’s boom economy, bands like Local H were the equivalent of $1 scratch-and-wins for major labels. The point wasn’t to find the next Nirvana or even the next Bush, but to scoop up dozens of loud, hooky, depressive and not overly photogenic groups who could finesse a Buzz Bin hit or two without too much of an investment. Local H were something of a novelty at the outset, a rare biracial rock act and an even rarer duo — Joe Daniels on drums and Scott Lucas playing a modded-out guitar with bass pickups, probably because a place like Zion, Illinois is more known for enshrining the Flat Earth doctrine in its religious code than its arts scene. Still, they passed for grunge and that was good enough. “That was a time when everyone in Chicago was on a major label,” Lucas recalls during our phone conversation. “But we didn’t have a big advance, so we were a band that could work under the radar.”
Their 1995 debut Ham Fisted appeared on nobody’s radar. Lucas describes it as “noisy and not very friendly” and also state of the art. “It was this [kind of] record that a lot of people were making on major labels that didn’t have a chance.” A less invested listener might hear it as the work of a band trying to get their A&R fired. When As Good As Dead followed a year later, their team at Island Records informed Lucas that moving 100,000 units would probably get them to LP3. I don’t know what would be harder for newer rock bands to wrap their head around — a major label showing such leniency to a commercially unproven band or that “selling 100,000 albums” was once a very lenient expectation for a commercially unproven rock band.
Thanks to the persistent hook of “Bound For The Floor” — you might know it as “The Copacetic Song” — As Good As Dead far exceeded those projections, eventually going gold and earning Lucas the artistic freedom and label support to make the album of his wildest dreams. Released in September of 1998, Pack Up The Cats was a conceptual gambit loosely structured around the rise and fall of a delusional rock ‘n’ roll sellout and his dimwitted handlers, recorded in a mountainside compound with the dude who produced “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “No one was asking us to rewrite ‘Bound For The Floor,'” Lucas proudly notes, and save for the part where a $10 billion merger tanked his magnum opus, he had a pretty good experience as a major label artist.
Not that Pack Up The Cats was preordained for platinum status. Lucas had already noticed that Local H were starting to play festivals with “bands wearing shorts,” which could equally refer to the rap-rock, nu-metal, pop-punk, or post-Sublime acts that would eventually dominate the next few years. Nonetheless, Local H were starting to shed their reputation as grunge also-rans by the time Polygram (the parent company of Island) and Universal joined forces about three months after the release of Pack Up The Cats. Critics who dismissed Local H as “Nirvannabes” on As Good As Dead warmed to its wittier and more melodic successor, seeing kindred spirits in guys who could mock and subvert classic rock clichés while still thinking those clichés are awesome (if anyone doubts Lucas’ sense of humor, he played a Halloween set as Nirvana in 2016). Credit for the latter goes to Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, who the band picked to replace Steven Haigler, who would go on to produce Disc-Go-Round mainstays like Fuel’s Sunburn and Oleander’s February Son. Moreover, “All The Kids Are Right” was making inroads on alt-rock radio and its thoroughly silly video was added to MTV. Lucas disagrees with my assessment of the clip — “I woke up this morning and masturbated to it. Every day I do that.”
Despite the cynicism and snark that pervades every second of Pack Up The Cats, Lucas was gassed up enough about its initial success to momentarily believe a business arrangement that caused the loss of 3,000 jobs would work in his favor. “You’ll have more people working for you, more access! Any time anyone tells you that, they’re full of shit,” Lucas says. “What’s really gonna happen is that you’re gonna get lost and politics are gonna happen — ‘well, I didn’t sign that band, I want people to concentrate on my band.'” In layman’s terms, here’s the lede from The New York Times’ original reportage on the merger: “Right now is not a good time to be in a rock band.”
Once the promotional cycle for “All The Kids Are Right” started to slow down, Lucas realized just how much the band’s momentum was reliant upon label machinery. No one could seem to agree on a second single and no one really seemed to make it a priority to begin with. They eventually went with “All Right (Oh Yeah),” a song that makes way more sense as the introductory track on a concept record than a standalone single. I never heard it once on the radio, and Local H’s self-fulfilling prophecy was confirmed an album too late — Pack Up The Cats was As Good As Dead.
But what better way to galvanize the credibility of Lucas’ record industry tragicomedy than for him to actually live it? Consider its key lyrics — “all the cred won’t save you from the kids,” “everything you want is suspect/ attracted to the cool magnet,” “make it like a godsend/ feeling like a has-been” and Lucas’ personal favorite: “pay what you want to pay for me/ I’m in love with rock ‘n’ roll/ but that’ll change eventually.” Regardless of its grand ambitions, Pack Up The Cats was destined to become a cult favorite amongst like-minded listeners who love classic rock but feel alienated by the regressive culture and politics that often come with it.
Local H continued to put out consistently pretty darn good albums that allowed Lucas to settle into his preferred role: the Midwestern cynic who could skewer a menagerie of dumbasses before falling on that same sword. Even Pack Up The Cats couldn’t convince Lucas to give up on music industry funny money. 2008’s 12 Angry Months was released on Shout! Factory, an imprint better known for its comedy titles, such as the back catalog of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Meanwhile, the follow-up to Pack Up The Cats came out on Palm Pictures — I can’t seem to find too many albums released on this multimedia conglomerate, but it did put out the essential Director’s Series DVDs and was created by Chris Blackwell, the founder of…Island Records.
Though Lucas planned 2002’s Here Comes The Zoo as a back-to-basics course correction, it’s a remarkably strong continuation of Pack Up The Cats that still included a 25-minute closing medley alongside the self-explanatory “Rock ‘N’ Roll Professionals” and “Keep Your Girlfriend,” a caustic mockup of sociopathic pickup artists that Lucas retired once it became clear that some people didn’t get the joke. A tribute to the lead actress in Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, 2004’s Whatever Happened To P.J. Soles? focused on two of Lucas’ favorite subjects: the futility of nostalgia and the shittiness of the music industry (the chorus of “California Songs” — “please no more California songs/ and fuck New York too”). I’ll quote the Allmusic Guide capsule review of Local H’s 70-minute State Of The Union address Hallelujah! I’m A Bum: “Education is a bad joke, the economy is in tatters, politicians prefer to generate facile sound bites (a number of which are included here) than confront the country’s problems, the divide between the haves and the have-nots grows wider every day, and there’s not much an average Joe can do but stand back and watch it all run down as the tension and chaos invade nearly aspect of his life.” This album was written in anticipation of the 2012 election.
These are the songs that comprise the first half of the shows Local H are currently playing in honor of Pack Up The Cats’ 20th anniversary. “It’s only been 10 dates and it feels like we’ve been gone for three months. Like, fuck, we just started.” Lucas jokes. This is largely due to each show running upwards of three hours, split between a career retrospective filled with requests and rarities and a painstakingly rehearsed end-to-end performance of Pack Up The Cats. In explaining the difference between the two halves, Lucas notes, “the first set is the Replacements, the second set is Pink Floyd.”
None of this will alter the general perception of Local H as a one-hit wonder — “Bound For The Floor” has over 15 million Spotify plays and the next highest is their cover of TV On The Radio’s “Wolf Like Me.” Much like Pinkerton, Nada Surf’s The Proximity Effect, and Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity, Pack Up The Cats was a commercial flop that became a cause for diehards to rally around — a career killer that ultimately saved their career. “If you’re gonna fail,” Lucas muses, “you might as well fail doing something you wanted to do.”
STEREOGUM: When did you start to realize that anniversary shows were now widely accepted and almost mandatory for a band?
LUCAS: The first time I was ever aware of something like that was with the Pixies. I saw them play Doolittle, and it was the only time I ever saw anyone do something like that. People just can’t wait to do it now. Let your record at least be old enough to vote! Things just seem to happen quicker, bands break up and get together quicker and people celebrate the anniversary of their record quicker. It’s like when that book about New York [Meet Me In The Bathroom] came out — if they waited 10 more years, it would be a better book. Everybody wants to have their Please Kill Me right away, but the reason it was good was because people had a few more years to be able to not give a fuck and actually tell the truth. You’re not gonna get that without distance.
STEREOGUM: Did you get a chance to read Meet Me In The Bathroom?
LUCAS: I did until it got to stuff about Vampire Weekend and then I was like, “wow, this is boring.” And I threw it across the room. I remember when we first saw the Strokes in New York, we were making Here Comes The Zoo. And I remember getting really fucking depressed, like, “this is what’s gonna happen.” And it’s not like we could go back and re-record Here Comes The Zoo. We just had to put it out knowing [the Strokes et al.] is what was exciting and interesting and we were putting out this record that was just too late.
STEREOGUM: I imagine that wave of bands and The O.C. directly inspired “California Songs.”
LUCAS: That was what was on my mind at the time. Big rock records…there was no point, we weren’t gonna get on the radio anyway, so let’s just make a record like P.J. Soles. Throw it out the window and just make a record with cool sounds and have it find its audience. That was directly influenced by all those bands.
STEREOGUM: And yet, at one point, Local H was the kind of band that was indicative of what major labels found exciting and interesting.
LUCAS: The fact that we were able to make a second [album] was only because we were under the radar, not costing the label much money and we had people working there who believed in us. They let us make the record we wanted to make and then they were like, “look…if the next record doesn’t at least sell something like 100,000, you probably won’t get to make a third one.” The only expectation was that we had to sell at least 100,000. Once we did that, I didn’t care. I stopped counting. That was my only thing — “what do I have to do to make another record?” So that’s what led to Pack Up The Cats, making a record before that would allow us to make that record. So once I was able to make that one, I put everything I had into it. And looking back, that was the right thing to do. When that record came out, all this rap-rock…rock just got really fucking stupid and macho. And we’re putting out this concept pop record about cats. It was the wrong time for that to come out.
STEREOGUM: But then again, most people saw Local H as an aggressive rock band.
LUCAS: It’s always about context — if you put us next to a super heavy band, we sound like pop. But if you put us next to a not-heavy band, we sound very fucking huge. I love ABBA, I love the idea of the perfect pop song and the mechanics of putting one together. But I also like heavy music and metal. I’m also aware of the line in the Bible that no man can serve two masters. So I get all that stuff and I get why that wouldn’t wash with some people, but in the end, you gotta do what the fuck you want to do and what I wanted to do was write pop songs that are really noisy.
STEREOGUM: What’s a “perfect pop song” to Local H?
LUCAS: To me, “Surrender” by Cheap Trick is the greatest song ever written. I love the lyrics, I love the melody, I love the way it modulates upwards where you can’t put your finger on why you love it so much. It’s the only song I can think of that modulates before the first verse starts, so when it modulates later, it just comes natural. It’s a genius piece of work. And I love the way that when you play it live, you feel a kinship with everyone there. You’re singing this song about how we’re all alright and you kinda feel like that for a few minutes. That, to me, is perfect and that’s something I like to strive for.
STEREOGUM: Did the concept for Pack Up The Cats come first or was it something that became apparent while you were putting the songs together?
LUCAS: I knew I wanted to write this record where all the songs bleed together like Pink Floyd. But something was just in the air, I kept looking around and cats would be there — “cat” in the sign, “cat” in the song title — and I thought, “let’s just go with this.” Once that happened, once there was one song with “cat” in it, “let’s just keep going with this theme.” This whole idea of a rise-and-fall story was Boogie Nights, Goodfellas-type of stuff, you have a character going up and having this inevitable crashing down at the end. Once you have this arc and throughline of cats, it’s a matter of putting it all together like a puzzle. You fit keys into some songs that would bleed into each other and tempo and all that stuff. That’s the way every record is — once you get the plot, it’s easy to go that way.
STEREOGUM: How did Roy Thomas Baker come into the picture? Was it a label suggestion or did you feel like the success of As Good As Dead allowed you to flex?
LUCAS: [The label] was throwing out names for producer and we didn’t want to work with the guy who had done the last two records. I just wanted to do something different, it’s not a slight against Steve [Haigler]. I also didn’t want to work with guys who were making records at the time. We were trying to do something that’s obviously classic rock here — I had a real long conversation with Todd Rundgren, based on what he did with XTC and also based on how great that Grand Funk Railroad record [We’re An American Band] sounded. One day we were in the van and “Killer Queen” came on, and I thought, “this is the greatest production job of all time.” So we asked if Roy was interested and he was. He finished putting his new studio together and he was ready to work.
STEREOGUM: What was your first impression of Roy once you walked into the studio?
LUCAS: The studio is in Lake Havasu and it’s on the side of a mountain, so it’s like going to the Batcave every day. You walk in and everything is neon and white and zebra-skinned and Egyptian. He’s exactly what you thought he would be, just this person from another era. And right away, you just try not to corner him and ask all the questions to get all his stories. “Just relax and he’ll get around to it sooner or later.” [laughs]
STEREOGUM: What song can you point to as the most obvious example of “the guy who worked with Queen did this”?
LUCAS: The most obvious Roy thing on the record is on “What Can I Tell You?” where all the music drops out and it’s just the three-part harmony where each part was triple tracked. You have nine voices going and it sounds like angels, that’s Roy. He was like, [posh British accent] “what if all the music drops and all the voices come out,” and I was like, “fuck yeah, that’s why we hired you!”
STEREOGUM: What brought Dean DeLeo into the mix for “Cool Magnet”?
LUCAS: We’d gone on tour with Stone Temple Pilots and those guys weren’t allowed to have any liquor in their dressing room because Scott [Weiland] was on the wagon or whatever you would call it. So [Dean] would always come on our bus like, “hey guys, I need a drink.” The thing about having Roy…the reason we got Nick DiDia to mix it is because he wanted to work with Roy. The big reason we got Dean is because he wanted to meet Roy. It was really easy to get people to play on the record — “fuck yeah, I wanna meet that guy.” With Dean, I knew I couldn’t cut the solo and do anything interesting with it, and I knew Dean could. We asked him to come down, he played his solo and we watched SNL with Puff Daddy at the apartment afterwards.
STEREOGUM: The line from this record that’s stuck with me the most is, “I’m in love with rock ‘n’ roll/ but that’ll change eventually” from “Hit The Skids.” Was that a reflection of your mindset at the time, or that of the narrator on Pack Up The Cats?
LUCAS: That’s the line on the record that stands out the most and when we play it live, I open my eyes to see who’s paying attention. And then I can pick those people out in the audience — this person is down, they came for real. There’s a lot of people who I thought were going through the motions back then. There were a lot of people who were sorta in it for…I dunno what reason, it was something fun to do, or they thought they’d make money. “I thought this would be more glamorous,” or something. I also think that line applies to the listener. People at a certain age love music and they love the bands they listen to, but then they’re like, “there’s no good rock ‘n’ roll around anymore.” A) That’s bullshit and B) you’re that person, you don’t seek those bands out anymore. That’s just as much about the listener as it is about the band.
STEREOGUM: What are the newer rock bands that excite you right now?
LUCAS: Red Fang, Car Seat Headrest, Angel Olsen, Twin Peaks are fucking awesome live.
STEREOGUM: Every time I see a hyped indie rock act play a terrible gig, “All The Kids Are Right” immediately comes to mind — were the lyrics inspired by anyone in particular at the time?
LUCAS: That was a song that was expressly influenced by “Surrender.” I had the melody and the chorus and bridge was sorta there, but the lyrics were just shit. I ended up using those lyrics for “Lead Pipe Cinch,” but mostly the lyrics were hack, about hanging out in a bar, trying to call your girlfriend, getting drunk…”what is this, a fucking country song?” It was lame. I just started thinking about “Surrender” and how it tells a story and that’s where it came from: it’s just about a shitty gig. Placing it in the record where it was [track 13 of 15] influenced those lyrics. “Alright, what would happen to this band at this point?” They’d be playing fucked up gigs where they’re fucked up and the audience starts turning on them. At the time, we hadn’t had any of those gigs. The first time we played that song was opening for Cheap Trick, and my amp blew up while we were playing it. We were tempting fate and it got back at us…like, “oh fuck, this song is about us.”
STEREOGUM: The going narrative is that the merger happened and completely killed the momentum of Pack Up The Cats right when “All The Kids Are Right” was starting to climb the charts. How aware were you of all of this at the time?
LUCAS: All of that was starting to happen while we were recording, we didn’t realize it. And everyone was like, “this is gonna be good for you!”
STEREOGUM: How could they possibly spin that as being good for Local H?
LUCAS: Everyone tries to put you at ease, “you’ll get more distribution,” whatever. When “All The Kids Are Right” came out, it got added by every radio station it went out to. We were playing Boston and our old radio guy came out, and he was still talking about that — “that was the most successful week we ever had at radio, that single.” And then things just started to go south.
STEREOGUM: What were the specific moments when you started to realize things were going south?
LUCAS: I was still pretty high on the record and psyched we pulled it off. A huge problem was when it came time to choose a second single and getting the feeling that the first single didn’t blow up the way we thought it would. I thought [“All The Kids Are Right”] was gonna be the single and everyone was trying to figure out the next one. And hopefully that would be the single. And no one could decide on it — everyone had a different idea of what it should be. If everyone was unified on one song, it might’ve worked out a little better, but everyone had their own favorite. It was kind of a mess, and that’s when it started to go south. You just kinda realize other things were happening, what we were doing was not what people were into. We started playing these festivals with bands that were wearing shorts, like…”what the fuck, this isn’t us.”
STEREOGUM: Pack Up The Cats still ended up on a few prominent critics’ lists, did that give you any consolation?
LUCAS: When that’s happening, it’s probably a pretty good signifier that you’re not doing too well. Critics like you…”ah fuck.” [laughs] That was cool, but it didn’t help the situation.
STEREOGUM: In the time since, did you ever get the sense that Pack Up The Cats was accruing this status as a “cult classic”?
LUCAS: When it got through critically like that, you could sorta see that it’s for people who like that kinda stuff. I mean, I like that kinda stuff. We’re always trying to make records that would age well. There were certain sounds that everyone would use, you listen to the radio and everyone [used] that dropout where it sounded like they were playing on a transistor radio and boom! It would come back. We try to stay away from all those sounds, anything you hear on the radio, “let’s not do that.” Because you’ll sound exactly like that — like metal in the 80s with keyboards in it, “ah fuck, they never should’ve done that.” The fact that it sounds good to people 20 years later isn’t that much of a surprise to me because that’s what we’re going for. Maybe to the detriment to the record’s commercial fate at the time, but at least it’s aged well and people might get it later, I guess.
STEREOGUM: But there are certain songs like “She Hates My Job” and “Keep Your Girlfriend” that would face a lot more scrutiny in the current day. I’ve also seen “High-Fiving MF” criticized as “body-shaming” and “problematic.”
LUCAS: We stopped playing [“Keep Your Girlfriend”] because I don’t think people get it. It’s not a funny song, it’s actually a really ugly song. And I don’t think people see it as an ugly song, so I just don’t want to play it anymore. The last time we played it was a couple of years ago in D.C., and before we played it, I said, “this song is about shitty behavior and bullshit that’s not cool and I want you to know, we’re never gonna play this song again.” Something like “High-Fiving MF,” if people don’t get it, it’s almost funny because you see these high-fiving motherfuckers in the audience. And it’s like, “oh this song’s about you.” I don’t want to see shitty sexual stuff going on in the audience during “Keep Your Girlfriend.” We’d go to shows, and wow, people are not making that show fun at all.
[“High-Fiving MF”] is also a song that appeals to them and makes them go to the pit. But the people who get that song can have a laugh at those people. Those people show up and do everything in that song that makes people laugh at them. [The people who get it] can look at us, and we can look at them like, “ok, we get you, you get us — these people are here, we’ll play that song and then fucking leave and laugh about them.” There’s something about that where it’s cool because they can show up and illustrate the song in real time as it’s happening and not get the joke. And some people do get the joke and just don’t care. And that’s cool too. There’s a lot of ways you can react to that song.
STEREOGUM: When I think back on songs like “Fritz’s Corner” and “Back In The Day,” Local H has always struck me as a band that saw nostalgia as a toxin, so how do you come to terms then with doing 20th anniversary shows?
LUCAS: When people come up to you and say music sucks now, that’s the kind of nostalgia I really do hate — this idea that things are different now and not as cool as they used to be. It goes on everywhere now, “alright we’re good — no more people crossing the border, this is it, we’re done.” That same thinking [happens] with music — there’s no more good music, fuck you, I’m not gonna listen to any new records — and it’s that reactionary attitude that stops you from growing. I hate nostalgia for that reason, you wall yourself up from any new experience and emotions and people. And that’s why it’s dangerous, it’s dangerous in this fucking country. It wasn’t a good thing in the ’80s, and it’s not good now. That doesn’t mean you have to turn your back on things you did before. One of the great things about being able to do this tour is that Pack Up The Cats is a piece that hangs together with all these different songs. It’s not a symphony, but it’s about as close as I’ll ever get to writing one, so it’s nice to be able to perform it as a work in public and try to get all those pieces together and start from Point A and end at Point Z. And that’s something that took me a while to wrap my head around — it’s OK to look back once in a while as long as that’s not your life every goddamn day. As long as you’re putting out music and doing shows that you’re proud of, then the band has a reason. But to just trot out the old bullshit all the time is just tired. As long as you’re not doing that, there’s no reason why you can’t trot out the old warhorse when it turns 20.
Local H are on the road now, touring for the 20th anniversary of Pack Up The Cats. Below are the dates.
[Editor’s note: Hi guys, this is Michael, not Ian. Sorry to just randomly jump out at you from “behind the scenes” like this, but this is a special circumstance and it had to be done. YOOO! Haha. Hey, how ya been? Wow, huh, yeah, nah, no, nah, yeah, yo, that’s really great. Really! So great to hear it. Truly. Nah, yeah, wait, wait, HOLD UP, one sec. Look, no offense, but enough about you, OK? I was kinda just being polite and now you’re making me regret it. Jesus. Anywho, back to the ACTUAL subject at hand. I wanted to sneak in here right quick and say some stuff about Local H. Dig? So, in case Ian’s great interview with Scott Lucas weren’t proof enough, lemme just cut the bullshit and say it: Local H fucking rule. All their songs rule. All their songs have ruled since the friggin’ mid-’90s and all their songs, old and new, STILL rule. Local H should be headlining arenas supported by, like, Queens Of The Stone Age and High On Fire. They’ve got enough jams to fill two hours and two encores EASY. And yet… honestly, it’s 2018, and I fear that ship has quite possibly pushed off from the dock, minus two passengers and a few crates full of merch. Friends, there’s a lesson to be learned here: Life ain’t fair. Ruminate on that. Silver lining? You can see Local H right up-close in a nearby club that is perhaps literally not big enough to contain the band’s sound. And those RIFFS? Gimme a break. Total fucking godhead. Mania! The whole shebang is basically guaranteed to fry the fuck outta your neighborhood’s power grid. No, like, but in a fun way. Man, I dunno. Just go see Local H and give them your all your money and don’t forget to thank them for the privilege. They’ve earned it, GODDAMMIT. Also, if there are any typos above, that’s on me, your friendly editor. –Michael Nelson]
Ahem, tour dates:
10/04 – Firebird @ Saint Louis, MO
10/05 – Headliners Music Hall @ Louisville, KY
10/06 – Exit/In @ Nashville, TN
10/07 – The Masquerade- Hell Stage @ Atlanta, GA
10/09 – Barracuda @ Austin, TX
10/10 – Club Dada @ Dallas, TX
10/12 – Riot Room @ Kansas City, MO
10/13 – Spicoli’s Grill @ Waterloo, IA
10/14 – Sleeping Village @ Chicago, IL
11/02 – Shank Hall @ Milwaukee, WI
11/03 – Amsterdam Bar & Hall @ Saint Paul, MN
11/06 – The Crocodile @ Seattle, WA
11/07 – Doug Fir Lounge @ Portland, OR
11/09 – Harlow’s @ Sacramento, CA
11/10 – Starline Social Club @ Oakland, CA
11/12 – Roxy Theatre @ West Hollywood, CA
11/13 – Marty’s On Newport @ Tustin, CA
11/15 – The Urban Lounge @ Salt Lake City, UT
11/16 – Larimer Lounge @ Omaha, NE
11/17 – The Waiting Room @ Papillion, NE
11/18 – Lincoln Hall @ Chicago, IL