Any band with touring experience has more than a few road tales, and The Lions Rampant have their share. When vocalist/guitarist Stuart MacKenzie observes that he and bandmates Nick Vogelpohl (bass) and Nate Wagner (drums) should write a book, they prove that oft-spoken assertion with some bawdy epics that would hold Mick Jagger’s interest and make Larry Flynt blush. But they have more practical experiences as well.
“We’ve got a lot of truck stop stories, which sounds way sketchier than it is,” MacKenzie says over drinks at the loft apartment of band photographer/videographer Scott Beseler. “If you need a guide to Midwest gas stations, we can give you that. We found giant cheese balls at one gas station; one on the way to Chicago always has flaming hot Funyuns. And Nate has a penchant for gas station food. He likes the Erlanger Speedway.”
“Two jumbo hot dogs for two bucks, fully dressed,” Wagner says. “You can’t beat it.”
With every drink, every song, every ounce of conviction they possess, the trio seems bent on proving the title of their imminent full-length debut, It’s Fun to Do Bad Things. They even went to great lengths to include several “bad things” in the disc’s cover art.
“I still have the bra and rubber snake in my car from the photo shoot,” MacKenzie says with a laugh. “We put a lot of thought into it and planned out the props and the shoot.”
After two excellent EPs — 2007’s Half Woman, Half Alcohol and 2008’s Play Rock N’ Roll — The Lions Rampant’s full length, released next week by Texas indie label Deep Elm, is a masterstroke of snarling, primal Garage Rock with extra helpings of deep fried Soul, from the blistering opener “Give Me” to the Stones/MC5 sneer of “Need Your Love” to the Kinks-meets-the-Animals verve of the title track to the chaotic Jon Spencer Blues fest “Cigs Gin.”
“I can definitely see a change from the beginning to these songs,” MacKenzie says. “This album is a lot more diverse than the EPs, where we were like, ‘Can we do this?’ and then, ‘I guess we can do this,’ and now, ‘Can we take it further?’ We know we can write a Rock & Roll song, but can we write a Psychedelic one or a love song? If you listen to ‘Kara,’ it sounds like a ’50s/’60s love song to a girl but it’s really about (former bassist Cameron Cochran)’s daughter. We had fun doing double entendre and being deceptively simple.”
Although this iteration of The Lions Rampant is just over three years old, the band dates to 2004 when Northern Kentucky native MacKenzie returned from school in Scotland, an experience that clarified his need to make music. Assembling the group with former bandmate Alex Brauer on drums and bassist Cochran (under legendary pseudonym Paul Bunyan), the threesome had an immediate impact locally with an incendiary live presence and a party-out-of-bounds post-show attitude. And lion suits.
For much of the band’s early existence, The Lions Rampant has taken to the stage sporting custom-made lion outfits. It was an effective method of spoofing fashion attitudes, instantly engaging the audience and motivating the band to play at the highest level possible.
“At the time, everyone was into taking themselves so seriously,” MacKenzie says. “We were like, ‘Let’s play some fun Rock & Roll and look so stupid that we’re going to have prove ourselves.’ Now we’re just a little tired of it. Wearing a lion suit can be real smelly. We try to keep that spirit though. We’ll wear them sometimes, sometimes we wear skeleton suits, and we dressed up like super weirdos for the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards ceremony last year.”
The band took an unexpected turn when Brauer was sidelined for treatment for testicular cancer, but several drummers filled in, including Thee Shams’ Keith Fox and Wagner, who was playing with Vogelpohl in Norust. Brauer decided on grad school after getting well, Cochran turned his attention to working with The Sheds and Norust broke up, all of which cleared the way for Vogelpohl and Wagner to become permanent Lions.
After the quick and cheap EPs, the band wanted to pull out all the stops for Bad Things. Saving scrupulously and writing furiously, the band hit Mike Montgomery’s Candyland studio with an album’s worth of great songs and a studio filled with eager friends, including Cochran, who provided vocals, guitar, piano and mixing skills.
“We were able to give it the full treatment,” MacKenzie says. “Jared McKinney from The Greenhornes played organ, Zach (Gabbard) from the Buffalo Killers and Amy Jo from Viva La Foxx sang on it, Rueben (Glaser) from Pearlene and our friend Ross (Dolan) played guitar on it. We recorded basic tracks in a weekend, then spent a couple weeks adding in the guest performers and back up singers and theremin. It was less about ‘We’ve got to work on this record’ and more like an art project.”
“The combo of Cameron and Mike (mixing and engineering) was great because Cameron used to be in the band, so he knows what it’s about,” Vogelpohl says. “(Cameron) did all the preproduction stuff, so he knew what the album was about going in, and he could be hands-on with Mike. Then we could have a stand-back approach as musicians and not have to worry about the controls and conveying every thought.”
And at least one interesting revelation came out during the recording of Bad Things.
“We found out Nate sings like a pirate sometimes when he’s drumming,” MacKenzie says. “On this one track, we heard this Chewbacca-like noise. Nate’s very passionate and he’ll go ‘Aaaaah!’ but it never picked up before because he’d never been miked.”
“Yeah, it was like, ‘Let’s cut everything else out of the mix, here’s that track where you make a fool of yourself. You want to hear it really loud?,’ ” Wagner says with a laugh. “That was pretty terrible for me.”
Bad Things was completed last winter, and the band was playing a scant few new songs live to keep it under wraps while they pursued a deal. It was a longer process than they anticipated. After a few close shaves, the Lions went with Deep Elm.
With the imminent national distribution of It’s Fun to Do Bad Things, a couple of well-shot videos making the viral rounds — look closely: That’s local Survivor contestant and Beseler’s stylist Marisa Calihan cavorting in the videos for “Lights Out” and the title track — and relentless touring ahead, including CD release shows here at The Mockbee and at least six out-of-state cities.
It wouldn’t be surprising if The Lions Rampant found itself playing on the tale-inspiring road more than at home. That won’t change their local outlook.
“Cincinnati’s great,” MacKenzie says emphatically. “Having been around to all these other cities, we’re really spoiled that you play a show and a bunch of other musicians come around. A bunch of musicians get together and play touch football every Saturday, and it’s really fun and we talk shop.
"It’s not an attitude of ‘Are you allowed in?,’ it’s more like, ‘This shit sucks, let’s help each other out.’ It’s like, ‘Are you getting ripped off at this place? What’s a good place to play in Detroit or Cleveland?’ Cincinnati rules.”
THE LIONS RAMPANT host a CD release concert/dance party Saturday at The Mockbee (2260 Central Pkwy., Brighton) with The Guitars, DJ Iceburg and DJ Gerald. Get party and venue details here.
See the band's video for the song "It's Fun to Do Bad Things" here.