“It’s tempting to call us a ‘joke’ band or a comedy act, but actually we are a real rock band that happens to feature costumes and witty stage banter, anchored by good songs,” says drummer Jim Janota. For twenty-plus years Janota has played under the name Jackie Kickassis when he’s been behind the kit for the Boston-based rock band known as The Upper Crust. “If the songs sucked, it wouldn’t work.”
In the Crust, Janota is joined by three other gentlemen who, offstage, go by the names of Nat Freedberg, Dave Fredette and Chris Cote. On stage, the standing Crust members are singer-guitarist Lord Bendover (Freedberg), lead guitarist Duc D’isortion (Fredette) and bassist Count Bassie (Cote). Tonight, Friday Aug. 21 – dressed as 18th century French noblemen with powdered wigs and white face powder, sporting fake British accents – they will rock you at Johnny D’s in Somerville. All Crust members play or have played in numerous Boston area bands, the Flies, Titanics, Seks Bomba, Giant Kings, Rockbottom, the Bags and the Lyres, among them.
How did The Upper Crust come to be? Two answers:
“Well, it was all rather something of an accident,” says Lord Bendover, his British accent sometimes wavering toward New Zealand. “We were listening, quite properly to chamber music as youngsters. And then we began to play around the idea of amplifying instruments with steam-powered amplified equipment. The sounds that emerged were what we like to call rocque and roll – with a “qu” – and it was so different than the chamber music that we were accustomed to that we felt it deserved its own place in the culture, shall we say. We’re vaguely of our own oeuvre.”
Here’s Janota’s account. Before The Upper Crust, there was the Clamdiggers. “In its original incarnation,” he says, “we were dressed as yuppies, with pink sweaters tied around our necks and pants with whale and anchor prints. And those brown leather boat shoes. The yacht club look. Why? We thought a yuppie hard rock band was an idea so atrocious, so stupid, that we had better explore it to its fullest. But it wasn’t long before we went for the 18th century look.:
“The premise is that we are these 18th century noblemen who look at life from that perspective, but we’ve been shot through time to today,” adds Cote
Fredette: “We like writing songs about chicks and alcohol and all that normal rock ‘n’ roll stuff, but from the perspective of rich noblemen. The Upper Crust has a ‘70s hard rock vibe – 1770s, that is.”
The Upper Crust play agitated, AC/DC-esque rock songs, sung from an elevated plane. Their first album was called “Let Them Eat Rock,” the title song a Marie Antoinette-like response to what they might bestow upon lower class rock fans. Songs include “Little Rickshaw Boy,” “Old Money,” “Heirloom” “Concubine,” “Come Hither Fair Youth,” “Friend of a Friend of the Working Class” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Butler” and “I’ve Got My Ascot ‘n’ My Dickie.” They’re working on new material, some of which they may unveil at the upcoming show: “I’ll Be Wintering Elsewhere,” “Fopped Up” and “Noblesse Oblige.”
Lord Bendover, in a separate interview, discusses why the lower classes should listen to the Upper Crust. “Well, the point is very, very clear and simple,” says Bendover. “It’s that we as the aristocracy naturally do everything better than the lower classes. We feel that we’re doing them a great service by permitting them to hear our music. It never had occurred to me that these people would be at a loss to comprehend the things that we sing about. I’ve always felt that naturally that they should be concerned about us and our lives and the terms in which we express ourselves are quite naturally rather, if I may say so, self-centered.”
Does Bendover have any regard for those of less fortunate circumstance? “At a proper distance, they’re fine,” he said. “They blend in nicely with the background of the city streets and the architecture”
There’s this theory: That the Crust write about the topics real rock stars would write about – gaining wealth and maintaining status – if only they dared to sing about their real concerns.
“I think that’s spot-on,” Cote says. “That’s always been an ongoing theme. We definitely give voice to the concerns of that class of people and if they were more honest with themselves they would approach it the way we do.”
The Upper Crust may seem like a one-trick pony, but one-trick ponies don’t last 20-plus years or get invited to play last year’s mega-music and comedy Festival Supreme put on by Tenacious D’s Jack Black and Kyle Gass. Says Fredette: “There was so much to see I was happy just to be there. We went on early but there was already a large enthusiastic crowd. They were chanting our name as we left the stage.”
“I can’t say enough good things about Jack Black,” adds Janota. “He is the coolest dude ever. Very down to earth and a lot of fun to hang with.”
The Upper Crust have five albums to their credit – “Let Them Eat Rock” (1995), “The Decline and Fall of the Upper Crust” (1997), “Entitled” (2000), “Once More Into the Breeches” (2002) and “Revenge for Imagined Slights” (2009). They recorded “Runnin’ Wild,” the theme song for “American Daredevils” which was on the History 2013-2014. Songs for a new album are in the works.
“I think our sound is obviously inspired by AC/DC,” says Fredette. “I know my guitar sound is inspired by Angus Young. He’s always been my favorite guitarist. ‘Powerage’ is the album I put on whenever I’m feeling down. It never fails to pick me up.”
Bendover says he’s never been influenced by AC/DC. “Not for a second,” he maintains. “We have heard them and we trust they have heard us. We believe that perhaps they’ve been influenced by us.”
Shtick is shtick, but Fredette says, “I’ve always thought that we’ve benefited from having a lot of different ‘hooks’ for people to grab on to – the humor, lyrics, loud guitars, pounding drums, costumes, stage banter and stage props. But it wouldn’t hold anyone’s attention if the songs weren’t any good. I think it’s a deer-in-the-headlights effect. They don’t know what to expect but they stop and listen. As far as our longevity goes, it helps that we get along with each other. Four friends getting together to play the rocque and drink the beer.”
Bendover attributes the band’s endurance to “the fact that none of us have died. That counts for the longevity of the group. We intend to continue playing as long as we can stand and hold our instruments.”
Two of the Upper Crust’s original noblemen have left the fold. Ted Widmer (Lord Rockingham, rhythm guitarist, 1993-1997) was one of the two noblemen that got away. (Bassist Marc Mazzarelli – aka Marquis Marque aka Marquis de Roque – was another, leaving in 1996.)
Widner has amassed quite a notable post-Crust CV. “I had some interesting things going on,” he says, “with writing and history, and eventually they became more serious, and a job offer took me away in 1997. I was a speechwriter and senior adviser to Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001. I was a historical consultant, but not a ghostwriter, to him when he wrote ‘My Life,’ and then again to Hillary Clinton when she wrote ‘Hard Choices’ last year. I was director of the John Carter Brown Library, but am now Assistant to the President for Special Projects at Brown University.”
Widner fondly recalls the early days of the Crust. “It was a natural rock and roll idea from the start,” he says. “There were a lot of dour bands skulking around, singing depressing songs about break-ups, and it only got worse with all those Pacific Northwest guys in their flannel shirts and wool hats. We needed to restore the spirit of rock and roll. Boston was a great place to take some time and figure it out. There were so many brilliant people, ready to try something new. It was an amazing time.”
What has worked in the Crust’s favor has been the explosion of celebrity and royalty culture.
“Yes,” says Bendover, “the celebrity culture of today, with the fascination the hoi polloi have with their betters – celebrities, royalty, aristocracy – we feel that perhaps it has reflected rather well upon our own career and advanced our own concerns.”
And that, of course, has led to an increased groupie problem. “Oh yes,” sighs Bendover. “We have hired people specifically to sort out the groupies and make sure that the less desirable ones get nowhere near us.”
Final note from Bendover: “The Upper Crust do not recognize the pizza chain that has usurped and debased their good name and reputation, and they make a dreadful pizza to boot. In these respects they have defiled two noble institutions”
Doors at 9. With the Cyclones. Tix: $12
17 Holland St, Somerville, 617-776-2004 www.johnnyds.com