Meet Eleganza!, one of First Avenue's best new bands: "We want people to either fuck or fight"

Meet Eleganza!, one of First Avenue's best new bands: "We want people to either fuck or fight"
Photo by Jeff Johnson

Eleganza! is one of the best new rock 'n' roll bands in Minneapolis, if not the best. It was born by necessity mere months ago from the ashes of bands past and an urgency from extraordinary frontman Brian Vanderwerf, who you may know as guitarist/vocalist for the Midnight Evils, the celebrated Chooglin' and the Huckleberrys.

Eleganza! is a three-guitar attack featuring Vanderwerf and Chooglin' bandmates Jeff Johnson (also of Popcycle, The Jets) and Paul Wells, with Greg McAloon (Glenrustles and Ol' Yeller) on bass. Tim Baumgart (Wizards Are Real, Kruddler and Party Ready) is on drums and August Varwig plays harmonica/vocals.

Gimme Noise met Eleganza! in their Northeast practice space post-impromptu professional photo shoot by the versatily talented guitarist Jeff Johnson, as they loaded out. We decided to head over to Dusty's for draft beers and Dago's (delicious Italian sandwiches Anthony Bourdain would dig) to talk about all things Eleganza! - its formation, its style and attitude (mucho!) and being a Best New Band selected to perform at the Best New Bands showcase at First Avenue Friday.

See Also: The best concerts in the Twin Cities this week: 1/9-1/15 Chooglin' is breaking up, Midnight Evils to play reunion Midnight Evils on reuniting, charging Marky Ramone for a T-shirt, and missing John Peel

It was a seriously fun and funny, irreverently revealing interview, a bit of a Hunter S. Thompson situation . . .

Gimme Noise: Thanks for meeting with me, here. You were selected as one of First Avenue's Best New Bands of 2012. Why do you feel that is?

BV: Because no one is doing what we're doing.

Anyone want to add to that?

August Varwig: We have nice pants. BV: And, nice glasses. Nice creases in our pants.

Paul does have nice glasses. So does Jeff. But, the main question everybody wants to know is, do you wear pants under your pants? Do you perform commando or not, and if so, why?

Everyone around the table choruses: That's a seasonal question!

How did the formation of Eleganza happen? Jeff Johnson: Because Brian booked shows without securing a band! He committed without a commitment.

BV: It's true! We're six young, virile men. We ride the storm out, and ride into town as knights in shining armor, coming to your emotional rescue. And bring you joy, of some sort.

And make you wanna do stuff, I've read.

JJ: We want people to either fuck or fight.

You talk like a Scorpio.

JJ: Music should make you wanna do one of the two things.

BV (quips): I'm a lover, not a fighter.

AV: He's a nice guy. He'd rather lie. I'm referencing a song.

BV: Yeah. "Would You Rather Have Me Lie?" You evolved from the ashes of Chooglin'?

JJ: It was the ashes of the Huckleberrys. Because Jesse's departure begat this version of this band.

BV: Jesse left to live in Norway. I committed to shows some of the other guys couldn't do. Then I recruited Jeff and Paul to do those shows. And got Greg to do one.

[First Avenue's legendary stage manager Conrad Sverkerson is perched on a nearby barstool, adding occasional comments]

Conrad: That's serious shit! [Everyone laughs about Conrad injecting truth into the interview] BV: So we booked these shows, and Paul wrote a song . . .

Paul Wells: It's the first song I ever wrote. It's about my mother, Called "Kicked in the Teeth." It's from my father's perspective.

[Everyone: "Wow" "Whoa" etc. Laughs] BV: So, I needed a band behind me, and these guys played and wrote songs and we played these shows. We're having fun and I thought, 'the best band cannot be held down. We have to play "Best New Bands.'"

How did you feel about getting selected as one of the Radio K and First Avenue: Best New Bands?

BV: I was really surprised! And thankful!

JJ: Very flattered!

BV: When we were opening for Buffalo Killers - who had to cancel -- the staff at First Avenue loved us.

JJ: It's because of our energy. BV: We've got rock 'n' roll energy!

JJ: The songs that are covers . . . it's the way we presented them. It's our presentation, our take on them; it's the energy of our attack on the songs. Whether we wrote them or not, there is no difference in how we perform them. How did you come up with the name 'Eleganza!'?

BV: The real story or a fun one? We're elegant . . .

AV: Good hygiene . . .

BV: What I want everyone to know is, we have fun. That's what's great about this. [Dons sunglasses, as does Greg] Look at this. Sunglasses equal fun. [He and Greg start singing, "I wear my sunglasses at night . . . "

How many originals to covers?

BV: Three-quarters are originals.

JJ: We were bestowed with this honor of being selected as a Best New Band. We take this seriously. We're not shoving covers down people's throats.

The covers you selected and played during your Huckleberrys days fit you so well . . . how did you pick those?

BV: It's songs that we like, and like to play. All your great bands from Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Led Zeppelin played some covers. You learn your craft from doing that. However, in Huckleberrys days, all we did was wanted to play songs we liked. We weren't like, catering to a wedding band.

We were like, 'Why don't we play some covers?' We played Waylon Jennings . . . it started with Waylon.

It started with Martin Devaney one Tuesday, needing an opener. I asked Greg . . . he said he'd do it and got Keely [Ol' Yeller] to drum. I got Jesse to play guitar. It all started organically. Huckleberrys did a lot of Waylon, Merle Haggard, and George Jones, a lot of country stuff. Jesse moved away. I like jamming with Jeff, Paul, Augie, Greg and Tim. We all get along. Its fun, and really laidback. When we get together to play, we all know where we're coming from. We can just jam, and work on songs together.  

Meet Eleganza!, one of First Avenue's best new bands: "We want people to either fuck or fight"
Photo by Cyn Collins

I liked when you interjected "This is a tender Merle moment." Chooglin' was a lot of hard-driving songs, and now you've got some country, some tearjerkers and scorchers in there . . .

AV: Its because he's in love.

JJ: There's nothing wrong with flexing your love muscle, Brian. Come on!

GM: It's in you; you've got to let it out!

BV: It's just something different. I like to sing, number one! And, this band! I love Chooglin', trust me.

JJ: Chooglin' was like 10, all the way through. We never let up. At first you start playing fast and loud - as you get older, then you wanna like [gesture for slow down]. Hopefully you're comfortable with sharing it with other people and hopefully it relays to an audience and is reciprocated. I don't know any band that comes out of the gate and just wants to play, like, love songs. It just never happens. It happens as a natural progression. We're like any other band that starts playing loud and fast, and gets older and mellows out. And hopefully we can flex both muscles.

BV: We're well-rounded individuals! We can give it to you hard and fast! We can give it to you slow and smooth. [Dagos arrive, people dig in.]

BV: Oh . . . I didn't know you could get those . . .

AV: Why do you think we came here?

Do you have any recordings or other shows in the works?

BV: We are doing a recording of one of the Beck sheet music pieces for the Current. After this show, we're going to go into the studio to record some songs. We're working on nailing them.

Do you guys all write songs?

BV: Paul wrote two, I wrote two and Jeff wrote two.

Jeff you were with Chooglin' until when, and then you came back?

BV: He played bass on all the records through Sweet Time. Then Paul took over and played on the recordings that aren't released. Paul went to Europe with us, did all the Norway stuff, and Jeff went to L.A.

JJ: I was the only person who went to L.A. that was running away from a record deal. It was hilarious. Everyone wants to be in a band and get signed there. I've never done anything the way its supposed to be done.

Please tell us about the other bands you've all been with . . .

AV: We'll be here all night! The longest one I was in was called Blues and Orphans. That was for eight years. And I was in a lame cover band for a couple years doing stupid casino gigs. It was money though.

JJ: That's nothing like when I was touring with the Jets. It was easy money though! But did I like it? No.

GM: I played with Glenrustles, Ol' Yeller . . .

BV: Midnight Evils, Chooglin' . . .

PW: I was in a lot of Jersey bands. I was in the E Street Band for a moment. And Bon Jovi.

Are you serious?!

PW: Yeah! [Jokes] Technically, I still am!

Is there anything you'd like to say about what distinguishes you from the rest of the bands? AV: We're a lot older than everybody else.

PW: Grey hair!

AV: 200 years of combined experience. What are you bringing to the Best New Bands show?

PW: The bass.

AV: Cornstarch. JJ: I'll let these guys field it. I'm just going to show up with what I need to know, and that's it.

BV: My commando pants . . .

AV: I'm going to bring Burt Reynolds. BV [murmurs with a sly grin]: Greg knows Prince personally. So I think Prince will be coming . . .

Radio K Presents: Best New Bands of 2012 First Avenue Mainroom/7 p.m./18+/$7 Also fe: The Chalice, Wiping Out Thousands, John Mark Nelson, Actual Wolf, Strange Names and Bomba De Luz Hosted by: David Campbell (89.3 The Current), Jason Nagel (Cities 97) and Chase Mathey (Radio K) More info here.

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