Any interview with Lotion is bound to be a memorable experience. Take my first encounter with the band, four years ago in Columbia, South Carolina. During the dinner, a large cockroach flew onto our table and attacked someone, thus prompting flailing, screaming, and a move to a different table in the center of the room. And that was early in the evening.
So as Lotion recently released its third LP, I figured it would be much safer to interview the band on the phone. Although no bugs were encountered this time around, the rapier wit of the band members provided once again a memorable interview that touched on everything from Grover to Gene Simmons to palindromes.
The music of Lotion has always been rooted in the rough pop territory of Sugar, Iodine, or even Nirvana, sprinkled with a touch of humor. But with the release of their newest album, Lotion has decided to fully acknowledge their true pop roots with an overall less edgy sound. The result? An album that not only seems to fit the band more comfortably, but one that might very well represent their finest group of songs yet.
Singer/guitarist Tony Zajkowski, guitarist/vocalist Jim Ferguson, and his bassist brother Bill Ferguson played tag team phone interviewees from their manager’s place in New York City.
First of all, I wanted to find out what you guys call your new album.
Jim: [Strangely long pause]. Uh, I don’t know. Well, it doesn’t really — the title is unpronounceable. It’s just the icon of a [phone], so you could call it “The Receiver,” you could call it “Telephone,” you could call it “Phone.”
There was an old Sesame Street guy who instead of saying names of objects, he’d make the sound.
Tony: Exactly. . . and he would say, “Well, I’d like some [makes clucking sounds] and a [makes oinking sounds].” which was really kind of vivid and disgusting.
Jim: Okay, so then the album’s called [makes a phone ringing sound].
Tony: That would be a great video. We sit down to eat and fucking Grover comes out and goes, [imitates Grover’s voice frighteningly well] “May I help you?” And we go, [makes ringing sound]. That’s the start of the video. [Grover voice again] “Coming!”
You all have always been very much about having listeners and people that see and hear and “analyze” your stuff, come up a lot of their own conclusions about things.
Jim: We like to get outside forces involved, because that way it’s much more interesting.
Tony: The songs connect better when the people are allowed to decide how they connect.
Jim: It’s kind of like the whole death of the author idea. The text we present, it’s not something we can give you the concrete thing. That’s our part of it. Now, for people listening to it, it’s like, put in your part. Because we’ve learned a lot about our songs from other people.
And I’m sure individually within the band, that your songs mean different things to each of you as well.
Tony: Absolutely true. Sometimes I might know what the original lyric really originally meant. And then the drummer thinks it’s something else
I know that there are songs that the mood of the music and the mood of the lyrics are two entirely different things.
Tony: Yeah, that definitely happens. Some songs are nasty while sounding pretty. Some songs are nasty while sounding funny, and some songs are kind of nasty but they sound kind of . . oh, I’m sorry. But, yeah, you can definitely hide behind or just display it differently. Just because I’m ragin’ doesn’t mean it has to sound like [imitates Eddie Vedder and sings melodramatically] “Evenflow.” Which is funny, because [that song is] just about a baby product. But he’s singing it in kind of a rage kind of feel.
Jim: Well, it’s like Rage Against the Machine for instance. Their songs are all about bunnies.
I was going to give you the chance to say that your new record is your best record and it’s the best work you’ve ever done. Of course, that‘s what you’re supposed to say, but how do you guys really feel about the record?
Jim: Hate it. [Laughter] I’m really proud of it. I think that sonically, it’s the one we’re most proud of. It’s kind of like we know what we’re doing now.
Tony: We totally do. It’s the most mature record, the funnest record front to back. And there’s really, really no filler. And I mean, we’d say that at every record, but I can probably now, seeing this one, point to filler on the other ones. One through twelve, it never stops. It’s all supposed to be there.
Have you guys changed substantially from the photos in Full Isaac? [Pause as they determine if I’m joking or not, as the album featured four multi-ethnic guys in ’70s regalia]. You know I’m kidding there.
Jim: You’d be surprised. A lot of people really did think that was us.
Tony: In Japan, they’ve got, “The band has one Asian, one black man, and a Polish man.” Because of my last name. They said that on our album.
It said what?
Tony: In Japanese, it says, “The band draws influences from everywhere and is also multi-ethnic. There’s a black man and an Asian man and a Polish man.’
So who in the group went to art school?
Tony: Two of us went to art school at Syracuse. The drummer, Rob, and me. I was graphic design and he was Illustration. Jim went for Graphic Design at a number of different schools.
That would explain the quite impressive design work that has appeared on your albums as well since the beginning. And, of course, the posters, which rumor has it you all had started [the band] originally just so you could make cool posters.
Tony: Yeah, it definitely was of favorite thing about it. I had a stat camera and all the Xeroxes I wanted to make. This was pre-Mac. That was our favorite idea. Something we had obviously completely ripped off of rave posters and flyers was just, “Logos? Ha ha.” We thought that was the funniest thing in the world. Before we ever had any gigs, we were making those things, putting up posters that had no gig, no show, no nothing. Just said Lotion. We still get that. “I’ve never seen you guys, but I’ve seen those posters.’
Now I see that you have a bit of an interest in palindromes. Between the “Lotion / No it ol“ that appears on my bio thing to [the song] “I Love Me [Vol I].” So do you have any other ones that you particularly like? That haven’t been used yet?
Bill: Jim’s favorite palindrome is “Stella won no wallets.”
Tony: No, Jim’s corrected us. It’s “Al lets Della call Ed Stella.”
Bill: [Upon prompting from others in the room] “Sarge I often et foie gras.”
Tony: In the army, it’s like a Private telling his commander, the Sergeant, about his trip to Paris. . .Oh, I got my favorite. Now I remember. It’s a king drinking a beer and it’s “Lager, sir, is regal.’
What is it like being a band in New York? What are some of the difficulties that you all face?
Tony: There’s no parking. GGet your van out of the driveway and load up the drums in the back and then take it over to your friend’s house where we’re going to play in the basement. It’s taxi, and you’ve gotta make sure it’s a Ford because they’re deeper in the trunk. The Capris Classic has no trunk.
Bill: Nobody here has cars. So we’re all loading out in advance, and you get all the guys and you get the skinniest guy, which is usually Rob but sometimes Tony, to go stand in the road, hail the cab and go, “Can you pop the trunk?” and we fill the guy’s cab up with drums. This is actually a good thing, Tony, because we don’t have to drive. But when we go on tour, we’re leaving behind $600 a month rents at the low end.
Tony: Plus it’s really hard to go on tour and tell the taxi driver, “The next stop is Chicago.” And the meter’s running and you feel stupid.
Bill: It probably has a lot to do with what we’re like as a band, the fact that we’re from New York. Because we probably have more confidence. If you live in New York, you kind of have this built in confidence. You’re proud of yourself for just living, because it’s supposed to be so dangerous and difficult. Which is just PR, you know. So we have that, but at the same time, I think a lot of people have an idea of what we’re supposed to be before we get there. We can’t just show up in Lawrence, Kansas as “The band is here.” [It’s] “The band from New York is here.” We’re allowed in the door, we probably have more opportunities than other bands, but we’re also the dicks who are coming in the door. But in terms of music, [it’s not like Seattle where everyone basically sounds the same]. Because we are ripping off all of our friends’ bands, but we all sound so different that they could never know.
What are some of your favorite personal songs off of the new record?
Tony: I like “Mr. President” very much. It’s a funner song to sing. I definitely like the way that one sounds. I think the last, “5th Fret — Distant Cousin,” is very well realized from the idea we had, the way it took shape. We were writing those two songs at the same time, so we merged them together and I was very pleased with the outcome.
Bill: My favorite I think is “West of Here.” Because that’s one where the band does what the lyrics say to do, even though the lyrics I think came after. That one, everything works together. The other songs, it’s interesting that you’re singing about something serious and we’re playing light and vice versa, but this is maybe the one time on our records that we’re all doing the same thing.
Speaking of feeding off of a bio again, tell me a little about the Buffy [the Vampire Slayer] experience. Now, the episode you guys destroyed the drum kit in hasn’t aired yet, right?
Bill: No, it was on.
Because I missed it, but a week or so ago, they had your stickers all over the wall.
Tony: [Screams] Isn’t that awesome?!?! We’re so psyched about that.
Bill: That’s the perfect Lotion thing to do.
Tony: Get in there, get your stuff in there, then leave town and they’re still doing it. It’s just hilarious. That part I just couldn’t believe.
Bill: That’s better than being on it, I gotta say.
Tony: I really felt that a lot of people were like, “That’s great, you were on the show!” But the best part on the show was the end when they showed our name and album cover. I felt like that got a lot.
So they said like “The band that performed on here was Lotion.’
Tony: They did that, yeah. Looking at me on stage, who cares, I’m just another dude. But with that big word Lotion with white knocked out of cyan, that was good.
Bill: When we were doing it, though, all of the beautiful Hollywood kids who are paid like $50 to dance at the club are looking at us like, “I can’t believe they got these actors. They’re so old.”
Tony: They were really like, “Who were those ugly guys? Why would there be four ugly guys? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Bill: It was good though.
Tony: It was so Hollywood and so much fun. They treated us so nicely. We watched the show a lot before that, so when you get there and they didn’t do anything with us for the first hour or two hours we were just walking around the library and down the hall, taking pictures in the bio room and in Buffy’s bedroom and we’re losing our minds and then there’s Willow and she’s like “Hi! I want to show you guys around!” and we’re like, “Oh my god, it’s Willow.” We definitely were like little kids in that part. And every little thing was fake. Like the metal door to a fire extinguisher in the hallway is made of wood painted red. There’s wooden walls simulated to look like concrete walls for one of the room scenes. All of that stuff blew our minds. Whereas the rest of LA, while we were there for the next three days, it all looked kind of fake. We had to kind of knock on everything. Every rock you saw, it’s like “Is this real?’
It’s like pulling back the curtain on the Wizard [of Oz].
Tony: Exactly. “Don’t pay attention to that White Bronco.”
I’m sure it was different seeing you all on the show when you watched it.
Tony: It confused some of my dumber friends. “If you’re there, how can you be here?!”