Interview: Pandemic Blues—Chicago Musician Karl Meyer Talks Punk, Blues, and Recording in a Lockdown
From his Cincinnati childhood to his Chicago adulthood, music remains a motivating force in Karl Meyer’s life. He looks back on a broad career as a hardcore punk and blues band sideman, and, more recently, as a songwriter. During the pandemic, Meyer and fellow musicians recorded several punk to bluesy tunes inspired by lockdown life, such as “We Miss the Library,” “Safe Distance,” and “I Don't Wanna Be Quarantined (With You).” Married and with two kids in college, Meyer is still playing at age 54, creating music that often deals with “the reality of being older and having to make a living in the world.” As one reviewer dubbed it, “mid-life crisis hardcore.” We talked about his past and current projects and producing “punk for adults”
Tell me about your earliest forays into music and your first band.
My mother was the curator of an art gallery in Cincinnati in the late 1970s when I was a pre-teenager. The gallery hosted some amazing music and performance events during that time, which I witnessed. I experienced experimental performers like Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich, Charlemagne Palestine, Cecil Taylor, and Terry Riley. The gallery also featured several local proto-punk bands at art openings...like the Ed Davis Band and the Customs, which is how I learned about the local music scene. I bought their 45s and asked the band members annoying questions about how to make a record and how to get a gig. Mechanical stuff like that.
This is when I was 10 or 11 years old. I picked up the guitar around that time—1979—and started what was a succession of short-lived basement bands. It’s tough to keep a band together when you are really young like that. It's easy to find other guys to play music at first, but after a few rehearsals, personalities emerge, disagreements arise and your band breaks up before your first gig. By 1983, I finally assembled a band that stuck together long enough to do some gigs and make a record. We were called Sluggo. I was the bass player, initially. By then hardcore punk had reached the Queen City and there was a growing scene centered around a cavernous dive across the river in Newport, Kentucky, called the Jockey Club. Since Sluggo was one of the few hardcore bands in the area, we got to open shows for some of the best bands that came through town—the Necros, the Crucifucks, Discharge, JFA, and Negative Approach. We also made a record called the Contradiction EP. After I left Sluggo I played with three other local punk bands—SS-20, The Edge, and Human Zoo. All this took place before I left Cincinnati for college in 1986.
You started out playing in a hardcore punk band, moved to blues later on, and have dabbled in other styles. Why so eclectic, Karl?
In addition to the exposure to experimental music that I mentioned above, I also had an uncle—a family friend, actually—who was into blues. He nudged me to expand my horizons and encouraged me to check out Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Lazy Lester. He had stacks of 45 records from the 1950s and I made several mix tapes from his collection. So, from the very beginning, I was exposed to an eclectic mix of music, but one which was also rooted in the blues.
You’re from Cincinnati. When you moved to Chicago, what changed for you?
Well, the one thing that didn’t change is that I enjoyed playing in bands and doing shows. Chicago, of course, has a rich and diverse blues scene, and if you are a decent musician and hustle enough, a bass player like me can get some gigs around town. I was lucky enough to latch up with (Rockin’) Johnny Burgin in the 1990s, and he got me my first few blues gigs and introduced me to dozens of musicians. I got up to speed quickly and started gigging with some of the best authentic blues artists who were still around at that point: Little Mack Simmons, Easy Baby, Tail Dragger, Willie Buck, Little Arthur Duncan, and Eddie Taylor Jr, to name just a few. So, the thing that changed was that I started playing the blues as a sideman, and for a long time, I stopped writing songs. In fact, I didn’t write anything from the mid-80s until about 2016 when I joined a punk band again—LC/50.
During the pandemic, crafts became a big deal. Some folks knitted and quilted. You wrote and recorded music about keeping safe distances and missing the library. Tell us about that.
I released my first solo album, Career Ending Move, in October 2019, so in 2020 I was starting to think about what to do next as a songwriter. Then, along came the pandemic, and we went into lockdown mode. My friend Brendan Halpin sent me some funny lyrics—a song called "Furlough"—and that got me started writing tongue-in-cheek songs about the pandemic. I ended up writing seven pandemic-themed songs (two of those are with Brendan), which came out on a few releases during the course of 2020. The punk songs ended up on my first EP, No Mask No Music. I did singles for the other, more blues-based songs—"We Miss The Library," "Furlough," and "More Bad News"—those last two are with Johnny Burgin on vocals and guitar. I also did a single of the acoustic version of "Safe Distance," my only foray into folk-punk so far. The idea of trying out the different genres was for me to reach a wider audience than I would reach with punk alone.
Plenty of bands and artists released music during the pandemic, but very few of them wrote songs that actually dealt with the pandemic in the lyrics, and none of them wrote as many songs on that topic as I did. But because I am entirely a do-it-yourselfer, I wasn’t able to get as much attention for these songs as I would have liked.Now, of course, the pandemic has largely passed, and the window of opportunity to get attention for these songs is basically gone. That’s the drawback to writing topical songs, of course. The songs are only relevant for a specific period of time. My hope is that, down the road, when filmmakers and documentarians address the events of 2020, they will use my pandemic music in their soundtracks. The few people who actually heard “I Don’t Wanna Be Quarantined With You” or “We Miss The Library” agreed that I hit the nail on the head as far as capturing the mood of those early weeks in lockdown.
What are your latest projects?
The other thing I worked on during the pandemic was my guitar playing, which got steadily better during 2020 and 2021. In February 2022 I released my second EP, called Rough Edges, which focuses more on my guitar work than my earlier efforts did. There is even an instrumental—the title track. And as soon as that was finished I started on my latest EP called You Should Know Who I Am, which was released in August. This one has three hardcore punk songs in addition to a song called "Art Punk" which is something of an homage to the No Wave scene that I experienced as a kid via a Cincinnati-based record label called Hospital Records (look for a compilation called Auto Glamour Sound to learn more). Art Punk features some great experimental sax playing from an Italian musician named Joel Sempere.
Also, I just released my first music video. The song is called "Blowhard Knucklehead." The animated video is a bit of a tribute to Dr. Seuss. My friend and LC/50 bandmate Nicole Toth joins me on the vocals. I have always liked bands that feature some good male/female vocal interaction, like the Jefferson Airplane and X, so this song captures that effect as well.
As a bass player, I am playing with three bands currently: Too Much Saturn, Dolph Chaney and the Phins, and LC/50.
In addition, there is a cool record label in Cincinnati called 4Q-HQ that just released a full-length Sluggo album on 12 inch vinyl. Side one is the Contradiction EP, recorded in 1983, and side two features six previously unreleased songs from 1984. Everything has been remixed and remastered from the original tapes, which I had professionally baked and transferred in 2020. I re-mixed the recording myself and had it professionally mastered, so it sounds awesome. We dug up some great photos from the era...featured in the booklet that goes with the record. It’s a great package.