Carpenter Ants celebrate 25 years together (Video)
WANT TO GO?
The Carpenter Ants
WHEN: 10 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: The Empty Glass, 410 Elizabeth St.
INFO: 304-345-3914 or www.emptyglass.com
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- You can tell Carpenter Ants guitarist and vocalist Michael Lipton wants to get past the question quickly.
But it's such a usual question to ask a band that you have to ask just to get it out of the way. Why the name?
"We were in Idaho with 'Mountain Stage,'" he says, seated in the kitchen of his East End home as the smaller of his two dogs, Miga, hops up and down off his lap.
"I saw an advertisement -- 'Carpenter Ants' with a slash through it. I'd never heard of a carpenter ant and said 'That'd be a funny band name.'"
And so, inspired by a pest control ad, one of West Virginia's longest running bands -- and perhaps one of its only gospel-channeling, secular R&B and country funk ensembles -- was born. The Carpenter Ants mark 25 years together this year and showcase an ambitiously produced fifth album, "Ants & Uncles," in a CD release show at The Empty Glass at 10 p.m. Saturday.
"That's it. Dumb story. Move on," says Lipton.
Moving on, as the rest of the quartet filters into the house for a Wednesday rehearsal, there is the matter of labels and genres.
"We've gone through different phases," Lipton says, as frontman Charlie Tee drops onto a kitchen chair. Drummer and vocalist Jupie Little and harmonizing bass player Ted Harrison pull up the rear.
"We were doing kind of R&B and country blues kind of stuff. Then we started getting into gospel, so we pretty much got immersed in it."
So much so that in addition to covering the rousing "He Saved My Soul" by Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones and the hymn "This World is Not My Home" by Albert Brumley Sr., on the new CD, Lipton and Little have written several original gospel tunes for the band, including "It's A Blessing," also featured on the recording.
Mixing secular and sacred music, and cross-fertilizing the qualities of each, is a hallmark of the Ants' tight harmony-driven sound, which enables them to move around among venues.
"We play churches services where we do only gospel," says Lipton. "We rarely don't do any gospel songs at this point. The Holmes Brothers are probably the closest thing I can think of. They do secular stuff, they do gospel stuff and it's got the same energy and the same feel to it."
Then again, not being a band of choirboys, the sacred butts elbows with more earthly values on the 14-song "Ants & Uncles" (which is available at Taylor Books, Budget Tapes and Records, cdbaby.com and by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org).
There's an ode to illegal hooch titled "Moonshine." And the tune "They Want Your Monkey," about a father warning his coming-of-age daughter about the other gender, is unlikely to win a Dove Award from the gospel community.
"'Moonshine' tells the tale of a guy who moves to the suburbs but still requires his fix from a buddy back in the hills," says Little, who co-wrote it with Lipton. "Probably everybody that'll hear this CD has had a taste of it or wanted to know what it tasted like. It's just a fun song."
The fun category would also have to include two Lipton songs, the sing-along "Ants In Your Pants" and "Little Bitty City (Charleston W-V-A)." The second deserves to become the official theme song of West Virginia's capital city as it namechecks everything from Tudor's Biscuits and Mayor Danny Jones to Bob Thompson and the Amazing Delores:
"It runs on oil, gas and coal/That's how the folks on the hill make their dough/There's lawyers a'plenty and churches, too/ And even though it's small. There's always plenty to do..."
The CD is much more than the work of a foursome, though, as it harnesses high-powered in-state and out-of-state talent. Twangy rockabilly guitarist Bill Kirchen, best known for the distinctive guitar hook of "Hot Rod Lincoln," plays throughout the CD, while Charleston native John Deaderick, who has toured with the Dixie Chicks, Patty Griffin and Michael McDonald, adds expansive keyboards.
West Virginia singers Melody Jordan, Larry Groce and Bill Kimmons contribute vocals while seasoned Nashville session player and Mountain State native Russ Hicks adds pedal steel. Dobro great Jerry Douglas steps in on lap steel for the rollicking "He Saved My Soul."
The record was produced by Don Dixon, whose many credits include R.E.M., James McMurtry, Darius Rucker and The Smithereens. Dixon also played several instruments and spread "fairy dust" on almost every tune, Lipton notes.
The basic tracks were recorded at Cinderella Studios in Madison, Tenn., one of the Nashville area's oldest continuously operating recording studios. It's owned by South Charleston native Wayne Moss.
As for the core band, Lipton, Little and Harrison have been along for the whole quarter-century ride, while Charlie Tee dropped in as an occasional saxophone player a score of years ago.
"I sort of inadvertently became the front man," says Tee. "I have no problem being in front of people and talking and saying stuff and being irreverent -- being funny or being serious. Like, I've had health issues. I lost my wife a couple years ago and my child. And I talked about that. I don't have a problem saying stuff about it and incorporating it into what we've done."
Listening to him front the Ants in their gospel vein, you're also listening to inter-faith dialogue in action. As a practicing Muslim, Tee sees little conflict.
"Well, there's a lot of Christianity in Islam. Muslims believe in a lot of the Christian standpoints. There are major differences, but there are differences that are not so, you know, hellbent. A lot of times in songs where we talk about 'God,' I'll talk about 'Allah.'"
Lipton takes up the theme.
"I think all four of us are different quote religions," he says. "For me, it's more the spirit of the music and general message. The thing that struck me when I first got into gospel-soul music was that there was no other genre of music where you find people singing like that, singing with that power and passion. Whatever you think about the religion part of it, there's something that draws that out in people."
So, after a quarter century of being Ants, what advice might they have for bands seeking musical longevity?
"Like it," says Charlie Tee. "And be around people that you like."
"That's exactly right," says Little as the band starts to move toward the living room to rehearse. "Stay friends."
"We're way beyond having stars in our eyes," Lipton adds. "That makes it easier, too.
"We played The Empty Glass on Wednesdays for 18 years and as often as not it would be an empty Empty Glass. And I think one thing we kind of found is if you can play for nobody and still have a good time, you're kind of on the right track. Then, when you have people it's, like, a bonus."
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at email@example.com or 304-348-3017.