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Exclusive: Eric Ambel Discusses New York's the Del Lords First Album In 23 Years

Eric Ambel is a renaissance man – producer, songwriter, club owner, studio owner – but most of all, he is a guitarist’s guitarist.  He’s done it all – from having been one of Joan Jett’s original Blackhearts to playing alongside the great Steve Earle – but his mainstay has been as a member of New York’s now-legendary Del Lords.  The Del Lords have returned after a 23 year silence with a new album, “Elvis Club” and the veteran New York guitar-slingers:  Eric on guitar and vocals, Scott Kempner (yes, from The Dictators) on guitar and most lead vocals, Frank Funaro on thunder drums and Michael DuClos on bass (replacing long-time thud staffer Manny Caifa) come right back with a solid sonic effort.

When I met Roscoe (as he’s known by most), it was at the stunning apartment he lives in Brooklyn – a comfortable setting, for sure and it was with these good vibes we sat down and started to chat.

Endless thanks go to Eric Ambel for his warmth, humor and hospitality, Cary Baker for making the connection and Evie Ambel for being such a cute cat…

RR:  It’s been what – 22, 23 years since the last album?

EA:  Yes!

RR:  For those who don’t know, what brought The Del Lords back together and to start recording a new album:

EA:  Well, it had been a long time and the guys were all doing different things.  And every once in a while, we would get a call or an e-mail from this one promoter in Spain, who was a superfan.  And I’d be over there with one of my other bands, either with Steve Earle or The Yayhoos and this guy would show up and he was like “we must have The Del Lords; they’re my favorite band” and the guy – he just kinda like wore us down.  And then all of a sudden, it had been twenty years and we thought “let’s check it out”; this guy is asking and I talked to Scott; he had some songs and we weren’t just going to go over there and play all our old stuff.  So I got together with him at my apartment, he showed me the songs and we just started recording from there.  Then we got the guys; I talked to the other guys – we talked to everybody, you know, “what do you think?  Do you want to try this?”  Pepe – the guy from Record Runner – he booked us a tour, so we started recording and we did have this one e.p. for when we went over to Spain that were kind of rough mixes of some of the songs that are on “Elvis Club”.  That’s how we got started again.  

RR:  I’ve been part of that scene – in a band that breaks up and gets back together again – does it feel like the same kind of vibe or does it feel fresher now that all this time has passed?

EA:  It was really – we’ve all been out independently working on our craft.  Scott’s been writing songs; Frank – you know that band Cracker?  They’re the luckiest band in the world to have him playing…  He’s an even better drummer than he was; I’ve been working on all this different stuff; Manny…  He was the one who was completely out of music; he maybe played bass in church or something.  And when it came down to record – he’s a family practice lawyer and we had the time booked – at the last minute, he couldn’t make it.  So I thought, I’ll get Keith Christopher and we’ll go in the studio.  And while we were doing it, Keith – he can be kind of flashy, you know?  And I was going “keep it down, keep it Del Lords-y” (laughing).  I thought maybe Manny would replace the parts, but what Keith played was so great.  So we did this tour with Manny in Spain and then afterwards, he just realized that he couldn’t do it.  But a little at a time, we kept working on the music.  We’d record some more songs; I own a recording studio and it was just kind of fun.  And also, at the time, I owned the Lakeside Lounge for 16 years; from ’96 until last year.  And so before we went to Spain, we played a couple of gigs there – we played there as The Elvis Club – that was our pseudonym.  I don’t think there’s been a real Del Lords gig yet.  We’re playing in June at Bowery Electric, but that’ll be the first proper Del Lords gig.  Even after we had the e.p., we were still doing The Elvis Club.  

The Elvis Club thing – we used to practice at the Music Building on 30th and 8th Avenue (both laugh); we would go up there everyday. The Del Lords – we rehearsed everyday…

RR:  That’s the building that also housed Legal Tender Studios…

EA:  Now it’s more organized; you know, some guy figured out that this is on 8th Avenue in a bad part of the Garment District…

RR:  Yep…

EA:  He figured out that he had this empty building – he could let bands go in there and there’d be six rooms on each floor and it was holy hell at night or on the weekends.  But we rehearsed there in the day; we were a little more business-like about our rehearsal.  We used to call the weekend bands the “six pack bands” (both laughing)…

But one time, we’re on the way up there and we had – The Del Lords had kind of turned into a – we were looking the same – and there were a lot of hookers around that area; they’re in this doorway and see us walking by and they were like “what’s this, the Elvis Club?”  (laughter)

RR:  …which is the perfect genesis for it.  Dare I say?  It’s very New York; it’s gritty – was that something conscious on the part of the band from the get-go?  For the band to have that New York, raw, no bullshit or was it natural?

EA:  No, it was just what we were doing.  We were rock and roll; we had come from punk rock backgrounds, but really, there’s different ways to look at the punk rock thing.  And the way I think me and Scott looked at it from where we had been was that it was the real rock and roll at that time.  What was rock and roll had failed us and this was the needed thing for rock and roll.  It wasn’t like “I’m gonna be in a punk rock band”; it’s rock and roll, so it was organic, how our sound came together.  

RR:  Certainly, that was what drew me to the band initially.  It was very real; it was very fresh by being familiar.  Especially for us since we were from New York anyway, it helps when you have that kind of mentality to a degree.

EA:  Yeah, well back in those days in 1983, ’84, when we were getting started,  you couldn’t say what kind of music you were – you had to say what you weren’t.  

RR:  Yes, indeed…

EA:  “It’s not synth pop”; “it’s not metal”, “it’s not full-on rockabilly”, I mean people thought we were rockabilly because it was kinda twangy.  But we had background vocals with harmonies and stuff – it was a unique combination.

RR:  It also sounded great – the production…  Wasn’t that Neil Geraldo who produced those records?

EA:  Well, Lou Whitney from The Skeletons and The Morells; he did the first record, “Frontier Days” and then Neil did a couple and then Manny and engineer Thom Panuzzio did the last.

RR:  Those records sounded so, so good, from the very beginning, all the way through.  We’ll get to it in a bit, but I love the production on “Elvis Club”.  It has that real warmth to it.

EA:  Well, thank you…

RR:  I personally – I’m automatically drawn to production now more than I am everything else – the beauty of the early Del Lords was that “okay, here’s just a pure band” – what they now call roots rock, maybe?  Or Americana?

EA:  Yeah, we called it roots rock; you know, Lou Whitney would say “yeah, The Del Lords were part of the great roots rock scare of 1984” (both laugh)…  tested roots rock positive…  (laughter)

RR:  That’s great…  Okay, so now – “Elvis Club” – the new album.  You recorded it at Cowboy Techical…

EA:  …Services Recording Rig…

RR:  …here in Brooklyn…

EA:  …Yeah, my buddy Tim Hatfield and I opened our own studio right around…  (imitates Andy Richter’s Conan O’Brien bit) …in the year 2000…!

Both laugh

EA:  We’ve changed locations since, but we’ve been operating all that time.  We had been using other studios and collecting gear – finally, we just had to have our own place.

RR:  It must be a dream; to be able to have your own studio…

EA:  Well, when we’d use other places – a lot of the places, we’d run into the same kind of problems – some places – they didn’t keep up their equipment that well and then also when we’d be doing sessions, we’d would have to bring all this equipment in.  A big part of the sound on all the records I work on is actually the instruments.  You know, guys in a touring band may not have a great electric 12-string for recording or a baritone guitar or a whole bunch of different kinds of amps.  So we wouldn’t have to load all that stuff into wherever we were, finally it was “we’ve got to have our own place”.  It’s been great to have our own place.  Now we’re on South 5th, right by the Williamsburg Bridge.  

RR:  I used to work on Dunham Place.  That’s where that distribution company was; the Brooklyn office. Right underneath the bridge.  Maybe three blocks away?

EA:  South 5th is the north side of Williamsburg Bridge.  We’re actually in what they call Gretsch Building Number 1…

RR:  Okay!…

EA:  …but it doesn’t actually say “Gretsch” on it.  Gretsch Building Number 4 is the one people call “the Gretsch Building”.

RR:  Dunham Place is a little, tiny sidestreet, right off Kent Avenue, near the intersection of Kent and Broadway.

EA:  Okay, I know where it is, yeah.

RR:  Is Domsie’s still there?

EA:  Oh, they just tore the whole thing down.  It’s going to be some huge development there.  

RR:  Oh man, what a drag…  Okay, so how did it come to pass that it was decided you would produce the new album?

EA:  Well, I have the studio and a lot of what made me want to be a producer was from The Del Lords’ earlier experience.  There were some things that were done that I liked and then there were things that I thought were crazy; wrong.  You learn from experience, positive and negative.  And this is what I’ve been doing.  I produce anywhere from five to ten albums a year; I’ve been doing that for all of this time.  So it just seemed like I should do it.   

RR:  Do you find it hard to separate the performer from the producer?  

EA:  Yeah.  Like I…  yes – but it’s kind of a different – it’s producing the band which is different than producing myself as a solo artist.  I was getting a lot of help from the guys and their pitching in.  You know, self-production has been described as being similar to self-dentistry…  (both laughing)

RR:  Ouch…

EA:  …so it was a kind of unique situation.  A lot it – we would work on stuff; I’ve always had a little home studio, too.  When I was in the East Village, I had one and I have one here.  We’d work on stuff here; work on the songs, work on the arrangements so we were really ready when we recorded them.  But we didn’t rehearse or anything like that…

RR:  It was just the idea of having the feel…  Of being prepared.

EA:  Yes, exactly.  We’d get prepared and we’d record.

RR:  How do you feel about the album?

EA:  Oh, I love it; it’s really exciting.  It was pretty effortless; Scott writes a lot of songs; he’s always written a lot of songs and it’s always been part of our thing.  From the very beginning of the band, he’d come in and play us these songs and we’d pick the ones we felt we could contribute to.  That was the sort of group dynamic.  And it still feels the same that way; only having everything in-house, doing the record ourselves, we didn’t have to go and play the songs for anybody.  There was nobody in between us and getting the music done.  So that was a big difference, a really big difference.

RR:  Would it be fair to presume that it then made the process even easier – more fun, more pleasurable?

EA:  Yeah!  It was ten times quicker than anything, other than maybe our first record.  

RR:  So what’s the next step after the album comes out?  Are you guys going to go out on a full tour – can you foresee that?

EA:  Well, we’re going to play; we have an agent in the States and we have an agent for Europe.  We’re going to play – we’re lucky that we’re based in New York and there’s a lot of places that aren’t that far away so we’re going to try to hit the towns…  we’re not going to go get in a van and go across America for three months like we did when we were 23… (laughing) .  But yeah, we’re going to play; there’s a lot of interesting things coming up that we could do, playing-wise.

RR:  Let’s talk about some of your other bands, like The Yayhoos and Roscoe’s Gang and some of the other things that you’ve been part of because it’s not just The Del Lords.  You are a very well-respected guitarist, producer, so…

EA:  The fun thing for me is I really love music and I like guitars and I’m drawn to the kind of…  I’m not just one style but there’s a certain way that songs are written on a guitar that’s different than songs that are written on piano.  So I’m drawn to that vocabulary and since The Del Lords, I had three different solo records and I started to produce for people.  Living in New York, I’ve played my own gig or played with some other people.  The Yayhoos happened when I was writing for my second solo album, “Loud And Lonesome” and I was working with Dan Baird.  He was like “we should get Terry Anderson, too” and that was an early co-writing experiment.  But it was band-like; Dan had this little in Kentucky and we just got in there and I didn’t really think of myself as a songwriter.  I had this manager who had been The Del Lords manager, Mike Lembo, and he said “ you know, when you do that, you are writing songs; you have been writing songs”.  So he started putting me together with some other people and with Dan and Terry, it was so fast.  We’d be working on a song and if somebody stopped, then somebody else would chime in with a line; the songs just got written really fast.  As luck would have it, Terry had a solo album, I had a solo album, Dan had a solo album – Def American had just pulled their support on him – so Dan said “let’s get Keith Christopher in and we’ll have a band” and so we went out and played.  We went to SXSW; we went to Europe – this is in the ‘90’s – and The Yayhoos really started out as a sort of cooperative.  We were playing some songs that we wrote together but basically the songs from all our solo records that we’d all participated in with each other.  So that turned into a band.  

RR:  In the broad sense of it, it’s almost like Nick Lowe/Dave Edmunds – the whole Rockpile thing…

EA:  Yeah, we were playing these songs and we brought all our CD’s out there and then – I forget how it happened – the first Yayhoos record, “Fear Not The Obvious”, we got a little bit of dough from a record company.  You know what they used to call “development money” and instead of going into a studio, we went to Terry’s dad’s barn outside of Raleigh and cobbled together some equipment and wee wrote some songs together and recorded them right then.  That thing sat for a long time; I mean, it might have been several years – until we got tired of making copies for our friends.  And that’s when Bloodshot – they were like “hey, we’d like to put this out”.  So that’s when The Yayhoos became a real thing.  

RR:   A living, breathing, singular band unit.

EA:  Sort of everybody’s favorite second band.  (laughing)  Because we’d continued to do our own thing.  That was good…  and then I did…  there was a lot of producing, too.  I did Go To Blazes, Blood Oranges, The Bottle Rockets, Nils Lofgren – all kinds of bands that I’d been producing.  And then around 2000, I got this call from Steve Earle’s manager; he was asking me for this buddy of mine’s number.  I said “what do you want his number for?” And he said “our guitar player just quit and we’ve got this world tour starting in two weeks” and I was like “well, I want to do it”.  And the guy was like, “well, you’re too busy – you’ve got too much going on; you can’t do it” and I told him “if I’m my own boss and I can’t decide that I want to do it, then I’ve really got a problem”.  So then I was thrown in at the deep end.  And I forget what record, but I was finishing some record and I told the guys, “I’ll do it, but honestly, I cannot even look at these songs for another week, until I get this record done”.  So then I wound up playing and recording with Steve for five years; that was fun.  I learned a lot from that; he’s a really great writer – he writes fast.  When you’re on that gig, sometimes as a sideman, you’re looking at the set list and there might be a couple of dogs down there that you’re not too excited about when it gets to that one…  (laughing) But all of his songs are great, so that was never an issue; it was fun.  Also the band – Will Rigby had been playing with me in Roscoe’s Gang in the ‘90’s, so we had an instant feel when we got together.  

RR:  Getting back to “Elvis Club”.  Between “Flying” and “Southern Pacific” (ed. note:  the Neil Young song); those are my two favorites.  

EA:  You know “Southern Pacific” goes back to the band in the ‘80’s.  When “Re-Ac-Tor” (ed. note:  1980 Neil Young album) came out – do you know Kate Hyman?  

RR:  I know that name really well – I don’t know why but I do.

EA:  She was a music business person and she had an office in the Carnegie Hall building and I used to go there and hang out.  Don Was, when he was in Was Not Was, he was friends with her, too.  And the day that record came out, we went up there and listened to the whole thing.  And I thought “that is a fucking cool record”; I really liked a lot of stuff on that record.  You know, “Got No T Bone”; it was a pretty cool record.  Then Scott got it and he said, “we should do “Southern Pacific and you should sing it”.  And I thought, “are you making fun of me?” – because my singing voice sounds similar.  But we used to do it and it’s a pretty faithful rendition.  But it wasn’t really a plan – we recorded in three batches, the songs to make the record.  And on the last batch we were like “hmmmm”  but it’s my studio and I’d been playing the song, so I said “let’s do “Southern Pacific””, so we just threw it down and it was “yeah, that’s good”.  

RR:  It’s a keeper.  But in listening to the album, it fits the whole feel of the album.  The album starts with “When The Drugs Kick In” and you know you’re in for a ride, with the way it flows and that’s the perfect way to take it out.  Like a little boat going out, you know…

EA:  That was the only place, sequence-wise that it was going to work; just put it on the end…  “okay, you guys – fuckin’ play – lemme hear one more out of you”  (both laugh) – that’s what it was.  

“Flying” – Scott had that one and we had thought maybe Manny would sing that, and then on that last batch of tunes, I said, “well, let me try singing that thing” and it was easy.  I liked it; the whole thing was a pleasurable experience.

RR:  If we still lived in the era of the single, that would have been the lead single, undoubtedly.  It’s kind of like – and I’m going to go back for a moment, since it’s my particular favorite – “Based On A True Story”, where “Judas Kiss” was the obvious single, you know?  It worked perfectly – your voice, the delivery – the whole thing. There’s a real emotion – I think that’s what the key component it, because for me, “Flying” is – as I said and you’ll read in the album’s review – is this is the kind of song John Mellencamp would have written, if he would write something this beautiful.  It’s got that real purity about it.  Not to wax poetic about it, but…

EA:  No!  Scott’s always written some great songs and when you can really throw yourself behind it…  “Judas Kiss” is like that.  I’ve played it a bunch of different ways; on my last solo record, “Knuclehead”, there’s a version which to me, is the definitive version.  And that’s how we’re doing it now.  It’s really slowed down; The Yayhoos are the band; Steve Earle is singing harmony – I’ll give you a copy of it.

RR:  Cool – thanks!

EA:  “Judas Kiss” – the way we did it in the ‘80’s – it’s really sad; it’s a bleak story…

RR:  That’s a painful song; when you listen to those lyrics…

EA:  …and the “up” music is kind of wacky…

RR:  What’s good about it being recorded that way, there is that contradiction.  You sit there and listen to the lyrics and you cannot help but think “Jesus…”.  The music is bouncy but by the end after you hear what’s being said you want to hang yourself…  But that’s the beautiful contradiction.

(Both laugh)

EA:  Speaking of lyrics, nowadays, when you’re in the cottage industry-level music business (laughing), you have to do a lot of things yourself and on The Del Lords website, as of this week, there’s a page that has all the lyrics to all The Del Lords’ recorded songs.  

RR:  Who sat down and typed them all out?

EA:  Scott typed them all out and I put them on the website.  There’s a lyrics page and there’s tabs for all the albums.  He was sending them to me over a long period of time and I just got it done this week.  

RR:  So you’re the webmaster?

EA:  Well…(laughing) “master” is going a little too far…  

RR:  Getting back to the album – there are some songs on here like the one with Dion, “Everyday”, that’s the one with Steve Almaas playing bass as well.  This whole album is so…  broad.  “Princess” has a feel of swamp-rock to it; real down home kind of vibe – that’s the one with the all-minor chord progression?

EA:  Yeah, that’s the one.  

RR:  For me, as a fan and a long-time music person, it makes me glad to think a band like you guys have decided to come back.  It’s nice to be able to see people who can play, who know how to write and hopefully that will spark others – younger people – to do what you’ve done.  You’ve been doing it for – would you say in total, The Del Lords have been together for 30 years?

EA:  Yeah, it’s a very funny thing – we were digging up some stuff and the first demo that we did, we went down to Springfield, Missouri to record with Lou Whitney.  We did a bunch of songs and we’d bought some crappy van so we could go down there. We’re on our way back and The Morells (Lou Whitney’s band) were supposed to play that Friday at this place called the Heartbreak Hotel in St. Louis, but Donnie was sick – the guitar player – so Lou sent us to do the gig and The Morells drummer, Rongo, came with and he was at the door with a sign that said “Donnie’s sick – The Morells can’t make it but Lou sent The Del Lords from New York City” and there was a 4 camera video crew there, set up to do The Morells.  We played 3 sets and they recorded all of us – I hadn’t seen all this stuff; I can’t ever remember having seen it – but I just put it on the computer the other day and it was April, 1983.  So it is 30 years.

RR:  Congratulations, sir!

EA:  But we had 20 off!  You  know when we did the album cover for the first album –Battery Park City hadn’t been built yet – it was all landfill.  That’s us, just standing there in the sand on what would become Battery Park City – with the World Trade Center behind us…

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