Rusty’s darker side project in full swing
A common lament around Indiana’s original music scene is that too few of its deserving acts ever decisively break out to national acclaim.
The upside for local fans, however, is a population of top-notch songwriters and performers who remain based in the area while consistently producing fresh and interesting music year after year.
Several of them will showcase their current incarnations Friday, when Lazarus, Action Strasse and Virgil play Fountain Square’s Radio Radio.
Lazarus is a new band, album and alter ego for rapper/DJ/club host Russell Johnson. He’s better known as Rusty Redenbacher of the Mudkids, a hip-hop group that has conjured a positive vibe across four albums and more than a decade of live shows.
The Lazarus project, however, came from a different place — a period of depression, career frustration and personal loss.
“Because of various things I was living through, I’d written an album that was darker than the Mudkids stuff,” Johnson says. “It’s real-life shit that I’d just never addressed.”
He started recording last year with producer S.P. Star, who programmed grooves behind Johnson’s rants for what they describe as “a straight hip-hop album.” The overall mood is summed up in the epic track “Double Negative,” which earns a parental advisory sticker twice in its first line.
The album Lazarus is now in the can, with artwork selected, waiting for its creators to find someone to bankroll a release or else bite the bullet and do it themselves. “But just having the songs finished feels good,” Johnson says. “It was like purging. It helped me get back on my feet.”
For live performances, however, he wanted flesh-and-blood musicians. He turned to a longtime friend, guitarist Dino Codalata, with whom he first rose to local notoriety nearly two decades ago in Birdmen of Alcatraz. Joining them are brothers Jesse Reddington on bass and T.J. Reddington on drums, whom Johnson met through his blog.
Now with several shows under its belt and some demos on tape, Lazarus the band is developing its own ominous hybrid of funk, rock and hip-hop, along with a camaraderie that places the songs in a very different context.
“Now I’m having a hard time reaching for those emotions,” Johnson says, “because I’m having so much fun with my buddies.”
Lazarus is kicking its live schedule into high gear this fall, with upcoming dates that also include Saturday, October 20 at Birdy’s Bar & Grill and Friday, October 26 with Virgil at Spin Nightclub.
But Johnson is quick to point out that the Mudkids still rehearse weekly and are working on a fifth album. And he has no plans to leave his many Indianapolis collaborators for the flash of a bigger town.
“If I go to New York or L.A.,” he says, “I’m just another rapper.”
A very different sound comes from another four-piece band with an equally long pedigree: Action Strasse, led by guitarist-vocalist Vess Ruhtenberg and guitarist John Zeps.
Ruhtenberg has been proving himself as a musician, songwriter and frontman since the mid-’80s with bands including Jot, the Zero Boys, the Datura Seeds, the United States Three and the Pieces. Prolific? When his current cohorts challenged him to write a new song for every rehearsal, he came through with 11 in a row.
Zeps brings a daunting six-string resume that includes stints with Delirium, Transgression, Soulpaint, Acid Green, Ice Nine and Burn It Down. He was playing in the heavy, noisy band Majhas with bassist Tommy Roosa and drummer Tony Reitz when they found themselves without a vocalist. Eventually Ruhtenberg’s name came up.
“Vess and I have been friends since the late ’80s,” Zeps says. “We were always hanging out, but we never played together.”
Once they did, the result was unsurprising but certainly entertaining: catchy songs that pack a serious punch, with smartass lyrics and insane guitar solos.
“Twenty years later, we’re forging our own sound,” Ruhtenberg declares with obvious irony, shooting down any attempt to label that sound. “It’s not like we sat down and had a meeting.”
Action Strasse (which takes its name from an obscure ’70s tune by Britain’s Sensational Alex Harvey Band) has been playing local gigs for a year and plans to release its debut album, American Gas Jive, in early 2008. A couple small labels have talked about issuing the disc, but no decisions have been made. The band plans to keep playing regionally and make some strategic visits to the coasts, but nothing too drastic.
“We’re not going to spend nine months in a van together, eating peanut butter sandwiches,” Ruhtenberg says. “We’ve grown up.”
Rounding out Friday’s lineup at Radio Radio is the instrumental quartet Virgil, another group of local rock veterans just back from a seven-year hiatus. Led by the twin-guitar attack of Bob Bridges and Brenden Birch — with Thomas Janes on bass and new member Bennett Williams on drums — the band plays songs of extreme energy that are based on heavy riffs but evolve outward with the complexity and versatility of jazz and progressive rock.
WHAT: IMC Rocks presents Lazarus, Action Strasse, Virgil
WHERE: Radio Radio
WHEN: Friday, October 19, 9 p.m., $5, 21+