Smile Politely

My Dinner with Alex: Constant Velocity’s Muttonhead

Alex Smith of the Normal, Illinois, band Constant Velocity took me out for grilled cheese sandwiches at Sunsinger, where we talked about his new CD, Muttonhead; Eric Clapton; and why he can get a gig in any city except Champaign-Urbana and Lawrence, Kansas.

Alex: (in the car, driving to Sunsinger) Our producer Jerry Erickson is in the film Any Which Way But Loose. You know, the film with —

William: — Clint Eastwood and —

A: — an orangutan, I believe.

W: I was a kid when that came out. When truckers were fashionable.

A: Right. I remember. At the end of that film, there’s a country band in a bar, and there’s a bass player with big, poofy hair. That’s Jerry: “Muttonhead.”

W: Wow. So the CD Muttonhead is named after —

A: It’s named after that guy. Also, it’s a very google-able name. Our last album was called Constant Velocity, and when you type in “Constant Velocity,” you get thousands and thousands of hits for CV joints. And then you need to select out “joint,” transaxle,” “transmission,” “carburetor,” (the American spelling and the British spelling). … But if you type in “Constant Velocity Muttonhead,” you only get me. And I would imagine that informs a lot of decisions that bands make these days about naming stuff. You can’t call yourself “floss” anymore.

W: Definitely. The The is the most suck-ass google band name.

A: (laughs)

W: Was Muttonhead his name before you worked with him, or did you name him that?

A: That’s what everyone calls him. He’s like an older, more avuncular figure in our lives. I find I can’t call him Muttonhead. I call him Jerry. I’m tempted to call him Mr. Erickson. …

W: Did he produce your first CD?

A: Yeah. He’s produced all of our CDs.

W: How many have there been?

A: Three, actually. But the first one is our fake first one. There’s a real first one that nobody’s heard, that I haven’t released yet. But I’ve got mastered and it’s ready to go. …

W: What makes the fake first one fake?

A: It’s really our second one. And we’ve actually been together a bit longer than we let music press and everybody know. Now we’ve been together for [tape distortion renders this unintelligible].

W: So when you appeared on my show on WEFT with the Guerilla Parlor Ensemble, were you called Constant Velocity?

A: No. We were Alister Smith and the Reduction. Which was a name we had to change, because when you say “reduction,” everybody thinks breast reduction.

W: Oh. That’s not very rock.

A: No. No it’s not.

W: Better to be the —

A&W: (in unison) — augmentation. (laughter)

A: Precisely. The Aching Back Problem.

W: Yeah. With David Lee Roth. (FM DJ voice) Silicone! … So you must have become Constant Velocity sometime shortly after that?

A: Yeah. I wanted to take my name off the band. It seemed too egotistical.

W: Thanks for not being the “Alex Smith Band.” I’ve noticed that every band that has that kind of name bugs me. Steve Miller Band. Dave Matthews Band. They all blow.

A: Every local band I know of, if you have a name like The Band, you’re going to be a hippie band. Hippie, jazz, fusion.

W: I sat in with the Mississippi Hippie Jug Band. That was a mess.

A: There’s The Band.

W: Now that’s not very google-able.

A: No.

W: (We enter Sunsinger.) I had a friend who worked here who says that the owners are real pricks, so if you want to spill something or break something, feel good about yourself.

A: It does seem like sort of a douchebag locale. (We seat ourselves and look through the menu.) This is it: the Grilled Cheese Supreme. It’s crazy-good.

W: The first CD had a song called “Champaign …”

A: The fake first CD, yeah. About my unrequited love for Champaign, for wanting to play in this town. It’s very very difficult to book a show in this town if you’re not from this town. This town is famous for being a hard place to get in to.

W: That’s surprising. It seems like there’s a lot of venues.

A: Lawrence, Kansas is the same way. This town does have a lot of venues, but it has very few bookers. There are five or six local bands who keep it locked down. It’s hard to bust in. As opposed to a bigger city, where it’s like, “Come on in, there’s plenty of room for everybody.”

W: That’s too bad. Do you enjoy touring?

A: Nope. When I get on stage I’m happy, but touring is a big pain in the ass. I don’t see why everybody can’t just come to me. I’ve got all my stuff all set up. I’ll just play it for them.

W: Yeah! Can I put that on Smile Politely?

A: Definitely.

W: By appointment.

A: That kind of goes with my subscription rock star idea. I will be your personal rock star. For a certain amount of money, I will come hang out with you, I will denigrate your values, I will trash your house — if you’d like me to.

W: Is that extra?

A: Well, the subscription plan steps up. And if I get enough subscribers, that will sustain me as a rock star. “What band do you like?” “I have my own rock star. It’s this guy.”

W: So if I pay extra, you will trash my house —

A: — yep —

W: — smoke my stash —

A: — yep —

W: — and sleep with my girlfriend?

A: (laughs)

W: The top-tier package.

A: What would we call that package? The full Keith Richards? No, I think the full Keith Richards would just be passing out in your hedgerow. We’ll call it the full Rod Stewart. I’ll show up in the checkered pants, the tartan suit. You won’t forget it. And the first step is the Ron Wood level, where I just kind of come around the corner and wave: “ ‘ello.”

W: Just have crazy hair and do a photo op.

A: You’ll be hanging out with your friends in a bar, and I’ll just breeze through and say, “Hi. Good to see you again.”

W: You can call your next CD By Appointment Only.

A: Have I told you about my next CD?

W: No.

A: Seven Songs About Eric Clapton.

W: (skeptical) Really.

A: Let me tell you about Seven Songs About Eric Clapton.

W: You’d better.

A: I picked Eric Clapton as a neutral figure around whom to write a bunch of songs. Then I started doing research on Eric Clapton, and he spilled over from neutral figure to another loathsome celebrity. … I have a lot of guitar students. I get middle-aged students, kind of life-long desk jockeys. And part of their middle-aged crisis is to take up the guitar. And they really identify with Eric Clapton, because of his general blokeiness. He’s just a guy. And you could imagine him at State Farm, or Country Companies, working the desk next to you. Just kind of a regular guy. Which in a way I find sort of admirable about him. That he never tried to come out with some flamboyant personality. He’s just kind of a dude. And I appreciate that about him.

But what I don’t appreciate about him is his sort of unapologetic, unreconstructed racism. He has a lot of things in common with that whole baby boomer generation. Extreme selfishness. After battling alcoholism for part of the Eighties, and finally getting clean and kicking that, he started doing advertisements for Budweiser. Kind of interesting. Shows an uncomplicated, un-nuanced sense of things.

W: It’s very uncomplicated.

A: (laughs) “I’ll take the money!” Now, of course, he does ads for Rolex and BMWs or Mercedes — some Nazi car or another. … And I always thought, looking at Mr. Guitar Student across the way from me, “You identify very deeply with this man, but I think that you’d find that, if you met him, you guys would have absolutely nothing in common at all.” And from there the album was built. I use periods in Eric Clapton’s life to write about things that are interesting to me. …

Waiter: (bringing our desserts) Tiramisu … and chocolate love cake.

W: What did that guy say to you?

A: He looked deeply and soulfully into my eyes. My wife is beginning to suspect. …

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