So 27-year-old Aaron Loesch is going round and round trying to describe his -- and by extension, his band's -- operative aesthetic, and in his mind anyway it has something to do with old beat-to-hell cars and Danny Elfman's spooky soundtracks and 1920s jazz. He searches for the word "orchestral," even though "orchestral" music proper hardly ever incorporates the fingerpicking of three-quarter-size parlor guitars home-rigged with humbuckers, and finally he settles on a story: "I was in New York, and I met this girl on the subway, and she was cute but she had these horse teeth, you know, just big old bones sticking out of her mouth. I thought she was foxy."
His point -- about the inimitable pleasures of the rough edge -- is something more than the standard scruff-rocker's allegiance to "authentic" unpolished slop, much less the ugly-for-ugly's-sake aesthetic of, for instance, Rusted Shut. Jug O' Lightnin', Loesch's band, may be steered with an ugly stick, but it don't make ugly music. There's not much about the band's mix-and-match that could be accurately described as authentic either. Certainly not "pure" in any established stylistic sense. And it's not about being antique, though being old seems to have something to do with it.
It's sure not about being consistent. This is a self-described jug band with no jug, anchored by a "washtub" bass player whose instrument is a comparatively high-tech hybrid with two strings traversing a standard bass guitar neck bolted to the traditional, if amplified, galvanized tub, whose slack-ass, wife-beater-wearing front man scoots around town in an incongruously immaculate black Jaguar XJ-6. (Loesch works days at his dad's Jag repair shop; he assembled the sweet ride himself.)
Loesch bandies all the buzzwords about "raw" sounds, and his rough-and-ready influences are dutifully name-checked: Osborne Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, Blind Lemon Jefferson. That you can listen all night to Jug O' Lightnin' without hearing any "pure" country, any "pure" bluegrass or any "pure" blues, and still walk away thinking that the name-drops aren't entirely misplaced, that they aren't in fact sufficient to their descriptive duties, is what makes Loesch's band a happy anomaly. Even in a local scene that pridefully confounds its isms, The Jug is something else entirely.
"The clumsiness is intended," Loesch says. "That's the beauty of it. That humanistic quality. We try to refrain from songs that sound melodic and produced and pleasing to the ear of what most people want to hear. We try to stick to that ugly sound. You can draw a conclusion that the three of us are really confused. And we're happy with that."
The confusion comes honestly, from the growing-up days Loesch spent running around on his parents' 11-acre spread in Chappell Hill singing along with Elvis, Waylon, Johnny Paycheck -- whatever was whirring around his mom's eight-track. He played a little organ back then, until his dad brought home a guitar for the nine-year-old. By age 13, at which point the family had moved to Houston, Loesch figures he had learned his way around the six-string pretty well, deep into the teenagers' obligatory Eddie Van Halen fixation. But after a while, he says, the '80s metal thing started wearing thin.
"You learn music, and then you learn taste" is Loesch's optimistic take, but for several years, the budding guitar hero couldn't figure where to funnel his prowess. "I didn't want to hear 1/32 notes spitting out of a guitar." So in the mid-1990s, looking for a way out of the "modern rock" rut, Loesch bought himself a pawn-shop banjo and started taking lessons. He learned the three-fingered Scruggs style well enough to absorb it into his bloodstream before breaking his hand -- he says in a fight -- and transferring his fingerpicking skills back to the more forgiving guitar. He found a cheap little parlor guitar, rebuilt it, added pickups and discovered a "gutty" sound that could absorb whatever foot-stomping sloppiness Loesch cared to bang into it. And therein lay the answer to his question: how to play intricately and fast, without sucking.
"It's the same as playing cheesy '80s metal riffs, but country-style. Thus Jug O' Lightnin'."
The Jug, though, didn't really start to come together until three years ago, when Loesch met a like mind in "Mopar" Mike Sinclair, a multi-instrumentalist and vintage Dodge fanatic with a parallel jones for the vintage jug sound. Loesch remembers meeting Sinclair at Silky's on Washington Avenue and getting together to jam at the bassist's house behind the blues club. Right then right there, Loesch says, they knew they'd found a sound they could work with. Several drummers and nine months later, the duo rehearsed with Chris King, better known for his bass-playing stints with Carolyn Wonderland, and found King an enthusiast of the rickety backseat drumming style that had frustrated prior timekeepers.
Loesch likes to tell a story about arriving at King's house one day to find the drummer changing a tire, trying to crank one last lug nut onto the thread. Loesch took a look and saw that the lug was cross-threaded halfway down the bolt. "It was all fucked up, but he was just going for it, you know. That's the way he plays drums."
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Thus complete, The Jug embarked on a standing Sunday-night showcase at Rudyard's that's now a year old and running. The Rudz gigs are free, so no one complains much about the occasional drunks on either side of the mike or the starting hour (reasonable guess: midnight) that ensures nobody but closing-time regulars will ever see the band there. Still, sparks arc through the gaps, and even when the three-piece is wobbling along on just five cylinders, there's something worth hearing. It's usually Loesch, ripping out breakneck banjo patterns on one of his battered guitars (he's got dozens of the things, collects them, Silvertone being his personal favorite) or blowing a kazoo solo, or wailing -- and the boy can sing -- something about trains or the Harris County Jail out from under the brim of a floppy felt hat. Loesch is, in his own words, "in character" at these moments, and the yahooism adds to the presentation, but he doesn't carry the illusions, or the pretensions, of strict period traditionalists. "We're not trying to preserve old styles. We take a fundamental here and there."
And filter them through Loesch's slightly addled sensibility, which swings back and forth between a moody love of any noun that can take the adjective "swampy" and a fixation on the "spooky" side of Bjork. You're not going to catch all that in the live show, but hints appear on a forthcoming CD (best guess: September) in the form of organs, guitars that sound like organs, whistling solos, "ooh chick" backup and three-piece kazoo harmonies. It's the most un-boring, big damn long 18-some-odd track CD since Horseshoe dropped King of the World. It'll probably have a name by the time a record release show is announced.
Then again, maybe The Jug will get distracted writing chamber music for a dance troupe -- an actual project, Loesch says -- and forget.
"Leaving people confused is fine by us. It's a stunt band. We'll try it. Hopefully they don't throw hard objects."