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The Morlocks Play the Blues 

Revived band gives the Chess songbook the L.A. punk treatment

Thursday, Aug 19 2010
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It seems the rock & roll Gods — or the Grim Reaper — have been trying to tell the Morlocks' lead singer, Leighton Koizumi, something for a while now. After all, in 1999 Spin magazine declared him dead (in print) not long before a live album was released abroad without his involvement, titled Wake Me When I'm Dead.

Though he's obviously been fascinated by dark imagery and themes — the first band he joined, at 16 in hometown San Diego, was called the Gravedigger V, and an early Morlocks record was titled Submerged Alive — Koizumi wasn't listening.

When we speak with him by phone he's very much alive, residing in Spain with his fiancée and about to reemerge in a big way with a bombastic lineup of Los Angeles bandmates and a new record featuring clever takes on some classic blues material, The Morlocks Play Chess.

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Not to say that the Morlocks haven't required resuscitation a few times during their 25-year lifespan. Koizumi cops to a now-conquered heroin problem and a subsequent downward spiral that saw him relocate to San Francisco for a while and then take a break from the band for 10 years. He has no idea, though, where Spin's report that he'd overdosed came from. "I have never OD'd," he insists.

Heroin deaths might be so passé, but the truth behind this tale is a lot more sordid. The reason for Koizumi's vanishing act from music-making involved the "robbing of a dealer" in a Mexican border town in 1990. Although he was just after drugs, Koizumi got 10 years in prison on a kidnapping charge, because, as he tells it, the incident involved "tying people up."

The singer has always been a self-proclaimed "habitual line-stepper." But as longest-serving bandmate Lenny Pops says of his frontman, "He's always been completely open about his past," and his talent has never been overshadowed by his lifestyle.

After leaving the slammer around 2000, Koizumi got sober via the MusiCares MAP Fund and reunited with an old cohort: Bob Forrest of Thelonious Monster, now a counselor seen on TV's Celebrity Rehab. Forrest was long known for his own struggles, and back in the day, Monster and the Morlocks (two of the earliest bands on Epitaph Records) were peers and pals with promise.

Massive mainstream success didn't happen for either, but had Koizumi not been focused on getting clean after his incarceration, he could have had a second chance during the early 2000s, when a slew of garage-style bands, including the Hives and the White Stripes, broke big.

He did become part of a new psych-rock scene in Los Angeles, jamming and hanging with various musicians, including guys from the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Spindrift. From these social circles, a proper reformation of the Morlocks began. Pops (the Red Hearts, the Thieves, BJM) joined on guitar, along with Bobby Bones (no longer with the band), bassist Joe Batula and drummer Marky Arnold. The Morlocks toured and recorded a smoldering comeback disc, Easy Listening for the Underachiever (2008), for a European label. The friend who co-produced it, Nic Jodoin, joined the band for the supporting tour and never left.

Although Underachiever was never released in the U.S., copies did float around (there's one in our own CD collection). Somebody in song licensing got one, too, and the group soon found snippets of its catchier material used in everything from television dramas to T.G.I. Friday's commercials. "One of the people instrumental in placing our music for TV went on to work for Chess' back catalog," explains Jodoin. "He came up with the idea for us to tackle these blues songs last year."

Covering epic tunes like Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" and "Who Do You Love," Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" and Elvis Presley's "Feel So Bad" was a daunting endeavor, to say the least. Koizumi says he was "iffy at first."

"We did a solid month of research on these songs before we knew what we were going to do," Pops says. "We'd try them three to five different ways, experimenting, sometimes completely rearranging, till we all agreed."

"There's, like, 50 versions of each of these songs out there, often just from the original artist," Jodoin adds. "Hearing so many different takes on them, we felt free to put our own stamp and, you know, fuck 'em up a bit."

The Morlocks' stamp is more like a mad stomp. Their signature sound is raw, sexy and loose, with furious, fuzzy and/or sludgy guitars, brutal drum work and psychedelic, surf and British Invasion nuances. Koizumi's vocals bring to mind Iggy Pop (whom he cites as an early influence) and the New York Dolls' David Johansen, and he's got the showmanship to back up these comparisons.

Pops calls their sound "caveman rock." Koizumi calls it "dirty punk." Their bluesy quality makes them suited for the Chess undertaking, and for the most part, it's a checkmate. Koizumi's unyielding persona gives his interpretations a swagger and sonic credibility few crooners could pull off, his death-defiant existence not unlike those of the legendary artists he's covering. When this dude busts out a hell-raising, John Lee Hooker–caliber "Boom, Boom, Boom ... A-haw-haw-haw" (whatever it actually means), you believe it.

The Morlocks' record-release party is at Crazy Girls, 1433 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., on Wednesday, August 25 (with Spindrift and the Dolly Rocker Movement).

Reach the writer at llecaro@laweekly.com

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