“I think this record’s a pretty good representation of what I do,” Eric Ambel says of Lakeside, his first new solo release in a dozen years. “For me, the looser the better. That’s kind of what I feel like I have to offer. And to be loose, you have to be really good. A thing that I learned in college was that you clean up the house before the party, not after.”
The veteran singer/guitarist/songwriter/producer — known to his friends, associates and bandmates as Roscoe — has spent the past three and a half decades building a powerful body of raw, personally charged music that’s earned him a far-reaching reputation as a rock ‘n’ roll original, while keeping him busy in his parallel careers as producer, sideman and collaborator.
A deeply committed rocker as well as a thoughtful, crafty songwriter, Ambel has made enduring music as a solo artist and as a member of the Del-Lords, the Yayhoos and countless incarnations of his own legendary combo Roscoe’s Gang. His fiery, inventive guitar work has graced landmark albums by everyone from Steve Earle to Joan Jett to Run-DMC. And his production skills have enlivened recordings by a wide range of artists from across the musical spectrum.
But it’s in his own uncompromising albums that Ambel’s unmistakable rock ‘n’ roll vision shines brightest. Lakeside — whose title namechecks the Lakeside Lounge, the beloved bar and music venue which Ambel co-owned and operated in New York’s East Village from 1996 until 2012, when it became the victim of skyrocketing rents and rampant gentrification — shares its namesake’s gritty honesty and lack of pretense. Those qualities run through such memorable new originals as the crunching, witty “Have Mercy”, written with Charlene McPherson (Spanking Charlene) and “Don’t Make Me Break You Down,” the loping barroom lament “Buyback Blues” and the haunting instrumental album-closer “Crying In My Sleep.” The latter tune is actually one of the first songs Ambel ever wrote, dating back to 1985.
Elsewhere on Lakeside, Ambel applies his formidable interpretive skills to “Here Comes My Love,” an urban honky-tonk anthem written by his Del-Lords bandmate Scott Kempner; the slow-burning Gillian Welch/David Rawlings number ‘Miss Ohio”; and a reading of the Motown classic “Money,” delivered here in a raucous rendition that nods to Jerry Lee Lewis’ Live At the Star Club version, a longstanding favorite on the Lakeside Lounge’s legendary jukebox.
Other Lakeside highlights also include “Hey Mr. DJ,” “Let’s Play with Fire”” and “Massive Confusion,” all of which were written or co-written by fellow iconoclast and ex-Squirrel Nut Zippers leader Jimbo Mathus, an old friend and kindred spirit, whose 2013 album White Buffalo Ambel produced. Despite his own extensive production resume, Ambel chose to bring in Mathus as producer on Lakeside.
“Jimbo hired me to produce him because he’s smart enough to know that he shouldn’t produce his own record, and I did the same,” Ambel notes. “As the late Jim Dickinson said, self-producing is like self-dentistry.”
“I had the opportunity to get Jimbo up here to play on some other sessions that I was producing, so we worked on my stuff for three days, and then he came back a few weeks later for two days more. We worked really quick and really loose, and Jimbo encouraged me to be even looser than I would be on my own.”
Although much of the album was written and recorded in the wake of the Lakeside Lounge’s much-lamented closing, it took awhile for Ambel to realize that the music that he was creating was an extension of the defunct bar’s scrappy spirit.
“I never really had time to mourn the Lakeside,” he explains. “It was a lot of work, so when it closed, I was relieved at first. I was sure that somebody else would pick up the slack and open a nice little bar with live music where we could hang out. But that never happened. The Real Estate Monster made it impossible for anybody to open a cool little place like ours. That’s when I started to really miss the Lakeside, and realized that this big thing was gone from my life. And that’s when I realized that that’s what this record is about.”
Lakeside’s vivid sense of place is further reflected in the album’s eye-catching packaging, which incorporates a shot of the Lakeside taken by photographer Daniel Root during its last days. The album’s cover, meanwhile, is an evocative shot of Lake Geneva in Fontana, Wisconsin, where Ambel’s family spent summers during his youth, and which was the original visual inspiration for the Lakeside Lounge.
To give Lakeside — Ambel’s fourth album under his own name, following 1988’s all-star party session Roscoe’s Gang, 1995’s turbo-charged urban rock ‘n’ roll Loud and Lonesome and 2004’s eclectic Knucklehead — an appropriately memorable presentation, Ambel is releasing the album in a limited signed, numbered vinyl LP edition, including a download card with links to both CD quality and Hi-Res 192/24 bit digital versions of the album.
“So here’s my thing,” Ambel says. “I went ahead and made this crazy record in my studio with a super commitment to hi-fi, and we did it with a combination of super-high-resolution digital and mixing to analog. People were saying vinyl’s just a fetish, it’s just a fad. But then it hit me, that the people who are still willing to actually pay for music are the people that buy vinyl and the people who buy hi-res digital. I’m not making this thing for everybody; I’m making it for the people that want it.
“Also, I like the limitations of vinyl, because working with limitations and rules is great for creativity,” he continues. “Those limitations are almost, like, post-modern. At a certain point, the glass is full.” And on top of that there’s the wonderful package.
Making music has been a life’s work for Ambel. The Illinois native formed his first band, the punk-inspired Dirty Dogs, in the late 1970s while attending college the University of Wyoming. The Dirty Dogs released the cult-classic single “Sorority Girl,” before changing their name to the Accelerators and relocating to Los Angeles. In L.A., Ambel began a two-year stint as lead guitarist in Joan Jett’s original Blackhearts, touring extensively and playing on Jett’s landmark 1981 I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll album.
He exited the Blackhearts in the early ’80s to co-found the gritty New York foursome the Del-Lords with ex-Dictator Scott Kempner and future Cracker drummer Frank Funaro. Between 1984 and 1990, the Del-Lords released four highly regarded studio albums and one live disc, and helped to usher in the ’80s roots-rock mini-boom. While still a member of the Del-Lords, Ambel launched Roscoe’s Gang, which began as an informal side combo but soon evolved into a serious vehicle for Ambel’s vocal and songwriting skills, as well as his knack for tapping the talents of some of New York’s best musicians.
In 1996, Ambel co-founded the alt-country supergroup the Yayhoos with ex-Georgia Satellites frontman Dan Baird, Satellites/Shaver bassist Keith Christopher and noted drummer/tunesmith Terry Anderson. That band released a pair of widely acclaimed albums, Fear Not the Obvious on Bloodshot Records in 2001 and Put the Hammer Down in 2006.
Beginning in the 1980s, Ambel has built a prestigious resume as producer, bringing excitement and immediacy to notable recordings by the likes of the Bottle Rockets, the Blood Oranges, Nils Lofgren, Freedy Johnston, Mojo Nixon, Marshall Crenshaw, Blue Mountain, the Backsliders, Go to Blazes, Tammy Faye Starlite, Spanking Charlene, Sarah Borges and Mary Lee’s Corvette, the last act led by his wife, singer-songwriter Mary Lee Kortes.
In 1999, Ambel launched Cowboy Technical Services, his own 24-track analog/digital recording studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which has since played host to the likes of Ryan Adams, Los Lobos, Robert Randolph, Regina Spektor, Steve Wynn, Laura Cantrell, Marah, Dana Fuchs, The Ghost Wolves and the Silos, and whose laid-back atmosphere and combination of vintage and modern gear have made it one of New York’s most popular recording facilities.
From 2000 until 2005, he balanced the demands of running a studio and a bar with his duties as lead guitarist in Steve Earle’s band the Dukes, touring extensively and playing on the Earle albums Jerusalem, The Revolution Starts Now, Just An American Boy and Live from Austin TX. In 2010, the Del-Lords reformed, touring Europe and releasing the Eric Ambel produced album Elvis Club three years later.
After three and a half decades and several lifetimes’ worth of musical adventures, Eric Ambel’s passion for rock ‘n’ roll continues to burn as brightly as ever, as Lakeside makes clear.
“The stuff on this record is just stuff that I really like,” he concludes. “I didn’t have to think about how I was gonna play the songs live, or if anybody will play it on the radio. I’m not looking to change the record business. There are a certain number of people who are interested in what I do, and they’re the ones I’m aiming to reach. If you’re the kind of person who breaks in your own jeans, then you might like this record.”