It is quiet. Tall and thin, Jason Ludwig’s blue eyes hide under prominent brows. His hair is long, light brown, tied back. Mellow, sipping a beer, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, when he talks, it flows, and he often moves his hands, easily gesturing and often guiding talk to the topic of music. Making solid eye contact, Ludwig periodically runs his fingers through his full beard. His dog, Rad, clearly likes women.
We talk of Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, Lake Trout and Nina Simone. But these days, he’s loving Pop music — although, he explains, “Nothing directly ever influences my writing. The writing influences the writing. I start with the music, and the music determines the genre, the direction it’s gonna take.”
Back in the wildness (aka high school), former noctaluca bassist Donovan Schlunt (Revenge Piñata) taught Ludwig how to play guitar. Ludwig buckled down at Ohio University. And then he didn’t buckle down, diving into the raucous filmmaking world. “I loved to shoot,” he says. He’s quite the film buff, but music grabbed him in Athens. Ludwig wrote a slew of songs, playing solo gigs and gaining a steady fan base.
In 2001, moving to Cincinnati, Ludwig opened for the Black and Tan Carpet Band.
“That was how I wedged my way into the scene,” he says.
His first solo effort, Pell Mell, came in 2003. Deciding he wanted to “rock out,” in 2004 he created the heavy-hitting band noctaluca. A loud, progressive group, noctaluca barreled into town with hard Rock that boiled with adrenaline, electrifying eager crowds. A powerhouse of deep rhythm, noctaluca gained the attention of Alan Niven, Guns ’N Roses’ manager, who hailed the band’s 2006 album, Towering the Sum, as one of the best records of the past decade. Often taking a political angle, noctaluca was driven by ear-catching guitar riffs, heavy drums and Ludwig’s howling vocals.
Smart lyrics and fierce rhythm work made for many live favorites and memorable shows. Released in 2008, Still the Wicked Rest was the well-muscled follow-up album, with an intensity spawned by recording in an old cathedral, allowing for a roughness mixed with the perfect reverb.
By the time Noctaluca Unplugged was released in 2009, the band had gained an extensive, core fan following:
“By the time noctaluca ended, we had a healthy, extremely devoted fan base,” Ludwig says.
“I don’t think I’m overstating that when I say ‘extremely devoted.’ They were really rooting for us, you know.”
Just listen to “Doomed Are the Killers Who Hide Behind the Banner of God,” known to fans as the “motherfucker song.” Ludwig laughs and says, “Yeah, that one really got the crowd goin’.” It did. At any given show, when that song started, there was screaming.
But then something changed.
“I wasn’t planning on calling it quits with noctaluca even though the desire to do something different solo was eating away at me,” Ludwig says, “but we had vastly different approaches about how to go about creating songs … not just what kind of songs we want to make, but getting there, starting from zero, my approach was becoming vastly different.”
After six solid years together, noctaluca played a farewell show at the late Play by Play club last summer.
Soon, Ludwig headed in an entirely different direction.
“If noctaluca is the dark, this is the light,” he says. “The lyrical content in Still the Wicked Rest was highly politically charged, angry in its tone, and I wanted it to be that way. But having that mentality took its toll on me. I had all these other songs that were sitting there, tugging on my shirt.”
And these new songs are indeed different — uplifting in nature, many were written originally on piano. Busy tunes, the influences are vast — from Billy Joel to Beck. With producer Jeff Perholtz (of local band The Newbees) on board, there’s a strong Pop influence.
Perholtz has an “encyclopedic knowledge of music,” Ludwig says. “It’s a joy working with him. He helps flesh out the complex harmonies … he hears that stuff.”
Adam Schoen (formerly of Homunculus) plays bass, while noctaluca mates Brandon Schlunt drummed and Aaron Almashy handled guitar.
At Ludwig’s home studio, he plays 12 new, raw songs. From crushingly soulful acoustic numbers with rare, longing vocals to more Pop-influenced tracks with Jazzy influences, these songs are highly complex, but they also maintain a strong otherworldly feel. Inherently classy. Emotion-packed, the sound captures a light heart while still harnessing a certain depth of soul.
Ludwig is known for the way he can hold notes, but on his solo material he blends it with a fresh sound complete with strings (brass to come), resulting in a playful yet layered and heart-centered Pop symphony.
With his new album in hand and soon to be released, Ludwig plans to follow in the footsteps of Heartless Bastards and other locals, moving to Austin in September. There, he’ll literally live in a recording studio through connections with the Austin band, Quiet Company (featuring former Cincy musician Matt Parmenter).
When we listen to his new work, Ludwig is focused and patient; he appears utterly alive, at ease, in his element, driven by the work.
“It sounds crazy, but I’m afraid to get started sometimes,” he says. “(Because) once I do, inevitably, the floodgates open and I’m there for hours, and it’s always creative, it’s always wonderful.”
Indeed. Stay on the lookout — these songs are put together with the touch of true craft and, as always, the vocals are nothing less than startling and gorgeous.
And don’t worry — there’s still a touch of the wicked.