Culture Queer is all about anticipation. In the Indie/Art Pop group’s decade-plus existence, the Cincinnati quartet (often aided by a support staff of A/V techs, go-go dancers, etc.) has turned out just a trio of full-length studio efforts — including the just released Nightmare Band — an EP and a single. And Culture Queer’s live presence has been equally sporadic; the group’s calendar listing only pops up on approximately a quarterly basis.
“It takes us a really long time to make an album, although musically I’d say we’re fairly prolific,” vocalist/guitarist Scott Fredette says at Chicken Lays an Egg, the thrifty Northside boutique co-founded three years ago by CQ drummer Dana Hamblen. “Doing stuff on people’s time scales — I travel a lot — and doing it by ourselves makes it somewhat of a more time-intensive process.”
The long gaps between releases and live appearances are also products of Culture Queer’s elevated perfectionism and an almost pathological schedule: Fredette is a video director; Hamblen also works production (both through Lightborne downtown) as well as Chicken/Egg shifts while performing with CQ, The Fairmount Girls, Darlene and Abiyah; ex-Throneberry bassist/vocalist Sam Womelsdorf is a video producer; and keyboardist/guitarist Jeremy Lesniak juggles school, work and music performance and production (he’s tweaking new albums from Darlene and The Tigerlilies).
The combination of all of it means that Culture Queer makes the most of every opportunity to assemble.
“We don’t play as much as we used to,” Fredette says. “Personally, I didn’t want to get stuck just being a bar/bar/bar/bar band. We do something interesting and we’re pumped for each show. We want to create a vibe that doesn’t just feel like a show. That’s what we’re going for, to varying degrees of success. Live is the most fun for us and when we’re on, it’s the most amazing thing. We want to make it an event.”
Nightmare Band is clearly the best studio work that Culture Queer has produced to date. On CQ’s ReverbNation page, they identify themselves as “Fruitpie Pop for God” and “Bubblegum from underneath the school desk”; Nightmare Band gives credence to those descriptions. There’s a goofy ’60s sugar Pop swagger that hints at the B-52’s and Devo, while a Glam Rock undercurrent suggests Mott the Hoople if they’d been steered by Eno instead of Bowie.
“We definitely wrote this (album) as a band, so it lives up to its name,” Lesniak says,.
“Scott might come in with two chords and a Punk melody that isn’t anything, then we’ll jam and it will turn into a song. Or I’ll be playing guitar and bring that in, or Sam will bring in ideas or Dana will come up with vocal ideas. But it doesn’t count until everybody puts in their two cents.”
While Culture Queer’s four immensely talented members frequently refer to jamming as part of their creative process, it bears no resemblance to the aimless noodling of the genre that took its name from the practice.
“We listened to all these little riffs on my hard disk recorder, and we had a whole CD of songs,” Hamblen says. “We were like, ‘OK, let’s explore that one, that one and that one.’ ”
“More often than not, there’s just such a good vibe in practice and someone’s testing their amp or getting their sound and someone jumps in on top of that,” Womelsdorf says. “Next thing, we’re recording. We were having so much fun and Jeremy was having the most fun. He was like, ‘I might have overjammed.’ ”
CQ has maintained a sonic profile that includes melodic Indie Rock, Synth Pop and an avant garde sense of experimentalism combined with a fascinating visual/video component — Fredette alludes to Queen, while Hamblen references Sparks. Culture Queer blends in with that company well; they’re all stylistically diverse and appreciate humor in their music, remaining completely serious in the pursuit of excellence while never taking themselves seriously.
“We’re going for sort of a lush conceptual album, not just a Rock album,” Fredette says. “There’s a sound we’re going for and it takes a while … and a bunch of fighting and some arguing. We’re four distinct creative people and we tend to butt heads, but it’s all toward getting something good.”
The band began as a duo with high school friends Fredette and Womelsdorf around 2001. Shortly after, Fredette and Hamblen met to do a Will Oldham video that never panned out and a friendship developed (Womelsdorf credits the pair with focusing the group’s aesthetic vision and humor quotient). Hamblen made CQ a trio and also christened the band, after a phrase given to her by a friend from her Lakota school days, when cool kids referred to arty outsiders as “culture queers.” Lesniak showed up around 2004 from a Noise Rock background and offered CQ a new perspective as well as an eventual producer.
“He played noise through all of our set, and I was like, ‘This is what we’re doing now?’ ” Womelsdorf says. “But people really liked it.”
Early on, CQ did some crazy gigs (“We played the Playhouse in the Park and the CAC, and we’d write plays and just go for it,” Hamblen says), but the band has since honed in on its sound and channeled its fury. In that sense, Nightmare Band bodes well for Culture Queer’s future.
“We always want to evolve, sound-wise, and I think we (do), from one to the next,” Fredette says. “We don’t know how to categorize this album; we don’t know what it sounds like. We don’t know where we’re at, but that’s not a bad thing. I think it’s getting better and better. And we have control of that.”
In typical Culture Queer fashion, the band’s CD release show on Nov. 10 will not be in a club but will take place instead during Fredette’s photography installation of Japanese monster trucks at Northside’s Hoffner Lodge.
“Whether you like it or not, we don’t give a fuck,” Fredette says. “It resonates for me to do it that way, now we want it to resonate for more people. We’re not being elitist; we want to do something that doesn’t feel like people are drinking their beer and it’s just another show. I want it to feel signature. We’re in the Midwest. We have to keep inspired or I’ll go nuts.”
Below is a sampler featuring three tracks from Nightmare Band:
CULTURE QUEER's Nightmare Band is in stores now. Discover more about the band here.