Zach Verdoorn: The Claudettes' bass player on music-making

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday November 22, 2022
Share this Post:
Zach Verdoorn (right) with The Claudettes
Zach Verdoorn (right) with The Claudettes

Insurance salesman by day, Zach Verdoorn was a full-time musician up until the pandemic. He was regularly DJing, picking up random gigs here and there with some cover bands in Chicago, and playing in the band The Claudettes.

Currently, he's keeping the day job while maintaining his role as bass player and guitarist in The Claudettes. An openly queer musician, Verdoorn made some time in his day to discuss The Claudettes' new album "The Claudettes Go Out!" (Forty Below), his third with the band.

Zach Verdoorn  

Gregg Shapiro: For those unfamiliar with The Claudettes, what can you tell them about the genesis of the band's name?
Zach Verdoorn: This is kind of a complicated question. There's actually some major history involved. The Claudettes started as a drum and piano duo. The drum and piano duo was employed by a woman at a bar called Claudette's Bar. Claudette was kind of a be honest with you, the whole thing was a spoof [laughs]. It was a fun spoof. They sold it and they told people that it was true. It was like kind of a performance piece. The band would get terrible gigs on purpose. One time, they played in a Staples store. They booked it as the Staples Center, but it was really the center of a Staples store [laughs].

That's very clever. Was there or wasn't there a Claudette?
We hired someone to be a Claudette. When we were first doing shows, we would have a little bar for her onstage. She would buy drinks from the bar and she would sell them from the stage like it was her bar. I wasn't in the band at that time, so it's always weird for me to answer that question because it's still kind of a myth that we kind of keep going. We also don't really push it at all anymore. We're more of just a normal band touring around now. We've added (vocalist) Berit (Ulseth) and me, and it was too hard to carry that myth around.

When did you join The Claudettes?
I joined The Claudettes in 2016. Johnny Iguana and I had played together. We've known each other for almost 20 years. I met him while I was a concert promoter in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as well as a musician. His band played with my band at this really nice pavilion in Sioux Falls, where I was living at the time.

He told me he liked my guitar playing and said if I ever moved to Chicago to look him up. It just so happened that the band I was in called The Kickback, moved to Chicago because our singer's wife moved there. I called Iguana and asked if he wanted to get together and play, and he said yes.

I joined his group Oh My God, so I was doing The Kickback and Oh My God for a couple of years when I first moved here and, between the two bands, was touring a lot. In The Kickback, I was a little bit older than those guys, they were kind of young whippersnappers. Iguana was closer to my age and mindset, and I chose to leave The Kickback and join Oh My God permanently. Then Oh My God broke up and I joined a cover band for a couple of years. Iguana started The Claudettes while I was doing that. Claudettes had a change in their lineup and that's when Iguana asked to join them, so I quit the cover band.

You play bass and guitar in The Claudettes. How long have you been playing each instrument, and do you play any other instruments?
I started playing guitar when I was 11. Then I joined a group that needed a bass player when I was 23. I'd never played bass before. They liked my personality more than the bass player that they had at the time [laughs]. They didn't care that I couldn't play bass as well as he did. They just wanted somebody they could get along with.

I took up the bass at age 23. I practiced for three days and I learned slap technique, because this guy was a crazy slap bass player like Flea (of Red Hot Chili Peppers). I'd never slapped the bass before [laughs]. I took a weekend and I got two lessons from a friend of mine who was a really good bass player. Each day, for 11 hours over this one weekend, I learned how to play all their songs and learned all the slap bass parts. My hands were sore and raw at the end of the weekend, but I was able to get it done.

Johnny Iguana (aka Brian Berkowitz) gets songwriting credit on the three Claudettes albums that I have, including the latest, "The Claudettes Go Out!" Do the other band members have any input in that process?
We do. Johnny writes the meat and potatoes of the songs. He's the main songwriter. He writes all the lyrics and all his piano stuff. He'll bring in songs and they're completely done. The drummer, the singer, and I will come in and we'll add some peas and carrots and stuff like that here and there. We help with arrangements. We help with ideas for vocal harmonies. I write all my own guitar parts. Johnny will sometimes write a guitar part, or he'll make a suggestion. I do write my own bass lines and guitar parts.

Beginning with the new album's opening track "Lovely View" and continuing with "Park Bench," which has a string section, there is an audible change in mood from its 2020 predecessor "High Times in the Dark." Would you agree?
"High Times In the Dark" was a little more romping. We wrote that in a time before the pandemic. We recorded that album in 2017. We were touring a lot and we had a really sunny disposition. We were rocking and rolling. We wrote "Go Out!" during the pandemic. You can hear that we definitely changed the mood. I wouldn't say that it was less optimistic or anything, but I do think that the songwriting took a shift during the pandemic.

The song "Exposure" diverts from the usual Claudettes sound in that the male band members' vocals are more prominent.
That was Johnny coming up with something out of left field. He does that all the time. Usually, there's a song on each record that's kind of like, "Whoa! What person wrote this?" Yet, it's Johnny again. The song is basically about people suggesting that an artist do something pro bono or free. 'Make this poster for my band. Tons of people are going to see it! You'll probably get some more work out of it.'

Which never happens, of course!
Exactly! All the really great gigs I've gotten have been from other great-paying gigs. So, how about you pay me, and I get exposure, okay?

You're a Sioux Falls, South Dakota native, and according to The Claudettes' website, there are tour dates scheduled for that city. What does it mean to you to perform for the hometown crowd?
It's been awesome. Every time we've gone back lately it's been for really big shows. The first show that I did with The Claudettes in Sioux Falls was Jazz Fest and we were opening for Bruce Hornsby. When our set happened, we played for a few thousand people. The last couple of times we played was a Friday night outdoors in Sioux Falls and there were like three or four thousand people there.

What are the pros and cons of being the gay member of The Claudettes?
I love it because everyone in the band is really supportive of me. In fact, they've encouraged me to try things. I was dabbling in drag for a while. My ex-boyfriend used to do me up all the time. He taught me a lot about drag and things like that.

The Claudettes did this series. We had a bunch of my drag friends, and I got dressed up in drag and we did this basement video thing. It was fun! I feel like I looked great. We were tossing around the idea of me doing drag for shows.

But the thing is, with the traveling, and how much work goes into it to actually look really good, it takes so many hours. I've been trying to think of a way to kind of land in the middle of presenting a little more queerly. To answer your question, it's great to be in a rootsy group and to be out. The (roots) genre, in the past, has been lacking any queerness. It's nice to be in the band and be open. As I'm talking to people and they're talking to me, I'm honest about my sexuality and everybody's like, "Oh, I would never have guessed." It's like, "Well, here I am!"

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.