Eric Ambel – Lord of the Lakeside
“I tell bands I record with today that if you can quit playing music, you probably should,” says Eric Ambel. “But that was never an option for me.”
Over the course of three decades, Ambel has been, among other things: A founding member of the iconic rock band the Del-Lords. An accomplished roots-rock producer (Nils Lofgren, Bottle Rockets, Backsliders). The lead guitarist for Steve Earle’s Dukes. A founding member of the sorta-supergroup the Yayhoos. The leader of Roscoe’s Gang. A solo artist. A bar owner. The original guitarist for Joan Jett & the Blackhearts.
By all accounts, it’s been a strange, peripatetic career, but “the diversity helps keep the balls in the air. It helps keep any single one of them from turning into a job,” figures Ambel, who recently issued his third solo release, Knucklehead, on his own label, Lakeside Lounge Records.
“When I play with Steve Earle, it helps me when I sing my own songs because I get to see how he throws himself into his songs,” Ambel continues. “And [I’m also] doing a better job because I’ve produced records….All these things help each other.”
From Los Angeles at the height of the late-1970s punk revolution to New York City at the start of the ’80s roots-rock revival to his present-day gig with Earle, Ambel’s career has been characterized by his Zelig-like ability to be in an interesting place at the right time.
Raised in Batavia, Illinois, Ambel learned to play piano, trumpet and guitar and by eighth grade had started to land paying gigs at parties and VFW halls. Driven by the historically powerful twin motivators of not wanting to get a job and having witnessed the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, Ambel gigged throughout high school and eventually attended the University of Wyoming (he had heard it was a party school), where he worked as a skiing instructor to put himself through college.
After seeing the Ramones for the first time, Ambel formed the punk outfit the Dirty Dogs. The group eventually changed their name to the Accelerators (the Dirty Dogs having been banned from the university), scored a modest regional hit, and moved to Los Angeles. By 1978, they had broken up.
Somewhere along the way, Ambel acquired the nickname Roscoe (from Roscoe Boulevard, the San Fernando Valley street that ran by his house) and got introduced to Joan Jett. Then moderately famous as an ex-member of girl group the Runaways, Jett established her punk bona fides by producing a Germs album.
Ambel joined her backup band, the Blackhearts, in 1979, playing on the legendary anthem “I Love Rock And Roll”. “We went from being totally starving punk rockers to rehearsing at S.I.R. Studios in this room that we had in the daytime and George Benson had in the nighttime,” marvels Ambel, who spent two years as a Blackheart before being forced out in a power struggle with Jett’s management.
Ambel made his way to New York City, forming what would become the Del-Lords with ex-Dictator Scott Kempner, bassist Manny Caiati and drummer Frank Funaro (later of Cracker) in 1983. Famed for their dueling guitars, layered harmonies, and seamless marriage of Creedence-style rock and radio-friendly punk-lite, the group eventually released four albums for EMI. The most prominent, Based On A True Story, included the minor hit “Judas Kiss” and helped establish the Del-Lords as a prime mover in the Beat Farmers/Lone Justice/Del Fuegos roots-rock mini-movement of the early 1980s.
Ambel made a little bit of money and got to see the world, but twenty years later, with only the 1999 compilation Get Tough in print, he’s unconvinced the Del-Lords made anywhere near the sort of musical impact with which they’re sometimes credited. “The Del-Lords were a long time ago, and we weren’t that cool. We weren’t doing anything really weird,” he says. “There wasn’t Soundscan [back then], so because of our press presence, people thought we were doing better than we did.”
The band’s insistence on practicing every day didn’t sit well with Ambel, nor did Kempner’s emerging role as frontman. “When the band first started, Scott was writing all the songs. He was sort of writing for us and we were all singing them, and they were kind of about what was going on with us,” Ambel recalls.
After the band’s first release, 1984’s Frontier Days, things changed. “There [was a meeting] and it was like, ‘The band needs to have focus. We need to have one singer.’ They went around to each guy and said, ‘Would you be willing to let Scott sing?’ And Frank said yeah. And Manny said yeah. And they got to me, and I said no.”
Afterward, Ambel estimates he went from singing lead on 40 percent of the band’s material — live, anyway — to singing one verse of one song on their last album. “There were plenty of bands that had more than one singer. You know, like the Beatles?” Ambel offers. “We were together for a long time. Six, seven years…it wasn’t that successful. It was hard, you know? I felt like I was being held back.”
Ambel recorded his first solo album, 1988’s Roscoe’s Gang, during a Del-Lords hiatus; it was either that or get a job. The disc, a rollicking amalgam of covers (most notably a fiery version of Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”) and originals featuring Peter Holsapple, Syd Straw and Missouri band the Morells, had its genesis in jams that Ambel had organized at the legendary and now defunct NYC club No Se No. (Long out of print, Roscoe’s Gang, which subsequently became the name of Ambel’s band, is being re-released in conjunction with Knucklehead, along with his 1995 solo album Loud And Lonesome.)
The Del-Lords dissolved in 1990, and Ambel spent the next decade building his credentials as a producer, working on Nils Lofgren’s Crooked Line, the Bottle Rockets’ The Brooklyn Side and 24 Hours A Day, and discs by Freedy Johnston, Blue Mountain and Mary Lee’s Corvette (the band fronted by Ambel’s wife, Mary Lee Kortes) in addition a number of lesser-known bands.
“I love making music. I get a kick out of how things changed,” says Ambel. “Being a producer, recording bands, it’s kind of like being a teacher, because you’re helping people with the process. You’re kind of an experienced person.”
Ambel didn’t make another album of his own until Loud And Lonesome. Dark, depressing and strongly reminiscent of Neil Young, it retains none of the boisterous charm of its predecessor. Ex-Georgia Satellite Dan Baird, a longtime friend of Ambel’s, co-wrote several tracks; that collaboration eventually led to the formation of the Yayhoos, the hillbilly bar band that has become one of Ambel’s primary side gigs.
The similarities between Ambel and Baird are obvious: Both did time in ’80s roots-rock bands with novelty hits and have carved out workmanlike careers for themselves ever since. Both, as Ambel points out, are gregarious and loud and have spaces between their front teeth. “Eric had the Joan Jett thing in his past, while we were the bar band that never toured that got lucky,” Baird says now. “I think Eric’s situation was a lot more close to something big happening, so he had a little bit more of the nasty side of the business experience.”
The Yayhoos released their debut, Fear Not The Obvious, on Bloodshot Records a few weeks before September 11, 2001. You can pretty much guess the rest. Though actual promotion for the release was necessarily cut short, it sold well enough, and was fun enough to make, that the Yayhoos have a follow-up tentatively set for release this year.
It’s worth noting that in the fourteen years since the Del-Lords broke up, Ambel has consistently rejected anything approaching a formal band. In particular, Roscoe’s Gang (now Roscoe’s Trio) has emphasized shifting lineups and make-it-up-as-you-go set lists.
“I did a lot of time in bands that had set lists and played the same songs a lot,” Ambel says. “The Roscoe Trio has always been about change, about playing something that we’ve never played or using different guys. It’s sort of a jazz aesthetic.”
Ambel’s role as the lead guitarist for the Dukes is his only truly structured job. Ambel and Earle met when the singer was touring behind his debut, 1986’s Guitar Town, and the two kept in touch through the years. “Their guitar player quit two weeks before the Transcendental Blues tour [in 2000], and they called me up asking for this [guitar-player] friend of mine’s number. I was like, ‘Fuck that, I want to do it,” Ambel recalls.
“The Steve thing has been a fantastic outlet for me. It’s a great band. Like he says, we’re all kind of the same age, we all come from the same place. A small band, a four-piece band, is just something that I really love. There’s something elegant about it, about doing what you can.”
Ambel is half-finished working on Earle’s new album, due in the fall. During his off time from the Dukes, he recorded and collated Knucklehead on his iBook. A collection of new and archival material, the latter culled from fourteen years’ worth of miscellaneous recording sessions, the disc features everyone from the Bottle Rockets to Roscoe’s Gang to the Del-Lords. Though Earle contributes vocals to a slowed-down and glum reworking of “Judas Kiss”, most of the tracks are precisely the sort of Stones-style barroom rave-ups at which Ambel has always excelled.
Ambel hasn’t released an actual studio album since Loud And Lonesome, though now that the vaults are mostly empty, he hopes that will change. “[First] I wanted to clear the slate of all this stuff,” he says. “I don’t know yet what my next record will be, but I think it’ll have a lot more continuity to it.”
His Lakeside Lounge label is an ersatz companion to the cheerfully dive-y bar of the same name that he owns close to his home in New York’s East Village. In an impressive example of synergy, Ambel uses the Lakeside as a place to audition bands he might produce; those he likes sometimes get sent on to Cowboy Technical Services, a 24-track studio he owns in Brooklyn.
When it comes down to it, is Ambel a singer who moonlights as a sideman? A producer who occasionally plays in a band? A bar owner who makes records?
“My main thing is that I don’t have to have a main thing,” is the only way he can explain it. “The great thing is that I don’t have to choose. I never wanted a job. When it turns into a job, I’ll quit.”