Some sing about heartbreak, others about soul-searching and others… well, others prefer cyborgs. And graphic novels, and dystopian stories – even Roald Dahl. Oh yes, this shit just got fictional – science-fictional.
Yet this is no nerd-fest; at least not in the awkward, socially inept sense. For the best part of a decade now, Lionize have honed a tasty, funky rock formula, laced with reggae sensibilities and punk drive. Not to mention the sci-fi-infused lyrics. Following the release of their fifth album, Jetpack Soundtrack, tonight they’re supporting fellow Marylanders Clutch, whose label, Weathermaker, they’re signed to, and whose guitarist Tim Sult has played with them on occasion. It’s been a frequent touring partnership since 2006, with good reason. If any gig were to epitomise ‘fun rock’, it’d be this one. But as lead vocalist/guitarist Nate Bergman tells us: “There’s a lot of room in rock’n’roll for fun.”
On the table in their tour van is a copy of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange, which bassist Henry Upton (small, bearded, sci‑fi lover, comic-book fanatic and main lyricist) is re-reading. “I’m getting my head round the language again,” he says, turning the book over. “This one’s got a quote from Roald Dahl.”
“Roald Dahl’s awesome,” says keyboard player Chris Brooks, a habitual smoker with a startlingly deep voice for a slight guy in his late 20s.
There’s a dry, smilingly weathered edge to the founding Lionize trio – short in stature, checked of shirt. Drummer (and newest addition) Chase Lapp is a little shyer; a modestly smiling, skinny bundle of T-shirt and baggy jeans. He used to be the drum tech for Clutch’s Jean-Paul Gaster and, he later proves, he’s one heck of a player.
Lionize might look like a group of small lumberjacks, but they quietly sparkle as a band. In front of the camera they’re naturally wry and funny. Crucially, as we discover with Bergman backstage at the gig, they’re bolstered by vibrant musical roots; rich histories of jazz, reggae and Latin music seeped into their collective subconscious early on.
Bergman, Brooks and Upton met during middle school in Maryland, but didn’t become real ‘friends’ until high school. They formed Lionize in 2004. What they shared straight away, inadvertently, was a wide-reaching musical thirst.
“We grew up in the suburbs of DC, with all this music. We had Go Go music, which is a funk-derived mixture of Latin and funk that’s from only DC,” Bergman enthuses. He looks and sounds younger, but has a definite ‘old soul’ side – a ‘cuddly’-figured embodiment of Game Of Thrones, classic rock, Star Wars and DC punk. “We’re in a little bubble, but it’s the definition of diverse.”
Listening to their diverse sound, this all makes sense. But with Jetpack Soundtrack they’ve streamlined the jazz, reggae, funk, punk et al into a slick, groovy rock whole, rounded off with lyrics inspired by shared fantasy affection (X-Men, Philip K Dick novels, Star Wars, Batman and numerous others are tapped into), taking on robots in tracks such as Replaced By Machines.
“It’s weird, everybody’s asking why we’ve polarised it so much,” Bergman says. He speaks brightly but slowly, pausing to formulate sentences. “But from our perspective I think we’ve done the opposite. I think we took everything and put it into a sausage-maker, if you will – it’s one thing now.”
For Bergman, the catalyst for this sausage of rock was his parents’ record collection: Motown, folk music and Dylan merged with Eric Clapton, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Stones.
While still at primary school age, Bergman had his first acquaintance with Clutch. Hanging out in his father’s seafood shop, among the crates of bass and lobsters, he met vocalist Neil Fallon, then an employee at the shop, heading to punk shows after work. “He was very nice to me. I was pretty much just fucking off all day,” he grins. “I was getting into the lobster crate and letting them run around the store or what have you… Fond memories.”
Hitting their teens and venturing into DC, the young Lionize branched out into reggae-infused hardcore punkers Bad Brains, along with acts like Minor Threat and Government Issue.
Curiously, for Bergman it was a DC gig by British reggae heavyweights Steel Pulse that tuned him on to punk– all thanks to Bad Brains being played over the speakers, the punch of which has influenced Lionize’s groovy funk rock ever since.
“It was in a roomful of people who were really mellow, ready to see this reggae show, and this fast, heavy punk was happening over the sound system. By the time Steel Pulse went on, everyone was worked up into such a frenzy.”
Rastafarians Lionize are not. But they have acquired substantial reggae kudos (alongside their bright-eyed, fantasy-fuelled zeal). One of their first major tours was supporting Steel Pulse, and Lionize’s 2008 album Space Pope And The Glass Machine was recorded in Kingston’s Harry J studios – base for Bob Marley and other big fish. The final product had a substantial reggae soul, though they were keen to avoid pseudo-rasta stylings. “To be honest with you, in the scene they call ‘reggae rock’, there’s a lot of that,” Bergman says. “We just wanna be Lionize. I don’t wanna sing a patois. I’m not from Jamaica, I’m from Silver Spring, Maryland.”
They went on to be the backing band – on a number of occasions – for legendary dub/reggae nutjob Lee Scratch Perry. Perry (now pushing 80) selected Lionize after falling for their heavy sound at a gig in 2007… and promptly forgot about it. “He showed up five days before the first gig in LA, looked at us, and stormed out of the room, claiming that he never hired us to be his band. He walked down Sunset Boulevard with his suitcase. His wife talked him back into the show, and after the set he loved it,” recalls Bergman, shaking his head a little. Then with a grin he says: “That’s the story of our career, by the way. Everyone looks at us and says: ‘This is not going to be great.’ And then they hear us play and they’re nice to us after.”
The Perry incident is an extreme, but telling, example of the uncertainty these modest Marylanders have encountered in their quest to deliver colourful but good-time stuff.
“We’ve been told by booking agents before, or promoters: ‘This is not an authentic reggae band.’ And you wanna be like: ‘Hey, promoter in Arizona. Who are you to decide what’s authentically reggae?!’ I mean, what does a ‘rock’ band look like?”
It’s not something that bothers them. Even their performance set-up at the Forum tonight is notably frills-free – modest amp stack, the four of them stood in a row, taking up a fraction of the vast stage (incidentally, very much like Clutch’s gig staging). Off stage they’re similarly focused. That stance reaped two full albums in 2011. “Well, there’s a lot of hours in the day,” Bergman says. “What else are you doing if you’re not working on music? We take a week off after each tour, and then the next week we meet up again every day and jam.”
Theirs is a dedicated attitude, but one that ultimately finds real fun in rock’n’roll. Robots are fought, third-grade nemeses are tackled (Evolve) and blues-based tales of woe are shunned. Witty not gimmicky, groovy not laboured, Lionize might just be one of today’s most successfully original rock acts.
“That’s an ethos with the band too,” Bergman says. “We’re not the coolest or the cutest, we’re not badasses, we’re just musicians, and part of that’s living vicariously through the lyrics.”
Reggae, robots and all, it works
Jetpack Soundtrack is out now via Weathermaker Music.
This article originally appeared in Classic Rock #199.