Interview: Vegas DeMilo Talk About Their New Album ‘Black Sheep Lodge,’ A Response to ‘Exile in Guyville’

California, ‘90s power-pop group Vegas DeMilo is back with their latest album, Black Sheep Lodge. The album is a track-by-track response to Liz Phair’s iconic 1993 album Exile in Guyville, which is itself a track-by-track response to The Rolling Stones’ 1972 album Exile on Main Street. While Black Sheep Lodge may only be 12-tracks long rather than the 18-tracks of Exile in Guyville, and the songs may not be in the same order exactly, it’s a clever parody of the type of male bravado that The Rolling Stones sought to achieve on their album and that Liz Phair sought to mock on hers.

Vegas DeMilo lead vocalist and guitarist Foster Calhoun Johnson and guitarist and backing vocalist Travis Ballstadt sat down with us to talk a little bit about this unique album and the history of the band.

You made the album Black Sheep Lodge as a track-by-track response to Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. What made you want to make it a response to that album?

Foster Calhoun Johnson: We started off making one record, and the Exile in Guyville thing happened in the middle once we had started. My brother, who’s not (in this interview), and I both really loved that record. We had always joked about making an 18-song response to that record. And in the period where we were writing songs, I started to do it for real just to see if I could do it. We probably wrote, as a band, something like 50 songs in the period while we were getting ready to make the record. And it just turned out that the songs that everybody liked the most were these Exile on Jane Street (the album’s working title) songs that ended up on the record. So there wasn’t really a conscious plan at first, it just happened along the way.

Travis Ballstadt: Yeah, I had no idea what was going on, but there are a few songs that didn’t make the album that I really enjoy and it puts those lyrics into perspective as well.

And like you mentioned, Exile in Guyville is an 18-track album and you made a 12-track album. Was there a reason for not continuing with the other six tracks?

FCJ: As with many things in the rock ‘n’ roll business, this had to do with commerce as opposed to art. We essentially just ran out of money. We wanted to make a vinyl record, which we had never done before, and the cost of doing a double vinyl record, which we would have had to have done, just became prohibitive. There are seven tracks that that got left off the record. Some of those are fully-recorded and others are in demo form. So we’re going to release another record that has the rest of those tracks. But the reason we didn’t release a double record is just didn’t make sense to do that for us.

When do the rest of the songs come out?

FCJ: I think that tentatively, the rest of the songs are going to be on an EP called, You Know That the Problem is You that will probably be out in May.

That sounds like a very appropriate title for a response to Guyville as opposed to Black Sheep Lodge. That stuck out to me as an odd choice for a title. Why did that stick out to you as a title?

FCJ: So Black Sheep Lodge was the name of the bar that we were drinking at after recording sessions when we made the record in Austin. And because so many of the songs on the record are about all these different men that Liz, in her songs, regrets being involved with or knowing, I think they’d all appropriately be characterized as belonging to the Black Sheep Lodge. So that’s where the title of the record came from. It didn’t really seem necessary, given that we didn’t actually release a record that was an 18-song response, to call it Exile on Jane Street, which is what we had talked about doing.

Exile in Guyville is its own response to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Did you ever think about Black Sheep Lodge‘s relationship to that album, aside from the opening song “Charlie Watts”?

FCJ: With Charlie Watts, I very intentionally wanted to write something that spoke to this great song opens Liz’s record called “6’1″.” Do you know that song?

In preparation for this, I tried to give myself a little crash course in Exile in Guyville. I was not very familiar with the album to begin with.

FCJ: So “6’1″” is a Rolling Stones pastiche, where she is borrowing elements of the sound to tell her own story. I very self-consciously wanted to start the record with the song that had that same Exile on Main Street flavor that spoke to it. It just happened that, in the period where we were making the record, Charlie Watts passed away, and so I’d been thinking about him a lot. And while the song itself isn’t really about Charlie Watts, the song is pretty overdetermined in terms of where the lyrics came from. All those things came together when we put the track together.

Was there anything from Guyville that was a particular challenge to write a response to?

FCJ: There’s some very, very explicit songs about sex that are on that record; I probably found those to be the most difficult as a songwriter to write something that I was that I was comfortable with. The most explicit song on Guyville is a great song called “Flower.” One of the unreleased tracks is the response track to that. But those were the ones that were probably more challenging than some of the others. Typically, I just try to find something in those songs to be a spark; they’re not all directly related. Men, really bad boyfriends, (and) lotharios figure in all of those songs; I often was trying to write from the perspective of the guys who were in those songs. I thought that would be an interesting take for the record.

What was your favorite part about making this album?

FCJ: The most interesting thing about making the record was that we were together in our original run for about eight years and we—my brother and I—played with a bunch of different people, including Travis. What was interesting and fun about this record is that band members from the entire run of the band all got together who had never played with each other.

TB: That I had never met in person! We obviously had the Zoom meetings and the writing and stuff, but, when we when we showed up to record, there were people I was meeting for the first time.

FCJ: The brotherhood of getting to do that was the best part of the record, no doubt.

So you’ve been a band for about 30 years now. Is that right?

FCJ: We have been a going concern off and on since 1994, at this point.

How has the band changed in that time?

FCJ: Travis, how was the band changed in that time?

TB: Well, we don’t all live in the same city anymore; that’s probably the biggest, most obvious change. I joined the band, what, about seven years into the run? There were albums out before I joined. My first show was scheduled to be a showcase at the Whisky a Go Go, which was cancelled that morning due to 9/11. My first gig ended up being a couple of weeks later in Modesto, California, playing the sidewalk across the street from a Mexican restaurant that happened to have a light rail going between the actual audience and the band. So quite the contrast there.

But I will say that, while we might not have played the most glamorous gigs in that era, I think we were very productive musically. Foster and I have often discussed how different the last 15 years may have been had writing and collaborating and recording been as accessible as it was as we were working on this album because, like Foster said, we wrote upwards of 50 songs for this one album with the band spread out all across the western two-thirds of the country. It happened so prolifically and so quickly, I was a little shocked the whole time.

Foster and I have always collaborated and written really well together; I’ll send him a riff and he’ll email me back almost a completed demo the next day with lyrics and melody and a bridge and changes and everything. And it made me realize Foster has that relationship with several people who were in the band before me. So it was just fun to see all the different influences and voices come together on this album.

There’s one song on this album that’s not part of the Guyville theme, “Get in the Van,” your last track on the album. Why was it so important to put that one on the album that you broke with this theme?

FCJ: I think it was a couple of things. One is everybody really loved that song so much that we just couldn’t leave it off. The other was, it’s actually the first song on a Vegas DeMilo record that my brother has ever written. The bass player, (my brother,) Alec Johnson wrote that, and it was just too good to leave off. So that’s why it’s on the record.

Now that you’ve put the album out, what are you working on right now?

FCJ: We’ve been doing some shows. We did a really big show here in Houston a few weeks ago at the House of Blues. We have a show in Seattle on March 30, and we’re looking at playing a bunch of markets in the summer. I think that’s next for us. We have another record we’re going to release, obviously, with all these other songs. And we’re looking towards 2025 to what we’re going to do next.

You can order Black Sheep Lodge from the band here. Follow Vegas DeMilo on Facebook and Instagram for future udpates.

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