Chooglin’. It’s a verb, baby—as in, to choogle. Just check your Creedence American Dictionary, it’s right there: “to ball and have a good time,” an act to “keep on” or continue. Or better yet, check the Minneapolis octet that bears the name. To them, Chooglin’ means the Soul Train getting robbed by the James Gang, Kiss on 78 speed and the MC5 tearing into Blood, Sweat and Tears. All at once. With a bleating horn section and ferocious guitar playing, the band is a boogie-rock juggernaut that has the guts and the skills to deliver greasy, proto-Stax soul with as much power and conviction as their relentless, riff-driven rockers.
Formed in 2005 by guitarists and singers Brian Vanderwerf and Jesse Tomlinson, from Twin City contenders the Midnight Evils, as a rollicking but conventional two-guitars-bass-and-drums lineup, Chooglin’ made their official debut in November 2005, opening up for Reigning Sound and the Detroit Cobras. Their show garnered some early local praise, but the band hit their sonic stride a month later when they were joined by a three trombone and trumpet horn section that had been assembled for a one-off performance of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street for a local club’s cover band contest. The full Chooglin’ line-up—Vanderwerf and Tomlinson on guitar and vocals, bassist Jeff Johnson (since replaced by Paul Diorio), drummer Shawn Walker, trombonists Harold Longley, Steve Erickson, and Zach Zins, and trumpet player Bob DeBoer—was soon unleashed on an unsuspecting public in a round of now legendary high-octane live shows.
“Yeah, we can get pretty high energy,” laughs Vanderwerf. “Kinda Mach 10 compared to the record. We all come from punk rock, but you know, when I get asked what we sound like, I just say ‘rock and roll.’”
Considering the blistering opener of Chooglin’s Big Legal Mess debut Sweet Time, “Mach 10 compared to the record” is a little terrifying to consider. Weaving ragged guitar and horn lines together at a breakneck pace, songs like “Take Your Sweet Time,” “Airport Bar,” and “Tonight Alright (God Damn)” careen between soul and early metal. Vanderwerf’s gruff, soul-shouter vocals veer from heartbreak to sleaze and back again, while Tomlinson’s blistering guitar playing stitches all the disparate elements together—making Iron Maiden guitar gallup and Hi Records horns sit together seamlessly, and sound strangely natural together.
“There’s so many guys in the band, we all bring something to it,” Vanderwerf says. “We get a lot of comparisons to 70s rock, but I think we have more of an R&B thing going on. Jesse is an amazing guitarist, and he is writing all the time. Shawn our drummer likes more aggressive stuff, like punk rock and weird two-piece metal. And I’m a huge Stones fan, so I’m sure that comes through. But most good rock and roll is loud and fast”
Very true—but for a band that rocks this hard, it is a testament to Chooglin’s musical ambition that some of the real gems on Sweet Time are when they slow down a little. Gritty ballads like “Another Land,” “Nexium of Interest” and “Royal Vengeance,” showcase the power of the full line-up—the swaying melodicism of the horns, the songs’ dynamic arrangements, and the range and emotion of Vanderwerf’s voice.
“We started out as just straight up, balls-to-the-wall rock, but now we’re trying to write different stuff,” Vanderwerf says. “And since we have the horns, we want to use them for more than just accenting the rock songs. I love the newer slower tunes, cause we’re doing something different, but I think we pull it off. I think we can say to ourselves now we can try different stuff and not suck at it. ”
And then he laughs and says, “But sometimes I listen to the lyrics and think, ‘God what a bunch of big babies.’”
Discovered by Big Legal Mess while playing a show with Fat Possum artists Hezekiah Early and Elmo Williams during the Deep Blues Festival, Chooglin’ recorded Sweet Time at Minneapolis’ legendary Creation Studios—home of everything from the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” and Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road,” to the Replacements’ Tim and several Husker Du records. Inspired by the close-knit Twin Cities music scene that launched the Replacements and Husker Du, Chooglin’ exhibit a classic Minneapolis band trait—a musical restlessness that keeps them from repeating themselves, and a total refusal to do anything that pigeonholes them.
“I try to be open-minded, and not old man about it,” Vanderwerf says. “But a lot of new stuff just bores me. We go around and we see lots of the same shit. You know, you show up and see the band posters and they have like flames and iron crosses and skulls all over them. And then, watching a lot of these bands live, it’s like God—fuckin’ bring it, you know. Get it into it. That’s why I like doing some of these slower songs. It opens us up to try different stuff. I think we raised the bar a little, doing things in a more musical way than just rocking out all the time. But we like to jump around and stuff too. It’s gonna be a real struggle when we go out on the road.”