And the 'Shocking, Horrifying and Delightful'
World of Laura Jane Willcock
By T.E. Mattox
hose who write about music and musicians frequently make comparisons
to other artists. By referencing a player's style, a genre or similarities
in sound a journalist can easily enhance and focus their descriptive
process. It's a tried and true practice that I, too, have on more than
one occasion employed. That is until witnessing, up-close and personal
an on-stage performance featuring a Southern California band called
the Tighten Ups. After hours of thought and a dram or two of brown liquor
in a dirty glass, I reasoned the only comparable scenario that even
remotely measured up would be the act of intentionally sticking your
tongue in a light socket. In doing so, you become instantly and acutely
aware that you've just experienced something that is at once both electrifying
Since forming the band seven years ago, the Tighten
Ups have set themselves apart by lacing their rock and roll with syncopated
bursts of high voltage brass and soulful doses of rhythm and blues.
And to the delight of friends and fans everywhere the band's high energy,
power driven shows have become just as visual as they are amplified.
I vividly recall how the band opened the San
Diego Blues Festival a few years ago and methodically, song after
song blew several hundred of us backward into the Bay. Whether they're
cranking through some Blood, Sweat and Tears, tearing off a James Brown
cover or wailing on one of their own compositions, the Tighten Ups play
it fast and loose
and their fans wouldn't have it any other way.
Recently, I caught up with the vocalist for the Tighten
Ups, Laura Jane Willcock and our conversation started back where her
journey began. "Royal Oak, Michigan just north of Detroit,"
she told me. "We moved away from there when I was nine to a
little farm house but when I was in the city I really remember the radio
station CKLW (she sings) the Motor City!!! And I would listen
to pop music all the time and started getting addicted to the Top 40
countdowns on the weekends and would just hole up with my little transistor
Laura Jane working with the Tighten Ups. Photo:
She's already nodding when I ask about family. "My
family is so musical," she told me. "My grandma Willcock
was in the Sweet Adeline's choir and my grandpa Willcock was a barbershop
quarteter. And my grandpa Willcock comes from a big family that emigrated
from England and so all the brothers and sisters had talents and played
an instrument or sang or both. All the cousins and all the aunts and
uncles were always having family events in the basement of one house
or another. We always had a banjo, a guitar or an accordion and always
had a piano. There was a piano in every basement in our family. People
singing in a circle
drinking, with little kids dancing in the
middle. That was a family musical thing that I thought all families
did, you know, when I was little? But apparently not all families do
Probably the reason you are an entertainer today, don't
you think? "Well it made me want to put on shows for those grandparents
that were singers." She smiles, "So I would learn my
little songs and do a little dance for them when I was a little girl.
And they would applaud and gush over me and my mom was very encouraging.
I told her I wanted to be on stage when I was five. I don't remember
saying that, but she loves to tell that. So she put me in dance lessons,
so I was up there dancing on stage at age five." She adds,
"And my dad was real goofy. He was always, 'Here, pull my finger,'
and changing words to songs and make them really blue, cracking us up
and humiliating us all at the same time."
You got your dad's sense of humor? "Yeah, mainly
I mean my mom's dad was an Episcopalian Priest. So, on the mom's side
we went to a different kind of stage, you know? Church stage. I'd see
my grandpa up there and he was the star of the whole church. And I was
like, 'Wow, look at that guy!' Everyone loves him and they listen to
every word he says. I want that, too. I think that helped. And there
was always singing, the Episcopal Church is super sing-y."
Seems as though music was always around... "Plus,
mom and dad played records all the time. My dad was a big jazz guy in
the 50's and early rock and then he kind of went into a 'folky' thing.
When he met my mom, she said he was a beatnik. (laughing) And
he played the bongos and was sculpting and he's an artist. When they
met, he was listening to the Kingston Trio and things like Dizzy Gillespie,
folk and jazz stuff."
And just as a side note; in the Small World category,
Laura Jane tells me, "What's funny is
you know Joey Harris'
uncle was in the Kingston Trio? (Joey Harris, of Beat Farmer and
Mentals fame; now a current Tighten Up) I was listening to Joey's
uncle when I was just a little kid, which cracks me up. The Kingston
Trio was always so goofy, tongue and cheek and humor all throughout
their stuff, you know? That makes a lot of sense when you see Joey's
Associate Producer Laura Jane
in the studio.
Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
The parent's album collection was pretty extensive?
"They went into Rock and Roll, started smokin' pot, then that's
when my mind started really latching on to the stuff they were listening
to. Pink Floyd and the Beatles and Frank Zappa
. Crosby, Stills,
Nash and Young. A lot of really great classic Rock and Roll stuff."
Music wasn't the only pass time for the Willcock family
and being from the Motor City, Laura Jane admits she's always been
"A huge Red Wings fan
I love hockey!" She almost
yells. "I got to sing the National Anthem for the Detroit Red
Wings at their training camp which was in Traverse City, Michigan. There's
like two-thousand people and I'm singing for the Detroit Red Wings and
I'm just dying! The first time I did it, it was so cool because
Sergei Fedorov was on the team and he was blocking the way for me to
get on the ice. And they're like, 'just tap on him.' Laura Jane
rolls her eyes, 'Tap on him?' Oh, My God, he's huge! And I'm
like, 'tap, tap, tap, Excuse me Mr. Fedorov, I have to get on the ice
to sing. So, I had to touch my legend and then go sing only the most
important song of my entire life."
Michigan is quite a distance from San Diego, how did
the transition come about? "My best friend moved out here in
'89," she says. "And I would come out here on vacation
with my young son who was born in '88. I fell in love with San Diego
and moved here in 2001, six days before September 11th
terrible time to be self-employed in San Diego as an entertainer."
Did you work outside music? "In addition to
being in bands, I'm also a bit of an actress." She says, "I
also host karaoke, I also DJ, I also do comedy and MC events. So, I
came into town with all these skills and just 'sprayed and prayed.'
I would hit all the papers looking for auditions and got my first paying
job playing Lina Cuisina in the 'Soprano's Last Supper,' which was a
dinner theater experience at the Culy Theater, downtown. I was the mob
bosses favorite singer. I had a singing roll and I get killed in the
play, but I'm not really dead I'm just pretending and the whole audience
gets 'made' into the mob. And you get a buffet dinner and this whole
interactive thing is going on around you
it paid shit, but it
was so fun."
Willcock is the first to admit it's not always about
the money. "Also I started volunteering at every gay event that
I could. I'm bi-sexual and I had a girlfriend right before I moved to
town and I very much wanted to help out any way I could. So I volunteered
for a lot of different events, for fundraisers and benefits and auctions.
Someone saw me DJing at one event and they hired me to work as a DJ
on the Hornblower cruises. At another event, the owner of the Flame
was there, bam got another job hosting Karaoke on Tuesday nights.
Then I tried to start my own 'all-girl' band at the Flame and learned
how NOT to start an 'all-girl' band. First of all you don't hire everybody.
But that's what I did, I hired everybody that auditioned. (laughing)
You can ALL be in it. And that was dead in the water within three
months. But I did meet other people that turned out to be really good
friends and collaborators. Networking, networking, networking. I'm really
good at that, I love the humans and I love getting to know what they're
into. And I started going to as many clubs as I could, on a tiny little
budget, to see the musicians in town, so I knew who I wanted to play
because I wanted to be with high caliber musicians."
Tell me about some of your earlier bands? "The
'Flame Fatales' was the supposed house band for the Flame, but did not
last long. One of the girls in that band, Leslie, she and I formed Leslie
and Laura. She played acoustic guitar and we both sang and that was
like our coffeehouse act. And one of the guys from the Soprano's Last
Supper, Franko 'Z,' wanted me to be his jazz chanteuse in the standards
review called, Vintage Vegas. So we did that as a duo for many years.
We had a standing gig at Martini's above 4th every Saturday night for
Willcock stalks the stage during a Tighten Ups set.
Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
He taught me so much about jazz. He had me listening
to all the great American songbook writers and all the great vocalists
and we did so many cool songs, I loved it. But also, it made me want
to Rock, because my Rock and Roll biscuits were not getting into my
mouth. No, no it was just Jazz, Jazz, Jazz. I was like, 'Man, I need
to be in a rock band, I really need to Rock. So, I was at the Casbah
this is how the Tighten Ups thing got together."
Laura Jane takes a breath, "I'm in a band back in Michigan called
'74 Marauder' and we perform once a year till we die. When I left the
state we made a pact, 'we're playing at least once a year till we die.'
And it gives me an excuse to go back home, see the whole fam damnly
and all that. 'Marauder' is a 70's cover band and we totally rock out
all these cheesy 70's songs. We say we won't play any good songs from
the 70's, only cheesy ones and make them ours! (laughing)
It's so much fun." (laughing)
I wanted to buy a Casbah T-shirt for my drummer back
home because I want his band from Detroit called, 'Easy Action' to play
in San Diego, so I was trying to entice him with a Casbah shirt. The
bartender was Andy Robillard in the back bar who sold me the shirt and
he goes, 'Oh, who's the shirt for? Not for you?' No, it's for my drummer
back home. He goes, 'oh, if you need a drummer in San Diego, I'm the
best drummer in San Diego.' And I said, 'Good to know.' I'm Laura Jane
and I'm the best singer in San Diego. So if you ever need a singer.
We were having a cock fight, you know? Just like, 'Oh yeah
yeah?' And I'm like, 'I just love confidence, this guys awesome, I'm
gonna' keep this card. Two weeks later he calls me up and says, 'Hey,
we want to change our female singer and if you really are the best singer
in San Diego then I want you to audition.' I say, 'Okay,' and I'm thinking
to myself, 'God, what did my mouth get me into?'
I go to this audition and it was just Andy Robillard
on drums, Gerry Wasson our current bass player on bass and then Topher
Dub our saxophone player and Bob Conrad our trumpet player were all
there. No guitar player and I walk in and Gerry the bass player goes
okay, 'Cold Sweat, James Brown.' I'm like, 'Oh, okay.' It's just trial
by fire here. James Brown, Cold Sweat, no problem. So I sang it and
he says, 'Okay, how 'bout this one, how 'bout that one?' So we just
fell in love with each other right away and then they fired the girl
singer after they auditioned me. She was involved with the trombone
player and the trombone player also left. At that time they were called
something else and we all decided we should reform the band anyway,
and a new name so we called ourselves, 'Tell Mama.' Andy Robillard our
drummer said there was no other band called, 'Tell Mama.' We believed
him. Turns out there was another band, in San Diego called 'Tell
Mama.' I'm like, 'Holy Crap, nice research dude.' And we named ourselves
after a fan suggested, 'Uh, why don't you call yourselves the Tighten
Ups?' Awesome, let's do it. It was a fan's suggestion after we found
out 'Tell Mama' was already taken."
Have you found the San Diego Blues community to be a
pretty supportive environment
"Well that's the vibe that
I loved about San Diego." She says, "Not just the support
of the musicians, but just the friendliness of the community. You're
out there in flip-flop land, people aren't all dressed up and they actually
do ride their bikes and their skateboards and their surfboards and walk
places. They're not all concerned with image and 25 inch heels all the
time and total plastic face. This place feels more hippy-ish to me and
I like that." (laughing)
It's pretty difficult to pigeon-hole the sound of the
Tighten Ups. How do go about choosing the music in the Tighten Ups playlist?
"We like to do our originals, of course which is kick ass. But
when we're choosing songs to create our live shows, our playlist, it's
a democratic process. We don't want to do big band-y stuff, even though
we've got this killer horn section that could easily pull that off.
And we don't want to be caught in the shuffle blues zone, either. We
really want to bitch-slap our audience from the first song to the last
song of the set. We don't want to take too much time in-between unless
I look over and Joey's got to tune
'Okay,' I'll talk for a minute.
And we usually only do one slow song per set and sometimes we don't
even do that. We want it to be a high-energy, tight experience musically.
We want to really show off the talents. Our bass player, to me has the
most unique sound of anyone in the band. His style, slapping that bass
with his thumb and the choices he makes and the freedom that he will
change up what he does that to me, really nailed down my love of the
sound of the band. The horns are great and they add so much. Meri Claire,
you can't keep your eyes off her when she's playing that trombone. She's
visually stunning. Then Joey Harris, my favorite guitar player in San
Diego, when I asked him to join the band three years ago and he goes,
'Ahhh, let me sit in with you to see...' And I'm like, 'Oh my God, he's
gonna' sit in with us, he's considering it. Holy shit!' And then he
loved us. By the end of the night he said, 'I'm In!' I said,
'Oh my God, my dreams are all coming true.'
Our original drummer moved away and he had a very
unique style, and then we got our current drummer, Brad Smith who comes
from a punk rock background. To make him funkier has been a real cool
thing too, because he had never played with any kind of funk style.
Because we play rock, play funk, we play blues, we play soul but he
was more, straight ahead
he could play AC-DC, or could play Ramones
or things that were straight and loud and strong. It was really neat
to watch him go, 'Hey, I gotta' get with this bass player
funk it up.'
We just love picking new songs; everyone has to agree
on it. We've got a hundred percent 'Type-A' personality band. Every
single one of us is a go-getter, and 'I'll fight for what I want' kinda'
of person, but if we're not all in agreement, we'll just let it go.
That being said, everyone is so nice, so generous, so kind, so thoughtful,
so easy to work with, such a joy to write with and arrange with. Such
a great family
and together for seven years now."
Laura Jane Willcock and a fan. Photo:
So, even though you and your band mates have outside
projects, Tighten Up fans don't need to worry about the band going their
separate ways? "We can count on the band being together for
awhile because everyone has little kids, (laughing) except for
Can you talk a little about your approach to writing?
"I really love writing; I want to do more and more and more
of it. I love writing with Thomas (Yearsley) for ThunderLux,
it's just really easy and I'm so happy, personally right now. I used
to think I could only write when I was sad, but now it turns out I can
write no matter what because I'm practicing writing all the time. I
love writing with Joey Harris. I get these crazy notions, like this
crazy rat problem we have in San Diego that I wanted to write about.
Every job I go to, you know in the alley, 'Oh, there's another rat.'
'Oh, there's a rat teaching a baby rat how to climb up the rope onto
the boat I was just on. Holy crap, look at that. There's a rat over
there,' I mean they're everywhere. So I wanted to write about it and
the guys in my band are like, 'Are you crazy? We're not going to write
about rats.' I'm like, 'Arghhh, I want to do it.' So, when I met Joey
and we started writing together, he's like, 'That's brilliant!
Let's do it!' (laughing)
Other than the wharf rat muse, do you have a process
when you write? "Yeah, it's funny sometimes I seem to get inspired
in the car a lot. Because it's a mundane thing where you body takes
over doing the same thing when I travel so much from gig to gig. And
then, in the shower, which sounds totally cliché. But I write
in the shower and I write in the car. I always have a little digital
device with me. Sometimes I write words first, but when I'm writing
for the Tighten Ups, I'm thinking of horns. And when I'm writing for
ThunderLux I'm thinking of keyboards, 'cause we have a keyboard player,
Leo Dombecki, who is a great bluesman.
You mentioned the ongoing ThunderLux project, can you
fill us in? "The new band, ThunderLux
we are almost done
with our album. Leo Dombecki plays keyboards, saxophone and guitar.
Our drummer is Emily O'Bannon-Robles. She just got married. She's an
old friend of mine, and she used to work at the Flame and used to drum
in a band called, Runhoney. I sing and I play some guitar. Thomas is
teaching me how to play guitar, he tunes it into a D tuning for me so
I can do it on stage because I'm not good enough to play regular chords
but I'm working on it."
Fish Party Poster
ThunderLux has a more traditional lineup? "It's
not blues though; it's really kind of a neat rock and roll vibe from
mid century with a little cartoon influence, like the Archies and Josie
and the Pussycats. All original songs and we've only played out twice
but we've got a lot of the tracks already in the can. We're going to
have an EP by my birthday party March 3rd, which is the 31st annual
Fish party. I always throw a fish party on my birthday. I'm a Pisces
so I always have people bring me fishy things at these events. So, I
have 31 years worth of fish in storage in my storage area that I bring
out and put on display every year. And it's intense. But we always have
a lot of music, ThunderLux is playing at that gig, also the Tighten
Ups and the Honkys, they're amazing. And the full album from ThunderLux
will be done by mid-year 2015. The Tighten Ups we've just grabbed some
pre-existing recordings that we did at a studio in Escondido and we're
thinking about re-mixing it into an album or an EP of some sort. We
kind of just love playing out, because we do mostly cover's and you
don't want to record covers."
I know you are into giving back and volunteering. What
are some of your favorite charitable organizations and programs? "I
have a few annual things that I usually do. The Human Rights Campaign,
I do their annual bowl-a-thon where I change my outfit like seven times
during their bowling marathon. And come out with my microphone and talk
about who's got the most gutter balls and how teams are doing. And talk
about the important work the HRC is doing. If anyone wants me for volunteering,
I have a hard time saying no, as long it doesn't take away from one
of my other gigs. If I'm not losing money and it's a great cause
consider me in."
Give me your craziest bar or club story. "Well,
I can tell you I'm a former cheerleader and I have this maneuver that's
a cartwheel into the splits that I used to do on demand in Traverse
City, Michigan at Dill's Old Town Saloon. I worked there for ten years
and I don't know why I trained people to do this because I kind of learned
to regret it. (laughing) But I do it. I love tequila and people
know it, so they ply me with Tequila. I trained them to pound on the
tables and then I would do a cartwheel into the splits on demand, on
stage, every night as often as they wanted me to.
So one night this person said, 'Well I'm moving out
of town, this is gonna' be my last night. I wanna' see how drunk I can
get you and how many cartwheels and splits I can make you do. I did
19 in a three hour period. And yes, I was hammered. I think that was
the craziest image I've ever put into people's heads. I learned with
my comedy, in one-woman shows and I do improv and I do stand-up
I've boiled it down to 'Shock, Horrify and Delight' in that order. You
know, the Shock is the cartwheel, ahhh look at that woman flying. Then
there's the Horrify. I go down into the splits. (Laura Jane slaps
the table) Bam! Smacking the stage so hard, and then I pop up and
do the 'ta-da.' And then Delight, Oh, she's gonna' be okay. 'Shock,
Horrify and Delight' and some of that bleeds over in everything I do."
Watson: San Diego's Mr. Natural; 2013
San Diego Blues Festival; Big
Blues from Big Jon Atkinson; 2011
San Diego Blues Festival; Missy
and Heine Andersen; Nathan
James: Southern California Roots