I first caught “the Q” in college on a whim. It was a last-minute thing in 1987 and my buddy Matt who was from Hartford was a rabid fan. He had often played me NRBQ studio tracks but nothing really clicked until I saw them live. There at The Chance in Poughkeepsie, New York, I saw a band with incredible dexterity put on a show that covered rock, R&B, jazz, cowpunk, and even a few sweet American standards – all with an ease that allowed them to travel musically in ways I’d never seen before. From there my real relationship with this band took hold, and often found its way to the famed Toad’s Place in New Haven, Connecticut.
NRBQ has been at it for a while. They released their self-titled debut in 1969, and the band in just three configurations toured and recorded consistently until their 35th anniversary in 2004. Then, in 2011 with the record Keep This Love Goin’, they introduced a new lineup with founder Terry Adams on keyboards, Scott Ligon on guitar, Casey McDonough on bass, and now John Perrin on drums. It was a daring move by Adams to introduce such a radical lineup to fans of a band who are known to be as faithful as they come. But this group had taken their time to get their footing and to be as solid as all of the lineups that preceded them before coming forward as “NRBQ.” Fans heard the result of that commitment and responded in kind.
Ten years later NRBQ will now return with its first full-length album since 2014. The record, to be released November 12, 2021 is called Dragnet, and in addition to their take on that TV show theme, the album contains ten new original tracks, all of which were written or co-written by the band, including Adams’ “Sunflower,” which was originally recorded for the 2018 film Change in the Air. The album sits comfortably alongside their best-known work, delivering songs that will make you smile, bop, and often giggle. It’s completely “Q!”
We had the opportunity to speak with NRBQ guitarist Scott Ligon about his tenure in the band, what it’s like writing with a rock legend like Terry Adams, and how the legacy of this remarkable act can be kept alive for generations to come.
Ray Chelstowski: How did you pull this record together during a pandemic?
Scott Ligon: We all don’t live in the same area, so we decided a long time ago that whenever we get together, we should try to cut some tracks. That’s how we have been doing it, even before COVID. Whenever we’d get together to do a two-week tour, we would book a couple of days on either end and spend a couple of nights in the studio. The real challenge with this record was finishing it. We had a lot of material that was in various states of being complete. We could have wrapped everything up a lot more quickly had we not been forced to be separated for so long.
RC: So, was Dragnet recorded in a number of different locations?
SL: No, it was pretty much all recorded up at Harmonium Studio in Massachusetts, where Terry has worked for a long time. A couple of things got cut several years ago at other locations because we were out on the road. We sort of have to work that way because several of us live in Chicago and Terry is out East.
RC: You co-wrote the album opener “Where’s My Pebble?” with Terry. What is the process like when you write with him?
SL: It’s always different. The very first time that I wrote with Terry was on an album called Holy Tweet. It was a solo record of his and it was really special because it was just me, Terry and Tom Ardolino (late NRBQ drummer). We had a tune on the record called “Yes I Will” and it didn’t have a bridge. Terry said, “Scott why don’t you write a bridge for this one?” Then they both stepped out. For me, being a lifelong NRBQ fan, that was terrifying. But it turned out good. “Where’s My Pebble” is a song that I had originally written as an instrumental. As we were kicking it around, Terry remembered that he had something that he’d been singing while riding around in the car that might fit. Somehow, the two separate ideas just matched up! So, there is never any one way we work together. It’s all based on necessity, [with all of us] together finding what the song needs.
RC: Five of the eleven tracks on the new record are Terry’s. Does he have a set way of approaching them in the studio or do you all help shape the final cut?
SL: A lot of it has to do with the way we’re playing, what each guy brings to the song. Terry does have some pretty specific ideas about what he wants but at times it’s a lot more wide-open. There are many songs we’ve recorded where there is very little discussion about how things should go. Terry will start playing and we all go along. At times something magical happens without much conversation at all. But every song is different and you never really know where it’s going to go. It’s kind of the way we work on stage. We never know what the first song is going to be. There’s just no formula.
However, Terry does give unique direction. For example, he might say, “the guy playing guitar on this is not a really good guitar player. He’s just a guy who’s barely hangin’ on,” Often, he uses a character: “the bass player on this one is a session guy who doesn’t really want to be here so he’s just playing the bare minimum.” This happens a lot with Terry.
RC: Your songs on the record have a real Al Anderson vibe to them and Casey’s song could have been written by Joey Spampinato [Anderson and Spampinato were former NRBQ members – Ed.]. Do you feel an obligation to follow the musical path they created when you write for NRBQ?
SL: No. I think that because NRBQ has been so influential in my life, it’s just part of my musical language. Part of the reason I was so impacted by them to begin with is because it was familiar. It was brand new but it was also familiar. I’m sure that a lot of NRBQ fans can relate to what I am talking about. There’s a certain sense of positivity in the songwriting. It’s always upbeat, which has become even more in focus as a result of the pandemic. It’s just necessary these days. But as far as the writing goes, ever since I was 18 years old, I have been writing songs that I have thought should be NRBQ songs. Honestly, anything I become involved with is going to have some of that feeling to it.
RC: The band’s music can be incredibly complex. What’s the hardest song to get your arms around?
SL: The hardest thing that we play is a song called “Bargains.” It was never officially released. I can’t give you the background on it because it’s impossible. It’s kind of like a sound collage. That’s the hardest song. Then again, just the intro to “Flat Foot Floozy” always makes me wonder sometimes if I’m gonna make it through!
RC: Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead has said that he dreams sometimes at night that when he is gone, John Mayer and company will carry the torch and keep the band’s music alive. Do you and Casey ever feel that way with NRBQ?
SL: When I first met Terry and we were just starting to audition some musicians for the band, he told me that he thought the band should just be called NRBQ, thinking about it in terms of The Duke Ellington Orchestra or something like that. It’s just this living thing that goes on for the musicians who understand where the music comes from and what it’s about. It’s just a new batch of guys [now]. When we first started playing it felt like we weren’t really ready to take on that name. It felt like we hadn’t quite earned it yet. That’s why we waited until 2021. I’m glad we did, because in some crazy way I have always felt like this is the band I am supposed to be in.
Header image of NRBQ courtesy of John Krucke.