Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

The Bad Boys of Swing: An interview with Lee Presson

The following interview is what I intend to be the first in a series. As a swing artist myself, I thought it would be fun to interview some of the popular swing musicians that punk the genre in their own special way - the “Bad Boys of Swing.”

Modern swing artists have different ways of "punking" the basic sound of swing and making it their very own, blending it with everything from jump blues to ska to rockabilly. And then there's Lee Presson and the Nails. Dubbed "Goth Swing" by the San Francisco Chronicle, this swing band takes a left turn into the Twilight Zone with their "sinister" appearance and wacky stage antics. LPN has been together (with a brief hiatus) since 1994 and have 5 CDs to their credit, including their brand new downloadable album, Balls in Your Face, a compendium of ballroom music in true LPN style!

I befriended Lee on Facebook through some mutual friends, and found him to be quite a funny and fascinating individual, so I asked him to come over to Dieselpunks and give an interview for us, as the first in our "Bad Boys of Swing" series. Welcome, Lee!

Lee, you’ve had quite the career both as a front man and as a solo performer. When did you first catch the bug and jump on stage?

Lee: I was... three? Pretty much all my life. My father was the Chairman for the Department of Theater Arts at the College of Marin, so I was surrounded by theater pretty much all my life.

Tell us about your first band. What was it like? And when was that?

Lee: We were fresh out of high school and John Belushi had just died, so we formed the John Belushi Memorial Blues Band. We thought, "if two Blues Brothers was good then eight of them must be fantastic!" It's a premise so ludicrous it could only have existed in the 80s.

I know you play the xylophone; what other instruments are you proficient on?

Lee: I started on keyboard, I can keep a beat on drums... in fact, it was LPN's first drummer who suggested I take up vibes, which is basically a keyboard you hit with sticks.

Can you tell us a bit about how the original band formed and how it evolved into the current line up?

Lee: At first it was very down & dirty, "I know a guy who has a next-door neighbor who plays trumpet..." We're much more selective now. Most of the newer Nails were referred by existing Nails.

Your music catalog and your stage performances also show a witty side and a lineup that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Is this a goal of LPN, or simply an offshoot of your own personality?

Lee: It was very much a goal. How seriously can a band called LEE PRESSON AND THE NAILS take itself?

Your stage performances are quite fun, crazy - one might even say manic at times. Who are your inspirations for your stage performances? I can definitely see some Spike Jones' influence...

Lee: Spike is definitely in there somewhere. Our MAIN inspiration would be Betty Boop and Tex Avery cartoons.

You've also called your band a "Cab Calloway Tribute Band" on more than one occasion? In what way?

Lee: Oh, that's a joke! Geez, this fella takes things seriously! The kids love the tribute bands, we're just trying to fit in.

Over the years, we’ve heard a lot of different perspectives on the swing revival craze; some good, and some bittersweet. As an artist, what was your perspective on the boom? What sort of trouble was brewing behind the scenes that caused the bubble to burst?

Lee: I think a lot of it had to do with the economy at the time. We were experiencing the greatest economic expansion in America's history; people could afford to go out and enjoy themselves. After 2000 that all seemed to go away: big recession, clubs dropped like flies and companies either stopped hiring live bands for their parties or stopped having parties altogether.

You once wrote, "I credit Royal Crown Revue for starting the swing revival, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy for killing it." Would you care to comment a little on what you meant?

Lee: The day after BBVD played the Superbowl the swing revival was over. I'm not blaming them; it just seemed to happen that way.

What are your thoughts on the new phenomenon coming out of Europe, "electro-swing"? Coupled with an increasing interest in retro, or what we'd call "dieselpunk", fashion, and the "swing goth" movement, which I understand is big up your way, do you foresee a "second swing revival" in the near future? And will Lee Presson and the Nails be riding the crest of that wave?

Lee: How many questions is that?

Ha! Sorry!

Lee: I take great pride in the fact that the San Francisco Chronicle coined the term "Goth Swing" to describe LPN in 1996! The "electro-swing" I've heard so far I haven't been that impressed with, although I like the concept. Thomas Dolby's done dieselpunk as well as it could be done. Steampunk? I don't think it has an official sound yet. If you want to get VERY technical, the calliope is the world's only steam-powered instrument (that's right - CIRCUS music) so let's use that as a springboard for something! Second swing revival? Jazz never dies; it just lays low for a while. It'll be back, and we'll be ready.

Let's talk a moment about your latest album. It's a bit of a departure from your previous work. In "Balls In Your Face" you're covering ballroom dances, but still have a few standards on the album that swingers will recognize. What was your inspiration for this album? And are you taking the Nails in a new direction, or just doing a little exploring?

Lee: That was just a bit of fun. EL BANDO EN FUEGO, our last album, was a Latin record! BALLS IN YOUR FACE is the result of our playing more ballroom gigs and the sheer coincidence of our doing Oktoberfest-themed HUBBA HUBBA REVUE shows three years in a row. So suddenly there are a lot more polkas and waltzes in our catalog... we thought, "this is some interesting stuff... why not record it?" One of these days this swing band will actually do an album with swing on it!

You certainly have a wide spectrum to your catalog, from covers to originals. What sort of music inspires you to keep creating new material?

Lee: There are only two reasons why I would want to cover a song. One is to honor it, the other is to rework it and out it in a new context that hopefully the audience never thought of before. If we've done our job right, I want us to be halfway through the 2nd chorus before the listener says, "Oh, it's THAT song!"

As a dieselpunk, I really liked the Deco look of your latest album cover. Are you a big Art Deco fan also?

Lee: Yes. (Kudos to Peter Overstreet for the excellent cover art!)

How did you hook up with Peter, and why he was chosen to design the cover?

Lee: Peter is a friend and coworker at the Dickens Fair. He runs La Legion Fantastique, the Jules Verne-inspired environment there, and plays Mr. Philias Fogg. I asked him to do the BALLS IN YOUR FACE cover because he's FRIGGIN' TALENTED.

Most of us know you as a vocalist and songwriter, but you’re also an actor. I understand you've portrayed Edgar Allen Poe many times, and recently just did a run of The Mikado. Tell us a bit about that.

Lee: Well I've portrayed Edgar Allen Poe many times, and yes, I recently just did a run of The Mikado! You are talking about the DICKENS CHRISTMAS FAIR, which happens every December at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. I've been playing Poe there for 23 years... then a stage show there asked if I would like to do the Mikado. My father (the drama teacher, remember) was a big fan of Gilbert & Sullivan and therefore, so was I.

Do your thespian roots stretch back before forming LPN? What sorts of roles draw you to the spotlight?

Lee: Let's put it this way: at my next show I will be playing the Joker for a Gotham City-themed ballroom event!

Yes, I've seen you in your Joker persona. As a fellow Batman fan I must say I was quite impressed. How did you get into that, and can we expect any more Joker-related videos or appearances in the future?

Lee: It's kind of a long story. While I thought Heath Ledger gave an outstanding and Oscar™-worthy performance in The Dark Knight, I was not happy with the new costume/makeup design. Since then I've been on a one-man crusade to bring back the Classic Joker. So yes, Jack will be back! What does this have to do with LPN again?

Absolutely nothing, I just think fans of yours would be interested! But back on that subject, where can we catch up with LPN these days, and what can we do to support the band?

Lee: WWW.LEEPRESSON.COM will tell you everything you need to know. You want LPN in your town? Let the clubs know! Don't let live music die!

And I have to remind everyone, especially steampunks, that you’ll be playing at the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition in San Francisco on Saturday, March 26th!

Lee: Yes indeed!

Oh, one other thing... Is there a question you would have liked me to ask, that I didn't ask? (And the answer to that question would have been...?)

Lee: I came up with a great answer to the question, "Is Presson your real name?" but ever since I came up with the answer people stopped asking me the question! Here's the answer: "Of course it's not my real name, I changed it for show business. My real name is Tony Hitler. My two brothers and I called ourselves The Singing Hitlers. For some reason we never got that many shows."

Hey, it worked for Mel Brooks!

Lee , thanks so much for taking part in this interview and for being a part of the dieselpunk experience. Any final words?

Lee: I AM THE FUTURE LEADER OF YOUR PLANET! YOU WILL ALL BOW DOWN BEFORE ME! Dot your I's and eat your peas! Smoke crack and worship Satan (where applicable)!*

(* The views and opinions expressed by Mr. Presson are not necessarily the views of the interviewer or of Dieselpunks.org!)

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Comment by Larry on March 15, 2011 at 10:18am
Excellent interview Jonny! I've always enjoyed LPN music.
Comment by Jonny B. Goode on March 15, 2011 at 2:45am
Thanks also to Tome Wilson for his assistance with this interview!

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