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Researching Turtles or Throwing Flames?

I stumbled upon Research Turtles early on whilst searching the Net for bands of consequence. They had just posted their MySpace page, a banner picture of the guys sitting in grass at the top, staring at the camera with thin ties and white short-sleeved shirts reminiscent of the styles of the mid-sixties. I sent a message and waited. And waited. And waited. I had almost given up on hearing from them when out of the blue, I get a message--- not through MySpace but through my regular email. The message was to the effect that if you wanted to hear something fresh and exciting, Research Turtles were open for business. I scratched my head, wondering where they got my email address and queried the sender. Why hadn't you responded to my MySpace message, I asked. Never saw it, came the reply. No matter. The contact was made. That was the important thing.

The sender of the email turned out to be Rick Norman, father of two of the members of the band at that time, and we were to become friends. The love of the band and their music was the seed--- they were Rick's boys and I was a power pop freak and if Research Turtles played anything, it was power pop of the highest quality (when they weren't emulating other various bands like AC/DC or Led Zeppelin)--- but Rick and I soon found many others things we have in common--- the fight for the little guy, distaste of the ethics of the music business if not business in general, the disgust with the might-makes-right attitude in this modern world. As I got to know the boys from Lake Charles, Rick and I began to share an intense interest in the members of the band as individuals, as people, and a hope that these kids (for they are kids to us dinosaurs) would get the break they deserved, that open gate to a larger audience and fame, as fleeting as it would probably be.

The thing that you need to know about me is that I never trust myself, as much as I champion some of the music I hear. I am never sure whether it is the music or just me, for I have been knocked on my ass many times over the years by bands and artists who to this day remain somewhat obscure. So I contacted a good friend, Bob Segarini, who was writing a column called Don't Believe a Word I Say for a site in Canada, I sent him a file of one track, asking if he would listen. He did. We started a dialogue and found that we each not only liked but loved the music. To my surprise, he articulated that love in one of his columns, praising the band in no uncertain terms.

?Warning: I am over the top about this record,? he wrote. ?Remember that it's just me and form your own opinion, but for my money, these guys are the band at the top of my list of who I'm pulling for. So many great new artists out there right now, and these songs make me like them all that much more. We are in another Golden Era of contemporary music, and I for one am loving it.

?About fucking time!

?Research Turtles.

?I want this album on vinyl.

?I want this album on vinyl because it is the first collection of songs by a new band that has struck a nerve this deeply embedded in me in I don't know how many years, and brings back memories of all those great records you got to hear for the first time back in the day, getting up to flip the album over again and again, reading the liner notes while you listened.

?Could this actually be The Next Big Thing?? Is this the band, and the album, that rock fans, especially that rabid branch of musos that call their music ?Power Pop? have been waiting for, for decades? Is this the combination of influences, talent, sophisticated simplicity, and personality that launched the last two great explosions in contemporary music, first from Memphis, and later from Liverpool? I don't want to jinx these kids out of the gate by saying yes, but fuck, does this ever sound like it. Not because it sounds retro or ?familiar?, on the contrary, this record sounds NEW, and FRESH, even in the midst of the Indie explosion we are currently experiencing. Unfortunately, most people don't get to hear all the great new stuff out there. There is no focus, no physical place, like radio and record stores where people were exposed to new music and selected what they liked from the same pile of releases and there was no artist that drove them to radio and record stores to experience new acts until one that was SO undeniable came along and kids started requesting the songs on the radio, and jamming the listening booths in record stores. This release sounds like a watermark. Something that may encourage people to seek out the material, find out more about the band, search the intertoobz, and spread the word both virally, and through the feeling that this music that makes you feel like you are part of something new, and exciting.

?Now, before you think I've got some sort of connection to these kids and their music, let me assure you that although I wish I did, I do not. A regular reader of this column, Frank Gutch Jr, sent me an email asking me if I have heard them. No, I hadn't, so I asked for an mp3 and he sent me one.

?I listened.

?I wrote back requesting more.

?He sent me the entire album.

?I listened.

?I listened again.

?I am still listening as I type this column, singing along when the chorus to ?Damn!?, hits, ?I can feel your heart beat?, and on the pay off chorus of ?Mission? singing the unbearably catchy ?three, two, one, zee-ro?.

?Judge for yourselves, and I will bet that if you love rock music, if you care about great songs, if you long to hear the kind of rock solid roots displayed here respected and contributed to, you will find yourself hooked like I am.

?From the Everly Brothers?, through the British Invasion, into the New Wave, the punk era Ramones, and the Neil Young?/Nirvana/Foo Fighters? grunge guitars,, these guys, like all great artists, are a product of their love of music, honoring the past, and being able to bring something new to the table. The influences are here, but not in the way or intrusive. They are blended together through the miracle of a real rock band writing and playing real music, into something both familiar and unique.

?If I was 20 years old, this is the band I would want to be in.

?I cannot give them higher praise than that.?

Segarini goes on from there, breaking down the album track by track, the praise spewing like sawdust from a woodchipper. Had I not been as enthralled as I was with the album myself, I might have been taken aback by Segarini's over-the-top critique, but I knew I could stop reading at the last line quoted here. Higher praise, indeed. There is no higher praise, I don't think, to use a phrase which used to drive my old high school English teacher, Mr. Daghlian, to distraction.

To say I share Segarini's enthusiasm would be understatement. I have followed Research Turtles from the first moment I heard their music, have given what I hope is sound advice, have written about and critiqued their music and have rejoiced in their successes and still hope that one day soon the world will open their files and find what a great band they are. I have hounded them and pulled for them and wished many times that I had what it takes to manage a band while knowing I am woefully inadequate to handle the challenge. I have listened and accumulated information about not just the band or their music but about many facets of their lives--- as people, as family members, as students, as students of music.

I write this because I have to as much as because I want to. Like I had to write about Tulsa's Cargoe and Fort Worth's Space Opera; and like I have to write about two legendary bands from the Pacific Northwest, Notary Sojac and Sand. These are the stories I love and these are the stories which give a sense of reality beyond the stars and superstars we read about today.

This is the story of a band and how they came to be a band and the uphill struggle they are waging to break through the white noise. This is the story of.....

The Boys from Lake Charles

There are four of them--- Research Turtles, that is. All four have or have had a stake in Lake Charles, Louisiana. All four have had steak in Lake Charles, too, but that's a story for another time. (Jeez, sometimes I crack me up) They haven't been a band all that long, but they have been in bands. Junior high bands, high school bands, cover bands, rock bands. Though they have all lived in Lake Charles at one time or another in their lives, they didn't always know one another. To look at them today, though, you might think that they had. They are brothers of a sort, tied together by their love of music and more importantly, their love of playing music. They are of one kind and one soul and, though vastly different personality-wise, of one mind. They live for the stage and the studio and they live plugged in--- to amps, to the music scene, to each other.

To listen to their music, one might assume that they were predestined to be a band. They rock and they're tight and it looks like they're having as much fun as you can have on a stage (I've seen videos). To Bob Segarini and myself, they obviously belong together, each one on their own part of the stage but on the same stage. You probably think that way about The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and maybe even ABBA. I think that way about Research Turtles. They didn't have to be a band and they didn't have to share a stage, but they did and they do. Why? Maybe because the music gods are looking out for the Segarini's and Gutch's of the world. Maybe because the guys ended up in the same Petri dish purely by chance. Maybe because of the shared geographical location.

The why, though, can only be understood after the how, and that is where the story gets interesting--- just how these guys chose music in the first place and how their paths crossed and re-crossed until just that right period of time which Segarini and I both see as ?The Era of the Research Turtles?. At this point, they've crossed the beach and have made it to water, the ocean beckoning, but when they first cracked the eggs.....

Chapter One: Meet the Turtles

Judson Norman: Bass, Vocals, Guitar

Talking with Jud Norman can be a chore. He is a very private person and holds things important to him very close to the vest which begs the question why he is on stage to begin with. He is the de facto band leader. He writes most of the songs. He promotes, books and lives in the future because if you don't in this age of digital communications, you get left behind. Yet, when it comes to his music..... Well, Jud is a walking dichotomy. He is a prime example of musician and artist--- the former ready to go at a moment's notice, the latter living within and, at certain times, leery of exposure. But music, Jud found early, is in his blood, and I do not use that phrase lightly. While being a musician does not alone define him as a person, it is a large part of that definition. A very large part.

?We always had a piano around the house,? Jud said, attempting to explain his musical beginnings. ?My mom could play and my sister Rosie took piano lessons and was getting really good when she finally gave it up. I don't remember them playing a whole lot, I was very young, but I remember it.

?Dad attempted every instrument he could find and finally gave up, but he can sing really well. I remember him taking us to school when we were young, singing along to Beatles songs. He could sing all of the harmony parts and he would point them out to me. At the time, I thought that was pretty cool.

?My parents were always supportive of us kids (Jud, older sister Rosie and younger brother Joe) when it came to music,? Jud recalled. ?They got Rosie a set of drums and I guess it took her about a week before she got bored with them. I started going into her room after school every day and playing for a couple of hours. She got mad because I was always in her room and finally told me to take them into my room and that settled that.

?I had become interested in drums at a summer camp in Brook Hills, Mississippi. One of the counselors played drums and all of the girls were just gaga over the dude and he wasn't all that great. I was thinking, man, I could do that. So, to me, those drums were a godsend.

?I was extremely lucky in that my parents never screamed at us to stop playing or, later, to turn the guitar down. At the same time, they never pressured any of us to learn an instrument. It was more like, oh, you want to do that? That's great. What do you need us to do?

?Then one Christmas, Joe got a guitar and I got a bass. In seventh grade, it seemed all of my friends played guitar and were always looking for a bass player. I look back and see it is still the same way. Everyone's still looking for bass players. I was obsessed with Paul McCartney and thought, he can play bass and sing, so why not do that? I mean, there were always guitarists trying to start bands. As a bass player, I could have my pick.

?A couple of years after I started the bass, when I was a freshman, I got one of those Beatles songbooks and it had chord diagrams which showed you where to put your fingers and all. That's when I started learning guitar. I'm not a great guitar player, but I can strum.?

It wasn't long before he could do more than strum. While not making guitar his main instrument, he picked up enough to pick out chords and that led to songwriting.

?I recorded my first solo album (Apples, Oranges) when I was a senior, so I guess I had three years of guitar under my belt by then.?

His main influence?

?It's The Beatles,? Jud exclaimed. ?I am very obsessed with them. I can't remember when I was not listening to them. When I entered high school the songs I had been obsessed with all of a sudden had new meaning. I mean, when you're five or six and singing along to Beatles tunes, you're just happy to be singing that melody. When you get older and a bit more mature, you start hearing the lyrics and you can relate to the songs more. It was a time of truth. I began realizing that it was not only good music, but intelligent as well. Their songs are universal. One of the things I like so much about The Beatles is that they have a song for almost any mood. I have never found a band I've felt so connected to.?

Until The Flamethrowers and Research Turtles. But you have to understand that hearing music is almost as important as playing music to Jud. When the world spins out of control, Jud loses himself in it. It is a life substance to him. If you think I am overstating it, think again. I know exactly what he means. I know how music becomes a part of you, a part you know you can't live without. It started early with me. I cannot remember a time without a radio or a record player. It started early with Jud, too, and like with me, it grew.

It eventually grew into two single yet separate bands. That's right. The Flamethrowers and Research Turtles are one and the same. And yet different. And Jud's connections there are as real as much as musical. But before we get into that, let's meet the rest of the band.

Logan Fontenot: Guitar, Vocals

?I had a little musical background before learning guitar,? Logan Fontenot began our interview, and then, unlike Jud, he was off to the races. ?We all had to play recorder in the fourth grade and in middle school, I played trombone in the band. So I knew how to find notes and I knew a little about music theory. I at least knew what notes were available, anyway.

?Playing the guitar was pure accident. When I was in the seventh grade, I got really sick--- like bedridden sick--- for about three weeks. My mother had this old Wal-mart guitar which she never played and after one week in bed, I was going stir crazy but was still too sick to get out of bed, so I ended up picking up her old guitar. The strings were all funky and I didn't know how to tune it or anything. I had this CD player which had an old Goo Goo Dolls CD in it and I had maybe a Nirvana and a Blink-182 CD as well. I couldn't figure out the chords or anything, but I would take one string and work songs out. The first song I learned was Smells Like Teen Spirit. I played it over and over on the CD player and with the high E-string would pluck out ker-plunks.

?There was a moment of clarity when I finally figured out the melody line of Teen Spirit. I was hooked. I was thinking, holy crap, I can do this. I kept working on it and the more I figured out, the more I wanted to play. I didn't take lessons. I just sat in my room with the door closed and went through my CDs and tried to learn every song. Mom and Dad had to come to my room and say, Logan, you haven't eaten yet today. You need to come out of your room and eat.

?In my younger days, my mom had an Aerosmith cassette and my aunt had Garth Brooks' breakout record. Both albums had a lot of world class guitar, so when I started getting a feeling for the guitar, I went back to those and learned the guitar riffs. Then I found Guns 'n Roses and tried to figure out how Slash did what he was doing.

?I was one-hundred percent into it. I didn't know anybody who played guitar, so I was sitting in my room playing along with CDs. I loved it.

?I got better and finally got a chance to get together with my cousins, who all play guitar (everyone on my mom's side of the family are musically inclined). Once a year, at Christmas, we would all go up to my Grandma's house and my cousins would all bring their guitars. My family is super religious and super political. After we ate and everybody was tired of arguing about God and politics, the people who knew how to play would go to their own rooms and break out their guitars and try to show each other up. I never played. I just sat there and tried to take everything in. I got inundated in musical knowledge. They would show me songs, and my uncle, who wasn't the greatest guitar player, would spout hardcore music theory. This was Uncle Greg, one of those guys who doesn't have a TV or Internet. All he does is buy books and read. For about four years, he got into guitar and bought books on theory and all kinds of music. And he learned it. So I would get a few days of all the musical knowledge I could ask for but which took a year to figure out. The next year would be a repeat. And that's how I learned.

?Let me just set the scene for my middle school years. I was very skinny and lanky. I had a goofy haircut. I didn't know what to do with it, so I combed it off to the side like the Fifties or something. (laughs) I had these turtle-rimmed glasses because I couldn't see anything--- I was practically blind--- huge, thick lenses. I played trombone. Imagine a kid with ill-fitting clothes and that other stuff walking around campus with a trombone. I wasn't exactly a ladies man. Not only that, but I didn't play sports because I used to faint a lot. So it was Nintendo or guitar. And obviously, it turned out to be guitar.

?The summer of my freshman year in high school, my parents bought me a second-hand electric guitar. It was a crummy Squire or something, but it was the coolest thing in the world because I had an amplifier and I could turn it up when nobody was at home. I'm sure the neighbors hated me. When I got that guitar, a whole world opened up for me because then I could make the sounds I was hearing. As soon as I learned to make power chords and as soon as I got that amp (which had a little overdrive channel), I was like, this is it!

?Wait! I got that electric guitar late in the eighth grade. I was asked to accompany a girl singing You Are My Sunshine at a church mass. It was the girl, myself and a friend who had just gotten a bass and had no idea how to play it. We set up our amps at church and played the song and not three days later, a girl walked up to me and said I was cute. I turned around and looked at the bass player, James, and said, 'Dude, these have got to be related.' I had never really talked to a girl before. I mean, I already dug playing, but girls came along with this? Hell, yeah! I was a hundred percent down with it. That was the moment that I realized that the bug was fully ingrained.

?From then on, it was non-stop playing CDs and learning songs. Once a year, I learned whatever my cousins had to teach me--- scales and modes and soloing and theory--- then back to learning more from CDs. After awhile, I became comfortable enough that I could play along with the CDs and add my own little licks. It kept building and building.

?When I got to high school, another friend whose family had more money than they knew what to do with one day decided he wanted to play drums. So his folks bought him a drum set. He and I and James started getting together for hours and hours of just making noise. It probably didn't sound anything like the songs we were trying to play, but we thought it was awesome.

?There was this one cute little girl who lived across the street from where we practiced and she would walk across the street and listen. I don't know what she thought. We played in a garage in my dad's work area and it was all closed off. We had all the doors shut and she would sit outside. She didn't even tell us she was there. When we would go get a coke or something, there she was, sitting outside and we would try to act cool. It was, like, hey, how you doin'. See you later. (laughs) We thought we were rock stars. (laughs again)

?Eventually, I had a falling out with the drummer and joined the Saint Louis Catholic Showband, which was not so much of a band as... Well, this teacher from the Sixties wanted her kids to be in a musical rock band, so we ended up getting together. We must have practiced an entire year and only learned two songs. We had our big show in front of the school. It was supposed to last for thirty minutes, so we ended up playing these two songs over and over again. It was embarrassing, but on one of the songs, I sang lead. I didn't really know how to sing and I am certainly not the greatest singer in the world anyway. As I was singing, I noticed little girls giggling to each other and pointing and, of course, I thought it was great, even though we were repeating these two songs over and over again. I was in heaven. When it was over, the school clapped and a couple of people came up and told me 'good job'. It embarrassed me enough, though, that I wanted to practice more. Not the technical stuff. I wanted to put some showmanship into it.

?That was my first inkling of music as entertainment. The music itself is entertaining, but you need to do things to be entertaining and to engage people.

?After the show band thing, there was a short stint in high school where I was off and on again with a couple of different bands with friends from the big public schools. We would get together with our instruments and amps and trade songs.

?Through soccer, I met two people who are now good friends. One was a guitarist who introduced me to Weezer. At the time, I had not heard of Weezer and they blew me away. My friend knew how to play a couple of their songs so I said, okay Dude, we have to start a band. You know anybody who plays bass? He said, yeah, I know a guy who kind of plays bass. So I said, you know anybody who plays drums? He said I'm friends with some of the guys in the drum line. I could talk to them. And we ended up starting a band. We raised money for T-shirts and recorded a little EP in this guy's basement. It was awful.

?We ended up calling the band Plaid Carpet. I was the lead singer and I wasn't the greatest, but we got by. It was fun, though every show there was a catastrophic flub from somebody. Our gimmick was that we all wore plaid shorts. We were awful, but we thought we were awesome at the time.

Our biggest gig was at a little place called D'Agostino's Bistro in Lake Charles. It was the only place around with a stage which allowed most any band to play. It was an all-ages venue, but people were known to now and again sneak in a little liquor. Even bands from Beaumont which was a good hour away would drive in to play there.

?That was my formative learning time playing live gigs. With Plaid Carpet, I figured out how to work with musicians. I figured out what you could get away with on stage. But I had no idea about style or attitude or anything like that. We stayed together for close to two years--- my senior year in high school and freshman year in college.

?My first semester in college, Hurricane Rita hits. We were all displaced. I lived in Dallas for two months and those two months were spent driving back and forth, trying to clean up and figure out what the hell to do after the hurricane wiped us out. Needless to say, I did not do well my first college semester. The next semester, we're still dealing with Rita stuff and one of my close friends was killed in a car accident. I fell into a depression and started missing work and then got fired, so I became even more depressed. It turned in to this downward spiral. I didn't get caught up in drugs or anything, but I felt like I was watching my life as a television show. I felt like I really wasn't there at all.

?The band went into limbo, though we remained close friends. The other guys took it that we were going all the way and would end up rock star millionaires, but they were obviously somewhat delusional. I knew we weren't going anywhere. About that time, I met Jud.?

Joseph Darbonne: Guitar, Vocals

Joseph Darbonne was ready to talk, too. About the early days, about music, about his personal problems and about joining the band. He was outgoing and forthcoming and seemingly unafraid. It was as if the printed word, while having meaning, could not affect what was and is because what was, was and what is, is.

?My whole family is musical,? he began. ?My parents were in a band in the Seventies and opened for The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band a few times. They were called September and had an album out, though I don't remember what label. Very Peter Paul & Mary/Crosby Stills & Nash kind of stuff. Lots of harmonies.

?My parents have played in bands since they were kids. My mom is an excellent singer and plays guitar and harmonica and my father plays guitar. All of their musician buddies still keep track of one another.

?I didn't have a choice. I had to take piano lessons when I was eight. It sucked. I hated it. I learned to play piano, but the lessons were just awful. So I picked up a guitar when I was ten and the rest is history.

?I had natural, raw talent from the beginning. It sounds conceited when I say 'raw talent', but I had a propensity for picking things up quickly. I have a good ear.

?I found myself singing in lots of choral groups, too, starting when I was about five. When I was eleven, I was in a band. Myself, Blake Thibodeaux (Research Turtles' former drummer) and a kid named Joey Sylvester. We were all eleven. We called ourselves The Minor Details, which was a good name because my guitar was bigger than I was. The first songs I remember playing with them were like The Doobie Brothers' Listen To the Music, Aretha Franklin's Respect, and a Spice Girls' tune. I'm not kidding.

?I had a band in high school when Jud was writing songs for a band called Destructicon. They were good. (laughs) I could play you little things that Jud was writing when he was fifteen. Simple but beautiful, you know? He was so focused on catchy melodies.

?Destructicon sounded a little like Weezer. I was writing for my band, Punch Dylan, songs which ended up sounding like some sort of Foo Fighters' cheesy pop-rock stuff. Riffy, because that's what I like to do on guitar. Play riffs.

?I was smoking a lot of pot in high school and thought I could write music, so I wrote five or six tunes and really liked them. I did. I played them a lot and wasn't afraid to play them for anyone. Then, I just stopped. I went to college, joined a frat and stopped playing music.

?Then, when Jud came to LSU, we put a band together and started gigging non-stop.?

Chad Townsend: Drums

If any of the band members came to their instrument through the back door, it was Chad Townsend.

?My father had his drums stolen from him in college, before I was born. Not all of them, but most. When he moved to Lake Charles, he decided to treat himself to a drum set, so he bought another one. One of my earliest memories are of him setting the drums up in the living room and playing along with Otis Redding and a lot of the more obscure blues and funk artists of the day.

?When I was in the fifth grade, I started playing drums, so Dad got down the drums he had left from the stolen set and began buying pieces to fill the set in. At first, I was playing Guns 'n Roses on a bass drum and one tom-tom.

?As I progressed, we would set up our drums face-to-face and he would give me shit whenever I didn't play simple and I would give him shit for not practicing his rudiments like I was learning in band. That's the reason I drum the way I can now--- because my parents were super-supportive.?

Super-supportive. You'll find out in which ways as you get further into the story.

Suffice it to say that while this gives you the basic idea of the band members as musicians, it will take a lot longer to unmask them as people. Which is a way to say there is a backstory and it's a beauty. As for the lack of information on Joseph and Chad, don't worry. You'll learn plenty about them as well.

Chapter Two: Throwing Flames
Chapter Three: The Best Laid Plans...
Chapter Four: The Aligning of Stars
Chapter Five: Enter the Dragon
Chapter Six: Power Pop Overdose--- More Than You Ever Wanted To Know

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