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Headed for the (Tip) Top

Frank McLallen: one of the hardest working musicians in Memphis.

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Trying to keep track of a musician like Frank McLallen can be difficult. When he's not working shifts at the Memphis Pizza Café, chances are he's on a stage somewhere in town with one of his 10 bands. And if he's not playing live, he's probably recording at his makeshift studio the Burgundy Ballroom, where local acts of all genres have taken refuge to crank out demos as well as full albums. Despite his chaotic schedule, we caught up with McLallen to discuss his take on the Memphis music scene and get more information on his band the Sheiks, who have a new record coming out next month on their own Ballroom Record Label.

Flyer: First off, let's get a run-down of all the different bands you play in.

McLallen: I play in the Sheiks, the Maître D's, Skip Town, Tennessee Screamers, Loose Diamonds, Jack Oblivian and the Tennessee Tearjerkers, Clay Otis and the Dream Sheiks, I play bass with Devil Train a lot as a fill in, I play with Minivan Blues Band, and I also play with a church band at Saint Mary's Church down in Nesbit, Mississippi, when I can. I also have this new project with Chopper Girl called The Curse.

Tell me about Skip Town. What's that project like?

That's a band I do with Johnny Ciaramitaro and Rockin' Rick. It's like peyote western music. I like to call it psychedelic highway rock. We do covers and original tunes, but it's basically like boogie music and psychedelic country. That band can play all night if someone wants us to. I also have this band called the Prom Kings that only plays a couple times a year. We play the Madonna Learning Center Prom and we dress up in '50s Back to the Future prom outfits and we play Chuck Berry covers and "Earth Angel" and stuff like that. It's pretty much the Sheiks plus my friend Daniel Brown.

In an average week, how many shows do you think you play?

On a good week, two or three gigs. I used to pick up a lot more. I used to play with Marcella Simien and that was good work. I even played in this casino band that was so shitty, but I needed the money at the time. I got a trio together and played at Horseshoe Casino in Tunica. We played Garth Brooks songs and Journey songs, and it was really embarrassing, but it paid well. I used to hustle a lot more gigs, but now I just try to do the things I like and the things I want to be a part of. I have to keep a calendar to keep all this shit in order. I just got a new planner and I'm basically booked every weekend from now until June. I'd like to keep it that way for the rest of the year.

Why do you think it's so common for Memphis musicians to be in multiple bands?

Because there are so many great musicians around and so many creative people who are basically all in this together. I look at it like all of us are in this brotherhood or sisterhood of playing music. In my experience, egos don't really play into the scene like they do in other towns. Everybody gets along for the most part, so it's easy to share creative ideas with people. I mean, it's a lot of fun to play music in Memphis, it's a way of life.

Even though you have all of these different projects, it seems like the Sheiks are your main focus. Tell me more about the "Tip Top" single that's coming out next month.

It's actually an EP with two songs on each side. The A-Side has "Keep Me in Mind" and "Tip Top" on it, and the B-Side has "And She Said All These Things" and "Are You Still With Me" on it. The song "Tip Top" is basically about making a trip to the liquor store on Madison Avenue. All those songs are new, and it was recorded at Jack Oblivian's house and finished up at Doug Easley's studio. The EP is going to be released on Ballroom Records, which is a new label we started. It will be the first release on that label.

Tell me more about your practice space/recording studio/venue/house, the Burgundy Ballroom.

Sadly it's coming to an end, but we had a really great three-year run. We put on a bunch of awesome house shows, and had an awesome annual Halloween show. I think we had about seven shows total in there, complete with a full bar and bartender. Keith [Cooper, guitarist for the Sheiks] has a lot of vintage recording equipment, and he's recorded a lot of local bands at our house, from Moving Finger to Gopes Busters. [Local band] Time just recorded their record at our house, and it came out great. And of course everything the Sheiks have ever done was recorded at the Burgundy Ballroom with the exception of our latest single, which was mainly worked on at Doug Easley's studio.

What are the Sheiks' plans for the rest of the year?

Right now we are working on another full-length record. We went down to Austin this past November and got with [former Memphian] Andrew McCalla to record at his house. We recorded all our basic live tracks there and then we went to Doug's [Easley] studio a couple weeks ago to start working on that. I think we will probably put out another 7" as well. If we get some money together, I would like to start releasing more bands through the Ballroom record label. Touring wise, we are going to do an East Coast run at the end of May and then go back down to Louisiana and Texas. In the fall we are going to go to Europe with Jack Oblivian. We are hoping to bring Harlan T. Bobo along as well. We will be playing as the Sheiks and as Jack's backing band, two sets a night for a month. In the meantime, we are just trying to book dates, record more, and hopefully make it out to the West Coast.

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