Ex-Asleep at the Wheel Singer Elizabeth McQueen Mixes It Up With Brothers Lazaroff


  • Todd V. Wolfson
One doesn't join the world's foremost Western swing band lightly, and one leaves it even less so. When Austin singer and songwriter Elizabeth McQueen signed up for Asleep at the Wheel in 2005, she had no choice but to throw herself into the role fully, never quite guessing that's she'd wind up with a Grammy nomination and a duet with Willie Nelson to boot.

But her retirement from the Wheel at the beginning of this year hasn't meant retirement from music -- though raising a family when your husband is the drummer in a touring machine isn't a waltz across the sawdust floor. McQueen, one of Austin's finest and most versatile voices, is already working on a new a solo album and continuing her collaboration with St. Louis' Brothers Lazaroff on a recently-released project: The Laziest Remix for her last solo album The Laziest Girl in Town.

As McQueen explains, the remix EP both breathed new life into her own music and pointed the direction for future projects with the Brothers Lazaroff. McQueen returns to St. Louis for a release party with the Brothers at the Demo STL on Saturday, February 22.

Roy Kasten: What triggered the decision to leave Asleep at the Wheel?

Elizabeth McQueen: I'd been in Asleep at the Wheel for eight and half years, and five of those years I was traveling with small children, because my husband David [Sanger] plays in the band too. I always knew that once we took our second daughter out on the road I would be getting out when our oldest was starting kindergarten. It was fun to be a family on the road; it was an awesome adventure. But it had gotten exhausting and expensive. It was time. Creatively, I'd been working on the Laziest Remix record with Brothers Lazaroff, and it had just come out, and it all just happened at once. It was the beginning of a new year; it was time to start a new thing. There were no ill feelings between me and the band.

And I imagine home schooling on the Asleep at the Wheel bus was not an option.

We didn't actually take the kids on the bus. A tour bus is not place for a child. We actually had our own Sprinter van that we would travel around in. So we were driving ourselves to gigs, and that was brutal on the Asleep at the Wheel schedule. They have three drivers and can go wherever they want to. We actually did consider home schooling, but the longer we had kids the less we considered trying to do that on the road.

What one thing stands out about what you learned during your years with the Wheel?

For me there are a ton of things. I went in there as a novice; I'd only been playing music seriously for about seven years when I got that gig. I was pretty young. It was like school for me. I thought I could sing when I joined Asleep at the Wheel, but I really learned how to sing in that band. I learned how to be a prepared side guy. Singers often don't have to learn that. They're in charge, they put the band together, but they aren't necessarily part of the band. I learned to be always ready for whatever was thrown at me.

I also got to watch Ray Benson for eight and a half years. It's really good to have someone like that as a model. He works all the time. He's always trying to create opportunities for the band. You go to bed and he's talking to someone on the phone; you get up in the morning and he's already on the phone. I feel like I learned, not everything, but just a ton out there. My musicianship was comparatively low when I went in and I'm coming out much stronger as a musician.

Asleep at the Wheel had its own identity, following and reputation, and then you joined up. Did you just fit into that or did you have to change or adapt to that world?

Both. I was lucky to find a gig that was a good fit for my voice. I have an old-school, mid-20th-century-jazz voice. That doesn't fit into all modern forms of music. I also do a lot of harmony singing and that's something I love. I went in there as Elizabeth McQueen, roots-rock singer, and kind of had to conform to the Wheel identity, for sure. That's not a bad thing. Because that identity is really high-caliber musicianship. You're expected to be able to do anything at any time.

I'm guessing you met David Lazaroff through your husband, or was that before?

I knew David Lazaroff way before I knew David Sanger. When I moved to Austin with the big plan that I was going to play music for a living, he was one of the first people I started to play music with. We did gigs together. I met Jeff [Lazaroff] and met some cool musicians through David's group, and we would go on tours with Brothers Lazaroff, and they would play on my records and I would sing on theirs. David is the closest thing I have to a musical brother. He and Jeff are my musical siblings.

Was it their idea to do a remix CD?

I had heard the Verve Remix series in my early twenties when I was an intern at our local radio station, KUT in Austin, and I had an idea that I wanted to do something similar. So when I did Laziest Girl in Town I thought about doing a remix. And I talked to Brothers Lazaroff, but then I got pregnant, and that fell to the wayside. But we came back to it and were in the right mindset together. We decided to do a Kickstarter for it, and then we did the rest of the remix record, and it's been awesome to collaborate. David and I were really tight when he lived here, but when he moved back to St. Louis, our friendship, as friendships do when people live thousands of miles a part, we only saw each other occasionally. But working on this project I was able to connect with them again in a really deep way.

Did you work on the remix EP together in the same place at the same time?

We did not. I sent David the stems for the album, and they would go into the studio with the guys. David and Jeff did most of the producing. There was a back and forth, and we were rarely in the same place at the same time. I did come to St. Louis to record the song "Dreamin'" [a bonus track on the EP], but that was the only time we were in the studio together for the EP.

Does this feel like a true remix or does it feel more like a re-recording?

We call them remixes. They are literally remix versions. Brothers Lazaroff would take a piano track and run it backwards, or a saxophone track and run it through all kinds of effects. They used a lot of the rhythm tracks as a basis to start the remixes. But they are really re-imaginings, re-thinkings of the songs, which is cool.

One of the things that stands out is how rhythmically rich the remix is, even polyrhythmic on some tracks. But the way you sing, your voice can move around those denser rhythms.

A lot of that was Jeff and David taking the original vocal track and stretching and warping it. But having to sing these songs live, I actually like the remix versions more than the original versions. In general they have more of a vibe. I hate to use such a generic term, but I have a much clearer picture of some of the tracks. The original album was kind of a genre study. I wanted to do something in the style of 20th-century vocal jazz records that were recorded at the same time, like Ella Fitzgerald or Nina Simone. But the remixes are more their own unique pieces as opposed to a genre study of another era.


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