Ludo is fired up and ready to play on the national stage

Feb 20, 2008 at 4:00 am
[For additional outtakes from staff photographer Jennifer Silverberg's day with Ludo, click here].

A mass of arctic air has made its descent into Des Moines when Ludo arrives at the House of Bricks. Some 35 hardy Iowan souls who've braved sub-zero weather are scattered around the barroom. By the look of the meager turnout, it's hard to imagine that just three weeks prior a crowd of 2,000 packed the Pageant for the rock band's annual Christmas-themed spectacle.

Lead singer Andrew Volpe takes the stage wearing a bright green cardigan sweater and white dress loafers. Moog player Tim Convy sports a worn yellow T-shirt, while a tear in guitarist Tim Ferrell's jeans reveals the long johns that have come in handy on this frigid night. Ludo launches into their better-known songs as the small crowd nods their approval. With urging from Convy, the audience claps to "Hum Along." Catchy pop-rock with a comic narrative twist, the 2003 tune is one that helped the St. Louis band cement a solid following.

The Des Moines show is part of the quintet's nineteen-city Midwest romp to herald the release of its new album, You're Awful, I Love You, due out on Island Records early next week. Ludo introduces a host of still-unreleased tracks before ending the set with its irreverent cover of Faith No More's "Epic."

Grins break out as people recognize the 1989 alt-metal hit. In arena-rock style, Volpe struts and lunges, his pompadour and thrift-store getup adding to the mocking tone of the performance. As "Epic" reaches full crescendo, Volpe indulges in an extra round of soulful vocals, prompting bassist Marshall Fanciullo — standing back near drummer Matt Palermo — to flash an amused, there-he-goes-again glance.

In an era dominated by overwrought emo acts, Ludo's playfulness drew the attention of label representatives. Before signing with Island in November 2006, the band fielded offers from Capitol Records, as well as three independent labels. Now Ludo stands on the verge of becoming the next big thing from St. Louis.

"I think there's room now for bands that are going to have fun," says Capitol's Jaime Feldman, one of the artist-and-repertoire managers who courted Ludo. "The band has fantastic personality and showmanship," he says. "They have set up a really nice fan base they can build upon in the Midwest."

The last local rock act to seize national attention was Story of the Year, the screamo pioneers whose 2003 debut, Page Avenue, sold nearly 850,000 copies. Ludo is still counting down the days until their own album's release date, but Island's backing is paying off. Top 40 radio stations in Detroit and Atlanta — cities Ludo has never played — are spinning the single "Love Me Dead." At the same time, Island has booked Ludo as the opening act for Presidents of the United States of America, whose self-titled album went double platinum in 1996.

The tour will grant Ludo access to the same crowds who embraced the Presidents when they emerged from the Seattle grunge scene with songs like "Kitty" and "Peaches." Ludo, which takes its name from the gentle monster in the movie Labyrinth, has a similarly quirky appeal. Friends of the band describe its music as "Weezer meets Queen." reviewer Garett Press calls it "nerdy pop-rock." He says, "You picture [Volpe] being a skinny dude with glasses, but at the same time, he can wail."

Tim Ferrell says the band has paid its dues. "If this takes off, people will say we came out of nowhere." But, he adds, "We slept on floors for five years."

The story of the power-pop quintet that pulled itself up by the guitar strap is a lesson in how any band succeeds these days. Ludo has toured constantly enough to wear out two vans over the past four years. They'd go anywhere — Leavenworth, Kansas, or Wheaton, Illinois — just to reach an audience and peddle its self-produced CD, Ludo.

Phil Kosch of Chicago-based Treaty of Paris says he knew Ludo was driven when it agreed on short notice to join his band for a free show in Naperville, Illinois. "They were just taking every opportunity to build [audiences] up here," he says. "We kind of neglected to tell them it was under a canopy, next to a river with this really bad sound system. They sold $500 worth of merch and did really well."

Ludo worked up to dates on the Vans Warped Tour and sought-after venues like Mississippi Nights. The band surprised and impressed critics with its follow-up album in 2005, a five-song rock opera about a heartbroken time traveler, Broken Bride. The EP incorporated a range of musical influences and reinforced Ludo's reputation for having theatrical flair. Absolutepunk's press raved that the band had delivered the perfect concept album, calling them "great storytellers."

While awaiting the release of You're Awful, which was to come out last fall, the group made its own video to promote its first single. Band members ham it up while brushing their teeth, and fans, who submitted clips, lip-synch "Love Me Dead" in front of bathroom mirrors. Fans flocked to the "tooth-brushing video" on YouTube. Then at live shows, they snatched up $1 toothbrushes stamped with Ludo's double-cherry logo.

"They're the hardest working band — on the promotion side of things — out there," says Brian Roberts of Ha Ha Tonka, a former touring partner from Springfield, Missouri. If Island's effort is as strong Ludo's, Roberts predicts, "Sky's the limit."

Andrew Volpe started writing what became Ludo's first songs when he was at John Burroughs School. After class, he'd park his car at Schnucks and scribble down lyrics, including an early version of "Hum Along." Many fans have memorized the song, which takes the old boy-pines-for-girl story to a new height with a preposterous daydream narrative: Maybe you'd be kidnapped by pirates/And they would take you to their hideout/As pirates often do/But I'd find the secret map/And I would vigilante-bushwhack/Through the jungles of Peru/Just to save you.

Volpe delivers more colorful songwriting with "Love Me Dead," a morbidly funny take on the inexplicable magnetism of a damaging affair: Kill me romantically/Fill my soul with vomit/Then ask me for a piece of gum/Bitter and dumb/You're my sugarplum/You're awful, I love you!

An official, bigger-budget video for "Love Me Dead" interprets the song in a literal, vaudeville style. "I can just tell Andrew's been through the works in the theater classes," Beverly Hills-based director Scott Culver says. "He's very animated."

As a kid Volpe was cast in local commercials and in a Muny production of Bye Bye Birdie. He prefers to describe himself as a music nerd who tried to resist the urge to pursue rock stardom. "I spent a long time trying to come up with something more 'adult' to do, something more easily mentioned in a group of one's parents' friends," he says. "After a while I was like, 'Who am I kidding?'"

Volpe started planning to form a band after his sophomore year at Washington University. He and a music buddy from Burroughs, Dave Heltibrand, looked for a guitarist who wanted to play three-minute songs, not the "acousticy nonsense" that seemed to interest everyone else around them. Ferrell, a Saint Louis University High School graduate who was home from Notre Dame on summer break, answered their ad.

Ferrell struck Volpe as a little too preppy, but that impression changed as soon as he started shredding, Volpe says, breaking into an air-guitar lick for emphasis. A vegan who meditates for two and a half hours daily, Ferrell is anything but preppy. He notes that at the time, Volpe was squatting in an apartment near Wash. U. Ferrell says he remembers thinking, "This guy is a disaster." But Ferrell also recognized the creative energy: "What's the point of starting a band with boring people?"

The entire Ludo lineup is an odd yet complementary mix. Baby-faced Matt Palermo studies technique DVDs and doesn't have much to say unless it's about drumming. Stick-thin and stoic, Ferrell is another dedicated musician; he's been playing since age six and spent his spare time last year building a microtonal guitar.

Marshall Fanciullo, the bassist, has a dry sense of humor that plays off Volpe's cartoonish antics. A graphic designer, he also supplies the artwork for the band's merchandise and album covers. Convy is gregarious, reaching out to the crowd from behind the Moog. Offstage, he's the band's business liaison. Volpe, whose attention span is so short that he forgot about making the tooth-brushing video, says he gravitated toward people who would bolster his weaknesses. "Early on I felt like Ludo was something that needed to have other people's mark on it."

From the start, Ludo thrust themselves before any audience who would have them. "We started calling it 'Ludo' that summer, even though it was kind of ridiculous," Ferrell recalls, thinking back to one show on the Wash. U. campus in which they stuffed themselves into a bay window and played between sets of "real" bands. A life-size cutout of Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars with drumsticks shoved into his cardboard hands served as their drummer.

Playing as an acoustic duo after college, Ferrell and Volpe vowed to practice every day. They forced themselves onto the road, playing 80 times in a five-month span. Most of those "shows" were at open-mic nights. Ludo would crash into a cozy community of hobby performers, then have the audacity to ask for a floor to sleep on. Ferrell says their motto was, "We're going to suck until we don't suck anymore."

Ferrell and Volpe ended up in Tulsa, where Ferrell moved after he graduated in 2002. They lived on the overdraft protection from Volpe's checking account and shared a dumpy little house on the wrong side of town. That house in Tulsa looms large in band lore. "The screen door was on one hinge, and there was a cat with random sores," says Fanciullo, who drove down from Omaha for an audition in the summer of 2003. He and Palermo still recoil in horror at the thought of Volpe's two pet ferrets and their overpowering stench. "There's probably a blanket somewhere that still has that smell," Palermo says. Adds Fanciullo: "They had personality, the little bastards."

Volpe, who had dropped out of Washington University's music program, was impetuous as he urged Ludo forward. He invited Convy, who was Ferrell's friend from St. Louis, to join them after watching him sing with his '80s cover band in Columbia, Missouri. The fact that Convy played guitar (and Ludo didn't need a third guitarist) didn't matter. "He said, 'You should be in Ludo,'" Convy recalls. 'We'll buy a Moog and teach you how to play it.'"

Barreling heedlessly ahead as a trio in early 2003, Ludo started telling audiences they'd return in the fall with a rhythm section — and an album. At the time, they had neither. "I don't think we knew any better," Convy says. "We got really lucky a bunch of times and that convinced us we could do anything we wanted."

Volpe has a less sunny memory of that time. "It was honestly a blur," he says, adding in an ironic tone, "A blur of sadness, and hunger, and a desire to do something better."

Back in Tulsa, Ludo posted the following ad: "Bassist/drummer needed to help take over world." In Fanciullo and Palermo, they found two more single-minded musicians. Palermo, who was nineteen at the time, left community college in Spring, Texas. Fanciullo says his own band was on the verge of a breakup, and his girlfriend was pressing for marriage. "I would be a better father and husband having chased my dreams and passions in life," he figured. "It was important for me to go for it, and really go for it — not half-ass it."

Finally a five-piece, Ludo recorded its first, self-produced album after three weeks of practice. "Everything we did was in hyper-drive," Volpe says. "There was nothing else but the clock ticking, debt piling up."

Wherever Ludo plays in Iowa, they see the same two sisters who appeared at the sparsely attended House of Bricks show back in January. Wearing matching black twirl skirts and hot-pink tights in different patterns (one fishnet, one candy-cane striped), they watch the set from the best possible vantage point — dead center and close enough to touch their toes to the stage.

After the performance, the pair, both in their mid-20s, talk about how much they admire Ludo's inventiveness. When they spot Volpe, they cut the conversation short and bolt toward him. Volpe remembers them well. "They do graphic design stuff and they make clothing," he says. "Every once in a while they'll come to a show in Chicago or Omaha."

He goes on to boast: "There are little pairs or groups like them in every town we frequent. A couple of girls in Godfrey [Illinois] have come to shows in Minnesota, California, Texas." Such loyalty is the payoff for time spent lingering after shows and hours more on MySpace. At the crowded Warped Tour, Ludo members were aghast when other bands walked away from kids without shaking any hands. With a shocked expression, Volpe says, "We were like, 'What are they doing?!'"

Dan Friedman, the St. Louis-based entertainment lawyer who engineered Ludo's five-album deal with Island, says label reps took notice of the group's burgeoning fan base. In fact, a vice president from Island who attended the band's 2006 "Cinco de Mustache" show in St. Louis offered them a deal on the spot, Friedman remembers. "He saw 1,200 kids singing along to all the songs," says Friedman. "He said, 'You'll have paper within a week.'"

Ludo signed with Island in part because the label agreed to let the band produce "non-commercial" material on its own Red Bird Records. The "creative" stuff might be live recordings, holiday-themed albums, or, Friedman says, "Andrew can do another rock opera."

What the band wanted from any deal, Friedman adds, was radio play. He reasons that even if fans download the singles — instead of buying the album — the radio exposure could pay off in publishing royalties down the road. "They're getting their shot at radio," he says. "If radio takes off, then it's OK."

Producer Matt Wallace, whose credits include Faith No More, had the job of distilling Ludo's expansive live act. He says that as much as Ludo wanted the radio play, they weren't willing to compromise everything. Rather than edit out the part of "Hum Along" where fans like to sing along, Ludo left the track off its wide-release album. "It could've been a tremendous pop single," Wallace says.

Wallace thinks You're Awful has potential for several other pop singles ("Such As It Ends," "Please," "Mutiny Below"). It also reflects the band's maturity. At 24, Palermo is the youngest member, while the rest are in their late 20s. Ferrell wrote "Topeka" about a real-life van breakdown and the mental training that helped him through it. "I had been trying to maintain a positive outlook," he says. "Of all the times we had a mini-catastrophe, I didn't lose my head over it."

Volpe wrote "Scream" after his girlfriend's father died unexpectedly. On its surface, the song is a bouncy, driving rocker with twinkling Moog parts, but it poses a serious question: If I scream scream scream/About a good man's life/Will you ever stop and listen? Volpe says at the time he was thinking about the unlikelihood of anyone playing a song about a "good man" on the radio. "It's not some sexy, teenage thing."

Wallace says the delicate songs are as true to Ludo as the rock. "The thing to listen for is the tremendous amount of emotion and humanity behind all the stuff they try to hide it with."

Ludo hauls its instruments into the small, cement-walled practice room at Utopia Studios and closes the door against the sound of the grunge cover band playing down the hall. Tonight is one of its few opportunities to practice before the big release date. You're Awful, I Love You was recorded nearly a year ago, and the band is sorely in need of a refresher.

"Does anyone remember how 'Topeka' goes?" Volpe asks. As the song's soft opening bars start to fill the small quarters, Convy reaches for the cell phone that he keeps handy on top of his Moog. He has a new text message. "Just got confirmation from the station in Manhattan," he says. "It's in rotation."

Drew Bartlett, a DJ in Manhattan, Kansas, downloaded the MP3 of "Love Me Dead" and introduced it to his bosses at the Top 40 station, KACZ (96.3 FM). He's known the band since he was a student at Kansas State. "We played the hell out of them at the college station," Bartlett says. He also hooked Ludo up with its first Top 40 interview and live set. They still seem down-to-earth and grateful for a chance to play, he says. "I've seen other bands at the level they're at. They can be real dicks sometimes."

Convy says he cultivated relationships like the one with Bartlett because he knows what it's like in the trenches. At the Blue Note in Columbia, he restocked soda on Wilco's tour bus and did laundry for the Kottonmouth Kings. "There were a lot of bands my bosses at the Blue Note would go the extra mile for — even if they weren't bringing a lot in — because they were nice guys."

As corny and Midwestern as it sounds, Ludo's role model was the fabled Little Red Hen, who managed to bake bread (grew the wheat, milled the flour, kneaded the dough) when none of the other barnyard animals would help. "We were just like, 'You're missing out, you're gonna want some. The bread is gonna smell so good,'" Volpe says. "When people see you kneading the dough and putting it in the oven, they're like, 'Hey, this is gonna be good.'"

View outtakes from Ludo's photo shoot.

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