In Development with LG: The Unrelenting Contradictions of Southern Rock
“How do you combine white trash bigotry music with where it actually came from, the women who made it happen, and meld it into a powerful thing?”
Lauren “LG” Gilbert is the kind of rock ‘n’ roll musician who’s difficult to describe outside of her own words. Both on stage and off, she isn’t scared to call a spade a spade, and performs with three goals in mind: “make ‘em a little horny, a little scared, and want to be you.”
The mastermind behind Thelma and the Sleaze, an all-women queer Southern rock back from Nashville, LG conjures the goodness of rock ‘n’ roll in everything she touches. From hosting her own music podcast Queen of Shit Mountain, to playing a 31-show 29-day tour in Nashville, to co-collaborating on Hands Off!, a cassette tape compilation created as a response to the predatory culture of Burger Records, LG is an unstoppable force—pandemic be damned.
Tomorrow, Thelma and the Sleaze will release Sacred As Hell, a seven-song EP written, produced, and mixed by LG in her home studio this year, followed by an album release live stream at the famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
In partnership with Marshall for our In Development series, we spoke with LG from her home in Nashville about the influence of the South on her music, her tone progression, the Marshall Studio Classic SC20C combo, and the true meaning of rock ‘n’ roll.
It seems like Nashville is a really big part of your whole tone and who you are. What are some of your biggest Southern influences?
When I started playing Nashville in college, the initial Southern influence was Pantera because that’s who I grew up around—scare and metal dudes—but also Sleater Kinney. So when I started my first band here, Trampskirts (with Jade Payne from Aye Nako), I would be playing drop D heavy Pantera stuff and she would be playing more like Sleater Kinney style. Then I got really into the Gossip, who led me to the earliest forms of rock ‘n’ roll that came out of the South, like Memphis Minnie, Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and all the great Black women who made rock ‘n’ roll. That’s when it all melded into, “Okay, this is our sound, this is what we want.”
I think the cool thing about our generation—and I’m 35—was that the internet was present, but it wasn’t a constant. You really had to seek out influences. So when I first moved to Nashville, I didn’t know everything about Southern rock history and music, especially all the [gear] that makes my sound the way it is. It was organically happening. If you go to any record store and dig through any dollar bin in Nashville, Muscle Shoals, or Memphis, you’re gonna find crazy Southern rock bands that just never made it. And that was huge for me, because I’ve always been a dollar bin girl, digging and finding records. That’s where I learned and found all these bands.
And that’s always been my great contradiction: loving bands like Black Oak Arkansas but also loving Memphis Minnie and people like that. How do you combine dumb ass white trash bigotry music with where it actually came from, the women who made it happen, and meld it into a powerful thing? In a grander scheme, and in a lot of ways, that’s the struggle of being a musician in the South.
Everything you just said is really present in Thelma and the Sleaze. How did you essentially get two different worlds to agree on each other?
If the year was 1863 and we were traveling in a wagon, we’d be selling snake oil. The bulk of my life has been set in the South, but I was raised in the Midwest. I’m still a Midwestern girl, and Chase [Noelle, drummer] was too. But Baby Angel was our ticket to ride, our original bass player. She was Southern as fuck, and she taught me that if you’re going to embrace this music, if you’re going to fuckin’ walk the walk, you better talk the talk. She taught me how to carry myself, but it was hard. I spent part of my life in the Midwest, but I identify more with the South because I was raised for a long time in Kentucky and spent almost 15 years in Nashville. So it was like, how do I find that happy medium?
And it’s hard for the kids nowadays, the queer babies coming up, to understand exactly what we did. It’s like Brittany Howard said: “There’s going to books written about you, LG.” And I was like, certainly, but I don’t think we get enough credit for being one of the first all-female, all-queer bands to get in a literal church van, travel around the South, play anywhere—biker clubs, dive bars, the deep South, everywhere—and not give any fucks. If we were playing at a queer local DIY space or a white trash bar, everyone got the same treatment. You walk into a situation that’s like, “I love guitar riffs, big drums, and big bass, but these women are up here talking about Black women who invented rock ‘n’ roll, eating each others’ pussies, and burning churches!” [Laughs.] Once I’m in the room, you’re going to be captivated, you’re going to be enticed, and you’re going to want to fuckin’ act right. Because if you don’t act right, I’ll either smack the shit out of you with my guitar or I’ll have the biggest motherfucker in the room throw you out the door.
So, that’s what we did. When we started, there wasn’t anyone else doing that—I even talked to Kate Pierson from the B-52s and they didn’t even tour the South back then, really. We did not give a fuck, and we weren’t scared. But we probably should have been in some circumstances.
So how did Thelma and the Sleaze come to fruition?
When I was in Trampskirts with Jade, we were baby dykes, little girls experiencing all this shit via riot grrrl and bitch rock. We cut our teeth at these wild, raging dyke parties in Indianapolis. After about two years we got a new bass player, Baby Angel. She rolled in, smoked a cigarette, and was like, “Y’all like 7 Year Bitch?” and I was just like, [falls backwards] “What the fuck… who are you?!” So we did one weekend tour with her, and she saved our car from getting broken into with a cell phone charger, and I was like, “Goddamn, that’s like some Thelma and Louise shit, bitch!” And she was like, “Naw, that’s some Thelma and the Sleaze shit.” People think that’s a cheesy name, but I can’t think of a more appropriate description of what being in this band is like. It’s literally the hottest, coolest women you’ve ever met running around the country, having as much fun as we possibly can, and checking every dude who fucks with us—and the industry is like Harvey Keitel’s character.
The first version of Thelma and the Sleaze was so important and we did do so much cool shit, but once it was me, Baby Angel, and Chase, that’s really when the band started. We were like, “Let’s go [on a] national tour, let’s run it.” That’s when we became established as a national band. And then that lineup fell out, and I was just like, “Fuck consistent members, because that’s too much work.” So now it’s just me and whoever I pay, and that works out very well.
Honestly, it sounds like the epitome of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, but the queer feminist version. And it sounds like Thelma and the Sleaze, and the tone you play, is inspired by community and the people you know. How do you translate that through your sound and performance?
I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink. And that’s the best thing about some of the women that I’ve played with: they don’t need drugs and alcohol to feel and emote, to be present and confident. They know that every moment of your life is important and you have to make the most of it, and that people are here because they want to see us, so give them the fuckin’ goods.
There’s a standard in Thelma and the Sleaze—it doesn’t seem that way, ‘cuz we carry ourselves kind of like [shakes body and yells] and we get on stage like,”Fuck this” [plays air guitar]! So as much as the community has influenced my sound, and as much as the South has influenced my sound, my experiences have as well. This has pretty much been my job for the last five years, like… getting down to $1 or negative $10 in your bank account, and having to drive 500 miles the next day, and not knowing how anything is going to work out, and just letting go of all of that. Being like, “I got my girls, I got my [gear], I’m going.” That’s why we have an EP called Heart Like A Fist: you have to love what you do, you have to wanna fuckin’ do it.
It’s so important to tow the line as an artist—I’m old school like that—to raise eyebrows and push boundaries and challenge yourself and your audience. I won’t ever stop, but I know that the audience is invested in what I do, and they’ve paid a lot of money for the time and energy for me to do it. So I’m always going to make sure under everything I’m doing there’s this push, there’s this floor that they can stand on and be like, “Okay bitch, this is Thelma and the Sleaze.” Our sound has changed considerably over the course of our releases, but at the end of the day it’s there, it’s present.
Do you think your tone has stayed consistent throughout the development of your bands?
Oh yeah. It’s always been the same [amp], BOSS DS-1 distortion pedal, and humbucker. I’m not gonna not try new things, I’m not gonna not evolve, but those are paramount to what I do. I do so much palm muting, I do so much ringing out that I need a forgiving pickup. I can’t use a P-90, that’s too hot; I can’t use a single coil, that’s too pretty. I want something that gives me that chug-chug-chug when I need it. And that’s why I got my Scale Model Custom SG guitar, ‘cuz on the last record I really started adding a little more dynamics to my playing.
I think the only things that’ve been consistent about my band is my guitar tone, my voice, and my attitude. Those are the only things that people who love Thelma and the Sleaze can always count on… I’m gonna show up, I’m gonna be sassy, I’m gonna have a big ass loud ass amp, and I’m gonna playing fuckin’ rock ‘n’ roll to you until I fuckin’ pass out.
Tell me about the process of finding your tone. Your crunch is really clear. It’s not clean, but it sounds buttery.
Again, this is really relative to me being in the South. Back when I got my first and only [amp] in 2005—maybe even earlier than that—I paid $50 for it, and back then you could buy a [good used amp] for $50. But I also worked at a pizza place, I got paid $6 an hour back then; I needed to find as much power and as much sound as I possibly could so that when I got on stage with [the Trampskirts], which was really loud and raucous, people weren’t going to be like, “Ugh, I can barely hear the guitar.” People would be like, “[throws arms in the air] FUUUUUUCK.”
I don’t like to necessarily be loud; I like to be powerful. And so, to me, I want to push a lot of air without necessarily ringing people’s ears out. That’s always been more important to me, so that’s why I took the speakers out of my combo amp and ran it like a head though the four cab, because the four cab that I have has Celestion speakers in it, so the muddier parts of my amp that make it hard for other people to use are kind of washed through a cheesecloth of these Celestion speakers. I’ve never turned my amp up past five, ever, so I get all this power and all this warmth of these tubes. This is what’s considered a trans-tube amp: it has solid state features, but also kind of has a tube section.
I’ve had a DS-1 since junior high, when I first bought a guitar. The two things that I like about it are, one, that it’s great for palm muting—it gives you that chug-chug-chug-chug sound that I like… very ‘80s. And then also, it layers well. Once I started playing more solos, and getting more into leads and stuff—because I was a rhythm player until Thelma and the Sleaze started getting beefier and beefier—that’s when I brought in the Tube Screamer, so when I punch on my leads there’s the gain boost but it also shapes the sound so that it’s more clear and takes the girth power of the DS-1 and gives it a nice shimmer so that you can really get under your bends and rips. It just sounds so much better. It doesn’t ring out, it doesn’t make crazy fuckin’ noises, it doesn’t have a shit ton of high end… it’s really simple, and it also layers well with other overdrives. I’ve stacked two DS-1s at the same time and it sounds sick.
Imagine any type of amp: what do you reach for immediately to get the settings and the tone that you want?
You know, the thing that I like about a good amp is you can keep everything at noon. If everything’s kinda level, I can get my sound out of my guitar and my DS-1. If I can set the volume and the gain pretty much even, and everything at noon, and it doesn’t squeal at me, it has a punch, it has that headroom for me to ring out and do my thing and grow a feedback… I’m good at feedback. A lot of people haven’t compared my playing necessarily to Jimi Hendrix, but my style and the way I use my feedback is really similar to the way he did it.
I don’t want to sit here and fiddle with shit. Amps, to me, are just like the conduit: they’re going to project what I’ve already got, which is good hands, a good guitar, and my DS-1. I want to just flip it on, have everything nominal, and then ahhhhh [raises hands to the sky].
What do you have the Marshall amp set to?
I have it locked in exactly how I set my usual amp. That’s what I’m going to do initially with any amp, set it how I set my amp that I’ve always used: the gain and the volume even at like three, the EQ completely straight at zero, and a little bit of presence to balance it out. I have it on the low power setting because like I said, I do get so much tone out of my DS-1 that I don’t really need the high watt setting, it’s just a little overkill, especially for in the house or studio. But if I was live, I’d probably use it because it basically just takes a smaller amp and makes it sound like a giant amp. We took it into the studio last weekend and used it for leads, and my other guitar player had it a little more straight across, five on the preamp setting, and it wasn’t too loud. That’s what I like—an amp that you get all the nasty, all the dirt, all the punch without having to fuckin’ blow people’s ears off. If I’m playing 25, 35 shows in a row, I can’t blast my ears out with high end and shit, especially since I’ve been doing this for ten years. I don’t have much left; I have to be careful. [Laughs.]
This Marshall is a good tube amp. It would be great for touring, especially with the high setting. I’m always looking for new gear that’s affordable, durable, and has that classic sound. If this Marshall made it from all the way from Portland [to Nashville] in that fuckin’ box that literally looked like a football team took turns kicking it… and it’s light, which is very nice. It rips.
So, obviously pandemic vibes—but it seems like you’ve been busy.
Well, you know, I’m fortunate in that I’ve spent that last six years hustling and existing in DIY culture and ignored by the main industry, so I’m built for this in a lot of ways… I’ve lived in an isolated part of the rural South for some years, so I’m used to it. Obviously nine months was not expected, so it has been really hard on me mentally. But for the most part, I feel fortunate because I do have a very dedicated fanbase, a name for myself that draws in interviews and other things, and I have my podcast which keeps me busy.
I recently got some money to do a livestream, and I was kind of like a squirrel: their giving me a budget for production, it’s not a lot, but I think I can sweet talk my way into using this for a seven-inch, a live album, a release party, and the livestream… We did it as safely as possible, and I’m hoping for good odds. I think being resourceful and being present are the most important thing about being an artist, for me. Knowing that I should be very grateful to have the opportunity, because a lot of people write songs, and I’ve lost a lot of friends that died who were very talented, so I don’t take it for granted. Even during quarantine I have that attitude, so that helps.
But I’m also an alcoholic, so all the chemicals in my brain that I need to trigger with live shows—the dopamine, the serotonin, the euphoria, the adrenaline, all of it—I haven’t been getting my fix. I’ve had to find some balance in just being still, and that’s been really difficult.
What I want people to say about Thelma and the Sleaze is that we were an equal opportunity destroyer.
I want to ask you about this Rolling Stone clip you shared on your social media. It says, “This is a statement about there being no tolerance for predatory behavior in the rock scene.” It’s out of context for me—can you talk more about that?
So basically, I worked with Burger Records casually, and many of my friends did as well. It was presented that Burger Records had used rock ‘n’ roll powers for evil, to help stoke predatory behavior in a scene that was very organic, pure, and for the good of rock ‘n’ roll. I got to talking with my cohorts, my contemporaries on Burger Records, and was like, “What do we do?” In some ways, we felt guilty and responsible because we gave Burger Records more legitimacy—not entirely, and certainly it was a fleeting feeling, but it’s not a good feeling when you make your M.O. to empower other young girls. I was like, “We should make a tape comp,” because comps were such an important part of change and a clear message for time—like a time capsule of no fucks. Cassette culture is so important to DIY bands, and Burger Records put out cassettes for the most part; you need analog, you need tape if you can’t afford vinyls (which are very expensive). So it was important to have that culture exist, and to progress and evolve past Burger Records, which was kinda the biggest game in town.
In quarantine, to find out all this shit was going down around you and you never noticed, it’s pretty fuckin’ debilitating… I reached out to probably 20 different ladies involved with Burger Records on different levels and found a good group [to work on the Hands Off! tape comp]. I thought the comp needed a message, and the message is really clear, so that’s why I wrote that quote. I want the project not to be fixated on anything other than this culture existing to serve artists that need it, and will continue to do that in a non-predatory, safe, and progressive way. That’s rock ‘n’ roll. This isn’t a boys club, and that’s why your fuckin’ label that existed for 13 years and was a worldwide phenomenon for tape culture went down in 24 fuckin’ hours. And should this arise again, you will go down in 24 fuckin’ hours.
There is a progression, and there’s real serendipity. For me—a rocker chick who’s been playing since before the internet and tries to keep bitch rock and riot grrrl and Black lady blues mentality and spirituality alive, and puts it into music and projects that go out into the world for young girls—to have [the behavior of Burger Records] still going on in the rock scene is very upsetting. I look at artists now like Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, and all these young girls coming out of these rock camps with so much confidence, so much no-fucks, so much intelligence and ability to do everything—produce, write, generate content—with such pizzazz… I’m like, oh, that’s that change. And that’s what rock ‘n’ roll is: a safe space to be explorative and accepting of the wild side, the fringe, the niche. It’s not a vessel for your masculinity… y’all got it fuckin’ wrong.
Whether it’s work ethic, tone, community, or any of those things—20 years from now, when people pull out one of your records, what do you want them to remember about Thelma and the Sleaze and rock ‘n’ roll as a genre?
What I want people to say about Thelma and the Sleaze is that we were an equal opportunity destroyer. And anybody who behaved with an open mind and an evolved sense of the world, culture, and life had a permission slip to come in. And Thelma and the Sleaze was constantly walking in saying, “Here’s what you think is going to happen, but here’s what is going to fuckin’ happen.” I’ve just always given people a chance, because a lot of the times when I’ve been on tour, people have said dumb shit to me. But I already knew what I was going to do, I already knew what the outcome would be. So I gave them a chance to evolve, to be a part of the change and the good in rock ‘n’ roll.
Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t scales, it isn’t gear. It isn’t studded belts and motorcycle jackets. It’s really about the highest level of amplified joy, power, and sex. Your goals for your audience should be to make ‘em a little horny, a little scared, and to want to be you. There’s a sexuality to what I do, and I’m aware of that. It’s a side effect of me living my life, having experiences that inspire me to write songs, and getting on stage and being myself. It’s not an invitation for anything; it’s for you to bear witness. And it’s not just sexuality—everything about me is going to be amplified: my humor, my anger, my insight. There should be a level of, “This could all fall apart at any moment,” and that’s what I mean about being scared of me. Is she going to jump out in the crowd? Is she gonna climb the amps and kick the drums over and body slam her drummer? [Laughs]. You just don’t know.
And I always want people to see me play guitar and say, “I gotta go home right now and play guitar, because I love guitar, and LG made me want to make love on my guitar.” To me, that’s the three goals. That’s what I want people to remember: those bitches, they really gave a fuck and made that look easy.