[left] Queen Anne’s Revenge charge through a jam session. [right] The cover of Nature Creature’s, Vol. 2, which was taken at the Clinton Library. Images courtesy of Queen Anne’s Revenge
Queen Anne’s Revenge is a four-piece multi-genre rock outfit who has graced Arkansas with their eclectic taste for 17 years. From the extreme sounds of djent metal to the carefree swing of polka, members Justin Wayne Elkins, David Powell, Charlie Askew, and Linwood Polk adopt a no-holds-barred approach to their music. Out of the pandemic, the band has released not one, but two 50-song albums, each coming in at four hours of runtime. The Idle Class sat down with lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Justin Wayne Elkins to talk about the inspiration behind Nature’s Creatures Volumes 1 and 2.
The Idle Class: Nature’s Creatures, Vol. 2 is the follow-up to last September’s Nature’s Creatures, which also boasted 50 songs. What are some connecting themes between the two releases? What is the title, “Nature’s Creatures,” a reference to?
Justin Wayne Elkins: Nature’s Creatures consists of 100 songs about different characters or creatures on this earth and different archetypes found in nature, but it literally just started as something as simple as the lyric in the song “Nature’s Creatures.” I was drunkenly playing my keyboard out in my backyard in Florida around 2009 and got swarmed by fire ants. Florida fire ants are next level. But I just had to finish recording the riff that I was working on, so I was killing these poor little insects just living their little ant lives that I had interrupted by something as arbitrary as manipulating sound via pressing different keys. It felt so absurd that I had to write a song about it.
There are also some darker gallows humor that runs throughout, like the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, which is mentioned a whopping five times for some reason. These songs range from heartfelt love songs to edgelord punk. There are songs about some real-life Arkansas murder (“Holy Ghost Moan”) where a guy helped in the search party, even met them at her house for dinner before the search party. There are so many songs in our catalogue about death, love, progressive politics, and then edgelord jams written almost only to ruffle feathers and generate some buzz. Some lyrics are just goofy and make my partner and I laugh.
IC: Over what time period did Queen Anne’s Revenge write and record the Nature’s Creatures albums? Did these projects come out of the same studio sessions?
JWE: Some songs were written and recorded as early as 2000 on this project (“She’s Perfect” and “Junk Yard Daddy”). The songs come from a lot of sessions, but the majority of work was done in 2020 in Little Rock at our studio. There are so many songs to break down, but a song like “Bathroom” was recorded in 2021 here at the spot while “Piece Of Art” was recorded in White Hall with Mark Little in 2001, and I added additional guitars just days before releasing. It’s like moving the bar on these things little by little till you know it’s time and you know it’s ready. I collect songs and recordings like some people do Pokémon, just waiting for the right time and project to play them.
IC: Both albums come in at over four hours of runtime each. What about this lengthy format appeals to you as a songwriter and storyteller?
JWE: Honestly, the whole idea started as a simple enough goal: to record a double album as our fifth record. Before I knew it, we had over 100 songs, and I was having to break it up into two volumes to be able to duplicate it. Due to COVID, we could only upload [on streaming services], which only let me upload 50 songs at a time; otherwise, this would have been one big data dump. Eventually, 130 songs were tracked, but I am glad I didn’t play all my aces just yet.
It was also really important to me to get these songs finished from front to back to clear up computer space in my own head to write some more tunes, and like clockwork it definitely has. There’s also probably a sense of urgency to get my music put out in the ether due to a deep, morbid sense of impermanence after witnessing so many people’s lives “unfinished.” Tomorrow isn’t promised, we only have the present.
IC: Across Nature’s Creatures, Vol. 2, listeners will encounter a range of sounds and genres, including heavy prog rock (“No Future to Suture”), synth pop rock (“Over It”), blues rock (“Motor Scooter”), and acoustic balladry (“Ashli Babbit Was a Traitor (World Keeps Spinnin’)”). Why does Queen Anne’s Revenge feel so drawn to multiple genres? I imagine that the band must have an eclectic music taste. What sort of music inspires or influences the band?
JWE: Everything from System Of A Down to Johnny Cash is an influence. I honestly feel most like a Kurt Cobain or something, always creating and trying to go for a weird angle on a pop approach. It also means that we can pretty much play any show in any venue by sending the right material to make it happen. For example, if we are playing a bill with a bunch of hardcore bands, we will put that side of ourselves out there more. But if we are playing a cocktail hour we will focus more on our blues and acoustic based stuff (that isn’t saying incendiary things). Though obviously with a song like “Ashli Babbit” or “Has Our Love Shat The Bed And Died?” we know how to meld these two worlds.
The whole band has connections to the dueling piano industry, so I’m sure that has a major influence. It definitely contributed to adding in more keys. I’ve always loved a wide variety of music and after many years of unpacking my process, I feel like I listen to bands and it’s like I almost digest their essence and incidentally channel that into my songs. The song “Long Black Train Called Death” melded my two current obsessions: The Doors and Billy Strings. In fact, I’ve been so obsessed with Billy Strings that I’m teaching myself to flatpick in the bluegrass vein. The result of this type of approach to songwriting made it onto Nature’s Creatures, Vol. 2.
IC: Queen Anne’s Revenge inject humor into their songs, at times to shocking effect. Songs like “Has Our Love Shat the Bed and Died?” and “Mitch McConnell Eats Little Boy’s Ejaculate in Their Sleep” come to mind. What does the band enjoy about this irreverent but humorous approach to songwriting, especially when it comes to discussing more “serious” topics like politics?
JWE: I just can’t help but get goofy sometimes. I think part of it is just to add a little humor to a situation that makes me want to cry. Like with the Mitch McConnell song, that was just put there to grab attention and then I doubled down and sang it, too. It’s just such an awful thing to say about someone. The pen is mightier than the sword. I tried to make it sound as predatory as possible. Like, these little boys are asleep and vampire Mitch with his bloodlust for children comes along and gets them in the night. It felt like a South Park writer’s room trying to pick the proper verbiage and way to say it that would sound as defamatory as possible, so that I can bring attention and awareness to how absolutely absurd the QAnons of the world sound. I’ve always been an absurdist, so humor and surrealism are a common thread throughout my songs. I’m also just trying to get sued by Mitch McConnell for press in hopes of finding some new fans.
IC: The last Queen Anne’s Revenge album was 2016’s It’s Too Late to Wonder. Do you feel like a lot happened between then and now to where you had a lot to say on the Nature’s Creatures albums?
JWE: Of course, many traumatic events happened since then, for me personally and with the madness going on in the world in these last four years. We had a stillborn full-term daughter, and then eventually had our first son who is the apple of our eye, but you sit there and you can’t help but wonder if this world is going to be sustainable for this innocent little soul. I found out we were having a son the same day that Donald Trump won the election, right around when our last record It’s Too Late To Wonder came out. We see half of the nation just under a spell, people that we once loved and respected changing before our eyes, falling for the oldest tricks in the book, performed by an obvious liar and his administration. They maliciously reveled in our collective ‘losing of our minds’ and before you knew it, it had given way to an exercise in presidential theater when a pandemic hits and now over 431,000 of our countrymen are dead.
The hidden track of Nature’s Creatures Vol. 2, “Orangest Man,” is a tribute to these lives that did not need to be lost. My longtime partner, Jordan, lost her grandmother to COVID-19 pneumonia, and with no end in sight, a lot of new songs were written about this sh*tshow and how it was handled, how they messed up, and how it just tortured a lot of minds and bodies when it could have largely been mitigated.
IC: How has the pandemic affected the band’s creativity and general activities?
JWE: It has helped me amp up my writing, recording, and refining methods. I still work my part-time job and have had to take some shows when the bills just had to be paid. There is always something going on, especially here in Arkansas at different points throughout this pandemic. The people organizing always have the best plans, but they don’t always work when attempted. Three sets of folks who have kept my family fed and done it as safely as you can in a pandemic in a performance type atmosphere have been Oyster Bar (Little Rock), Cregeen’s (North Little Rock), and The City Of Newport who had us back last July who checked all temps of every audience member, had pod-like seating available, and were on a mission to keep people masked even early on in the pandemic in a city that didn’t necessarily embrace the CDC guidelines. The best laid plans of mice and men can often go astray. But these folks take better care of me when I play for them than my corporate retail sales job does as far as enforcing mask-wearing, so I’m thankful to have these opportunities to occasionally make a living wage throughout all of this mess, but they also freak me out because I’m not dumb enough to be ignorant of the dangers of COVID, especially with variants of covid that are 70 percent more contagious now.
It’s all just part of the American plan for this pandemic so far. The government here just cared about keeping the economy open so there was never any chance of having success like New Zealand or even Wuhan now…We definitely deserved better, that’s for sure, but at this point I am not doing anything at all or having any exposure to anyone unless it’s to play the death lottery to make a fraction of what I used to in hopes of doing my part to keep the lights on. My kid hasn’t played with another kid in a year. It’s hard for those of us who are actually scared out here and trying to mitigate exposure. I have been coddled and never expected life to be like this like the naive little creature I am. Life feels like a Bone Thugs-N-Harmony song: “I don’t wanna die!” But with a little luck, it’ll be alright. I sure hope it will, I just want to save my seat at the table for when we get to the good part.
I have a lot to say about live shows and COVID-19 but, you know, it’s how I’ve made a living since I was 11, when I won my first $500 at a talent show. It has been nothing short of devastating….But as for the silver lining to this really tough time for me and I’m sure other musicians? I got to finally have some time to slow down, quit going out on the town so much, and focus on just how many ideas I had floating around in this old head of mine to deliver our brand of punk rock-and-roll to your earholes!
IC: How would you describe Queen Anne’s Revenge’s songwriting process?
JWE: I don’t really know where it all begins but usually with a full fledged [improvised] idea with some sort of direction for a verse chorus and bridge. I then take that recording as a scratch track, get drums going, add bass, add guitars, start adding ancillary instruments like keyboards, flute, banjo, ukulele, trumpets. Once I have that track I mix it all down to be able to have as many tracks as possible for vocals, double the lead vocals, and try to add harmonies where they need it or work out. Sometimes I’ll decide less is more and keep it simple as can be with as few as four tracks on the whole recording, so like a full kit and piano singing live like on our song “D.A.C.A. (Crying Forks).” It was so simple but haunting because of that. Any other layered instruments like I planned would have made it less beautiful. Sometimes it just happens easier than others. Before you know it, you have a rock-and-roll party album you can share with your friends and fans.
IC: What are some of your favorite tracks from Nature’s Creatures, Vol. 2 and why?
JWE: There are 50 songs to choose from so I’ll choose five:
- “Say Your Goodbyes To Mother Earth” because it’s a eulogy for what the Earth could become if we don’t focus on actually battling climate change, and it’s the longest, most proggy song we’ve ever come up with. Latin beats and and just a whole-ass 20-minute mood.
- “Chatterbox” because I’ve known it’s been destined to be part of our catalogue for years. This song has to be 20 years old but I just got man enough to release it. Some of our oldest fans loved it, but many hated it so I became ashamed of it. It’s nice to know you can break through barriers in your own mind after a few decades.
- “Four Season Total Landscaping” because it begs us to remember that those we have lost and taught us over the years live on and make a mark on who we are even if they aren’t on this physical earth anymore.
- “Has Our Love Shat The Bed And Died?” because it covers all the bases of sounds we try to go for as a band, from acoustic pop/rap like Maroon 5’s newest stuff to the harsh screams of death metal to a final culmination with some harmonica-driven blues too. It’s kooky and our attempt to troll [or] scoff at the idea of a formulaic pop hit.
- “Dust Yourself Off Kid” because it features my most important message of comfort in the face of the calamity known as life and death on this little rock called Earth that I’ve ever written, and I’ve been at it for more than two decades now. Time marches on for the lucky–or not so lucky, depending on who you ask.