Rock this Joint: Lara Hope and the Arktones | Music | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

The music called rockabilly, one of the earliest strains of rock 'n' roll, arrived in rural, mid-1950s America when country and western music plowed head on into rhythm and blues—exploding into an Atomic Age mess of quivering tempos, twanged-out guitar, and cat-in-heat vocals. Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Charlie Feathers. Their hootin', hollerin' heyday was more than 60 years ago. Much evolution has since occurred in the world of rock. Yet to this day there are rockabilly bands in all corners of this and every other continent, raising a ruckus with their doghouse basses and slap-backed singers to packs of pompadoured and poodle-skirted prancers at '50s-themed gatherings (see this month's Rockin' & Ridin' Festival in Cape Town, South Africa). And it's safe to say the majority of the musicians in these groups weren't even a glimmer in Grandpa's eye when the Big Beat was being born. One such outfit is Kingston's own Lara Hope and the Ark-Tones, whose members are in their tender 20s and 30s. So what is it, then, about this ancient—by pop music standards—American artform that makes younger musicians like them want to play it?

"It's happy music," Hope explains from behind her trademark red cat eye frames. "And it's dance music, it gets your feet tapping. It's not sit-on-your-ass music. For some people today it's dubstep that's dance music. But to me [rockabilly] is more accessible—and it doesn't hurt your ears as much."

But while rockabilly is clearly their central focus, it wouldn't be precise to say that the Ark-Tones, whose current lineup, besides Hope (born Lara Hope Levine) on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, includes her husband, bassist Matt Goldpaugh and new drummer Eli Marzano and guitarist Eddie Rion, are unyieldingly slavish in their stylistic devotion. Between the expected rockabilly boppers, Love You to Life, their second album, released last August, detours into soul balladry ("I'm Yours"), straight-up country weepers ("This is What I've Got"), and Latin-tinged rhumbas (the title track). "Early rock 'n' roll and roots music are definitely the creative starting point," Hope says. "But even though we love that music, we don't want to just rewrite old songs."

Hope hails from the perhaps unlikely rockabilly hotspot of Plainview, Long Island (then again, Stray Cats main man Brian Setzer grew up in nearby Massapequa, so perhaps there's some magic moonshine in Oyster Bay Harbor). "It's pretty much this upper-middle class, white, Jewish bubble," she says. "Not very well-rounded, compared to Ulster County. But you can get awesome bagels, pizza, and Chinese food there." She inherited her show-biz blood from her single mom, a former lounge singer who still performs in local community theater. "Because of her I auditioned for a production of 'Oliver!' when I was nine, and I got the lead part," recalls Hope. "I loved being up in front of an audience, the applause and everything. So that got me into doing community theater from then until I was around 14." She also sang in theater and school choirs and learned guitar, writing her first songs in high school as she found her way into rock via Nirvana, the Pixies, the Violent Femmes, Liz Phair, and other alternative acts. The night before she left for SUNY Albany to major in marketing—a field of study that has come in handy in her side role as the Ark-Tones' de facto PR chief—the effusive lead-singer-to-be made her solo debut at a Plainview-area open mic night (the experience turned Hope into a champion of the format; for the next 12 years, she ran open mics on campus and at various Hudson Valley venues).

At college she sang in an all-girl acapella group called the Sexy Bitches (a play on the marketing term "sexy pitches") and, after applying to SUNY New Paltz, moved into a house there occupied by her high school best friend—a fellow female musician whose real middle name is also, coincidentally, Hope. Fueled by a shared love of the White Stripes and with Lara on bass and vocals, the two formed the Red Hopes. "Before that I'd really only played solo acoustic or acapella," Hope remembers. "But as soon as I started singing with a drummer and other musicians behind me, I was, like, 'Whoah, this is it! From now on, I wanna be in a band!'" Unfortunately, it turned out the hopes of the Red Hopes were a little too high, and the group disintegrated after recording one lost album. But, bitten by the band bug, Hope was determined. She joined seminal New Paltz punk trio NCM before forming her own three-piece punk act, Tiger Piss (AKA Tiger Iss), which released a handful of CDs, managed to do some touring, and became a staple of the New Paltz/Kingston scene. It was within that world that she began to fall hard for the rockabilly twang.

"I already knew and liked a lot of the music from that era, like Richie Valens and Buddy Holly, and through the Beatles, because they did a lot of those songs early on," says Hope. "But I guess I started to get more into it because the psychobilly [the post-punk, horror movie-themed style established by the Cramps] shows were always really cool, with bands like the Dead Luck Devilles and [Goldpaugh's group] the Arkhams. At one of the shows I met this guitar player from Saugerties named Jeff Kadic, who had started a rockabilly band called the Champtones. He started making me mix CDs of all this cool stuff I'd never heard before and asked me if I'd be into singing for the band, and it just felt perfectly natural. So rockabilly went from being this thing I had only listened to being what I actually did, which was totally awesome."

Thanks in large part to Hope's go-getting, the Champtones swiftly became the Kingston area's first-call rockabilly unit and made an EP, 2010's Heartbeat, before differences over touring ambitions and the loss of members got the better of them. Around the same time that the Champtones were unraveling, so were their friends the Arkhams.

"Lara and I had already started hanging out by then, and she had a bunch of Champtones shows she'd booked and still wanted to do," says Goldpaugh, who grew up in Kingston, studied art at SUNY Purchase, and for several years lived in New York, where he worked in forensic autopsy photography. "So she said, 'Hey, can you guys just back me up for these shows?' Our drummer had been playing in both bands, so it was pretty easy to do. We didn't wanna call it the Champtones, though, because Jeff wasn't involved [Champtone is also the name of Kadic's custom-built guitar line]. And with Lara singing it wasn't really the Arkhams, either. So we came up with 'the Ark-Tones' as a placeholder, figuring we'd come up with another name later. But everybody just got used to it and it stuck."

The new configuration began its ongoing and relentless gigging regimen, debuting on CD with 2014's Luck Maker. And, true to that title, one can say that Hope and the Ark-Tones have, indeed, been making their own luck ever since. The band can be found rocking on the road around the US several months a year at clubs and roots music festivals and performing somewhere in the Northeast almost every weekend (the night before this interview, the couple had returned from a six-hour round trip to play a show in Vermont). Among others, the Ark-Tones have appeared with the likes of R&B legend Gary US Bonds and honky-tonk hero Wayne Hancock, opening for the latter on WAMC's "Live at the Linda." Along the way they've earned the enthusiasm of some other music veterans as well. One of them is Tony Garnier, Bob Dylan's longest-running sideman and also the bassist of choice for Tom Waits, Paul Simon, David Johansen, and Robert Gordon.

"Lara Hope and the Ark-Tones' records and live performances capture, and release, the spirit of the original rockabilly and country bands that I have listened to and enjoyed for most of my life," says Garnier by e-mail. "And my two boys, who are 10 and 13 and are [otherwise] glued to Top 40 radio, are also huge fans."

But, as amazing as such accolades are, for Hope the biggest honor came earlier this year, when, after a nail-biting online campaign, she was given the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Female Rockabilly Artist. "That was definitely the coolest night of my life," says Hope, who attended the February awards ceremony in Austin, Texas, which saw Jerry Lee Lewis, Junior Brown, Hank Williams III, Pokey LaFarge, and others line up to collect honors as well. "It was really, really amazing. When we were there, we met people from all over the world—Italy, Spain, Australia, all over—who've become friends and stayed in touch with us."

Many of those contacts will no doubt be helpful when the band tours Europe for the first time this spring, after a lengthy Southern tour this winter; a three-week US tour opening for the Reverend Horton Heat is set for June. Through constant hard work and hustle that includes the Ark-Tones, their acoustic offshoot the Gold-Hope Duo, and their seasonal stint as entertainers at Rocking Horse Ranch in Highland, Hope and Goldpaugh have somehow managed the impossible: making a living—albeit a modest one—from their music. When asked about it, Hope brings up a joke about rockabilly being the retirement plan for punk rockers, a trope that's more of a commentary on many punk musicians wanting to turn the volume down as they get older, rather than an assurance of their being able to trade low-paying loudness for roots rock riches.

"I don't know that I could ever go back to working for somebody else," says Hope. "It's hard for me to relate to the idea of working nine to five. Plus, I love how the people in the rockabilly and roots music communities all seem to know each other. I feel like I've finally found my place."

Lara Hope and the Ark-Tones will perform for the Ulster County ASPCA's "Top Hats & Tails" fundraiser at the Saugerties Performing Arts Factory (SPAF) on November 4 and will open for Robert Gordon at Colony in Woodstock on November 18. Love You to Life is out now.

About The Author

Peter Aaron

Peter Aaron is the arts editor for Chronogram.
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