Big Lazy
Matt Carr/Courtesy photo
Big Lazy

‘What? No vocals?’

Big Lazy’s ‘new American music’ combines the archetypes of blues, jazz, and early rock ’n’ roll with film and experimental music

PUTNEY — Stephen Ulrich, guitarist, composer, founder, and bandleader of Big Lazy, grew up in New Haven, Connecticut and moved to New York City at age 17. He lived in Brooklyn and Manhattan for decades and now makes his home in Jersey City, New Jersey, with his wife and two teenaged children.

The 64-year-old Ulrich formed Big Lazy in 1990. He plays guitar and composes the band's music. Big Lazy also features Yuval Lion on drums and Andrew Hall on bass. Both longtime band members are integral to the band's chemistry.

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Victoria Chertok: What is the origin of Big Lazy?

Stephen Ulrich: The original band was called Lazy Boy and was formed in 1990. We played a kind of murky jazz noir - guitar, bass, vocals.

One night, our singer didn't show, and we went on stage and played instrumentally. We never looked back!

What at first seemed like a career disaster - "What? No vocals?" - actually became our strength, as we license a lot of music for film and TV. This has led me to composing film music.

When the big gig came in 2010 - I composed music for two seasons of the HBO series Bored to Death - the original band dissolved. I reinvented it with two musicians from NYC that I really respected - Yuval Lion and Andrew Hall.

V.C.: What type of music do you play?

S.U.: We're an instrumental trio. The band combines the archetypes of blues, jazz, and early rock 'n' roll with film and experimental music and creates what, I think, I hope is some kind of new American music.

V.C.: You've been on crime TV shows and played on camera.

S.U.: Our music gets used often in crime shows. It's kind of evocative/suspenseful and with a film noir element to it.

V.C.: Where did you study guitar?

S.U.: When I was 17 years old, I studied with jazz guitarist Sal Salvador in New York City at the Ed Sullivan Theater. He had a dusty backroom office.

V.C.: Who were your early music influences?

S.U.: I grew up with one foot in the '60s (Hendrix, The Beatles) and one foot in the punk era (The Clash, the Sex Pistols, The Slits).

Funny thing is, right in the middle of that culture clash I was studying ... jazz. As a teenager in NYC, I frequented New York's underground music scene and was inspired by the Lounge Lizards. One of my all-time fave bands is NRBQ.

V.C.: Your music has gotten a lot of airplay on public radio, and you've written music for This American Life.

S.U.: A little background. Our first album Amnesia (1996) was used in its entirety in the NBC series Homicide: Life on the Street. Shortly after that, in 1999, NPR did a feature on the band. It made for an interesting story that we had also had been sued by the La-Z-Boy Furniture Company.

We played live in the [Washington,] D.C. studio. I'm real sentimental under my punk jazz schtick - I still have boxes of, like, thousands of letters, from skate punks, farmers, retirees, NASA people, and not a few beautiful weirdos that I'm still in touch with.

Since then I've written a lot of music for the iconic radio program This American Life. I've written 30 pieces for the radio show/podcast and released an album - Music from This American Life (Bandcamp) in early 2023.

V.C.: Which instrument do you tour with?

S.U.: I play a 1955 Gretsch Duo Jet out of a 1965 Fender Deluxe Reverb. I use a Klon Centaur pedal and just a touch of delay. It's quite deadly.

V.C.: Any closing thoughts?

S.U.: It's funny. People have called this music Rock Noir, Crime Jazz, Death Surf, Latin-Billy, and "music to drive back to jail by" (by one of those weirdos I mentioned earlier). I'm always curious about what description the next show will bring.

Victoria Chertok covers arts and entertainment in Vermont for The Commons. She is a classically trained harpist and received a B.A. in music at Bucknell University.

This The Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.

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