Chum alum Lancaster talks family, new music
I remember seeing a segment on the evening news, back around 1988, about a musical project involving a handful of local artists and bands. The album was to be called First Step. During the broadcast, they featured one of the bands to be a part of the project, a band called Xtasy, from Huntington. This was really cool news to a young kid enamored with the possibilities of being in, or even just being around, a real Rock & Roll band that seemed to be able to hold their own with the likes of Ratt, Dokken, Def Leppard, or any other band with a power ballad and ripping guitar solos 2/3 of the way into a song.
I’d seen them before this on videotape of a recorded gig at a school gym somewhere; Looking back on the tape, Ratt’s “Lay It Down” comes to mind. To young, excited ears and a wild “tween” imagination, what they were doing was so cool and inspirational to see someone who looked like the guys in the folded posters in music magazines of the day.
It turns out that the lead guitarist of Xtasy was John Lancaster.
Lancaster has been a presence to be reckoned with in the music scene in and around the Huntington area for a quarter of a century or better. It merely started with Xtasy, which, for what it’s worth, probably could’ve gone some distance in their own right back in their day. Since then, he’s been seen in a few different outfits that always seem to have something substantial in them that a large number of other bands and musicians might not be able to tap into.
During the early nineties, the musical landscape was changing. Sounds that were once sought after, imitated, and ultimately stagnated, gave way to an almost worldwide change of heart.
Groups that ordinarily seemed to have their sounds together were disbanding and trying new things out. It was around this time Lancaster had been writing and rehearsing with drummer Chuck Nicholas. And once they found bassist Barry Smith, Guru Lovechild came to life. This was also the point when Lancaster was pushed to the front to take over lead vocal duties as well as lead guitar, which was something new altogether. “It’s something that takes a lot of getting used to,” he recalls about taking on double duties. “I had to learn to find my place in the song, which took me a little while to coordinate myself to do.” The vocal duties would rest on Lancaster from here on out.
As good as Guru Lovechild was and as well as most people liked them wherever they played, it didn’t last. They did not last nearly as long as any of their ever-growing fan base would have liked. Nicholas started to float in and out of different projects, leaving Lancaster holding the proverbial ball. “After Guru was over, I just wrote. I was living in Lexington, Kentucky and started jamming with this guy and it kind of just gelled.”
This would be the time that he started to develop what would become Chum. But apparently Chum might’ve almost never happened. In 1993, personnel changes happened, and with Xtasy alumni Mac Walker and Chris Tackett on rhythm guitar and bass respectively, Nicholas joined up once again. With Lancaster still in the driver’s seat, the Chum line-up that first broke onto the local scene was born.
Chum was arguably one of the most popular bands to come from the Huntington/Charleston music scene – in a very long time anyway. This line-up would tirelessly work on developing their sound, rehearsing, playing live, travelling, and everything else a determined band needs to do to succeed. They became a household name in a lot of circles. A lot of people could see the potential of the band, so it was no real surprise when word hit that Chum was finally going to be signed and were going to put an album out on a real record label.
“We were told that a show we had coming up in NYC was going to have industry people in the audience,” Lancaster says of a pivotal gig during the band’s apex. “But when no one approached us after the show, we were like ‘what the hell?'” But in reality, Monte Conner, who was over A&R for Roadrunner Records, did attend. The word was, however, that they had already signed a band that could similarly marketed so he turned them on to a friend across the country, Borivoj Krgin, then head of A&R for Century Media Records’ American office and future Blabbermouth.net founder.
Krgin is famous for being extremely opinionated and critically fickle when it comes to quality of music, but apparently he liked what he heard of Chum because he signed them without ever even seeing the live show. Lancaster says of his interactions during their Century Media tenure, “I never even saw the guy [Krgin]. Everything was done over the phone, but for some reason he always seemed to believe in us.” Century Media Records put out “Dead To The World” in 1996. But after searches for a stable drummer, a few ill-fated stints on the road with various touring partners, and the other things that can plague a fledgling band no matter how promising things between the band and their label, they simply didn’t jibe and they went their separate ways within two years.
“I had known that Chuck [Nicholas] was leaving after the album was done, but there were a lot of different circumstances that kept coming up. The need to find a permanent drummer was only one of them.” Once off of their record label, Chum continued to play live in the area. They also tried to keep their name alive in other parts of the country, especially where they’d started to really gain a following. Somehow, this wasn’t enough and eventually things would simply wind down and everybody started to go and do their own things.
Once Chum had lost steam, Lancaster moved to Cincinnati, where he soon found a home in a band called Semi-Automatic. While they didn’t seem to have the same widespread appeal Chum once had, they were a really good, tight band in their own right. And though Lancaster was in Cincinnati, he made routine trips back to the Huntington area, many times with Semi-Automatic in tow. They were in demand and booked on several higher profile shows and festivals in the area. It was something different from what he’d been doing in Chum but not so far off that fans of the former could not access it.
It was while he was playing with Semi-Automatic that Lancaster met his wife Jenny. Once they were married, he decided to give domesticity a try. That would also find him back to where he started in the Huntington area. Since coming back, Lancaster has begun a full family that he clearly loves very much. “I can’t imagine not having my family,” was his response to being asked if he has any regrets about choosing a family life over one of touring. “My family is everything to me. That doesn’t mean that I can’t be creative and do things creatively.”
Over the past few years there have been shows with Semi-Automatic and Chum that have been able to give fans of those bands satisfaction in seeing them live again. At the same time the bands get to relive the feelings of adoration and closeness provided by the fans. At the end of it all, these bands never said goodbye.
Lancaster has been busy writing music for several different projects he’s had going since becoming a family man. Earth To Eros saw him rejoining Mac Walker and Barry Smith once again in a project that was more ethereal than heavy, but was completely accessible to fans of his past projects. It was during this time that he began writing the music that would come to make up the material released on Phantom Moon. “I had some material I’d been working on, but it wasn’t really in the same direction we were going in Earth To Eros, so I just decided to get whoever wanted to play and did a record.”
Phantom Moon was a departure from the material Earth To Eros was playing, for sure. But Lancaster did a good job of keeping the two separate, while at the same time enlisting the same friends to contribute on the recording process. It wasn’t limited to the usual suspects though. “Bud Carroll is on there, along with Dave Angstrom (Supafuzz), Josh Adkins (Erase The Grey, Abdullah), Matt Wolfe (Byzantine). They all appear on the recordings. Even Doug Pinnick of King’s X is on the CD.” Phantom Moon finally saw its release in 2010, after almost three years of planning.
Crash Test In Progress is Lancaster’s second and most recent solo CD. It was officially released in 2012, but he continues to support it with live performances in the area, as well as abroad. “Crash Test is more like a real ‘solo release’, whereas Phantom Moon seems like almost more of a project that came together after all of the pieces fell into place.” He’s got a band that he plays with and writes with regularly, a healthy family, stable work at home, so after all of the ups and downs, John Lancaster appears to have everything together. “No matter what, I’ll always be a creative person. I just have a little bit more than a lot of people are lucky enough to have, and I wouldn’t give any of it away for anything.”