The Research Turtles Champion Original Music In Lake Charles
By Brad Goins
Jud and Joe Norman grew up in a house where their parents listened to the Beatles. They were enthusiastic fans of the band from their early childhood.
Paul Gonsoulin said he and Jud were friends from the age of 4. In addition to their appreciation of the Beatles, says Gonsoulin, they developed an “affinity for hard rock.” That term has now dropped out of the common parlance. But Gonsoulin might have had the term in the back of his mind when he first heard the Led Zepelin song “Stairway to Heaven” when he was 7 — an event he clearly remembers.
Joe, who is four years younger than Jud, has quite different memories: of being greatly impressed by Weezer’s Blue album (1994) when he heard it in his freshman year of high school.
By 2003, the Norman brothers were both living in Baton Rouge. Gonsoulin was also in the city, where he played with Jud Norman in the cover band The Flamethrowers.
Talk among the small group of friends turned to the idea of a band that performed only original songs. Jud started by recording the Research Turtles’ first release, an EP, virtually by himself.
The newly formed Research Turtles band toured the Gulf Coast in 2008, supporting such acts as Toad the Wet Sprocket and Candlebox. Brother Joe had joined the band and would put in a two-year run with it.
Around this time, Jud presented an acoustic version of a full album — Time Machine — to the other band members. They distributed 1,000 copies by way of CD Baby; of these, 200 went to music writers and others in the music industry. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” said Jud. “[We] just put an album out and hoped people got it.”
Covers Versus Originals
“There was more of a rock scene [in Lake Charles] at the time,” says Jud. Some bands, such as Mothership and Ashes of Babylon, even became successful and well-known by playing original music. “Luna was the most receptive place we played,” says Joe.
The band remembers the three big venues for original music at the time as being Luna; AJ’s or 710 (or whatever the venue was at 710 Ryan St. at any given time); and Rikenjaks.
Gonsoulin says the issue of cover band versus not cover band has dominated their musical careers. “A cover band will get you hired and paid.” In Lake Charles, original music will only make bank at a few venues.
And it’s not just a Lake Charles problem. The band recalls playing a tape for a club owner in Shreveport. When he realized the band played original music rather than covers, he offered them $10 for a gig.
“We were making money through The Flamethrowers,” said Jud. The band often played Luna as The Research Turtles, then a short time later played OB’s as The Flamethrowers.
In spite of all this, the Turtles made small gains inch by inch. In 2010, the Research Turtles won the award for BBC RadioSix International’s Record of the Year for its single “Let’s Get Carried Away.” And they were voted Best Band in Lagniappe’s Best Of competition of 2010.
In the next two years, they went to work in Dockside Studios in Maurice to create the two albums Mankiller 1 (2011) and Mankiller 2 (2012), described on their Facebook page as “Brit-styled power pop.” (A more intriguing description is found on the Wikipedia page for the Research Turtles, where the band is said to play “Southern rock Brit pop.” That was my first encounter with that phrase.) The band’s records were mixed in New Orleans with four-Grammy-award-winning engineer David Farrell.
Closer to home, the band was starting to play some big name venues, such as the Varsity in Baton Rouge.
But by the time Mankiller 2 came out, Joe had already left the band to focus on his education in law. One factor in the move was his dissatisfaction with the difficulties of promoting original music on the road in Louisiana.
“This is no living,” he speculated at the time. “It’s no way to make a living. It’s just no way. Staying in cheap motels; eating shi**y food. It’s just not sustainable.”
He was also realizing that age makes a difference. “In the early 20s, I was running on adrenaline. It wasn’t really good for me.”
After a fairly long interval, the band returned to the stage for a series of reunion shows. With a reunion performance, “the show is played for its own sake,” said Joe. Band members are asking themselves “how can we make this the most fun for the most people?” There is “no pressure to be career-oriented.”
Jud adds, “It’s more of a hobby. It’s just more fun.”
Without the pressures of having to succeed, they now have time to hang out when they practice. “One half of the fun is the hanging out part,” says Gonsoulin. “It’s nostalgic for me at this point.”
Gonsoulin’s participation has enabled the band to become adept at singing three-part harmony in Beatles style.
Also enabling the band to cohere is current drummer Chad Townsend, whom Jud calls “the most phenomenal drummer.” The Turtles are just one of many rock bands who felt something click when the right drummer was finally in place. They felt the band was complete.
In addition to his licks, Townsend brings quite a bit of technical knowledge to the ensemble. He’s the only member of the group who has a music degree.
The reunions have lightened things up a little. “The Turtles stuff is pretty heavy,” said Jud. “[The band] is putting distortion pedals back on the board … We were trying to really play hard,” says Joe. “But now, there’s an element of humor.” Jud adds “everything’s a lot more light-hearted.” It may even have become absurd in the more extreme moments of its performances; as Joe says, “that part is ridiculously awesome.”
One of the most fun and freaky features of the reunions has been their surprise themes. One was unveiled in 2017 at the Tacky Christmas Show at the then-popular venue Luna Live.
A quirky thematic show that sounds like even more of a treat was the 2018 reunion at the Regal Beagle — a psychedelic black light show. For people my age, this event must have brought back powerful nostalgic memories of adolescent days when we spent our me time in bedrooms illuminated only by black light and decorated mainly with enormous glowing posters of the likes of Uriah Heap and Jimi Hendrix.
Writing A Lot Of Music
The Research Turtles have thought about putting together a new album. But “we’re so busy,” says Jud. “What can we realistically do?”
There isn’t even certainty that the reunion shows will continue. When they’re on stage, says Gonsoulin, “there’s no telling if it’s ever really going to happen again.” The group’s two upcoming shows at Panorama and ChuckFest could, says Jud, “potentially be the last two shows.”
On the other hand, more positive outcomes are possible. There’s even a chance of another album one day. After all, Jud, who has always been the group’s primary songwriter, says, “I’m certainly writing a lot of music right now.”
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