Music » Soundcheck

Giving His Saul

700 songs don't make Jack Rugan a rock star.


Jack Rugan doesn't look much like a rock star. He's wearing brown loafers, a crisp pair of blue jeans, and a spotless blue sweatshirt. And his house, nestled in the MacIntosh Farms planned community in Broadview Heights, is a suburban palace, complete with a spacious yard where his two dogs can run wild and a squeaky-clean kitchen where his wife is baking heart-shaped cookies for an upcoming family get-together.

"Jerry's the rock star in the band," Rugan, 37, admits, referring to his younger brother, who plays drums with him, guitarist Adam Zieleniewski, and bassist Mark Melch in the Saul Glennon Trio (yeah, there's four of them).

Living in the sticks might not be his style -- there's a "for sale" sign planted in the front yard, and Rugan admits that his neighborhood is "maybe a little too quiet" -- but it gives Rugan, who holds down a day job as a medical software designer, the space to pursue his musical ambitions. He's put together a studio in the basement and has his musical instruments wired into a computer that houses a multitrack recording program, which enables him to make quality recordings at his home. And, like Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard, a songwriter who didn't blossom until reaching his 30s, Rugan's got a catalog that he estimates at around 700 songs, stretching back to his high school days, when he started recording songs on cassettes. (He's in the process of transferring all his music onto CD.)

"I haven't taken one musical lesson my whole life," says Rugan, while Gordon, his nine-year-old golden retriever and the inspiration behind the band's label (Gordon D. Recordings), begs for attention. "Initially, I had one of those Optigon organs when I was a kid. They're getting tons of money for those on eBay now."

By the time he was a teenager, Rugan, who grew up in the East 55th and Broadway area of Cleveland, was playing in high school bands and absorbing the kind of music -- British Invasion rock and roll -- that would prove to be formative.

"I've been listening to the Beatles since 'Paperback Writer' came out in 1966," he says. "My mother bought me that record. She was hip enough to appreciate that kind of music. When you get into your teen years, you go through these phases. When I was 14, I was listening to Kiss, and then I got into Cheap Trick. But the Beatles were always in my collection. And then I heard [the Beach Boys'] Pet Sounds, and I got into a wider array of stuff."

Rugan spent the '80s working as Johnny O., a cheesy lounge singer who sang karaoke-style to a prerecorded tape at small clubs around town, and he released five tapes as Johnny O.

"I'd invite a bunch of friends, and they'd come out and feel sorry for me, while I did about 15 songs," he says. "I was listening to Bobby Darin at the time, so I was going for something like that, even though the songs were kind of corny."

After releasing one cassette of "really strange music" under his own name, Rugan recorded No Money for Beer, his first album as the Saul Glennon Trio. Though he played all the instruments on that album, he recruited a band so that he could play a single live show to celebrate the release of the album. The group did one gig at the Five J's Inn, a venue on Fleet Avenue in Slavic Village that now has its windows boarded up with plywood, and decided to keep at it.

"It was pretty hokey," Rugan recalls. "We all dressed in matching outfits with black pants and gold blazers. We kind of looked like Century 21 salespeople, but we were going for a '60s look."

The band then recorded Women, Mansions, Women, Yachts, Women, but Rugan's brother Jerry, who was 19 at the time, quit the band because he wasn't getting along with the guitar player.

"I said I would never play with them again and was through with them," Jack Rugan explains.

Rugan returned to recording by himself and released Only From the Mind of Jack Rugan in 1997. But when the Dukes of Windsor asked him to open for them, Rugan called his old bandmates, and the band has been playing together steadily since then. Last year, it released Music for Three Piece Quartet, the most professional of its recordings, and is in the middle of recording a new album, tentatively titled British Garage Invasion, which Rugan anticipates will be out by late spring.

"I never want to sound that polished," he says, booting up the computer to play an untitled track from the forthcoming album. "That's part of the reason why we haven't gone into the studio to record. I don't want to sound like everybody else. My music either appeals to someone or not. You listen to music today on the radio, and the adult alternative stuff is almost background music. I don't want to be like that. I compare us to XTC only in the sense that it's an acquired taste. People who listen to mainstream radio would be shocked if they heard XTC on the radio and would think 'What the hell is that shit?' Because of my unorthodox style and less-than-perfect singing, I've been very self-conscious. A couple of years ago, I just said, 'Fuck it. I'm just going to do this.'"

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