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Larry “Lair Matic” Lewis knew he didn’t have much time.

It was 2010 when the Cleveland-based musician (The Offbeats, AK-47s, Broncs, etc.) went to the doctor hoping to get a prescription for his sore throat. He walked out with a diagnosis of Stage IV cancer.

But Lair wasn’t going to give up without a fight…and certainly not without a swan song. He knew just who to call, too. Ringing local punk and hard rock all-stars like guitarist Nick Summa (Floyd Band), bassist Scott “Cheese” Borger (The Pink Holes), and drummer Steve-O (Death of Samantha), Lair assembled a team to help record what became his final musical will and testament.

So Lair got by with a little help from his Lair Matic Assembly friends on the up-tempo rocker “Out of My Hands” and the elegant farewell “To My Friends (It’s Okay).”

Those friends were so galvanized by the process—and inspired by Lair—that they decided to keep working after he passed. Borger brought in wife [and Rock Hall curator] Meredith Rutledge-Borger to share vocal duties in the newly-christened Cleveland Steamers, who issued the zeitgeist-tapping Terminal on Chicago’s Smog Veil label in 2013.

Who’s Next followed in 2015.

Now, with the cheekily-titled Best Record Ever, the band named after Borger’s grandpa’s bowling team (comprised of rail yard workers in Collinwood) completes a terrific trifecta. We rang Cheese himself to talk about the album, which drops this Friday (May 4) on iTunes and Amazon...and which features cameos by Archie & The Bunkers and Nicky Calonne (Nekrogoblikon).

AXS: Hello, Cheese! Great to be talking with you about another Steamers album! Can you take us back a bit and talk about how The Steamers formed, how you came together for Lair Matic’s project?

“CHEESE” BORGER: Larry got diagnosed with cancer in 2011. That was the first time you talked to him and us about the Lair Matic Assembly—but yeah! He recruited us because he wanted to record a couple songs before he died. He asked me to play bass, and Nick Summa to play guitar, and we got Steve-O on drums. So we did that, and put that single out, and then Larry passed. I don’t know why, but I had the itch. I asked those guys, “I’ve been writing some songs, you want to keep playing?” They said, “Sure, we’ll do that.” I remember when we recorded the first album we didn’t even have a band name. I remember suddenly we came up with one! It’s been mostly me writing the songs over a year or two, and then I’ll get together with those guys and make a record [laughs]! We haven’t really played out live. It’s just been a smattering of things at a bar in Maple Heights called Maple Grove Tavern. And those weren’t really shows. It was more like practices with people coming in and out! What happened to the lineup then was…Steve-O had some kind of thing with his job getting weird on him with his scheduling. It’s hard enough getting everybody together at the same time, but that made it tricky! So we ended up using new drummers on this one, split between Ryan Foltz and James R. McWilliam.

AXS: What kinds of things were different for Best Record Ever, as compared to the previous two?  What was the process like for writing and recording the songs?

CB: There was a longer gap. This one came together over a two and a half-year period, whereas the others were sort of year-to-year. So the songs came in a couple batches. I think it was the second album that Nick or someone said—you know how someone makes a comment and a light bulb goes off in your head? He said, “There shouldn’t be any boring parts!” I’d never really thought much about it, but he was right! I thought more about and figured yeah, even if it’s only a five second boring part, you should try to not have boring parts at all! So I looked at the songs differently. You don’t want to keep doing a cool groove just because it’s a cool groove. I was more aware of space and time. Hopefully, it’s well-pleasing to the ear. Nick’s a great guitar player, so we spent more time letting him cut loose in the studio. We gave him as much freedom and space as he wanted. I always felt like me and him are on the same page. He’s great to work with. Also, the nature of the social dynamic now—the current mindset of the country, I mean—it’s pretty f#$ked up! Some of that crept into the songs. You can hear the ones that have a bit more….

AXS: Like “A##hole Cousin.” That’s got some bite. I like how the lyrics survey the last few decades of that old-school bigoted mentality and turn it all upside-down.

CB: Yeah, “A##hole Cousin” is a direct thing. “Monsanto” and “Shut Up!” That last one was inspired by some of these loud-mouth people just crying. And “Asshole Cousin” was written one afternoon, and I did like a twenty-minute song. I had this cousin that I grew up with, and he moved to Texas when we were teens. I hadn’t seen him in years, and then a couple years ago he reentered my life.  And he just…he was going off with racial slurs in a text. You know that there are people out there like that, but you hope they aren’t people in your circle or your own family. But they often are, you know? It pissed me off. So that song—I think it was the first one I had for this album—started things off, and then it started feeling like the world had gotten even worse since then!  

AXS: You mentioned “Monsanto,” which I was going to ask about. It wasn’t until a couple years ago that they’re the monopolistic company that runs the food industry…but also sells pesticides and stuff. The singing there has an appropriate menace to it.

CB: I was the same way. Ten years ago I was out spraying crap in my yard. Then you become more aware of something, you learn and you read and educate yourself throughout your lifetime. I started thinking, “I’m killing my own yard and poisoning myself!” It’s weird. I’m in Paineseville Township in a pretty developed area, but since I’ve quit using that stuff, and now I’ve got tons of frogs and everything in my yard [laughs]! It’s amazing. It’s like, “Huh! Guess I was causing some harm!” But I didn’t want to get too preachy in it. I had the riff—which I thought was a spooky riff—so Monsanto popped into my head like a Japanese movie monster. I wanted to keep the words simple, to evoke this big black cloud of Monsanto coming at me. I didn’t get too preachy other than maintain that scary feeling of what the food system is now in a lot of ways.

AXS: “Never Saw You Again” touches on the same kinds of themes as some songs from your other records. There’s a sense of regret and loss woven through.  

CB: I’m a sentimental person. I look back and reflect on a lot of things. And this song has that same feeling. I look back on people who were important to me. And at those times I didn’t realize what should’ve been important to me. When you look back you can see it, but often when you move through the majority of your life you just don’t see what’s important at the time. But yeah, that song is about a girl I knew who died young, and I never had the chance to make amends for some crap I pulled. You could see she had this beautiful soul, and I overlooked that to go do drugs or whatever. It’s a sh@#ty thing to think about forty years later!

AXS: That sense of regret—and of wanting to make amends—can be so powerful.

CB: Everybody has a few mistakes in their past. But it’s the ones where I hurt somebody who didn’t deserve it—those are the ones that haunt me the most. Stuff like whether I should’ve gone to college or taken this-or-that job, that stuff is easier to live with for me. It’s the stuff where you hurt people that can stay with you, when you know it should’ve been better.

AXS: I like how you and Meredith alternate lead vocals. She’s the atmospheric, dreamier singer, whereas you’re more either sing-speaking or rocking out.

CB: I write the songs and the words, and I’m trying to write more songs for her to sing, because she’s got a great voice. My voice is pretty lame! There’s a couple that I have to sing because they’re so personal to me. Those are the ones you hear me sing now, because they mean a lot to me. But when I write, I think about the ones Meredith can sing. Those tend to be the best ones anyway. A lot of times a riff will come to me first. I had this bass line going, and it sounded spacey to me. I’m a huge 1950s sci-fi fan. The old black-and-white movies, you know?

AXS: I can tell! You’ve got photos of Rod Serling (Twilight Zone) and Bill Mumy (Lost in Space) on the back cover.

CB: Yeah! That cover was fun to make. Johnny Dromette was the graphic artist. He listened to my ideas and pulled it together. He was the guy who managed The Pagans back in the late ‘70s. He’s been around a long time. Everyone I’m working with now is just so easy to be in tune with. I don’t always express my ideas that well, but everyone surrounding me now seems to get on the same page so quickly! So I’m working with great people, and it all comes together. The way the back cover worked…I wasn’t trying to associate people’s names with certain pictures. I just wanted to throw some of my heroes on there, and the images fell where they did.

AXS: Will The Cleveland Steamers play out anytime soon or have a CD release show?

CB: Not at the moment. We’re sort of a weird project. It falls in and out! We can go six or eight months without jamming. Usually, it’s when I say, “Hey, I’ve got some songs. You want to learn ‘em?” That’s usually the process it takes. My thing is, I’m a record junky. I have a huge collection and just really love records. They’re the perfect size, the covers. I love holding a record in my hands. So that’s where the fun is for me—I try to write a song so I can make a record! Playing out and dragging equipment home at three in the morning for fifty bucks [laughs], that’s not so fun anymore!