The Roux is the base for many traditional Cajun dishes – a dark, boggy broth that defines the texture and boundaries of a recipe. It’s also a blank canvas, given image and intensity by its unique blend of seasonings. These extracts are often clouded to the eye by the thick, murky march of the sauce… but like a preying alligator lurking in a foggy swamp, the flavors are waiting to sink their teeth in.
Strange Roux’s swamp rock stew is brewed much like this: a spice rack of musical inspiration – dating from the ‘30s till today – seasoned in a soup of Southern blues. Where Y’at sat down with to discuss the evolution of the band, their upcoming album, and their insistence on only playing original music.
Strange Roux is:
Michelle Cunningham - Vocals
Jason Kareores - Guitar/Slide
Tony Frickey - Drums
Eric Burgess - Bass
John V. Thompson – Guitar
Where Y’at: You guys went through several changes this year. Tell me a bit about where you are now.
Kareores: The biggest change was bringing on Michelle as our new lead singer earlier this year. In the two years Strange Roux has been playing, we’ve only had male vocalists. She’s added a whole new personality and feel to our songs, especially the old ones.
Thompson: Michelle makes all the difference.
Many of our songs start off with a heavy guitar riff… the listener anticipates this heavy, masculine voice. A soulful, feminine voice comes as a surprise… it’s a pleasing contrast.
Kareores: When we auditioned for a new singer earlier this year, we weren’t looking for a female singer. We auditioned maybe eight people before Michelle showed up. She was the first woman, and we knew she was it.
WYAT: [Michelle] What is your vocal inspiration?
Cunningham: Amy Whinehouse has been a huge influence, that ‘50s soul sound. I’m also really into ‘20s and ‘30s Jazz, singers like Billie Holiday. I didn’t take up singing until after college; I got my start performing with New Orleans street musicians… I still do.
WYAT: Describe your song writing process.
Thompson: It usually starts off with one person – an idea. Someone will come up with a line or a riff, then everyone will experiment and build on it. That’s how all the songs end up being our songs – we all add our own flavor to it. It’s a layered process.
Burgess: We really try to focus on the dynamic of the group. For example, if Tony comes up with a beat, I need to think, how am I going to hold the rhythm? That’s where the layering happens. Also, being a roots rock band, it’s all about the guitar work.
Kareores: The lead switches between John (Thompson) and myself; we’ll alternate solos and rhythm. The important thing is to hold the beat of the song and not let any one element overpower the music. Yeah, we want to kick your ass a little with a heavy riff, but music is all about dancing – you need to keep a rhythm.
Frickey: To be honest, I don’t really like the way drums sound. It is very hard to not let drumming overpower a song, to drown out the vocals. Drums are meant to carry a rhythm. Tone is very important. When you overplay, you lose the tone; you need to let the tone breathe and hold the backbeat.
Thompson: I also want to point out how important Eric (Burgess) is as a bassist. Many of our songs have a simple, rhythm, and a repeating bass line. Most people don’t realize how difficult it is to perfectly execute a single bass line throughout a four – five minute song. Eric’s timing is flawless.
Kareores: At the end of the day, none of us is trying to show off. We are all about bringing together our various skills and backgrounds to achieve the end product – a great song.
WYAT: Speaking of your varied musical inspirations, what is the first album you got that made a difference to you?
Cunningham: [laughs] Wow… Whitney Houston – The Body Guard Soundtrack Burgess: Metallica - (The Black Album) Thompson: I guess I can’t go with the Chipmunks Christmas Album… I would say it would have to have been a Chuck Berry or Beatles album.
Kareores: The first album that meant a lot to me was either the first Led Zepplin album, or The Beatles (White Album), I can’t pick.
Frickey: I’m not going to lie; it was Matchbox 20’s Yourself or Someone Like You.
Thompson: That’s interesting; now that you mention it, there is a pop-element to many of our songs, especially newer ones since Tony (Frickey) joined the band, like “Six-Shot Alarm Clock,” and “Waiting for You,” which has a huge ‘90s alternative influence.
WYAT: You’ve reworked several of your older songs since Michelle joined the band; do you have any new songs in the works?
Kareores: We have six new songs completed, and are working on several more. You can listen to many of them on our website. We are hoping to have an album out at the beginning of next year.
WYAT: You’ve had several shows the past few months. Tell me a bit about your live performance.
Thompson: Our performance sets the mood for our audience’s night: we want to give them a complete show. For our Halloween show, we decorated Blue Nile to look like a swamp. We also dress up in suits. Our music has a mood and an atmosphere that needs to be consistent with all elements of the show.
Kareores: We also have a label, Total Riot Records; it’s more of a community, a group of musicians to tour and perform with. We want to put original bands together that have good music and bring different kinds of people together. As musicians, we are all in this together – people like all different kinds of music in this day and age.
Thompson: The digital revolution erased the music hierarchy that existed for so long. Before, people would listen to rap, or pop, or rock. Thanks to the iPod playlist, people now listen to rap and rock and pop – it created this network. Everything became immediately assessable; audiences expect that variety from a show.
WYAT: I notice you only play original songs at your shows, no covers.
Kareores: New Orleans has such a rich musical history. With everything that has happened here in the past eight – 10 years, there is so much to write about, why play someone else’s song? People want New Orleans music – why not give them something original?
Thompson: We write our own songs because even though our music exists in a certain period of time, we want to evolve it; we can mix many time periods and make it our own. When you play covers, or only music just from a certain period, you limit yourself.
Frickey: Everything’s already been done; every note has already been played – the trick for musicians today is how do I make this fresh. Creativity is being able to make connections between unrelated elements. Music is all about fusion now.
Kareores: At the end of the day, we make New Orleans rock and roll. We now have a strong lineup of musicians that jells, and we keep expanding our sound into new territory. I think we are blending styles together in a way a lot of other New Orleans musicians aren’t doing, and are afraid to explore. But at our core, we play Southern roots music – blues is at the heart of our sound.
Photo courtesy of Michael Broome.
Strange Roux plays at Blue Nile's Balcony Room on Dec. 21 and Jan. 19.