New Orleans' premier funk band, The Meters, is reuniting at Jazz Fest this year. The stellar musicians talked to Where Y'at about their early influences and how important the music they made over the last few decades is to the catalog of New Orleans' finest music.
Where Y'at: New Orleans is such a unique city; how did it shape you as people and as musicians?
Art Neville: I picked up on the rhythm of the city from a very early age; my family shaped me as a young man and a musician. I’ve been able to carry those values of loyalty, love and creativity with me all my life.
Leo Nocentelli: I had the unfortunate experience of growing up in New Orleans before it was desegregated, so I think of that immediately. But rather than go through all the ugly details of what I had to go through as a kid, the music aspect of New Orleans was always unique and intriguing to me.
George Porter Jr.: I was not taught nor exposed to those historical rhythms or styles. My contemporary influences were the older musicians that lived here. The city itself played no part in the music that got played; in fact, the city at that time was segregated and a black musician and a white musician could not even play together. At the time it was about food, hookers and hotels. It was not about music until they found out that players were going to the Mississippi Gulf coast and playing there, and that a lot of New Orleanians were going there to spend their money. That’s when the two AFM musicians unions decided to merge to let blacks and whites play together. In fact, the city does not have a true appreciation of the music and what it contributes to the culture, which makes it still an issue today with all the efforts to silence street players and clubs.
Zigaboo Modeliste: The people in New Orleans are a special breed of people, and when I was coming up I didn’t really understand the entire culture. Now, I have a much deeper understanding. I’m still learning!
WYAT: Regarding your early roots, what were some of the local cues that helped you make the sound and style you began creating with The Meters?
Art: I was steeped in doo-wop early on with groups like The Clovers and The Spiders, as well as Fats Domino. George and Leo came at it from an R&B/jazz angle and Zig from more of an R&B angle. At one point the other guys wanted to play jazz. I said, “If you can write some jazz then we’ll play it, but in the meantime we’ll do what we do.” There’s a sparseness to our music that makes it so special; what inspired me was the fact that “less is more,” letting the tunes breathe, letting the sparseness and syncopation lock it all together, creating that kind of laid-back strut. As my friend Keith Richards always says of us, “These guys put the Roll into Rock.”
George: My personal early influences were the local players I heard on the radio or at the house on the corner by mine where, on Friday and Saturday nights, guys would gather and play for hours. None of these players ever got their names up in lights, but they were great teachers. My teacher taught me the classical formula for songs, but I really wanted to play the songs they were playing on that porch instead. The Meters’ sound and style came from the unique interaction of four different players with slightly different backgrounds.
Zigaboo: Cyril Neville and I went to school together. We played football together, basketball, went to parties, so we had a genuinely close relationship, and being around him and his family certainly had an impact on me. I used to sit on their porch and listen to the top musicians in New Orleans at the time.
WYAT: What were some of the specific places and scenes that had an impact on you?
Leo: The Dewdrop was a meeting place for all musicians in New Orleans. We used to get off playing a gig and go get breakfast, and the breakfast would be red beans and rice and pig tails at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. I would walk in and I might see Ray Charles, Ernie K-Doe, Sarah Brown, any black musician that came to New Orleans performing; they would wind up at the Dewdrop. I feel privileged and honored to be a part of that musical heritage of New Orleans. I think that if I had been born anywhere else there wouldn’t have been The Meters.
WYAT: How and when did non-musical aspects, such as cultural and social issues, begin to become part of the mix?
Art: There was no way around not having the social and cultural issues influence our music during that time. It was an outlet to voice our concerns about the current events.
Leo: I think the social awareness has always been there, even when the instrumentals were written. My idea of starting to write lyrics was to elevate the group to go further to play for different audiences. I think the idea of writing revolutionary songs…it was just a time where when you thought about things to write about, you thought about inequality, about what was right and wrong. The times just manifested themselves in the songs we wrote.
Zigaboo: Those were excellent topics to cover—social consciousness—and a bunch of us were prolific at writing songs. But I tried to relate to brass bands, tried to relate to black culture…all culture. I was writing to people in general. I wasn’t excluding anybody, but it included my culture and my race because they needed to have somebody on the radio, somebody saying that, because I didn’t see anybody else doing it. So we did it!
WYAT: Share some insight on the classic recording The Wild Tchoupitoulas.
Zigaboo: I feel like at the time I was coming through, the Indians weren’t recording what you now call Indian music. So, when I participated in the first recording with The Wild Magnolias, it was a very important statement. Then I had the opportunity to work with who I thought was the pinnacle at that time: The Wild Tchoupitoulas. This opportunity was priceless; at the time, that was the nucleus of the new sound coming out of New Orleans.
WYAT: How does it feel playing original music that has had such a tremendous impact over the years?
George: It has always been great to create and perform our original music.
Leo: I am just now realizing how important the music was. It evolved into something unique and into something that I think is very important to what music is today. I can’t begin to tell you what the success of the music has given to me; it is something intangible, it’s just a feeling that is so much a part of New Orleans, and I think that always will be.
Photo courtesy Dino Perrucci Photography.