To listen to The Meters is to feel New Orleans. Well into their fifth decade now, their music has funkified beautifully and has been heralded the world over. Years back that Fab Four known as The Beatles paid ours quite an honor when Sir Paul McCartney invited The Meters to play for his wedding on The Queen Mary. Their music has been used to score soundtracks for Jackie Brown, Drumline, and Chef to The Wire, but New Orleanians enjoy their music in ever setting imaginable. It’s music for all occasions. I’ve even had the pleasure of listening to The Meters music being played out of a massive pipe organ at St. Trinity Church and it was divine! That being said, The Meters natural musical home remains at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Here’s what Art, George, Leo, and Zigaboo had to say in our recent interview!
WYAT: New Orleans is such a unique city; how did it shape you as a person and as a musician?
Art Neville: I picked up on the rhythm of the city from a very early age; the people, culture, food and music shape everyone here differently, my family shaped me as young man and a musician. I’ve been able to carry those values of loyalty, love and creativeness with me all my life.
Leo Nocentelli: I had the unfortunate situation of growing up in New Orleans before it was desegregated, so I think of that immediately. But, rather then go through all the ugly details of what I had to go through as a kid, in those terms, the music aspect of New Orleans was always unique and intriguing to me. I reached out to music and getting the real musical feelings from experiencing playing with different musicians there.
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 and I got to hang around that played R&B and traditional jazz that had some swing to it. 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 playing and that a lot of New Orleanians were going there too spend their money…that’s when the two unions decided to merge to let them play together, but it was not the city. 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 the all the efforts trying to silence street players and noise ordinances attempting to shake down and shut down 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 early roots and influences, the particular sound and style you began creating with The Meters, what were some of the local cues?
Art: I was steeped in Doo Wop early on with groups like The Clovers, The Spiders, as well as Fats and other local favorites. George and Leo came at it from a R&B/jazz angle and Zig more of a 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." And that’s be The Meters.
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 like “Home on the Range” and “Red River Valley” however, I really want to play the songs that they were playing on that porch instead. Regarding The Meters sound and style: it came from the unique interaction of four different players with slightly different backgrounds. We were influenced by the local music we were hearing on the radio, Fats Domino, Tommy Ridgely, The Lastie Brothers.
Zigaboo: Well, Cyril Neville and I went to school together. We played football together, basketball, went to parties and such, so we had a genuine close relationship, and being around him and his family certainly had an impact on me. I used to go sit on their porch and listen to the top musicians in New Orleans at the time.
Don Vappie asks: The Meters have a very laid-back New Orleans kind of funk groove. Was it just something you felt? It reminds me of the way we walk, very cool walk from the hipsters of the 60's. It kinda has dip in the stride with a lean to one side. What inspired you?
Art: 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.
WYAT: Zig, besides being noticed by Art Neville, was there anyone else who recognized your talent before Allen Toussaint did?
Zigaboo: Well, yes, there was Deacon John, who’s still one of the most successful musicians in New Orleans. He is at the top. He always had a first class band. Everything was laid out. That’s how I learned how to be responsible; he brought me to a whole other level as far as being introduced to different kinds of music. So that opened my eyes to a lot of things!
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 the 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 like 2, 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 into New Orleans performing, they would wind up at the Dewdrop just to hang and to check out the entertainment there. I feel privileged and honored to be apart of that musical heritage of New Orleans. I am very happy to have been born in New Orleans. I think that if I had been born anywhere else there wouldn’t have been The Meters, there wouldn’t be Leo, there wouldn’t have been a lot of things.
WYAT: Did the audience response influence and shape the dynamics and direction of the music in any way?
Art: Some of them. The early tunes were influenced by actual dances in that era “Cissy Strut,” “Sophisticated Cissy." Watching the fans and audience dance all these years we knew we had laid some deep grooves that would keep people dancing for years to come, and as my friend, Keith (Richards) always, says of us, “These guys put the Roll into Rock."
Zigaboo: Well, part of being a musician and doing our music I was just excited that people were enjoying it and dancing. That hit me right between the eyes. That connection was a response, they call out the music to you and set it out there, a signal, and then you reciprocate by either dancing or whatever, clapping your hands. It’s a heavy duty communication. The Meters stuck to what was the fundamentally funky music.
WYAT: Did The Meters ever feel as if they were competing with the soul and funk scenes from places like New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Memphis, or Los Angeles, for example?
George: I don't think we ever felt like we were competing.
Art: Everybody was doing their own thing in their own city...I don’t think we were really competing we’re just doing what we knew, felt and what came naturally to us...and it connected with people...everywhere.
Leo: What made The Meters’ music distinctive was that I wrote how I felt inside not thinking about anybody else or any other group out there. As for my playing, I was influenced by jazz musicians such as Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Howard Roberts, and Johnny Smith.
Zigaboo: Booker T. & The MG’s stood out. They had the movers and shakers behind them and they were tough.
WYAT: In that regard, The Meters always seemed to stay true to New Orleans in terms of utilizing second line grooves as well as incorporating themes that honor and celebrate New Orleans culture. How important was that to you?
Art: Most of our tunes were built around a sort of second line or more street beat type of groove; that wasn’t anything that we sat down and said we need this type of beat or that type of beat. It’s just where the music went and a place we took it to.
Leo: I think with The Meters, it was a rare meeting of four guys that had somewhat of a unique New Orleans experience that is immediately identifiable in our music. It was like a perfect gumbo, musically.
George: It was important to us then and still is to me now, it is what we knew and I feel it is important to represent what is unique to the music of New Orleans in our own way.
WYAT: What is the secret to attaining The Meters soulful harmony and balance?
Art: Listening to each other has always been key...we learned “Less is More” early on.
WYAT: George, you have stated that you consider yourself a "frustrated jazz musician." What is it about jazz that spoke to you then, and now?
George: There is freedom in jazz because it’s heavily improvisational. I really like when this improvisation includes lots of chord changes.
WYAT: As for The Meters individual sound, how and when did non-musical aspects begin to influence and become part of the mix such as cultural and social issues?
Art: There was no way around not having the social and cultural issues influence our music during that time, it’s was an outlet to voice our concerns about the current events.
George: The social and cultural issues of the time certainly influenced the songwriting. In the late ’60s early ‘70s there was no way not to react it.
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. Number one, we had Art Neville, one of the greatest vocalists to ever come out of New Orleans. He had so much talent! Also, Zig was a very prolific singer, which we later found out when he sung songs like “Just Kiss My Baby” and “People Say.” Once that was established, 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 itself 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: In a career with many, many bright moments, do you have one or two that particularly stand out?
Art: Yes, one is when we were tracking “Lady Marmalade” when I first heard Patti Labelle sing. It made my hair stand on end! It was serious. I had never heard anyone sing like that before and haven’t since. I also really enjoyed recording with Earl King over the years, that was always special.
WYAT: Share some insight on the classic recording The Wild Tchoupitoulas.
Leo: I listen to it in complete amazement. I look back at it in retrospect; it was just something really special with the Wild Tchoupitoulas. That record was and always will be an iconic production from New Orleans, just as much as Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, just as much as anybody. Certain things you just look back at and go wow that was really me, I was really there.
Zigaboo: I feel like at the time I was coming through the Indians weren’t recording what you call now 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 what I thought was the pinnacle of at the time was The Wild Tchoupitoulas. This opportunity came up and it was priceless, and it was the first time I had a chance record an entire album representing the Indian music and the Indian culture. At the time that was the nucleus of the new sound coming out of New Orleans.
WYAT: Zig, what local drummers influenced you?
Zigaboo: There were a lot drummers that came from New Orleans that many people don’t really even mention their names, like Charles "Honeyboy" Otis, Buddy Williams, June Gardner, Smokey Johnson, John Boudreaux, Clarence Brown, Eugene Jones, and there was Hungry Williams, James Black and a bunch of other drummers that I cant even remember! I would get as much information as I could from those guys but, I never had a mentorship with any of the other musicians.
WYAT: Art, you were one of the first pianists in New Orleans to forge a unique style on the organ. Did you have any particular teachers and mentors that helped shape your direction?
Art: I was influenced by Fats’ & Professor Longhair’s playing,and my uncle Jolly also had a big musical and family influence on me coming up.
WYAT: How does it feel playing original music that has had such a tremendous impact over the years?
Art: It feels real good man to know that what I’ve done all these years has lasted and what the band has done has had such an impact over the years...God gave this to me and I’m here sharing and giving it to everyone else out there. It’s the truth...
Leo: I am just now realizing in the last years how important the music was and how unique it was and what it really meant. 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, and I think as the years go by it will get bigger and bigger.
Zigaboo: Every time we play, we have moments of genius and some moments of discomfort, and every one of those gigs meant something to me.
George: It has always been great to create and perform our original music.