Interview with Fred Leblanc
The last three years have been difficult ones for New Orleans’ favorite sons Cowboy Mouth. Bassist Rob Savoy left the band in 2003 after spending over a decade on the road. The remaining three band members took their leftover scraps and turned it into 2003’s Uh-Oh, a Frankensteinian mess of an album. They picked up a new bassist (Mary LaSange), but she soon left, and was replaced by Sonia Tetlow. And then, just when they were getting enough money together to make a proper follow-up to their landmark 2000 album Easy, Hurricane Katrina wiped their hometown off the map, with one of the band members losing everything he owned.
But that which does not kill us makes us stronger, and if drummer Fred LeBlanc was already resilient, he’s practically bulletproof now. With a new album, Voodoo Shoppe, out this month, Bullz-Eye caught up with the human equivalent of Animal the Muppet to have a lengthy chat about the new record, the future of Jazzfest, and the co-headliner tour from hell.
Fred LeBlanc: Well, how are you, man? What are we doing this for, what’s this (chat) all about?
Bullz-Eye: This is for a site called Bullz-Eye.com.
FL: Oh, Bullz-Eye, okay.
BE: I’ve been a fan of the band for a while, so I leapt at the opportunity to have a chat with you.
FL: Aw, thank you, man! Have you heard the new record?
BE: I have indeed, and the first thing I noticed about it is that you have a recording budget again!
FL: Woo hoo! You like that, huh?
BE: Yeah, how cool was that?
FL: It was very cool (laughs). It was very, very, very cool. The last record (Uh-Oh) was just a lot of home demos that we put together. And then we decided that we wanted to get an album out, you know, a real decent album with real producers and things. So what we did is we released a live album called Live at the Zoo, and we only sold it on our web site. And all of the profits we made from that, we basically put toward making (Voodoo Shoppe). And then we signed the deal with Yep Roc – signed a 50/50 thing with them – so we actually got part of the money back.
BE: Is the subject of “Joe Strummer” based on a true story?
FL: Yeah, the chorus is based on a true story. I was dating a woman who was, ahem, significantly younger than me. And Joe Strummer had passed away – and I had met him about five or six months before – when we played in Vegas. And I called her up, and I’m like, “Oh, my God.” She’s like, “Honey, what’s wrong?” I said, “Joe Strummer died.” There was this long pause on the phone: “Who was that?” At that moment, it ran through my head, “Oh, man, you’ve gotta go.” But the rest of the song is pretty much made up. Paul (Sanchez, rhythm guitarist) came up with the melody for the verse, Mary helped with the lyrics, and Mitch (Allen), our producer, helped with lyrics. It was an all-inclusive thing. But I always wanted to write a song called “Joe Strummer,” it’s just such a fucking great name.
BE: It has a certain rhythm to it, too.
BE: And that’s one of the reasons I asked the question, because I wondered if it was actually about Joe Strummer, or if it was someone whose name didn’t roll off the tongue, like Mark Mothersbaugh or something.
FL: (laughs hard, starts singing melody to “Joe Strummer”) “Mark Mothersbaugh…” Ah, what’s the bridge? “She started talking ‘bout being my wife, but why would I want to be with someone who doesn’t know that Devo saved my life?” That doesn’t work.
BE: No, not quite.
FL: For years, I wanted to write a song called “Joe Strummer,” and then I got an idea for the chorus, and I thought, “Okay, this is really good!” I wanted to write a tribute song, or something like that. And the chorus was really good, and I had the bridge laying around, but the rest of the song just blew. It was like, “Joe’s so cool,” yada yada. I’m like, “This sucks.” And then Paul came in and said, “I have an idea for a verse.” And this idea he had was great. I was like, “That’s it!” So we thought, well, let’s take this from another angle, and everybody started piecing stuff together. It was great.
BE: So the ex-girlfriend didn’t actually dress like she slept with Guns ‘n Roses?
FL: Uh, well…just a little. (laughs) Put it this way: it would have been Guns ‘n Roses on a lucky night.
BE: That line painted a very scary mental picture for me.
FL: Yeah, yeah, we’ll leave that one alone.
BE: Tell me what it was like after Rob left the band, because from my perspective, it looked as though the dynamic within the band changed considerably.
FL: You’ve seen us since Rob quit, right?
BE: I have, a couple times.
FL: Have you seen us with our bass player Sonia?
BE: No, I saw Mary on a couple gigs.
FL: Okay. Mary’s a great player, a lot of enthusiasm. But after a while I think the road got to her. And she suffered some personal losses that were pretty devastating. So she left the band, to kind of clear her head. So we got Sonia in and…trust me, if you ever see Sonia (chuckles)…I mean, Mary was really good, I loved playing with her, but Sonia was meant to be in this band. We really jive well together onstage. She’s giving me a run for my money every fucking night.
BE: You can hear her influence on the album, whereas I always felt like Mary was a hired gun. It seems like you’ve rectified that by bringing Sonia into the band.
FL: Well, Mary didn’t have as much of an authoritative presence onstage as Sonia does. I think when we played together initially, it was great, because she was really solid. But one of the things about Cowboy Mouth is that we never really wanted the band to impose any style on anybody in the band. I always thought that if people brought their own style to the band, it would make the band stronger and richer. I’m talking about personality, dress, playing style, everything like that. I’m a big believer in everybody’s energy getting together and creating one colossal explosion. And Sonia really adds to that a lot. She’s fucking great. She’s one of the top bass players, I think, that we’ve had in the band.
BE: How many bass players have you had?
FL: Ah, more than enough. We had Steve (Walters) before Rob. So Steve, Rob, Mary and Sonia.
BE: They’re like Spinal Tap drummers, I guess, right?
FL: You know, we’ve heard that before, and we just hope that Sonia doesn’t explode. (laughs)
BE: Or choke on someone else’s vomit.
FL: I think that’d probably be my job. (laughs)
BE: I’m glad to hear this (about Sonia), because I have to admit, I was worried for the future of the band after the last record came out.
FL: I was, too. But it all seems to have taken care of itself. And truth be told, when this band got together 16 years ago, I didn’t think it would last longer than a month. The chemistry has always been very strong, but at times volatile. While, on the one hand, there’s always a bit of drama going on, on the other hand, it makes it really exciting, very visceral.
BE: The last time I saw you guys play was that double bill with Cracker, at the House of Blues in Chicago. It seemed like there was a war going on (between the bands). (David) Lowery looked like he was fighting with your audience. He spit water on the people at the front of the stage, and mock-mooned them.
FL: Who, Lowery?
FL: (long pause) Let’s put it diplomatically: I figure, if someone is going to take all of his energy, try to be negative towards either an audience, or a band, or something like that, if someone’s just going to be that negative, and that mean, and that hateful, then you just have to look at that person’s life. Or you have to look at that person’s career, or whatever. What’s the saying, the more fingers that you point, the more fingers that are pointing back at you?
BE: Right, for every one you point at someone else, there are three pointing back at you.
FL: Right. Yeah, it was an odd situation to be in for us, because we try to be a positive, friendly band, not only to our audience, but to the bands we play with and everybody we deal with, we try to put out a very cool, very friendly, very easy-to-work-with vibe. Whereas, Lowery just chooses to do something else.
BE: Huh. Well, back to Rob really quickly; does anyone in the band still keep in touch with him?
FL: I spoke to Rob this morning, actually. We’re still friends.
BE: Good, because sometimes you’ll see someone leave a band, and they’ll say it was an amicable decision, and I really wanted to believe that was the case. But sometimes, that’s just not true.
FL: When he first left, it was a little cantankerous for about a month or so. We’ve all known each other for years. I knew Rob back in the ‘80s when his band used to open up for my band. And Cowboy Mouth, when we first started, we used to open up for Rob’s band. And for about a year (since leaving Cowboy Mouth), he started playing bass with Susan Cowsill, he just stopped doing that. He’s actually working in the Jazzfest office, and he just wants to be a homebody, be with his wife. He’s fixing up his house, and things like that. Rob’s always been a laid back, mellow guy, but also very intense at the same time. With Cowboy Mouth for seven or eight years, and with the Bluerunners, I think, for seven or eight years, so that’s 15 years being on the road. And with Susan, they tried it for about a year…that’s a long time to be on the road. I think he was just done with it. But no, we still get along real well.
BE: Good. I have to say I miss “I-10 West” in the set list.
FL: Yeah, that’s a good tune.
BE: I just loved watching him play, because he’s so loosey goosey.
FL: Yeah, and he was a lot of fun onstage, and when he was into it, he really enjoyed that he could be a real personality and a performer with us. In his old band, the Bluerunners, he would do that, but there was kind of an unwritten rule of cool in that band. Whereas we were like, “No, do whatever you want, go nuts. Everything you’ve ever wanted to do onstage, do it, every night.”
BE: I actually saw the show where he turned 50. You were playing Chicago.
FL: (alarmed) Fifty?
BE: Yeah, you played the Riviera, you were opening for Better than Ezra.
FL: No, no, no, not 50, he was probably 40.
BE: Forty? Because he said he was “fitty” and he kicked his leg in the air like Molly Shannon.
FL: He was joking.
BE: Well, he got me.
FL: Hee hee. Psych!
BE: So now you’ve got Sonia in the band, and one of the things that I like, that you’ve introduced, is that you’ve got some female backing vocals on the songs.
BE: The first time I heard “Slow Down,” which is one of my favorite songs on the new album, it reminded me of the BoDeans. Does that make sense?
FL: Yeah, it makes sense, with the harmonies, and everything like that, yeah, it makes sense. That’s one of the songs that Mark Bryan produced, and he’s from Hootie (and the Blowfish), so he tends to have that kind of middle of the road rock thing going, with lots of layered harmonies. But I like the BoDeans, so that’s cool. (chuckles)
BE: I also noticed that you’re all finally sharing songwriting credits with each other, much like Queen did towards the end of their career. What inspired that decision?
FL: It was a conscious decision we made to write together as a group on this whole album. I think it got to the point where we realized that, instead of being a bunch of individuals bringing our aesthetic to the band, we just threw it a melting pot to see what would happen. We had ground down pretty hard on the road. We played a lot of kickass shows, but I think it got to the point where everyone was frustrated, and we took out some of our frustrations on each other. And once we learned how to enjoy and appreciate the band again, we consciously made the decision to write together. Like, me having the chorus for “Joe Strummer,” and Paul putting in the verse.
FL: Or, like, Sonia and John (Thomas Griffith, guitarist) and Paul putting together “Supersonic,” and me walking in and saying, “Hey, that’s really good. It needs a bridge, how about this?” And them saying, “Hey, that’s great.” Or like “The Avenue.” I’ve had the song pretty much written, but John and Paul definitely had ideas about arrangements, and what they wanted the song to be, and what they didn’t want the song to be. It was just a letting go of all the other bullshit.
BE: So you didn’t do that at all before. You’d all walk in with songs completed start to finish and say, “Here, Rob, play this. Paul, play this.”
FL: Ah, not always. Initially, we all put our stuff in, but after a while it was, “Here’s how the song goes, I’d like to hear this here, I’d like to hear this there.” But then it got to be, "If I wanted to play with hired hands, I’d get hired hands." The reason that I’m in Cowboy Mouth is that I do believe that there’s a special chemistry there that everybody adds to. We’re not the tightest band, we’re not the most technically proficient band, but Goddamn it, we feel good.
BE: Right, but you’re not playing Rush songs out there, you know?
FL: Oh, God, no.
BE: I’ve never thought that you guys weren’t tight.
FL: Well, just like any great band, I think we definitely have our Cowboy Mouth groove. We have our way of playing that’s completely unique to us.
BE: Are you playing “Hurricane Party” in your shows these days?
FL: We just started again. Paul lost everything (in Hurricane Katrina).
FL: He lived an area of town called Gentilly that was just flooded to the roofs. He lost everything. He just rented an apartment down in the French Quarter, and Paul tends to be sensitive about a lot of things. This was just overwhelming for all of us, just the fact that he lost everything. I don’t think he was prepared for that, and how it would affect him. I affected him a lot more than he probably thought it initially would, and so he didn’t want to play the song. And for a while, it seemed inappropriate to sing the “Hurricane Party” song while we were all so close to the event. But then, as time passed, people would ask, “Hey, why don’t you play ‘Hurricane Party’?” And what we did was we took about a month off. And then, when they reopened the House of Blues in New Orleans, they asked us to be the first headliner.
BE: Oh, cool.
FL: Yeah, it was great, sold out in advance, it was just a great show. But Paul asked me beforehand, “Hey, how would you feel about playing ‘Hurricane Party’?” I said, “Hell yeah, let’s do it!” People love the song, and this is the perfect event, let’s do it. He got weird about it (at first), but he got to the point where he’s comfortable with it again, so that’s good. People love it, and now I guess it’s just a way to laugh at your trouble.
BE: How ironic that it’s Paul’s song, and he’s the one that lost everything. I suppose that explains why “Home” came out the way it did. He doesn’t pull any punches, does he?
FL: No, he doesn’t. It was all of us expressing the way we felt. I had written “The Avenue,” and we were pretty close to (the action) when everything went down.
BE: I have a question for a friend of mine. My friend Steve wanted me to ask you why you used the Blacksmith Shop as the Voodoo Shoppe on your web site.
FL: Um, I think it just looks better. (laughs) Doesn’t it look better?
BE: Well, what I meant was, that’s obviously a bar in New Orleans. I, unfortunately, have not been down there yet. My friends go down to Jazzfest every year.
FL: So you’re gonna go this year, right?
BE: God, I’d like to. I’m disappointed, because I worry that the city won’t be the same (as it once was) for a while.
FL: It’ll get back to being a hell of a place. It’s just that it suffered a pretty major blow.
BE: Did I hear that they’re trying to bring in bands like the Stones to play Jazzfest?
FL: I have no clue what they’re doing, to be honest with you. They keep talking about headliners, and you hear rumors, but nothing’s been confirmed yet.
BE: I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.
FL: I don’t know if that’s a good idea, but at the same time, from an economic standpoint, if they manage to pull something like that off, that’s what we have to be concerned with right now. Aesthetically, creatively, no, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to bring someone like them in. But at the same time, people have always groused and judged us whenever they’d bring in people like Widespread Panic or Dave Matthews, or something like that. And I think that’s the wrong attitude to take, because strictly from an economic standpoint, bringing acts like that in makes the festival financially able to still have a lot more of the R&B guys and some of the real New Orleans cultural icons that we have down here. The ones that people aren’t going to pay that much money to go see, but who are still important to people like me. Guys like Bo Dollis, or even some of the newer bands, like Papa Grows Funk.
FL: I think, when you have an economic base that someone like Dave Matthews, or Widespread, or even the Rolling Stones can bring, then you can spread more of the actual New Orleans culture around for more people to see. So I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. Being a musician for as long as I have, being a leader of a band for as long as I have, it’s not just the aesthetic that you have to deal with. You have to look at the bottom line, and that’s all there is to it. To not look at the bottom line is to not look at reality. And if the festival doesn’t make money one year, the festival doesn’t come back the next year. So I can put up with Dave Matthews, as long as I can see Fats Domino.
BE: That’s fair. I guess I worried that in bringing in bands like the Stones, Jazzfest would lose some of its personality.
FL: Right now, with everything, we’re basically just talking about survival, on a lot of different levels. I’ve heard rumors about U2, McCartney and the Stones, but I also heard that about Voodoofest, so you know what rumors are worth. They’re really not worth the paper you wipe your butt with. (chuckles)
BE: Back to the Blacksmith Shop, is there any kind of personal connection to that bar?
FL: No, I just thought the design was cool. I mean, I’ve been there more than a few times, just like anybody in New Orleans has. I just liked the aesthetic, the look, the feel of it. It seemed to be the right place.
BE: I listened to “Fred’s Story” on your web site, the spoken word thing.
FL: Yeah, did you like it?
BE: Yeah, but you know what, I was surprised by its simplicity. I thought for sure that the story would have been you being left for dead in a ditch like the guy in “Murderball,” or something.
FL: (laughs) Well, that didn’t happen!
BE: But you know what I mean. Usually, that epiphany revolves around a really extreme event.
FL: Well, it was a relatively extreme event for me, but for me it was not going into the extremities of the events as much as the thing that I got out of it the most. Because I don’t want to boo-hoo about my problems or my worries in front of our audience too much. Everybody’s got their own problems and worries; they don’t need me up there crying about mine, too.
BE: If they want that, they can go listen to Morrissey.
FL: Exactly. And I love Morrissey, you know? I’m not Morrissey, but I love him. (starts singing) “Sweetness, I was only joking when I said…”
BE: We do a thing on our web site called Deep Cuts, where we dig into a band’s catalog and list our favorite, lesser known songs. We’ve done this for REM and the Stones, and (this month) I’m doing the Beatles. One of the songs that I chose is “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which you guys covered (the finest moment on Uh-Oh).
FL: Woo hoo!
BE: I was wondering what compelled you to take on the hardest song in the world to cover.
FL: (laughs) I guess (covering “Tomorrow Never Knows”) is just ballsy. It’s just me thinking a lot of my band.
BE: So that was your idea, bringing that song in?
FL: Yeah, pretty much. It’s just such a great song, and I just wanted to update it, but update it in a way that hopefully wouldn’t seem too cheesy ten years from now. Granted, it’s got a lot of keyboard effects, but at the same time, it just simply rocks. I always thought it was a beautiful melody, and it’s so complex in its simplicity. The way the song weaves in and out, the song really takes you on a journey. And just being a huge Beatles fan from years back, I thought, when it comes to rock and roll, it’s best just to jump into the deep end of the pool.
BE: I’ve heard a lot of different covers of the song, and every time I hear one, I’ve wanted to shut them off. Phil Collins did a version that wasn’t any good.
FL: Yeah, most of them are embarrassing.
BE: Did you ever hear the Chemical Brothers song “Setting Sun”?
FL: Uh uh.
BE: To me, that’s the best cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows.” They got Noel Gallagher to sing lead.
FL: Awesome. I’ll have to look it up!
BE: So what songs would you suggest for my (Deep Cuts) piece?
FL: Hmmmmm. I’m going to choose a few things from different eras...
BE: I don’t think I used anything before A Hard Day’s Night.
FL: Oh, really?
BE: Yeah, because they were still doing a lot of covers back then.
FL: Well, one of the songs that I would pick is a cover. But I won’t do that if it’s not…
BE: No, that’s fine. Which one?
FL: Can I pick a few?
BE: As many as you want.
FL: “Please Mr. Postman.” But you’ve gotta get the stereo version. It’s on the Beatles’ second album/CD, on that box that they released with the American versions. That just rocks. “For No One,” from Revolver. Let’s see, what else…for all the ones I pick, I’ll fucking kick myself for not picking other ones later…I really like “I Need You” (from Help!)…
BE: I flirted with putting that one on there.
FL: That’s a very underrated Harrison song. Let’s see…um…
BE: You’re doing exactly what I did when I started. I’m thinking, How many of these songs do people not know?
FL: Yeah, exactly. “Cry Baby Cry,” off the White Album.
BE: The only thing I’ve listed off the White Album so far is “Martha My Dear.” To be honest, I never grew up with the White Album.
FL: You need to give the White Album a couple of spins, it’s a special piece of work. There’s a song on there called “Long Long Long,” but then you get stuff like “Julia,” which is just awesome. It’s odd that in five years, those guys could release 13 albums of just quality stuff. Even their clunkers are fucking great.
BE: My favorite rock story – and I’m not even sure that this is true, you might be able to tell me – involves Mick Jagger and Paul (McCartney) getting together in the late ‘60s. They’re trading demos of songs that they’re doing and Mick plays Paul a version of “Sympathy for the Devil,” and Paul says, “Yeah, that’s good, that’s good.” And then Paul plays Mick the re-recorded version of “Revolution,” and Mick’s like, “Oh, fuck me!” He just realized that whatever the Stones did, the Beatles were always going to be two steps ahead of them.
FL: Exactly. Well, here’s the true story, I’ve read about this on a number of occasions. It was a party, it was the Stones’ record release party for Beggars Banquet, which had “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fighting Man,” it’s one of the Stones’ four great albums. And McCartney shows up, and being McCartney, he’s like, “Hey, I’ve got an acetate of something we’ve just recorded. Can I play it?” And they’re like, “Yeah, okay, sure, whatever.” And it’s “Hey Jude” and “Revolution.” And it just totally pissed Mick off, because once again, the Beatles showed them up.
BE: Oh, that’s even better.
FL: Yeah, it was actually at a party.
BE: So I’ve been telling it wrong all this time.
FL: It’s all right, the basics of the story were all true.
BE: Well, thank you for clarifying that for me.
FL: My pleasure.
BE: So what are you listening to these days?
FL: I just started listening to a lot more Sam Cooke recently. I just read the new biography by Peter Guralnick, “Dream Boogie.” I’ve been a huge Sam Cooke fan for years, and I started pulling out all of my Sam Cooke gospel albums.
BE: Well, we just went through all of my questions. Was there anything you wanted to talk about?
FL: Nah, I think we got it all covered. Speak well of the band, speak well of the album. You can’t spend too much time worrying about people who just exercise their negativity on you, because they’ve gotta wake up and be themselves. Life’s too short to waste it on people who aren’t going to have anything nice to do or say.
Post Script: I wound up adding “Cry Baby Cry” to the Beatles Deep Cuts piece. Good call, Fred.
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