Is This Not Bonkers?: Wild New Pirate Music From New Orleans
by Gabe Soria
Originally posted Dec 3, 2007 on Yahoo’s Arthur blog
Friday, November 2nd, 2007, New Orleans: The Saturn Bar on St. Claude in New Orleans, a place you’ve probably heard of, even if you’ve never been to New Orleans. T-shirts bearing its stylized planetary logo and address are ubiquitous leisurewear among certain sorts of folks in cities worldwide. Its fame is well deserved–it’s a friendly and immaculately disheveled corner watering hole, kind of like the platonic ideal of Southern urban dive bar, complete with great signage. The stretch of real estate it’s on–St. Claude Avenue between the railroad tracks near and the bridge to the Lower Ninth Ward–is unapologetically spooky after dark. Gunshots in the distance: check.
But still, it’s inviting.
The occasion tonight is the record release party by the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus, a project of local musician Alex McMurray. The wife and I haven’t heard a note of music from the record yet, though McMurray’s former outfit, the Tom Waits-esque trio Royal Fingerbowl, are a favorite around the house.
We’ve just heard compelling code words: “sea shanties” and “beer” and “Saturn Bar” and decided that attendance is mandatory. Turns out, it’s the type of show that you realize you’re going to be telling people about until the end of your days. For real.
The car is parked on the neutral ground in the middle of the avenue, directly between the Saturn Bar and the Spellcaster Lodge across the street. Entering the Saturn Bar, the mood is instantly, irrepressibly ebullient. Folks are drinking Miller High Lifes like they’re going to stop brewing them at the stroke of midnight, and more than one person is dressed like a PIRATE. Actually, the crowd is liberally sprinkled with pirates. Friends greet us with grins; some people lounge casually in booths and others jockey for position at the bar in the Saturn’s ramshackle front room. I realize that it’s been a long time since I’ve felt such an unselfconscious BUZZ before a show, like people don’t know exactly what’s going to happen and are DIGGING it. It’s like they’re on really good, really happy drugs.
Finally, the needle tips, and folks start cramming themselves in front of the nonexistent stage, located under a balcony that runs the length of three sides the Saturn’s back room. The small venue feels like a time warp, like you’re attending a rocking show in the back of a second-tier bordello in 1915. The small band has assembled, looking well lubricated: McMurray on banjo; Chaz Leary and Matt Perrine, his band mates from his primary band, the Tin Men, on washboard and sousaphone, respectively, and the addition of Jannelle Perrine on pennywhistle, and Carlo Nuccio on bass drum. And then there’s the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus themselves: at least 20 strong, maybe more of them, weird moustaches, ruddy faces, big grins, a bunch of dudes and a smattering of ladies who serve as the crew on this ship.
McMurray takes a moment to instruct the audience on the chorus of the group’s first song, “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?” and the group barrels ahead. What follows is nothing short of extraordinary.
What could have come off as pure novelty (“Hey, guys! We’re going to sing a bunch of sailor’s and pirate songs!”) instead becomes a roaring thing of rough beauty. McMurray actually learned many of these songs while playing the character of Cap’n Sandy, a roving sailor minstrel at Tokyo Disney, but instead of covering the tunes, he seems to be channeling them from some alternate universe where Alejandro Jodorowsky and Werner Herzog asked him to do the soundtrack for their NC-17 version of the Pirates Of The Caribbean films. The band plays these old songs as if they were born to them, skipping reverence and piousness and going straight to their dirty hearts. It’s raw, nasty and funny; some lyrics have been changed, some have been added, but it’s all honest and kinda dirty. And the Chorus themselves… yikes. They’re howling and smiling, and the crowd picks up on their lyrics, singing and bellowing along with them. It’s the real old, weird America to paraphrase, right here in a bar in New Orleans. Strangers in the crowd link arms and sway back and forth; soon, it seems as if we’re all pitching back and forth in the hold of a ship about to go down. People are dropping beers, drinking multiple beers and forming a real (and really drunken) community around some blazing hot music. And everybody, by the time the shindig winds down, is exhausted and deliriously HAPPY.
You don’t see that too often at a show, not nowadays.
The wife and I are so happy and toasted, we forget to actually purchase Guano And Nitrates, the self-released CD from whoever’s selling them, so have to contact McMurray a couple of days later and drop by his place to purchase it directly from him on his porch. And the record itself… I’m reminded of something Jay-Z once said about R. Kelley: “Is that not bonkers?”
Recorded live at the end of 2004 at the now-shuttered Mermaid Lounge, nothing seems to have been lost in translation and the intervening years (the band itself has only played live three times). Nothing. It’s a raucous party record and folk archaeologist’s dream all at the same time. These are old songs done right. It’s the real folk sh*t: hard and hilarious and rousing. Man, it’s been awhile since I’ve heard and seen something so dirty and lovely and real.
Gabe Soria is a contributing editor to Arthur magazine.
Tim DeLaughter is the cheerful mastermind behind THE POLYPHONIC SPREE, the world’s best happiest symphonic pop band. Ornate on record and staggering live, the grand tradition of Texas psychedelia has never sounded so ecstatic—or tasted so sweet. Text by Gabe Soria. Illustration by Paul Pope.
Originally published in Arthur No. 3 (March, 2003)
“This is going to be fun,” says the impish man with the curly black hair. He’s dressed in a flowing white robe, and he chuckles. The crowd titters in agreement. Then, like the thunderclap before a sudden and wonderful summer rainstorm, a firecracker burst of a drum roll breaks the anticipatory silence and the band behind and besides the man kicks in, and the choir behind them starts boogeying and the hairs on the back of your neck are standing up because for all intents and purposes you feel like you’re rocketing down the first drop of the world’s best wooden roller coaster, full of terror and elation, brimming with the beauty and potential of life, coupled with a stirring acknowledgment of its sadness and inevitable mortality.
“This is gonna be fun,” said the man in the white robe, and he wasn’t telling tales out of school. The band—the French horn player, the trombonist, the harpist, the flautist, the drummer, the ten person choir, and so on—are, like the singer, dressed in matching white robes, and although they’re only two songs into their set at the second anniversary of Dallas’ Good Records store, you can hear that they’re already working up an ecstatic sweat. The audience is besides themselves with excitement. And then the defiant simplicity of the song’s main refrain, almost like a school yard chant, comes in:
“You gotta be good!
“You gotta be strong!
“You gotta be two thousand places at once!”
And by the time the song winds down, the entire audience will be chanting along, singing with the band, hands in the air, beaming, beatific smiles on their faces. And the only people enjoying it more than the folks watching are the band themselves, all two dozen of them looking like they’re fit to burst from elation. That is what watching the Polyphonic Spree live is like. It’s the type of thing that makes you raise your hands up and say “Yeah!” while joyous tears of hope and fear brim at your eyes.
“So… how was your day?” I ask.
“Today was… wow,” laughs Polyphonic Spree ringmaster Tim DeLaughter, 37, over the phone from Dallas. He excuses himself from his dinner companions – he explains that the maelstrom of noise and chatter in the background is simply the sound of what seems to be his hometown’s busiest Tex-Mex restaurant – and walks outside to continue our conversation in relative silence. And this isn’t the first time he’s going to say that word, that “wow”. It peppers his speech liberally, and the way he wraps his soda-pop sweet Texas accent (it splits the difference aw-shucks good-ol’ boy and cosmic space cowboy) around it, it’s given its due as the English language’s best shorthand for awe and amazement. This fella (and his band) have got a lot of time for the wonder and the glory in this terrible and grim world and he wears it on his sleeve.
Novelist Austin Grossman is obsessed with both the video games people play and the developers who make them. Gabe Soria gets with the program.
Illustration by Ron Rege, Jr. , art direction by Yasmin Khan
Originally published in Arthur No. 34 (April, 2013)
You, the new novel from Austin Grossman, is a testament to the enduring appeal and agony of fictional world-building. Framed as a quasi-coming of age tale, the book is narrated by the prodigal member of a crew of four computer game enthusiasts who create an enduring, Eternal Champion-esque video game franchise while still in high school. Seen through the prism of the video game industry from the homebrew days of the early-80’s to the tech explosion of the late-90’s,You explores what video games mean to us and how they both shape and distort the lives of those who create and consume them.
Grossman’s first novel, Soon I Shall be Invincible!, played with the tropes of Silver Age and Bronze Age comic books by taking the standard stories of a would-be world-beating villain and rookie superhero and digging deep into the motivations behind each as they move toward a standard epic confrontation. You does the equivalent for the world of a fantasy video game, delving into the motivations of not only the creators, but of the characters in the games themselves. It’s a strange and affecting experience that gets close to the reasons behind why we sit by the console campfire to both tell and have stories told to us. Arthur rang up Grossman—a veteran video game writer and consultant—to have a chat about all this mess.
Q: Video game novels, besides novels actually based on video games, it’s a very small club: Lucky Wander Boy (see Endnote 1), Ready Player One (2), Microserfs (3), Reamde (4) and now You. What inspired you to set a novel in a world that doesn’t lend itself so much to stories about its creation?
A: Gamers feel like an embattled minority. The public think they’re either pathetic or violent, and I don’t feel like that myself. I felt that this was an area of the culture that hadn’t been described too deeply or clearly or truthfully as it could be, so someone should take a whack at this, and I nominated myself. Video games are a really kind of an odd and varied and deep experience, and that needs to be represented. It was an interesting experiment so I gave it a try.
Q: While You is a book about video games, it’s a book about storytelling. It’s a book about the stories we tell each other, the stories we want to hear. And the title itself: You. It seems to evoke that special place in storytelling that video games occupy. Life itself is a first person experience, most novels you read are third person experiences, but video games themselves, as a method of storytelling, are in the second person. It’s all about pointing at you, the player.
A: That’s exactly the sense of the title, that’s exactly the weirdness that the book tries to grapple with. The storytelling of videogames is something that the closer you get to it, the weirder it is. Is a video game telling you a story? Is it telling itself a story? It’s kind of in this weird intermediate state that’s hard to map to anything. When I lecture about video games I talk about LEGOs and Barbies a lot, because you have to go to these places to find good analogies for the storytelling in games. I think that’s probably why storytelling in videogames has kind of lagged behind, because we can’t get a handle on what that moment is, you know, when you pick up the controller and you commit to making yourself a character. It’s really odd, and no one is done figuring out what exactly that means.
So it’s been a few months since the clan decamped from Brooklyn and moved back to my old stomping grounds of New Orleans, and it’s been an incredible experience so far, and if I had to sum it all up all of its strange beauty in one sentence, it would have to be this:
I’m convinced that if New Orleans didn’t exist, Alan Moore would have to invent it.
Folks here are dreamers and schemers, and the majority of the scheming and dreaming goes on in the city’s bars, taverns, watering holes, speakeasies and so on. Tall tales, big plans and big ideas are everyday currency, and whether they realize it or not, it’s my opinion that everybody in New Orleans is a pulp writer at heart, a spinner of weird tales of the fantastic and supernatural, a closet Stan Lee or Robert E. Howard. Everybody here is a godlike creator of alternate realities. There’s one New Orleans, the “real” city, which is pretty bizarre and fantasmic in its own right. It needs no help to be confounding, dangerous and beautiful, because it’s all of those things automatically.
But then there’s the Uber-New Orleans, the even stranger city, the one invented in the bars. (Let’s pay DC Comics a tribute and call it New Orleans-2) is populated by armies of great bands, classic films, sublime paintings, amazing books and so on. This is not to say that people here DON’T produce things—there’s art going on in New Orleans, art and industry and mad creativity that is at a constant boil. But coming up with mad, drunken ideas for epic works of fiction is a favorite sport of three in the morning New Orleanians, a pastime so endemic that folks here joke about the amount of effort spent talking about things instead of doing them.
If ten percent of these ideas were ever seen to completion, the world would be a much weirder, much more interesting place. I’m certain that the same story could be told about bars the world over, but there’s just something about the way it’s done in New Orleans that makes me feel that it’s a city of a million would-have-beens and could-have-beens, the urban equivalent of a thousand issues of What If…? comics.
But let me get to my point. Every once in a while, just like in a comic book, New Orleans and New Orleans-2 intersect and there’s a massive crossover event and continuity just goes all to hell and it’s wonderful. This happens when someone makes one of these bar ideas actually happen, as was the case recently when my friend Alison Fensterstock had a brainstorm. The idea? To have the Noisician Coalition, a marching club made up of a loose aggregate of ne’er-do-wells and malcontents who bang on trashcan drums and jerry-rigged electronic noisemakers, to play at a local Purim service. Of course!
And this is where New Orleans-2 comes in – the idea was repeated in the light of day and it was run with. Someone knew someone who knew a rabbi, and the rabbi was cool, so the gig was booked—the Noise Parade would be part of the traditional drowning out of Haman’s name at the Anshe Sfard Synagogue over on Carondelet Street. When yours truly got the news that members of the N.C. were needed to add to the ruckus, he was in a bar and semi-disbelieving, but agreed to it nevertheless.
So cut to Purim – only six members of the group can make it, but that’s plenty: group founders MattVaughan Black and Robert Starnes, L.J., Churchy, Fensterstock and me. We’re decked out in our traditional red, black and white garb. The congregants in the synagogue are dressed even more outlandishly and it’s rad. Finally, the service starts. An older gentleman begins to read the Megillah of Esther in Hebrew and we’re all waiting around to hear the magic tragic name of that sneaky murdering bastard Haman to be uttered and when it is – wham! The Noisician Coaltion erupts quickly and messily. Sirens wail, Theremins are distorted and I, the sole member on percussion, bang out the barely recognizable rhythm of “Big Chief.” Smiles erupt throughout the synagogue. This, the assembled folks seem to be thinking, is RAD.
And so the megillah continues, and with every “Haman” we blast it out again and again and again, even going so far as to actually parade around the joint a couple of times. The service winds down, then, and everybody hustles down to the basement for raspberry hamentashen, meatballs, kosher wine and whiskey. Dancing erupts, thanks to the tunes of awesome local jazz-klezmer-marching mutants the Panorama Jazz Band. Dudes are doing flips, people are clapping and every once in awhile a teenager tries to snake a drink.
Later, as yours truly and a few members of the Coalition share a butt in front of the synagogue, a car rolls up, stops. The passenger side window rolls down and an African-American gentleman leans over to speak.
“What y’all doing in there?”
“It’s a Purim celebration, man!”
“Can I come?”
“Hell yeah. C’mon in.”
“Okay,” he says. “But you see, I’m in a wheelchair. I drive with some gears.”
He demonstrates how the gears work. We’re all impressed – it’s a cool set-up.
“So I’m going to drive around and be back later. Is that okay?”
And then he drives off, using his gears, and we watch him go and, well, all there is to say is thank heavens for New Orleans-2 and crossovers in general.
Our tipsy author, right, with fellow revelers at the Rex Parade, Mardi Gras morning.
Weird Shit’s Still Going Down: Notes From Mardi Gras in New Orleans, 2006 By Gabe Soria
I’ve been in love with New Orleans since the day in May, 1993 when I first set foot on its soil. Since then, I’ve been a resident of the city three times and have gone back over and over when I wasn’t. Mardi Gras, for all its faults and gross public image, is important to New Orleans residents and expatriates alike, so when the chance came to visit my city for the first time after Katrina during Carnival, I jumped at it, but not without some second-guessing trepidation. What follows are rough impressions of my experience being back in town from Saturday, February 25 through Mardi Gras to March 1, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent…
Touching Down Disembarking from the plane and already the Twilight Zone schisms from reality are apparent. This scene happens in the first couple minutes of the episode, the part right before the credits when the Rod Serling voice-over comes in and lets the viewing audience know that some crazy shit is about to go down. What’s Louis Armstrong International without its perpetually open souvenier stands and ersatz French Quarter bars? Too much like the Salt Lake City airport, that’s what. Outgoing passengers ain’t got nowhere to buy their last minute cans of Tony Chachere’s seasoning, authentic cookbooks or Hurricane mix. Incoming passengers don’t have anything, except for the baggage claim, and that is hardly a picnic. Everybody seems a bit hunted, a bit guilty.
Nothing makes you realize how much you’ve given up until someone’s taken away the lights, and the “Arriving Flights” underpass of Louis Armstrong International is a third world kick in the nuts: the absence of ambient light is palpable, and the illumination provided by taxis, shuttles and pick-up cars feels like interrogation by headlight. At the same time, though, it’s kinda eerily beautiful, as though everything is powered by steam and gaslight. We hear later that they’re still working to restore normal power. The airport of a major American city still doesn’t have full power six months after a disaster? What the fuck is going on here, I ask myself, resigning myself to joining the chorus of people asking that same question.
T-Shirt Slogans The town is aswarm with bootleg political shirts, jockeying for space in Decatur Street tourists shops with your typical novelty T-shirts about states of tequila intoxication. Most of these shirts feature embattled mayor Ray Nagin in Photoshopped Willy Wonka drag, making some sort of sport about his now infamous Martin Luther King Day “Chocolate City” speech, possibly the biggest effect a George Clinton song’s ever had on the political scene. React how you want to the speech—reading a transcript in retrospect, it’s obvious to this writer at least that Mr. Nagin’s frustration with his black contemporaries left him feeling a bit loose at the mouth, but I ain’t mad at him—you can’t help but realize that there’s a little bit of smug racism at the core of the these shirt’s makers, that they finally feel justified at putting the screws to a black mayor who, admittedly, said some dumb-ass shit. But then I realize an important fact: I don’t think I’d ever really want to hang out with someone who wears their politics, left or right or straight up centrist, on their literal shirt-sleeve. I mean, I’m all for band t-shirt propaganda, but this? Nah. One T-shirt maker has gone the extra satire mile, though: for sale at the Circle Bar are “Ernie K-Doe for Mayor” tees, featuring the smiling face of the late and lamented Emperor of the Universe. Bumper stickers can be had, too. One drunken night, I find myself fervently wishing that K-Doe wins in a write in. In the storied history of corrupt Louisiana politics, the election of a deceased and much loved R&B singer has got to be an improvement.
Chased on a Bike Weird shit’s still going down, though. On a perfectly fine afternoon, the wife and I mount bikes to ride down to a parade to meet a friend. Normally, yours truly is a bit more savvy about the safe routes to travel, but the hurricane-depleted lack of population has thrown me for a loop. Why not take a jaunt down a clear street a block closer to the river? The answer becomes clear when we make a left on Josephine Street towards St. Charles. A group of kids—12 to 14, black—are hanging out in front of a corner grocery/liquor store and begin shouting out warnings about how “Y’all don’t know where you ridin'”, etc., etc., and one kid’s bold enough to do a little mock run after the wife, who’s trailing behind on a too-small borrowed bike. The kid’s pursuit is half-assed, and he stops almost as soon as he starts, but it’s a neon-lights reminder that New Orleans is still a fucked-up place, race-wise.
In fact, this little incident is an anomaly. While statistics may not prove me right, the general impression one gets during Mardi Gras is of détente, peace. Sure, fratboys might get beaten down by cops along Bourbon Street after one Huge-Ass beer too many, but for the rank and file of the city, a “we’re all in this together and ain’t it fine” feeling pervades, usually. If you say “Happy Mardi Gras,” to anybody, they respond in kind, and mean it. But this little incident… well, they’re kids, so it doesn’t really mean much. It means that they’re acting like they think they’re supposed to act; it means that they actually think that their corner store is something to be protected; it means that they’ve learned that being young and black and aggressive can freak the fuck out of people going about their own business. Still, it’s days before I can stop picturing kicking the kid’s head in if he tried to touch the wife, and my subsequent murder at the hands of his numerous cronies. Yikes.
The 9th Ward Marching Band Not that it needed saving by anybody, but the wife’s and my Mardi Gras is definitely given a soul-rousing boost by seeing the Mr. Qunitron-led 9th Ward Marching Band parade with the Krewe of Proteus on Lundi Gras night. For the uninitiated, Quintron and his wife Ms. Pussycat were and remain the owners and operators of the Spellcaster Lodge, a house/venue located on St. Claude Avenue in the 9th Ward. They’re both musicians, as well as puppeteers. Long time fixtures of the weird underground of New Orleans, they’re more like good spirit elementals rather than impeccably dressed scenesters, which they are as well. The 9th Ward Marching Band started as a loose-knit, almost renegade marching assemblage, but over the years they’ve gotten their weird act together, and while sharp and somewhat professional, they still make the squares nervous. While watching them march in their smart red and white outfits, playing “Rock me Like a Hurricane,” I notice that the crowd lining the parade route is going BANANAS for them. Everybody can feel that this ain’t no sarcastic, ironic hipster bulllshit—it’s true American weirdness and beauty at its finest. But you can also tell that they make some folks delightfully nervous. This can probably be best attributed to the bands in-between, resting music. When there’s a lull in their routine and things calm down, the 9WMB’s glockenspiel players start tapping out the theme from the slasher film “Halloween,” with the tubas coming in every now and then to deliver an ominous “bruuummmmmm.” It’s the film score equivalent of the fabled brown sound—you can tell by the looks on people’s faces that they recognize the minor key tune, and they like it, but don’t like it at the same time. It’s a brilliant moment, and I want to buy whoever thought of it a beer or ten.
The Dead Zone The night of Lundi Gras finds the wife and I and our friends Judson and Courtney taking a shortcut on a drive downtown to hit a Quintron/Peaches show. The shortcut takes us through the area of town known and Mid-City, where Courtney lived previous to Katrina. Her new home features a handful of possessions salvaged from her house and cleaned of mold, but she’s basically begun anew. But driving through her old neighborhood… yikes. Once you get a few blocks off St. Charles, heading away from the river, a frightening change takes over the streets. They’re empty. They’re dark. Everything looks haunted and miserable. A few FEMA trailers are parked here and there, and on occasion someone seems to have managed to get a porch light working, but on the whole, it feels as if we’ve driven directly in a George Romero zombie flick. Any moment now I expect to see a shambling corpse slouch into the street, attempting to suck the brains out of our car’s passengers. No such thing happens, of course, but I am glad when we eventually make a right turn onto relatively populated, lighted Esplanade. The fact that a few moments earlier I was half-joking about wishing I was armed with a shotgun kinda makes me want to cry. I’ve NEVER wanted a gun in New Orleans, not even in my worse moments.
Mardi Gras Day (and on into the night) Mardi Gras morning rolls around and all seems to be aback to normal in the city, at least for a few hours. Working on a few hours of sleep, the wife and I roll out of bed and into our costumes (I’m going as a jerk dressed in a jumpsuit and furry cap; the wife’s going the classy route by masquerading as a magical French schoolgirl). Walking over to St. Charles, we begin to see a parade of friends walk by; everybody seems to be well on their way to drunk before noon, but nobody’s got a mean buzz on. It’s all hugs, everywhere. Families lining the filthy parade route in their chairs and ladders look bleary-eyed and happy. When Rex starts to roll, you see people catching beads… and handing them to little old ladies and kids next to them. Everybody’s saying, “Hey, darlin’,” and “Excuse me,” and you’d be hard-pressed to spot your usual line of sweaty guys being led plastic-cuffed into a paddywagon (though I’m sure it’s happening somewhere—you can’t buck tradition in one year). The hours melt away—at one point, the wife and I are eating hamburgers with friends, the next, we’re at our home base eating red beans and rice cooked with a nice hamhock, the next, we’re being dropped off downtown. But by the time the Morning 40 Federation hits the stage at Checkpoint Charlie’s for their annual Mardi Gras night show, as the festival comes to its natural inevitable end, the feeling in the air is undeniably powerful, completely ecstatic. You can feel the desperate urge in the club to let loose, to raise one’s arms high above and scream. And as the Federation lurches into their first amplified ode to boozing and 9th Ward living, everybody in the room does exactly that. I’m grinning from ear to ear—it’s the feedback and the beer, most definitely—but it’s also the hope and love I’m seeing right now, that I’ve seen all weekend. Sure, folks are cynical and tired, but they still believe, much more so than I think anybody else in any city would or could, for they know that’s there’s an ineffable something to New Orleans, something that just can’t and won’t quit, ever.
HEAVY AIR An Orchestra of Feedback and Humidity, Courtesy of New Orleans duo Belong
Text by Gabe Soria, illustration by Arik Moonhawk Roper
There’s a ‘round-the-clock environmental buzz everywhere in New Orleans if you’ve got the ears to hear it. It’s a deep, almost sub-sonic, earth-drone that’s especially evident during the wicked days of summer. It’s in the awesome silence of the baking, deserted streets at noontime; it’s in the deafening biological volume of the wild, tropical greenery and of bugs reproducing insanely; it’s in the groaning of the cracked sidewalks, ancient houses and crumbling cemeteries; it’s in the LSD-like intoxication produced by the common cocktail of casual drinking crossed with 100 percent humidity and three-digit thermometer readings.
October Language, the stunning debut album from New Orleans drone guitar-duo Belong, is a de facto impressionistic field recording of the ineffable and beautiful noise that permeates the city. Miles away from the jazz, funk and bounce hip-hop that defines New Orleans music to the world at large, October Language still manages to be as genius an expression of the soul of the city as Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina,” Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up,” Dr. John’s ” Right Place, Wrong Time” or Irma Thomas’s “Ruler of My Heart.” It’s the sound of sweat, hallucination and revelation, and every cat who’s made it through a couple of New Orleans summers can dig that.
Belong is comprised of New Orleans natives Turk Dietrich, 28, and Mike Jones, 27. Dietrich—lanky and gregarious, possessor of the strange New Orleans accent that sounds strangely Southern and Brooklyn-esque at the same time—is the talker of the two. Both came back to New Orleans a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and both plan on staying for the forseeable future. Both are the type of guys who you want to knock back beers with all night with in a smelly bar, fellas you’d want to have on your side in a fight. Having heard snatches of their brilliant debut scant days before a second trip to his old habitat of New Orleans inside a month [the last being a Mardi Gras visit detailed last issue], your correspondent made a few phone calls and tracked Belong down to a bustling coffeehouse on Magazine Street for a quick talk. Decompressing from a recent U.S. tour with Ariel Pink and preparing to embark on a European tour, the band was eager to jaw about video games, the peculiar habit of some New Orleans residents of beginning evenings out at midnight, and plans to attend work parties to help Ms. Antoinette K-Doe repair the fire damaged Mother-in-Law Lounge. We also managed to talk about music a bit…
Originally published in Arthur No. 13 (Nov. 2004). Layout by W.T. Nelson.
Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys’ Bomb-Ass Matzoh Ball Soup As told to Gabe Soria
Essential cookware: one stock pot one slightly smaller pot
For the broth: enough chicken bones to fill the stock pot 2 or 3 white onions, halved bag of carrots, peeled and halved parsnips (slightly less than the amount of carrots), halved bunch of celery, halved bunch of dill, coarsely chopped salt and pepper
For the matzoh balls: 4 large eggs 1/2 cup club soda 2 to 3 tablespoons schmaltz (chicken fat) skimmed from the stock 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley 1 cup of Manischewitz matzoh meal
I make this a lot because it’s awesome. I had it growing up. My dad would make it about once every two weeks, and he’d always make a gigantic pot using my grandma [complicated Polish name]’s recipe. [Arthur: How do you spell her name?] Beats me. [laughs] You try spelling that shit. I don’t even think that she can spell it. That’s why she changed her name to Annette. Annette Auerbach, my dad’s mother. She taught herself how to cook, making the most out of not-the-most.
First you gotta make the broth, which is key, and then you make the matzoh balls. For the broth, you gotta get nice chicken bones, enough to fill three quarters of the stock pot. For the bones, I go to Klein’s Market here in Akron and ask for soup bones. You put those in, and you put in chopped-up parsnips and carrots and white onions and celery. You fill the water right up to the top of the bones. Not above, not below. Bring it to a boil and then reduce it to a simmer. Let it simmer for at least an hour, keeping it covered except for a little sliver. Check it every once in a while, and after the broth has reduced a bunch, put in a big handful of dill. The key ingredient is dill. It’s what sets my grandma’s chicken broth apart.
Now get a smaller pot, one that will hold all the broth, and strain out the bones. Normally me and my dad will pick through the meat on the bones and eat that. Take some of the carrots, some of the celery and some of the parsnips and cut them up into bite-sized pieces and save them to put into the strained broth later. Then you add some salt and pepper to taste and you got a good broth. You can even put in a little bit more fresh dill.
While that’s simmering, you want to make the matzoh balls, because they have to be refrigerated. You take four eggs, a half cup of club soda, a few tablespoons—three or four, you kinda do it by feel—of chicken fat that you’ve skimmed from the broth, plus a couple of tablespoons of chopped up parsley (chop it up nice and fine), salt and fresh black pepper, and about a cup of matzoh meal. My grandma only uses Manischewitz. I’ve never had others. I know some people use Goodman’s.
Mix it all up with your hands. Put a little bit of the chicken fat on your hands, rub it in so that the dough doesn’t stick to your fingers, get it nice and mixed up, and form balls with it. Make ’em bigger than a golf ball but smaller than a tennis ball. Some people make gigantic matzoh balls and I just think that’s fucking stupid. That’s kinda like foot-long hot dogs. “They taste like shit, but they’re a foot long. Can you believe it?!”
Put the matzoh balls in the refrigerator. They’ve gotta sit there for at least twenty minutes, a half hour. And then just put ’em right in the broth to cook ’em. Bring the broth back up to a boil and throw the matzoh balls in. They cook in 20-25 minutes, covered. Don’t peek. You just gotta trust the matzoh. Have faith in the Manischewitz. You should have perfect matzoh balls; they should be floating at the top. And then you put in your vegetables that you’ve chopped and then you’ve got the bomb-ass soup. Some people add noodles, but my grandma never does. But that chicken meat that you pick off of the bones? Sometimes she’ll use that. It’s a bonus.
Our Dead Bodies are Like Honey to the Flies Gabe Soria meets 21-year-old Devendra Banhart. Photography by Shawn Mortensen.
It’s a cold and gray afternoon in Brooklyn. I’m sitting in Devendra Banhart’s fourth floor walk-up apartment and we’re both slightly hungover. The furniture in the apartment is old and scrounged looking, full of ramshackle character. Devendra asks me if I want to hear a new song, something he wrote the evening before. Keep in mind that I’ve known the guy for a grand total of five minutes, and in those five minutes, we’ve already been witnesses to the aftermath of a car accident on a nearby street. It’s a good, we’re-unemployed-so-what-the-hell feeling, and there’s nothing to do but roll with it.
Of course, I say.
He begins to play me a lilting, sexy lullaby, something that sounds as if it could have been written in 1910. It’s gorgeous. Later I’ll learn it was partially inspired by a new girlfriend. But now, once he finishes playing, a little wobbly (there’s that hangover again) but unaffectedly so, Devendra announces that he “sucks” this morning. I assure him that that’s not the case, but he’s unconvinced.
A week later I will see him play for his record release party, and the song formerly known as “Sucks” will be polished to a rough sheen, so beautiful that the air at the show is almost palpable with the audience’s need to shed an appreciative tear. No one needs to be told that they’re witnessing something special. Everybody sips their drinks quietly and the room is hushed. Even the bartender looks sheepish when she has to go through a particularly noisy drink preparation. It’s not an affected pose though, this silence. It’s not the silence of pretentious jazz fans, or avant-garde indie kids who aren’t aware that their emperors of silent cool wear no clothes. This is the silence of a group of people in smiling awe of a genuinely talented and wonderfully strange kid, a young man whose charm is almost effortless, whose skill is obvious and whose soul is on his sleeve.
But that show is still a week in the future. Right now, we’re still slightly fuzzy from our respective previous evenings and are both in need of coffee. “Do you mind if I take a shower before we go? I stink real bad,” Devendra says.
Go right on ahead, I say.
He hops off to his bathroom, and I sit there in his apartment, staring at the walls. Everything I know about Devendra Banhart so far is from listening to his peculiar and beautiful debut record, Oh Me, Oh My The Way The Day Goes By The Sun is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit (on Michael Gira’s Young God Records). At first glance, he seems like a prime candidate to be dismissed as yet another in the long line of “weird white folkies” that cynical rock critics have been setting their watches by from Dylan to Oldham. He fits the racial profile: a kid with a patchy beard who’s studied his blues ‘n country licks. And there have been so many who reek of artifice and calculation. But when the real thing comes along…wow. It’s nutsy bananas. Devendra Banhart and Oh Me Oh My… are, without trying to sound like a super-happy hype machine, the real thing. His is the sound of a skeleton playing his blues on the front porch of a haunted house, banging out curiously hopeful cemetery songs with a celebratory, surreal zeal, singing out with a high, quavering voice that is at once bizarre, unearthly and old, yet completely inviting and totally ingratiating.
And he’s twenty-one, I think as I wait for him to finish getting ready. This kid’s got his entire creative career ahead of him. Jesus.
I’ve been making different kinds of chess pie for most of my life; it’s like pecan pie without the pecans in it. I think vinegar pie is similar, and transparent pie is similar. It’s just slightly different proportions of the different ingredients and consistencies, otherwise it’s the same thing: the magic of sugar mixed with butter mixed with eggs thrown in a piecrust.
Will Oldham’s Double Chocolate Chess Pie
1/2 c. Butter 2 oz. Chocolate, unsweetened 1 c. Sugar 3 Eggs, lightly beaten 1/4 c. Crème de Cacao liqueur 2 tbs. All-purpose flour 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract 1/8 tbsp. Salt 1 Pie shell Vanilla ice cream or sweetened whipped cream (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a saucepan over low heat, melt butter and chocolate. Remove from heat. Blend in sugar, eggs, liqueur, flour, salt and vanilla extract into melted butter and chocolate. Beat until smooth. Pour into the pie shell. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until set. Cool on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes.
There’s a place in Louisville called Homemade Ice Cream and Pies Kitchen that makes a really insane chocolate chess pie, and that might be where I first had it, ‘cause it opened when I was a teenager. [In Louisville] there’s also Derby Pie, which is pecan pie with bourbon and chocolate chips in it, but that’s not a full-on chocolate experience. In Birmingham, Alabama there used to be a place by the airport called BJ’s on the Runway and they made the best pies ever. They had a chocolate meringue pie, and the chocolate was… it was like a black hole. You got sucked into the whole thing and you didn’t come out until the pie was gone. It was six or seven inches high, with this meringue. Amazing pie. I think that that was when I realized what the possibilities were in a chocolate pie.
[I make chess pie] probably three times a year, ‘cause sometimes it’s easier to go to Homemade Ice Cream and Pies Kitchen to get a slice. I’ll make it for a recording session and we’ll just eat it over the course of the session. You get the rewards all along the way. It helps the music stay psyched. This
is nice, though, because it has this Crème de Cacao, and that’s a very good liqueur. I like it. I can have a scoop of vanilla ice cream with whiskey poured over it. It’s good. In Italy they call it an “Apogato”, which means drowned man, and you can have it with your choice of liquor. Sometimes sweet potato pie with a little bit of bourbon or rum cooked into it can be really delicious.
Chess pie and sweet potato pie are two things widely available in varying recipes all across Louisville. It’s a very exciting place for pie. There’s a bakery in Louisville called Plehn’s Bakery that makes a caramel ice cream, and the caramel ice cream from there mixed with the chocolate chess pie from Homemade Ice Cream and Pies Kitchen is… it’s beyond description. When you take a bite of it, it’s like… how you know… it helps you recognize how omnipotent and indescribable God is. Because this food, you know, goes beyond, and obviously God, you know, God would go beyond anything a Pope could tell you, or an imam could say about, or rabbis, you know? They can pretend that they can tell you about God, but it’s way fucking beyond their comprehension, no matter how many books they read or how much they whip their back or do whatever they do. It’s the same thing with the pies when you realize that the way things work is way beyond anything you could comprehend. We can put [the ingredients] together, but we can’t explain why, when you put them together, why they do what they do.