For four sweaty years, beginning in the summer of 1999, I wrote about music from New Orleans. That sounds like a dream nexus — though probably less of one when your area of interest is abstract electronic music, as is mine. New Orleans is not exactly a center of such plugged-in activity. It is, however, helpfully located between Miami and Austin, which means tours came through regularly despite the city’s predilection for trad jazz and party hip-hop.
Soon after arriving in New Orleans, having relocated from San Francisco, I recognized a healthy mainstream rave scene, centered around the crusty old State Palace Theater on Canal Street. On any given weekend LTJ Bukem would perform, or the Chemical Brothers, or the like. Perhaps that scene was too healthy, and too popular with the children of the city’s ruling class. Several local promoters became the focus of a legal investigation, which attempted to use crack-house legal code to cut down on late-night parties. The national prominence of that litigation, thanks to the Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund, belied the general sleepiness of electronica activity in New Orleans — a sleepiness that initially made me wonder what I’d gotten myself into by moving there.
The Mermaid Lounge, the main venue for visiting indie electronic acts, was located with acoustic improbability below an overpass near the entrance to a bridge that cuts across the Mississippi River. I recall one Mermaid show starting so late that the headliner, the visiting tech-noise artist Kid 606, launched his set with a screeching high note, so displeased was he with his 1:00 am (or thereabouts) stage time. All the while, Kevin Blechdom, with whom he was touring, keyed code for walmart.com on a laptop from the back of the audience. Apparently Kid 606 hadn’t understood that in New Orleans, where bars face no closing time, top acts often start playing after most cities have shut down for the night. Heck, the House of Blues, in the nearby French Quarter, was known to schedule two shows an evening, herding the first event’s audience out the door in order to make room for the midnight swing shift.
When the French electronic trio DAT Politics showed up at the Mermaid, they simply refused to play because not enough people had come, despite the fact that half the audience (that is, half of the half dozen people in attendance) had driven the 80 miles from Baton Rouge. When DJ Harry spun his techno remixes of noodly String Cheese Incident LPs at a club on Frenchmen Street, the platform set up for his turntables shook whenever anyone walked by to go to the bathroom.
No, New Orleans didn’t really “get” electronic music. Fortunately for me, the feeling wasn’t mutual. For many musicians, New Orleans was a draw unto itself, audience or no. When a package tour from the British record label Ninja Tune arrived, the attic venue above the State Palace main hall was half full at most. I talked with one of the musicians (a guy from the band Herbaliser, if I remember correctly), and was told, matter-of-factly, that they just had to play the town. They had to play New Orleans.
While I was living in New Orleans, Keith Fullerton Whitman (aka Hrvatski) and Greg Davis came through on the low-budget world tour that yielded the live album Yearlong, an excellent melding of kinetic synthesis and folktronic ambience released on Carpark Records in early 2005. Their Mermaid sets weren’t included on the CD, likely because sonic clarity wasn’t exactly the Mermaid’s specialty. The Mermaid’s specialty was a loose environment in which unlikely music could happen, no matter how it sounded. My favorite Mermaid shows must have been from the week-plus nightly team-ups that the Dirty Dozen Brass Band played during Jazz Fest with visiting DJ Logic, who was quite taken with the city when I interviewed him. A close second was the night someone got a bunch of guitarists together to perform Glenn Branca’s rampantly chaotic Symphony No. 1. You can only imagine how strange flyers for the Branca gig looked, posted on telephone poles amid announcements for jazz combos and rap nights.
Participation in the town’s relatively compact electronic scene had its benefits, mostly in terms of intimacy. Brazilian-born drum’n’bass figure Amon Tobin played the second-floor Parish hall above the House of Blues, a far smaller room than he’d book in any other American city the size of New Orleans. The studio of Trent Reznor’s pop-industrial act, Nine Inch Nails, was only a few blocks away from the shotgun shack where I lived, down on Magazine Street in an old funeral parlor painted the most non-committal color of beige you could imagine. Mephista, the trio of Ikue Mori (laptop), Susie Ibarra (drums) and Sylvie Courvoisier (piano), visited from New York to play at the Contemporary Art Center (across Camp Street from the Confederate Museum) to a crowd that probably wouldn’t fill the Stone, John Zorn’s tiny venue in downtown Manhattan. Composer Carl Stone (no relation), who splits his time between Tokyo and San Francisco, played a tremendous surround-sound set in the CAC’s lobby. I later met him at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, and though he fondly remembered the CAC show, the NOLA gig that he found more memorable involved someone setting off fireworks as an introduction to his performance. The incongruity confounds him to this day.
Despite the higher numbers of jazz, folk, roots rock, funk and hip-hop acts in New Orleans, I hesitate to say that the city didn’t have much of its own homegrown electronic music — though writing from the cultural promontory that is San Francisco, as I do these days, it’s certainly fair to say electronic music wasn’t New Orleans’ top, or even tertiary, priority. I hesitate in part because much of that homegrown hip-hop was built on a foundation of serious studio-as-instrument composition.
Hip-hop pervaded New Orleans, booming from cars and helping to fuel the economy. It wasn’t uncommon, while driving down Tchoupitoulas Street, to have to take a detour because one act or another was filming a video back at the projects. While it was still airing, the Box TV network felt like a local cable-access channel, so many of its videos were by New Orleans rappers performing on location in the city. It was while living in New Orleans that I first got hooked on purchasing 12-inch rap singles for their instrumental tracks, in a strip mall out near Gentilly Terrace, at Heavyweight Records (the small store next door to the State Palace Theater), and at a shop on Louisiana Avenue a few blocks above (or, in local parlance, “lakeside” of) St. Charles Avenue . I stumbled on the latter because it was near the post office where I rented a box, into which flowed CDs and vinyl of electronic music from what often felt like the outside world. This period, within a year or so of my arrival in New Orleans, was when I really began to wrap my head around the makeshift mosaics of sound that lurk beneath the vocals of much hip-hop.
As the font of so much American music, from Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five to the Cash Money Millionaires, New Orleans inherently has its own deep electric, if not electronic, history. You just have to duck the trombones and marching bands long enough to notice it. We had trouble finding a clean laundromat (excuse me, washeteria) when we moved to town. We finally located one in the French Quarter. It was tidy and inexpensive, and it had an understated tile emblem in the pavement out front that read “J & M.” Why? Because it used to be the studio of Cosimo Matassa, the “M” in “J & M,” an ingenious tinkerer with big ears who’d produced Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and other early recording legends.
While I was living in New Orleans, the town did have its contemporary electronic, and electronic-minded, acts. There were various associates of Reznor’s. There was a duo named Squab Team, which was as much a performance-art act as it was music group, and numerous other individuals associated with a small record label called Chromosome 57. There was Chef Menteur, a dub-informed duo that has since expanded into a proper band. And that’s just to name a few. Inevitably, one musician will stand for them all, the mighty Quintron, whose homemade Drum Buddy instrument, a light-sensitive synthesizer, is the perfect embodiment of what a New Orleanian would construct when told of electronic music. Its primary mechanical component appears to be an old coffee can. Whether performing in his dank Ninth Ward living room, dubbed the Spellcaster Lounge, or opening for a visiting headliner at the massive State Palace, he cut a remarkably dapper figure.
For four tremendous years I sought out the occasional electronic performance, while also taking in the more prevalent indigenous cultural activity. I felt very welcome in this town with which I had no self-evident affinity. I learned a lot there, and not just about watching my cholesterol. I learned to slow down, to breathe easy, to unplug. More than anything, I learned to love New Orleans.
It’s been said that New Orleans will never change — less the city that time forgot than the city that forgot time. We now know that to be untrue, that the city’s fortunes can change significantly and for the worse. But even while I lived there, I sensed change of the positive, musically progressive kind. It wasn’t just that the local music scene’s electronic elements came into focus the more time I spent in its clubs and record stores; it’s that slowly, very slowly, electronic music could be heard taking root. DJ Logic, who visited several times from New York, reported having prodded Big Sam, trombonist with the city’s world-renowned Dirty Dozen Brass Band, to get his own act together. Though Big Sam’s Funky Nation wasn’t nearly the Platonic fusion project that might have resulted, it incorporated rap and popular funk in a contemporary manner that showed a lot of promise. In 2003, the local band Galactic, which helped bring Meters-style syncopated funk to jam-scene audiences, released the album Ruckus (Sanctuary), on which they employed Dan “The Automator” Nakamura (Beastie Boys, Cibo Matto, Kool Keith) as producer. Quintron even played his Drum Buddy on a few cuts.
And that same year, something that seemed impossible happened. One of the city’s famed Young Lions, the group of jazz traditionalists who rose to prominence as part of Wynton Marsalis’ musical revolution-in-reverse, recorded an album that owed a significant debt to “electric era” Miles Davis. In other words, a Marsalis associate had absorbed what had once seemed anathema to the conventional understanding of what defined jazz in New Orleans. One could imagine that this album, Sonic Trance, by the band of that name led by trumpeter Nicholas Payton, was a cry of independence, but watching Payton perform the work at Jazz Fest in 2003 told a very different story. Payton was coming home, and what was once seen as a threat had been brought into the fold. (Fittingly, the album was released on Warner Bros., the label to which Davis had moved toward the end of his career.)
This is the New Orleans I miss today, a New Orleans that no flood, nor government incompetence, nor televised apocalypse-mongering, nor survivalist anarchy can erase. I am a better person for having lived there, and now I have to figure out how to make good on that debt. (As I type this, I can’t help but picture the basement of the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University, where the music collection was housed, and where I spent hundreds of hours consuming books, recordings, journals and sheet music.)
The worst storm to threaten New Orleans during my time occurred while I was, inevitably, out of town. I was in Manhattan on assignment to interview rapper-producer Missy Elliott, for the cover story of what turned out to be the final issue of Pulse!, the music magazine published for 19 years by Tower Records. I think the interview with Missy went particularly well because, to paraphrase but not do justice to her phrasing, I was from New Orleans and was therefore, in her mind, used to — how did she put it? — different conceptions of beauty. I trust that she didn’t sense that I was a bit distracted during our conversation, but in the back of my mind I knew that some huge storm was headed straight for home. Late that night I had a hamburger with an old friend not far from Times Square, while my NOLA friends huddled in their houses waiting for the electricity to go out, which in most cases it never did.
All of which is, well, history, at least for the moment. As of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina and her waves have brought New Orleans to its knees. My beloved one-time home finally succumbed to the threats it had dodged one hurricane season after another. This is sad in a way that’s much more difficult for me to express than is describing even the most abstract sound art. I don’t usually write in the first person, but that’s nothing compared to having to write in the past tense.
I moved back to San Francisco in the summer of 2003, and today I’m further, and more permanently, away from New Orleans than ever. The lights have gone out this time for real, at least temporarily. While the initial brunt of the storm was less than had been expected, the fallout quickly proved to be as bad as if not worse than just about anyone had feared.
I often joked that humidity was to blame for the paucity of electronic music in New Orleans. As it turns out, that sketchy, low-tech spirit sticks with you, even after you’ve left. I retained my New Orleans cell-phone number when I moved back to San Francisco. At first it was just a matter of when my contract was due to run out, but I found it impossible to part with my 504 area code; I consider it my Information Age tattoo. The day after Katrina hit, I learned that because of the hurricane damage, calls to my cell phone weren’t getting through. I wasn’t upset about my 504 phone. Given the footage on the Weather Channel and cable news, I had sadder things to dwell on. If anything, it seemed perfect. I couldn’t reach my 504 friends, and no one could reach me.
Related websites: Palace Theatre (statepalace.com), Mermaid Lounge (mermaidlounge.com), House of Blues (hob.com), Big Sam's Funky Nation (bigsamsfunkynation.com), Contemporary Arts Center (cacno.org), Cosimo Matassa petition (louisianamusic.org), Chef Menteur (chefmenteur.org), Quintron (quintronandmisspussycat.com), Galactic (galacticfunk.com), Nicholas Payton (nicholaspayton.com)