Ear to the Ground: The Return of Fred Leblanc and His Cowboy Mouth

1981. A maniacal musical force is introduced to New Orleans in the form of 17-year-old drummer Fred LeBlanc. Guitarist Paul Sanchez recalls LeBlanc’s audition with the Backbeats: “Fred was like this little kid with what looked like a toy drum set. But as soon as he hit it, it exploded. He downed a fifth of whiskey like it was nothing. We knew then we were in for trouble.”

After a pounding set at Jimmy’s, Fred is congratulated by Chris Luckette, the drummer with the Cold and the Normals. Fred, still seething, smashes his fist into a door. Chris follows suit. Fred turns purple. The contest continues until Fred plows his knuckles through the door. Chris begs off, “Hey, man, I can’t top that.” Fred goes off to play another show with a fiercely hurtin’ hand that the next day wears a cast.

Blasted out of New Orleans time and space, Fred LeBlanc has scoured the Southland for bars to wreck, drum kits to destroy and ears to besiege over the last decade, achieving his most divine infamy with Dash Rip Rock from 1985 to 1989. Now he leads his own power quartet, Cowboy Mouth (named after a Sam Shepard play and, ironically, a phrase from a Dash Rip Rock tune), in a nuclear fusion of synchronasty New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll that will make the gods gulp.

In his heart-warming bio, Fred overcame infantile deafness, an overexposure to PBS and real culture, and being beat up a lot to become the pint-sized rock ‘n’ roll god of thunder. The child went “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro” before he talked, emulated Oscar the Grouch and Monty Python, and took out his frustrations beating on the plastic trash can he sometimes hid in, a la Oscar. Working in a used record store for 45s, he became enraptured with the thud-bashing subtleties of backbeat, from Ringo to Earl Palmer to Bo Diddley.

“The Backbeats were a punkabilly band for about a year and a half,” informs Fred. “We were young hellraisers. We just wanted to burn down people’s houses and take their cows…then we got Steve Walters from the Normals and Vance DeGeneres from the Cold in the band and they wanted to take a more serious approach.” Not long after converting the Backbeats to a pop-funk group in 1983, DeGeneres was out in the Cold again. While with the frat roots-rock band the Mistreaters, Fred met Bill Davis of Dash Rip Rock. He joined Dash in May 1985 under the condition that he could contribute songs.

“The combination of Bill and me against each other was what made that band really, really kick, because I was raised in New Orleans on a steady diet of rhythm & blues. Bill was raised in Baton Rouge and Ponchatoula and all those areas, and his parents used to listen to country music. And Ned used to listen to heavy metal. You put all that together and it created this really strange hybrid.

“You never knew what was gonna happen. I remember a lot of shows like at Jimmy’s, Bill and Ned would be singin’ a song and I’d be climbin’ through the rafters…whether it was 30 people or 300, it was like, ‘LET’S GO KICK SOME ASS!’ There was just this determination in my heart anyway that I played drums in the best goddamn band in the world. But when it became comfortable, when the spontaneity stopped, it just lost it for me. It just became a job.

“Bill just didn’t wanna learn [my songs]. He kept sayin’ they weren’t Dash material. So I had these songs, and I would record ‘em on four tracks at home, and I would get some of them played on WTUL. This guy at ‘TUL heard ‘em, and he played ‘em for this friend of his, who eventually went and got a job at EMI…He liked my songs.”

Fred’s antics, dynamite drumsticks and booming vocal chords had earned him a major following some might call “The Cult of Fred.” Frustrated and tired, he quit Dash in April 1989 and was replaced by Chris Luckette. Fred was gone, but as someone resembling him occasionally turned up to haunt Dash gigs and Bill Davis kept his unholy memory alive in interviews—often referring to the “horrible gardening accident” that did him in—he wasn’t forgotten. But all this time Fred was recording demos in Atlanta as part of a record deal with EMI and a publishing deal with MCA.

He also had formed a trio. “I had a heavy metal bass player and a crazy drunken Cuban on guitar. And they didn’t really have that carefree kinda what-the-hell attitude that I was lookin’ for. The honest truth is I played with guys in Georgia, I played with guys in Nashville, I even played with some guys in New York once, but it was like I just could not find that feel, that sense of ‘let your hips do the talkin’ which comes so naturally down here.”

After a brief sojourn in Nashville, Fred returned home in July of last year. There he met up with his old friend Paul Sanchez from the Backbeats and bassist Paul Clement of the Songdogs and Woodenhead. Sanchez, who had had his own band the Swamp Kings and had been part of a  thriving New York neo-folk boom for a while,  had seen his own major deal with CBS fall through, and was working as a TV production assistant in Boston when Fred called him. He accompanied Fred to Wisconsin where Fred recorded some killer pop and rock demos, playing all the instruments himself.

“Right before we went into the studio the deal fell through,” recalls Fred painfully. “We recorded some songs anyway. So we didn’t really have a band, we didn’t have a deal, all we had was a lot of discouragement. We came back and the three of us played for about a month, trying to make it work. And we were good, but just weren’t clickin’. So I just got it into my head, ‘Hey, I’ll see what John Griffith’s doin’.”

Another local legend, John Griffith had led the Red Rockers, who espoused radically revolutionary politics while opening tours for the likes of the Clash and U2 from 1979 to 1987. After a bitter break with the group and Columbia Records, John returned to New Orleans and started over the hard way with a self-produced solo album in 1988 and modest acoustic gigs locally with the Fate Brothers.

“I haven’t really been a religious person in the past ten years,” admits the former Red Rocker, “but I finally got to myself and said, ‘Hey John, you need to go back to church, man, and start prayin’, ’cause your life is just not going anywhere right now’…and it wasn’t two weeks that Paul Sanchez called me on the phone.”

“I loved that wall-of-guitar sound like I had in the Rockers…They were like, ‘Yeah, this is what we were lookin’ for.’ Finally now we have a big sound to match with Fred’s drums.”

”Fred and Paul Sanchez really have this kind of little magic thing about how they’ve developed their New Orleans roots into their rock. It’s something they’ve developed over the years where they have this funkiness, yet it’s hard-edged. I guess I brought in a little bit more rock, ’cause I’m not from here.”

Paul Sanchez recalls screaming after the first song the group practiced because it sounded so good.

“My favorite music has always been stuff that you can’t predict,” says Fred. “That’s like with this band, we do John’s songs, we do Paul’s songs, we do my songs. We haven’t really found a cohesive synthesis yet of the three, but we will in time.

“We’ve got a tour in January. We’re gonna be out for like three or four weeks and we’re playin’ every night except Sundays. That’s pretty good for a band that just got together two and a half months ago…there’s some severe interest from some labels. If we can parlay that into getting an actual record out next year, that would be great. But until then we’re gonna release a tape on our own and sell it at gigs.”

December 22, Cowboy Mouth plays their first full gig in New Orleans, drawing over 300 people shoulder-to-shoulder into the tiny Carrollton Station. It is a burning hot Christmas celebration with the band alternately crooning folk and pop harmonies and blasting out their own New Orleans power punk-funk. Fred, who has pulled muscles in his back at gigs twice in the last month, turns beet red for the occasion, screaming and slamming, and running around the room with his tom-tom. He later avoids the kind of falling stage debris that did in naysayer (“Freddy’s Dead”) Curtis Mayfield a few months ago. Finally, after three hours in the inferno, he slips and falls, collapsed like a possum faking a roadkill. The next day his foot will wear a cast.