Maintaining a full-time career as a musician has as much to do with talent as it does tenacity. Fortunately for Brian Stoltz, he’s got it covered in both areas. The New Orleans-born singer-songwriter/ guitarist/producer has built an enviable resume in a more-than-three-decade career. In addition to his recent contribution on the 2003 Grammy-nominated Telarc compilation Preachin’ the Blues: The Music of Mississippi Fred McDowell, to his latest project with George Porter, Jr. and Russell Batiste, Brian’s credits include lengthy stints with New Orleans luminaries the Neville Brothers and the funky Meters, as well as sessions and tours with Bob Dylan, Zachary Richard, Dr. John, and Edie Brickell, to name a few.
Throughout Brian’s career, the Fender Stratocaster has been at the forefront of his funky sound.
“The Strat has always been my main guitar. I mean, I’ve got tons of guitars, but I always revolve back to a Fender. There are times when I go out on fly dates and can only take one instrument, and I always take my Strat. There’s something about it that’s completely different. The guitar’s got its own unique tone that’s neutral and you can just do so many things with it. Fenders have a responsiveness, they’re alive and they’ve got a soul and they breathe. Other guitars, to me, are just pieces of wood with strings on ’em. With a Strat, it really gets down to what’s coming out of the player.”
So how’d you score your first Strat?
I remember first seeing an ad in a magazine with a picture of a Stratocaster. The ad said “Jimi Hendrix plays Fender Stratocasters and I remember thinking, “Man, I gotta have one of them!” Being a Hendrix freak from the get-go, that was part of it right there. I used to go into this music store by my house and they had a Strat hanging on the wall and I started saving up my money. That was a ’67, ’68 and it was $369. I remember I used to go in and ask the guy a million questions about it and he used to get aggravated with me and wouldn’t let me play it. He said, “You ain’t got the money for that guitar.” And so I remember saving up the money and walking in there and plunking the money down on the counter and saying, “Give me that guitar!”
Over the years, you’ve paid your dues playing in and around the city—from pop/rock bands in Laplace to Top 40/disco gigs in Metairie’s Fat City. How’d you take it to the next level?
I was playing on Bourbon Street with a sax player named Gary Brown over at the 544 Club around 1981. During that period, Rita Coolidge used to come in whenever she was in town and would bring Art and Aaron Neville. We never really became friends but we’d acknowledge each other and they were always cool. After I left 544 club—right after the Nevilles put out Fiyo on the Bayou on A&M—they were looking to put a band together. Art remembered me from Bourbon Street and went looking for me. When he went to the 544 club and I wasn’t there anymore, he started walking around asking people, “Do y’all remember that little white dude that used to play with Gary Brown?” Coincidently, he went into the Absinthe Bar and there was a friend of mine there that I’d just talked to that morning and given my new number. So Art got the number and called. I did an audition and that day they told me I had the job. I think I did one more rehearsal and we did a gig at Tipitina’s, did one or two dates in Texas the following week, and while we were out Bill Graham called for us to start the Rolling Stones Tattoo You tour. It all kind of went fast after that. So, I started playing with the Neville Brothers in September of ’81 and that lasted nine years until January of 1990.
After a half-dozen records with the Brothers, including the celebrated Yellow Moon, you called it quits.
It was just time to move on. There was a lot of political crap going on. I got to the point where I felt I’d outgrown the situation and there was no room for growth. During that period, I started going to New York and recording and writing with Jon Carin who played keyboards in a later version of Pink Floyd. We had a project called Big Deep, we had management, several major labels and a publisher giving us money to do demos. So it appeared that it was going to go somewhere. We made a record for RCA but in the meantime, there were a lot of changes within the company, and RCA slashed about ten bands and we were one of them. So the record never came out. It was a good record, though.
You landed some great gigs and recording sessions after that.
While I was recording with that band, I was out in L.A. with Zachary Richard and Dr. John was on the session. Dr. John needed somebody to fill in for a few dates so I started doing a few shows with him. In the meantime, the whole RCA thing fell apart, so I continued to work with him for about a year. When that ended, I floated for a little while and Art Neville called me to do the funky Meters. That was a strange period because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I had played with the cream of the crop: the Neville Brothers and Dr. John! To me, the only major act left in New Orleans was the Meters and I thought I’d never get that gig. So right when I was thinking that, Art called and said that Leo had quit. So I jumped on that, because I was really happy to be working with Art again.
You also did some sessions with Bob Dylan in New Orleans.
I’ve been a Dylan fan since I was a kid. During the Neville Brothers period around ’88, we threw a party for the Grateful Dead who were in town playing a gig. We rented a fishing camp out on Lake Pontchartrain and it was a big seafood blast. At the time, we’d been working on the Yellow Moon record with Daniel Lanois producing and he came up to me at the party and said, “Let me ask you a question: if you had the opportunity to produce Stevie Ray Vaughan or Bob Dylan, which would you choose?” And I said, “You really have to think about that? Of course, Bob Dylan.” He laughed and said he was doing this Dylan project. And I said, “If there’s anyway I can be on the record…” I guess that was his way of asking me. It was Oh Mercy and Dan made a brilliant record. I was grateful to be a part of it.
I’m enjoying reading Dylan’s new book Chronicles Volume One and although the book is only five chapters, one whole chapter is on his time in New Orleans doing that record, so I get a lot of mentions!
What are you currently working on?
George, Russell and I put together PBS—Porter, Batiste, and Stoltz—which is a full-time project. We’ve got a good booking agency, we’re working on a record that’ll come out right after the first of the year, and we start touring December 3.
I also produced some tracks on a Christmas record that’s out, Christmas Gumbo. Greg Barnhill and Will Robinson, some Nashville songwriter friends, came up with the concept. I produced a track for Sonny Landreth featuring the Dixie Cups called “Gotta Get You Under My Tree,” and the title track for Art Neville. I also co-wrote “Pimp My Sleigh” with Houseman of Galactic and “Shakana Santa Shake It” for Bo Dollis & the Wild Magnolias with Bonerama. “On Santa’s Way Home,” written for Marc Broussard, just got picked up by his label Island/Def Jam as a single! It was weird working on this record because I never thought I’d be writing Christmas songs in July in 95-degree heat!
But to me, the highlight of my career is getting my own record, East of Rampart Street, out. I’ve worked so long to get to that point. It’s been out over a year, and people are still finding out about it. It still has a life to it and I’m about to fuel up for a second leg of promoting it with some distribution in Europe and Japan. And the next record is in process. I’ve recorded almost everything myself at this point. It’s too early to tell where it’s going to go, I’m just laying a basis for it.
So, we never did get around to finding out who is your favorite Strat player?
Hendrix for sure, even to this day. I don’t really listen to that many guitar players. Hendrix kind of ruined me. He set a precedent that just couldn’t be topped. I’m more of a song type of person; I listen to singer-songwriters. I’m never much into the gunslingers. Guitar was always more of an accompanying instrument. I’ve always felt the connection between Jimi Hendrix and New Orleans because he covered Earl King’s “Come On” on Electric Ladyland. A lot of people call him this psychedelic rock guitar player but I never saw him that way at all. I saw him as a funk, R&B guitar player.
And I’m not ashamed that I’ve picked up a lot from him. When I was growing up as a kid, Hendrix was my favorite, but I was a Meters fan, too. I had this fantasy of what if it’d be like if Hendrix had the Meters as a rhythm section? Or what if the Meters had Hendrix as a guitar player? Now that I play with the funky Meters, I explore that territory. Meters and Leo Nocentelli fans might think that’s blasphemous or obscene, but it’s the truth!