Cowboy Mouth releases its debut album and hopes to prove that four Mouths are better- though not necessarily bigger- than Fred’s.
For the first year or so of Cowboy Mouth’s existence, that perception was as tough to shake as a Jägermeister hangover.
Never mind that drummer/vocalist/wild man Fred LeBlanc was only one of the four autonomous songwriters and personalities whose talents and ambitions were pooled to create Cowboy Mouth. Come gig time, all that tended to be swept away when Fred unleashed his ritual set-closer, the “Drummer Man” hurricane.
In this venting of frustration, this “celebration of being alive,” LeBlanc seems more alive than most- he’s scary alive, insanely alive. Feeding off his own adrenaline, he works himself up by stomping about the stage, jumping, unleashing war cries, single-handedly re-enacting key scenes from The Exorcist, all meant to convince the audience to “seize (life) and squeeze it to your breast like a small child.” It is intense, ugly and primitive, and a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Sometimes the fun goes too far. LeBlanc was called on the carpet at Tipitina’s after off-loading his drums into the audience and dangling from the second-floor balcony. He emptied a five-gallon water jug over his head and destroyed a chair recently at Storyville, the venue that is supposed to host the band’s record release party on September 25.
The other musicians have come into their own in concert: guitarist Paul Sanchez head-bobs, knee-knocks and high-steps in a tight circle while bassist Steve Walters roams the backline and John Thomas Griffith and his Les Paul brace atop a monitor for the power-chord bursts of “Angel With a Broken Wing.”
But that irksome one-man-band tag may finally be laid to rest when Cowboy Mouth issues its debut, Word of Mouth, later this month on Domino Records, home to fellow Louisiana artists John Mooney and Rusty Kershaw. Of Word of Mouth’s eleven tracks, nine were written or co-written by non-Fred musicians. Everyone’s demos had been turned over to producer Gene Holder, and he chose the songs that made the album.
For LeBlanc to let someone assume so much control was a big step. “Each of us, especially Paul and I- especially me- had to work through a lot of the ego bullshit, because I was so protective. [But] I really try hard to let it be whatever it’s going to be. This thing exists independently of each of us.”
True enough: Although Sanchez has the most songwriting credits on Word of Mouth, LeBlanc sings more of the songs. “That’s the cool thing, because it got to a point where none of us were thinking about the song as, ‘Well this is my fuckin’ song, don’t fuck with it,’” says LeBlanc “It got to a point where, ‘OK, here’s a song. What is best for it?’”
The album is a solid collection lyrically- alive bar-brand rock, from the guitar explosion in “Another Cup of Coffee” to the double-time hoedown of “Maggie Don’t Two- Step.” It was recorded quickly: Most vocals were first takes; the basic rhythm tracks were recorded in one day.
“When I listen to it, it feels like us,” says LeBlanc. “It feels alive. There’s an energy, a spark to it, that’s missing from a lot of our other stuff. There’s parts of this record that are fuckin’ scary.”
Still, it remains to be seen whether the legions of handsome twenty-some things that have made the Mouth the biggest live draw in Louisiana this side of the Neville Brothers will support the album. In a sense, fans are only buying half of the Cowboy Mouth package; Fred doesn’t come along with the CD to swing from a buyer’s ceiling fan.
“In the long run, the show is not what’s gonna sell the band,” he argues. “That’s what sells us right now. But if we actually go anywhere with this- and that’s a big if- it’s not gonna be ‘cause I’m a crazy man. It’s going to be because we have good songs that people want to hear.”
That it’s gotten this far is no small feat in itself. All four travelled very different paths to the Mouth: Fred survived a wild stint with Dash Rip Rock, Sanchez struggled to make it as a folk singer in New York, Griffith was a rock star, and Steve had given up music.
Through sheer effort, intense desire and a generous helping of talent- witness the bold three-part harmonies on Mouth’s version of “Down By the Riverside”- it may work.
The satellite projects spun off by the Mouth have already afforded much satisfaction. Sanchez scored a deal with a small Atlanta-based label after following up on a contact made at a Cowboy Mouth gig, and released a solo acoustic album, Jet Black and Jealous, earlier this summer. Son of An Engineer, a record Griffith did with his own band several years ago, has been re-released in Europe. LeBlanc is considering releasing his own solo record, next year. And Walters seems pleased with his return to rock after seven years of retirement.
“This band has been damn lucky,” asserts LeBlanc. “We’ve worked for everything we’ve gotten. There not one stage we’ve ever gone on to that we haven’t given the very best we got. We played at Auburn, Alabama a month ago in front of 10 people. Ten. The week before, we had played to like 700 at Tipitina’s. In Auburn, I grabbed the mike and said, ‘Look, I guarantee if you come up front we will give you the best kick ass rock ‘n’ roll show you will see in a long time, and you people will be begging to get into this club six months from now, I guarantee it.’ They all moved forward and they all stayed to the end.”
“That’s the way we’ve done it.”
John Thomas Griffith: The former “Rose On Fire” now “Walks Among the Angels.”
Paul Sanchez first met Fred LeBlanc when Paul and his bass player at the time found themselves without a drummer. The bassist suggested a friend’s younger brother- Fred. After erecting a ramshackle little kit, Fred passed the audition, much to Paul’s surprise.
Sanchez remembers what happened next: “I told him he was in, and he said, ‘Really? Cool! Let’s take a ride.’ And we took a ride to a Time Saver, whereupon he bought a pint of Jack Daniels and swallowed it whole. He did offer me some, a habit he’s lost over the years. That was my beginning with Fred.”
Since that fateful first encounter, Paul Sanchez has never fully escaped what is jokingly referred to as “the Curse of Fred,” the almost other-worldly ability of the drummer to wreak havoc in the lives of others. Even in August, when Sanchez spent Cowboy Mouth’s pre-album vacation on a solo acoustic tour up the East Coast- just him, a rented car, and his guitar- The Curse was engaged.
The first gig, in Athens, Georgia, was at a place called, eerily, Club Fred’s. As showtime approached, only four customers were in the bar. The bar’s owner decided to close the place and send Paul downtown, where, the owner said, Sanchez would probably make more money playing on a street corner.
The story has a happy ending: “It was the best gig I’ve ever played in Athens, With Cowboy Mouth or solo,” Sanchez says. An appreciative crowd of 50 gathered around during his performance. R. E. M. vocalist Michael Stipe checked him out from the window of a bar across the street. “I thought that was symbolic, that he couldn’t hear me because he was inside and I was outside,” says Sanchez.
Except for one brief flirtation with CBS Records, Paul Sanchez has been on the outside looking in since the age of 15, when he debuted at Fat City’s Gateway Lounge, where his best friend’s mother was a bartender. His compensation was a whole $5. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is really cool. This is a good way to get $5.’ So I started playing