Of all this year’s recipients of OffBeat’s Heartbeat Award, the Arabi Wrecking Krewe may have the most organic origins. Bonerama member Craig Klein’s house in Arabi was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and his efforts to gut it evolved into the formation of a non-profit agency helping musicians get their houses on the road to recovery. The Arabi Wrecking Krewe is also the clearest example of the neighbors-helping-neighbors spirit that has been one of the positive characteristics of the city’s rebuilding efforts, with musicians helping to make it possible for other musicians to return to their homes.
Klein has had to make his contributions while maintaining a busy professional schedule, performing and recording with Harry Connick, Jr. and with Bonerama, which has been busy as of late. In August, the band recorded two nights at Tipitina’s for an upcoming album that it is in the process of mixing. When the Future of Music Coalition—including Steve Earle, Tom Morello, Mike Mills and Corin Tucker among others—performed a benefit at Tipitina’s, Bonerama became the house horn section. Comic Relief’s Bob Zmuda became a fan of the band while in New Orleans, which led to Bonerama being invited to be the house band at HBO’s Comic Relief in November, which benefited New Orleans. Klein was even featured in taped segment highlighting the condition of Arabi. Needless to say, the experience of Comic Relief was pretty intense.
How was Las Vegas?
It was great. It was everything we expected and more. It was great exposure.
There is a guy out there, his name is Commando. He is Joe Krown’s cousin. He is this crazy party guy; he made a bunch of money and bought a big multi-million dollar mansion right off of the strip. We met him months ago when the [New Orleans] Nightcrawlers played out there; he put us all up in his house. So we called Commando up and he knows everybody. He invites us to this party for Strip Magazine and big V.I.P. thing at the Mirage. And it’s like… oh lord, you know? That was crazy.
We worked pretty hard the first day we got there. It was like 12 hours in the studio with a bunch of pre-record stuff. Mark [Mullins] worked his ass off and did a lot of arrangements. For each comedian that came on, they wanted no more than 12 seconds of something. We used some of the songs we usually use, but Mark arranged and wrote a bunch of these songs. So we had to rehearse that. Then the next couple of days, it was like three or four hours of rehearsal a day. It wasn’t crazy rehearsal.
Did you have any experiences with Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and the comedians?
Yeah, Robin Williams came over right away and shook everybody’s hand. And as he shook everybody’s hand, he had something funny to say. It was like getting your own stand up routine right there.
Billy Crystal is really good, too. He did that thing, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” Three of the guys from Preservation Hall came out at a part of the song, but Billy Crystal actually played clarinet. His uncle is Milt Gabler, the huge record producer with Louis Armstrong. So he’s been involved in music for a long, long time. He said he hadn’t played in 20 years, but he had been practicing.
Do you think Bonerama got business out of doing Comic Relief?
I definitely think we got business out of that. The phones are starting to light up a little bit. We have a booking agent and management now that handles a lot of that stuff, which takes the burden off of us. We’d been doing that for all these years.
Bonerama started as a side project. I’d been thinking about putting a trombone band together for years. I told Mark and we started kicking the idea around. We never thought anything would come out of it. When we started playing, the people started dancing in front of the stage to six or seven or eight or nine trombones. We had every trombone player in the city there that night. We thought it was pretty cool, and it started taking off.
We started fitting it around Harry Connick, Jr.’s schedule because Harry takes time off. He does Broadway or television, and that gave us a lot of time, but now things are starting to conflict. Harry is releasing two records in February and Bonerama is releasing a record in February. So Mark and I gave our notice to Harry that we aren’t going to make this next tour with him. It’s been great to play in Harry’s band, 16 years since 1990. It was a really tough decision to make, but playing in Harry’s band, you’re always in Harry’s band.
Bonerama is our thing. It was a hard decision to make because of job security, but he was glad for us. He said that we should have done this a long time ago. He was happy for us and gave us his blessing.
It seems like good stuff is happening for you. Whose idea was it to cover Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again,” one of the highlights of the Future of Music Coalition benefit?
That was Corin Tucker’s idea. It was really good. It was better at rehearsal actually, but that’s how it goes. What a voice she’s got, too.
That was a good show. And those people were a real political organization and they wanted to focus on New Orleans. A friend of mine, Jon Kardon, put them together with the Arabi Wrecking Krewe. He got Bonerama on the show, too. Normally they just do guitars and singers and songs and that kind of thing.
I did a show with Mike Mills a few months ago. It was a benefit for Wardell Quezerque in Chicago. Mike was there, Dr. John was there, James Andrews, Alonzo Bowens, Stanton [Moore], Cranston [Clements], and they brought Mike in, too. I’d met him before, and he is all about New Orleans. And all those guys are. They are amazing people, and they are so focused. They really know when they have something on their mind; they want to go for it all the way. I was with them on a destruction tour of Lower Ninth Ward and they didn’t miss a thing. It really hit them hard, too. It was a really good thing to have those people down here to at least see it. Because the more people we have to see it, the more people get out and talk about it, and the more people realize it’s still fucked up. We have a long way to go.
Even in the parts of the city that are in better shape, you walk three blocks and you’ll see signs of destruction.
Where I live in Arabi, I drive through the Lower Ninth Ward. Every time I cross over the bridge, it hits me. My kids go to school in Baton Rouge, so I’m back and forth so much.
When did the Arabi Wrecking Krewe start?
The wrecking krewe started in October 2005. After the storm, Bonerama was on the road. You couldn’t get back in right away. My wife and I were in Houston and Baton Rouge most of the time. When I was able to get back in October, I got into with Sheik—Armand Richardson. He is a photographer. Sheik and I go back 25 or 30 years when we used to march with the Tumblers from the Dream Palace. Sheik was able to get in touch with two other guys, Bill Phillips and Dennis Kyne. Dennis fought in Afghanistan, but now he is a peace activist. He was in here days after the storm giving out stuff, helping.
Those three guys came to my house in October. I just wanted to pull out some instruments to see what I could save. Sheik, and Bill and Dennis came over that day, and we pulled out a bunch of stuff and put a tarp on my roof. Sheik started banging out a wall with a crowbar, and I said, “Sheik, you’re a one-man wrecking crew.” And he said, “Yeah, the Arabi Wrecking Krewe.”
I had been thinking before that, the music scene is going to be done. I’m going to have to work as a plumber to make money or something. After these people helped me, it gave me some hope. I can get my house fixed. Structurally it was okay. Once everything was out, I saw that there is potential to put the music scene back together, so we decided to help other musicians because it was really important.
It was somewhat selfish from my part because I want all the guys to be back here so I can play with everybody again. We started figuring out who needs help. We went to Barney Floyd’s house in Arabi; he was one of the first ones. I started calling guys and seeing who needed help and said, “Let’s go gut your house.” I started telling people about it and people came out to help. It snowballed. People started sending donations. Someone sent us Home Depot cards and somebody sent us a pressure washer. Then we got a Web site set up and we started having people coming around hearing about it.
People came into town and asked about where we were going to be. It started out as just four or five of us, and it’s hard to empty a house with four or five people. Then came six and seven. During Jazz Fest, we would have about 15 to 20 people at that house. We did Doc Watson’s house from the Olympia Brass Band, and we had so many people there that day. During Jazz Fest, we’d do about four or five houses that week. It’s been well over a hundred houses now. We didn’t keep track of anything at the beginning, so now we are going back to see who we worked with. I’d say about 90 percent are musicians.
It’s a good thing. It feels good to get out there and do it. It’s really kind of strange when you’re out there with a big mask on, and there is mold everywhere, and you’re hauling out a refrigerator. It feels pretty good to do that. The only downside is when you get all that stuff on the street, you see someone’s entire life by the side of the road. Sheik has done 90 percent of the houses. I did about 50 or 60 percent. It was hard. I played gigs. I played at the Maple Leaf on Friday night, and then had to get up at 9 a.m. on Saturday, and be out there doing it. I couldn’t tell you why but they were there for me, so I wanted to be there for them.
Well, the one thing we’ve learned this year is that we’re on our own. Robert Snow of the Jazz Vipers said on the OffBeat message board that if the city wants live music, it should support the musicians, and I wondered what makes him think the city wants live music. I get the impression it wants tourist dollars, and is only interested in music to the extent that it brings in tourists.
Never. It never has stopped music. And the Europeans are so supportive of it. One of the first organizations that raised money for the Arabi Wrecking Krewe was the Hurricane Brass Band from Holland. They found out about what we were doing and raised $18,000. They’re one of our biggest supporters. They’re still raising money for the Arabi Wrecking Krewe and St. Augustine Catholic Church. They’re more concerned about the music and music scene here than the city really is.
It’s weird. The culture committee for the Bring New Orleans Back program had numbers to show how other cities had invested in culture and the sort of financial benefit it returned, but it doesn’t look like anything’s happening despite that.
Just think if the city put in a little push behind what’s going on, it could be really great. But it’s good, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been to almost every major city in America and you can make a living as a musician here—you really can. Guys play on the boats, they have regular gigs, they’ve got brunches. They had conventions, but they’re coming back. I have three gigs today, and I had two recording sessions yesterday. It’s important for people to try to get back if they can, but if you’ve got a family, the family has to come first.