It’s the day of Cosimo Matassa’s funeral, and Davis Rogan and I are sitting in the kitchen of Esplanade Studios eating his wife’s cookies and talking up his new record that is being recorded upstairs.
“Kind of fitting that I’m missing Cos’ funeral because I’m recording an album,” he says. “He’d like that. I mean, WWCD. What would Cos do?”
Rogan is midway through recording his third solo record and so far, so good. We laugh as he takes another bite of the excellent cookies and says, “This is not your usual studio fare. It’s usually been whiskey and hydroponic marijuana.” Rogan is well aware of his reputation based mainly on the “Treme” character and a couple of notorious incidents (which will go unmentioned until statutes of limitation have passed), but he’s been reigning it in.
“Having a wife at home who can make these fine-ass cookies helps,” he says with a smile. “With this record, I’m trying to lose the chaos of my previous sessions, but keep the edge. I’ve done this by the seat of my pants before. I want this one to be raw and funky, but without the chaos.”
Steve Himelfarb, former engineer extraordinaire and now baker extraordinaire [Cake Cafe & Bakery], is hanging out for the morning and confirms Rogan’s new approach. “You want to be prepared with a foundation with a solid, rehearsed rhythm section,” Himmelfarb says. “Having the bottom covered gives you the opportunity to be more creative on the top end with overdubs and mixing and such.”
“Yeah,” Rogan agrees, “you want to combine being in the moment and being prepared.”
We walk upstairs. Esplanade Studios is housed in a former church; it is a beautiful space, airy and full of natural light. It smells new from new carpet and new woodwork. We walk into the control room, which is the former choir loft. It is much bigger than most control rooms I’ve been in. It is full of the usual pre-amps, compressors, equalizers and other pieces of outboard equipment. The main mixing board faces a window into the main studio and it is bigger than big. It is 10 feet long, and apparently the board that mixed “We Are the World” as well as Thomas Dolby. It has lots of dials and lights and faders. The board looks like it could land the Space Shuttle, which would be only a little harder than managing all the voices and egos at the “We Are the World” session.
Off to the side, Esplanade Studios owner and engineer (and Best of the Beat recipient) Misha Kachkachshivili confers at a computer with André Bohren, who is producing Rogan’s record.
“I have a propensity to overthink everything,” Rogan says of why he picked Bohren as producer, “and André can pull things into focus. He’s friendly, reasonable, and everyone has respect for his studio chops and musicianship.”
As Rogan talks, Bohren and Kackkachshivili are working with tenor saxophonist Travis Blotsky (Creole String Beans) on his solo on the album’s cover of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” For those who have never been in a recording session, it can be mostly “hurry-up-and-wait” forms of tedium. Hearing someone, even someone like Blotsky, record a solo over and over is an example. He tries it like Lee Allen following the melody, and then with a little more velocity. Kackkachshivili and Bohren discuss what it needs. More vibrato? More aggression? You can see how sessions can get tense even among such agreeable folk.
Finally, Bohren speaks into the control room microphone: “Travis, rip it like you’re at the Spotted Cat on a Saturday night and there are 35 fine-ass females getting drunk, wanting you, and you’re single.”
Blotsky does it. And that’s the magic, when the boredom gives way and you hear a song come together. It’s utterly fascinating to witness and be a part of.
Rogan and I leave and he takes me back downstairs. He plays for me previews of some of the cuts on this record, all originals except for “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” which they are cutting with a New Orleans rhythm-and-blues vibe. Rogan is one of a handful of players who is still writing and playing real New Orleans R&B. He might be singing about the battle between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Godzilla, but it’s got a Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns sound. In that vein, there is a song called “No Blues” with a snakey, sassy baritone line (baritone sax is the secret weapon of New Orleans funk and R&B.) “It’s definitely rhythm and blues and funk, but with a songwriter behind it,” Davis says as he pours some coffee. He then plays a snippet of “Dirty Dapper Old Man,” his ode to the late “Uncle” Lionel Battiste, a tune with almost as much of a New Orleans feel as its subject. Rogan is also resurrecting two tracks from his crazy ’90s sousaphonk band All That, “So Long” and “Let Me In,” now done in rootsier, bluesier fashion. “In fact,” Rogan remembers, “Misha mastered the All That live album back in 2001.”
Then there are the usual doses of Rogan humor in “Prop Weed,” a reggae number about all the fake marijuana the cast of “Treme” had to smoke during the filming of the series. As we laugh over that, Rogan is called back upstairs.
“I want the record to come out in plenty of time for Mardi Gras and the festivals,” he says as he begins to head and back into the studio and I make my way to Matassa’s funeral, “so it doesn’t get lost in the Jazz Fest record-release shuffle or the same thing around Christmas. I’ve been around the block with this. Now I’m older, wiser, and trying to do it right.”