Ivan Neville wanted to meet at Mahony’s on Magazine Street. The night before, Dumpstaphunk had slayed an audience at Lafayette Square, playing most of the outstanding new album Everybody Want Sum, and he was in an expansive mood as he devoured a hot sausage po-boy. “This,” he said as he tore the meal out of its white paper wrapping, “is the best hot sausage sandwich in the city of New Orleans.”
Neville was just as eager to praise his bandmates.
“It’s a group effort,” he insisted, “and I want to get that out there. I’m just part of a great band. Dumpstaphunk is about the band. It’s a real band. Even though my name is used—Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk—you see on this record it just says Dumpstaphunk. The name recognition is something that we use, but it is an actual band. It’s not like I call the shots. We make decisions and everybody has a say. We don’t try to put a lot of thought into it because if you overthink music it’s no good, but we do try to make sure that everybody gets featured and there’s a good balance.
“It’s fun to be a part of something, and I think that’s the main reason I wanted to be in a band. I was in the Neville Brothers for years, but you always knew that this was the brothers and that was the band. The closest I’ve ever been to being in a band other than the Uptown Allstars was when I was with Keith Richards in the X-Pensive Winos. That was a band, even though Keith called the shots. This is a band, and I wanted to be in a band. We get to bounce ideas off of each other and one person doesn’t have all the pressure on him. It’s on all of us.”
That unity is immediately apparent in the group’s live performances, as well as on the new record, which is a dense, smoldering pyre of funk grooves with very few individual solos. The band’s collective improvisation works at an extremely high level, even extending to the vocal arrangements, which balance Ivan’s singing with that of bassists Nick Daniels and Tony Hall and drummer Raymond Weber. Only guitarist Ian Neville, the youngest member of the group, stays out of the vocal mix.
But Ian is essential to the centrifugal groove of Dumpstaphunk, chopping deep rhythm patterns against the undulating funk of the twin basses, Weber’s artillery and the stabbing colorations of Ivan’s B-3.
“Just because it’s rhythm-based doesn’t mean there’s not improv going on,” Ian explains. “I haven’t been in a position where I’ve been called on to shred or go all Derek Trucks on everybody. I appreciate good rhythm guitar more than most people probably.
“We’ve always been basically just about listening carefully to each other when we play,” Ian adds. “I don’t think we necessarily improved by playing together in that sense, but we may be better at guessing where each of us is going to go. The vocals are more of a conscious effort, where everyone gets their specific part to play. It’s nice to hear a variety of voices rather than one guy’s voice through the whole show. There are not a lot of bands that have as many singers that can sing as well as those guys can. If I had a gun to my head I guess I could sing, but we’re pretty well off as it is. Four parts are tough to pull off; you’ve got to be really good with those harmonies.”
Ivan notes that assigning parts to each singer is an easy task.
“It’s about range,” he says. “Nobody sings like Nick. You know what he’s gonna sing. Raymond has a higher voice, so he sings the high harmonies. Tony’s voice is similar to mine, so if there’s ever any question of who sings what part, it’s usually between me and Tony. We do have to rehearse it, but it comes naturally.”
Daniels says that the vocal arrangements seem to work themselves out. “For the most part it falls into place,” he says. “We all know harmony. Everybody in the band can lead their own band. It’s like a band of bandleaders.”
One of the keys to Dumpstaphunk’s sound is having two bassists, an idea that seems simple at first glance but is extremely tricky to pull off.
“What we do is contingent on what the other guys are doing,” says Ivan, “and that’s how the two basses work. When Tony’s playing the bottom, Nick’s doing some high ends that are not going to get in the way. And when they both go down there, they know how to keep it from getting muddy.
“It’s harder than it seems,” agrees Ian. “You could put two bass players onstage and a lot of times they’re going for the same areas, but they hear stuff so differently that they don’t go for the same areas. I’ve got to listen to what they’re doing all the time.”
The theme of listening to each other returns when any of the band members try to explain Dumpstaphunk’s sound.
“The two basses work because we’re good musicians and we listen to each other,” says Daniels. “The very first rehearsal we started playing and we were working on parts, and when we got to the fourth or fifth song we realized we had something going. It started working right off the bat. The key is we listen to each other and then play off each other. Tony might play a bass line, and I’ll slide further down the neck of the bass. I just add to what I hear.”
Weber, who is as astute a musical theoretician as he is a timekeeper, explains the two bass system best.
“Not only am I playing with two bass players, I’m playing with two funky bass players,” he says, laughing. “Two of the funkiest out of New Orleans. I have to exercise and eat my Wheaties just to keep up with them. They come from different schools of playing. Nick is mostly like a high register player and he likes to pop a lot. Tony is a real bottom player. He comes from the blues world; he likes to play whole notes and deep notes. That’s why they never get in each other’s way.”
Dumpstaphunk began as a one-off for the 2003 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Ivan had been living in Los Angeles for most of the previous 20 years.
“Back then it was just a side project,” says Ivan. “I rejoined the Brothers because Art was in the hospital; that was when I started hanging around New Orleans again for a couple of reasons. My mom had gotten sick and I was subbing for Art. That’s when the idea came about to do Dumpstaphunk. I got an offer to play a solo gig, but instead of doing that, I thought maybe do a band. It was the same people, but there were more of us on that first gig. My little brother Aaron, Jr. was there. June Yamagishi was on the gig as well and the Dirty Dozen horns. We played a few shows like that over the next couple of years, at Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. I was with the Brothers, Tony Hall and Raymond were out with Trey Anastasio, Nick was with the Brothers as well, so was Ian. We gradually started playing a little bit more.”
It wasn’t until after Katrina that Dumpstaphunk became a full-time pursuit.
“When Katrina happened, it almost forced us into playing more because there was nothing else to do,” Ivan says. “We couldn’t come back to New Orleans right away, except to play. We played that first Mardi Gras. Some of us were in Austin and some of us were in other places. People were showing a new appreciation for New Orleans around that time, so we were able to find a lot of work all over the country.”
During that time, Neville was recruited to be part of the band for Sing Me Back Home, producer Leo Sacks’ all-star project featuring a who’s who of New Orleans music singing or playing as the New Orleans Social Club. “Me and Raymond Weber were also in New Orleans Social Club,” Ivan says. “We had George Porter on bass. It was kind of like the Meters meet Dumpstaphunk with Henry Butler in the band. It was a pretty cool band. That was a post-Katrina project that could have still been doing stuff on a part-time basis, but it didn’t work out.”
Before Katrina, the five members of Dumpstaphunk were hired guns, session players making a good living plying their trade. But the flood changed things.
“I put more of my personal heart into it,” says Daniels. “Friends have passed away, everything’s changed, really. Katrina changed me. I changed, I know I did. I think I became a better man, a better father, a better grandfather.”
Daniels, Ivan and Ian Neville all decided that their own band should take precedence over the Neville Brothers, and Dumpstaphunk went into high gear.
“Nick was the first one to make the move,” says Tony Hall. “He gave his notice to the Neville Brothers. I was making a nice living as a session musician, but the difference between that and Dumpstaphunk is that the people who were hiring me as a session player were rich and I’m not. This is our band. Raymond and I have been playing together for 15 years, so we were down with it. We all like the same type of music, so it just made sense.”
“It wasn’t like we went into the studio and said, ‘Let’s make a record’,” Ivan says. “We kind of did it piecemeal, a little bit here a little bit there over a period of a couple of years. It might have taken us three weeks altogether, two days here, maybe three, four days there. We were on the road making a living, which took away from time we could have been in the studio.”
Part of the album was recorded at the now-defunct Neville Brothers’ studio on Canal Street. “It was a cool place,” says Ivan. “We recorded a bunch of this record there. We also recorded some stuff at another studio across the lake, Balance Studio, with Drew Vonderhaar engineering. Then we did a track at the Music Shed. We had Chris Finney mix the whole record.
“Most of the stuff on this record is first or second take,” says Ivan. “We’d have an idea, we’d make it up on the spot and we’d play it. Some of that great, live-sounding stuff like ‘Paper Chasing Britney’ or ‘Gasman Chronicles,’ that was born in the studio and those were the first or at the most second takes.
“Initially when I was putting the band together for that first gig, I was trying to decide who to get on bass, Tony or Nick. I thought of one song that I knew the two bass players would work well on. The song was ‘Standin in Your Stuff,’ it’s a Zigaboo Modeliste song. That song has been in the Dumpstaphunk repertoire since we started. That’s why we put it on the record.
“One thing I love about this band is that when we start playing, it sounds like we’ve been playing for quite a while. Last night we started with ‘Deeper,’ which is a great song to start with when you’re playing a festival kind of show and you don’t get a chance to really do a sound check. The way we play it, it starts with the drums so it gives the sound guy a minute to dial it in. By the time we’re one third of the way into the song, I feel like we’ve been playing for a half hour because of the intensity of what we’re giving to each other.”
“Deeper” was written by Gerald Tillman and Gerald Trinity, two now-deceased musicians who were influential on Dumpstaphunk’s sound.
“Gerald Trinity was an amazing singer and Nick kind of came up under Gerald Trinity. He used to have a band called Black Male,” says Ivan. “Gerald Tillman started that. Tillman was a big influence on me playing keyboards. He helped me appreciate the Brothers when I was young because I was leaning toward other stuff. I didn’t appreciate what my dad was doing and what Art was doing, and Tillman really hipped me to that, made me take a second and third listen, digging the simplicity of what Art did with the Meters. It’s so simple that it’s complicated. I would love to hear Meters tracks with just Art and Zig and hear the rhythmic interplay between those two, what Art is doing with his left hand. All of us have played with some form of the Meters. When Nick was starting out, Zigaboo used to always call him to play on stuff. Ian started sitting in with the funky Meters as a kid when he first started playing. He was 12, 13 when he first sat in. Tony Hall played in a version of the Meters after George left the band.”
Ivan lamented the fact that the Meters no longer play together.
“Someone said something to me a long time ago when I was on drugs real bad and I was spending more time doing drugs than I was doing music,” Ivan says. “The guy was a sound engineer for the Stones and he said, ‘Ivan, how dare you not play?’ I’ll never forget that. I was wasting my life away on drugs, but that’s my story, right? I’m just saying to other people that should be playing, people in my family, ‘How dare you not play?’ That’s a shout out to the original Meters. The Brothers still have an opportunity to do stuff. How dare you not do it while you’re all still here?”
But even if we don’t have the Meters, we have Dumpstaphunk, and the band members are well aware they are carrying that torch.
“I will always be representing New Orleans,” says Daniels. “I was born and raised in New Orleans. Whatever I’m playing, it will always be New Orleans-oriented. I can’t get more New Orleans than I am.”
“We are New Orleans,” Hall adds, but maybe Weber says it best.
“Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a part of New Orleans music,” says the drummer, who lost everything in the flood but has rebuilt his home in New Orleans East and returned to live there. “My father and uncles were in a family band, and it was my dad who told me you’ve got to look to the Meters if you want to play this music. Since then, I’ve played with great jazz artists like Joe Sample and Harry Connick, Jr., and in every band I ever played with, I represented New Orleans music. It took me a little while to get back, but I’m home now. I’ve been all around the world but when I get back to New Orleans I know there’s no place like home. I feel strange anywhere else.”