As pioneers in the funk genre, the Meters are widely acknowledged as one of the most influential New Orleans bands on today’s funk, groove, acid-jazz and jam bands. Their in-the-pocket grooves backed a number of New Orleans soul and R&B singers, among them Dr. John and Lee Dorsey, on records cut in the 1960s at Cosimo Matassa’s studio and produced by Allen Toussaint. Later, Meters bassist George Porter, Jr.’s reputation as a premiere studio player landed him gigs with such names as David Byrne, Robbie Robertson and Maceo Parker.
The Meters never topped the charts themselves, but remained a presence on Billboard‘s R&B and Pop charts until their breakup in 1978, following the release of New Directions, the last record of new Meters material to date. But despite this lack of new material, in 1988 the reformed Meters discovered they still had an enthusiastic audience and once again packed New Orleans clubs. Now, in 1997, on the eve of Porter’s 50th birthday, the funky Meters are as popular as ever.
Not content to bide his time between funky Meters gigs—original Meter Art Neville is often on the road with the Neville Brothers—Porter fronts his own band, the Runnin’ Pardners, produces records for local artists, and continues his session work, recently returning to New Orleans after completing work on the latest Tori Amos record in England. Porter took a break from his busy schedule to chronicle his lift as a funk icon, discuss his latest projects and reflect on his 30-plus years as a professional musician.
You’ve got a big birthday coming up, how does it feel to be going on 50?
Oh, so far so good [laughs]. Still hangin’, still havin’ fun, still enjoying myself.
When you first started playing with the Meters back in the mid ’60s, did you have any idea you’d still be going strong at 50?
No, actually with the stuff I was doing to my body I didn’t think I’d ever see this age. It is a great honor to be here.
Does it seem strange that even without a record of new material since 1978 that the Meters are as popular now—if not even more so—than before? What is it about funk and the Meters in particular that is so enduring?
I think the music that the group created back then is timeless, especially all the instrumental stuff. I think that stuff will be good 30 years from now, you know? Some of the stuff we did in the ’70s was kind of dated to what was going on at that time, but that early stuff we did in the ’60s is timeless. After ’78, when that last Warner Brothers record was released, none of that stuff was available at all. All the bootleg, backdoor deals that came out on Charly Records and other labels and continue to come out was only the Josie Records stuff, those first three albums and about 12 singles that were available on the Josie catalog. When I was overseas, I found so many CDs of Meters material, all the same songs but on about five or six different record labels. That’s the material that was out there. There’s been about 10 albums out there on us that were put out since we made our last record in 1978. That’s a lot of music.
It’s still not very notable in the black community, but a lot of the samples out there [in rap and hip-hop], I mean, there are 127 samples of Meters music. Of course, the way the black airwaves work, the original material is not getting the airplay. In other words, a guy would play a sample, then rather than playing where the sample came from they just go onto the next piece, so the mass of the listeners don’t know where the sample came from. Especially if they’re young blacks who never got an opportunity to listen to our music.
Are you getting royalties and credits for the samples being used?
Yeah, now we are. There are still a few of them out there, and some of the big names—Queen Latifah and other bigger rap names—that have not credited the Meters or paid us for use of the samples. Heavy D., he had a triple-platinum record, “Gyrlz, They Love Me,” and he claimed bankruptcy rather than paying the Meters for their sample. And then there’s the 400,000 units that get sold out of the back of a car that you never know about, they never get any airplay at all.
How about the Runnin’ Pardners, how’s that project going? You changed the lineup a little bit recently.
I changed the lineup big [laughs]. It wasn’t a little bit, it was a seriously drastic move. It had a lot of people worried that it might cut the life of the band short, you now, but I think it’s about the music, and if we keep the music good people will keep coming out to see us. The last couple of gigs we did locally, the bodies are starting to come back, so I think people are coming around. Plus, the band is starting to work in new material that was constructed for the five-piece band. By the first of the year, we should be doing about 75 percent new material because we’re working new songs and feelings in. Hopefully the newer stuff will be as good if not better than the stuff we’ve been doing.
Any plans to record the new material?
Yes, we’re out in the world, we’re entertaining deals from people who have contacted us. If none of those pan out, we’ll do it like I did the Funk This project, just record it upstairs [at Porter’s home studio] and go somewhere in town to master it and put it out ourselves.
Do you have any tour plans for the new lineup of the Runnin’ Pardners?
We were up in Colorado not long ago, and we plan on doing a snow trip in Colorado in March. The whole concept of the smaller band is to open the touring doors. It’s a lot less costly to tour without the horns. It wasn’t too large—if the money is there, it doesn’t matter how large the band is—but it’s just a matter of dollars and cents.
For much of your career you’ve backed other players, and some pretty big names at that: David Byrne, Robbie Robertson, Maceo Parker, Dr. John, the list goes on and on. Do you fully enjoy fronting your own band or does it ever put too much pressure on you?
I tend to like the freedom of it. If I’m playing behind an artist, I’m restricted to being a more consistent player. Like with David Byrne, we rehearsed for about eight weeks before the tour started, and even rehearsed out on the tour when things weren’t gelling well. It was a well-rehearsed band that was consistent nightly. The show lasted an hour and 17 minutes every night, it rarely varied. The music, from A to Z, was synched in every night. That’s probably what a lot of touring groups do.
I guess the Grateful Dead and those types of bands, the Radiators, bands that are jam bands like the Meters, we don’t tend to sound the same way every night. We jam more, so tonight the solo may go 42 bars longer than it went last night just ’cause the guy feels good and is just playing tonight. In other, more structured groups that would not happen. It probably would have been the same way with the Harry Connick project, if I’d have gone out with Harry, it would have been a much more structured thing and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go outside and have some fun outside. If you’ve got a 25-song list that has to fit into a two-hour set, if those 25 songs make it every night the reason that happens is because nothing’s changed.
With the Meters and the Pardners, we don’t keep a set list ’cause we play a lot [laughs]. We like to jam, we like the fact that jamming is cool. I think the fans like to see us ’cause they know it’s not going to be the same thing they saw last night, you know? Some gigs we’ll play two or three nights in a row, and a lot of those nights we’ll see a lot of the same faces. They come because they may hear “Fiyo On The Bayou” again tonight but it won’t be like it was last night. And the same thing happens for the Runnin’ Pardners, every night the solos are going to be different.
You just finished working on a new Tori Amos record, correct?
Yes, we just recorded that last month in a little town up in Eastern England. I played on her two prior records, so this will be my third album with her.
How does that go? When she hires you on, is she looking for that signature George Porter funk bass, or does she dictate more of the sound she’s looking for?
What happened was, we overdubbed all of our parts to Tori’s existing, completed tracks. Myself, the drummer and the guitar player were the last guys to come in. I let the drummer put his parts on first, and then I would come in and just play from start to finish by myself. Then she’d come in and we’d go through it and find parts that fit with what she was hearing. We’d kind of go through it a verse at a time and find out what worked and what didn’t work.
Generally, I just played what I felt worked well with the parts. There are probably only a few signature George Porter things where you can sit down and listen to the record and say, “Oh, that’s George Porter.” Most of the time, when I’m playing on someone’s session, I’m very much trying to make what I play fit with the music. I tend towards being able to play in all the musical fields. I like playing, and I consider myself a musician’s musician, I don’t just play funk. Hey, if they’ve got a country and western session out there, I’ll play it, and not only that, I’ll know how to play it.
You’re a closet country fan, I never would have guessed. Some of Art’s country interest must be robbing off on you.
[Laughs] Well, they say association will do that.
I’ve noticed in the past few years playing with the Meters that you really seem to be the one keeping everything together, driving the set list forward and keeping everything gelled. Not so much leading the band, since everyone is working together, but keeping all the parts working together. Was that always the case?
I’m like the one watching the red lights. I’m like the traffic cop up there. Art always calls me the band leader, but I just see myself as a traffic cop. If I see a collision in front of us I try to work our way through it. Me and Russ [David Russell Batiste, the drummer who replaced original Meters drummer “Zigaboo” Modeliste], we try and set a pace, a pocket, that Art and Brian [Stoltz, funky Meters guitarist since 1994, following original Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli’s departure] can have fun in. That’s basically what our jobs are, we’re the guardians of the groove
Everybody else has the chance to take those grooves to the next level. Except for the parts with the really strong rhythm guitar parts, that kind of changes it around. There are parts where I can play lines rather than patterns, and that’s because the guitar player is playing a solid rhythm groove. And that works in both bands; in the Runnin’ Pardners I tend to play lead bass every now and then, and that happens because John [Gros, one of the two Runinn’ Pardners keyboard players] probably has taken a clavinet part that works really well as a bass line to some degree, or he and Brint [Anderson, Pardners’ guitarist] have a strong rhythm thing going that me and Mike [Nimler, second keyboard player] can play on top of.
Is that, as you say, “guardian of the groove,” a responsibility of the bass player in every band, or is it something you think is more of your own personal style?
I feel that the bottom players are the ones who are supposed to protect the groove. I think the drummer, particularly, he is the guardian of the groove. The bass player, I feel, tends to tie together the drummer with the guitar player and keyboard player and whatever other instruments you have on top. The bass player makes all the other parts possible. I create the holes, that’s what I do.
At both Meters and Runnin’ Pardners gigs, at least those since 1990, they’re packed until early in the morning with predominantly college-age kids. How does it feel to have an audience that appreciates and knows of a music that you pioneered 30 years ago?
It’s truly hypnotizing. I’m playing to the same age groups that I played to 30 years ago. It’s remarkable that this crowd is still available to me at age almost-50, and that I’m still able to appeal to this age group. Unfortunately, some of those folks that were that age 30 years ago, I guess they don’t come out any more [laughs]. I’d love to see some of them out in the clubs. I guess they’re homebodies now, and we’ve got their children in the audience [laughs]. I get that all the time, kids coming up to me and saying, “You played at my mom’s graduation,” or, “My dad’s got all your records.”
Is the same true when you go out of the city, are you attracting mostly that same aged crowd?
Yes, very much. Both the Meters and the Runnin’ Pardners seem to be most popular with a 16 to 25 age group right now.
I heard that not long ago the Meters were playing in San Francisco and that you and Art sat in with Zig at his regular gig. How was it having Zig behind you on drums again?
That went real good, it was a lot of fun. He’s happy, he’s fat [laughs]. You know, if you get fat it must mean you’re happy. When that middle part gets bigger than the rest of you, that’s happiness.
Are there any plans to ever do any type of reunion with all four original Meters, or are Brian and Russell pretty much cemented in as the funky Meters guitarist and drummer?
Well, you know, the funky Meters and the original Meters are two different bands. I never say never, somebody may come up with an offer that would get all four of us together so something like that could happen. I never say never to anything, closing doors on things like that is just stupid. You would never hear George Porter say the door is closed, he’d never play with those guys again. I’d never say that, and I don’t think any of the other guys would say that, either. The opportunity has not offered itself yet, though.
What other projects are you working on right now? Are you producing any records for anyone else?
Right now I’m working on a jazz project. I’m writing some material as a tribute to a saxophonist that I greatly admire and who was like a father to me, David Lastie. It’s sort of a jazz bebop record. I’m going to have his nephew Herlin Riley to play drums on it, and David Torkanowsky is going to help out on piano. We haven’t settled on the saxophone player yet, we’re just looking around for someone who came from that school, who still knows how to play like that.
Are you going to play electric bass for that or go upright?
Actually, I’m playing an electric, big, fat, hollow-bodied bass. I put a microphone on it and a direct line from the pick-ups, so I’ve got a really great, fat, warm bass sound. It’s not very electric at all, I’m using the microphone a lot more for the mix. You know how the jazz community is, they’re very traditional, so they may not accept it ’cause it’s an electric bass, but it’s got a great sound.
You got your first start playing in the ’50s in churches, right?
Well, they were sanctified groups. If I had to name my first paying gig, that would be it. We used to make a dollar [laughs]. The guy who basically can be considered my bass teacher, if I indeed had a bass teacher, he played in these sanctified church groups and he started bringing me down. He always wanted to play guitar, so he started teaching me all the bass parts, and then occasionally we’d switch up.
Originally, I’m a guitar player. I started playing bass because Vietnam kind of whacked the city of all the bass players. I was still not old enough to go to Vietnam, and was a little bit unhealthy, so I kind of moved into bass mode because a lot of the local bass players had gotten drafted. So I started playing more bass gigs in about ’63 or ’64. Prior to that I was playing guitar and drums. I kind of learned to play a bit of everything, but I think I’ve only gotten hired to play the drums on three gigs in my life.
That must help when you’re writing material, to have a bit of experience on so many instruments.
Oh, yeah, I think because of my knowledge of drums I’ve always been able to play very close to a drummer, ’cause I understand the concept of playing drums.
Did you know all the guys in the Meters? How did the band first get together?
I only knew of Art Neville. Leo Nocentelli I knew through the guitar player I was playing with, Herbert Winston, he knew Leo. Two or three times a week I’d be on one telephone and Herbert would be on the other and we’d call Leo and have him explain a passage of a song that we were trying to learn. Leo would call Herbert and give him fingering for chords. If there was some chord that we’d read but not know how to finger, we’d call Leo and he’d explain it to us. And Zig, well, Zig’s my little cousin, so I knew him from when he was a baby. His brother was my piano teacher when I was eight.
When Art came back from touring with Aaron [Neville], I was playing with a group called Irving Bannister and the All Stars, and Art came over to the club we were playing and asked me if I wanted to come play in a band with him at a club called the Nightcap on Louisiana and Carondelet. That must have been late ’64. The fact that Art asked me to play with him was an honor, ’cause Art Neville was a well-known name in the New Orleans music industry, he and the Hawketts had records out. The fact that Art was putting together his first solo band was a milestone, that was something that hadn’t happened before. He’d been the lead singer of the Hawketts, but that wasn’t his band. That was pretty much how that fell together, that was how I got to meet Leo face-to-face.
Zig wasn’t the original drummer. Our first drummer, Glenn, whose last name I never was able to remember, he had to go into the hospital for some minor surgery after about eight months on the gig. While he was gone, Zig came and played those gigs with us. Glenn came back one Sunday evening after his surgery and Zig was playing, and he was throwing down. The next day Glenn came and got his equipment and was gone, we never heard from him again. Glenn was a solid player, but there was only one Zigaboo.
The Meters started playing with Allen Toussaint in ’66, right?
Yeah, we started doing sessions for Allen in late ’66. By that time we were playing on Bourbon street, but Allen had come to see us back when we were at the Nightcap. At that time, the Meters were a refreshing breath of music, every night we played at the Nightcap the joint was packed. So naturally, any musical people would come by and stick their heads in and see what was going on, what Art had done.
How was it working at Matassa’s with all those great R&B singers that you backed over there?
Well, personally, that was like school. Working with Allen, if you paid attention, you learned something. I was always paying attention, because, first of all, there were three Capricorns in the same room, that’s a natural reason for us to be in a fight. So I kind of always let Allen and Zig have the head troubles, and I kind of stayed in the middle and observed and learned. I learned from both of their mistakes of how not to get on each other’s nerves [laughs]. I took a very strong posture of an observer, watching the stuff that was going on in the studio, how Cosimo made things work in the studio. I learned the operational side of that studio. I’m a roadie by heart, so I learned the business from the technical point. To me, that meant more than just being a musician, I wanted to know how this was applied, how you put songs onto tape and everything. So, I was in school.
One of your songs, “Concentrate On Work,” deals with the, say, unscrupulous side of the music industry and how important it is to keep your focus on music and not let other factors inhibit you reaching your goals. Is that something that most musicians go through, and was it true for you?
You know, I can’t speak for most musicians, but it’s a universal thing, I don’t think just musicians have to live and deal with the problems of our industry. For me, at the time it was a survival thing, that was how I was surviving the industry. By getting high, I’d avoid all of the pitfalls and all of the other bullshit going on in the industry, until getting high almost ended my life. I think getting high came along to the point where it was inhibiting me to live. So I had to make a decision to clean my act up. When I wrote that song, in 1980, I was probably in one of the most turbulent points in my life. I wrote that song and it was almost eight years until it was recorded and realized, that this really means something.
After suffering for eight years of trying to get my life in order I was trying to concentrate on work, trying to get back to where I once was with myself, which had been gone for quite a few years. I was just out there in the world dying a slow death. It took the grace of four really good women who believed in me and stood by me: my counselor, my mom, my wife and my daughter. They believed, and they stood by me, and basically I started believing in myself again and realized that I can do better than this. I got my nine years last month.
You’re sounding great and obviously busy with all your projects, there’s just one question I have to ask for all the old Meters fans out there: Is there any plan to release the much-rumored live Meters record any time soon or are we going to have to keep waiting?
[Laughs] I dont know, I don’t know exactly when. Personally, I would like to see a new studio record before a live record. But, you know, you never know what’s going to happen. The fact is that it may be easier to get a live record recorded because of Art’s being out with the Brothers and his being so busy, and we’re kind of juggling the Meters between the Neville Brothers and the Runnin’ Pardners. It has not been a very easy thing, and the times we do get together it has been more for live performances. Maybe it will just work out to where we record this new material live [laughs].
We have 14 new songs we recorded upstairs, me, Brian and Russell. We recently dumped it to ADAT so Art can work at home on his leisure time and drop his organ parts on it, then we remaster it and boom, it’s done. So, if that happens, if all plans go well and work out right, that will be the way the new record gets cut. If not, then like I said, we may end up doing the live thing. I firmly think—and I don’t want to make a promise—that it would be really good for the Meters to surprise the world and have a new record by Jazz Fest.