|“If Keith Richards tells you you’re a little too out-of-control, you’re in bad shape.”|
When Ivan Neville was born in New Orleans on August 19, 1959, his mother Joel’s family was less than pleased—owing to the absentee status of his profligate father—that his birth certificate read “Aaron Neville, Jr.” Someone scratched the name out and in bold calligraphy, dubbed the baby child “Ivan.” Although the doctored birth certificate has caused delays with customs officials around the world, Ivan—like the sons of many famous fathers—is glad that he was not destined to be “Junior,” a dubious honor later bestowed upon his younger brother, who everyone calls “Fred,” supposedly because of a temperament he shares with the grizzled TV character “Fred Sanford.” “Nobody ever wanted to be ‘Little Aaron,’” Ivan explains.
As a teenager, Ivan joined his father and uncles in the nascent Neville Brothers, serving as third keyboardist, along with Art Neville and Gerald “Professor Shorthair” Tillman, one of the many musicians “who didn’t make it out,” succumbing to a drug overdose in 1986 at 31.
Like the Prodigal Son described by St. Luke, Ivan “took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living,” most notoriously in the company of the Rolling Stones and their infamous guitarist Keith Richards, with whom Ivan recorded and performed as a member of the Xpensive Winos.
Seven years ago, just before an intervention planned by his father and Dr. John, Ivan entered rehab and started a new life of sobriety. He also re-enlisted with the Neville Brothers as a touring member and served as co-producer of the Brothers’ acclaimed Walkin’ In The Shadow of Life album. In 2003,with guitarist cousin Ian, Ivan formed Dumpstaphunk, a band entirely worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the Meters, founded by family patriarch (and Ian’s dad) Art Neville. Ivan can also often be heard sitting in with his many musical friends, including Dave Matthews and Gov’t Mule during this year’s Jazz Festival, and the Allman Brothers Band a few weeks later at the Saenger Theatre. When guitarist Derek Trucks reminded him that they’d first met when Derek was a lad of nine, Ivan exclaimed, “Damn! You make me feel like an old fart!” Hardly that old, Ivan has lived through several lifetimes of fame, fortune, excess and ultimately, redemption—back home with the family in New Orleans.
In July, Ivan and Dumpstaphunk hit the road, playing the All Good Music Festival in Masontown, West Virginia on July 17, and the Bele Chere Festival in Asheville, North Carolina on July 30.
This interview was conducted at OffBeat’s Frenchmen Street headquarters. Despite his sobriety, Ivan first suggested that we meet at the Monkey Hill Bar, where he regularly plays pool—an idea we vetoed in favor of a more placid, transcription-friendly environment.
When did you first start playing in a band?
I had a band called Renegade. That was in 1977.
Around the same time the Neville Brothers started.
Yeah, this was around that time. I had just entered and won a city-wide talent show put on by the New Orleans Police Department. They would have talent shows at each park in different neighborhoods and the winners of each of those would go to City Park stadium. That was in ’76.
Who was in Renegade?
Renegade was myself, James Ledet, John Dawson—Zigaboo’s younger brother, and a guy named Greg Simon—we used to call him “Freaky.” He was a great bass player who recently passed away.
At the same time, you were sitting in with the Neville Brothers.
Yes, I was. When I first started playing piano, I was like 15-years-old which was right around ’74, ’75, and my grandmother—my dad’s mom—actually heard me play like one time. She died right after that. She was just walking by, and stopped by the house, and I’m like, “Hey, Mom-ee, come listen to this!” I was playing “Cabbage Alley” or something and she got to hear me one time.
Were you trying to mimic your Uncle Art in those days?
Actually, my dad used to sit down and play a lot. And he showed me a couple of songs. Art was like larger-than-life to me. He was like just the older brother. I was almost afraid of him a little bit—I was intimidated. He was this guy who it just seemed like his stuff was just so together. We got so close later on, we got really tight. It’s really funny.
I was really closer to Cyril as a kid because he was closer in age to me. We were into the same music. He hipped me to a lot of stuff. Cyril exposed me to a lot of music that I probably would have not been exposed to at the time. I listened to the radio a lot but I wasn’t really hip to Jimi Hendrix. So I would play hooky from school sometimes and go to Cyril’s house and listen to records. I listened to Jimi Hendrix, a lot of good reggae stuff, some Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. Cyril was really a heavy influence on me. As a kid, my dad kinda would steer me away from Cyril a little bit because Cyril was a little bit on the wild side. It kinda was a rebellious thing to hang out with Cyril.
And now you and Art’s son Ian have a similar relationship.
Exactly—it’s weird you say that. It’s kinda like that. I’m really tight with all the brothers in different ways. Now I go to Art’s house and I go and say a few words to him and then I’m up in Ian’s little area. We’re up there playing PlayStation or he’s got Pro Tools up there so we’re writing little grooves and songs and stuff.
Did you go to the Wild Tchoupitoulas sessions?
I maybe went once or twice but I was listening to it ’cause everyday when they came home, I would have a cassette [of the sessions]. I was in 11th grade and listening to all the rough tapes. That was some great stuff.
Do you remember when you first played with the Neville Brothers?
You know how it kinda evolved: right before the Nevilles officially got together, my dad was still doing a couple of gigs. He had a band called Renegade with Jimmy Ballero playing guitar. He would hire me to come and just play a few songs with him. He would actually pay me like a hundred bucks. My first paying gig was with my dad and great-uncle Jolly [George Landry]. Remember those house parties they used to have in the basement on Carrollton—Hank [Drevich] and some of those people?
Yes, I was there.
I went and played one of them with my dad and Jolly. There was a set of congas and a piano and me and my dad and Jolly. Jolly played some things, I played a song or two and then we played some stuff together. And I got paid a hundred bucks. That was my first gig.
Jolly was this cat that was very inspiring to me when I was a kid—an old, hip dude who just treated me like an equal. I was a kid and I’d be sitting with Jolly and we’d be talking. He’d be telling me some stuff: “Go to the store for me or roll this…”
I started my band, Renegade, in my shed in the back of that house on Valence Street. Most of those guys were childhood friends—I had known them since I was like 11-years-old. We just started playing in the shed. Our first gig was at Tipitina’s and they billed us as the Tchoupitoulas Renegades featuring Ivan Neville—that was pretty cool.
Was Gerald Tillman a friend of yours?
I really looked up to him. He was a few years older than me and he had this band called Black Male, which was an amazing band—it ended up being the Neville Brothers’ first rhythm section. Gerald was somewhat of a mentor to me. We got in a lot of bad trouble together. It wasn’t like he was the best example of what to do. When I first sat in with the Neville Brothers, it was Art and Gerald playing…
You always played clavinet in those days…
Yeah, that was my favorite instrument. When I first actually joined the Neville Brothers band, when I was playing regularly with them, it was three keyboard players. I would play clav a lot, Gerald would play organ and Art would play either a Fender Rhodes or one of those Yamaha electric grand pianos.
What do you like so much about the clavinet?
I don’t know—it’s something about the sound of it. It’s like a percussion instrument. I’ve always had a good feel for it—especially growing up, playing with those guys, with all the rhythms going on and the percussion stuff going on. I was just kinda another percussion player, playing actual notes.
Why do you think music in New Orleans is so groove-oriented?
Because people like to dance, for one thing. I don’t know—maybe it’s something in the water or the food. In Dumpstaphunk, to me, that’s one thing that sets us a little apart: we actually have songs. We play funk stuff and grooves but mostly it’s song-orientated with a lot of vocals. We’re coming up with some new stuff. For the most part, we’ve been playing stuff that I’ve written and stuff that we all like, songs that hardly anybody else would play. There’s a song I always play, a Dyke and the Blazers song—“Woman, Be A Woman.” When I first played that live, I had never heard anybody play that before. It’s the stupidest song in the world, the words make no sense whatsoever but it’s funky. We play a couple of Sly Stone songs that nobody really plays, a couple of Meters things that nobody plays and even the Meters don’t play. We try to keep it fun.
What does Dumpstaphunk mean?
I was just toying around with some ideas. Actually, I was writing a song, doing a project with my little brothers Jason and Aaron, Jr.—“Fred.” I came up with this little groove, a little song. “Dumpstaphunk” was the name of a song but it had a meaning to me. A dumpster is funky! That’s pretty nasty. It just kinda made sense to me: Dumpstaphunk. That’s some funk, you know. It stuck around in my mind a little while. When we played Jazz Fest three years ago, I said, “I want to call this band Dumpstaphunk.” I got Nick [Daniels], I got Tony [Hall]—this is going to be sick so what can I call it? It just made sense to me.
Who are the official members of Dumpstaphunk?
It’s me, Ian [Neville], Nick Daniels, Tony Hall and Raymond Weber. That’s pretty much the band—those guys. And I mix it up with horn stuff—every now and again, Mark Mullins will play with us, Troy Andrews has played with us before, Ben Ellman’s even played with us. What I try to do is a different horn player every now and again.
Do you plan to record Dumpstaphunk?
We’re definitely going to do a record. I’ve got some ideas on the back burner.
You might be the new Meters.
Thanks for saying that. Thank you very much.
I think there’s a lot of bad Meters imitators nowadays.
There’s a lot of people that play that kind of stuff and it’s not what it’s supposed to be—not what they think. That’s what I love about Dumpstaphunk—my little cousin Ian has got that little funky rhythm shit down.
He’s really the only true student of Leo Nocentelli.
He is a true student and fortunately for us, we’ve also got the one true student of all the Meters—Tony Hall. Tony Hall, when he was like 17-years-old, they used to say he was George Porter’s cousin. I don’t think they’re really cousins but I think they were kinda close when he was a young kid. He was always hanging around. He learned all of that shit. Matter of fact, I think there were times when he subbed for those guys. If Leo couldn’t make a gig, he subbed. He can play guitar, bass, drums, all that shit. That’s what’s cool about this band—you’ve got cats like Ian and Tony and you’ve got Nick Daniels, who’s an amazing bass player and singer. Tony and Nick are good on their own. And Raymond Weber, to me, has got the best of all worlds, as far as a drummer from New Orleans. He’s got the funk thing—that Zigaboo kinda stuff—but he can play a little straighter if you like. What’s special about this band is we like to listen to each other. A lot of times that’s what determines what you play—what the other guy is playing. There’s a lot of spontaneity going on. And we’ve got vocals—we’ve got guys who can actually really sing.
Dumpstaphunk is also, more or less, the Neville Brothers rhythm section.
Well, Willie Green is with them. It’s the same meat but a lot different. Basically, when I started back playing with the Brothers—an unfortunate series of events with Art having his back surgery, it was pretty cool because I had just done this record called Saturday Morning Music and I was really trying to find my musical identity again. I don’t want this story to be about this but it’s important because it’s a part of who I am—when I stopped doing drugs and drinking and shit, it changed my perspective. I basically started fresh. Everything that I’ve done is in here, a part of me, but I had a new outlook on things and I had to rekindle and re-establish myself in the music community. Just because you’ve straightened your life out doesn’t mean that people are going to immediately say, “Oh, Ivan’s cool now—let’s hire him.” It takes a while.
Were you uncool at one time because of your drug usage?
I was very uncool. I thought I was real cool. [laughs] I was not dependable. I was very irresponsible and I would miss flights and not show up for stuff. Matter of fact, there’s one horror story: I was going to sit in with the Rolling Stones at Giants Stadium on the Voodoo Lounge tour. I was on that record and Keith’s band—the Xpensive Winos, we had just done a tour right before the Stones got back together for the Voodoo Loungething. I was going to possibly play with the Stones and I was going to be on that tour. But I was too fucked-up. If Keith tells you you’re a little too out-of-control, you’re in bad shape.
So I played on the Voodoo Lounge record and when they were putting the details together to do the tour, I didn’t get a call. I didn’t get it. I was pretty bummed-out by that. Then I got a call and Keith wanted me to come up and hang out and sit in with them at Giants Stadium. I was his boy, I was Keith’s friend. You see, that was another political thing in that organization. It was basically Keith’s way of saying, “Ivan, come up and hang out and play with us and maybe show the boys that maybe you should’ve been involved or whatever.” I went up there and I fucking fell asleep in the dressing room. I missed the whole show. I was doing coke and I started drinking a lot. The thing is I got off the airplane, I got in the limousine straight to Giants Stadium and I got there and something told me, “You should eat something.” But I started doing blow and then I started drinking like a fish because it was some real good blow. I vaguely remember shaking Lenny Kravitz’s hand at some point, in a fog.
It’s funny—there’s a picture in this Rolling Stones book of me and Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards and Lenny Kravitz. I don’t remember taking that picture and that was that night. I got so trashed that I didn’t make it up on the stage. I fell asleep in the dressing room and I woke up and the show was over. They were gone!
Keith Richards was a mentor to you, good and bad.
Absolutely! You know what, I pretty much knew what went along with being around Keith and being in that scene.
And you were around drugs before Keith Richards came along.
I was around drugs way before then, With Keith, it was another level of that scene. It was a lot of fun, don’t get me wrong. It was a lot of fun but there were times when I would get a little out-of-control, where I couldn’t really handle it sometimes.
Something that people don’t know about Keith is he used to do less drugs than all of us. When we would hang out and be recording and be up for days and chilling out and working, working our asses off, he would be doing less drugs than all of us. He was just this guy—he could just hang out and play and be up all night. Sometimes I would be focused more on the drugs than the music.
What are some good things you learned from Keith?
One of the good things was in that world and in that scenario, I learned how he put the music first, all the time. We would be in the recording studio and he would be playing a riff. When you’re doing drugs and you’re making music, drugs can be a distraction, especially doing coke. You do a little line of coke, then you’re cool for a while but when 45 minutes pass by, you want another line. Keith would be playing a riff for hours on end with no regard for anything else but this music he’s trying to do.
I would be sitting over there, playing, going through the motions a little bit, wanting another bump, wanting to do another line. To Keith, it was only a little tool—he only used that shit as a tool.
He wasn’t doing heroin then?
He wasn’t doing that. No, he was just doing coke and drinking like a fish. The guy showed me an appreciation for music that I had never really seen in anybody. That guy lives and breathes that stuff. He’s always listening to stuff 24-7.
|“There’s a lot of people that play [funk] and it’s not what it’s supposed to be—not what they think.”|
Let’s return to your tenure with the Neville Brothers.
I left the band around 1981 and I went and did a record with Rufus, without Chaka Khan. Actually, I met them down here—they were down here performing and they came to a Neville Brothers gig. I went and hung out with them and gave ’em a tape. I got a call at some point: “Ivan, I want you to come up and audition.” They flew me out there and I ended up doing this record with them. It was a really cool experience. I got to meet a bunch of the cats that I looked up to, as far as studio musicians. It took me out of New Orleans for the first time. I was ready for it—I thought. [laughs]
I was like 21-years-old when I went out there. I got to play with these cats, like the guys from Toto. That was like a musician’s band. Everybody loved those guys because they were the cats who played on the majority of the hit records—Jeff Porcaro and those guys. It was amazing for me.
How were the L.A. musicians different from New Orleans musicians?
They were studio musicians, a lot of them. They knew another little formula—the difference between playing live music and recording for someone else. I absorbed a lot of that stuff from those people.
They were more into making hit records.
Yeah, they knew some formulas. It wasn’t like there were any rules or anything. I hung out with Jeff Porcaro and he was just a great musician who had a sense of how to play for a song, how to take what I’m going to give and be unselfish and play for a song.
Bonnie Raitt came right after that, around ’82. It was because of Hutch Hutchinson, who played with the Nevilles back in’78,’79. Around the same time I left to go to L.A., he had gone out there as well. We had done a lot of stuff together and he had got hooked up with Bonnie. They needed a keyboard player and he probably suggested “Maybe we should check Ivan out.” She knew who I was, knew I was from the Neville family. I was in her band for three or four years.
I loved playing with Bonnie. It was another world, compared to the other things I had been exposed to musically. It was a different audience, a different vibe from anything that I had done. It was more bluesy, but Bonnie had kinda a rock sensibility to her. I saw another level of touring because I had never been on a tour. I had never been on a tour in a tour bus before.
It was very exciting, riding around in a tour bus, going from one place to another. Bonnie became mainstream successful later on but she had a cult following back then and she did well. I actually lived with her for almost a year.
As a boyfriend?
No, no, I was like a little son, a little brother, a little nephew. For a while, when I was living in L.A., I was living in an office. Me and Hutch had this buddy Kevin Walsh that we got tight with and he had this little studio that we put together. We all helped make it what it became—it became this place called the Room. Kevin was a great friend of mine—he looked out for me a lot when I left Rufus. When Rufus ended, I was kinda like homeless. I left this apartment and I owed all this money. I got this big check and I blew all this money. I had this car I was renting and I couldn’t pay for it. I ended up with this little raggedy-ass Nissan Sentra with all my stuff in the car. I was sleeping in this studio.
Before I got the gig with Bonnie Raitt, I had this gig every Friday night at the Club Lingerie. It was “New Orleans Night.” Harold Battiste and Henry Butler were out there at this time and every Friday night, they would bring in New Orleans cats, like Lee Dorsey and Ernie K-Doe. They even brought my dad and Art out there one week. I was in the house band—me and Hutch and Henry Butler, John Boudreaux. Harold Battiste was the musical director, Jerry Jumonville was playing saxophone.
I remember the night when we were backing my dad and Art up at the club and I was in such a bad way. I was scared to see them because everything had gone to shit and I didn’t want anyone to know.
Did your dad give you a lecture?
No, they were pretty cool. But I wrote this song called “Don’t Cry Now,” inspired by that evening. I later recorded it with Bonnie Raitt. I showed up for the gig that night and I was ashamed. Right after that, I got the gig with Bonnie and I started making money. I eventually got a little house out there.
When I had off-time from Bonnie, I started writing some songs in that studio. Eventually, I started getting good at it and I was developing some good songs. I was always trying to write a song. When I first started playing piano, I probably wrote a song three months into it. Early on, I started writing and that became a big part of who I wanted to be musically. I wanted to be a songwriter. I loved doing it. I would get ideas and it would come.
And that’s where the real money is.
Exactly. I was doing my last tour with Bonnie and I pretty much said, “Yeah, I think I’m going to go on and start working on my own stuff.” I was making a decent little paycheck with Bonnie. Back then, it was a lot of money that I was making. This was in ’83, ’84, ’85.
What were you making?
I was making 1200 bucks a week—that was a lot of money back then. I didn’t know what to do with it. [laughs] For years, I just blew money. Anyway, the last tour I did with Bonnie ended up in New York. I stayed in New York and I found out that the Rolling Stones were in New York recording this record Dirty Work.
Those were the sessions when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards didn’t speak to each other.
Pretty much. They did but there was lots of times when they were all in the studio at separate times. Like Keith and Ronnie would go in one night, Mick would come in earlier or the next day. But there were times when they were there together.
I was too busy just being excited about being there. I had met Keith and Ronnie through the Neville Brothers—we had opened up for the Stones in 1981. Around that time, there was talk about the Nevilles doing stuff on the Stones’ label.
Anyway, I ended up playing bass guitar on the Stones record. It was nuts—I’m a keyboard player, right? But I’ve always dabbled in bass and guitar and drums.
I was hanging out with Ronnie one night. Ronnie was in the studio with Don Covay and Patti Scialfa—Bruce Springsteen’s wife. I was in there with them and we were singing back-up on some Stones stuff. Ronnie was like, “My son’s having a birthday party tomorrow—come over to the house.” Me, him and Keith were down in the basement and I picked up a bass guitar and we were playing. We left there and went to a Don Covay session—this was just so much fun: me, Keith and Ronnie. We go over to the studio and there was just so much blow. It was retarded—all the drugs, which was fun at the time.
This was a studio called Giant Studio. It was kinda known for the blow that was going on in the office. There was like a pile of blow on the desk in the office that was like obscene. While they were in there recording with Don Covay, I was in the office with this big pile of blow.
All of a sudden, the door opened and it’s Keith and Ronnie: “Ivan, ya coming or what?!” They were leaving so I had to run out the door and catch them to go to the Stones session. So we’re in there chilling and I think we all sang back-up on this song called “Fight.” Me and Keith, Mick, Ronnie, Charley Drayton and Steve Jordan—we’re all standing around singing back-up on this song. I was blown away—that this was me, hanging out with these guys.
Then they put this track up and Keith said, “Yeah, that’s the track. Hey, Ivan, you think you could play the bass part to this song?” I’m like, “What? You’re kidding me! Yeah, I’ll try it.” So Mick’s there, everybody’s in there and I’m out in the studio by myself. First, Keith came out and showed me the song, hooked up a guitar and showed me the changes. Then he went back in the control room and I’m looking at all of them in the control room, dancing while this track’s playing and I’m putting this bass shit on there.
|“I didn’t know what to do with myself. When I wasn’t on stage, when I wasn’t getting that instant gratification… Lots of times I would finish a gig and I would just get fucking wasted.”|
You had some balls!
Yeah! Oh man, that was a great experience for me. Then I left there and ended up getting this deal with Polydor Records after that. I went back to L.A. and did that first Ancestors record.
What about your time with the Spin Doctors?
I did some recording with them. That was a great time for me because…actually, at first, it was a dark time for me. When they hired me to play with them, they had had these big hit records. They had done well but they were like a jam band. But when they became commercially successful, something happened to them and they lost their hardcore fans, as if they’d “sold out” to the hit record thing. Dave Matthews is probably the only person who has successfully done that. He’s respected in the jam band community, yet he’s commercially successful. He’s the only exception to the rule that I know. Blues Traveler was a similar thing. They all came up together—Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors were New York bands that were kinda jam bands. But then when they became successful, they lost some of their audience.
When the Spin Doctors called me up, I couldn’t get a gig at this point. I was so deep in the drug thing at this point—this was after the Xpensive Winos and all that stuff. I had moved to New York and back to New Orleans. A lot of this geographical stuff—some of it was work-related but some of it was running away from the demons. I’d just burn every bridge there was to burn and then I’d have to go somewhere else and start a new life. Then I realized I was the culprit, you know what I’m saying? I was the one starting all the trouble.
I’m going to back up. After the Ancestors record, immediately after that, Keith called up and he put the Xpensive Winos together, which was probably some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing in a band. I got to play guitar with Keith and Ronnie. I got to switch around and play bass. What a great band!
Yeah, I saw you on Saturday Night Live.
That was the first gig we ever did. [laughs] Talk about some balls! [laughs] That was some fun. After the Winos tour, I got real depressed. You come off of a tour like that—what are you going to do now? I was stuck in L.A., doing a lot of drugs.
What happened to all your money?
Doing a lot of drugs. [laughs] I just blew a lot of money, man.
How did you get off drugs? Did you end up being destitute?
I was never actually destitute, but there were times when I was just at the bottom of the pit. There were times when my affiliations were dark and ugly—the people I associated with. I stopped being around musicians. I’d be in crack houses and shit.
You were doing crack?
Oh yeah. It used to be free-basing but if you continued after 1985, you were a crackhead. After the Winos thing, I did another record. I moved to New York for a while and did a record called Thanks, which I thought was a really good record. But when I listen to that record, I hear the angst, I hear the urgency. I was like crying out. I was really in a bad place. I was in a dark place.
Why do you think so many musicians do drugs?
I think, for the most part, a lot of times I didn’t know what to do with myself. When I wasn’t playing, when I wasn’t on stage, when I wasn’t getting that instant gratification, when I wasn’t getting that buzz, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Lots of times I would finish a gig and I would just get fucking wasted. Then there would be periods of time, if I wasn’t working a lot, whatever money I made, I would just piss it all away getting high and shit. There’s this creative side of you that thinks this illusion, that you think you’re more creative when you’re fucked up. Actually, I wrote some good songs when I was getting high, but…
How did you escape?
Shit, by the skin of my teeth…barely. It was a rough road. I had done a bunch of stuff that I thought was pretty cool, played with Robbie Robertson and Bonnie and all that stuff and the Stones and then I got this gig with the Spin Doctors. Basically, nobody else would call me to hire me. I just got to a point where I was like, “What is this? This is my life?” I looked back on my life and all of that stuff that I’d done, I couldn’t even really feel good about it because of where I was in 1998, when I stopped. I was like, “What the fuck am I doing?” It was basically do I want to live or do I want to die? My spirit was just broken. I did the 12 Steps program and I still go to that shit.
Did your dad advise you? Because he also went through the same thing.
At one point, they were planning an intervention on my ass. My dad and Dr. John had it planned for me. I was in L.A. and the Nevilles and Dr. John were out on the road with B.B. King. They invited me to come to the show—I think it was on a Saturday or Sunday. I didn’t make it to that show because the Thursday before that, I was somewhere-—one of them dark places—and I was done. I called this friend of mine named Marty Grebb—he used to play in Bonnie Raitt’s band and he had been clean for a while. I called him up and the MAP organization—the Musicians’ Assistance Program that the late, great Buddy Arnold started. He was this old musician junkie who got clean and started that program to help musicians who had fucked their lives up, like I did. Most of us who get to that point, we pretty much use up all the insurance and we don’t have any money to help ourselves. I needed somebody to help me. I needed to go in somewhere so I called them up and they got me in a place and I just didn’t turn back. I never looked back. I did what I had to do. I did the whole 12 Steps thing. It’s coming up on seven years.
Is it still a struggle for you?
I was surprised that you wanted me to meet you in a bar.
No, I’ve got no problem with that.
Do you drink?
No, I don’t drink at all. I haven’t had a drop of beer or anything for almost seven years. It’s funny—I can go and do late night gigs and hang out with the best of ’em during Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, all that shit. It’s cool.
Do you drink coffee?
A lot of it! [laughs] I drink a lot of Frappuccinos—I like that Starbucks shit. That’s my drug now—Starbucks.
How did you happen to record your album Saturday Morning Music at Bruce Willis’ house?
He’s got a house up on Mulholland in Los Angeles—a great place, a great view, up on a hill. I was not that long sober when I did this—I had only been sober a couple of years maybe.
I met Bruce in New York at the China Club. I went there one night and Bruce was there. I had seen him before and he wanted to sing some stuff. I ended up playing with him. And then he played at something down here in New Orleans—the opening of the Hard Rock Café and I went and sat in with him there.
Another mutual friend of mine and Bruce’s is this guy who’s also a sober guy. We had met and we had been talking and we knew a lot of the same people, we liked a lot of the same music. One thing led to another and Bruce had this studio up at his house. He was like, “Hey—do a record, Ivan.” I was able to go up there and just write with no pressure, just kinda hang out there everyday and write songs.
So this record was made as we went along. I had a few songs from earlier things that I had been working on but for the most part, we did that whole record in the studio, kicking around ideas.
Bruce has got a good day job so he don’t really need to be fooling around with no record company stuff. Some things got a little political for him about the record company jive and he decided to bail out on it. But he gave me his blessings and I was able to take the record and go to another company that wanted to put it out again. They put it out as Scrape, which was unfortunate for some people. I want to apologize to y’all—I remember I looked on amazon.com and they had two Ivan Neville CDs: Scrape and Saturday Morning Music. I know a few people that bought both of them and called me up and said, “Ivan, what’s up with this?” It’s the same songs, the same record—I’m sorry.
That was a cool time because it was my first real creative thing that I did when I cleaned up. I was able to make music again—I was a little concerned about that. I was able to be in the studio and just roll with it. That really was a stepping stone.
How do you feel about hip-hop?
There’s some stuff that I like. I like Nas, I like a lot of stuff Jay-Z’s done. Obviously, I like all the Tupac shit. I can utilize some elements of that stuff that they’re doing. When we did the last Neville Brothers record, there was some little tinges of hip-hop and some people assumed that my influence was that stuff. My influence wasn’t that. I’m hip to that stuff and I can work with that stuff.
I try to stay away from a lot of those radio stations because there’s a formula to it, to a degree, and everything sounds so similar. The stuff that I hear mostly is through Ian and my little brother Fred and my little nephew, my sister’s son. Ian’s got a lot of good stuff on his iPod. Him being in his early twenties, he’s hip to all of the fresh stuff. One track might be some Meters stuff, then it might be some OutKast, which I love, and then this cat—he’s kinda more of a poet—Talib Kweli.
But if you talk to kids about New Orleans music, they don’t know the Meters or the Neville Brothers. They know Mystikal and Juvenile.
Mystikal did a great thing because he had a whole different sound with his voice. Juvenile, as well. I like that stuff. I’m going to see B.G. tonight at House of Blues. I am a fan of a lot of it but sometimes it frustrates me a little bit when I hear more and more new music come out and it’s all based on the machine and the sample. What frustrates me about it is how narrow the spectrum is of the music. How records were made, when I was growing up, people would go in the studio and really express themselves and make a record that they loved and they were proud of it. It wasn’t just a marketing tool. It’s all based on how many records we can sell…which is great if you sell a lot of records. That’s how the whole music industry is now: how many records we can sell, how can we market you, we need a song that sounds like so-and-so for this market…blah, blah, blah. That takes the creativity and just puts a damper on it.
A lot of it beckons back to stuff I actually lived through—like the music of the ’70s. I heard that stuff on the radio when it was being played. I don’t like to date myself but I love that I grew up in that era and got to hear that music in the late ’60s and ’70s. Music of that period was just so great. A lot of the new R&B, they recall that, they go back to that for ideas. D’Angelo did a great job with what he did—a lot of people tried that same little thing, using more vintage instruments. I appreciate that stuff but sometimes it sounds really forced.
There’s nothing new.
Everything comes from somewhere. It’s just a different little take on it or you just make it your own. That’s what I want to do with Dumpstaphunk. I want to take all the ingredients and stuff we were all influenced by and make it our own. To me, what was great about all those L.A. studio musicians in the ’70s and ’80s—Jeff Porcaro, Steve Porcaro, Steve Lukather, David Paich, John Robertson, Greg Phillinganes—a great keyboard player, Paul Jackson, Jr.—all those guys, what they did then when they were recording or working on somebody else’s music, they would take it and make it their own. To me, I’m impressed by a musician who can come in and adapt to someone else’s situation and make it their own.
When you sit in with somebody, some of us are blessed with that little thing where we can go and play with somebody and be a part of their thing yet still make it our own. That’s what I think I do a lot when I sit in with people. That’s why I enjoy that so much because I can be a part of something different yet blend in and not take away from their thing and at the same time, bring all of me to it.
You recently worked on the sessions for a new Jerry Lee Lewis album.
This friend of mine, Jimmy Rip, he’s a guitar player out of New York—he used to play with Mick Jagger’s solo band. He works for this guy Steve Bing, this really rich guy who’s famous for fathering Elizabeth Hurley’s kid. He a gazillionaire, a very nice guy. He’s now going out with Nicole Kidman. He’s a cool guy and he loves music and he’s got a movie production company and he’s been executive producing some records. So he financed this Jerry Lee Lewis project.
They have been working on this thing for several years with different configurations of musicians. Jim Keltner and Hutch—it’s another cool thing that me and Hutch have been working together again doing this stuff. I got a call to come play some Hammond B-3 on this session. We recorded everything live—Jim Keltner’s on drums, Hutch is on bass, I’m playing B-3, Jerry Lee’s on piano, Jerry Lee’s guitar player Kenny Lovelace is playing and Jimmy Rip is playing.
It’s a cool little scene. This was in L.A. We recorded like three songs a day. My job, basically, is to be very sneaky and play and know when to stay out of the way. It’s the kind of gig where if you’re playing keyboards and Jerry Lee’s playing piano, you got your chord chart in front of you and you don’t just play. You gotta listen and know where not to play. That’s kinda why I’m on the gig: I know where not to play.
There was one session where Ringo Starr came in and they did a version of “Sweet Little 16” and Jerry Lee and Ringo traded verses. We did another track where Ringo and Jim Keltner were both playing drums. It was pretty fun stuff.
So, after having seen the world, do you think New Orleans is the best place for you?
New Orleans is just always going to be home. There’s a comfort level here that I enjoy. New Orleans has some partying motherfuckers. And I’m comfortable with that. See, I don’t hate on people that get high and drink or whatever. That’s cool. I’m blessed that I’m fine with it, I don’t have to indulge in that stuff and I can be around it, to a degree. I can be in a bar and I can be comfortable. New Orleans—all the family’s here, everybody’s here.