“Make sure you get the name right,” cautions Leo Nocentelli over the phone from his home in North Hollywood. “This isn’t the Meters.”
The former Meters guitarist is secure about the identity of his new band, Nocentelli. He is proud of his legacy with the Meters, but has a big problem with club owners who sometimes use old Meters photos to promote Nocentelli shows.
For Nocentelli’s Jazz Fest gigs—at the Fair Grounds on May 4, at a guitar clinic at the Maple Leaf on the afternoon of the 5th, and then that night at the Rendon Inn with the Batiste Brothers—he’ll use L.A. keyboardist Kevin Walsh, New York bassist Andy Hess and his old Meter mate and fellow West Coast resident, Zigaboo Modeliste, on drums. Zig is a regular guest with Nocentelli: “Zig is my first choice in anything I do.”
After the Meters disbanded in 1979, you moved away from New Orleans, then came back briefly to work on the Nevilles’ Brother’s Keeper, then left again for L.A.
When I moved back, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be for Leo Nocentelli to maintain himself in New Orleans. The Meters, and my involvement with the Meters over the years, has been so talked about, everybody felt that Leo didn’t need anything. They felt like I had all the money I needed, and I really didn’t want a gig and didn’t want to work because I didn’t need to. [Meanwhile] I’m sitting around waiting for some work. When they think of Leo Nocentelli, they tend to shun away from him, because they don’t feel like they have enough money to pay me. That’s kind of like a curse. That really had me uncomfortable, because I need to pay my light bill and phone bill just like everybody else. People would say, “I didn’t know you’d do the job.” And I’d say, “What do you mean? I’m a musician.” I’m a musician first, before I’m an artist.
I finally found it very difficult to make a living down there. I was offered to play on the score to White Men Can’t Jump. So I came up to Los Angeles to do that, and since it would take three or four months, I told my wife we might as well move back to Los Angeles. This was in ’92.
What material will Nocentelli be doing at the Fest?
Since my resignation from the Meters, it’s hard for people to look at me other than Leo, the guy that performed with the Meters. Since I wrote the majority of the material, I’m kind of forced to do a lot of the stuff that I wrote for the Meters. I’m gonna be doing original stuff too, but I’m going to be doing a lot of the Meters material. I can’t get away from doing that—especially in New Orleans. They’d kill me.
Of the old songs, which do you get the most enjoyment from playing as a guitarist?
I’ve added some new twists to a lot of the stuff I did with the Meters. I put my own arrangements in “Fire on the Bayou” and “People Say.” Since I left the Meters, I rearranged the songs. When the people hear the band Nocentelli, they’ll be hearing some of the Meters stuff, but they’ll be hearing a more updated, fresh approach to the old material.
In my words, what they’ll be getting is Nocentelli featuring a lot of the Meters material personified. Put that in—personified. What we have here between Zig and myself…most of the writing was done between Zig and myself. We shared it with everybody, because it was the right thing to do. When I wrote “Cissy Strut” back in ’67, when we were playing at the Ivanhoe—I basically wrote it because I got tired of playing an opening song called “Hold It,” which everybody played—I presented “Cissy Strut” to the band, and when I did that, I just said, “We’ll share it all.” That’s the way it went for a lot of years.
Who else has Zig been working with?
Zig does various things. He does mostly session work. Sometimes he goes up to New York and works with a few people. Basically, he works with me. I’ve been trying to keep him as busy as I possibly can, where I can keep him to myself.
Everywhere where we play out here has been phenomenal. It’s amazing how many people out here are aware of the Meters material. Everywhere we’ve been playing it’s been sold out, packed houses. It gave me a lot of energy to continue this thing. When I left the Meters, I didn’t quite know exactly what I was going to do. The success of Nocentelli has really been a shot in the arm, to make me know that’s it’s possible to do as well as when I was with the Meters.
Did you and Zig stay in touch after the original Meters broke up in 1979?
Not really. We stayed estranged…ooh, man, too long. It was just a situation where we did some business moves that were contrary to the way he thought, and we kind of drifted apart. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1982, I started contacting Zig, and found out there was a lot of misunderstanding. Most of the time, when people have arguments, it’s because of miscommunication. So as we talked more, we said, “Hey, man, I really didn’t know it was like this. Now I understand.” Everything was patched up. Zig and I, we’re closer now then we ever was, even before we disbanded. We’re very, very close now.
The bottom line: why did you decide to leave the reformed Meters in ’93?
As everybody can imagine, it was a real drastic decision for me to make. I was doing very, very well financially with the Meters, and everything was going along great with the career. But it just gets to a point…the Meters has been the most prostituted group, I think, in the world. It’s a shame, for the sake of New Orleans, to give New Orleans a bad reputation: “Everybody that comes from New Orleans, they’re not worth it, because they’re dumb. We can do whatever we want with ’em, because they’re from New Orleans.” I just got tired of it happening to me, and also I got tired of it happening to Art and George. I was the business guy of the group. If I felt something was wrong, I would report it to Art and George. I was the liaison kind of guy. I knew things were still happening to the Meters, and for some reason I could not get that across to George or Art. Either they couldn’t see it, or didn’t want to see it, or they were satisfied with the way things were going. It was just too much for me to bear.
It was a lot to give up. I could have stood there and played gigs ’til I was blue in the face, and made money. But I didn’t know how long I would be able to play—we’re not the youngest people any more. There has to be some point in time where your business has to be together. Of course, their business might be great in terms of gigging. But the Meters are a recording group. That’s the real intricate part that’s not being maintained. A lot of people have sampled our material—that’s not being looked after. The money is going to the wrong hands. Big money. And it’s simply because the Meters do not want to take care of that part of their business. That’s the business that I was interested in—not going on the bandstand and seeing how many gigs we could do.
I respect Art’s opinion, I respect George’s opinion. It’s my opinion that whenever the Meters aren’t able to play, I don’t think we’re going to have anything substantial to fall back on. If you’re a millionaire already, it doesn’t make any difference. But I am not a millionaire. I have to look out for my future and my family. That’s all I was trying to do. I was really trying to ask George and Art for their support. I didn’t get their support, so I did the only thing I could do—I had to leave.
Art and George seem pretty pleased with the Rhino anthology. Are you pleased with this package, too?
Oh, most definitely. This is the first situation that the Meters have had where it looks like we’re gonna get paid. There’s been a couple anthologies out and a lot of CDs out that the Meters aren’t going to get a dime from.
I think everybody should be proud of this anthology. It’s a great package and everybody got credits, but more importantly than that, man, it means that we will get paid for it.
One major difference between the funky Meters now and when you were in the band is that you tended to do a lot more improvisational soloing than Brian Stoltz. In your band, is a lot of it improvisational as well, or is it more song-oriented?
Well, I’ll put it like this: Nocentelli features Leo Nocentelli. That speaks for itself. Whatever I have to do to display my talents, that’s what I do. If it means soloing, if it means playing rhythm…
I don’t want to comment on what’s happening with the funky Meters now. I’ve never heard them live. I’ve heard a lot of things pro and con about what’s going on. I think just as many people would say the music they’re doing is great, I think there’s that many who would say the music is not good because I’m not there.
There’s nobody could be Leo Nocentelli better than Leo Nocentelli. Please write that in big bold letters.
That’s the way I look at the funky Meters now. I don’t wish ’em bad luck—I wish ’em all the luck in the world. I say that in every interview. George and Art will always be friends of mine. I want the Meters to happen—I put a lot into the Meters. For the Meters to get a bad reputation, whether I’m there or not, is not good for me.