Nearly 20 years into Lost Bayou Ramblers’ career, the band can claim famous fans and Grammy nominations. The Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano and the Pogues’ Spider Stacy jumped at the chance to collaborate with the groundbreaking Cajun band. The Ramblers’ other career highlights include high-profile TV appearances, opening for Arcade Fire and their musical contributions to the Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Lost Bayou Ramblers’ greatest feat appears most clearly in the band’s 2012 album Mammoth Waltz and 2017’s Kalenda. The talent, imagination, studio adventures and Cajun heart in the albums boldly cast traditional Cajun music into the twenty-first century.
In November, Kalenda brought Lost Bayou Ramblers a Grammy nomination for best regional roots music album. The band received a previous nomination for 2007’s Live a la Blue Moon. This year, back home in Louisiana, the Acadiana and New Orleans–based Ramblers found more acclaim via their five Best of the Beat Awards nominations.
“After putting so much hard work and so many extra miles into Kalenda,” Ramblers’ co-founder Louis Michot said at a downtown coffee shop in Lafayette, “it was a huge honor and surprise for the album to be nominated for a Grammy. We put everything we could into this album and it was recognized. People truly appreciate us going out on our proverbial limb to make something new.”
Lost Bayou Ramblers preceded the September release of Kalenda with a June appearance in the PBS documentary The American Epic Sessions. The Ramblers’ co-stars in the film include Rhiannon Giddens, Beck, Nas, Alabama Shakes, the Avett Brothers, Elton John, Los Lobos, Taj Mahal, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. In May, PBS viewers saw Louis Michot in the Cajun segment of PBS’s American Epic, a truly epic three-part documentary about the American recording industry in the early twentieth century.
Lost Bayou Ramblers—which were launched in 1999 by brothers Louis and Andre Michot—make another powerful impact on Cajun music through Kalenda. The album features Louis’ fervent singing and fiddle playing; Andre’s rhythm-powered accordion and evocative lap steel guitar; Eric Heigle’s drums, co-production and co-engineering; Korey Richey’s And Bryan Webre’s electric bass and electronics; and Johnny Campos’ electric guitar. Kirkland Middleton, played drums on one song, “La Valse De Balfa.”
The Ramblers recorded Kalenda in multiple locations, including LCD Soundsystem leader James Murphy’s DFA Studios in New York City, Dockside Studio in Maurice and The Parlor Recording Studio in New Orleans.
Through the past few hundred years, kalenda has had multiple meanings. Slaves danced the kalenda in New Orleans’ Congo Square. The dance evolved into a lullaby. In 1962, Opelousas native Rod Bernard, whose swamp-pop ballad “This Should Go On Forever” was a national hit in 1959, made the kalenda a swamp-rock song.
In this century, Lost Bayou Ramblers transformed the kalenda into the haunting title song for their eighth album. The band’s version presents a Sgt. Pepper-esque collage of rhythm, repeating lyrics, instruments and ambience. The song feels as if it flows through centuries.
Korey Richey, former Lost Bayou Rambler bassist and guitarist and current member of LCD Soundsystem, produced Kalenda. Production began at DFA Studios in January 2014. Richey, then still a Rambler, and Louis Michot spent four days crafting the foundation for the album’s title track. A field recording from the 1930s, retrieved from the University of Texas archives, served as a blueprint. In the vintage recording, elderly Lafayette resident Vavasseur Mouton sings “Dansez Calinda,” a song his grandmother sang to him when he was a child.
“Dansez calinda. Boujoum, boujoum! Dansez calinda. Boujoum, boujoum!”
“Every time you try to figure out what kalenda is,” Louis Michot said, “you get a different answer. But it all revolves around that one rhythm—boujoum, boujoum—that comes out in the lullaby.”
The Ramblers’ rendition of “Kalenda” features special guests Spider Stacy, tin whistle player for the Celtic-punk band the Pogues; Leyla McCalla, New Orleans singer and cellist and former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops; Dickie Landry, Lil’ Band O’ Gold saxophonist; and Jimmy Horn, leader of the roots music–loving New Orleans band King James and the Special Men.
For title song “Kalenda,” Louis Michot asked Horn to assemble of group of drummers to play the boujoum, boujoum rhythm. Horn, opting instead to play multiple percussion instruments himself, divided the kalenda rhythm into four parts. He played conventional and unconventional instruments, including a garden hoe. “None of Jimmy’s four parts made sense individually,” Michot recalled. “But when we put them all together, they made complete sense. That’s another time that the kalenda is symbolic of many things coming together.”
A spellbinding quadrophonic saxophone performance by Dickie Landry inspired Louis Michot to ask him to join the “Kalenda” sessions. “I said, ‘Hey, Korey, what do you think about applying some Dickie Landry saxophone to “Kalenda”?’ Korey sent the track to me two days later. It fit perfectly.”
McCalla was another natural choice as guest. A frequent collaborator with the Ramblers, she and the Michot brothers share Haitian roots.
Louis and Andre Michot give Kalenda producer Richey much credit for the Grammy-nominated album. Richey’s career includes production of Mammoth Waltz; engineering on Arcade Fire’s Reflektor and Everythin
Flying back and forth from New York to Lafayette to play bass for the Ramblers eventually became too much for Richey, and he left his bass position in Lost Bayou Ramblers. The change gave him more time to craft Kalenda. “Korey could focus on that, instead of trying to be everywhere at once,” Louis Michot said.
The Michots know exactly why LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire want Richey on their teams. “Korey has amazing ears and feeling,” Andre said. “For him, it probably is a lot of work, but he makes everything so easy for us.”
“We completely trust Korey,” Louis added. “He understands what we do and what we’re looking for.” Richey has another quality, too, one that makes him so valuable in the studio. “Korey is super discreet,” Louis said. “Musicians of the caliber he works with, they look for someone who won’t go bragging about working with them. He takes it as a real job instead of a trophy. He’s so trustworthy.”
Born to ramble
When the Michot brothers formed Lost Bayou Ramblers 19 years ago, they did so without a plan or expectations. In high school, Louis had played in rock and psychedelic bands. Andre played blues guitar. They loved music of all kinds, including the traditional Cajun music they played with their father’s and uncle’s Cajun band, Les Frères Michot. At the time, though, Louis and Andre didn’t anticipate forming a Cajun group of their own, much less a band that would rock the genre’s foundations.
Working with Les Frères Michot, the brothers developed deep Cajun music experience. But even the staunchly traditional Les Frères Michot didn’t abide strictly by the rules, Andre remembered. “Almost no bands had triangle full time, but we always did.”
Cajun music’s heart-pumping rhythm, more than anything else, bonded the Michot brothers to the genre. “It doesn’t matter how you get there or what the instruments are, there’s that pounding rhythm,” Andre said. “That’s what we loved about playing with Les Frères Michot.”
“The rhythm pulled us through this whole time,” Louis agreed. “And that goes back to the kalenda.”
Andre also thinks of his Cajun accordion—a diatonic instrument for which seven notes form an octave—as more of a rhythm than melodic instrument. “Because I don’t have all of the notes,” he said. “In Cajun music, I wouldn’t say the melody is secondary, but sometimes it can be left to the imagination.”
Andre and Louis eventually began playing gigs apart from Les Frères Michot. “We were out on a limb for people of our generation,” Louis remembered. “In Lafayette, people were confused, but also receptive. We played at some random cafés and it was an awesome time.”
Those early gigs launched a natural progression to the expanding sound of Lost Bayou Ramblers. “But there was never any thought about whether we’d be traditional or not,” Louis remembered. “It just evolved. Our friends in our rock ‘n’ roll and our blues and psychedelic bands, they’d come play with us. They’d play even if they’d never played Cajun music before. And it keeps growing that way.”
Before the Michots launched the explosive experimentation of Lost Bayou Ramblers, they grounded themselves in tradition. “Cajun music, like any traditional music,” Louis reasoned, “you have to really learn it before you can think about bringing anything else into it. We did it straight-up traditional for so long. And even with Lost Bayou Ramblers, new influences just crept in with new music and each passing year.”
Despite their Cajun music innovation, the Ramblers’ music never stirred much controversy, Louis said. “Sometimes dancers are like, ‘That’s not Cajun.’ We’re like, ‘No, we got this from a record made in 1930. It’s a waltz, but it’s played just a little bit faster.’ And even with Mammoth Waltz, a lot of what we do is old stuff, along with the progressive stuff.”
There was some hate mail, however, from somewhere in Canada, Louis acknowledged. “He said Mammoth Waltz sounded like a tin can. He said his dog made better music than that. But overall, the album was warmly accepted. And there hasn’t really been a lot of progression [in Cajun music]. Of course, we love the standards. But people who don’t love the standards, and even people who love the standards, they all want to hear something new. We do, too.”
Even as the music marches forward, Andre said, the rhythm remains. “No matter what happens around the beat, it’s basically the same rhythm that everyone’s been doing for a long time. We never vary from that. We like that solid feeling.”
In 2007, the Michots were surprised when the Lost Bayou Ramblers concert album Live a la Blue Moon received a Grammy nomination. They considered the album merely a side project for their 2009 studio project, Vermilionaire. “I thought they were joking when they told us,” Louis said.
Live a la Blue Moon received a nomination in the now discontinued Cajun and zydeco music category. “There was a big push to get the category,” Louis remembered. “I said I didn’t care if we got nominated or not. I was going to continue playing the same music I play. I wasn’t going to change it to get nominations.”
Despite the Ramblers’ Grammy Awards skepticism, the band had a blast at the 2008 Grammy ceremonies. “We went on the fiftieth anniversary year,” Louis said. “It was an amazing performance—Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé and Tina Turner. The show itself was worth it.”
In the same year the Ramblers attended their Grammys ceremony, the band learned it had a famous fan. Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes made a surprise appearance with Lost Bayou Ramblers on stage at d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street. Gano became a friend of the band and a collaborator on stage and in the studio. At the 2011 Voodoo Music + Arts Experience, for instance, the singing, fiddling Gano joined Lost Bayou Ramblers for Cajunized versions of the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in The Sun” and “American Music.”
Gano also made a guest appearance on Mammoth Waltz, joining fellow guest stars Dr. John, actress and singer Scarlett Johansson and French actress and singer Nora Arnezeder.
Concurrently with Mammoth Waltz, the Ramblers recorded for the soundtrack of Beasts of the Southern Wild. The mystical drama about a Louisiana community whose coastal home is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico received four Oscar nominations. Later, the Ramblers played the movie’s score in concert in many cities with the Wordless Music Orchestra and composers Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer.
Lost Bayou Ramblers’ especially high-profile gigs include two opening act spots for Arcade Fire in 2014. Ramblers members Eric Heigle’s and Korey Richey’s involvement with the Canadian band—they worked as recording engineers for Arcade Fire’s 2013 album, Reflektor—led to the gigs. “We could feel people waiting for Arcade Fire,” Louis Michot said of the shows. “To get the attention of people waiting for a band like Arcade Fire, that was an amazing experience.”
“Maybe,” Heigle said, “the final statement on that is that Win [Butler, Arcade Fire front man] is a fan. He’s got Lost Bayou Ramblers music on his phone.”
Lost Bayou Ramblers’ 2017 appearance in The American Epic Sessions documentary and soundtrack album was another coup. The band re-recorded “Allons à Lafayette,” the first Cajun song to be recorded, for the project.
Jack White and T Bone Burnett produced The American Epic Sessions recordings. In 2014, the Ramblers flew to Los Angeles to record into a reconstructed version of the first electrical sound recording system. From the 1920s, the system features one microphone, a six-foot amplifier rack and a live record-cutting lathe that’s propelled by a weight-driven pulley system of clockwork gears. Recording through the vintage system, Lost Bayou Ramblers and more than a dozen other contemporary artists interpreted songs originally recorded about a century before.
“We were the last session they did,” Louis said. “It was the same microphone system that Joe Falcon and Cleoma Breaux made the first Cajun recording on. We recorded that same Cajun song into that same system almost 90 years later. The sonic and creative experience was like nothing we’ve experienced before. Recording into one mike, one take, you get goosebumps because you know that this is your only moment. You get one chance and that’s it.”
“Jack White produced us,” Louis added. “Jack said, ‘Stand here. Turn a little to the left. Sing a little bit more up and to the right.’ That’s the production right there. It’s where you stand and which way you face. And you’re all in the same room. And Eric was what we call ‘rice pumping’ on a big bass drum.”
“Rather than being across the room from one another,” Andre said, “we were as close as we are now. There’s a forceful energy about that that you don’t get when you’re in separate booths.”
Louis Michot also participated in episode three of The American Epic Sessions’ companion documentary, American Epic. He narrates the show’s Cajun section, featuring the Breaux Frères and their Cajun musician descendants. “Enough Cajun 78 rpm records were sold to make Cajun music a significant part of the early music industry,” Louis said. “I’ve gotten a lot of compliments, but they [the filmmakers] made everything look and sound good.”
In addition to narrating, Louis performs in American Epic with contemporary Breaux brothers Pat, Jimmy and Gary. It’s a fitting collaboration, because the Breaux family is among his major influences. “What Cleoma [Breaux] and Joe Falcon were doing was off the charts,” he said. “It was fiddle and guitar only, but with so much spirit and so much rhythm and movement. It was not simple dance music. It was complex, inspiring, emotional music.”
One door closes, another opens
After Lost Bayou Ramblers performed with Gordon Gano for years during an extended Violent Femmes hiatus, Gano returned to the Femmes in 2013. “We thought the Violent Femmes weren’t going to play together anymore,” Louis Michot recalled. “And we played with Gordon until they started touring again. And then he got married and had a baby. He stopped playing with us because he didn’t have the time.”
Just as Gano stepped out from the Ramblers, Spider Stacy stepped in. “It was a smooth transition from acoustic punk to Celtic punk,” Louis said.
Prior to attending his first Ramblers show, Stacy, a New Orleans resident since 2010, toyed with the idea of filtering Pogues songs through a new musical screen. The first Ramblers show Stacy witnessed made him a fan. He very much wanted to try his Pogues-through-another-filter idea with them.
“First time I saw them I was hooked,” Stacy said. “There’s something immediate and compelling about Cajun music. It has an immensely human quality to it, a wildness and a sadness that insinuate themselves into the bloodstream. It’s like most of the best music—dance music with a history.”
Stacy and the Ramblers have been performing together since 2015, but the partnership is about more than music. “It’s become a great friendship,” Louis said. “We hang out together more than we play music.”
“They’re great to work with,” Stacy added. “Their whole attitude is so relaxed and invigorating. And the things they do, and the way they do them, are just so different from any rock ‘n’ roll band that I’ve ever encountered. Yeah, they’re a pretty fucking great band, all in all.”
Stacy, who plays tin whistle, an instrument commonly used in Irish traditional music, was an obvious choice to be a Kalenda guest. He’s prominently featured in the traditional song “Si J’aurais des Ailes.”
“It’s a song I’ve always wanted to play,” Louis said, “But I could never figure out how to arrange it, or which version to use, because there are so many versions out there. So, Spider and I made a new version. He wants to play Cajun music and we love playing Pogues music with him. ‘Si J’aurais des Ailes’ is the song that falls in the middle. We recorded it, bringing the penny whistle into the realm of the accordion and fiddle. It’s a natural fit.”
A Lost Bayou Ramblers-Stacy recording project may well happen, Louis added. “Because it’s so easy and so natural. Knowing Spider has been natural, because we know him more as a person, rather than someone we looked up to. We didn’t know anything about the Pogues before, but people always said that what we’ve done with Cajun music is what the Pogues did with Irish music.”
In August 2017, the Ramblers began their Kalenda touring, playing the first show at the Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette. “And then we hit all of our favorite places,” Louis said. “Brooklyn, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, New Orleans—Brooklyn especially. We’ve played more in Brooklyn than we have anywhere outside of Louisiana. Not hipster Williamsburg so much, but Prospect Park and the multi-cultural area around there. There are so many Caribbean cultures there. They really understand our music. They dance to it. That’s the kalenda thing. It has its own version everywhere. The Michots went from France to Haiti to New Orleans. The kalenda had a similar voyage.” O
Lost Bayou Ramblers will play the Save Our Sponge Concert on Thursday, February 1 at the New Orleans Jazz Market; Krewe De Canailles Ball on Friday, February 9 at Warehouse 535 in Lafayette; and Sunday, February 11 at the Maple Leaf Bar.