“I see how this is gonna be.”
That was Art Neville’s pronouncement ten minutes into a joint interview with George Porter, Jr., his musical collaborator of almost 30 years. Neville had already realized that reconciling his view of the past and present state of the Meters with Porter’s would not be a quick and easy process.
The sparring had started even before the interview began, when Neville and Porter—the sole remaining original members of the Meters, and cornerstones of the entire New Orleans music community—were in the kitchen of Neville’s renovated 13th Ward home, snacking on sushi. Porter wanted to bring some of the food upstairs to Art’s home studio/computer lab, where the interview was to be conducted. No way, said Neville—no food in the studio. “And clean up your mess,” he scolded. “What you think this is?”
They can act just like brothers, or maybe old widowed sisters. As Neville would explain later, “We’re two grumpy old motherfuckers. I’m grumpier than he is ’cause I’m older than he is [Neville is 57, Porter 47]. I’m grumpier than he’s ever gonna be.”
“You’ve got a few more years of grump on me,” noted Porter, laughing.
Art is also narcoleptic. Had he not nodded out for a good chunk of the ensuing conversation, he and Porter might still be debating whether or not Art overdubbed his organ parts on the original “Cissy Strut.”
Most of this verbal jousting is done in jest. Says funky Meters manager Steve Eggerton, “If you’re ever on the bus with this band, it’s outrageous laughter the whole time. There’s a spirit, there’s a love, there’s a camaraderie, that’s off the map.”
It was not always like this.
Arthur “Art” Neville was already a seasoned vet of the local R&B scene when, in the late ’60s, he recruited drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, and bassist Porter [Art’s younger brother Cyril was added as a vocalist and percussionist several years later] for what would become one of the most important and influential bands to come out of New Orleans.
The Meters were the ultimate Big Easy band, in terms of the depth of the slinky funk grooves they cut—and, unfortunately, the degree to which they were cheated and ripped off.
Frustrations over tangled business affairs, coupled with disagreement over how to adapt to changing popular tastes and aggravated by some members’ substance abuse, finally split up the Meters in 1979.
Except for a couple of reunion shows, the band was silent throughout the ’80s. In 1989, they regrouped, with Russell Batiste taking over Zigaboo’s drum chair. They found a musical climate much more receptive to their brand of funk, and quickly acquired a new young following.
When Nocentelli, still frustrated by longstanding business disagreements, quit in 1993, Porter and Neville brought in Neville Brothers band alumnus Brian Stoltz, changed the band’s name to the funky Meters, and kept on keeping on. Today, the funky Meters attract bigger crowds than any previous version of the group. “This band, at this moment, is the most popular that any Meters band has ever been,” says Eggerton, who started with the Meters 20-odd years ago as a driver and roadie.
Thus far, the regrouped band has existed solely as a live entity (they perform at the Fair Grounds on May 5). New CDs bearing the Meters name have turned up from time to time, but for the most part they have been haphazard collections of second-rate material, unendorsed—and sometimes publicly criticized—by the band.
But everyone seems pleased with Funkify Your Life: The Meters Anthology, a new 43-track collection from Rhino Records. It draws from the band’s early instrumental recordings on Josie Records, as well as its later work for Reprise/Warner Brothers. The music is packaged with extensive liner notes (and vintage photos that capture the band at the height of mid-’70s Afro-and-bell bottom fashion). Sound quality is high, but two other major concerns were also addressed: an effort was made to assign proper credit for songwriting, and, the musicians report, they are being paid fairly.
Maybe, before the year is out, new funky Meters tracks will be committed to record. Both Neville and Porter have been working on material in their home studios, but neither has had much time lately, or will any time soon. Porter is one of 27 bassists contributing to a “funk bass players of the world” compilation for a Japanese label (which should be available as an import in late fall). Soon, he will start recording the next album by Runnin’ Pardners, the popular R&B/funk band he leads.
And Art, of course, is one fourth of the Neville Brothers. He’ll be on the road with them for much of the summer, and is working on tracks for the Brothers’ next album.
But they spent two-and-a-half hours putting their perspective on what they do as the core of the funky Meters. They covered much ground: how they first met, the politics involved in making Cyril Neville a Meter 20 years ago (which still causes sparks), the nuts and bolts about how the band functions live.
The session finally ended when Porter had to leave for a private tutoring session (he’s working towards a GED). Art, however, was not finished. After commenting on a couple of questions that he’d dozed through, he insisted on playing rough tapes of new Neville Brothers material.
Here, then, is the current state of Art and George:
Tell me about the first time you guys met. What was your initial impression of one another?
Neville: I thought he was a snotty-nosed kid. But he never would have been playing with me if I didn’t like him.
George, what did you think of Art?
Neville: He was scared.
Porter: He was the draw. He was the man that supposedly knew the business.
Neville: Wait, hold it. What do you mean “supposedly”?
Porter: Well, basically, I knew his reputation from his songs that I heard. Mostly the “Mardi Gras Mambo” song. A lot of his stuff, I didn’t know. “Mardi Gras Mambo” got more airplay than the other things he did.
Neville: You don’t know what you’re talking about. “Mardi Gras Mambo” got played at Mardi Gras. That’s the only time. I had a bunch of other ones.
Porter: I know you had a lot of other songs out. That’s what I’m sayin’—I never heard of ’em. I knew more Aaron Neville songs than I knew Art Neville songs.
Neville: George, George, George…slow down, bruh. Aaron wasn’t even singing back then. When I met you Aaron didn’t have no songs out then.
Porter: When I first met you, Aaron had just came off the road from doing “Tell It Like It Is.” When I lived right around the corner from here, Aaron had out “Sweet Little Mama,” all those songs. I was living around here long before you knew who I was.
Neville: I knew who you was.
Porter: No you didn’t, Art. You didn’t have no idea who I was.
Neville: You were the aggravating little dude in the neighborhood.
Porter: No, you didn’t [know], bruh, because you never was home. You was travelin’. You were on the road.
Neville: George, what year did you move here?
Porter: I moved around here, it must have been…I had just got done with school, so it had to be sixty-…
Neville: Well, I’m talkin’ about fifty-something, bruh.
Porter: Whatever you’re talking about in the ’50s, I can’t be involved with. I was living downtown. I’m sayin’ that when I moved around here, Aaron had already recorded “Sweet Little Mama,” a bunch of songs. I remember Cyril singin’ “Sweet Little Mama” on the stoop over there [the Neville brothers grew up in a house near Art’s current home].
Neville: The first song that Aaron had was “Waiting at the Station.”
Porter: “Waiting at the Station,” that was already out. All that stuff was out when I first moved around here.
Neville: I had “Cha Dooky-Do.”
Porter: I didn’t hear about “Cha Dooky-Do.”
Neville: “Oooh-Whee Baby.”
Porter: I knew about “Oooh-Whee Baby” and “Mardi Gras Mambo,” I think. Those were the only Art Neville songs I knew.
Neville: If I had known that at that time, you wouldn’t have got the gig.
Porter: I had never heard those songs before. That’s the truth. Leo Nocentelli told me that was Art Neville singing “Mardi Gras Mambo,” because on the records, it always had the Hawketts. I never knew who the singer was.
I remember in this neighborhood, in school I was like two grades ahead of Cyril. Cyril was in Zig’s class, and I think my little brother was in that class.
You two first played together in the Neville Sounds?
Neville: It was the Hawketts. We changed to the Neville Sounds when we went to the Nite Cap. When he first started playing with me, it was the Hawketts.
Porter: I think the very first gig I ever went on with Art, I was a guitar player.
Neville: Nooo, George.
Porter: Yeah, because you hired Herbert Wing to play the gig, and Herbert Wing couldn’t play the gig, and Herbert sent me in his place.
Neville: And luckily, you had a bass.
Porter: Richard Amos was the bass player. Richard went to the Marine Corps during Vietnam. The next time Art called me, it was for a fraternity gig, I believe, and I played bass on that gig. I didn’t even have an instrument at that time. I was playing Herbert Wing’s instrument. He had a Gibson bass that looked like a violin. That was the first two times I played with Art, then I never saw him again until he came back off the road with Aaron.
George,you’re Zigaboo’s cousin?
Porter: He’s my third cousin, on my grandmother’s side of the family.
Neville: He’s lying. [sings directly into tape recorder] “Beetlejuice is lying.” No, I’m kidding. He’s telling the truth.
Art, I’m curious as to how you evolved from the doo-wop of the Hawketts into what became the Neville Sounds and the Meters. Obviously you started playing organ more.
Neville: I didn’t play organ. I played piano. Most of the time, I didn’t play nothing. I was playing in a group with [drummer] Smokey Johnson and [guitarist] Snooks Eaglin and me, and I was just standing up singing. The Hawketts were a big band. We had everything but a bass.
George, when you first started playing with Art, it was just a gig. You didn’t necessarily think or hope that it would turn into something permanent.
Neville: It wasn’t just a gig. When I decided not to do the Hawkett thing, it was like “Art Neville and the Neville Sounds featuring Aaron Neville, Cyril Neville, George Porter, Leo Nocentelli”—everybody’s name was featured, it wasn’t just my name up there by itself. It was the Neville Sounds—it wasn’t the Meters then. We went down to the Ivanhoe [on Bourbon Street], after they fired us from the Nite Cap after a couple years.
And that was the story where the stage at the Ivanhoe wasn’t big enough for the whole Neville Sounds, so you had to scale the band down.
Neville: We scaled it down. Then Aaron and Cyril formed a group.
Porter: They formed that band long before. You don’t remember, Art.
Neville: You’re telling me what I don’t remember? [This is debated for several moments, until manager Steve Eggerton intercedes. “George, say he was right.” “He ain’t gotta tell me I’m right,” Art interjects. “I know what I’m talkin’ about.”]
So let’s see…you decided to name the band the Meters. You drew the name out of a hat.
Neville: That’s the juicy part. Somebody didn’t want my name to be on the motherfuckin’ record. We were putting one record out with my name on it, “Bo Diddley” and some other shit, and when the instrumental [“Sophisticated Cissy”] came out, we had to pick a name that didn’t have nothing to do with me at all.
And was the name literally picked out of a hat?
Neville: Everybody put in their name. [Manager/producer] Marshall Sehorn came up with the name “The Meters.”
Porter: No. [Producer] Allen Toussaint put in the name “The Meters.” Zig put in a name called “Mark IV” or something like that, Leo wanted something else, I put in the name “The Metrics” and Art put in the name “Art Neville and the Neville Sounds Band.” And “The Meters” came out.
Art, you were looking out for your own interests.
Neville: I wasn’t looking out for my own interests. That’s how it started out.
In the liner notes to the Funkify Your Life anthology, there is some uncertainty about who came up with the main lick in “Cissy Strut.” Do either of you guys remember who actually came up with that riff?
Porter: Leo Nocentelli played the lick first.
Neville: No, I did.
[Porter shakes his head; Neville is messing with him. Everyone else in the room laughs. Then Neville states that he overdubbed his parts on the song, while Porter insists that the studio where it was cut didn’t have overdubbing capabilities.]
Neville: I overdubbed the organ part on all those fuckin’ songs. I wasn’t there when y’all played it.
Porter: Not on “Cissy Strut,” man.
Neville: I overdubbed the part because I wasn’t there, something had happened!
[They argue for several moments. Neville goes to the Hammond B-3 in the room, and plays a few notes of “Cissy Strut.”]
Neville: You don’t remember that shit? I overdubbed that shit, George. [He plays the riff again.] Stick it in your head, man.
Porter: Cos [Cosimo Matassa] didn’t have the ability to do overdubs. That’s why we moved to Atlanta to do the second tune.
Neville: I don’t know what you’re talking about, George.
Maybe this is an interesting point to inject a question about you guys’ working relationship.
Neville: You mean then, or now?
Neville: Oh, it’s cool now.
Watching you guys onstage, there’s a lot of eye contact between you two. You play off of each other a lot.
Porter: We argue a lot. We argue through the fucking set. [laughs] But that’s what the Meters have always been about. [laughs more]
Neville: Why you want to tell him that shit? Hold it. When I met George, he was in a mental institution. He don’t remember this shit. Is that tape running?
Neville: Awww, shit. OK. Never mind. Forget about all that.
At your recent gig in Lafayette, when you guys went from “The World Is A Little Bit Under the Weather” into “Jungle Man,” Art, you threw up your hands in mock frustration, and George, you laughed at him.
Porter: Me and Russell got signals between each other, so I can let him know what [song is next]. I have to give him enough time to think of the changing of the grooves, especially when there’s a big serious jump between an uptempo funk thing to a very slow funk thing, like “Jungle Man” would call for. You’ve got to give him enough time to count that shit off in his head, so he can slow it down in his head, think half-time the way he’s playing, and then do it.
So I did the growl sound [the signal for “Jungle Man”] and Art got pissed ’cause he always says I’m giving the song away. But nobody else out there knew what it was.
Neville: How nobody else knew? [He imitates Porter’s Tarzan-like signal to Batiste.] What the fuck that means? What else is it? [Everyone in the room laughs.]
But don’t you guys work from a set list?
Neville: We have a set list, but we ball it up and throw the mother away. It’s a cheat sheet.
Porter: Just in case we run out of shit to think about. We usually never do that. Now, today, we have more songs to choose from than we had two-and-a-half years ago. We have more material that we’ve worked up from the older stuff. On nights that Art feels he wants to do a lot of singing, then we do a lot of singing and we don’t do a lot of the instrumental things that we go back to. On the nights that he don’t do a lot of singing, we tend to play them. A lot of times, we have to force some of those instrumental things in, because he wants to sing. When we’re on the road, he’ll sing all night.
George, are you the one that is calling out the songs?
Porter: Actually, in Lafayette, Art called 60 percent of the set.
Neville: I can’t take the credit for that. See, what it is is what he’s playing. Sometimes he’s playing grooves, and if I hit a groove and all of a sudden an idea comes to my mind, sometimes I done trick myself and couldn’t pull it off. A couple of times, he comes up with some stuff that’s amazing, because we couldn’t figure out how we got out of one meter we was in—I want to say the tempo, but the meter—into another one that was totally different, and it worked. To me, that’s the fun part of this thing.
Half the time, I don’t have no idea what he’s calling. The best part, to me, is when the shit just evolves into some other stuff. One time, we was trying to do “Junco Partner” or something…
Porter: You were trying to do “Iko Iko.”
Neville: My mind was telling me, “Yeah, ‘Iko,'” but when I tried to sing, nothing happened.
But some nights it’s totally incredible. It depends on where he goes at. A lot of time when I change the groove, and if he done told Russell something already, and poor Brian’ll be over there…Then sometimes him [Porter] and Brian’s over there whispering and shoo-shooin’ together, and I’m gettin’ pissed—I have no idea what these guys are talking about. [Is it] me? That’s when I go to pulling [my gun out]. I’m joking.
It works out. Some nights I’m so hoarse that I can’t get nothing out, if I’ve come off a set with my brothers and I was singing with them. Fortunately, George can sing all this stuff too, so we never really run into where we’re jammed up. Brian even sings.
Porter: There have been some nights where both of us couldn’t sing. So we pull out the instrumental stuff. Or we do a whole lot of jammin’.
That’s one of the nice parts about the band. One of the things that always upset me was it seemed like everybody was always wanting to pit the two bands [the Neville Brothers and’ the Meters] against each other. It should never get to that. The two bands aren’t in competition with each other. This band is more a instrumentally-oriented band than the Brothers. And the Brothers are definitely a vocal group. They have more vocals to use. Their chances of running out of vocalists are slim to none, whereas our chance of running out…Art has the more professional voice. That has more tendency to get in trouble quicker than the rest of us, because he uses his vocal chords correct, and when you use your vocal chords the correct way you usually run them down faster. Me and Brian are screamers for the most part. Screamers don’t all the time run out of gas.
Neville: Stop for a minute. You’re wrong. My vocal chords go ’cause you play so loud. [laughter] This dude plays so loud, he don’t have an idea he’s deaf. He could have been in Def Leppard or one of them groups like that.
Porter: I don’t play loud, man.
Neville: Oh, man, give me a break! My pants leg be blowin’ from your speakers!
I’ll never forget [Neville chuckles]. We’re on the road, we’re playing in Canada. I’m out in front [onstage] with a Farfisa organ, ego-trippin’ and shit, him and Leo got their amps pointed directly at me. I had to go to the doctor for my ears—when I come off the gig, I couldn’t hear nothing at all.
Have you ever thought about wearing earplugs onstage?
Neville: Yeah. At one time I had to wear ’em. I could just feel the floor and tell what George was playing.
I’m exaggerating a little bit. A lot of it depends on the cat out front who is [working the sound board].
Porter: The way we set up now, Art is farther away from the speaker than I am. The way he sets up, he’s on the front of the stage on an angle with the house system.
Neville: I can hear you now, but it’s not directly at me. It’s comfortable now.
Porter: Now I set up [my amps] on the other side of the stage [away from Neville].
Who was responsible for digging up some of the old tunes that you hadn’t been doing, like “Tippi-Toes” and “Here Comes the Meter Man”?
Porter: Well, I think I got to take that—
Neville: Awww, bruh, you telling me—
Porter: [laughing] You see! You never give me credit, Art!
Neville: I’m gonna give you credit now!
Porter: OK, strike my statement. Let Art make it.
Neville: He insisted that we do the old shit, and I’m saying, “No, let’s go up there and play.” But he was right. The old shit—I shouldn’t even call it old shit, because the generation of kids that are listening to it now, it’s not old to them, it’s brand new stuff.
[Directly into recorder] George Porter Jr. is responsible for a lot of the old stuff we do, especially “He Bite Me.”
Neville: I’m gonna be honest. They got two of them tunes I really don’t like. I ain’t gonna call the names.
I’m guessing “Chicken Strut”…
Neville: That’s one of ’em.
Porter: He don’t like “Tippi-Toes.” There’s two that the licks are so similar, that he has trouble.
Neville: The only trouble I have is when we do them—
Neville: —back-to-back, because at the time when we recorded the stuff, my playing ability was really limited. I was just messing around with the organ, and just was lucky enough that I could get a sound out of it. Where all the other organ players were trying to sound like Jimmy Smith, I wasn’t. My influences was James Booker, Bill Doggett, Booker T—that’s the cats I listened to.
E is the easiest key for the guitar and the bass to play in. That’s the worst key for me, a keyboard player. Therefore, most of the solos I played sounded alike to me. It wasn’t exactly alike. But playing two songs that sound so close back-to-back—we should break them up.
Porter: He was always bothered by the melodic line itself. His part was very similar. He played different notes, but he thinks, and I try to tell him all the time, because it’s not really that, but that’s his approach—
Neville: You gonna tell me? I’m the one that took [Porter] from his home.
Porter: He took me from my home and he taught me. That’s why I’m able to be a leader now. ‘Cause I learned from a master.
Going back to the old days for a moment…looking at some of the mid-’70s Meters photos in the Funkify Your Life booklet, I’m guessing you didn’t have any sort of fashion consultant.
Porter: That’s a cold shot.
Neville: We had a fashion consultant, but I don’t want to mention who it was.
Porter: [looking through the CD booklet] Leo’s wife, I think, designed some of these things.
Neville: [pointing to a photo of himself in an outfit studded with rhinestones] I made all of this myself.
You made this?
Neville: I made that whole thing myself.
Porter: Leo’s wife made us some outfits.
Neville: That was the dashikas. They looked like draperies.
Porter: [admiring one of his bell-bottomed outfits, which features what appears to be a length of rope around his waist] My mom made this suit…
The one with the rope?
Porter: That was actually a piece of a curtain. That was a [cord] that pulled the curtains open.
Neville: I was a Jackson 5 freak. I used to dress…that’s the way they used to dress. With the rhinestone designs, I just started doing it, and whatever came out…
Porter: We had outfits made of tablecloths and shit. I had a whole outfit that had “No Dumping” on it—little signs that said “No Dumping.”
Art, tell the road story about George and the dog.
Neville: We stopped to eat somewhere [in Florida]. George must have come back first, ’cause he was in the car when we got in. We’re going, he didn’t say nothing to nobody, nobody suspected anything. About 300 miles [later], I was hearing a sound back there, some whimpering. I knew it was him without even asking. I said, “What you got in your coat?”
Porter: It was a little puppy. Art put him out on the side of the highway in the swamps of Florida. The dog probably turned out to be alligator bait.
Were you traveling in a van?
Porter: We were traveling in a blue Mercury station wagon with a blue ice cream truck on the back that Lee Dorsey had made into a trailer.
[Manager Eggerton quips that “a 20-foot bear probably ate that puppy”—which triggers another road story.]
Porter: We was on Haynes Boulevard [in what is now New Orleans East] one night. We had just played on the Lakefront somewhere and we were on our way out of town. I looked behind us, and—I say 20 foot, because that’s how big it [seemed]—there was a bear on the highway. And nobody believed me.
Now George, this was the time when you were still…
Porter: I was doin’ a lot of acid then [laughter]. But I seriously believe I saw the bear. I’ve never changed my story. I never took under consideration that I could have been trippin’, because I saw it. That bear is very real to me.
[Neville has nodded out at this point.]
Any other fun road stories that can be repeated for the record?
Porter: This is a good one. The first time we played Tuscaloosa, Alabama, we played a little club right off the campus [of the University of Alabama]. At this time we had just come out. This had to be ’68, something like that. We was on the road for the first time. Nobody knew what the band looked like, [but] “Cissy Strut” and “Sophisticated Cissy” was in the pop charts.
So this club hired us. When we got there, this old black guy opened the back door for us. He said, “Oh, y’all bringing in the equipment for the band?” And Art told him, “No, we are the band.” And the guy said, “Ohhh, lawdy! Ohhh, lawdy!” [laughter]
The guy went and called the owner of the club, and the guy came by and said, “Well, they didn’t tell me y’all was black!” We said, “Whoa, boy, this is gonna be a tough night.”
The whole night, all we played was “Cissy Strut” and “Sophisticated Cissy.” We had to play those songs over and over. We wanted to keep them happy.
That was our first predominantly white audience. We didn’t cross over and start playing for white clubs and white audiences until maybe ’73. Earlier than that, we would do the Apollo Theater, the Uptown Theater, all the little black theaters. And then we played every little black club up and down, from Charlotte to Atlanta to Greensboro, Jacksonville, Miami. We played on some big shows in auditoriums with the Isley Brothers, B.B. King, the Staple Singers. This is before George Clinton and the Commodores and those guys were out there. In fact, the Commodores played a show with us, I think it was at Tuskegee—the Commodores opened that show.
How did the band evolve from doing primarily instrumental numbers to vocal numbers?
Porter: We were having trouble as an instrumental band in the late ’60s because we weren’t really an instrumental band when we first started out. When we was playing at the Nite Cap and on Bourbon Street, Art was the lead singer. And Cyril and Aaron Neville would [sit in with] us a lot.
Talk about the origins of “They All Asked For You,” one of the Meters’ big contributions to Mardi Gras.
Porter: We had been singing “They All Asked For You” since the Nite Cap days. That was the one song that Zig got a microphone for and would sing, ’cause generally Zig wouldn’t have a microphone. He would sing “the monkey’s ass,” the way the old folks would sing it to him.
That song got brought to us by Zig, from parties that he remembered his parents having at the house where one of the old guys would sing it. We cleaned it up, ’cause it wasn’t going to get no commercial airplay.
Tell me about the decision to bring Cyril Neville into the band.
Porter: The decision to bring Cyril into the band had a lot to do with, one, Art’s ultimate dream was to have his brothers play with the Meters band, with the four of us. I think that was his ultimate dream. [Neville is still snoozing. so is unable to comment.]
The reason why the [rest of the] band fought against it more than anything was because as a group of musicians who played more [than sang], once we had all those singers, then we were going to be a back-up band. I think that was our selfish way of, as musicians, trying to survive the vocal power of the Neville brothers. There’s no way of denying the greatness of voices. That, to an instrumentalist, is death. So as a band, we fought it.
When Art came to us, he said, “We need a front person to go do this Rolling Stones thing” [the Meters were the opening act for the Stones’ ’75 tour]. Cyril was put in the band for one reason: Art was gonna quit if we didn’t do it. Art said, “This is what we need to do. I ain’t going out in front of the Rolling Stones and not be ready:
At the time, to some people it wasn’t a bad idea. Two of us thought that in six months we’ll get blackmailed into doing it again.
Cyril did Fire On the Bayou, Trick Bag and New Directions. He did a cameo on Cabbage Alley. Art pretty much stopped singing [when Cyril came in], which for me, I thought was a bad sacrifice.
I was one of the persons, of course, that did object to Cyril coming into the band, because I knew what was going to happen—that the whole shift was going to go in the direction of what Zig and Cyril was, which was a lot more militant than what Art was. The songs that Zig sang were more aggressive, and Cyril was coming with that same real strong, aggressive [songs]. Whereas Art did all the really hip shit that we did.
Which ones are you talking about?
Porter: “Ain’t No Use.” He don’t like to do this song no more. “Wild Flower.” “Ride Your Pony.” These were some of the things that weren’t as aggressive as “Come Together” or “Just Kissed My Baby.”
When you guys were used as backing musicians for other artists, was there ever a situation where a producer or someone else told you, “Don’t try to be so much like the Meters, you’re a backing band”?
Porter: Some sessions we played was like that, but most of the sessions we was brought in to be the Meters. Like Robert Palmer, for instance—they wanted our ideas. They just didn’t want to give us credit for ’em. And they didn’t. He forgot about us.
He came back for the second album, to do the same thing. But this time we sat on our hands and said, “What do you want us to play?” I think we did three or four songs and then he left. He went to California and used Little Feat, ’cause Little Feat was supposed to be the “white Meters,” and they were more open to playing their ideas and have him take credit for ’em.
Tell the story about how Allen Toussaint apparently wasn’t in the studio when a lot of Meters stuff was recorded, but he stuck his head in one day and said, “Oh, you guys are playing the same old stuff.” Then that became the basis for a song title.
Porter: The only song that I ever wrote in my life for this band…I wrote this instrumental thing. It had no name. We were in the studio listening to the playback and Allen stuck his head in the room as the song was ending. He said, “Huh, some of the same old thing,” and walked out.
As a young writer—this was the first song that I wrote that I actually got the band to record—it was devastating. It wiped me out. It was years before I even brought another song to the band.
But Zig found humor in it. The band liked the song. The engineer said, “What we gonna call this song?” And Zig said, “Same Old Thing.”
When Art decided to leave the band, that was after the Stones tour but before the Meters appeared on Saturday Night Live.
Porter: New Directions [the Meters’ last album] had been recorded, and it was on the way home from the session on the airplane that Art quit the band. Rupert Surcouf [the Meters’ manager in the mid-’70s] handed us a contract…he had the right to ask for the dogs, the cats, the puppies and stuff. Well, Rupert was asking for the dogs, the cats, the puppies and the first-born children, and was offering nothing. The band said no.
The Wild Tchoupitoulas album had been released and was starting to make some underground noises. Rupert told Art that if “this don’t work, let’s leave the band and let’s go do the Wild Tchoupitoulas. This band is doomed.” That’s what went down. Maybe not in so many words, but that’s exactly what it was.
You and Leo and Zig carried on for a while without Art. What finally made you guys decide to call it a day?
Porter: I left the band in ’79 basically because I didn’t like the direction the music was going in. We started playing Top 40 songs, and was abandoning the stuff that the Meters was about. Leo and Zig both were really into commercial music. They were starting to write commercial songs, and was abandoning what we musically was about—the funk stuff. They wanted to be more like the Commodores, like Earth, Wind and Fire. Zig at one time even told me that I ought to start playing like [Sly and the Family Stone bassist] Larry Graham.
That’s when I left the band—outside of the fact that the band started interfering with my strong efforts to stay high. My high was always being damaged by this bullshit.
When you guys put the band back together in ’89, the initial impetus was playing together at a club gig, correct?
Porter: In ’88, Leo called me up to come out to California to play some Nocentelli dates with him. I went out there and we had a good time. This was the first time in nine years that I had played any of those songs, and it was cool. For me, I had x-ed the Meters out of my life. After I left the band, I had exiled myself from everybody. I hadn’t spoken to Art in nine years. I had pretty much eliminated those guys from my life.
When Leo called me up, I had just gotten sober. He asked me about playing the dates, and I told him, “Yeah, but it has to be under these circumstances, because I’m like this now, and I don’t like to be around this and this.” He said everything would be alright.
I had such a good time. I came home and thought about it. This was just before Mardi Gras, so I called him and said, “Hey, I can get this club, let’s do the same gig in New Orleans. We’ll use some local people—I’ll get [keyboardist] David Torkanowsky and [drummer] Russell Batiste to play the gig.” So we did a gig at the Absolute—it used to be next door to where Sound Warehouse is on Tchoupitoulas.
We called the band GeoLeo. The Jazz Fest people heard the band and invited us to do the Jazz Festival. Leo and I played the Jazz Fest on a Saturday afternoon, and that night we played Jimmy’s. Torkanowsky didn’t make those gigs—he was off somewhere else—so John Autin was playing keyboards with us. Well, Art showed up at the gig. Him and John did a tag-team thing for the gig at the piano. Every time we would start a song off, Art would say, “Oh, I remember that,” and he would tap John on the shoulder, and John would get up and Art would play the song. John got tapped the whole night, and Art winded up playing the whole thing.
About three or four months later, Leo had been talking back and forth to Art and said, “We ought to go do this—I can get this gig in San Francisco, it will pay a nice little piece of money. You want to come out and do it?” And Art said sure.
I think that San Francisco gig was the one that catapulted us to where we are. We played a club called Last Day Saloon. We sold out the Friday and Saturday show. Saturday evening, the [club owner] came to us after the show and said, “You guys want to play a Sunday afternoon matinee? I’ve already sold it out—I’ll just give you the whole pot.” People were coming from New York and Portland to see us play.
When we got home, I was the front office for the most part, and my phone never stopped ringing.
When you guys did that first reunion gig, did you invite Zig to come along?
Porter: Zig was invited, yes, and he turned it down. He said that he wasn’t interested. His reasons were that he thought there was other, more pressing Meters business that should be taken care of before we go back out and start playing as a band. And if we were going to go back out and play as a band, we should take that money and [put it] towards this more pressing business [trying to resolve old publishing disputes over ownership of Meters songs] that none of us saw as being pressing.
When he decided not to come on board, did you guys hesitate?
Porter: No. It was already a money-making situation that was rolling without him. It’s the same reason why the band didn’t stop—we didn’t hesitate one bit—when Leo quit [in late ’93]. I think the music itself is bigger than the band. I think the music is bigger than the individuals. There was some people that came with reservations about Russell, there were some people that came with reservations about Brian [Stoltz]. But they didn’t stop coming [to the shows]. I took that to be acceptance.
Brian and Brint Anderson [the guitarist in Porter’s Runnin’ Pardners] were the only guitarists the Meters auditioned. You obviously wanted to keep it in the family.
Porter: Brian’s playing with the Neville Brothers won out. I thought he didn’t win the audition, but he won out because of his experience with the Neville Brothers and actually playing with them. He came less prepared to the audition then Brint did, but the fact that he had put in more time with them, I think…Art was a little more willing to play with Brian than Brint. So I said OK.
It’s worked. I haven’t had sleepless nights because of the choice.
The big difference with Brian in the band instead of Leo is there are a lot less lengthy guitar solos and jamming.
Porter: Well, there’s a lot less meaningless jamming. The jamming now has more meaning, has more dynamics to it, whereas the jamming before was just guitar ejaculation. The jamming now is in more consideration of the other players. It’s not as loud, and [Brian] plays with us. He’s conscious of the other things going on around him. He may be in the middle of a solo, and while he’s playing the solo, I may start playing a little lick that feels good and has a place. He’s so aware of what’s going on in the rest of the band that he’ll start playing that little lick with me, because he liked it too, and me and him will play that little lick together for a little while.
He’s only aware to do that because he can hear what I’m doing, and he’s aware of what I’m playing and what Art’s playing. While he’s soloing, he’ll go over to Art’s side of the stage and play so he can hear more of what Art is doing, just so he can play around it.
Unfortunately, with Leo it wasn’t like that. When Leo took a solo, all you heard was Leo, and all he heard was Leo.
Have you spoken to Leo or Zig recently?
Porter: Not Leo. I spoke with Zig a couple months ago. I think Art spoke with him a lot more recently. [Neville is still asleep] Zig came out to a Runnin’ Pardners show [in California].
To what do you attribute the popularity of this latest incarnation of the Meters?
Porter: I think what lives on in this band is what we were always about, but now we’re more about it. We’re playing the music that the people know. We’re not just playing music that we like. There are a few songs that we don’t like that we do play, because they’re good Meters songs, and after hearing people scream out the name of the song for so long, we figured we should play it.
The first night we did “The World Is A Little Bit Under the Weather,” that was not a rehearsed thing. I was in the middle of a bass solo, and I just went into a groove. I stayed in it and waited to see if anybody was going to jump in. And they jumped in.
Talking about your playing live, a lot of the other bands that your fans are into—the Grateful Dead, the Dave Matthews Band, and even the Black Crowes—are allowing fans to tape shows. There is a big underground Meters tape-trading system, but you guys don’t let people tape openly.
Porter: The problem that I have with it is…one of the things the Meters used to do more than anything is we wrote while playing. A lot of our music came from live gigs. We never rehearsed, except maybe once or twice in our whole careers. Most of our albums were wrote in the studio. That’s why we had such enormous studio bills—we spent a lot of time writing shit in the studio. Especially the Josie stuff, the instrumental stuff. Not until we started doing Rejuvenation, when Leo started writing songs at home, Art and Zig was writing songs at home.
“Fire on the Bayou,” if I’m not mistaken, was done in Thibodeaux, Louisiana in a dressing room before a Dr. John show. We went out clanging the cowbells playing “Fire on the Bayou” and walked out onstage.
[Says manager Steve Eggerton: “We somewhat resist the taping of shows live on the spot in case there is one of those two minutes of uncopywritten Meters magic that’ll be a tune. If that’s not on the tape, we’ll let it go. Or if there’s a set that has a piece of something new, we might take that one minute out, and let ’em rip.]
There are a lot of live Meters tapes floating around out there.
Porter: When we first [reformed the Meters], Russell Batiste was a serious leak. I’d make tapes of all the gigs for all the players. I’d give Russell a case of tapes [laughs]… One day a kid came to me and said, “I already paid Russell for the tapes, and he said he had to get them from you, so I came to pick them up.” [laughs] Russell was out there dealing tapes! So much for that. If I gave Russell 56 tapes, every one of them is out there.
The first time we played the Last Chance Saloon in California, our roadie at the time said, “This is a tape I took from a guy in the audience.” I listened to it, and said, “Damn! This sounds better than my tape [of the gig].” A guy sitting across the aisle from me [on the plane home] said, “Check this one out.” [laughs] You can’t stop it.
The reason I freak out about it is because this band does do a lot of live writing. Too many times we’ve heard shit that we’ve written get to record before we get to record with it.
You guys are a lot happier with Rhino’s Funkify Your Life than Rounder’s The Meters Jam and some of the other reissues. What was your input on Funkify?
Porter: I think we okayed the song lineup. What I enjoyed about this record is mostly that 90 percent of the stuff [in the liner notes] is closer to being correct than on any of the Rounder projects, where they would attribute songs to us as being written in the ’60s that had Cyril on it—Cyril was never in the studio with us in the ’60s.
[Neville is now awake.]
Neville: Some of the baddest shit we did was with Cyril. I’m gonna add my part in now…
If Cyril hadn’t come out on the road with us with the Rolling Stones, no matter how much funky shit we was playing, we would have died. You can’t go in front them kind of audiences and just stand up there just playin’, and think you’re gonna go over. It wasn’t going to happen. Simple as that.
Porter: I sort of mentioned that. I personally thought we could have gone up there and played in front of anybody.
Neville: [To go] from a dance band, where everybody was dancing their asses off, to playing in front of a different kind of audience, where you got a whole bunch of people don’t know how to dance…you better have some kind of focal thing up on that stage to keep their attention other than just cats playing.
The Rolling Stones wouldn’t let the show start until they got there, so they could sit and watch us. They weren’t just watching me, George and Leo and Zig—they were watching Cyril, too.
Porter: My thoughts were the Stones approached us about doing the gig before Cyril was in the band. Cyril was in the band because it was a good idea to have someone out front to compete with a Mick Jagger. When they approached us about doing the gig, we were a four-piece, instrumental, Art Neville-singing band. That’s what we were. My personal feelings is, we didn’t fail because Cyril was there. And because he was there when we went into it, we never will find out whether we could have done it without him.
What happened inside of this band, and was the demise of this band, was mostly that the band started not believing in what it started out doing. As we progressed, the band kept wanting to change and either be more commercial, or a band that had somebody out front doing the dancing stuff, instead of the stuff that put us on the map—the instrumental, sneaky, funky stuff. That put us out there.
Neville: But it wasn’t going to keep us out there.
Porter: It’s what’s paying the bills now.
Neville: All that other stuff had something to do with it too.
Porter: I’m not saying that it didn’t have nothing to do it.
Leo and Zig wrote a tune called “Disco Is the Thing Today” [on the Trick Bag album] to compete with the disco music that was getting ready to put most bands like us out of business. Leo and them wrote that song, thinking, “Man, we’re gonna get a hit, ’cause everything out there is disco.” That record went out and the disc jockeys were breaking that record on the air. I understood—I didn’t like it, I thought it was terrible.
We didn’t need to do that kind of shit. That was because of the band wanting to be as successful as some of the groups that came after us. That’s understandable, but I thought all we had to do was seek within ourselves, and find how to make what we were doing more presentable to these audiences. But it was something that we had no control over. Our music wasn’t being presented to that market. Why? Bad management. Bad misrepresentation. That wasn’t our fault.
This music is the roots of all that shit you hear out there. Booker T probably went through the same shit.
Neville: I was listening to Booker T before we started playing that shit. That’s where I got a bunch of the shit I was playing.
Porter: I know! I’m talking about that same major success thing. They didn’t have gold records.
Neville: But he had hits. He had R&B hits.
Porter: We had some R&B hits.
Neville: We had R&B hits. We were real black and real broke.
Porter: Nobody can do what we do.
Everyone is happy with the Rhino package.
Porter: They corrected all the publishing on this album. [to Art] You got all the right credits on songs that you hadn’t been getting publishing on for 10, 12 years.
[The Rhino people] were the first ones that were even interested enough to ask us about this shit. The Rounder Records stuff got us credited for songs we didn’t even write! We’ve got an instrumental song, on the Jam album, it’s an organ song, and the keyboard player ain’t Art Neville, it’s Fred Reilly playing organ. “Trip.” It’s a Jimmy McGriff song or something. [angrily] Them people kept no records on nothing. They had a bunch of shit in there “untitled”—they just went in there and named the shit “Trip.” I don’t ever remember naming a song “Trip.”
They’ve got Art playing on “Voodoo”—”Voodoo” was recorded when Art was out of the band. They’ve got another one—”All I Do Every Day.” That’s just me and Zig. I’m playing two guitar parts and bass. There’s no keyboards, and Zig is singing. He’s not even playing set drums—he’s playing a drum machine. They got us all down as writers, and they got us all on the song. The song was just me and Zig.
The two of you have a spirited relationship, a good-natured competition…
Neville: It’s not a competition. We’re gonna argue ’til we dead, that’s all.
Porter: Yeah; but I always respect my elders. [He shoots Neville a look] Especially when they carry automatics. [laughter]
Neville: Let me tell you this. If it wasn’t fun…He’s 47, I’m 57. You see all this shit I’ve got in this room? [he gestures at the expensive computer and recording gear] With the amount of money I make with my brothers, I could stay home.
I enjoy doing it, and I’m doing it from my heart. I bitch and groan when I’m out there cause I feel bad sometimes, sometimes I’m sick physically, I have back problems…but other than that, if it wouldn’t be for the fact that I love to do it, it wouldn’t make no difference to me. I’d just sit in my studio and play.
You both went through some difficult times over the years. Was your relationship such that you would turn to each other for help with personal things, or did you do the band and deal with other things on your own?
Porter: I heard about troubles Art was having during those times, like he heard about troubles I was having.
Neville: What troubles? What this cat told you when I was sleeping? [laughter]
You’ll have to read about it.
Neville: I didn’t have no troubles. I was aboard the Starship Enterprise.
Porter: My situation has definitely been documented. The fact that I’m still alive and able to be here today is because of the 180-degree turn that I took. It took several good friends to die to make me realize.
Neville: I never did nothing like that.
Porter: That was what it was. That was the nightmare I had to live through. And it wasn’t nothing where I could call somebody up and ask ’em—it was something I had to do myself.
Did you ever get on his shit, Art?
Neville: I couldn’t tell him nothin’. What was I gonna tell him? It never did bother me. I never did see him out the box. Half the time I wouldn’t have been able to tell him anyway—I didn’t know. I had no idea. I didn’t know shit like that.
Porter: A lot of people told me that I was one of the most well-behaved junkies they ever knew.
Well, congratulations on that
Neville: I was an acolyte. I never did none of that shit. I was gonna be a priest at one time. [Porter laughs] I never did nothing. I’m serious.
I was the oldest one. They were doing shit before I knew what shit was, before I had any idea what it was. I was green.
You didn’t see the bear on Haynes Boulevard.
Neville: Fuck no. A 20-foot motherfuckin’ bear. [he shakes his head]
Wrapping this all up—new Meters material. Have you recorded any stuff?
Porter:: We’ve been doing some writing on our own.
Neville: I’m doing shit with my brothers right now. I was thinking about doing [a solo album], but I don’t even care about that no more.
I’ll do the shit with the Meters. We’re gonna have the time to sit down and do it right. We can’t come out there fuckin’ around, with all the shit that we went through. We’ve got to come out way badder than [the old material], but coming from the same direction.
You’ve got a lot to live up to, with the legacy of the Meters.
Neville: We can’t just come out there and put some shit down and say, “OK, this is funky, we’re gonna go with this.” Unh, unh. That ain’t gonna work.