It was, admittedly, not the best idea for a photo shoot.
The day was already on shaky footing. Three of the Bluerunners had driven into New Orleans from their homes in Lafayette. Their van had broken down, and another van loan fell through, and they couldn’t find a car to transport themselves, a guitar, a fiddle and an old, beat-up accordion.
So they had been forced to rent one, depleting the last of an already strained rock ‘n’ roll band budget. But not before suggesting to bassist Rob Savoy, who lives in New Orleans, that maybe he could go down alone and OffBeat could just take his picture.
By the time the studio lights were set up and a couple practice shots were taken of drummer Mike McBane giving the finger, everyone seemed ready. The four musicians shambled over to the set. The intention was explained: to capture the experimental, ground-breaking nature of the Bluerunners, who deftly merge Cajun and zydeco instrumentation and tunes with loud, punk-edged rock ‘n’ roll.
How about, we proposed, a shot of Steve LeBlanc smashing his accordion? Maybe something like the cover of the classic London Calling album by the Clash, a band often cited as a major Bluerunners influence?
Nobody was exactly making any sudden moves, and McBane offered an explanation. “Maybe you got the wrong band,” he said. “We’re not exactly extroverts…maybe you should have gotten Cowboy Mouth.”
But as undaunted as only the truly desperate can be, we—a writer, an editor and a photographer—pushed on, making the situation worse. For ambiance, we tried playing a Sex Pistols album. We hauled over a bucket of tools that was sitting in the corner: saws, hammers, crowbars. Perhaps you guys can pretend to be deconstructing your instruments? Like, you know, symbolically?
This is why, at 4 p.m. on a Thursday in a studio in Mid-City New Orleans, with Sid Vicious droning “God save the Queen/She ain’t no human bein’,” the Bluerunners found themselves three hours from home, significantly poorer, shuffling around in a little circle, holding woodworking equipment, wondering what the hell they were doing.
It was guitarist, chief songwriter and vocalist Mark Meaux who finally erupted. “What am I doing with this saw?” he wondered. “This is stupid!”
Then he walked.
He walked the way he wanted to walk during a Bluerunners show at Tipitina’s in May, when the band opened with a Giant Sand song and nailed it—played it just right. Unfortunately, “You could have heard a pin drop,” Meaux says, recalling the audience’s less-than-enthusiastic response. “I thought we might get at least a smatter [of applause]—it was a free show.” When the crowd filled the dance floor for the next, less-experimental tune, it made it even worse.
Then there are those tour dates, when the Bluerunners enter a club and see tables with candles, and people start requesting Cajun chestnuts like “Jolie Blonde” and “Jambalaya.” That’s when Meaux realizes the only reason the band got that gig was that people had seen some rollicking, good-time Cajun band in a movie like The Big Easy and assumed that this Lafayette accordion ensemble would follow suit.
That’s not when the band walks, though. That’s when the band, in Savoy’s words, decides to “fucking crank it up to eleven and show that there’s something else, too.”
There was another night in New York, at a disco. A man was leaning against the stage, with his back to the band. Meaux took the microphone, went up to the man and screamed, “You mother-fucker!” Steve LeBlanc kicked some drums over, and everyone felt better.
But the Bluerunners’ favorite collective memory is San Francisco, in September, 1991. LeBlanc was feeling lonely and far from home, and he was trying to pump a dying accordion. “It was losing a lot of air and stuff,” he remembers. “We were on the last song of the show, and the bellow cracks, and there’s nothing. I was at the end of my ropes, so I just swung it over my head and bashed it against the wall. It didn’t break the first time, so I took about three wipes at it, and it was in pieces on the ground.”
Savoy saw the splinters, so he turned away and kept playing. Meaux remembers, “I knew we were fucked—we were in San Francisco and he’s got no accordion. I was so proud of him, and proud of being in the band at that point.”
There is, of course, nothing new about smashing an instrument. Since Pete Townshend, it’s turned into something of a rock ‘n’ roll cliché. But it’s definitely not a Cajun cliché, or an accordion cliché.
Which is why we thought it would make a great image of the Bluerunners. It illustrates something that Meaux says about the band: “We’re not trying to destroy Cajun culture, we’re trying to destroy the stereotypes.”
As it turned out, when Meaux took off during the photo shoot, it was only to walk around the block, until his sense of professionalism talked him into returning. The bucket of tools had, meanwhile, been quietly returned to its corner. The rest of the afternoon proceeded comparatively well.
“Oh, I was pissed, too,” McBane later says about the session. “The problem is that doing it at a photo shoot would be playing up to every stereotype. Steve has smashed things, and I’ve broken a few things, Mark’s broken some guitars. You don’t just do it at your house. You do it when it’s the end of your gig and you have this thing in your stomach: How can you make it mean more? How far can you take it? We’re playing this gig and Steve’s accordion is falling apart, and he was so pissed. Sometimes you need to get that out, but it’s only valid at that point. It’s not valid at a photo shoot.
“I don’t want to make you guys feel bad about the photo shoot, but it’s really pretty humiliating,” explains McBane. “Having to get directed to do things is pretty bad.
“The whole point of the band,” he continues, “is that it feels weird taking pictures.”
During a recent Friday night gig at the Grant Street Dance Hall In Lafayette, a piece of paper turns up on the stage, begging the band to play “Go On Get Out,” a honky-tonk tune featured on the band’s new release, The Chateau Chuck, its first effort for the New Orleans-based Monkey Hill label.
The band ignores the request. That’s the sort of thing you can do at home.
A certain social geography can be found at a good Bluerunners show in this area. At the club’s fringes are groups of two-stepping couples, many older and fairly well-dressed. In the center are college kids in t-shirts, slamming, occasionally laying on the stage. Two frat boys are waltzing with each other. “That’s the next Steve Riley,” someone says, and points to a guy in a striped shirt; indeed, the clean-shaven young man can later be heard singing a traditional French ballad to an admiring circle of friends. But right now he’s centered at the front of the stage, head banging between the monitors.
The new album, with its emphasis on distorted guitar work that often buries the accordion and fiddle, has been labeled the band’s rock statement. “It’s a harsh listen,” admits Meaux. “These songs are so angry.” As it turns out, the original concept of The Chateau Chuck was more musically balanced: a couple of acoustic, accordion-driven tunes were left off the final cut, and the first draft even included sound bites from Cajun fiddle pioneer Dewey Balfa. When they perform live, most of the Bluerunners’ rootsy songs continue to pivot around LeBlanc’s fierce accordion and fiddle playing.
But Meaux is right: this is an angry record, including “Coming Down,” which succinctly describes the band’s experience of signing with—and being dropped from—a major label, Island Records: “This is your birthday party, smile don’t look so tense/It’s two words—music business—and it don’t make no sense.”
“All I really remember from that whole period is just being confused all the time,” explains Meaux. “When they first started talking about signing us, our train of thought was to get some guy to give us 2,000 bucks, and we’d have a record.”
Instead, Island threw around six-digit numbers. Meaux remembers going to his dad, a businessman, for advice. “He had this look on his face like, what the fuck happened? I knew right there that this wasn’t the little garage band thing, where you just go around and put up fliers for your show.
“It’s a most strange feeling. We really didn’t get a dime. It’s money that we never had, so I don’t feel like I lost it—a lot of money just went right around us. It’s a weird form of stealing.”
It was during their stay with Island—which resulted in a single, self-titled album in 1991—that the band also became a brief footnote in electoral politics, when a song mocking David Duke, “Lame Pretender,” was released as a single. There was a mention in USA Today and on wire service reports, and the tune was featured on Phil Donahue’s talk show.
For Meaux, the song was another example of losing creative control over his work. “The guys at the label just fucking jumped all over it—wanted to exploit it,” he charges. At first Meaux refused to let Island release “Lame Pretender” as a single, so the label convinced him to let it go out as a “b-side.” When Meaux rejected the idea of putting Duke’s picture on the cover, he was talked into a tiny image of a burning cross. Island then issued a fabricated quote from Meaux about artistic responsibility, along the lines of “I wrote ‘Lame Pretender’ as my contribution in the fight against these poisonous characters…”
In the end, charges Meaux, “they just lost sight of what the hell they were doing, and they were giving him more publicity.”
After they were let go from Island, the Bluerunners went through a series of personnel and business changes, finally stripping themselves down to a quartet. The Chateau Chuck, their first album in three years, was actually recorded almost two years ago, and the delay further stressed relations within the band.
Little wonder that even the little caricature of Napoleon that graces the cover of the new album has a tooth knocked out. The cartoon is actually a former logo for the hotel in Lake Charles that inspired the album’s name. The band saw the hotel (which, incidentally, now has new management) as an apt and graphic metaphor for all that’s gone wrong in the over-commercialization of Louisiana French society—a reoccurring theme for the Bluerunners, and one they struggle to resist within their own work.
Remembers Mark: “Our first ten minutes in this hotel, a rat had already taken a shit in the bed. It’s a dump—obviously a dump. And it had been, maybe a few years ago, this really great-for-Lake Charles hotel, and it had gone to crap. And on the sign there’s this little Napoleon guy, and we thought it was just so fucking funny that that’s their French influence with the culture. It couldn’t have been more crass and stupid.
“But I also knew nobody would get it, so it would just be a goofy little guy on the cover—so that was cool, because it wouldn’t be us with our shirts open.”
With the new album comes a new tour—the best they’ve seen in years. It wasn’t long ago that members were talking about quitting, and for a brief, unreported time, the Bluerunners had de facto disbanded. But now they are speaking in terms of the long haul. “We’ve always talked about doing this when we’re 60,” says Meaux. “In this part of the country, you have a lot of role models.”
“We made it through a tough time and we’re still kind of going through it,” adds LeBlanc candidly. “The whole thing just came to a grinding halt…you just kind of keep on playing and writing. It’s swinging back now, but it’s been a rough two years. It was hard going for three years without a record. And this time it’ll just be a year. It’ll be regular, the way it’s supposed to be.”
There’s a folktale about the Bluerunner snake, which says that it attacks by putting its tail in its mouth, rolling like a wheel and then letting go, whipping its victim.
Meaux had heard the story during his work at a golf course and a drycleaners, and when his rockabilly band needed a name, he suggested the snake.
“If anybody thought we’d still have it, we would have put more thought into it,” he now says. “It’s kind of like a misnomer, because everyone thinks we’re a blues band. And With the bean thing—a lot of people thought we were named after Bluerunner beans. I found out about that later.”
Neither Meaux nor LeBlanc were musicians when they met in a local Catholic high school. “In my family, the idea of being a musician was never encouraged.” says Meaux. “In fact, they told me not to buy a guitar. When I was 18, I had my own money, and they made me promise I’d never get into a band.”
LeBlanc had been brought to the first Festivals Acadiens by his mom, but in high school he was more into Neil Young; Crosby, Stills and Nash; and heavy metal. After school, he and Meaux would get together and figure out guitar chords. He tried college, but quit to work for his brother-in-law in Port Arthur.
“When I came back from there, I was still friends with Mark, and I asked him if he wanted to start a band. He got us focused on the rockabilly thing, and I bought a set of drums. The first time we played was the Jefferson Street Café in Lafayette.”
Savoy met his future band mates when he was playing bass in a new wave band called the Rockin’ Shapes, for which the Bluerunners had opened. He soon joined this new band in town that was drawing all the crowds. His earliest memories of Cajun music include Sunday afternoons after church, with the smell of baking chicken and a music show called “Happy Fats” on the television. He joined the orchestra in eighth grade, and picked the bass because it was the biggest instrument. He would borrow the electric bass from high school and take it home to jam on Lynyrd Skynyrd tunes.
At 24, McBane is the youngest in the group: “I’m the punk rock guy.” Until he met the Bluerunners, he grew up thinking that Cajun music was “crap,” he says. In high school, it was the punk rock crowd that was the most accepting, he recalls—all you had to worry about was getting beaten up. “I look at Wayne Toups now,” he says, “and the first thing I think is that he’s the kind of guy that beat me up in high school.” McBane, the son of a traveling lounge musician, played drums in the school band—when he wasn’t getting kicked out of school for drawing on his jeans. “I always had a little gene inside me that fucks things up,” he explains, with satisfaction in his voice.
The first incarnation of the Bluerunners was a rockabilly cover outfit, until John Maloney brought a rubboard into the sound. Maloney later left the band to return to school, and the most recent rubboard player/percussionist, Russ Broussard, left the band due to artistic differences, says Savoy.
Soon the band began experimenting with rubboard/drum zydeco breakdowns. One day LeBlanc asked Meaux’ wife if he could borrow her accordion. It was the start of a new band.
“Once Steve started picking up a traditional instrument, you’ve got all these voices,” says Meaux. “You’ve got thousands of people who came before you, and there’s a heavy responsibility with that. I still take it to heart.”
Cajuns have a “punk rock mentality,” says McBane proudly.
“They just came here, they’re like, ‘fuck all of y’all.’ They just came here. And when they tried to Americanize the Cajuns, you know, they’re just like [raising two middle fingers] double bird.”
Blending traditional French music with popular styles is a distinguished musical tradition in Louisiana, dating back to Harry Choates, D.L. Menard and Clifton Chenier. It is the basis for the South Louisiana genre of rock ‘n’ roll known as swamp pop, of which the Bluerunners are perhaps the most important current practitioner. But most swamp pop blends Cajun and commercial styles—not Cajun and anti-commercial styles, like punk.
There’s a prevailing sense in Acadiana that what the Bluerunners do with an accordion makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Many of the best paying and most prestigious gigs in Lafayette—including Festivals Acadiens—have ignored the band, despite its undeniably strong local following. Zachary Richard, who broke some Cajun-rock barriers in the past, once told OffBeat that he liked the Bluerunners because they were now catching all the flak.
“We kept being seen as these young punks who were saying ‘fuck off’ to their elders,” says Meaux. “It’s the complete opposite. I look at bands that just cover [D.L. Menard’s Cajun hit] ‘The Back Door’ as just totally ripping off their culture. If you want this shit to keep going, you better throw some more wood on the fire…that’s not to say you can’t do cover tunes. But you see a band; they don’t have a fucking thing original about them. And they’re doing this pure thing, they pull this Cajun crap, and their big contribution is they wear matching hats and vests and play the restaurant circuit.
“The only thing we’re trying to do is make an honest expression of our reality, of our situation. The way we grew up, the way we live now. There’s no attempt at recreating the past, or any of that bullshit. And if they see that and think its bullshit, well, they didn’t grow up in the ‘70s, they didn’t listen to AM radio on the school bus. And if I was saying the same shit they’re saying, I wouldn’t be true to myself or to them. I’d just be ripping them off.”
Still, says Meaux, to accept the simple distinction between pure, Cajun music and the Bluerunners is to fall into a simplistic view of Lafayette culture in the ’90s.
“I swear, just about every fucking interview I ever did during that whole Island thing was, ‘Well, what do the purists think?’ That’s the first question. Who the fuck are the purists? And are they going to knock on my door or send me a letter: ‘We’re the purists and we think you suck.’ It never happens in real life.”
While performers like D.L. Menard and Beausoleil front man Michael Doucet have been encouraging—Doucet plays on both Bluerunners albums and occasionally sits in with the band—Meaux acknowledges that others in the community have turned their heads, hoping those feedback-laden accordion sounds would go away. It pisses him off.
“I’m a Cajun, right?” he responds. “I mean, my parents, I’ve got all the blood, the whole fucking thing. I speak English. I don’t have an accent. Am I less a Cajun, now? Is my culture less valid because it doesn’t correspond with some stereotype?”
Adds Savoy: “I can’t believe there’s not 20 bands in Lafayette doing this right now. I guess if you’re a rock band, you work hard to distance yourself from Cajun, and if you’re Cajun, you distance yourself from rock. For us, it makes perfect sense to blend the two, let it naturally evolve.”
The members of the Bluerunners find themselves in what Savoy calls the “middle, lost generation” of Cajun culture. They all have common stories about their parents and grandparents, who were punished for speaking French in school. One day Meaux came home and said something like “Mais, yeah,” and he was warned not to repeat the phrase in front of his father.
The Bluerunners play waltzes in front of rock crowds, and they play rock in front of Cajuns. It puzzles them, but it’s the rock crowds that seem more accepting. “It’s tough,” says McBane. “It really seems like nobody gets it. There may be people there, but I always feel that they’re there for the wrong reasons. They’re there to see Zach [Richard], or they’re there to see Wayne Toups. And it’s like when they’re getting it, they’re not getting it. When I look at these people, I see people that are way different from me. And I guess that that’s cool, but I think if they really knew who we were, they wouldn’t like us.”
But there is a decided Cajun spirit that haunts LeBlanc’s grandmother’s former house, which now serves as LeBlanc’s home and rehearsal space for the band. The building is set in a swampy, mosquito-infested one-acre parcel of land, right off a busy road in the middle of Lafayette. An overgrown roots system across the driveway and two large beehives near the house help insure privacy.
LeBlanc moved into the house following his grandmother’s death, and he still feels her presence, sees the place where she used to prepare pain perdu. Twice, he says, he has woken up to the presence of a couche mar in his bedroom, a strange presence holding him down with firm hands. There are ways to rid your house of such things, but he prefers to co-exist with the spirit.
Some Saturday mornings, LeBlanc rises at seven to go to Marc Savoy’s Cajun jam session in Eunice. Most every Wednesday, he attends another traditional jam, at C’est Bon Pizza in the nearby town of Cecilia. So far, he is the only player at these places with a shaved head and tattoos, and who has smashed his accordion on stage.
Meaux sees his old high school friend as the spirit of the band. “Steve inspires me all the time, because he’s such a hard ass,” he says. Savoy calls LeBlanc the “tete durn” (hard head). When asked to explain, he just points to those roots in the driveway.
LeBlanc sits in an overstuffed antique chair in his living room, surrounded by band instruments, monitors, speakers. He lightly strums a fiddle and explains that, musically, he lives somewhere between two points: Clifton and Hendrix, the left and the right.
And sometime, perhaps in the next ten or twenty years, he says, he wonders if some Bluerunners tune will finds its way into the Cajun repertoire.
“If we can make new songs, and get some kind of respect from the people around here, and add new songs to what’s around, that would be enough for me,”
And maybe, by then, you’ll even be hearing that new standard in a restaurant.
But probably not.