Sweet Crude is about to play its first headlining show at Tipitina’s, and the members of the half–Louisiana French singing indie pop/rock band are fully celebrating. Family and friends are flooding the green room, enjoying beer and laughing over old stories.
Keyboardist/trumpet player/vocalist Skyler Stroup takes candid pictures of both friends and band members and percussionist Marion Tortorich intermittently performs yoga stretches and drum rudiments. Vocalist/violinist/percussionist Sam Craft is relaxing on a couch and cracking jokes to the entire room while vocalist/percussionist Alexis Marceaux is on her feet working up energy. Drummer Jon Arceneaux cracks his second or third beer.
However, in the final minutes before the headliner’s set, Sweet Crude kindly and politely escorts everyone out, for it is “prayer” time, which means the members of the hottest up-and- coming indie rock band in Louisiana are standing in a circle chanting schoolyard insults at one another. Humpity-hump-hump Jesus didn’t love me but your mom does humpity hump-hump.
“It’s a theater warm up,” says Craft. “By the time we’re about to play a show, there’s so much we just did to get everything where it needs to be on stage that sometimes our minds get too much into a work or stress mode. That little ritual reminds us why we’re doing this and gets us all in the right spirit.”
Between chants, the band members pass around a cup of whiskey, each taking a swig. “We call it ‘prayer,’” explains Craft. “There are religious, Eucharistic elements to it. It sometimes ends with ‘let us play.’”
“It started off as us taking a shot before a show,” adds Sam’s brother, keyboardist/vocalist Jack Craft, “but we realized that we can’t all take a full shot of whiskey right before we play.”
Whatever Sweet Crude does to ready themselves for a show, it’s working. In a mere two years, the band has exploded onto the local indie rock scene, packing clubs throughout the city and even winning “Best Emerging Artist” at the 2014 Big Easy Music Awards. The band has also become a local festival staple, playing Jazz Fest, Bayou Boogaloo, French Quarter Fest, and an upcoming appearance at the Gretna Heritage Festival.
“We love doing festivals and our music loves doing festivals,” says Jack. “The kind of upbeat, loud, lots-of-drums thing carries well over long distances.” Jack’s assessment is right; Sweet Crude’s fun, danceable drums send vibrations through the ground and get a crowd moving, but the band’s unique sound and use of Louisiana French make it interesting enough for festival-goers sitting on blankets or hovering near the beer tent farther out from the stage.
While Sweet Crude may love playing festivals, festival crowds have in turn come to love Sweet Crude. “We’re lucky enough that when we encounter a festival crowd, which usually has pretty varied demographics, they tend to eat what we’re cooking,” says bassist Stephen MacDonald.
Those “varied demographics” show Sweet Crude achieving a rare accomplishment for an indie rock act: appealing to a large range of fans outside just millennials aged 18–34. “I think part of the reason we’re accessible to all age groups is that we’ve put a large emphasis on percussion and voices,” says Sam. “Those are the two most primeval, basic instruments. They are visceral and interact with the human core no matter what your background is. We wanted that to be part of the architecture of Sweet Crude from the beginning. Also, people who know what we’re doing culturally have an open mind and they might be older or younger, but they have an interest in the plight of Louisiana French. For cultural and drum reasons, it has a universal appeal.”
It makes sense that Sweet Crude is gaining fans of all ages in Louisiana, given what the band represents. The idea for the project came from
Sam’s personal desire to learn the Louisiana, or “Cajun,” French of his ancestors—his small attempt to preserve an important aspect of Louisiana culture being lost to Americanization. This linguistic diligence led to a cover of the traditional Cajun song “Parlez-Nous à Boire” in Alexis and the Samurai, Sam’s project with his musical partner, vocalist Alexis Marceaux.
When the duo’s take on the Cajun standard proved to be a hit with audiences, the idea to form Sweet Crude was born. “When Sam and I decided to start a musical project around this, I knew it was something that could carry on because it was just in my blood,” says Marceaux, who—as her last name suggests—is of Acadian descent. “We didn’t know where it would go, but we just had a feeling that it was a concept we could really run with. We had hoped maybe one of our friends would be on board, and then we got a lot of our friends on board.”
It would appear that Sam, who is fluent in Louisiana French, and Marceaux, who is well on her way to joining him, chose their friends wisely. With two keyboards, five people playing percussion at any time, a violinist, a bassist, a trumpet player, four singers, and not a guitar in sight, a wide variety of music fans have responded to Sweet Crude’s sound. But the band’s mission of inclusion, to invite people into its updated take on Louisiana heritage, is not limited to singing some lyrics in Louisiana French on accessible pop music. “We kept the sounds very simple on our first record (2013’s Super Vilaine EP) in terms of basic piano, organ, violin, bass, and a lot of drums,” says Sam, “but now we’re delving into exploring all the possibilities, going from a two-minute pop song to something really dark to something really sparse. We try to make a diverse palette of textures.”
When hearing Sweet Crude, it is important to remember that the band is by no means a “Cajun” act. While the band’s lyrics are an amalgam of English and Louisiana French, the sound is unabashedly modern indie pop (albeit played on mostly acoustic instruments). What separates Sweet Crude from a more traditional roots music act is that while they are deeply invested in preserving Louisiana culture, they have little interest in simply recreating their ancestors’ music. Sweet Crude’s unique use of Louisiana French is not “preservation” in the sense of artifacts on display in a museum. Rather, the band identified the need to save an aspect of Louisiana culture that is in very real danger of disappearing and repurposed that culture to meet the needs of the social media generation. Much like cutting a large amount of alcohol out of a pre-show ritual, sometimes the best way to preserve something is to allow it to evolve with the times.
Sweet Crude’s focus on Louisiana culture and Cajun language has also led, somewhat inevitably, to the band touring the Acadian region of Canada—the area from which the first Cajuns migrated—in the province of New Brunswick to play Moncton’s Acadie Rock festival.
“Acadie Rock is only a few years old and it’s getting bigger and bigger,” says Tortorich. “It’s on August 15th, which is their Acadian pride day. It’s a huge honor to play an Acadian festival in an Acadian region on that day.”
The people of Moncton honoring the band didn’t stop with the performance, as the band members were invited to join in a big Acadian pride tradition. “This year they actually had us lead their tintamarre,” says Jack, “which is a noise parade that is not meant to have spectators like Mardi Gras parades here. Rather, the entire town participates in it.”
For a band on a mission to preserve culture—and that fosters a community at every gig they play—the trip to New Brunswick was no mere tour: It was a pilgrimage, a return “home” hundreds of years after the fact. This was not lost on the group, or on the residents of New Brunswick. “There is this link from Louisiana to there. When we go there, we feel like we’re a part of their family and vice-versa,” adds Marceaux. “When we tell them about Louisiana French heritage and how it was taken out of schools and skipped our parents’ generation, they are shocked that it happened. They feel lucky they are bilingual.”
New Brunswick proved to be the perfect place for the band’s visit. “It’s particularly special in New Brunswick because that’s the only officially bilingual province,” says Tortorich. “The provinces are typically either English or French, but New Brunswick is this one little tiny place in the world where they speak both and a third language that blends the two, called chiac.”
This trip to the “motherland” has also influenced the band’s approach to using Louisiana French in its music. “On Super Vilaine, a lot of the French language parts were about what’s going on in Louisiana and what we were trying to do as a band, trying to live in an Anglophone world but preserve French,” says Sam. “It was very self- referential and literal in announcing what it was trying to do.”
However, after experiencing the language—as well as chiac—in an everyday, conversational setting, the band is becoming more fluid with its use of Louisiana French. “The language is better assimilated into the music now,” says Sam. “Before there were definite moments where we switched languages where it seemed there was a bigger contrast, but I think now we all just feel more comfortable with weaving the languages into the music and switching back and forth. Those original roots feel more organic now.”
While Sweet Crude started out as a personal mission for Craft and Marceaux, the entire band is now attuned to the importance of preserving the language and culture. “For me as an outsider, non-native Cajun and who didn’t speak any French, I think it’s only entrenched itself deeper in what we’re doing,” says Stroup. “The emotional investment and feeling of importance in preserving the language has only gotten stronger and reaffirmed.”
“People are making it this bigger cultural statement than we maybe intended,” adds Tortorich, who is also beginning to learn the language. “French speakers and our Canadian friends are really grabbing it and making us realize that this could be a big moment in the culture of Louisiana French. It’s really humbling.”
Sweet Crude has also grown musically from the experience, and wants to pass that growth onto the audience, incorporating visual elements and transition music between songs into its live shows. “My number one wish is to make sure the crowd is having a communal experience,” says Stroup.
“If we’re being true to ourselves and doing that stuff, then hopefully there’s at least a little bit that people are picking up on.”
Part of that “communal experience” is a shared emotional journey. While a popular word journalists use to describe Sweet Crude is “joyous,” the band feels such a sentiment is earned over the course of a performance. “There’s a pretty big rainbow of feelings that comes out of a Sweet Crude show, but I think part of our M.O. is that there is an arc,” says Jack. “There’s an arc to your emotions. We make a big point to have a lot of contrasts in the music. There are many quieter, more contemplative moments, so when we finally bring you back up, you feel like you’ve gone somewhere.”
Sweet Crude’s aptitude for festivals and its renewed sense of community has led to the band producing its own festival (along with their management partners Simple Play), the first annual Mid- City Masquerade held at Studio 3 on October 24th. “We wanted to throw our own Halloween party, so we got a bunch of our friends to come on,” says MacDonald. “We’ve got Lost Bayou Ramblers, Blind Texas Marlin, Young Buffalo (from Jackson), Tank and the Bangas, DJ Doug Funnie, and circus arts with Marion. It will be a costume party, a celebration of weirdos.”
The band hosting its own festival is the natural extension of everything it has experienced in its two short years, even if the “weirdos” being celebrated most are the seven members of Sweet Crude. While the trip to Canada has emboldened the band to its mission, heightened its use of Louisiana French, and taught the value of breaking down traditional artist/fan barriers to create one big community around a common goal, the most obvious change in Sweet Crude after New Brunswick is the closeness of its members. People in bands always have a “glue” joining them, but Sweet Crude’s bond runs deeper than their few years together suggests. Jack and Tortorich finish each other’s sentences. Stroup’s lock screen is a picture of MacDonald. Sam, Marceaux, and drummer Arceneaux have an impressively extensive vocabulary of secret handshakes. And Marceaux, Sam and—slowly but surely—the rest of the band have a language that is all their own (in New Orleans, anyway), their shield of chiac keeping the rest of the world at bay.
This is never more apparent than when the group performs. What was once seven people banging on drums has become a single unit, a multifaceted beast of eyeglasses and tattoos and afros and face paint and body hair. And out of this drum-and-vocal-heavy guitarless indie rock sung in half Louisiana French, that rarest of rarities has arisen: something new. Something that is not derivative or boring or easy to pigeonhole. Something that could only happen in a particular time and place. Something worth a trip across the continent.
This newness has proved to be the band’s biggest advantage, and they hope to use it to shatter preconceptions of what they are and how an audience should react to them. “Somebody once told me that they really loved funk music because it is one of the few types of music that does not have a dance associated with it,” says Jack. “It doesn’t matter how you dance at a funk show because you’re just moving with rhythm. We want to use that concept. It doesn’t matter who you are, we just want our music to move you.”