On a late May, Wednesday night at the AllWays Lounge, New Orleans indie rock septet Sweet Crude is playing to a large, lively audience. Any concern the weekday, late night crowd may have about getting up for work in the morning is not evident. Sweet Crude is playing its energetic brand of percussion-driven indie pop (think Hummingbird, Go!-era Theresa Andersson, but with people instead of loops), and the enthusiastic audience is dancing, cheering, and singing along throughout the set; at least, the audience is trying to sing along. There is one small hiccup with attempting to follow Sweet Crude’s lyrics: More than half of them are in Cajun French.
“There are ‘Louisiana French orphans’ all over New Orleans,” says Sweet Crude vocalist/violinist Sam Craft. “If your family has been here for a few generations, you can’t avoid having some French heritage.” However, despite the prevalence of Cajun descendants in the region, the language has been slowly dying throughout the state with each new generation. “The reason why the language became somewhat endangered is because you couldn’t speak it in school,” he explains, “A stigma became attached to Louisiana French because it was thought that a child wouldn’t be able to participate in society if French was spoken at home.” While Louisiana has long been a proud bilingual state, as it stands, the young members of many families bearing Cajun last names wouldn’t know how to ask where to find a bathroom in their grandparents’ native tongue. But Sweet Crude is looking to turn the tide on the language’s erosion in its own small way. “We are Louisiana people, and we decided to have a bilingual band to represent the bilingual nature of the state.”
The idea to sing in Cajun French came from the desire of Alexis Marceaux and Craft—local indie rock super couple and members of Alexis and the Samurai—to learn the language of their ancestors. “Both the Marceaux and Craft families have a history with the language,” says Marceaux. “Sam and Jack’s parents had little French terms they’d use, and I actually spoke Cajun French as a baby, although I lost it as I grew up.” However, learning the language was not an easy task for the pair. “There are not many resources to learn the language,” she says. “Sam would wake up every morning like he was going to a job and study books and tapes.” “You really have to be self-motivated,” adds Craft, who is now fluent in Cajun French.
Sweet Crude’s origin traces back to when the two began playing Cajun standards with Alexis and the Samurai. “Sam and I started doing the Balfa Brothers’ ‘Parlez-Nous a Boire’ both locally and on tour,” says Marceaux. “We got such a huge response from it everywhere we went. Not only did our hometown people like this Cajun French song, but people outside of the state were also really into it.” Knowing a good thing when they saw it, they decided to build a band around the idea of fusing indie rock with Cajun French lyrics. “There’s just something about this unique little pocket of the world that preserved this culture that makes people go crazy all over the place,” says Craft. ”So we thought if we could expand the emotion and power behind that cover to the music we wanted to write, it would be a successful project.”
So far, their hunch has been true. Sweet Crude is already generating significant local buzz with a unique sound and dynamic performances, both of which were more a driving force behind the formation of the group than concern for filling traditional instrument slots. “We picked bandmates by the people and the kind of energy they could bring in,” says percussionist Marion Tortorich. “Then we figured out what instruments they could play on different songs.” This mindset led to the group’s unconventional offering of instruments – Marceaux and Craft as the primarily vocalists (both of whom drum, and he also plays violin), former Glasgow drummer John Arceneaux, percussionist Tortorich, keyboardists Skyler Stroup (who also plays trumpet) and Sam’s brother Jack, Big Rock Candy Mountain bassist Stephen MacDonald, and not a six-string guitar in sight. “We didn’t come together and say, ‘We need a guitarist, a bassist, a vocalist and a drummer,’” says Jack. “This allows us to express ourselves in a different way.”
This desire for new avenues of self-expression is still rooted in the band’s Louisiana heritage. “We want to make our own music, but also make something that’s culturally viable,” says Sam. “We want something with more depth to it than us just having a good time on stage.” This is also reflected in the band’s name itself. The juxtaposition of the words “sweet” and “crude” alone makes for an oxymoron, but the conflicts do not end there. “The name refers to oil, which globalized Louisiana. It brought the interstate through and a lot of maritime traffic,” says Sam, “but it also hurt our wetlands. Yet it’s this thing we can’t live without, which is part of the oxymoron.”
There are more oxymorons to Sweet Crude than its name. While the band is adamant about preserving the language, there are few traces of Cajun music in its modern indie rock sound. However, Sam does not see conflicting ideals. “The Louisiana French language exists whether or not Cajun music exists. We love and are endeared to Cajun music, but we don’t necessarily want to repeat it. We’re children of the ‘80s. We are city people who listen to Radiohead, Fleet Foxes and Phoenix. There’s no denying that.”
“We want to play a new style of music that still pulls from our culture,” says Marceaux. This is perhaps why the band has recently received a “blessing” of sorts from Louis Michot of the Lost Bayou Ramblers. “He was kind of our guinea pig for this idea,” she says. “If people like Louis can embrace what we are doing, we feel we can continue down this path.” Adds Sam, “Louis appreciated the sentiment of what we are trying to accomplish.”
It is in this appreciation of new music from guardians of old music where Sweet Crude is seeking to find its niche. “We don’t want the Cajun community to think we are making a mockery of their music,” says Sam. “We’re not out to do that at all; we want to make something completely different and add an indie rock element to the history of Louisiana French music.” “Part of the oxymoron is ‘one foot in the swamp, one foot in the city,’ which describes our music very well,” adds Tortorich, “We can engage and enjoy both cultures.”
Despite the band following its own muse as opposed to incorporating Cajun music into its sound, Sweet Crude’s focus remains on preserving the language that has been eroded over several generations of Americanization in the state. “It’s our way to keep the language relevant,” says Tortorich. “If we played more traditional Cajun music, our friends would probably not be as interested in hearing us play. But since we’re playing indie music they like, they come and sing along in Cajun French. They are learning the language as a byproduct of enjoying the music.” With energetic dancing crowds at every live show, Sweet Crude is far more than a teaching vehicle. “It’s about having fun, the language is us just sneaking in a lesson,” says Stroup, “like giving your dog medicine in a treat.”