Born of New Orleans music royalty, Darcy Malone mixes up her music and blurs genres with her band, The Tangle.
You know the T-shirt that says “I may be older than you, but I saw all the good bands”? Well, Darcy Malone saw most of the good bands—was even babysat by a couple of them—and she probably isn’t older than you. As the daughter of local music royalty, Malone grew up immersed in sounds from New Orleans and elsewhere. And as the frontwoman of the Tangle, she’s poised to add to the tradition.
The Tangle’s recent album, Still Life, marks the official rollout of a project that’s been in the works for more than a decade now. And though the band is now formally called “Darcy Malone and the Tangle,” she stresses that it’s not one of those star-frontwoman-and-the-guys situations. “I was the only one who voted against altering the name,” she says. Malone and guitarist/songwriter Chris Boye have been inseparable—as friends, collaborators and now as a married couple—since meeting at a gig in 2004, and all six current members of the Tangle insist that they’re serious about taking this nationwide. “Our ultimate goal is to be successful,” says drummer Billy Schell, who came close to a national breakthrough with the Boondoggles ten years ago. “If it was as easy as getting five smoking hot players together and writing some good songs—that should be the formula for success, right? But we all know it isn’t; you need to have that ‘it’ factor. And I think we’ve got it.”
“We want to appeal to a lot of people,” Malone says. “It can be hard to be a rock musician in New Orleans, and we knew we needed elements to make it a little different. What we’re trying to achieve is rock/soul, with elements of something catchy—something like Ike & Tina Turner meets XTC. Now, that idea may make someone else go ‘what!?’, but to me it sounds wonderful. Every member of the band might say something different, but in the end it’s rock ’n’ roll—with a lot of other things.”
Darcy Malone was born in 1978, the same year her father Dave co-founded the Radiators. Her mother Suzy was then one of the Pfister Sisters, and her uncle Tommy was in the original Continental Drifters (later to spawn the subdudes). “I don’t ever recall a moment in my childhood when music wasn’t there,” she says. “When I was home alone my favorite thing to do was press record on the cassette player, find every instrument in the house and put on a performance. And holidays were always wonderful, singing with the whole family at my grandparents’ house in Edgard. There were so many people that I got to meet, because Dad’s such a likeable person—there was Dr. John, John Lee Hooker. “Gatemouth” Brown, just so many. I was just talking to Dad recently and I said, ‘Hey, remember that British guy who gave me my first piano lesson?’ And he said ‘Darcy, that was Jon Cleary.’
Most of her real training was less formal, though. “My dad would sit me down to learn different eras of music—he’d say, ‘Here’s the Beatles, you need to know all of this. And here’s Motown, learn all of that.’ I was the only eight-year-old girl who was super into Elvis Costello. I never had voice lessons, just sang along to records. People tell me I have a combination of my dad and mom’s voice, and I can hear that when I hear them singing together. Being raised by musicians certainly had its ups and downs—you had parents who were away a lot. But it had its rewards, too. My dad will always be my hero, and I hope someday to be a portion of the musician he is.”
No surprise that the Radiators played a large role in her formative years—and she has an affinity for diehard Rads fans, being one herself. “I’m the same age as the band and I never knew my father as anything but one of the Radiators—they were always there, so it was bizarre and emotional for me when the band ended. I knew when I was young that he was always going on the road to be a rock star—but my grandmother would put on Radiators records so I’d feel like I was there.” When the band played locally, she really was there. “That probably started when I was an infant—I was always at the shows they did on the Tulane quad, and I’ve never missed a year of Jazz Fest in my life. Far as bar shows go, I started going to those when I was around five. There was always a space in the back I could get into.”
Her first vocal inspirations were the locals she met growing up—most notably Leigh (Little Queenie) Harris and the late Becky Kury, singer/bassist of the pre-Rads band the Rhapsodizers. “I know that Becky Kury held me once, but she died so soon after I was born that I never knew her as a person. I did see Little Queenie and the Percolators though, and she amazed me—the way she could belt it out and sound nasty and gritty, then do something really soft and beautiful. I was always drawn to singers like Dusty Springfield, Tina Turner—the ones that don’t worry about sounding perfect but you could just feel everything they were putting out there.”
But it was her mother who first got a pre-teen Darcy onstage with the Pfister Sisters. “She used to do Sundays at the Gazebo, and she’d bring me up to do ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ It seemed completely normal to me to be onstage, and so I wouldn’t leave. They tell me that after doing my song I broke into ‘The Greatest Love of All’ a capella, and they had to let me finish it because I wouldn’t get off the stage.” Musical theater became her passion when she went on to high school (Ecole Classique in Metairie) and then college at Northwestern. “There was a stage at school and I wanted to be on it, and the way to do that was to be part of the theater group. It really helped me with coming out of my comfort zone onstage—even now I think I can be somebody else and feel completely comfortable—like I can be lead singer Darcy, instead of everyday mom Darcy.”
She made the big decision after college to return home and launch a band, instead of pursuing theater in New York. For a while she sat in with the formative version of Johnny Sketch & the Dirty Notes, until the fateful meet-up with Chris Boye. “People would always whisper when she was around: ‘Hey, that’s Dave Malone’s daughter, so don’t be an asshole,’” he recalls. Adds Malone, “We actually met through my sister Adele—Chris was a skateboarder and she was very into the New Orleans skateboard people. He had an instrumental band and wanted to do something different with a singer.” Adds Boye, “She and I became rock solid as far as being musical intermediaries. We always saw eye to eye on what we thought was good. A random song would come on the radio and we could always tell whether the other liked it or not.” And Malone continues, “We became friends over writing songs together. And the friendship lasted about a year before we looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, by the way, I love you.’ So I moved in and that was it.”
10 years later, neither sees any downside to being in a band with their romantic partner. “It’s actually really great,” Boye says. “Because I get to be quiet and Darcy knows me well enough to know what I’m thinking. And she’s outspoken enough to never have a problem being misunderstood. I think we believe in each other well enough to know that we can grow. And if we ever had to really work at it, if there was ever going to be a kink, it would have shown itself by now.” Adds Malone, “A lot of people think this [collaboration] would be hard, but Chris and I have always had a very respectful, honest-with-one-another relationship. Plus, I get to play music with my soulmate every day. What could be better than that?”
From the start, the couple knew what their dream band would be. They wanted a band that could go all over the map, not being tied to the traditional New Orleans sound. Thus they had the name and idea for the Tangle before there was a band in place—and no, the name didn’t come from the Rads song “Love is a Tangle,” though Malone realized the connection soon enough. “That is one of my favorite songs, but it really came from the whole tangle of genres idea,” she says. “We knew that was what we wanted, and we wanted people to help make that a success.” Adds Boye, “Darcy’s voice doesn’t need a small band, it needs a big arrangement—an orchestra of electric guitars and keyboard and sax, and everything else we can put in to complement her voice. We try not to stick to one sound because it gets boring when you do that. It seems natural to have a different kind of song every time—otherwise, why bother writing a new one?”
Still, it took a couple false starts before they had the band they wanted. Soon after Malone and Boye began laying out plans, Katrina struck, prompting a temporary move to Austin. “People were good to us there, but the problem is that every single person in Austin is trying to be a rock musician,” she says. “It was a lot harder to build relationships there, not like in New Orleans where you go shopping and talk to the register lady about what she did on Sunday. In Austin they look at you like you’re nuts.” Back in New Orleans they formed the first version of the Tangle, which lasted a few years and released the Mark Bingham-produced Now We’re Awake in 2012. At that time the lineup was just the couple with a rhythm section (Chris Johnson and Mark Davis), aided by family friends like Spencer Bohren and Dave Malone. “Working with Bingham was an amazing thing in itself,” Malone says. “But in doing that record, we came to realize it would be so much better if we had people who were willing to put in as much heart as we were.”
Those ideal people came from a few different sources. Saxophonist Jagon Eldridge had been on the punk/ska circuit, both here and in New York (where he’d been in a band with ex-Cramps bassist Candy Del Mar). Malone also remembers seeing his old band, Dang Bruh-Y at the Abstract Café, the Magazine Street punk spot (when that street was far less upscale), where Green Day made their local debut.
Drummer Billy Schell was also from the alt-rock world; he’d been looking for the right band to commit to in the years since the Boondoggles split. Guitarist Glenn Newbauer’s reference points were more in the jam-band world, notably the Grateful Dead and yes, the Radiators. And bassist Craig Toomey was found, appropriately enough, on Craig’s List; he’s played jazz on the East Coast and studied at Berklee. What they have in common is the determination to put this band across nationally. And never mind that six-piece bands can be tough to hold together; this one swears it’s going to be an exception.
“This for me is not one of those ‘Come to see us Saturday night at Tipitina’s’ situations,” Schell says. “The record is getting played on 38 stations across the country. We have a publicist, we have a social-media director, we have people out there to help promote us and get us to the next level. It’s not enough to have great music when you can walk down Frenchmen Street and get blown away any night. But you don’t have the nucleus of what it takes to expand your business—the Boondoggles got close but there was a series of events that prevented us from getting in the van and touring the world. With this band, everyone is committed. Believe it or not, what did it for me was hearing the song ‘Be a Man’—that was on the tape they gave me to practice for the first gig. I felt that could be a really big song, and I still think it could be one down the road.”
If they wanted to blur genres, they couldn’t have asked for a better lineup, given the mix of jazz, punk and jam-rock leanings. Malone isn’t even up front all the time, as Boye sings a couple of leads on the disc and onstage. “I’m sort of the Kim Deal in the band,” he says, invoking the Pixies’ former bassist and occasional singer. “Or I’m the ketchup for the French fries—once in a while you want to get a different flavor. Singing is Darcy’s strong suit and songwriting is mine, so there’s no reason to ever change that. Not that she isn’t a great writer, but I tend to do it more often. She’ll come up with one every six months and it’s good every time; that’s the sort of dynamic we’ve gone with.”
The CD winds up crediting the songwriting to the full band, which is both a smart way of preventing in-fights down the road, and an acknowledgment of the other members’ input on arrangements. “Everybody’s name is listed because that’s the truth, these are the songs we all worked on together,” Malone says. A good example of the collective approach is “Belly of the Sea,” which is instrumentally stretched to a priggish mini-epic. “I wrote something based on Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and I wanted to do it in a Tom Waits style,” Boys says. “So I brought it into rehearsal and Jagon says, ‘Let’s speed that up,’ so it ended up having this Caribbean funkiness. It still has that Tom Waits rhythm but in a faster, groovier way.” But it’s notable that the album’s longest track comes in at five minutes; this really isn’t a band for endless jamming. “That will come through every now and then, but not on every song,” says Newbauer. “I got to play a solo on ‘Half Moon’ that’s closer to the jam-band side of things. We did a lot of editing for the songs on the album, and they can be longer when we play them live. But that depends on the gig itself—when we sense that people want to hear what was on the album, we’ll stick closer to that. We want things to be listener-friendly by modern standards.”
While the band’s had a good year so far—getting the CD released and playing a well-received set at Jazz Fest—everyone involved feels they’ve just got their long-term marching orders. “Remember that the album’s called Still Life,” Malone says, “and to us that means something important, it means breaking out of what people expect you to be—not living a still life but living with no regrets. We feel passionately about what we’re doing, and whatever happens happens, but we know this band is something we really believe in.”