Forty years now of Radiators. From playing with Fess, from backing up Earl King, to a major label recording deal, national tours and closing out Jazz Fest, to losing the record contract and the financial support that came with it. From being “Too Stupid To Stop,” to not being able to quit after Katrina made them testify for what was left of New Orleans, to finally calling a “Last Watusi” at Tipitina’s in 2011, to being called back for encores at Tipitina’s beginning in 2013 and at Jazz Fest several times since. And now, 40 years after the band formed in keyboardist Ed Volker’s garage, really pulling it all back together again to make a new album and put a big smile on what had been an unsettling denouement.
Welcome to the Monkey House sounds more like a comeback than a reunion. The band is in fighting trim with a crisp, terse rendition of 16 songs, the most they’ve ever crammed into a single release. Bassist Reggie Scanlan and drummer Frank Bua are full of interactive life. Guitarists Dave Malone and Camile Baudoin spin crackling lead and rhythm exchanges, breaks and fills, never playing more than the songs require. Volker himself sounds like a man possessed, singing with abandon and sharing magnificent vocal harmonies and tradeoffs with Malone.
“Dude, this is the record that was never supposed to be,” says Malone. “Nobody thought it would ever happen. All the stars aligned. I’m so happy with it I can’t stand it.”
Scanlan, who has been active in numerous projects recently, calls it the best album the band has ever made.
“Absolutely,” Scanlan confirms. “It’s like a rejuvenation. It sounds more like the Radiators than anything we’ve done. It has that loose feeling we have on stage on a good night. We didn’t try to fuck with it. Everybody just stayed out of the way and let the music do what it wants to do. I’ve done 20 albums with the Radiators and 10 albums with other groups and this is the most fun I’ve ever had making a record.
“Most of it is… fun songs,” agrees Volker over a glass of red wine at Adolfo’s. “I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the fans of this band who are still left on the planet really enjoy this album a lot more than any of the others because these are the songs that are more fan friendly, I’ve always thought.”
The genesis of the project came last January at the Tipitina’s gigs when Volker felt the band had recaptured some kind of lost spirit.
“I wanted to hear more,” he says. Volker had been doing a series of gigs with smaller bands at Chickie Wah Wah, including lineups featuring Scanlan and Baudoin, but as promoter John Driver describes it, “Ed called me up and said he wanted to rock!”
So last July Volker assembled a unit he dubbed the Rattlers, a version of the Radiators without Baudoin, who was out of town.
“That Rattlers gig was what put the fire in Ed’s belly to do more,” says Malone. “Everybody was so knocked out by that. The vibe was amazing. The music was amazing. That seemed to be the spark that reignited his interest.”
Volker put together a couple of songs for that gig that he’s been working on for years.
“The whole perspective of this album revolves around two songs that I’ve been trying to write for the last 25 years, one based on the theme of ‘Rise and Shine’ and one based on ‘Buzz On’,” says Volker. “I had those two ideas that I wanted to flesh out. There are probably five or six versions of songs that have ‘Buzz On’ or ‘Rise and Shine’ in the title in my archive of songs. It was only this last summer that I finally pulled them together. Those are two things that I sprung on the Rattlers, which is the Radiators without Camile, who was in Minnesota at the time, for our Chickie Wah Wah gig last July. So when Reggie called me up a few months ago and said ‘Why don’t we do a quickie EP in the studio using the Radiators to do those two songs the Rattlers did live?’ I had already been making versions of songs like ‘Run Red Run’ on my downloads because I thought they should be shared with people and I thought ‘Why not make a quickie album?’ Doing all these songs that never got recorded in a decent fashion in the studio. We did most of the recording in two days, eight songs a day. But it was doing the two songs at the Rattlers gig that sort of constellated or mushroomed into whatever trajectory led us to the studio.”
Scanlan explained that he wanted to do something to commemorate the 40th anniversary and suggested to Malone that they record the two new songs and make them available as a download. “Dave said ‘Ask Ed,’ and Ed said ‘Why don’t we do a whole album?’”
“Ed gave us a list of songs,” says Scanlan. ‘There were all these songs we’d played one or two times, or once in a blue moon. We got into rehearsals and I told Frank ‘I don’t even remember how I played this,’ and he said ‘Neither do I.’ We got into the studio and the first song was ‘Welcome to the Monkey House.’ We just decided we would go for it and play whatever felt right. It was the most rolling down the hill project I’ve ever been involved in. Some kind of other force was pushing us, and it all just clicked into place.”
“The bottom line,” says Malone, “is if Frank is feeling well and not having any tempo fluctuations and feeling comfortable with his part, if that happens, everything else falls right into place. He and Reggie were locked in and that made it easy for everybody else.”
The monkey theme became a central thought.
“I wrote ‘Fountains of Neptune’ for the Krewe of SNAFU gathering titled ‘20,000 Freaks Under the Sea’,” Volker recalls. “It became associated with the monkey mermaid krewe down in Florida. I wrote ‘One Monkey’ as a jam song for one of the Krewe gigs at one point 17 years ago. ‘Welcome to the Monkey House’ came before but the band didn’t learn that until a couple of years later. I have to say I always think of Chickie Wah Wah when I think of ‘Monkey House,’ kind of right there on the main drag but off the track at the same time.”
Malone also had a monkey up his sleeve—“16 Monkeys On a Seesaw,” a terrific new song he’d written for the Rads spinoff band Raw Oyster Cult, which featured himself, Baudoin and Bua.
“I was saving it for what was gonna be a Dave Malone record,” he says, “but it’s so in the Radiators wheelhouse I had no problem contributing it. That and ‘King Earl.’ Those two always had a Radiators feel anyway. Maybe I can’t get away from that. I’ll always be a Radiator at heart. It seemed so obvious, especially when Ed and I started kicking around this monkey theme. Once we decided ‘16 Monkeys’ would be in there, we already had ‘Monkey House’ and ‘One Monkey’… well, there was no monkey-ing around from there.”
“King Earl” is a beautiful tribute to the great New Orleans guitarist and songwriter Earl King.
“I had a demo from Ed,” says Malone, “which is nothing like how it ended up. Me and my brother Tommy worked on it ’cause we did it in the Malone Brothers briefly. I rewrote the lyric again and it became a Raw Oyster Cult thing, then I rewrote it yet again and it became what’s on the Rads record.”
Most of the other songs on the album have been rattling around in Radiators sets for many years but never made it on to record. Some of them, like “Run Red Run,” “Doubled Up In a Knot” and “Make You Say Hot Dog” are proven crowd pleasers. Others, as Scanlan noted, are deep tracks. But the idea of mixing up old and new material is not a stretch for the band.
“Since the beginning the Radiators have existed within a kind of geological time frame,” Volker explains. “I don’t think we’ve ever made a record that I would think of as new. I’ve been living with these songs for a long time before the Radiators got to them, and the Radiators have been living with them for a long time before they got recorded. Almost every time we go into the studio we’re kind of digging on our own grave. This album more than any of the others is more of a garage sale in that all these songs were in rotation or being played regularly while the last two or three albums were made and they never made the cut. I don’t know, maybe we were less stricken by disease and heading for the graveyard so we went for more pompous material.
“’Run Red Run,’ that was on the list for Zig-Zaggin’ Through Ghostland—that far back—I have rehearsal tapes from the Zig-Zag sessions for that. The song had musical difficulties that we couldn’t get a handle on. I think we’ve gotten it to a good place. ‘Fishhead Man’ I wrote after Katrina. It was on the download T Zero. Maple Leaf was the first time we played it. We’ve done it now and then but we never rehearsed it. ‘Doubled Up In a Knot,’ we were doing that since the time of Work Done On Premises. It used to go into ‘Love Is a Tangle.’ I don’t remember if we ever did it on its own. ‘Ride, Ride She Cried,’ that was really Frank’s idea. We only did that once, at the first Tipitina’s reunion in 2013. I’d been using that song on my side gigs. The Radiators picked it up real quick, played it on one gig and never played it again. When we were rehearsing for this album Frank said ‘What about that one?’ For some reason I figured out pretty quickly what he was talking about. It’s a little different but we play the hell out of it.”
The album closes with a Volker composition, “First Snow,” that was certainly appropriate to this past winter in New Orleans.
“That’s always been a magical incident in my life,” he says as we gaze out the frosty windowpanes of Adolfo’s onto a frigid Frenchmen Street night. “Me and my brother Richard, we were young and we got off school that day. Our whole neighborhood in Broadmoor was covered in snow. I tried to capture that. About ten years later we had moved to around that Carrollton/Claiborne area, it snowed but it just didn’t have the feel of that first snow when we were kids. It just had that magical quality about it.”
So what’s next? The Radiators are scheduled to play at the last day of Jazz Fest 2018 and a Tipitina’s show the Wednesday between the two weekends. Beyond that it’s anyone’s guess, but the band is in a happy place right now.
“Everybody wants to be together,” says Scanlan. “The romance is back. It almost feels like the rapport of the band now is like it was back in the ’80s. I’d like to do another album of blues and roots covers, the music that influenced us.”
“I don’t know,” adds Dave. “The degree of continuance depends on what Ed thinks he can do. I say thinks because I know he wants to do it. It’s up to him. Whatever he wants to do will dictate what the rest of us do.
“We sure didn’t expect to make this studio album,” Volker concludes, “and whether we make another one or not it’ll be a good legacy having something. It’s not in the songs, I can’t speak to that, but in the spirit of the performances. They speak well of what the band’s always been about which is feeling an experience. It’s kind of a parabolic return. We’re not touching at the same place but we’re touching close to the same place.”