Shannon Powell, OffBeat‘s August 2005 cover story and the King of Tremé, has launched a new musical partnership with guitarist Darren Hoffman, though their relationship goes way back. Now performing and recording as Uncle Nef, Hoffman and Powell were once teacher and student but have graduated to musical family. The duo recently dropped its debut EP, Blues, and celebrated with a performance at d.b.a. Already in talks for a tour and full-length LP, the two spoke with OffBeat.com about Uncle Nef’s genesis and its future.
How did the idea of Uncle Nef come about?
Darren Hoffman: Shannon was my drum teacher when I was studying music at UNO and we worked on a bunch of projects together, mostly projects that I produced. In 2010 I started living in New York part time to bring all of those projects to the next level. I lived between the two cities over the past few years, and recently switched back to the guitar, which is the instrument I played primarily when I was a teenager. When I came down [to New Orleans] in March of this year after to attend the second line and memorial for Charlie Sims (co-owner of the legendary Donna’s Bar and Grill), I called Shannon and said, ‘Hey man, why don’t we just get three or four hours in the studio just to do some guitar and drum duo stuff?’ He said, ‘Alright.’ He wasn’t too sure what to expect, but we did it. And then we said ‘man, we got to make a band out of this. And so we named it Uncle Nef. It kind of described our friendship.”
Shannon Powell: He was coming to take lessons from me and he was attending the University of New Orleans jazz department studying percussion. In March, he came up to me with this project. With this particular project I was really interested because I always like to showcase a variety of styles of music, even when I perform with my band. I have about three different bands. I have a seven-piece trad jazz band, I have a quartet and I have a trio. So I’m always interested in playing different styles of music. This particular style of music is a style of music I don’t get a chance to play as much as I would like to so I was very, very interested when he brought the idea to me. And, as he mentioned, we didn’t know what was going to come out of it, but nothing but greatness has come out of it. It really came out good. I hope other people like it too, but I think it’s really good. And it gives us a chance to showcase me in a whole ‘nother vein because so many people are used to me playing gospel, jazz and traditional New Orleans style music.
very interested when he brought the idea to me. And, as he mentioned, we didn’t know what was going to come out of it, but nothing but greatness has come out of it. It really came out good. I hope other people like it too, but I think it’s really good. And it gives a chance to showcase me in a whole ‘nother vein because so many people are used to me playing rhythms and gospel and jazz and traditional New Orleans style music.
How does Uncle Nef’s sound differ from what you’ve worked on in the past?
Shannon: Well it’s a traditional blues sound that people in this generation need to hear. You know I came up in the Tremé in the 60s and 70s—so I grew up listening to nothing but the best of hardcore blues. Professor Longhair, stuff like that. I performed with all these people. Growing up in the Tremé you are surrounded by some of the best blues in the world. So you know, my thing –and their thing too– is not only are we trying to capture this great traditional blues sound, but we trying to enlighten a younger audience today that missed a whole lot of that.
Darren: I grew up listening to a lot of Jimi Hendrix. I listened to Nirvana. I listened to Albert King. And then later in my twenties, I got into Jack White and the White Stripes. So that kind of opened me up a lot. Even before the The White Stripes, in high school, I was into the blues guitar and drum-duo thing. For some reason it was something I liked to do. It gave me a lot of freedom. So when I switched back to guitar about a year ago, I was like ‘If I’m going to do something on guitar, why don’t I just get the best drummer in the world?’ In terms of style, I wanted to draw upon Nirvana and Sonic Youth and the subversive nature of stuff like that; that gritty feeling that we share in electric blues, as well. All of that kind of comes together in what you hear on our EP. To people who know who Louis Jordan is, the sound we are coming up with is sort of a mix of a Louis Jordan and Jack White kind of thing.
Uncle Nef is just beginning, but what’s next?
Shannon: We are trying to keep this thing rolling. We want to go on tour. The road is where I belong. I was telling Darren, ‘you come home and sit down and sit around for so many years, you start missing the road.’ You see I’ve been on the road so much I’m used to different climates at certain times of the year. And when I’m home in New Orleans I just get only the New Orleans climate so I miss out on that. In certain places, like when it’s summertime, I like to be where it’s cold. When it’s winter time, I like to be where it’s hot, you know what I’m saying?
Darren: Well, we released the E.P. on a Sunday and we were back in the studio on Tuesday. We started recording an LP, and we have about half of it done already. No time to waste. We’re only on this planet for so long. We have some really great guest artists I can’t talk about just yet. But really cool guest artists are joining us. We’re trying to get as much work done as we can to bring it to the next level. The whole style of what we’re doing -the body of work- is going to evolve and grow organically, and we’re not going to stray too far from our foundation. The next record is not going to be like a Björk record or anything like that [laughs].