Photo by Zack Smith.

Nolatet’s Maiden Voyage

It’s one thing when a new band seems destined to kick ass, and it’s another thing when they actually do. Nolatet–a new project from musical mad men Johnny Vidacovich (drums), James Singleton (double bass), Mike Dillon (vibes and percussion) and Brian Haas (piano)–is a great example of both the former and the latter.

Jonny Vidacovch. Photo by Kim Welsh.

Jonny Vidacovch. Photo by Kim Welsh.

The group’s formation was as spontaneous as its compositions, the result of a few chance encounters and the fruitful jam sessions that ensued. When the band finally did get together for a recording session at New Orleans’ Esplanade Studios last year, only a single day was needed. OffBeat’s Geraldine Wyckoff called the results, 2016’s Dogs, a “brilliant debut album” from “an ensemble made up of all rhythmic instruments played by musicians with the capacity for powerful dynamics.”

With their debut album now released into the wild, Nolatet is gearing up for its first national tour, a jaunt that will take them to the East Coast, as well as the Mountain West and Pacific Coast. But first, the band will treat New Orleans to a pair of back-to-back shows at Snug Harbor on Sunday, February 28. I caught up with Vidacovich to get an idea of what fans can expect from their live shows, along with some insights into the group’s history and dynamics.

Obviously you and James have been playing together for 40 years, but you guys have also played with Mike and Brian a good bit over the years too. What made you all want to get together for an official project?

Things started this one time when we had a trio with me, Michael and James Singleton in Telluride. Brian Haas was there with his band. I don’t know if it was Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, but I think it was Jacob Fred. And we said, “Come on when do our set. Come play this tune or that tune.” So he played a bunch of tunes on a set we did. Then the next time we had a trio gig and Brian was there, we said “Hey, come on.” And one time he was here for a while, so after a gig we said, “Hey let’s go cut some tracks, man, I got some time in the studio.” We went over to Misha’s on Esplanade [Esplanade Studios], cut some tracks, and we liked the tracks. Everybody said this stuff was good, so we all decided to make a commitment, book a whole bunch of gigs and make a record. We’re giving it a shot, jumping back in the van.

So there was never any intention of making a record when y’all first played together?

It was never a plan. It was a very spontaneous.

You’ll be playing Snug Harbor this weekend, and then you guys are hitting the road next month. How long has it been since you’ve been out on the road for a full on tour?

I did one, I want to say it was this past summer. I went out with Voice of the Wetlands for a while. And right after the festival I think me, Michael and James might have gone out for a little while. I still go out, but not as much as I used to cause Astral Project doesn’t travel as much as they used to. I haven’t gotten off the road, but this is one is going to be a long hard one. So after this, you know, we’ll talk about that.

Will these shows be spontaneous endeavors like the first few gigs, or are you going to be playing tracks from the album? A little of both?

I think we’ll play all the tracks from the album and just kind of see where it goes since the tracks are designed to open up a little bit. But most of the stuff we’re going to do, I think, is going to be based off the record. Cause the stuff on the record is good thematic material to develop. So I think that’s what we’re going to do. But I’ll see what the fellas are going to do. You never know what they’re going to do. We’re not going to over plan it because you never know what’s going to happen. I’m not much into over planning, so I’ll leave that up to them.

It sounds like the record itself wasn’t even planned that much. Only first and second takes, no overdubs, more or less improvised. How was the recording process for this one?

Well we had themes, we had some thematic material, and we went in the studio and played it. Played, you know. We listened to it, and if it sounded good then that was it.  The material was vaguely sketched and planned. I haven’t sat down and listened to the record completely, I’ve just been listening to tracks here and there, but Brian likes to remix things and change things around a little bit on a record, so I have to see what it sounds like. I’ll have to just sit down and just listen to a regular copy, as opposed to people sending me a remix of this, a remix of that. Saying I added this, I changed that, you know. I really can’t get a sense of the continuity with that.

With these guys, continuity is going to be the least of our problems. Cause all these guys can step up to the plate All these guys, individually, can take it in any direction. So the direction, ideas, material–that’s the least thing that I would even worry about with these guys. With these guys it’s more like “Hey, keep some of that in the bag.” When they play it’s like the last parade of Mardi Gras.. They’re going to play down to the last pair of beats. I got to keep the pot covered, let the lid simmer, and then open a little crack in the top of the pot, to let the steam out, because they got a lot of ideas. That’s what’s kind of overwhelming about this band, the amount of ideas that are spontaneously thrown out there. And once you grab any one of those ideas, you can take the music, even though it might be something off the record, you can take the music and really do a one-eighty with i. But then you always have the music so you can go right back to it.

You mentioned Brian doing a lot of remixes, is there any one of you that is the sort of driving force on the writing side?

No I think all of the guys have been throwing in stuff. All of the guys have been throwing in different tunes. I think I might even, after the band gets rolling a while, I might start throwing in a couple of things myself. But sometimes we’ll do some of my poems, which are based off of simple motifs. Sometimes Michael has his own motif, certain poems that he’s doing, and so does James. So that stuff that I do is strictly open for that because it’s poem, you know? I’m not writing music, I’m writing poems. And then I’ll say, “One, two, three, do what you want to do. Here’s the poem. Read it. we’re going to do this tonight.” Somebody will come up with any kind of slightly thematic, two note, three note, any kind of simple idea, and it can start to develop from there. These guys are really good at developing. It’s like you’re hammering a nail and they build a castle. That’s what they can do with a motif. That cracks me up about these guys. You can give them minimal information, or minimal inspiration and then they can build a mountain out of it.

With a group like this, anybody could take over at any moment really, and just start steering the ship.

Yes, but there’s the etiquette of the moment. If it’s right, yes, that is happening. All these guys seem to be pretty polite too, when it comes to that. Like you said, “the moment being taken over,” well since everybody is so strong, we have the ability to allow ourselves to be empathetic to the other guy. We don’t have to fight to get our individuality out there. I think this is great. We’ve kind of grown up and we’ve realized that our individualities are our individualities. If you want to go somewhere fast, go by yourself. If you want to go far, go with somebody else.

So where do you see the future of the Nolatet going, after this tour wraps up?

Wow, what a broad question. The future I would say, poetically speaking, is in the next note. In reality, I’’ say that we’ll do this, and if it can pay my bills and I can keep my house and my mortgage and my wife, then I’ll say it’s going in the right direction. If we can make it and pay the bills and pay the gas and keep our lives in tact. I just don’t want to lose my house. I’m an old man, I’m 66,I’m collecting social security. I’m not going to play forever. I’m getting into those last couple and I’m try hard to keep up, but these boys are all younger than me.. But I’m try hard to keep up with them. I’ve been doing it all my life, you know, living in vans, so it ain’t nothing different. I just did a whole tour with Tab Benoit Shit, that was twenty, maybe nineteen days in a bus. One-nighters bro, sleeping in a bunk on the bus. And that’s for a sixty-five year old dude, man. That’s some rough shit But I’m into it. I think that People are interested in us individually, so I would hope that we can get some love as a group. And from that love, hopefully we can keep it together more and more and pay the bills.