The New Orleans band The Radiators (www.theradiators.org) epitomize the backbone of rock-and-roll: The working regional band that makes continuously high quality music and that remains true to itself artistically. 2008 marks their 30th year together: Thirty years of rehearsal, of road trips, of gigs before large audiences and small.
The Radiators celebrated the anniversary with the release of Wild & Free, two CDs of mostly live material that they call “Fishhead Music.” Wild & Free dates back as far as their formative year of 1978 and also includes new songs written for the release. Bassist Reggie Scanlan spoke with me about the group, the new release, Fishhead Music, Hurricane Katrina, and the inimitable world of New Orleans music. Here’s part 1 of the interview:
I went to Jazz Festival last year and came back wanting to immerse myself in the music of southern Louisiana. The diversity and depth are such that it’s impossible to say that there is a such thing as one Louisiana Sound or a NOLA Sound.
It’s all delineated. People want to put in a bucket and it’s not like that.
Yet, the first piano notes of Wild & Free pretty much announce that The Radiators are a New Orleans band. What have the Radiators absorbed musically that make them a distinctly New Orleans band?
The stuff we grew up listening to – Earl King, Professor Longhair, The Meters – I heard it in college when white kids first getting turned on to this stuff. You could go see these guys any time you wanted to. For me as a bass player I could watch these guys all night & see what they were doing.
There’s a lot of old influence. The city founded by French and Spanish, and the music has what Jelly Roll Morton called a “Spanish tinge." It’s just a looser feel. Then of course slaves could gather and play music in Congo Square. For them, that was a way of passing down their music. Congo Square might be first place a stringed instrument and drum played together. Growing up here, hearing those rhythms…that stuff was going to effect your music.
We were Earl King’s band for several years. We got to look at the clockwork from the inside. It was a real schooling in how to prepare for a gig: You had to be ready. Those older guys didn’t cut a lot of slack.
So, what is Fishhead Music?
We started out in 1978 doing original songs, which was at the bottom of the list of what people wanted to hear. It wasn’t quite R&B, It wasn’t quite rock...one day [vocalist and songwriter] Ed [Volker] said “it’s fishhead music!” Fans started calling themselves Fishheads.
In some ways the name underscored the problem of what we were doing. Any night, we had no preconceived notion of what we wanted to do. The rule of band is, you can play whatever you want as long as you don’t step on anyone’s toes.
Tell me about Wild & Free. It’s not a typical anniversary celebration CD. The sequencing of the cuts is not chronological. What was thinking behind that?
We taped everything from the beginning, We tried to arrange Wild & Free more like a set and mix it up with different time frames. We wanted to include stuff that had never been played live and include different versions of previously released songs. We weren’t interested in greatest hits; it’s an overview audio scrapbook of thirty years of songs and gigs.
An amazing guy named Bruce Barielle did the mastering. He retrieved stuff lost in floodwater and still made whole project have an overall compatible sound.
Hurricane Katrina appears to have had a profound affect on the New Orleans music community, but maybe not in the way one would expect. During my visit, I came away astounded by the quality of the music. The funk scene, for example, is amazing. It’s as if musicians have collectively made the statement, “This is our city and we’re not giving it up.”
That’s exactly what happened. I was home by last week in September [Note: One month after the flooding.] The owner of the Maple Leaf Bar was determined that nothing was going to close his club. He put out a call to musicians to play and whoever showed up could play.
We all has the attitude of “the government has abandoned us, but this is our city and we’re taking it back.” People turned gas themselves, made street signs that are still up, cleaned up. You didn’t go anywhere without a weapon. The National Guard would shut down club right at 1 [a.m.] and somehow you had to get home after curfew.
How has Katrina affected your music?
Well, the first gig at Tipitina’s after the storm was extremely emotional. Our Katrina project was Dreaming Out Loud. We had to do something to get it out of our system.
You are also a photographer…
As photographer, I set out to document what happened and what didn’t happen. It was almost surreal…block upon block of houses sitting on cars, houses in the middle of streets…Except for Uptown and the Sliver By The River [Note: Most of the French Quarter], everywhere you went looked like Dresden.
What we’ve accomplished is amazing because it happened in spite of federal, state, and city government. Katrina really gave people a bad taste for anything to do with bureaucracy. People are still fighting for insurance monry and medical bills. Despite it all, the population that came back is super determined to maintain the culture and not lose any of it.
(End of Part 1. Part 2 of Citizen K.'s interview with Reggie Scanlan appears Thursday.)
The Radiators perform "Doctor Doctor" in 1991: