I'm pretty sure we work harder than other Cajun bands making records," Steve Riley says. "After putting out so many records, we don't put out a record unless we have something to say."
Cajun music — so firmly rooted in the past — has a strange and often difficult relationship with artistic evolution. On Feb. 22, Riley and his band, the Mamou Playboys, will release Grand Isle, their first record in five years. It will add to a growing trend in Cajun and zydeco music to push the musical envelope — as evidenced by recent releases from Feufollet, Horace Trahan and BeauSoleil.
Grand Isle is a genre-busting collection of songs, a pensive meditation on Louisiana and a mid-career, high-water mark for a band pushing toward its third decade on active-duty status in Cajun music. "I was about 7 years old when I learned my first song on the accordion," Riley says. "I grew up hearing Marc Savoy, Dennis McGee and others at my grandparents' house. All my life I've been around music and loved it just as long."
At 18, Riley formed the Mamou Playboys with fiddler David Greely. They soon began playing festivals, touring the U.S., Europe, Australia and Japan. Eleven albums and 22 years down the line, they are still going strong. The current lineup of the band includes Riley on accordion, fiddler Greely, guitarist Sam Broussard, bassist Sam Huval and drummer Kevin Dugas.
For Grand Isle, the band — tired of the usual studio routine — turned to Lafayette musician and close friend C.C. Adcock, who produced two of their previous records (Bayou Ruler in 1998 and Happytown in 2001). Adcock — who was hot off contributing songs and producing tracks for HBO's True Blood soundtracks as well as producing Brit sensation Florence and the Machine — seemed the logical choice. "The band came to me, even though the two records I'd done with them got poo-poo'd by the press," Adcock says. "I mean, I got hate mail for Bayou Ruler. But I think people are way more open now and realize the future is in pushing the envelope, not just caretaking the legacy of the past."
Riley and band took their hands off the wheel and let Adcock drive them through his Jack Nietzsche-inspired, studio cheerleading and song-conjuring wizardry wherein the essence of each song is closely examined and divined by any number of traditional and nontraditional methods — depending on the situation — from sonic manipulation to alchemic tinkering to bacchanalian hoodoo summoning to the last desperate act of beating on walls in pure artistic frustration.
"I just felt like something new had to be done," Adcock recalls. "It's a time in their careers and in Cajun music where they had to make a statement. It'd been five years since they made a record. I think things had become a little stale from constantly touring and just the monotony of what it's like to be a working, touring band these days, which is harder and harder to do — there's not a lot of people that can do it and still make a decent wage.
"People used to look to Steve and the band to be the frontrunners, and then a whole new crop of bands came up a few years ago that have breathed new life into the local scene. I felt it was the Playboys' time to prove they're still a vital, relevant band that can make good new music."
The lifeblood of any tradition is a combination of historical reverence and a willingness to progress into the future. For those saddled with the responsibility of caretaking a tradition, that's a daunting task to accomplish, especially within the tourist-versus-purist confines of Cajun music.
"It's got to start with songs," Adcock says. "It can't just be about studio tricks, styles, special guests or being modern or retro. Being modern is just as suspect as being retro. It's just a gimmick. The band needed some new inspiration, and that can only come from songs. A lick is not good enough. An idea is not good enough. A style is not good enough. There's not even much need to record old, obscure Cajun covers anymore. It's all been well-documented now and is really accessible. That ain't a card to play any more. You got to write your own tunes and come up with new stuff, because everyone knows the old songs."
Recording at several different studios over the course of three years — in between touring — the slow pace gave the songs space to thaw, evolve and develop. "We'd written and collected a lot of songs, so we took our time, but it was a lot of work," Riley says. "And it was the first time that I've completely put a record in the hands of someone else."
"Steve, David and I had wanted a different slant on things for a while, but we weren't all on the same page about it," says Sam Broussard, a guitarist and vocalist. "Steve's naturally adventurous, David is very organic and I have a studio where I'm kind of like an eighth-grader with an atom collider under the house — music can get hurt that way. We've been successful producing ourselves in the past, but when a band gets to a vision crossroads, it's often best to call in someone from the outside. C.C. brought a sharpened aesthetic that's part vision and part seat-of-the-pants improv, plus he's from down here and has done his homework. The result is an album where no two songs sound the same, which is what Adcock wanted. The design is like a south Louisiana vinyl listening party; no two records ever sound the same no matter how drunk you get."
Adcock pushed the band to experiment with drum loops — a staple present in much of modern pop — to expand its musical palette. Some examples of such nonCajun-like music techniques included playing a waltz to a drum machine, using a sample of submarine sonar as part of the rhythm track, and collaborating with New Orleans proto-futurist Mr. Quintron on "Chatterbox," a song written by Quintron about going to an eatery after the funeral of Circle Bar owner Kelly Keller.
Grand Isle contains many highlights. The above mentioned "Chatterbox" rocks like some kind of Lomax, indie pop. "Dance Without Understanding" has the pronounced vibe of an '80s two-step with a Kajagoogoo haircut. Broussard's "Pierre" — recorded entirely at home by Broussard — is steampunk meets Euro-Delta blues.
"'Pierre' was improvisational songwriting: straight to hard drive, then edit," Broussard says. "My usual method is late-'60s verse/chorus with hopefully a no-cliché zone — harmonically and especially lyrically. Vibe is big now, to suck people in. I try to do that with song, which is fading these days. Maybe I should fade with it."
"Sam recorded all that in his house, beating on file cabinets and weird shit," Adcock says. "It didn't have any music to it, just him and a beat. I said, 'That's going on the record just as it is. It's great.' Sam's a genius."
Riley gives some of the best vocal performances of his career on songs like the sweet and celebratory "Lyons Point" and the Cajun-on-coconuts-in-the-Caribbean synth pop of "This is the Time for Change." Riley says, "C.C. always pushes me hard vocally. And I need it. I want someone to push me in the studio. Pushing me to go for things — the delivery and singing with as much character as possible."
Toward the end of recording, in the wake of the BP oil disaster, Greely wrote the song "Grand Isle." The song was so good that the band ditched an early working title for the album and went with the name of the coastal town that has come to symbolize so many of the ups and downs of Louisiana.
"I used to camp out at Grand Isle, romping in the surf, daydreaming about becoming a marine biologist, watching dolphins coming up for air from the old Caminada Bridge," Greely says. "It was a funky paradise without any Dairy Queens or McDonald's. I was sad beyond measure when they fouled it up. I kept thinking: 'Why can't we have nice things?'"
The deal was further sealed after seeing Allison Bohl's proposed cover art of an oil-covered bird. "Instead of calling the record 'C'est L'heure Pour Changer,' which is long, we decided to call it something English and to the point, so people will get it right off the bat," Riley says. "After seeing several images of the water, coast and birds covered in oil, it stuck with us. It's simple and powerful."
The intensive sessions, guided by Adcock's unorthodox orthodoxy yielded some of the most distinctive tunes of the band's career. "Around here bands think they should just play live and put a mic in front of it or else they're being fake," Adcock says. "Cajun music is very much an '80s music. It came to prominence in the '80s and crossed over into a pop consciousness where teenagers were listening to it and it wasn't just an old man's music anymore. I wanted to address that in this record."
Like recent albums by other eminent Cajun/zydeco artists, it's likely Grand Isle will be nominated for a Grammy Award. The songs, the timing, the collective effort and the historical stature and robust discography of Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys are very much in evidence on this album even when they are attempting to deconstruct and/or evade the legacy of their past.
"Since the arrival of the zydeco/Cajun Grammy category, there's been a lot of unofficial live releases nominated — like these guys that record [at] Jazz Fest and get it nominated — stuff that lowers the bar of what we're about, just floods the market and attempts to get some Grammy attention. It's foolish," Adcock says. "There's really no reason not to make great records. But lately you can start to slowly see the bar being raised with local bands putting out great records. Feufollet, Lost Bayou Ramblers, BeauSoleil and others — they're showing the best of what Louisiana musicians have to offer."