George Porter Jr.: Legend Locks A Groove
Had George Porter Jr. walked away from music when the Meters, one of the most grooving New Orleans exports of the last 30 years, originally broke up, his stature as the architect of funky bass would have been firmly cemented. Meters’ songs such as “Cissy Strut”, “Look-Ka Py Py”, “Hey Pocky A-Way” and “People Say“have become standards not only during Carnival and Jazz Fest time in the band’s home city but to a whole legion of musicians and fans who realize that sometimes a song’s strength and beauty lie in the fat, greasy grooves that propel it.
However, instead of resting on his reputation when the original Meters (Porter, Art Neville, Leo Nocentelli and Joseph Zigaboo Modeliste) imploded in the late 1970s, he began the next chapter of his life. Porter got clean, formed George Porter Jr. and the Runnin’ Pardners in 1987 and slowly saw an impromptu jam of the Meters morph into today’s wildly popular funky Meters, a band consisting of Porter, Neville, guitarist Brian Stoltz and drummer Russell Batiste. Both groups tour regularly and the Runnin’ Pardners have recently released the independent CD, “Funk N Go Nuts,“which is currently available only at www.louisianamusicfactory.com. Today the group not only stands as a major influence on artists like Galactic, Ben Harper and many others, but also an equal force on the touring circuit.
This interview was originally scheduled for last month but Porter’s hectic schedule (combined with a phone outage in Louisiana) during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (known throughout the world simply as Jazz Fest) didn’t allow for that. So we waited for post-Jazz Fest dust to settle and called him at his New Orleans tri-plex under calmer circumstances.
Q: You have said that many of the Meters best instrumentals came out of a live setting where once a song was done you’d improvise in a new direction until another song came out of it. Do you think that the Meters were a jam band before the term “jam band“even existed?
A: I think so. We were definitely a jam band. The reason why I say that is because when we first left New Orleans to go out and support this “Sophisticated Cissy,”“Cissy Strut“album, all we had in our arsenal of music of our own songs was only 12 songs. So we would go out and play those 12 songs for all of 46 minutes back then. So we started jamming – this was in the middle of ’68. I’m thinking that very first album had to be 40-some-odd minutes. The songs back in those days was like two minutes long.
Q: So in that live setting, it was kind of a sink or swim situation?
A: Correct. Either you stopped and did a totally new song or you went off and did something. We went off and did something. Basically that’s what we do is go out and jam. A lot of our own original songs – we worked our songs into playing “Up, Up and Away“by the Fifth Dimension and things like that. We did a couple Booker T and the MGs songs and we recorded “Hang Em High.“So sometimes our tunes would jam their way into cover songs.
Q: Speeding up along to the year 2000, someone on the funky Meters message board once said something like “seeing the funky meters is like spending $25 to see their favorite band rehearse. And then when they left, they felt like it was the best they’d ever done.“Is the informal and loose vibe you strive for in your performances?
A: We don’t strive for anything. We try to go out and walk off the stage and feel good about it what we’ve done. We don’t go to a soundcheck and say this is a golden set, we just go out and play. We don’t rehearse so whatever we play is just playing off each other’s intuition in taking that two minute song and turning it into something else and keeping it useful.
Q: What’s the size of your repertoire right now?
A: It depends on how long the set is.
Q: I mean overall.
A: We probably have somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 to 35 songs that we pick from. I guess the best to see how big our set list actually is to see us more than one night in a row because generally we play the same room two or three nights. If we do a two-night run, you’ll probably only hear us repeat “Cissy Strut,”“Africa“and “Fire on the Bayou,“but “Fire on the Bayou“we don’t always play. So there’s only three or four songs – “Funky Miracle“might be repeated. The rest of the night is playing all those other songs that we don’t play. You know “Pungee,“I can name any of them.
Q: It’s easy to see that you’re usually having a great time on stage and Art is often caught smiling during your performances. After 30 years of playing with Art Neville, what keeps your musical conversation fun and exciting?
A: Just the fact that we’re doing it. I think, man, what’s exciting is the fact that it’s an adventure every night because it’s not a planned thing and I think the exciting thing is that it happens and it happens well. But we’ve played plenty of nights that were a train wreck and we all end up in different places and sometimes Art laughs a comment over the microphone about it. We pay attention to each other and most of the time if anyone gets left out in the cold it’s usually Art because we may make a move and he don’t hear us as well as the other three of us hear each other in our monitors we have a better mix of each other than Art has because his rig behind him is bigger than his monitor. His keyboard rig is usually the loudest thing he hears so he doesn’t hear us as well as we’d like to have him hear us. That’s just because he has the great keyboard rig behind him. Sometimes we do things that might catch him unaware that we’re making a move and usually he lets us know that he didn’t like that we moved without him knowing.
Q: At this point the funky Meters have together for almost a decade. When can we expect a CD of new music?
A: Well, we’re in that process right now: We’ve gotten approval from Art’s record label to do a project and we’ve been in the studio recording demos and trying out some songwriting things. I would hope some time real soon.
Q: Is there a label you’ve been talking to yet?
A: There are several labels that have said, ‘send us something,’ you know? At this point those will probably be the labels that we won’t send anything to.
Q: You play with Zigaboo sporadically, late last year Art Neville came out and played with you and Zig at a Super Jam and most recently, a couple issues ago in Offbeat magazine, Leo Nocentelli said that an original members Meters reunion is likely. Is there anything in the works?
A: No, there’s absolutely nothing that’s on anyone’s table saying that it’s going to happen. I never say that anything won’t happen but there’s no confirmation saying something like that will happen. In other words, if that happens it’s not on anyone’s table right now.
Q: What do you think it is about the Meters’ music that has made it so appealing to the hip-hop acts that sample it?
A: There are good grooves, there’s great pockets waiting for something to go there. A lot of those songs don’t have real melodies they were just really nice, strong pockets and there was just an organ or a solo on top of a really strong pocket. The fact that it’s a great reservoir to the rappers is because there are really so many hellacious grooves there that they can rap on top of.