Brian Stoltz Digs In East of Rampart Street
In anticipation of this year's New Orleans Jazzfest, I was given the opportunity to interview with Funky Meters' guitarist Brian Stoltz. Brian has a rich history as a New Orleans musician playing guitar with the Neville Brothers and the Funky Meters, and currently, his plate is beyond full: he is pursuing his solo career by releasing a CD called "East of Rampart Street," as well as forming a super jam/funk band with George Porter Jr. and Russell Batiste (both from the Funky Meters) called PBS, and of course keeping his stage left post as the Funky Meters’ guitarist (Funky Meters current tourdates can be found at www.funkymeters.com, and they include a set at the much anticipated Bonneroo music festival later this summer). The interview below offers glimpses into Brian’s history, his participation with the Neville Brothers which includes some very interesting stories involving Brian’s interaction with the Grateful Dead, and how he came to be the Funky Meter’s guitarist and vocalist.
Kane: Most fans are familiar with your work as the guitarist for the Funky Meters, and recently with the PBS (Porter-Batiste-Stoltz) trio. But you have a long, storied history as a musician. How about filling in the blanks regarding your career outside of the funky Meters?
Stoltz: Well I am very sketchy with dates, but I started getting pay gigs in high school in the early ’70’s – a bar in Salt Bayou, north of the city. I got all the beer I could drink and got to pass the hat. I played there on weekends with my cousin Ray who was a few years older than me, but barely old enough to be in the place himself. He was already a pro at working the tip jar. No matter what song some ol’ drunk would holler out – we would play – whether we knew it or not. We played old Johnny Cash, George Jones, Hank Williams, the real deal. Around the same time I was playing with a group called Glenn Pichon’s Black Experience. Glenn wore long, furry coats and big Superfly hats. We played Sly Stone, War, Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, you know, your basic soul /funk / rock / r&b kinda thing. That kind of diverse experience set the tone for my whole career.
After high school I had various bands playing a lot of the same rock / r&b thing, maybe leaning more towards the bluesy, Hendrix side of things. Everything had to somehow relate to the blues. We traveled mostly around the state, sometimes regionally, playing clubs and VFW type halls. I had a big ’58 Ford school bus with the seats taken out, two couches in the front facing each other for the band and entourage and all the gear in the back. What a scene!
Things were growing; due to a new manager and agent we were getting better and better gigs until the middle to later part of the ’70’s. Then disaster struck! Disco took off and things changed fast; or so it seemed. The gigs just stopped coming. The clubs that were having live music were now either shutting down or turning to a DJ format. The places that were booking live music only had disco bands. I was in a predicament. This period was a real test for a lot of musicians. Most of the guys I came up with fell off the path during this period. I was determined to play music for a living, so…. I cut my hair, sold the big Marshall amps, got a little amp, and a suit, and got the house gig at a disco club in a..uuh… questionable part of town called Fat City. It was mostly middle-age guys in leisure suits, gold medallions and gold razor blades around their neck, perms… lots of Mafia types with big busted, too-many face lifts blondes on their arm. Musically, it was the most depressing, bland period of my life. On the positive side, I learned to be streetwise from being exposed to the dark…well… shady side of things.
Clubs on Bourbon Street continued to have live music but even there commercial music was quickly taking over and Dixieland Jazz was becoming somewhat of a rarity. In 1979 I started playing the Ivanhoe with a group called Mojo. This was the same club that years before Art Neville played with the band that eventually became the Meters. Mojo was a funky, r&b group with horns. Across the street was the 544 Club with ex-Meter sax player Gary Brown. Gary was in the Meters previous to their recordings. I eventually took the gig with him when it was offered in 1980.
During this period singer Rita Coolidge would frequent the club when she was in town. She would come in occasionally with Art and Aaron Neville. This is where I met them. Rita was planning to take me, the drummer and keyboard player to tour South Africa. Apartheid prevented her from taking a racially mixed band, so the tour got scraped.
In early ’81 I began having pain in my left hand and arm. In the middle of a set one night my left arm just fell to my side. I could not lift it. I needed carpal tunnel surgery. The operation kept me down for about six months. By the summer of ’81 things were bleak. I was putting a new band together for another house gig, but the thought of going back to Bourbon St. was not sitting well. Bourbon Street is a great place if you are visiting New Orleans or out for a night on the town, but having to go down there every night to work six sets, surrounded by every lethal indulgence that you can imagine….
In September of ’81 the Neville Brothers has just returned from a tour supporting their Fiyo On The Bayou album with groovemasters Herman Ernest on drums and Leo Nocentelli on guitar. They wanted to put a new band together. Art Neville remembered me from the 544 Club. He didn’t have my number, so he came to Bourbon St. looking for me. I had been gone for six months due to the surgery so when he got to the club I was nowhere to be found. Fate had it though, that earlier that day I had given my new phone number to a friend working down the street at the Absinthe Bar. Later that night Art wandered in and asked my friend if he knew "that white boy that used to play the 544 Club". Art was given the new number just gotten a few hours earlier and called. I began playing with the Neville Brothers in September of ’81. I remember we had two rehearsals, played my first gig with them at Tipitina’s, and then went to Texas for a series of shows. While in Houston, the promoter of the ’81 Rolling Stones Tattoo You tour called for us to meet them in Louisville, KY. for some opening dates. Over the years with the Neville Brothers we toured with lots of great acts like Santana, The Grateful Dead, Ziggy Marley, and recorded many records including the classic, Yellow Moon (1989). During my 9 or so years with the band there was lots of other occasional sessions and gigs with different artists – none of it too memorable.
In 1989 though, I had the awesome experience of recording with Bob Dylan in New Orleans for his Oh Mercy album. During the Yellow Moon sessions Bob came by the studio and liked the idea of recording in a house as opposed to a commercial studio. He witnessed the awesome producer skills of Daniel Lanois and decided to do his next record in New Orleans. Being on the session, I learned more in those few days about songwriting than a lifetime of studying and listening.
In ’89 while still with the Nevilles, I teamed up with a keyboard player who had been recording and touring with Pink Floyd. When the Nevilles were off the road I was in New York working on a project called Big Deep. Several major labels and publishing companies were putting up money for demos. Various members came and went; by the time we signed with RCA the line up was me, Jon Carin from Pink Floyd, ex-Neville Brother bassist Darryl Johnson and Sterling Campbell who had played with Nile Rodgers’ Chic on drums.
I left the Neville Brothers in January of 1990 and began spending more time in New York. Later in the year, Aaron Neville asked me to be part of the Warm Your Heart sessions being recorded in L.A. with Linda Ronstadt producing. Between then and 1992, I continued to travel back and forth between New Orleans and New York recording demos and refining the Big Deep project. With the record completed in August of ’91, I went to L.A to record with Cajun/Zydeco artist Zachary Richard. Dr. John was on the session and mentioned that he was looking for a guitar player. I was tied up in the RCA deal but told him I could make a few gigs temporarily. I was enchanted by the idea of playing with him. I had been such a fan of his for years I couldn’t pass it up. Not long after the completion of the Big Deep record there was a shake up at RCA. The president got fired; a few other heads rolled and we were dropped in the process. The budget on that record was pretty, no other labels would pick it up, so the band fell apart. I continued on with Dr. John for over a year of touring and recording. During this period I also did sessions with Linda Ronstadt, co-wrote and recorded another Zachary Richard record, recorded Edie Brickell’s Picture Perfect Morning album, and appeared on Saturday Night Live & Late Night with David Letterman with Edie & Paul Simon.
When the Dr. John gig ran out I didn’t know if I would be able to stay in New Orleans or not. I got to thinking that after playing with the cream of the crop, the Nevilles and Dr. John, the only band left in New Orleans that toured on that level was the funky Meters. Just when I figured that gig was out of the question, I received a call saying that Leo Nocentelli had resigned and would I want to fill the position. I believe this was late ’93.
The next few years, along with funky Meter gigs, I continued to do occasional sessions but there weren’t many to be had at the time. One that is worth mentioning is Eddie Louiss, an artist from the South of France. Eddie is an amazing jazz B-3 player originally from Martinique. He had the idea to record in New Orleans with New Orleans musicians. I had done a session in Paris with his producer at Initial records a couple of years earlier for a song that became a big club and radio hit in Europe, so he recommended me for the guitar/bandleader job. We recorded at Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway studio in August of ’94. The record was released in early ’95. I put together a seven piece horn band and spent the next year or so traveling back and forth touring Europe.
The next few years, between funky Meter dates, I spent a lot of time recording at home and working the vegetable garden.
In 2000 I started recording tracks that would eventually become Starving Buddha, an internet only release www.mp3.com/brianstoltz. The funky Meters continued on until September 2001. Art Neville went in the hospital for disc surgery but recovery began to take longer than anyone imagined. I now had time to work on other projects and finish another CD that I had been working on. East Of Rampart Street was released January of 2003. .
With the new CD complete and in stores I began concentrating on a new project with George Porter Jr. and Russell Batiste. The new group began touring under the name Porter-Batiste-Stoltz or PBS as fans began to call it. PBS is in the process of becoming a full-time touring and recording band. The show is about 90% new material written by the band.
Well, I guess that brings us to the present. I know I left out a lot of information, but I am not too good at keeping a record of it all.
Kane: Your guitar sound is certainly unique and not easily described in words. I’ve heard some people describe it as "narsty." Please tell us the specifics of your guitar and amplifier setup.
STOLTZ: Sure, but first let me say that getting a sound is a lot more than the guitar and amp set up. A player has his preferences, and certainly it helps to be comfortable with the instrument that you are playing, but ultimately the sound comes from the musicians soul, heart, mind, personality, character, fingers and so on. I mean, take your favorite player and think about how moving and inspiring he or she is…. does it matter what guitar or amp they use? Couldn’t Jimi or Jerry have just walked in and picked up any old instrument and sounded like themselves? Now (laughs), I do recall a couple of instances where I saw guitar players attempt to play on strange guitars and walk away embarrassed, and there are guys who will only play on their own gear, but that just points out their insecurity and limitations. A great player has music bursting from the seams regardless of the instrument.
Now, to answer your question, regarding my style not being easily described, I guess that’s true because I have such diverse influences and have always been averse to being pigeon-holed. I have always kept myself open to inspiration regardless of the style or genre. Of course there are genres that I prefer over others and things either move me or they don’t, but in general, I am influenced by sounds regardless of where they come from. This is true in my songwriting also. There are many musicians that you can say are blues players, jazz players, rock or r&b players, they work to master one a style. But I came up listening to all of this. I was inspired by great players like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Nolen, Earl King, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Curtis Mayfield, George Harrison, John Lennon, Neil Young and the list goes on and on. Look at the diverse styles there, but all amazing guitar players. As I said earlier I began playing country music – George Jones, Johnny Cash…. I wasn’t particularly inspired by any country guitar players, but I was moved by the music. I listened to a lot of blues artist back then also. To me, country and the blues were like first cousins. I didn’t see one as white and one as black. It was just music.
For the tech end of the question – I have been using a ’71 Fender Custom Telecaster, a Fender Strat plus that I got in the mid ’80’s, and a custom-made guitar crafted by Brian Paul Prokop of Dallas, TX. These are the ones I mostly take on the road. I have a ’68 Stratocaster and a ’72 Les Paul that I leave home, but use in the studio. I have a few others, but those are the main ones. My amp set up with the funky Meters has been a Mesa Boogie Tri-axis pre-amp in a rack with a Mesa 290 Power amp with a 4×12 Marshall cab. with 90 wt. celestions. Lately it has been too expensive to fly it because it weighs so much, so with PBS I have been renting Marshall JCM 800’s with 4×12 Marshall cabs. If I set the volume low on the Marshall it is still a clean sound, but fat. The Marshalls are sometimes a bit bright. I usually turn the treble to 0 and sometimes it’s still a too bright, but I deal with it because when I listen back to the tapes or CD’s of the show I am always amazed that it sounds fine and not too bright. When I am playing solo I use a ’71 Ampeg VT-40 combo with 4X10" speakers, and a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe combo with 1×12 speaker. For pedals, from guitar to amp the series is – boss tuner – Vox wah – Dunlop 535 wah – Ibanez tube screamer – Roger Mayer Octavia – Fulltone Deja’ Vibe – ’70’s MXR Flanger – ’70’s MXR Analog Delay – Boss Digital Delay/Reverb. I have many more effects that I interchange depending on the gig, but these are the main ones.
Kane: What is funk music to you?
STOLTZ: Well…what immediately comes to mind is James Brown. I guess because that was my initiation into groove music. My second thought is Jimmy Nolen who played guitar on the early James Brown stuff. When I just beginning to play in the ’60’s I don’t ever recall hearing the term funk. To me it was just music. Syncopated music was Soul Music or R&B. Anything that grooves or that I can move my body to in a certain way is funk. Of course there are some examples that are undeniably funk. James Brown’s Payback, Lickin’ Stick, I’m Black and I’m Proud. Coming up in New Orleans in the ’60’s, I grew up on all of the great R&B coming out of the city at the time. The radio was playing Lee Dorsey, Jessie Hill, Chris Kenner, Irma Thomas, Art Neville, Aaron Neville and of course the Meters. At the beginning of the Meter’s Tippi-Toes the guitar starts with the chicken-scratch chord, the bass comes in with a cool li’l pattern, but then…. Art’s organ creeps in….Zigaboo does a little fill… and then BAM.. Zig comes in with THE BACKBEAT.......THAT moment THERE........
That’s FUNK! That moment changed my life. I was aware that it was an initation into a path that I would follow for a long time, something that I knew would stick with me forever. But even then, it was just brilliant music to me, I was never conscious of it being a particular type of music
KANE: How about jazz?
STOLTZ: Jazz is a certain feeling…a space that you are put in. Sometimes happy, sometimes melancholy and everything in between. I don’t really know what else to say. I mean, when you think of the hundred or so years of Jazz…that’s a lot of music. And from Traditional Jazz to the different styles of jazz today…there is a lot of diversity there. I know I enjoy listening to the more traditional stuff. I remember when I was small my folks would sometime drive down Bourbon St. I remember getting a rush from hearing the sounds of Dixieland pouring out into the clubs onto the street. It was that same feeling I would get from hearing the drums of the marching bands coming down the street at Mardi Gras parades. Jazz began as good-time music. Somewhere along the line it began to get complicated and a bit too intellectual for me. This is where it lost me. Currently I like listening to the brass bands in New Orleans, playing good-time, good feeling music.
Kane: Tell us about some of your most memorable gigs with the Neville Brothers? Funky Meters? PBS?
STOLTZ: Some of my fondest memories are the Neville Brothers shows with the Grateful Dead. For a few years in the mid to late ’80’s we did the New Years shows and sometime the Mardi Gras shows with them at Henry J. Kaiser or Oakland Coliseum. They would come back for the second set, do the space thing and drum solo, then call us up. We would usually finish the set with them. I remember in particular a night when we played "Knockin’ On Heavens Door". The background vocals were Jerry, Bobby, Aaron Neville, Cyril Neville, Art Neville and myself. I felt like I’d died and went to heaven.
Another great time we had with them was in New Orleans in 1989. The Dead came to New Orleans to play UNO Assembly Center. The Neville Brothers rented a fish camp out on Lake Pontchatrain and threw a big crab boil. We had crabs, shrimp, crawfish…a real throwdown! I remember Jerry and Bobby came and some of the crew and entourage. I’m sure some of other guys were there, I just don’t remember exactly. The party was also memorable for me because it was there that record producer Daniel Lanois asked me to play on the upcoming Bob Dylan album which became Oh Mercy.
On the day Jerry died a TV news crew showed up at my house for me to say a few words about him. They asked me if I had any music jammin’ with Jerry that they could play in the background as we talked. I dug around and found an old cassette tape just marked Dead / Nevilles, with a date on it. I put it on and playing was that version of "Knockin" On Heavens Door". It was a moment frozen in time with much emotion, being the perfect song for the occasion, but so sad for everyone in the room.
The most memorable funky Meter gig…...hmmm…... Well there have been so many great gigs, but what comes to mind was a show a few years ago in Birmingham, AL. We were coming out of either Funky Miracle or Groovy Lady, one of those, and we were just jammin’ around like we do, you know, when were killing time looking at each other to figure out what to play next. I spontaneously started playing the lick from Dylan’s "Rainy Day Women". I sang the first verse and when it got to the hook the 3000 people in the crowd chanted EVERYBODY MUST GET STONED! I guess you had to be there, but it was one of those magical moments. I remember Art got so excited he had to stop playing and go smoke a cigarette and laugh on the side of the stage. I have been doing that song ever since and I just recorded it with Double Trouble on a record called Blues On Blonde On Blonde for Telarc Records.
There has only been a handful of PBS (Porter-Batiste-Stoltz) dates so far, so they are all very memorable. One of the highlights was playing B.B. Kings in New York with Warren Haynes jamming with us on Sco-Mule and Voodoo Chile.
Kane: Your recently released solo CD East of Rampart Street Talk about the recording process.
STOLTZ: Well it took a while because I did not have a record company backing it, I financed it myself. It was also important for me to have it produced in a certain way. By playing with the Nevilles and recording with a lot of great artist I have been spoiled by big record budgets, or at least those that allowed projects to sometime go on for weeks or sometimes months. After recording records like Yellow Moon, Oh Mercy, Snakebite Love by Zachary Richard, and then listening to some records that were made in a few days, I realized that the only way for me was to take my time and when a track was finished, I would know it. Most of the tracking, dubbing, and all of the mixing were done at Suitemix Studio owned by my engineer and co-producer George Cureau. Some of the tracks were put together at home with loops and sequences, dumped to tape at the studio, then various overdubs with instruments and vocals began. There was no particular system for doing this. I worked on it intuitively. Musicians were brought in to play on it once the basic tracks were laid.
About five or so of the tracks were laid down live with a drummer and bass player. Some of Irene Sage’s vocals and the drums on "Our Own Tears" were done at Sound Services Studio in New Orleans with Mark Hewitt engineering.
Kane: Are there particular songs on East of Rampart Street do you think best represent the Stoltz sound? I’m drawn to "Norma’s House", "Funky Forever," "Down," and "This Old World."
STOLTZ: Well, all the songs are in some way the Stoltz sound, but the songs that you mention do seem to be the ones that people have responded to the most. Those seem to have the catchiest hooks. I guess that’s the common thread that runs through those in particular. Catchy hooks are one of many important elements it takes for me to reach what I guess you are calling the Stoltz sound. With this record it was important that I have well written songs first. Only "Tangled, Twisted and Tossed" started as a jam, where the lyrics were created later. Oh..and the jam / introduction that starts the record, "Jungle Funk." I hear a lot of records nowadays, especially in the so-called funk realm that seems incomplete. Maybe there’s a good groove or some dazzling playing going on, but I need to have completed ideas and that means having a song, not just a track. In order to accomplish that sound I try to have a large palette of moods and weaponry to choose from. Between the diverse influences that I have, and the years of playing with bands like the Nevilles, Funky Meters and PBS, who aren’t afraid to take a left turn and explore some unknown musical avenue, I freely take the liberty to use whatever colors I need to paint the picture. I tried to make a record that had somewhat of a wide spectrum without falling into a variety pack category. Production, great grooves, great playing, and lyrics that completed the idea were equally important in making this record.
So to answer your question, out of the songs you’ve mentioned the one that, I guess, covers most of that spectrum is Down. A funky groove with a George Porter Jr. inspired bass line, chinkin’ guitars (as Russell would say), a Beatles inspired "B" section on the verses, melodically and harmonically and lyrics that allowed me let go of some built up psychic energy, saving me thousands in psychiatric bills. (laughing). The solo section also allowed a lot of space for some interesting guitar work. Along with the songs you mentioned I would have to add Seven Desires and Hoodoo Thing.
Kane: What’s up next for you?
STOLTZ: Currently I am preparing for Jazz Fest in New Orleans, there’s a lot going on. Between Porter-Batiste-Stoltz, Funky Meters, and Brian Stoltz band I have lots of gigs coming up. I will also be playing several "in-store" record shop performances around town promoting East Of Rampart Street. We are about to begin mixing a live Porter-Batiste-Stoltz CD to be released soon. Porter-Batiste-Stoltz has a lot of road dates coming up this summer, we are working hard to put this band on the map and turn it into a full-time touring band. I guess after all that it will be time to think about the next Brian Stoltz record. Thanks God it never stops!