‘Reinventing Is What Makes Life Interesting’: Danny Louis Practices
The following interview was inspired by a conversation that took place at Bonnaroo this past summer between Danny Louis, Rob Barraco and myself. Frankly, Danny and Rob did most of the conversing, I was just the fly on the tent (The Other Tent, I believe). I remember seeing Danny perform with the Warren Haynes Band at Wetlands in the early 90's but I had little idea of his full career span. The following interview walks through portions of that career, including Louis' work with Joe Cocker, which had fascinated me at Bonnaroo, as well as an account of how nerve damage forced him away from his initial instrument of choice and down another path. Gov’t Mule fans fear not there's some discussion of the new album as well.
DB- As best I can recall, I first saw you play with the Warren Haynes Band at Wetlands some time in the early 90’s. When did you first meet Warren and how did you come to play in that group?
DL- Warren put that band put together subsequent to the completion of Tales of Ordinary Madness and there was a keyboard player in place named Jeff Young who was a real good friend of mine. The drummer in the band was a guy named Steve Holly and the bass player was a guy named Lincoln Schleifer and I was tight with all three of those guys. So when Jeff ended up getting a gig I think it was with Shawn Colvin and he split Warren's solo band, Warren polled the band for recommendations. Apparently all three gave my name.
At this time Warren and I were living the same neighborhood in New York and had run into each on the street and not know who each other was but just sort of nodded. Anyhow, Warren called me and said, "Where can I come see you play? I've got this band and your name came up." It turned he was just hanging out so I said, "Why don't you come over to my studio and we'll play. You can see me play with you. How's that?"
He was game so he came up to the studio and we played for about five minutes. At that point we both started laughing and we knew we were going to play together. I grew up on the same stuff he grew up on and it wasn't long before we were just jamming, having fun and we knew we were going to do some gigging.
DB- How long did you gig with that group?
DL- The life of that band was short, about a year. We probably did about six or seven months of touring off and on, some of which was opening for the Brothers, some of it was in the clubs you saw us. I think Mule formed right on the heels of that. Mule was probably 94 and we were doing this in 93 maybe a little in 92.
DB- At Bonnaroo following the New Erath Mud I recall you were talking with Rob Barraco about monitor mixes and your time with Joe Cocker came up. Can you talk about a bit that? When you touring with Cocker what did have in your monitor?
DL- I didn't ask for anything much more than Joe in my monitor. I didn't want anything else to block. It was such a huge thrill for me to hear his voice every night. I got plenty of pocket from the drums and bass and guitars on stage. Maybe it was also function of my stage location, I really could hear everything I needed and I really just wanted to hear Joe for the kick of it.
I kind of did the same thing with Gregg Allman when I was in his band. When the monitor guy first asked me what I wanted, I said, "Give me Gregg." I meant his B-3 and his vocal. A lot of guys set up monitors and they try to put a full record mix in there. I find it's a lot cooler to keep things minimal in the monitor and get as much as you can from the stage. It's a lot clearer and simpler and you get to enjoy the thing that you love. In the case of Joe obviously his voice, in the case of Gregg his B-3 and his vocals, and in the case of Warren his vocals and his guitar.
DB- How did you come to play with Joe?
DL- A friend of mine named Jeff Levine was Joe's regular keyboard player and he played the B-3 and the acoustic piano stuff which is the meat and potatoes of Joe's band. Jeff and I had played off and on throughout the bars of New York. I think one of the bands we had was with Harvey Brooks and a singer name Lester Chambers who was in the Chambers Brothers. Jeff had the Joe gig and he called me up and said, "Joe's in town rehearsing. I know you love him, why don't you come by."
So I came by and listened to Joe firsthand, right there, and after they took a break I went to visit Jeff by his piano. They were doing this song called "Hitchcock Railway" which goes back to his first or second record and has a piano introduction it. Chris Stainton the original keyboard player for the Grease Band had played this intro. At that point I was predominantly a trumpet player, I really wasn't that much of a keyboard player and I said to Jeff without anybody hearing, "That's not exactly how the intro goes." (Laughs) He asked me to play it and I told him no, this was his gig. So he says, "Come on, nobody's in the room, just play it."So reluctantly I showed him what I thought the intro to "Hitchcock Railway" was and unbeknownst to both of us Joe was sitting across the room on a couch. He got up and said, "What was that?" And Jeff, he was so gracious, introduced me to Joe who said to me, "I thought I heard a ghost." And I thought that was the greatest thing he could have ever said because I think what he meant was I had grabbed the feel and the flavor, if not the actual notes of what Chris Stainton had done. Chris was one of my idols so I was really proud of that.
Then Joe said to me, "Do you travel light?" and I said, "Should I?" The next thing you know I was in the next room having a discussion with his manager, Michael Lang. I was in rehearsal the next day, predominantly playing horn but also picking up second keyboard parts, overdubs from the album while Jeff continued to play the B-3 and the piano. So I ended up getting a gig just by being invited to rehearsal.
DB- And you did a stint with UB40 shortly after that?
DL- I spent a year with Joe and the day I got off the road I went out with UB40. In those days I was predominately a trumpet player, and the trumpet player had fallen off a bicycle and cut his lip. So I got a phone call and they said, "Do you want to come out to Chicago and play with the band for three weeks while our trumpet player's lip heals?" I was pretty excited about that because I love their band. I went out to Chicago and we were having so much fun that even after their trumpet player got better I stayed with them.
DB- That was around the time that "Red Red Wine" hit the charts for a second time, wasn’t it?
DL- That was exactly when "Red Red Wine" hit again and became the number one song in America. During that time the whole complexion of their tour changed from 4000 and 5000 seaters to Madison Square Garden sold out. All their gigs were getting cancelled and replaced by larger venues and I got to see that from the inside because UB40 is notoriously an insular group of guys. They were basically a street gang and the guys who could play became the band and the guys who couldn't became the road crew and they're completely tight through and through.
DB- Was that a tough dynamic to penetrate?
DL- They certainly ran me through the gauntlet. I remember the first night they handed me a tape and said, "Good luck." I was left in a hotel room with a show the next day and the tape didn't have any trumpet at all, they gave me a tape of the night before without the trumpet player. So I had to write all my own trumpet parts and the next day we ran the entire show at soundcheck.
Afterwards they all came up to me and said, "Safe, Danny, safe." Where I come from safe isn't good, safe is conservative, safe is the predictable way out and I was thinking, "They didn't dig what I did." I was looking dejected and the sax player said, "What's the matter, man?" And I said, "What's this safe shit? And he explained, "That means we can turn our backs on you, we trust you. You don't understand you're the only one to play with this band besides the band." It was pretty cool.
DB- Jumping ahead, I know you later spent some time focusing on studio work. When did that come about and then how did you reconnect with Warren?
DL- After I finished up with Warren I did a few more tours after that. I played with a guy named Curtis Stiger but after all that touring I decided that I wanted a more stable life around New York City. Getting that kind of work involved not having to travel because every time you travel when you come home there's another orientation period. People would perceive that you were gone and begin to call other people for sessions.
So I was a little tired of traveling and I started to get all kind of session work I also started to write for a living. I got a little studio together in a bigger facility with some buddies and ended up cranking out a bunch of stuff for TV and movies. I also wrote some songs which is how Warren and I stayed in touch during that period. We wrote a bunch of stuff together when I wasn't in Mule.
DB- Let’s talk about your working relationship with Warren. I would imagine there is no typical way that your songs come about so can you talk specifically about "Life Before Insanity" for starters?
DL- Believe it or not I come up with a lot of stuff on guitar, which is what happened with "Life Before Insanity.". I'll show him a form or some hook riffs or the layout of a tune. Oddly enough, he'll often end up using the guitar stuff that I did that led him to start the tune. From there he'll usually get that going on his own because he ends up preferring to write lyrics and vocal melodies on his own for the most part.DB- "Beautifully Broken" and "Trying Not To Fall" did those emerge from the same process?
DL- Yeah it's all guitar riffs which is a kick for me because like a lot of keyboard players I'm a frustrated guitarist. So if my favorite guitar player…or one of my favorite guitars because let's be honest I grew up on Hendrix, Beck and Jimmy Page and I put Warren up there in the pantheon…if one of my favorite guitarists decided to play the riff the way I played it and I'm doing it doing it with him on stage every night there's no greater kick for me.
I wasn't really drawn to the instrument to become the greatest keyboard master that ever lived. It was more about trumpet for me and I got paralysis in my face in about 1990 and that effectively ended my career as a trumpet player. So immediately I stared focusing on keyboard and that's why Warren's first gig was so cool for me because that album of his was produced by a keyboard player [Chuck Leavell], it had guest keyboard players and I went to school on that tour. That was the breakthrough for me in terms of not being keyboard player second and a trumpet player first. I had to make the change because my face wouldn't permit me to play the horn anymore.
DB- To what extent are you currently able to play trumpet?
DL- I get about five minutes out of it on "John the Revelator." I don't have the nerves in my face. They say it could get better but it might not so I'm good for about five minutes and then it dies. I tried about 8,000 different methods to heal this thing. Nerve damage is freaky, it's really not an exact science in terms of medicine
DB- If you don’t mind answering, was in a physical accident that brought it on?
DL- No, it was an incident of bell's palsy which is an infection in your ear that damages the nerve. I woke up one morning and I couldn't play my horn, the whole side of my face was paralyzed. The recovery process took about two years but it left enough damage to take trumpet out of the mix
DB- That must have been devastating.
DL- Reinventing is what makes life interesting. I think that sometimes a trauma or crisis, a calamity, whatever you want to call it, leads you to reinvent yourself. Sometimes just being emotionally stagnant and being in a rut will allow you to reinvent yourself. The difference between reinventing yourself and not reinventing is whether you're really living life or whether you're just surviving. I could have possibly said, "Oh no what's going on, I'll never play music again." Or I could have said, "I can play some piano, why I don't really maximize that and go out and do this because this is what I want to do." As a kid I never thought I wanted to be a trumpet player I always thought I wanted to play music. I think it's something that a lot of people do when life hands them a surprise. I think it's really blessing in disguise when something like that causes you reinvent yourself and you come out of tunnel prospering and growing.
DB- You’re rather matter-of-fact about it but that’s quite remarkable by my book…Anyhow, back to songwriting, I suppose…The two songs you co-wrote on the new album, Deja Voodoo did those come about in a similar way as your prior collaborations?
DL- Actually "Bad Man" was the first one that started from a keyboard riff. Warren and I decided we were going to do some writing for the new record and at the time I still had the studio in New York. He came over and asked me if I had anything and I played him this backwards-ass keyboard riff recorded through a bunch of effects on my computer. This inspired "Bad Man Walking" but it actually became the instrumental section at the end of "Silent Scream." So the two of us immediately began writing "Bad Man Walking" thinking that would be the close to it. More truer to our original form I had all sorts of guitar riffs for what turned out to be "Silent Scream." But we ended up putting the instrumental that inspired "Bad Man Walking" at the end of "Silent Scream."
DB- Final question, after making the decision to focus your energies in the studio what led you to return to the road with Mule?
DL- I had this whole writing business and freelance session-playing thing together in New York It went about six or seven years. I was writing the music for 50 years of Late Night Comedy with Jimmy Vivino and while I was in a meeting with Conan O'Brien my phone rang. I hadn't done any real live playing for a long time and I had said to myself earlier that week, "Wouldn't it be fun to go out and play?" Well at that meeting the phone rang. Conan kind of shot me a look and I picked up the phone and it was Gregg, which I think raised my stock in the meeting. Gregg was sounding me on going on the road with his group. This time I was totally open to the idea. So I went and did that tour in 2000 and it just opened up that avenue to express music for me.
Warren called shortly after that. They had been using Rob and they had been using Chuck and he asked me if wanted to go out for two weeks with the Mule which is something we had been talking about before Life Before Insanity. So I did it and we had so much fun that he sounded me to come back the following month for two weeks of gigs. By the end of that we kind of knew this was going to go a little further and I told him that if he wanted to do this that I was up for it. He said, "Yeah," and the rest is Mule.