Brian Stoltz: God, Guns & Music
As the funky Meters' longtime guitarist, Brian Stoltz helped keep New Orleans’ soul alive through the 1980s and 1990s. Playing in a variety of New Orleans funk bands, including the increasingly popular PBS, Stoltz has earned a reputation as one of the Big Easy’s best utility men, lending his guitar chops to a variety of Neville-approved projects over the years. Last April in a Jambands.com interview, Stoltz mentioned his brother, a black hawk gunner, but seemed hesitant to directly address the war in Iraq through his music. But, a year later, Stoltz has shifted gears, compiling his emotions into a politically laced solo-album, Gods, Guns & Money—- a snapshot of this turbulent time in American history. Below, Stoltz dives headfirst into the meaning behind his darkest songs to date, also answering a few questions for the Bob Dylan faithful along the way.
MG- Over the years, you’ve seen a variety of acts play on the JazzFest Fair Grounds. What is the most memorable performance you’ve witnessed?
BS- One show that sticks out in my mind was Bob Dylan. Yeah…that really sticks out because that was the period where I had done the Oh Mercy album with him. For a few years it seemed like we kept running into each other. He kept hinting around that he was going to offer me the live gig. I saw him in Switzerland and I saw him a couple other places. Then I saw him at JazzFest that year. That really sticks out in my mind because that was a really great show.
MG- When was the last time you performed with Dylan?
BS- I only worked with him on the Oh Mercy album in 1989 and, then somewhere around 95 or 96 or something, he offered me the live gig. I couldn't take it because I was in LA with the funky Meters. His manager called and he asked me if I wanted the gig and I said "yes." I had been talking to Bob and Jeff, his manager, for years off and on about the gig and they told me "sooner or later we're going to be giving you a call." When they finally called, I was in LA with the funky Meters and he said ,"Ok, if you want the gig, you got to be in LA in four days, we're going to rehearse for a week for a six week tour." JazzFest was getting ready to come around, so that means I'd have been walking out on the funky Meters. I also had a bunch of my own gigs and it didn't feel right. I wasn't going to walk out on Art Neville after 20 years with one day notice. You know? That's just how it felt. I missed out on it, and I probably missed out on it for the rest of my life. It probably won't come around again, unfortunately. But I just couldn't do it. Looking back now, I kind of wish that I would have. It was a stupid move on my part, but at the time, it seemed right.
MG- When we spoke last year you were hesitant to weave politics into your music. What led to such a dramatic change of heart?
BS- It wasn't so much that I didn't want to bring politics into the music or have a discussion about it, it was just that I was reading the wind and which way it was blowing and I really felt that the time just wasn't right. If I would have started talking about those things back then, I would have just been trashed over it because there was a nationalistic frenzy going on. Everybody was waving flags and it just wasn't time. But I always felt like something's going to give. In the meantime, my younger brother went to Iraq. I have a brother who's a gunner and a crew chief on a black hawk, and he got deployed to Iraq. And during that period—-about a year—-I couldn't sleep at night. I was writing some of the darkest, angriest songs you've ever heard. A lot of them I had to shred because I didn't even want those lyrics laying around the house. It's stuff that you'll never, ever hear.
I went back and forth, back and forth—-should I put this record out, should I not put this record out? I started recording it and I'd come home and I'd listen to the songs—-songs like "Chicken Hawk" which made it on that record. I can't tell you the turmoil I went through. Should I put this out, should I not put this out? One day I'd say "yeah, I gotta do it, I gotta do it," and the next day it was like, "man, I can't say this, ya know?" But then I got to a place that I felt really secure and I just felt like it was the right thing to do. And then the songs just started clicking after that. It got to a point where it was almost like I was just taking dictation, the songs just started flowing. And it felt positive—-it felt like the right thing to do.
At that point, I didn't have a choice. I started trying to record…You see this record started out as a lot like East of Rampart Street —- just some funky little New Orleans songs. I got a whole pile of love songs about being with my wife for 29 years and the record was going to be a lot like East of Rampart Street. But then when this started happening, I just couldn't turn back. There was no way I could turn back.
MG- Is your brother still in Iraq?
BS- He just got back a few weeks ago and thank God. So, everything worked out well, but, unfortunately, there's still a lot of other people that have younger brothers still over there, and a lot of them are not going to make it back.
MG- In a live setting, are you going to mix these songs with your older, non-political material?
BS- Let me tell you what happened the other night. I headlined the Hibernia Pavilion at the French Quarter Fest last week. I was really nervous about doing these songs, so I started out the set with some songs from East of Rampart Street, like "Hoodoo Thing" and "Norma's House." I did all of those tunes, and they got over real good. It was like the party was kicking off. Hibernia Pavilion is like an amphitheater setting where people will sit down on all sides of you and are kind of teetered up on the lawn. So it started out with a nice party vibe. I was doing "Hoodoo Thing," "Norma's House," "My Debbie Lou"—- all those tunes off the record and, almost in the middle of the set, I switched to "God, Guns and Money." I didn't know what to expect, but, God, at the end of the song, we got an even bigger applause.
So then I did "What is Real?" I talked about how I don't know what's real anymore. Things are getting bad, you know? Times are so uncertain. Who knows what's going on or what's going to happen? So I did "What is Real?" and it got over even better. So then I started talking about how this record came about—-how my younger brother went to Iraq and I spent sleepless nights writing these songs. Then I dedicated it to all the people out there that had families fighting in Iraq and their friends. And I dedicated it to the 100,000 innocent Iraqis who got killed over there and I wished they could have been there with us to have this joyous celebration that we had today. And then I went into "War Song." People were howling at the end of it —- they were howling! So, the material got over better than everything.
It was the first time I performed it live. It was almost like I could read the crowd. I'll tell you, the best way I can sum it up is right after the performance my cell phone rang, and it was a friend of mine who lives at an ashram in Pennsylvania. He called me on my cell phone and he said, man, after a whole day of those people walking around from stage to stage hearing the same old songs about gumbo and crawfish and how's your mama, he said, "man, you woke them up." They woke up. And I realized how true that was.
MG- To your mind, what is the most poignant track on Gods, Guns & Money?
BS- Probably "What is Real?" It's kind of hard to pick because all of them are so close to my heart, but probably "What is Real?" and "God, Guns and Money." I really like "God, Guns and Money" because of the way I was able to split it up into two parts. What happened was, when I tracked that song, I only had about 5 verses. Originally, what you hear on "Part 1" was the complete song. I had basically those verses and I tracked it that way. But, luckily, the band, at the end of it, was grooving so good, we just kept going. We kept playing. But I wasn't singing anything. When I was tracking it, I was singing along with it and I was just doing the tune.
When we got to the end, we were just jamming and I didn't have any more verses, but we just kept going because it felt… Well, I went home that night and I was listening to it and spontaneously I wrote like 8 more verses. They just popped out. So, I wrote down these verses and I thought, man, what am I going to do now? Because I always had it in my mind that this song was going to lead the record, but, then I thought, I can't lead the record with a 7 minute song. So then I came up with the idea of splitting it into 2 parts and having an edit that would be good for radio. It's a little lighter and the verses are a little lighter in content. Now they bookend the album—-we close the record with the long version. It gets a little heavier at the end.
MG- In a live setting, how much room do these songs have for improvisation?
BS- Musically, there's a bit. Lyrically, well you know, I'm known to change things around there too. So, there's a little room for lyrical improvisation, but musically it's mostly just in solo sections. This is a little more structured form than what I'm known to do in the past. Some songs like "God, Guns and Money," the other night at the French Quarter Fest, we stretched out on it a little bit. Like in between the verses, instead of jumping right into the verses, I soloed through them and I kind of played different on them —- so it was different than the record. "War Song," the same thing, in between those slide sections I kind of stretch out on those too. And in between, instead of some of those slide solos, I gave the keyboard player solos. So we played in between those, so there's room for improvisation in them —-as much as, say, East of Rampart Street.
MG- During our last discussion, you mentioned that your song "Our Own Tears" sparked some political on-air radio debate.
BS- I haven't had any more instances like that, but I was really fortunate to have that interview because that's when it really struck me. When you're in your own little circle and you're talking to journalists who are of a like mind, you have the tendency to think everybody thinks this way. Here this guy came along that showed me wow, "Hey, wait, hold up, everybody doesn't think that way" —- there are young conservatives out there. And, I was really fortunate to have that conversation. It made me realize a lot of things. It made me realize I might lose half of my fan base because of this record.
MG- Are you going to take the material on the road?
BS- I'd like to. Right now it's like, PBS is taking up a good bit of my time. That's the band that's financially keeping it together for all of us right now. But I am hoping that there will be some periods where [George] Porter and [Russell] Batiste will be off doing their own thing and maybe, yeah, I can get out and do some road dates to promote this record.
MG- When you approached other musicians about appearing on Gods, Guns & Money, did you direction discuss the album’s political connotations.
BS- Well, neither. If you notice, on a good bit of the songs, I played everything myself. But, I used a friend of mine, Harold Bosarge, on drums on a few songs, and actually, the way a lot of those songs got recorded was Harold on drums and me on guitar and I tracked them like that. You see, I wanted to be able to just sit there and play guitar and sing and not be encumbered by a band. I really wanted to just sit there and play guitar and sing the songs like I was feeling it.
So I recorded a few of the songs like that- just me and a drummer, and then I added the bass later. Some of the songs, like "War Song" got tracked with a drummer and a bass player, but I never discussed anything with the band beforehand. I said here, "I got this song, it's a shuffle, it's in G. 1-2, 1-2 -3," and played it as the track that you hear. They heard what I was singing as it went along. Politically, they were right along with me. Some of the songs, like "Opposite Sides of the War," I tracked with a bass player and drummer. You know, every time we did this or I did it with a band, they heard what I was singing. I'd be singing as we tracked it. Most musicians I find either are of a like mind and they think the same way as I do or they don't care one way or the other. I haven't run into anybody yet that opposed what I was saying.
MG- Was it a conscious decision to weave your personal experiences into an album that still retains a universal appeal?
It's not this left wing, Michael Moore-type-thing. It works on several different levels. It works as just simply a snapshot of where my life was during that period. My family was in this turmoil over my brother being gone. It does make some statements about the current state of affairs and where we're at. If people don't start paying attention, what's going to happen here? The world is starting to flatten out. We're outsourcing jobs. China is growing. Any time you pick up the phone to make a call to your credit card company or to your electric company, somebody in India answers the phone. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. What is happening is America, and the world, is flattening out. And if America doesn't start paying attention to that and America doesn't start paying attention to education and properly educating young people, it's not going to be a pretty thing.