Big Sam: Elvis Costello, Kate Hudson and the Birth of the Funky Nation
New Orleans trombonist Big Sam Williams first made a name for himself playing with his childhood idols the Dirty Dozen Brass Band around the new millennium. Since 2001 he’s also fronted his own ensemble, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, and despite only being in his 20s, has already performed at Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits and of course Jazz Fest and jammed with everyone from Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint to the Neville Brothers to actor Anthony Anderson. Below, Big Sam discusses his time with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, his recent solo success and how he scored Kate Hudson’s digits.
Let’s start by talking about the Funky Nation’s origins. You originally conceived the group as something of a side-project while touring with the Dirty Dozen, correct?
I started the group back in 2001. I had been playing with the Dirty Dozen since 1999 and they were kind of my main musical act. That’s who I always wanted to play with growing up and I got the opportunity to play with them for about four years. But after a few years with them I kind of wanted to start my own group with the Dirty Dozen flavor, but with maybe a little funkier side too, rather than just New Orleans music. So, what I did was, I talked to a lot of guys I went to high school with and college with at the University of New Orleans and said, “Look man, I want to start a group, do you all want to be in the band?” and they were like, “Hell yeah.”
So we rehearsed and when the Dozen had a month off in 2001 we did our first gig at the Funky Butt and it was a packed house. No one else wanted the Sunday night gig, so I took it and I did all the advertising for it myself and it was a packed night. The owner of the club was like, “You can play here every Sunday if you want,” but I was still touring with the Dozen. So I told my band, “Look do you still want to play here while I’m on the road?” and they would play every Sunday night and whenever I came to town it was sort of this special event. But they still packed it every Sunday.
Then in about 2003 I left the Dozen to peruse my thing full time. The Dozen had been touring about 300 days a year and it was impossible to do both if I wanted the Funky Nation to be where I wanted them to be. Those guys in the Dozen are my role models and I love them to death, but Funky Nation could never do a gig like ACL if I was still on the road with the Dozen.
It’s kind of cool that the Dirty Dozen has become something as a training ground for New Orleans musicians who later go on to pursue their own careers. At what point did you start working on the material featured on your latest CD, Take Me Back?
All of them are original songs, but some of them I was playing before Katrina and some of them I wrote after Katrina specifically for the CD. After Katrina a lot of my band members were scattered around the country, so got some guys from Florida to do this project. I think it came out pretty good, you don’t know they aren’t from New Orleans [laughter]. The only thing that was a little complicated was teaching them some of them the New Orleans groovesI have two songs on the album with a New Orleans feel: “Come Down To New Orleans” and “It Is What It Is.” But they pulled it off pretty well being from Florida and we did the recording in Florida as well.
Obviously the album is informed by the events of Katrina. Were you displaced after the hurricane as the album’s title suggests?
The title is like “Take Me Back to New Orleans.” I miss home man, I was in San Antonio, TX for two years. I actually just moved back to New Orleans a few weeks ago, though I was always coming back here to play or go on the road with my band. It was always real hard for me because the San Antonio music scene is deadall they have is mariachi bands there. They have maybe two jazz clubs there, not like New Orleans. In the beginning I was going to Austin about two times a week to hear some good music and jam. The Neville Brothers were there. But I was like “get me back to New Orleans people.”
Are you currently touring with the Florida players featured on your album or your more New Orleans-centric ensemble?
Back to New Orleans [laughter]. The guys in Florida lasted for 6-8 months and about a year ago, I was like, “I need to play with my cats and get home.” They feel the music automatically. So now I am using most of my guys from New Orleans.
Since Katrina you’ve also devoted a good amount of time to your work with Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint. How did you initially become involved in their River in Reverse project?
I got in touch with Elvis through Allen, most definitely. I was in upstate New York doing a gig the Mardi Gras after Katrina and I got a phone call talking about a project with Elvis and Allen. They wanted me to come and record with them. I was like, “OK, that sounds good” and tried not to sound excited on the phone. But as soon as I got off the phone I was jumping around and screaming [laughter]. So we did one week of recording in Los Angeles and a second week of recording in New Orleans and the next thing I knew they called saying they wanted to get a tour together. We did a tour of the states for a few months and it was slamming everywhere. The horn section was killing too. It was guys from this old New Orleans horn section called Chocolate Milk who don’t play anymore.so it was like Chocolate Milk and me. I was the youngest guy in the bandI was like 24 and everyone else in the band was in their 40s and up. At first I was like, “Oh Lord,” but as the saying goes “The old man teaches you a lot” and I really learned a lot from those guys.
When you entered the studio did you find Elvis had a good understanding of the New Orleans sound?
Elvis has a good understanding of New Orleans music. He actually recorded with the Dirty Dozen a while ago, like in the 80s. Long before I was involved. I was still a little kid and he played with them on a cover of Dave Bartholomew’s “That's How You Get Killed Before” [on 1989’s The New Orleans Album. So when he found out that I used to play with them he got all excited and started asking how they were all doing. He especially loves Keith Anderson, the sousaphone player, because he can make the instrument sound like a bass. So he has a real good understanding of New Orleans musiche isn’t new to the game and Allen is no stranger to rock-and-roll, with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and everyone having covered his music. So both of them understand where each other are coming from. This past summer we did Europe and we did this one show in Greece. We played at the Acropolis and it was just beautiful. They built the stage at this landmark and the place is beautiful and all lit up. Everyone was dancing and that night I had chill bumps.
Funky Nation has become something of a staple at New Orleans’ Halloween-themed Voodoo Fest. Each year that festival offers a number of unique collaborations, often mashing local musicians with national touring acts. Is there a particular collaboration you were involved in that sticks out in your mind?
Last year I got up with Ozomatli and man they were slamming. I got up to jam with them and it was raining, so there was mud everywhere. The stage is like 12 or 13 feet tall, so all of these guys jump off the stage usually parade out through the crowd at the end of their show and that gig was no different. I am right there with em and I had my nice boots on and looked down and was like “Oh well, a guy has to do what a guy has to do” and I jumped off stage with them. I’m not sure what is going to happen this year, but I am really excited to see Rage Against the Machine, Common and the Black Crowes with my boy Chris.
How did you initially befriend Chris Robinson?
He was good friends with the Dozen since the Dozen and the Crowes went on tour together in the 90s. So I met him once in Aspen. At that time he was still with Kate Hudson, so I met him, Kate Hudson and Goldie all together. All of us were just hanging our and we just stayed in touch over the years. Chris threw her a surprise party a few years ago which we played and he came up and jammed with us. Even now we do these Hollywood gigs. We just did the season wrap-up party for FOX’s K-Ville because it was filmed down in New Orleans. So we did their party with Anthony Anderson and everyone got onstage with us and Anthony didn’t want to get off the stage [laughter]. We finished at like 2 in the morning and he was still up there on the piano.
Last week you played the Austin City Limits festival. How did that event compare to the other festivals you’ve appeared at?
It is right up there with the best of them. The festival was real hospitable and the fans were crazy, everyone had a good time dancing and getting down. Definitely a loose New Orleans vibe.
You are currently working on material for a new album. Do you feel this album will be a continuation of the sound you explored on Take Me Back?
I can’t wait for the new album, we are working on the new material for the next CD, which will hopefully be out in 2008. I think it will be a little harder-edged. The first album was really more jazz-oriented and the second album is on the funk vibe, but me and the guys from Florida hadn’t really built up a relationship at that point. But with these guys on my next album I already have the connection, so we are going to get down to some funky rock. It is more in line with the sound we have been playing live.
Senior Editor Mike Greenhaus unfortunately makes his singing debut on the recent episode of Relix’s Cold Turkey.