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Published: 2011/10/19
by Dale Obbie

A New Life for Zigaboo Modeliste

Photo by Dino Perrucci

It’s been an active year for Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste. He returned to the stage with the Meters, the legendary group he co-founded four decades ago, and performed a series of dates, including a performance at Bonnaroo backing Dr. John in an effort to recreate the classic release Desitively Bonnaroo. Beyond that he has been gigging in support of his latest record New Life. This follow up to 2004’s _ I’m on the Right Track_, emphasizes positivity despite the share of challenges that Modeliste has experienced over the years. In the following conversation the legendary drummer discusses his recent efforts, looks back his early days in New Orleans and shares his own perspective on the music business.

Dale: So I guess we can jump right into it. I’d like to talk about your new album, New Life. Could you describe the songwriting process? I’m wondering how much of it is collaborative and how much you did yourself.

Zig: Well most of it was done by me. There was a track that I had called “Tough Nuts”—an instrumental track—but it kept saying “You need something else in it, you need something else.” It’s about four or five years old. I try to use all of my music—salvage as many of the ideas that I come up with as I can. So I needed something, a melody line over the top of what was already goin’ on, and I asked Shane Theriot to come up with something and he did. It just so happens that what he came up with fit the instrumental part perfectly. Sometimes I have little problems trying to figure out where I want to go with lyrics and stuff of that nature. This was the first album where I actually reached out to people for their different expertise. A girl by the name of Leslie Smith helped me with some lyrics. I had this track for a long time and was trying to think of some lyrics to go to it—a song called “Was Not Meant To Be”—I called her up and in two weeks she had the lyrics all sorted out. Of course we had to revamp them and everything, but she had the general idea of what I was trying to say, which I thought was really cool…that she caught onto it like she did. The rest of the stuff I sat down at the piano to work on parts and stuff like that, but I had a lot of help from all of the people who were involved in the process of the production itself.

Dale: In terms of the recording process, would you say that New Life is much different than your last two solo albums, Zigaboo.com and I’m On The Right Track ?

Zig: Most definitely, because I had…I don’t want to say better help…but I had a while to sit on these tracks and really work on a plan. And I had some really talented people working with me. I had Shane Theriot, who used to be the guitar player with The Neville Brothers. Right now he’s with Madeline Peyroux but he’s been out with a bunch of different people.

When it all started, I was down in New Orleans. I had lived there for about two years after the big flood down there…and staying there, it was just kinda like…I think the only house down there…so I was getting bored. So I went into the studio. And it was an excellent time for me to get some of the New Orleans musicians to get in and play with, because I hadn’t recorded with New Orleans musicians in a while—not on my projects, at least.

Dale: I think it’s interesting that you mentioned the flood, because I think one of the most surprising things about New Life is the whole positive vibe of it. Every track has this great optimism to it, it’s so upbeat, and it’s thinking about the future in a positive way. And I thought that was surprising because so many other New Orleans musicians have used their music as a means to vent their frustrations and criticize the government following Hurricane Katrina and their handling of it. And I’m wondering whether or not you have some sort of personal philosophy or some message that you wanted to spread with your music that led to you creating such an upbeat record.

Zig: Well, when you’re communicating to other people, you have an option to either say something positive or not. I don’t think nobody really goes in and tries to put these productions together to try to be negative, however, that does occur. But that’s not me. I thought of it with The Meters trying to write some protest songs…but in a simple way, not in a way where we would incite people to do all kinds of crazy shit, you know? It’s not productive, and I don’t wanna be remembered for that. [laughs] I don’t wanna be associated with the negativity. I mean I’m just like everybody else—we vent our frustration at various times—but I try not to get too deep on the record with that.

I do have a philosophy. There are always other artists that are far greater than myself. I will never reach the heights that they have reached, because I don’t have a master, and I don’t have a Big Brother behind me. I’m an old mom n’ pop organization. We do what we can to sustain the art form that I have and the art that I try to distribute. So all these other people—and it would be unfair to say any name, because it would sound like I’m singling that particular person out—but you go through all the other artists that are out there right now, you go through the top ten, and they’re not sending any message to the people. Not on the CDs, nowhere. Nothing to give the people positive energy and positive information. It’s all about stuff that people fantasize about—you know, sex and drugs. Which, you know, I guess that has its place too, but I’m just sayin’…I don’t see the big artists given the opportunity to sing just one positive song on each project they do. One. The only way they can do that is if you get’ em in a commercial. If they get paid to do it. But they don’t do it on their own. If you could name me one, I’ll go buy their record right now. I’d love to hear it.

So when I saw that that was happening like that, quite naturally it made me want to go the other way, of course. Maybe someday some other artist will have the muscle and money behind them and may wanna re-record my songs. So that was the energy behind all of that. When you record stuff and you put songs out there, you leave a trail. You could be dead and gone, but this is what people see. If you’re lucky enough to be able to leave work behind for people to enjoy, you’ve done your job. It’s for them to enjoy. I like for my music to have some kind of highpoint where people can say “I’m listening to this record because of this.” You know what I’m saying?

Dale: Yeah, I do. And that positive force behind the music that you want to be remembered for, in my eyes it seems common to The Meters too, of course, and funk in general, being “feel good” dance music. And New Orleans music in general. It seems the whole musical culture seems to be rooted in that energy—particularly Mardi Gras and the music that’s a part of that celebration—that spirit of the party and of having a good time and putting your troubles behind you. The reunion show that The Meters did at the New Orleans Jazz Fest back in 2005 right after the hurricane comes to mind because they held the festival anyway, despite the devastation caused by the hurricane. That whole festival was held in celebration of the healing powers of music and its ability to comfort people in the wake of Katrina, right?

Zig: Yeah, music is powerful. A lot of people don’t recognize how powerful it is. Bit it’s a tool that you have to use wisely. It transcends barriers. Music can go to some countries that you can’t even get in, you know? Music is really powerful. Myself, I try to stick to my art form—what got me here—my style, because I know that nobody in the world does it like me. There are a lot of imitators, but you know…this is the real being right here. So if that doesn’t belong to me, then I give the message that God gave me this talent to do this like this. If I’m successful or not, I still have this talent, and I’m gonna use it as wisely as I can use it…till I can’t do it no more.

Dale: Speaking of “doing it till you can’t do it no more,” I’m curious about these reunions that you’ve been doing with The Original Meters, particularly this year at Outside Lands and at Bonnaroo. I know you had done a few reunions in the past with The Original Meters, like the one I mentioned in 2005 and also the show at the Warfield in San Francisco back in 2000. How have these more recent reunions differed from the first few? How do you think they sounded compared to those? Have you enjoyed them more? How has the chemistry between the band been?

Zig: Well I have mixed emotions about it. I don’t wanna neg nobody out, but what I will say is this: it’s just like when you’re doing music in your ensemble. If you recorded the music, naturally, you know it. But…you know, people meet the music at a certain point, but after that, they lose interest. So these last couple of things that I’ve done with The Meters reminded me of the other reunions because The Meters don’t play enough together. I think that’s a damn shame that they don’t, but it’s obviously not the way they want it. So whenever somebody comes up and says “Okay, well look, we’ve got some money on the table for The Meters, we want you for this date to do this and do that,” and you can get one rehearsal or two rehearsals to jog your memory and get you back into where you wanna go as far as putting on the show goes. And that’s all good, but I would love to hear The Meters really play more often.

Dale: I’m sure we all would.

Zig: To play more often and to get together with that kinda thing that makes it great. I just think that people like short order. This is not actually as good as The Meters could be. I think The Meters could be much better. I enjoy myself every time I play with them, and I have to because that’s what’s required. You’ve gotta enjoy yourself, or you get turned off, you know?

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