When Leo Met Leo: A Conversation with Leo Nocentelli, Page McConnell and George Porter Jr.
In the Relix cover story from last year, you talked a little bit about that and how so much of your songs were designed for the show. Like, when you opened for the Stones and you needed a singer so you got Cyril [Neville].
George: Yeah, we had a tour manager, a guy that told us when we were going to do the Rolling Stones tour. He came to us and said, “There’s no way you guys are going to go out there in front of the Stones and just be what y’all are. You need somebody to go out there and compete with [Mick] Jagger.” And Cyril was a percussionist! He wasn’t a front singer at that time. He hid behind the drums. It was something else. It was kind of about design. We evolved as the situation presented itself.
The Meters were recently nominated for a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. What does that nomination mean to you?
George: I heard stories about that! Nah, I knew about it. It’s just the funniest thing. On Jerry Garcia’s birthday, the 7 Walkers played. The weekend of his birthday, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was doing a Jerry Garcia weekend. We played New York on his birthday. Bill Kreutzmann did an interview with an audience asking him questions. At the end of Bill’s interview, he was talking to the interviewer and Bill said, “I wanna ask you a question! How come The Meters aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?” and a guy said, “You know, you’re right.” I think Bill Kreutzmann had something to do with that nomination. Hopefully we’ll get in!
Page, I remember reading that Phish used to rehearse while listening to The Meters. What song did you used to rehearse to?
Page: It’s true! We learned—probably around ‘86 or ‘87—“Pungee.” It’s a true story. We all learned the parts and we would start with the record, or the tape back in those days, and we’d start playing with it, and I’d reach over and turn the volume down so we’d be playing along but we wouldn’t be able to hear it. Then, we’d get to the end of the song and see how far away we got from what the Meters were doing. These guys were a big influence. We’re a four-piece band with the same instrumentation. We all think of ourselves in some ways as instrumentalists and vocalists too but we started focusing on the instruments early, as did you guys, the vocals came along and developed as it went along. We’ve tried to continue to develop it. People always say, “Oh, Phish is so heavily influenced by the Dead” or some say Allman Brothers or [Frank] Zappa. I think the Meters are as important as any of those bands to the way we play. And when we’re playing the way we like to play, I’m feeling that same kind of energy and connection and playing sparsely and really getting the tightest grooves we can with the least amount of effort. That’s when I think we’re playing at our best.
Did you guys ever play any Meters songs live?
Page: No, we never played it live.
Well this is your opportunity!
Page: Well, that’s true! And that’s what I said! I’d really like to play “Pungee.” I know that one! And we did it!
George: Damn! I’m serious! That song has never ever been played by this band.
Page: Yeah, we’re doing a couple of Meters songs now on this little mini-tour that these guys either haven’t played in a long time or never played. I’d like to even get a little deeper in there and find a couple others because, to me, that’s one of the fun things. To be able to mix it up for the set each night and do something a little bit different, especially if there’s going to be people seeing a couple of shows. I was so happy with the way it went last night. I’m just honored and thrilled to be out here.
Russell Batiste has been a regular part of your solo bands. What initially attracted you to Russell Batiste and how do you feel that has influenced Vida Blue and some of your solo material?
Page: I think he’s one of the greatest drummers out there. I think the world of Russell. And we’re like brothers in a lot of ways. I don’t spend as much time with him or talk to him as much as I did, but when we’re together, we have a real connection. He’s one of the most talented musicians that I know.
George: Russell? Absolutely. Russell is a genius. I always tell people all the time: “Go check out Russell Batiste’s records. Go check out his recordings.” Every piece and every note on his CDs, he wrote.
Page: Everything! All the arrangements. And It’s cool!
George: He even wrote the solos! He thinks of music as a piano player. Not as a drummer but as an orchestrator. He looks at the whole register. Sometimes he puts notes there that aren’t on the keyboard. It’s like, “Where’s that note at?” He asks me to come play with his band all the time and I’m like, “Bro, I’m not that good.”
Page: I was always nervous, when we would do one of his songs, that I was going to get the voicing wrong or something. He’d always come over and be like, “That’s not how it goes.” I’d get it when he’s sitting there but then he’d go back to the drums and it’d be like, “What note was that? I knew what it was a minute ago!” It’s really some beautiful music that he writes and he’s a beautiful person and seriously, one of the most incredible musicians I’ve ever had the chance to play with.
George: He just recently got married again! He sent me a video of him washing dishes! I died looking at this thing! He’s like, “Look at this George!” and he walks over to the kitchen and starts washing his pot! I said, “Oh, my god! He’s just washing a pot!”
Page: When I thought of putting Vida Blue together, it was only after we’d done that original gig where we recorded that song together, so I didn’t know him that well. I went to see The Meters playing at Irving Plaza, probably in 2000, or something like that.
George: The Funky Meters?
Page: Yes, I’m sorry, the Funky Meters, with Brian and Russell, and I asked him if he’d be interested in Vida Blue. I had this concept of doing a keyboard trio—there are so many great keyboard trios out there. If I got Russell and Oteil in my band, it wouldn’t matter how good I am ‘cause I had the most intense rhythm section in the world. And that’s one of the things that held that band together. Oteil is such an incredible talent. Anyone else, Russell would have steamrolled over. They kind of balance each other out. I was just like, “I’m the leader of this band? How does that work?” It worked out. It was a great balance. I would love to do something with those guys again. I just haven’t had much time in the last couple of years. I’ve talked to Oteil about it and he’s game. Maybe there is something in the future somewhere down the road.