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Published: 2014/11/26
by Brian Robbins

New Orleans Suspects Embrace the Ouroboros

You start tracing back the roots of the New Orleans Suspects and, no matter which direction you go, there’s some serious funk.

Take the band’s powerful rhythm engine: Willie Green drummed for the Neville Brothers for over three decades, which is about the same length of time that bassist Reggie Scanlan drove the beat for The Radiators.

And then there’s pianist CR Gruver, whose resumé includes tours of duty with Leo Nocentelli and Outformation. Suspects’ guitarist Jake Eckert is a veteran of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

And do they come any funkier than James Brown? No – no, they don’t … and hornman Jeff Watkins was the Godfather of Soul’s bandleader for a dozen years.

Veteran players all, the New Orleans Suspects approach their music with both a nod to their pedigrees and a look to the future. Their new album Ouroboros is testimony to that: when you listen to it, there’s no question that this band is from the Big Easy – but at the same time, they’re breaking new ground and exploring the far reaches of funkiness.

We recently had a chance to talk with Reggie Scanlan and Jake Eckert about the music on Ouroboros and the resulting conversation demonstrates the band’s love for where they come from as well as excitement over the music they’re creating – walkie-talkies and all.

We begin with a health check-in on Reggie Scanlan, who underwent a 16-hour surgical procedure for pancreatic cancer back in 2012. Scanlan is living proof that you can’t keep a good man down: he left the hospital after a month-long recuperation to join his brother Suspects at the New Orleans JazzFest.

BR: First of all Reggie, how are you doing?

Reggie: I’m doing real, real good – I’m vertical and ambulatory, so that’s always good news. (laughter)

I don’t want to embarrass you, but I don’t know how many people I’ve told about you playing JazzFest with the Suspects in 2012 two days after you got out of the hospital. Your story – and your music – have inspired a lot of folks to keep on keeping on.

Reggie: Everybody’s going to find their own way to deal with that kind of stuff, you know? People say it all the time, but when it happens to you, you figure out a way to deal with it. You have to … you don’t have an option.

I’m just thankful to everybody for listening to our music, man. If nobody was listening, I’d be back working in a garage or something. [laughter]

Speaking of music, you all have got to be tickled with Ouroboros.

Reggie: I’m totally thrilled. It’s one of the first times I’ve ever been in a situation where you had the luxury of just taking your time and trying out as many things as you wanted to in the studio. And we all felt it came out great. Jake and Jeff deserve a lot of credit – they did the engineering and mixing and everything. It was pretty much all done in house, except for the mastering.

It covers a lot of ground as far as our influences. And I like the feel of it, you know? A lot of times, the vibe thing doesn’t translate well in the studio, but in this case, it really did.

Jake: It’s our third album but it feels like our first shot at our own voice. I think part of that comes from recording it in my studio and Jeff and I producing it. It might not be what you’re expecting coming out of the gate but that’s us ; that’s the band; that’s the sum of the parts, right there, coming from us.

Reggie: I think part of that is we’re so used to hanging out in Jake’s studio. When it comes down to recording, it’s not like you’re in some new place that you have to get used to; you don’t have to watch the clock and all that stuff.

So those sessions were spread out over …

Reggie: A year or so.

Jake: We could spread it out because it was our time in my studio. I could make the schedule. [laughs]

“Get Back What You Given” is the lead-off track on the album – and some good advice. I have to say, it carries some clout coming from a band of guys who have some time under their belts.

Reggie: A lot of the songs on this album couldn’t have been written by 20-year-old kids. Songs come from your experiences with people and things that you know and see and do … that’s what you write about.

Back at the beginning of the Radiators, a lot of Ed’s [singer/songwriter/keyboardist Ed Volker] songs were all very relationship-driven. That was the topic. As Ed got older, those things kind of branched out into … I don’t know … bigger issues, I guess you’d say. I don’t think you can write songs or books or anything until you have some experience.

You’ve got to live some life.

Reggie: Yeah, exactly – and when you’re a 20-year-old songwriter, for the most part, your experiences are, like, “My girlfriend dumped me.” Or, “I got fucked up last weekend and crashed my dad’s car.” [laughter] You know – that’s where you’re operating; you’re at that level. And nobody expects you to have any more than that, you know?

Oh, yeah: “I done got up this morning and I had to mow the lawn …”

Reggie: Yeah! [laughter] Nobody really expects you to have anything going on that’s going be along the lines of Bob Dylan.

When I hear “Cigarette Smile” I go right back to the Seventies and The Ohio Players booming out of my transistor radio from one of those old AM stations out of Boston. There’s an unmistakable vibe there.

Jake: CR came in and said, “I want to get that old lo-fi sound.” We tried different stuff and it all sounded kind of lame … until we went down to Wal-Mart and bought a CB.

A CB radio?

Jake: Yeah – like for a truck. But that broke. [laughter] So, then we went back and got a pair of walkie-talkies. And what you’re hearing is what we got by playing through one walkie-talkie, mic’ing the second walkie-talkie with a real nice microphone and sending it through a pre-amp on the other end.

Oh, man – I would not have guessed that. [laughter]

Reggie: That whole song was written on bass lines. The section where it kind of opens up for the chorus? I had some latitude to do stuff there, but because the whole song is rhythmically jerky and funky, that part just sounded better having a lot of open notes in it.

“Magdalena” was like that, too. The song kind of directed where the bass line should go.

If The Band had hung out in New Orleans instead of Woodstock, they would’ve written “Magdalena”.

Jake: Thanks, man – that’s the greatest compliment you could give us.

Reggie: You know, that song reminded me of The Band right from the beginning – the horn arrangements, the vocal – everything. You have to have experiences to write those kinds of songs … and be perceptive enough to know that something’s going on. There’s a story everywhere if you’re open to it.

Was there a real Magdalena?

Jake: Uh-huh. I wrote that tune about a church that’s in front of my house here in New Orleans. It’s about a lady who used to walk by every day to go to church.

I’m not surprised; there’s a definite gospel feel to the tune – especially the piano coda at the end.

Jake: CR came into the studio and said, “I got this cool melody to go on the end of your tune” – he’d been home mowing his lawn, thinking about the song. [laughs] He and Jeff did their mad scientist thing and made the ending. It reminds me of “Layla” – not to compare ourselves to the genius of Tom Dowd, but the idea of where it seems to end and then comes back in.

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