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Something Else! Interview: Zigaboo Modeliste, Co-Founder of the Meters


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Joseph “Zigaboo" Modeliste, a funky furnace that once powered the Meters, has just released a tour-de-force project aptly titled New Life. It reestablishes, perhaps unsurprisingly, Modeliste's claim to co-ownership of the band's late 1960s/early 1970s string of R&B and rock hits—from “Cissy Strut" and “Fire on the Bayou," to supporting gigs with Lee Dorsey, LaBelle and Dr. John. Perhaps more interestingly, New Life also illustrates the broad spectrum of legacy sounds that Modeliste has both mastered and contributed to, above the beyond the head-wagging second-line polyrhythms for which he's so well known.

Recorded over a period of three years, both in New Orleans and in his adopted hometown of Oakland, California, the JZM Records release features friends both old and new. “That was my intention to do that," Modeliste told us. “For me, it was like chemistry: I had to get the right musicians. I've got a whole big smorgasbord of talent surrounding me. Man, I used six different bassists!"

Joseph (Zigaboo) Modeliste—Les Bons Temps Roule ('New Life,' JZM Records, 2011) by somethingelsereviews

Taken together, these songs make an argument for Modeliste as one of the most important drummers of his era. Certainly, subsequent generations have taken notice, as his work with alongside the Allen Toussaint-produced Meters has been sampled with wall-to-wall regularity in the years since the original lineup split in 1977.

“If there is a 13th wonder," fellow Meters co-founder George Porter Jr. once said of Modeliste, “then he is it."

Modeliste, born in New Orleans music-steeped 13th Ward, left music for a time, disgusted with some bad business deals. But he couldn't stay away, eventually beginning his long-awaited comeback in 2000 with Zigaboo.com. In the latest SER Sitdown, Modeliste talks about his return to music, key moments with the Meters, hanging with the Rolling Stones, and how he taught himself to play by not playing ...

Nick DeRiso: I remember Art Neville saying the Meters never rehearsed or practiced. How was it possible to perform as such a tight unit without that kind of preparation?

Joseph “Zigaboo" Modeliste: Art failed to mention that we played in the French Quarters, six nights a week, for about two years. Any band that does that, they get tight. They know how to breathe with each other, work through critical pieces of music with each other. You are just together. You have been trying all of these rhythms and polyrhythms. When it came time to rehearse, when we came to the studio, somebody would come up with an idea—and that was it. Sometimes we would just make it up on the spot, right there in the studio. (Chuckles.) It all seems so simple now.

DeRiso: There's a similar sense of spontaneity on the new album, especially on upbeat house-party tracks like the opening “Les Bons Temps Roule" and “At the Mardi Gras." As long as you've been away, it seems New Orleans is still very much a part of you—both as a musician and as a person.

Modeliste: I'm always going to be thinking about New Orleans. That's was genetic for me. Even if I moved further away than I am right now, it still will remain something that's very important for me to relate to—because of the culture down there, the music that's goes along with the culture. It has a very sustaining effect on individuals indigenous of that area. As long as I have been away, if I was a painter I would be doing the same thing, I would be painting something from Louisiana.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Meters co-founder Joseph “Zigaboo" Modeliste offers insight into several key cuts—from “Funkify Your Life" and “The World is a Bit Under the Weather" to “They All Ask'd For You."]

DeRiso: Weren't you considering buying a house again in New Orleans, and perhaps mounting a reunion of the original Meters lineup, around 2005? Did Katrina end those plans?

Modeliste: I would say this—it just did not work out. We try to go back once a year. After Katrina, all of my family had moved away, because of the way the scene had gotten so heavy. After a while my youngest sister, she moved back. She couldn't take being out of New Orleans. She was just a fish out of water. So, I have a sister and nephew down there—and I also have tons of friends. We go back and it's always a joyous time for me.

DeRiso: You've had a long association with the Rolling Stones, dating back to the Meters' mid-1970s world tours and continuing with later sideman gigs of your own with both Keith Richards and Ron Wood. What was the musical connection there?

Modeliste: I think it all starts off with respect, with admiration for the work that we have done. It just so happens that the two tours that we did with the Stones, I got really, really tight with all of the fellas. I really so admire what they have done. I am crazy about their music and I think they would say the same thing about the Meters' music. That was music that drew them front and center. Behind the music, we got to be friends. Ronnie Wood put together this album for Warner Brothers in 1979, and the group was called the New Barbarians. It was he and Keith Richards, Stanley Clark, Bobby Keys and myself. We did a mini tour and we did something overseas shows. I got a chance to play with them. We met each other then in a different place: They weren't with the Rolling Stones, and I wasn't with the Meters. We just played the music that Ronnie recorded, and some old favorites, and I thought that gave us a chance to enjoy each other even more.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Zigaboo Modeliste is so in-the-pocket on the Meters' classic 1974 release 'Rejuvenation' that it's easy to picture him emerging from the studio covered in lint.]

DeRiso: There has always been so much space in your music, something that's only added to its deep sense of soul. As a musician, how do you know when not to play?

Modeliste: That's what I try to focus on: Simplicity and space. I find that helps me compose better. It's all about the creative process; it's an exercise. One of the exercises I did was to learn how to stay out of my own way. I try to develop pieces that are simple, and have a lot of space. A lot of times when people listen to music, they don't want to try absorb everything that's going on. They want to absorb the important things, phrases of the music itself. Space allows them to do that.

DeRiso: After some time away, you seem to have reemerged with a newfound energy and drive. What has it been like becoming so active again?

Modeliste: Part of that was self exile. (Chuckles.) Because, like a lot of my friends in the music business that been around a while, I found out that music is a beautiful things, but if you make a few of the wrong steps, it can be an ugly thing. I just got in the phase of it where I wanted to know more about the business. At first, the playing aspect was the No .1 priority, but you have to know a little bit about what happens in your business and why it happens. It helps you when you set a course. You know not to waste you time with certain things. All of these things, I had to sort out. But now I am starting to feel like I am only depriving myself when I don't do this. I have a lot of ideas still. I hope that people can continue to enjoy them.

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