Interview with Zigaboo Modeliste - The Meters
Zigaboo Modeliste, Legendary Master Of Funk
Born in 1948, Zigaboo Modeliste is one of the pioneers of funk and second line groove. His influence has had a huge effect on drumming worldwide and commands a huge respect from many drummers both old and young. As the founding member of legendary group The Meters, he has innovated many of his funk grooves through the infectious energy of music through the bars, clubs and streets of New Orleans. The band have had a rich 20 year history and were deemed ‘the baddest band in New Orleans’ by The Rolling Stones.
Many iconic artists across all genres have invited him to the drum seat on their albums such as the Rolling Stones, Harry Connick Jr., Aaron Neville, Keith Richards, Professor Longhair, John Fogerty, Robert Palmer, Allen Toussaint, Patti Labelle, Lee Dorsey and many, many more.
Today he has his own label, JZM Records, and has four solo albums to date (of which he is very proud) including his current new release ‘New Life’. He continues to passionately tour the world spreading his brand of funk reaching out to the younger generation.
We recently caught up with Zigaboo at STAND! in Croydon, London, performing his only UK date to find learn more about the concept of groove.
How did New Orleans start you off on drums?
Well, I was born and raised in Louisiana and we have a lot of tradition down there. So the main focus when you get there is Dixieland. There’s Dixieland jazz, blues and if you get to the right places you can hear music that’s indigenous of that area, which is rhythm and blues of the 50''s and 60''s. Rhythm and blues come from so many different areas and the influences came from Africa. The pulses were put out by the Cajuns, Creoles and African Americans and we all benefited from the different musical genres like spiritual hymns, rhythm and blues, Dixieland, and jazz, and also brass bands.
It all started for me in New Orleans because all of this stuff was generating when I was a kid. I first knew I wanted to get involved in music at an early age when I was round eight or nine. My parents used to take me to these picnics and they had live bands. It always fascinated me to see people playing music and watching people enjoy it. I’ve heard bands on records but I’d never seen a band play ‘live’- people interact with that scene - so that flipped me out. I then moved to uptown New Orleans to a place called the Thirteenth Ward.
When I moved there I found out that everybody was into their music. I was just moving to Junior High School at the time, and the ironic thing was that in the same street I moved in which was Valence Street, The Neville Brothers lived right across the street from me in the same block. So the youngest Neville brother Cyril, we were school buddies, we used to play football in the streets and stuff. Now we loved to drum and there was this drummer called Clarence Brown, he had no world prominence but Art Neville had a band called the Hawkettes which Clarence was in; they were around New Orleans for a while. Now every time they rehearsed, they would rehearse in their living room once every two weeks or so and we would be right there sitting out on the porch listening to them. Clarence he just had something going on and I have to say that he was one of my first heroes on the drums. I actually got a chance to know him and talk to him but he didn’t teach me anything, I was just in awe and anything he would say I would just take in.
Now we were just getting ready to go to Jr. High School and Cyril and myself must have been ten or eleven years old; we would go to these parties and the girls would come there later but the dudes would be at the party first all dressed up, food and everything, so they would get the record player playing and all of those who were up to date and knew these records would all want to be drummers. There were maybe ten of us and while we were waiting for the girls to come we would put the records on and started drumming the drum parts on our laps. Now that was a big thing for us at the time because nobody had drums, we just kept beating on our legs.
There was Bobby Louis, James Brown and some great tracks, so this started getting me going. I then went to my parents and said “you gotta get me some drums, I want to play drums”. They thought I was crazy. My brother played piano and violin but he wasn’t professional; he just did that for church and school but no one in my family was ever into being a musician. Well they bought me a parade drum, a marching drum so I started practising on that and joined a band but the band was very uninteresting because I wanted to go really fast and the band had its own pace. Back then you had to get up in the morning to go to rehearsal before class and after school you had to stay for band rehearsal again, that was taking too much of my day up. I was in that band for maybe a year then I went to Senior High school and the music teacher in Senior High was a contractor for all the bands who had gigs around town; that was his night gig. Now he found out that I was a professional whilst I was in Senior High and I was playing on some of the gigs he’d booked.
What an upbringing! Let’s talk a bit about who influenced you back in the day.
There was this one drummer called Joseph Johnson, ‘Smokey’, they used to call him, one of the baddest drummers in town and everybody wanted to hire him and we used to call him ‘Black Power’, a real baddass!
He played like Art Blakey and he could play like anybody you wanted him to play like. His career was cut way too short because he suffered a stroke which left him paralysed. He is still living in New Orleans with his lovely family today. He had the most lasting effect on me. His hi-hat work especially and how he used the drums - he was my most major influence. There’s no film or video footage on him as nothing like that existed at that time but he’s still living today, he is the greatest.
Well the other drummers back in the day, John Boudreux was another one, James Black another bad drummer, David Lee, Bob French, Baby Dodds, Earl Palmer and Joseph Johnson, Wilbur Hogan, just to name a few. These were my influences and the greatest thing was I got the opportunity to see them.
So how did you hook up with The Meters?
At the time Art Neville had a band called Art Neville & The Neville Sounds, which was actually The Hawkettes, and I started playing with him because he needed a drummer and he couldn’t find one at the time. He didn’t have to pay us much, we were just thrilled to do it. So some gigs came up and my parents had already bought me a set of drums by this time, so I started performing some gigs with him until he started getting some venues where we couldn’t go in because we were too young. I couldn’t play very well but I was just coming along at that time.
When Aaron Neville had his hit with ‘Tell It Like It Is’, Art went out on the road with him as his road manager so that kinda broke the band up. I then started playing with another local guy called John Moore or Deacon John as he was known. He was really good and he taught me all about the etiquette; how to dress, being on time, how to act like a gentleman and how to present yourself as a professional. You had to wear a tie at that time; you couldn’t go on stage with jeans and tennis shoes; you had a dress code.
Now Deacon wasn’t just playing R&B, he would play rock''n''roll too and he was doing a lot of different stuff from different artists and that’s why he had all the gigs and was making great money. He knew about 2,000 songs and I had to learn them all. While I was working with Deacon John, Art came back off the road and started a band and he had Leo Noncentelli (guitar) and George Porter, Jr. (bass) with him and he had another brother on drums called Glen but he left to become a minister, he was ready to get out.
By now I was tired of playing with Deacon and I wanted to get back playing where I could just set the drums and play the whole week instead of taking them down and setting them up. Just one gig not too far from my house for the sake of convenience and the main thing was I liked the stuff they were playing and it was Art Neville and the Neville Sound then, so they hired me to play. It was great, Aaron Neville was on the gig, Cyril Neville was on the gig and we had another Meter who was going to be the fifth Meter, his name was Gerry Brown, a tenor sax player, and this was a BAD band. We were packing them in and I mean PACKED!
We had that for a while and then we went to the French quarter for about a year and a half maybe even two years and we were still Art Neville and the Neville Sound. We were right on Bourbon Street and right across the road from us, Frogman Henry was playing and he was a big deal in the French quarter; he had one of the best bands. We were playing in the best part of town for music and we really had a good thing going on. We played six nights a week, five or six sets a night and working that hard the band get to be tight.
So while we were down there, Allen Toussaint and his partner were on every street coming in to check out the bands and the scene. So one night he came down and said "I want the band to come down to the studio to do some recording ‘cause y’all really tight and I got some projects I want you to work on with me"; we didn’t have an idea of recording ourselves that came a little bit later. We were actually his studio band so we worked with Lee Dorsey, Betty Harris and Ernie K-Doe who did that song ‘Here Come The Girls’. Somebody then came up with the idea and said why don’t you record some stuff and try and see whether it would stick to the wall. We didn’t have anything in mind and we all had our own individual heroes. I liked James Brown, we all liked Booker T & The MG’s, Art came from a doo-wop era and we knew we didn’t want to do doo-wop ‘cause none of the cats in the band could sing but Art. So we said let’s do some instrumentals so Leo Noncentelli at the time was a brilliant writer and we were just trying to get an identity and we didn’t know whether we were doing it right or wrong. We certainly didn’t anticipate it going anywhere.
Then we said 'let’s get a name', so we put some names in a hat and somebody pulled a name out and the first name come out was The Meters. They thought that what we were playing that it was meter related so it was it was kinda odd that it happened like that and that’s my memory of it. I remember that Art didn’t want that name, he wanted it to be Art Neville and The Meters; you know what it’s like in bands [laughs]. We recorded the material and got the material shopped, then we had a response from New York and the word was we had good news; a label wanted to pick up the record and that was Jubilee Records in New York City.
A lot of times it’s what you DON’T play which really makes what we DO play sound even more outstanding. It takes all of these things to make a groove.
So what was your first hit?
‘Sophisticated Cissy’ and that was supposed to be the first drop off the album and I think it was momentarily and then the next thing was ‘Cissy Strut’ and then phew!, it really took off. We said “O my God, what we gonna do now!”. We weren’t an act, we were just a studio band and we weren’t polished by any stretch of the imagination. It was all a big learning curve for us to get into that. We were only doing instrumentals and it turned out well. We did the Chitlin circuit about a hundred times and we were never satisfied with that but the good thing about it was, the way Leo wrote songs and the way the rest of the guys contributed to the songs, not at anytime did they tell me “Zig we want you to play this or we want you to play that”. They started playing and they wanted me to create my own drum beats and my own patterns and they would work around whatever the drums were.
Basically it was rhythmically designed for me to create, giving me full artistic licence. I never ever had a problem with my parts. I look back on it and a lot of it sounded almost repetitious but a lot of it had a lot of character and it was different and it gave it an identity. The drums were always the support in a band but this way it was the opposite, the drums were the focus and the guitar, bass and organ was the support. It worked out pretty well that way ‘cause we didn’t have a lead singer.
You weren’t schooled through reading but through mainly listening and watching. How did that translate when you played in a band?
In what I do, I see musicians as mass communicators and in a band it’s about communication. So we’re communication majors. If you’re playing on stage or you didn’t go to Harvard or Oxford or none of these big schools but you have a degree in communication because the transmission you’re sending out you want people to be receptacles.
Depending on what you’re doing, the listeners tune in or they tune out. The longer you play music that way, you learn to read the crowd and you’ll know when to play an up song or a ballad or something they can dance to – you feel all that stuff.; what I’m saying is that you learn how to strategise your set. It’s like making a big speech in public but with tones.
You’re synonymous with ‘second line’ drumming in that when Zigaboo is mentioned immediately most drummers think second line groove – explain second line from your perspective.
Where I pick it up is basically when I was listening to the guys play Dixieland, I thought it was a combination of Mardi Gras music and marching drums, drum and bugle corp playing in a parade. I wanted to put the two together with Dixieland and put a little funk in there and just try and mix this up and come with something that would be relatively easy to understand.
I used to go to these funeral processions where they didn’t have a set of drums. You had a snare drum player and a bass drum player with a cymbal on the top and I would here a marching groove of ‘boom chick, boom chick, boom chick, ba boom boom, boom chick’ so I’m drawing from these criteria. But the thing when I started playing it was a collaboration from music I’d heard from the streets because that’s where the music was. It wasn’t so much on the radio because nobody played second line on the radio because nobody thought about that, it was really out in the streets.
When I was coming up, all the music had backbeats going on from everybody who was popular like Little Richard and many others. I didn’t think about it or what it was, I was doing but I knew, I drew my energy from the streets, from brass bands and that’s where I was picking up these vibes. I didn’t think about writing it out, I didn’t even think it was important at the time and I never got it from any books. If people want to say that I was the father of that I have no problem with that, but the most important thing and to set the record straight, I got it from other drummers from the street.
The other thing was that there weren’t that many drummers doing that on record chronologically speaking. People follow stuff that’s recorded so when I started doing stuff like ‘Hey Pocky Way’ it wasn’t recorded with a straight backbeat, everything was all mixed up and people weren’t recording stuff like that, it was a really weird thing for people to hear on record. If you go to New Orleans today, and you hear any one of the brass bands you would hear that beat being played quicker, so I was happy to be associated with that because to some of the beholders I was responsible for that. I would say that gift came from God and the musicians that came before me and the drummers who haven’t had the recognition who played that.
There was a drummer out there called Eugene Jones, he was a bad drummer who never got any recognition, he played with Frogman Henry for years together with ‘Smokey’ and Clarence who I mentioned before but they never taught me anything. I had to go watch them, that’s the dues I had to pay. They would be nice to me and everything but nobody would sit down with me and say “Zig, this is what you need to be doing!!”. I had to learn on my own and come up with something that would be appealing. So when The Meters came up, it gave me an excellent opportunity to try some of the exercises I liked to do.
From your standpoint, can you explain your concept of ‘groove’?
Groove means a lot to me. It’s overwhelming to say what a groove means because I just know that I’ve been spiritually fulfilled by grooves. It’s all repetition but there are certain sweet spots you could actually design rhythmically while playing drums. I mean everybody does not hit the drums with the same velocity, everybody don’t set up certain patterns the same but we all meet the groove along the way. The groove to me is something that is definitely repetitive but not at all monotonous. Every beat should sound like a new beat even though it’s the same pattern. You know when you doing that. Some people can play odd meter and find grooves. I do it sometimes but mainly it’s a marriage; it’s what you’re playing while interacting with you’re playing, feeling and hearing.
The groove is a matter of beat management combined with rhythm and tempo; it’s all got to align, because if it’s not aligned, it gets a little weird for people to listen to; it really has got to line up. When I’m playing a groove, I’m thinking of all these different things but to keep it fresh I add just little nuances to go with this repetitive motion. A lot of times it’s what you DON’T play which really makes what we DO play sound even more outstanding. It takes all of these things to make a groove. So if you see a drummer playing 32nd notes and if they’re not grooving, they’re exercising. People don’t want to pay money to see you exercise. Having said that I would say that some people may do because they like exhibitionists. Now I can get that and marvel that someone can speak that fast musically providing they’re communicating but when you take that to the masses it’s more likely to start separating them because most people don’t to pay attention to that much information.
When you have a groove, the more simplistic it is, the more it gravitates towards the listener. Personally, I’m only playing for the listener to understand, I’m not playing for myself; this is what I’m trying to get over. It might be loud, it might be a little too soft at times but my whole thing is to make you understand what the groove really feels like.
You now have four solo albums. What made you take the transition from drummer to songwriter?
It was a natural scene to see drummers in the back, in the centre with a lead singer in the front that kind of thing. So I felt that if I was going to have a departure from The Meters, which I sang some songs with, I would have to broaden my scope.
I went to a concert and saw Narada Michael Walden. He was the first drummer I saw doing the kind of music that I wanted to do; playing funk and singing and he had a hit. He’s playing with Jeff Beck right now, really nice guy. He really was the first drummer to make me want to do that. When I saw that I said, “Wow!, this guy is actually leading his own band!!”; now I thought that was so cool, but then, I would have to learn how to sing; I never did learn how to sing but I have the ability to scream in key.
A friend of mine by the name of Joe Jones, who wrote this song called ‘You Talk Too Much’, taught me about the music business. When The Meters broke up I didn’t know where I wanted to go. I know I didn’t wanted to be a side man after being an artist. So I learnt from Mr. Jones about publishing, song writing and stuff. Now I had a hand in writing a lot of music with The Meters but all our publishing was given away ‘cause we signed contracts that made us give it away. Now those songs generate a lot of music and they pay us.
I would now rather be my own artist and start writing songs ‘cause I do recognise that I have some song writing talents. I’ve written some songs and Joe Cocker has covered one of the tracks that we wrote from The Meters. So I started writing some songs and try my hand at it. I wouldn’t call myself a brilliant writer but I do have some angles and I do have some things that I want to say so I thought I would create my own music.
On every album I put out, I want to put out a message to people that is real. My wife was an avid smoker before we got married and I was sick of that. So I wrote this song called ‘Get Them Funky Nasty Cigarettes Outta Ma Face’ [laughs]
So I started playing them at my gigs and all the women liked it, the men didn’t care for it. I just wanted to write songs that I thought would really help the community. I wrote another song called ‘Guns’ which was anti-gun song; it’s got a message in it which again goes to help the community but I try and include at least one song that says something and contributes to the community.
The ultimate at this point for me would be to write a song for a movie so you have what I call mailbox money ‘because musicians don’t have retirement and we don’t have pensions. When you stop that’s when it all stops so you better have saved up something or marry somebody with a lot of money or inherit or hit the lottery... but really what’s the chances of that happening?
When I got introduced to this publishing game, I said I better write some songs and I better be my own publisher. So I took time off from music just to learn that, moved to California because my friend lived in Los Angeles. I stopped playing drums for almost two years. And put my drums in the closet got a job – I had to experience some of this so I can grasp what real people were doing in this business.
What would you advise an upcoming drummer?
Do your homework and you should be straight and not be on any chemicals at all. If you’re going to play music, be literate. Learn how to read music and understand it and what it does. If you’re playing drums and you have the resources, learn to play a melodic instrument like a piano to round you out. Although as a drummer you learn beats but there are also tones too and that will help you with a lot of stuff on the way like arranging, dynamics, expression and approaching it this way all helps to makes music far more interesting and keeps your communication with musicians and the audience fresh.
Decide how much time you’re going to devote to music. You also have to consider aspects like the music business because these other intervening aspects will give you a career. It’s not as easy as people think; it can get very complicated so put yourself in a position of you can control that better. Now I’ve been into this for quite a while and some of the stuff still gets weird to me.
I had a guy say to me one time “...it is not about the money”, well I’ll buy that. But if you’re trying to do certain things about a career, it is about the money. If you want to raise a family; you can’t raise no family playing a job for $50 a night, two nights a week. Your children do not want to hear that and your wife does not want hear that. If you can do it four nights or even six nights a week, how long can you keep that going?
So it is about the money in that respect. If you’re going to be a craftsman, it’s vitally important that you learn all the aspects about your craft if you plan on DOING it. Now if you don’t plan on doing it and it’s just a fad, I’ll say play until you don’t want to play any more and it stops being fun. If you’re doing it as an occupation, then you need to know all the rules and know exactly what you need to do.
Here’s the thing about experience, when we’re born and come into this world, everything is perfect. Your eyesight, all your senses, your beauty, everything is perfect BUT you don’t have experience and that’s way at the other end. So now you start growing and as the days pass every gig you get experience. The longer you live, the more experience you have so this is why it’s vitally important at an early age, if you know you''re going to be a musician or you''re going to be in the arts, you start to acquire experiences from the best resources available.
Apart from that enjoy every second and enjoy the journey.
Drum Workshop: Classic Series
22" x 18" Kick
14” HH Bright Hats
Drum heads: Evans
Snare: G1 Coated
Sticks: Vic Firth 5A
For more information: www.zigaboo.com
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