Scan the nightly music gigs in New Orleans and even the most diehard local music fan encounters an interesting dichotomy: for every marquis headliner such as Kermit Ruffins, the Radiators or Rosie Ledet, there's an equal number of lesser-known (or completely unknown) artists pouring out their heart on a stage somewhere across town. The latter group might be playing to an empty room, or entertaining some oblivious tourists. But they're committed to their craft, and embarking on an artistic journey that they believe in -- one that they even hope might bring some form of financial reward.
And it's always worth remembering that the Kermits and Rosies were once making that leap of faith, too. With that in mind, Gambit Weekly's music writers searched the New Orleans music scene to find performers that might still be flying under the radar, but are bringing inventive and passionate new sounds to the bandstand. The following artists collectively offer a wide range of sounds, from jazz to rap to good old-fashioned pop harmonies. And of course, these performers are only a ripple in the huge undiscovered musical talent pool of New Orleans.
It's not surprising that before he was a rapper, Rami Sharkey, aka Ballzack, was a stand-up comedian. How else to explain lyrics such as "I don't think I'm gay, but I'll suck a duck's beak for quack," or "I can link Kevin Bacon and Lil' Wayne in one degree/but I can't make them link to Dudley Moore in just three"? Such absurd wordplay fills Sharkey's songs; sometimes he sounds like he's reveling in the rhymes and alliteration. Sharkey notes, "There is intelligence in stupidity." Ballzack's skewed worldview stems from his disparate background. He played guitar in a speed-metal band in seventh grade (his only musical education), and he grew up on the West Bank, where he says he loved watching "the suburb and the ghetto clash." He left Louisiana and moved to New York City in 1996 to try his hand at comedy. He made the rounds in the Manhattan clubs, but it didn't pan out. But while he was there, his friends hipped him to mellow but far-out rappers like Prince Paul and Dan the Automator. "I liked it because it was introspective, but surreal," says Sharkey.
He moved back home to attend Louisiana State University, where he recorded his first CD, Mailroom Melodies. When he pitched it to the LSU radio stations, they declined, telling him it was too vulgar. He soon dropped out because he didn't like Baton Rouge. Faced with the familiar 20-something dilemma of what to do with his life, he continued recording and began hustling his songs. Sharkey's first break came when his song "Pencil Crack Tournament" became one of the most requested songs on 91.5 WTUL FM. The song details the grade school game of cracking a pencil with your fingers, over a cheesy riff that sounds stolen from an early '80s aerobics tape. (The music behind most of Sharkey's raps sounds as artificial as a game show theme, but even more catchy.) "Pencil Crack Tournament" is one of the highlights from his second CD, Knucklehead Memoirs. "It's a spin on Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs," he says. "The difference between Mailroom Melodies and Knucklehead Memoirs is like the difference between the movies The Jerk and Rushmore."
By now he was calling himself Ballzack. "It was the name of my little brother's pet hamster which replaced his dead Chihuahua," explains Sharkey. "That hamster used to run around and was an adventurer. I also liked the name because it was funny sounding and reminded me of nut sack. It's an adventurous name, in keeping with the legacy of a dead hamster."
Statements like that make it hard to gauge whether Sharkey is kidding or earnest. But while his lyrical connections and references can be obscure, they ultimately sound honest, rolling like the way friends naturally riff on each others' thoughts.
Sharkey is working on new music all the time. He's currently striving for a mix that blends the surreal rants of Dr. Octagon with the songcraft of Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. "I'm influenced by hip-hop," he says, "but I want to write good songs, not just quirky beats and funny rhymes." -- David Kunian
Ballzack plays the Howlin' Wolf on Monday, Sept. 8.
Recently, while "performing" at Mid-City Lanes, DJ PotPie was posed this timeless question by a young girl who'd come to dance:
"Do you play any real songs?"
"I ignored her completely, as she deserved to be ignored," says Potpie, aka 36-year-old Mike Karnowski. New Orleans is known for its frequent indifference toward non-traditional music -- and that inhospitality definitely extends to a "musician" who dares grace a stage armed with only a sine-wave generator and some guitar pedals. But that's what PotPie's been trying to pull off for seven years now.
After what he considers his misspent heavy metal teenage years, Karnowski picked up the guitar and began learning the traditional musical language of the blues. "I liked the drone of the blues," says Karnowski. "I've always been interested in the drone: Celtic music, Indian music, bluegrass are all based on the drone." Guitar now mostly put aside -- unless it's in Karnowski's lap, where he coaxes big whale-like hums out of it with an Ebow -- Karnowski sees other, more provocative similarities between the blues and his current improvised ambient work: "People who've never met before can all sit down and do it together, and they don't need to know much."
Karnowski's hunger for drone soon overpowered his tastes, pushing him away from the blues. "I began looking into other drone instruments," says PotPie, admitting to a brief but intense affair with the didgeridoo. But, Karnowski says with a sigh, "[The didgeridoo] got a little too popular, so I gave it up."
After several locally released "albums" based on effected tape-loops, feedback, turntables and Ebows, Karnowski finally found the most current Garfunkel to his Simon: the sine wave generator.
"It's actually used just to test for problems in electronic equipment," Karnowski explains. His almost humorously limited instrument of choice is a small metal box like a battery charger, with one big knob in the middle and a handle on top. "It just produces this one real pure tone that's used mainly just to check the lines," he says. The knob changes the note of the generator's tense, Moog-like tone, and echo pedals layer it on top of itself until it becomes a shifting and writhing drone. "A computer could easily generate these same sounds, and actually that would be a lot less effort," Karnowski admits. "But this feels more like an actual instrument -- of which I am the undisputed master. And unlike the wave generator, I can't find a computer for $20 or $30 on Ebay."
His last two years exploring and meditating on this one tone finally culminated in PotPie's latest record (his 11th), Black Panther Coloring Book, which Karnowski describes as a "psychological study" in tension. It features only two tracks, each utilizing just one effected tone-generator, the knob turned and the pitch adjusted at a nerve-wracking slowness. Or as Karnowski himself puts it, "One song goes up, the other one down." But the total effect is powerful, an ominous menace, building like a classic horror movie -- which makes sense given Karnowski claims the low-frequency drone of the Eraserhead soundtrack as his second biggest musical influence. The first? "Putting my head under the water and rubbing my ears with my hands."
Karnowski admits that his sine wave-generator era is coming to an unofficial close in favor of "more mellow, pleasing feedback with acoustic guitars; it's exciting, after seven years, to go back to the guitar." But he'll still present it on occasion, sounding like some musical act on the Merry Pranksters' bus -- or rather the psychotropic sounds one might have heard leaking out of Dr. Timothy Leary's mansion.
"With me it's all set and setting," declares Karnowski, identifying his art with Leary's brand of controlled, subdued environments. "I can appreciate listening to a ceiling fan. It's just the way you approach it, the state you're in." -- Michael Patrick Welch
Watching trumpeter Maurice Brown on stage is a study in contrasts. At times, Brown's long curls completely shroud his face, and a torrent of hard-bop notes emerges from a hidden abyss. Other moments his hair parts and reveals his eyes locked in a steel gaze on his fingers flying over the trumpet valves, commanding the music like a snakecharmer working a trance. But when his bandmates take a solo, Brown often shouts approval and encouragement in whoops that sound like war cries, or dances with some hip-hop flavored moves. And at a late-July Tuesday night gig at Snug Harbor, Brown closed the set with "It's a New Day," an original composition that turned the serious-listening vibe of Snug into something resembling a church revival. For five glorious minutes, Brown's danceable lead melody had everyone clapping along, with Brown leading the crowd like a member of a vintage Motown revue.
"That's what the song's about, and I'm just trying to go back to the roots," says Brown.
That's a typically modest understatement from the 22-year-old Brown, whose formidable accomplishments and soft-spoken demeanor belie his age. Consider his rapidly growing resume: In 2001, he won the national Miles Davis Trumpet Competition in St. Louis; he recently played on Roy Hargrove's RH Factor album; he's performed and sat in with the likes of Clark Terry, Lou Donaldson and Von Freeman; and in March, his original compositions earned him an ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Award.
Such acclaim means that Brown could take his craft anywhere in the country, but the Illinois native moved from Chicago to New Orleans two years ago. He first visited the Crescent City while studying with renowned clarinetist Alvin Batiste in Baton Rouge at Southern University. "There are a lot of great trumpet players that came from here," says Brown, "and I just love to walk around, breathe the same air they did and check out the whole vibe and culture. And not that Chicago isn't into it, but in New Orleans, people are more open to hearing your stuff and seeing what you can do."
Brown might be referring to audiences, but his peers have also welcomed his playing -- and his work ethic -- with open arms. On a recent Thursday, Brown had a three-hour morning rehearsal with his own quintet (which features heavy hitters such as pianist Doug Bickel and drummer Jaz Sawyer), a two-hour afternoon rehearsal with Delfeayo Marsalis, and a two-hour evening rehearsal with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Then it was time for his own Snug Harbor gig.
While those associations and gigs fall under the jazz umbrella, Brown's musical tastes are expansive, evidenced by his latest venture, Maurice Brown's (Soul'd U Out). The band is a hip-hop- and funk-influenced ensemble, featuring Hammond B-3 organ, guitar, percussion and a horn section. "I don't want people to look at me as a jazz musician or an R&B or funk musician, and I don't want people to think I only play jazz," he says. "I'm trying to eliminate all the labels to music."
At his young age, Brown's already astonishing repertoire -- he can play blues, standards, ballads, bop, pop and points in between -- can only aid his mission. And his hefty batch of originals contain arresting melodies, arrangements and tempo shifts, making his sound difficult to pin down. That's just fine with Brown, because he's more interested in connecting with an audience and hitting emotional heights.
"I hope to reach out to New Orleans people more," says Brown. "Right now a lot of the gigs are filled with mainly tourists, and I want to get locals out on a regular basis, and see how they like it. I want everybody to leave touched in some way or another when they hear the music." -- Scott Jordan
Maurice Brown plays Tuesday, Aug. 12, at Snug Harbor; Friday, Aug. 15, at Dragon's Den; and Sunday, Aug. 17, at Spotted Cat.
There's a heap of duffle bags and suitcases in the front room of the pink shotgun where downtown duo Baby Rosebud rehearses. Nestled just across Chartres Street from the levee at the corner of Lesseps in Bywater, the tiny house is a quiet haven for drummer Lauren Dinkler and accorgan player Courtney Lain, who have just rolled in from a foiled attempt to relocate to Austin, Texas. Though it means sleeping on this hardwood floor until a better situation can be worked out, Dinkler and Lain are back in New Orleans to record their second Baby Rosebud album, Thorn, due out this fall. "There's something about this neighborhood," says Dinkler on a sultry one-block walk to Bacchanal wine store for an early evening drink. "It's hard to leave, and I always seem to be coming back."
Once settled at a table on the store's back patio, Dinkler, 27, and Lain, 26, explain that Baby Rosebud had only existed for four months in 1999 when they realized they already had the makings of an album. They released their first CD, Fireflies, recorded live by Ninth Ward organist Quintron, in 2000. The album's material resulted from a series of informal jam sessions, which quickly evolved into intense songwriting workshops. "It's a mutual and wonderful collaboration," says Dinkler, who also drums with traditional four-piece rock and R&B bands such as Fireball Rockett and Prime Minister. "Sometimes she comes up with parts for me, and other times I write melodies for her."
The style that evolved in Baby Rosebud prototype songs like "Smush Smush" and "Snowball" are best described as "carnivalistic cabaret," an instrumental blend of soundtrack-style music that combines syncopated dance rhythms such as waltzes and tangos with simple minor melodies. With their most recent material, Lain and Dinkler are moving away from old-fashioned European dances. "I had played accordion for seven years, so I was used to playing the styles that you usually hear on that instrument, but with accorgan, I feel like I can do more."
The new Baby Rosebud album will lean more toward Dinkler's influences. "It's a heavier rock sound," says Dinkler, "and there are some surprises in there. I like heavy rock, I've been listening to old country a lot, and I do love me some hip-hop."
The accorgan syntara is the hallmark of the duo's sound. A birthday gift to Lain from a dear friend, the accordion-organ combo instrument was made in the 1970s by Elka, an Italian company best known for the organ synthesizers it developed in the 1980s. Today, says Lain, the accorgan is more common, but only in its digital output form. "The analog ones are very hard to come by, because they don't make them anymore. But the digitals don't have the same warm sound as the analog." Both acoustic and electronic, the instrument can produce a wide range of pitches and two complementary timbres, so Lain's role in the band includes melody, harmony, and rhythm.
Lain's eyes drop to her granny boots, and she fingers the hem of her vintage wench's dress as she describes the accorgan's many mechanical challenges. Like any vintage item, it's seen a lot of wear and tear, and that means a whole mess of idiosyncrasies. Maintenance is tedious and time-consuming, and when Lain cannot service the instrument herself, she is forced to take it to the one-and-only analog accorgan repairman, who lives in Florida. "The accorgan makes each show different," Lain notes with a sigh. "Sometimes it's great. Other times, I've had traumatic events. I've had some problems with it, but it's worth it because it has a charm all its own." -- Cristina Diettinger
Baby Rosebud plays Sept. 5 at El Matador.
SUBHEAD: Toys Story
PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Dwight Marshall
PULLQUOTE: "The album follows a relationship. The first half is all the good stuff you have in the beginning. Then you have the love stage, with all the real emotions. Next, the broken heart. Then we have a masturbation song." -- Adult Toys' Davis Zunk
A quick introduction to the Adult Toys' philosophy comes in the opening lines of the tune "Toys Theme": "Toys can cause you pleasure/Toys can cause you pain." A superficial take on the band's moniker -- with its naughty connotations of vibrators and related items -- allows these lyrics to be jokingly applied to batteries-required loving, but the music's true essence digs a bit deeper. While unabashedly devoted to preaching the gospel of sex, in a sermon delivered in the harmonies of vocalists (and former lovers) Davis Zunk and Marlena Decker, Adult Toys' themes also explore the wider issues of love, relationships and heartache.
"Our name isn't sleazy," says Zunk, the group's founder and primary songwriter. "Adult Toys refers to the fact that in the game of life and love, we're all just something to play with."
The "play" element of that worldview lends itself to the band's pop sensibilities. Zunk and Decker's vocal work dominates their sound; collectively they deliver catchy, toe-tapping ditties with the harmonies often forming around a suggestive call-and-response that at times transforms the lyrical narrative into a game of romantic cat and mouse. For Zunk and Decker, it's a game they've played before.
Zunk had already conceptualized the band when he auditioned Decker, a soprano, on the spot at a party last December. The Adult Toys' sound, as well as Zunk and Decker's romance, soon blossomed. After months of gigs around town at places such as Lounge Lizards, O'Flaherty's and Dos Jefes Uptown Cigar Bar, the couple broke up. Acknowledging that sexual tension is a crucial aspect of Adult Toys' sound and stage presence, Zunk says he feels the energy "will still be there," and hopes that "it might be more intense" musically between the two in the future.
Perhaps in another case of art imitating life, the Adult Toys' self-titled debut album, set for an independent release in late September, follows the natural arc of courtship and the inherent highs and lows.
"So much of what we do is tongue-in-cheek, but there is a serious side to it," Zunk says. "The album follows a relationship. The first half is all the good stuff you have in the beginning, all the sex and fun and hanging out. Then you have the love stage, with all the real emotions. Next, the broken heart. Then we have a masturbation song. It all parallels the concept of the band. We're trying to capture all the good and all the bad that comes with sex and love."
The album consists of concise tunes that are -- racy content notwithstanding -- radio friendly with biting rock, funk and groove instrumentation. (Renowned producer/arranger Mark Bingham recorded the band at his Piety Street Recording Studios in Bywater.) The band features Decker and Zunk sharing vocals; Zunk, who also plays bass guitar, plus Peter Diorio (piano, keyboard and organ), Felix Wohlleban (guitar) and the recruited talents of noted drummer Kevin O'Day.
"I want to present songs that are a showcase of the songs and songwriting," says Zunk. "I don't want to just let it rip for 20 minutes, the whole jamband thing where everyone solos on every tune."
With songwriting as the focus, Zunk finds an endless source of inspiration in the notion of love for Adult Toys' material. "You're either in love or you're out of love," he says. "Everyone knows how both feels, it's something everybody can relate to. These songs are just a means of expressing that; it's handling all those crazy emotions and putting them to song." -- Frank Etheridge
- Romney Photography
- "There is intelligence in stupidity," says rapper Ballzack about his quirky rhymes.
- Romney Photography
- " I can appreciate listening to a ceiling fan. It's just the way you approach it, the state you're in." - PotPie
- Romney Photography
- "I'm trying to elimiate all the labels to music," says trumpeter Maurice Brown about his myriad musical projects.
- Romney Photography
- Lauren Dinkler (right) calls her work with Courtney Lain in Baby Rosebud a "mutual and wonderful collaboration."
- Romney Photography
- "The album follows a relationship. The first half is all the good stuff you have in the beginning. Then you have the love stage, with all the real emotions. Next, the broken heart. Then we have a masturbation song." -Adult Toys' Davis Zunk i>