New Orleans has always been a musical city. From the early jazz of Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong to the modern funk of Galactic, great American music has always sprung from the Big Easy. Yet, rock music has been noticeably absent from the Crescent City gumbo for quite a while. But it’s not like the Radiators haven’t been trying. Through rigorous touring and a sound unlike anyone else, the Radiators have been serving their brand of New Orleans-bred “Fish Head” music to audiences for longer than most any jam band still performing. And unlike say, the Allman Brothers Band, the Rads line-up has remarkably remained intact.
For the past 23 years, the Radiators have been guardians of the guitar-based groove in a city that seems to export everything but rock bands. With an arsenal of more than 300 original songs and countless more covers, the Radiators ARE New Orleans rock – albeit with heavy dashes of funk, r&b, country and blues – and have earned the coveted closing slot at each New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
The group first came together in 1978 when singer/keyboardist Ed Volker, guitarist Camile Baudoin and drummer Frank Bua broke up their band, the Rhapsodizers, and jammed with singer/guitarist Dave Malone and bassist Reggie Scanlan, who were both unhappy in their group. Now, as the group closes in on the quarter century mark, it’s ready to release “The Radiators,” its first studio effort in six years and its first on Rattlesby Records, a new label formed by Barney Kilpatrick, an old friend and music executive responsible for developing and marketing such artists as Madonna, R.E.M., Concrete Blonde and Cher.
Drummer Frank Bua found himself with a rare day off and discussed the upcoming Jazz Fest (April 27 to May 6), the band’s history, the countless bands that have followed the blueprint his band helped create and the new record, which comes out on April 24. More information can be found at the band’s web site, www.radiators.org.
RH: Jazz Fest is right around the corner, I’m sure that means a lot to you.
FB: We’ve been doing it for, well the band’s been together for 23 years and before that three us did it as another band since ’75.
RH: What’s your favorite thing about Jazz Fest? And Is there one Jazz Fest memory from any year that immediately comes to mind?
FB: It’s changed over the years but my favorite thing about it is that there’s so much music that it’s almost hard to consume it all. You know? So that’s the thing I love about it. There’s just so much music. AS for a memory, it’s something stupid. The year the Rhapsodizers were playing out there and a garbage truck hit the power line back in ’76 or something like that. We did a few songs and then all of a sudden the electricity went off.
As far as the Radiators are concerned there’s actually one year that pops into mind now that you mention it. It rained really hard one year and there was a puddle in front of the stage and in the beginning people were standing around it. Everybody was up close to it but that one little area was kinda low and there was water there. Before the end of the show everybody on the edges had jumped into the puddle and turned it into one of these mud bath things and Dave was taking pictures of it from the stage. He showed me a picture later. It was really cool looking.
RH: What was the musical climate in New Orleans like when you first formed the Radiators?
FB: The Meters were really hot and heavy but other than that there really wasn’t anything that was established that much around the time the Rhapsodizers had broken up and the Radiators were formed. There wasn’t a lot of bands like us. Lil’ Queenie and the Percolaters were around then. The Meters were doing really fine then and they influenced us.
RH: How responsible do you feel the Tulane graduates were for helping spread the word about the Rads throughout the country?
FB: It was like a pollinator. People would come to school, come to the gigs to have a good time and put their problems aside and they went back home and told their friends and brought tapes. It was the major influence that spread the word. We had no idea we had fans waiting for us. We had never been to play New York City and people were coming out two nights, three nights, four nights. And in other cities, too. A lot of it came from people going to school down here and just taking it home with them.
RH: We always hear about New Orleans being the birthplace of jazz. What about the city has allowed some many great styles of musicians to continually spring from it?
FB: It’s wide open. There’s room for everyone in the music scene here whether it’s just rock or Cajun because we have all of the ethnic things that go along with it. The Caribbean and all of that has a big influence on New Orleans music.
RH: What do you hope listeners take from the new record upon listening to it for the first time?
FB: To me it’s a great album and there’s some great songs. I think we did a great job with some outside help from a girl named Theresa Andersson and another friend of ours Michael Skinkus on the congas. I think people will really like the songs and the sound is really good. (Producer) Jim Gaines just did a great job with mixing it.
RH: With Ed writing the lion’s share of material, how do you decide whether Dave or Ed will sing a particular tune?
FB: Well Ed’s like a fountain of songs. He just writes constantly. For every 20 songs Ed writes we learn maybe one. But since Dave is so involved in that part of it, the songs go to Dave and Dave listens for songs he would like to sing. Sometimes if the lyrics aren’t exactly what he wants him and Ed will get together and collaborate. If there’s something he likes the melody to and he wants to sing, they get back together again and they’ll work out an arrangement and then we’ll bring the rest of the band in and start working on the grooves.
RH: How much did the troubles at Capricorn Record cause it to be delayed?
FB: It’s really hard to say, maybe a few months or something. I don’t know. Barney didn’t want to let it just sit and not be released. He felt really good about the record too. We decided to just let it out, you know?
RH: Was Rattlesby Records put together simply to release this disc?
FB: Yes and no. It’s been a lifelong dream of Barney’s – and Barney worked in the industry for a long time. In fact, Barney was there in the beginning before we started touring or anything. Barney was like part of the family and he always wanted well for the band and always tried to do anything that was in his power to help the band. He also dreamed of having his own record company. Everything started pointing in the right direction. He was excited about it and we were excited to have him as a team member again. It felt like it was just time to go out and do it. Look at what he did for everybody else, why not do it for yourself if you can pull it off.
RH: Since you’ve been with major and independent labels, what do you find to be the pros and cons of each?
FB: At a major you’ve got so many people that are always trying to direct you. We’re band that’s all about the music. We’re not about the business or having people tell us what to do. One of the songs on the record is called “Fugitive Dreams.” If you listen to the lyrics of it, it’s pretty obvious where the band stands. We don’t want to be told what to do, what to be or anything like that. That’s all part of signing with the big label, they really expect a lot out of you and we don’t like that. Everyone in the band is a strong character and we like being ourselves. We don’t tell each other what to do much less have some record guy we don’t know from shit telling us how to play our music.
RH: Your repertoire has to be among the deepest of any working band right now. Do you work from a set list each night?
FB: It’s funny because Ed, he’s just the man. He just sits in his room before the gig every night and writes up what I call sort of a road map. We can go off the road map any time we want to. We can take these little side excursions, or we can flip off and jam or we can change songs in the middle of a jam. It’s a big open field except there is a road map. Ed writes it every night and we kind of go along that road map until something kicks in and we go off in other directions.
RH: Your choice of covers goes from anything like an obscure New Orleans r&b song to something as universally known as “Sympathy for the Devil.” What goes into selecting a tune you cover?
FB: A lot of it is Ed and Dave. If Dave sings it, it’s something that he found that he likes and wants to sing. Occasionally one of us will bring one in but most of the time it’s the guys who sing the songs. They find them and bring them and say, ‘Hey, how about this?” If we like it, it stays. We’ve gone through a lot of stuff like that – even a lot of our originals are like that.
Some of them we’ve dropped, relearned and brought back. It’s funny. A song like “Old Meat Off the Same Bone” just won’t die. The fans won’t let it go away. They’ll start asking us for it or they’ll write in or e-mail us to start requesting songs that have deleted from the song list. But we have so many active songs that we’ll play in Minnesota two nights with two sets each night and we won’t repeat a song. That’s part of the greatness of being able to do it like this. Sometimes we’ll play a whole night and never have learned one of the songs we’ve played. It keeps you on your toes but it’s a lot of fun like that – flying by the seat of your pants.
RH: Do you pay much attention to what the fans talk about on the Internet?
FB: I personally don’t. Reggie does a lot of the answering and responses. I actually don’t read it.
RH: I know that Dave recently sat in with Galactic in New Orleans. What do you think about the younger generation of jam bands and the community that’s springing up around them?
FB: I think it’s great. People are just hungry for music and these guys are playing music, ya know? It’s a good thing.
RH: Seeing as you’ve been at for 23 years, what advice would you give to the younger and road hungry bands?
FB: I can’t speak for anybody but myself but I’d just tell them that if they love it, do whatever they have to do to be able to play it. So many great musicians fall to the wayside because they have to figure out a way to make a living or support a family, all those things. Whatever you gotta do, if you love it, don’t give it up because you’ll be sorry and you’ll always wonder what if you had just stayed with it. And if you love it, that’s what you have to do: you have to stay with it. I just believe in the unit. I’m on the team so to speak. I’m a team player and finding these guys and being able to be with them all these years is something you just don’t find and you’re blessed if you do. Find the right guys to play with and just keep doing it, that’s what I say.
RH: Did you guys ever question it throughout the 23 years?
FB: You can question the business and have different kinds of questions but the music is such that we’ve stayed true to the idea that we’re a song band. We play songs. We jam too. We love having songs and it’s the basis for us being able to jam.
RH: Did you have any idea that it would last this long when you first began playing?
FB: Ed, Camile and I have been playing together since ’69.
RH: And didn’t you meet Ed as far back as ’64?
FB: He wrote songs for my first band and that’s how I met Ed. We jammed in ’69 and we went out to California and lived in a hippie commune with about 30 other Louisiana guys in the Santa Cruz Mountains at a place called ‘Fantasia.’ It was 40 acres up on the top of Santa Cruz Mountains by Boulder Creek. There were big stone columns and written across in wrought iron was ‘Fantasia’ and it really was. It was 40 acres, this huge log cabin and just a bunch of crazy New Orleanians living in the Santa Cruz mountains in ’69 so you can imagine what that was all about.
I actually thought that when the Rhapsodizers broke up in ’78 – right before the Radiators got together – I kind of thought that that might be the end until we jammed with Reggie and Dave and all of sudden we were back to playing again.