Legendary guitarist and songwriter, Leo Nocentelli returns with The Meters Experience for a run of gigs, which includes a date at the Mexicali Live on Thursday, January 27 and Brooklyn Bowl on Friday, January 28. The innovative funk musician continues on in a career spanning over four decades with no apparent end in sight. Indeed, Nocentelli plays like a young man, and still has that original spark that moved his fingers across the fretboard those many years ago.
Jambands.com sat down to talk with the guitarist about his recent appearances at the NAMM Convention, the jam during that event at the Mint in Los Angeles, his role as a special guest on Jam Cruise earlier in January, and his ongoing efforts to remain not only a grounded person, but a musician who is always attempting to enhance his craft. Indeed, Nocentelli is rightfully protective of his legacy, and can speak at great length about his contributions and influential power, but he is also wise enough to learn to forget the past. The musician is a friendly, amiable, and deeply honest man who appears to have a refreshingly candid feel for his musical impact, while setting his sights on the future.
RR: Let’s begin with your experiences at the NAMM Convention in Anaheim.
LN: Sure. How this originated, man, was that (bassist) Bill Dickens and I were on the road last August, and he was talking about doing something at NAMM. We got in contact with Dan Del Fiorentino at NAMM, and he came up with the idea of performing at this tribute—I think it’s the second or third year that they’ve done it—to the great artists that we’ve lost in 2010—Catfish Collins, Bootsy’s brother, Marvin Isley, Michael Jackson, and the list goes on and on, man, for the great people that we lost.
It felt really good for me to do this, so we got together with them, and tried to do it. We played two or three songs that the musicians had performed on, like “Sex Machine,” because Catfish Collins played guitar on that James Brown song. We were fortunate enough to have Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett, Michael’s drummer for 30 years. Actually, he’s originally from New Orleans. A lot of people don’t know that. I remember Sugarfoot when he first started playing in New Orleans. He used to come around and see the Meters and frequent wherever we performed. We did “Thriller” with Jonathan in honor of Michael, and, also, we did a song called “Footsteps in the Dark” in honor of Marvin Isley, which is one of the Isley Brothers songs. It was just a phenomenal time that we had there. I’m hoping that this gets to be an annual thing every year at NAMM, and go do it next year.
RR: You had Stanton Moore play with you, too.
LN: I was trying to get as many friends as I could up there. Stanton played “Hey Pocky Way” with us because he’s a New Orleans second line…(laughs)…he’s familiar with that. Stanton was great. The jam at the Mint in Los Angeles was just completely overwhelming, man. It was really great—sold out, packed house, and that night, Stanton played with me the whole night.
RR: How much preparation goes into a jam gig like that? How much do you leave open, and how much do the musicians come in already knowing the material?
LN: Well, a lot of preparation. Fortunately, for me, the songs I wrote for the Meters everybody is familiar with, so it makes it kind of easy like if I say, “Hey, man, we’re going to do ‘Fire on the Bayou,’” they’ll know the song. Now, the only disadvantage, I think—well, you can call it a disadvantage; I hate to say it like that—is that I change things around in different songs, so even “Cissy Strut” will be rearranged. Everybody knows it’s “Cissy Strut,” but there are some little tricks that I’ve instilled in that and some of the other songs and it takes time. Even though you might know the song, it does take time to rehearse, to learn it. I would say it takes a lot of time, but it’s pretty fun. The good thing about it is that it is good music to play, so it doesn’t seem that hard to do.
RR: Over the years, you have written material that was innovative, and continues to sound contemporary while containing passages which can be musically flexible. And then, I think of Jam Cruise, which you just played, and features many musicians who have to be pretty mobile with well-known and obscure music.
LN: In my particular experience, it was extraordinary and unbelievable event, man. I’m so glad I was invited to do this by Annabel Lukins. My hat goes off to her for the way she’s put it together, and for inviting me to do this. The thing about it is that my position in the Jam Cruise—they had about fifteen different acts on the boat—and I was hired as a special guest. What it allowed me to do was that I got to go around and sit in with who I wanted play with. I was really a gun for hire, so to speak. If I didn’t want to sit in with anybody, I didn’t have to do that. It was like a paid vacation.
But I got so enthused with all the music that’s on that boat that I was just trying to sit in with anybody that I could think of, and I was very welcomed by all the bands. I sat in with Karl Denson, God Street Wine asked me to sit in with them, the Pimps of Joy Time asked me to sit in with them, and Karl and I sat in with Robert Randolph. The real thing that culminated that event was the Maceo Parker jam. I had the privilege of performing on one of Maceo’s albums, Southern Exposure. We did it a while back, and Maceo recorded one of the songs that I wrote called “Keep on Marching.” I was asked to perform on that, and I was really lucky that George Porter was on the cruise, too, so George and I got together in one of our rare moments to play together. We performed with Maceo, Pee Wee Ellis, and Fred Wesley of the JB Horns. That was phenomenal, man; they ended up having everybody performing in that thing because it was like a jam. Stanton was playing drums, also, and everybody was switching up and doing different
things, and I played on a couple of songs for that. But the Jam Cruise is a phenomenal experience for anybody.
RR: Indeed. Taking a cue from your sit-in experience on Jam Cruise and elsewhere, when you look at the generations of musicians that have followed you, are you influenced by these modern musicians, or are you just coming in and mixing in your own thing with what they are doing?
LN: There’s groups out here that I like. I guess it’s a good thing; with anything that I get involved with…the things that I did with the Meters, and the songs that I wrote, are so influential, man, with all the groups that’s really out here. It’s unbelievable to me when I look back at it—I look at it in retro, and I look at it right now—and every group that I’ve been around that is in my genre of music has all been influenced by the music that I did. It’s really kind of hard for me to…when I go to sit in with anybody, the first thing they want me to do is my stuff—even if I go in there and say, “Hey, man, let’s do blah blah song,” or one of their songs, it wouldn’t work as well to them as them wanting to play Meters’ material. I’m not saying I’m not influenced by anybody. I’m influenced by anybody that is able to pull off what I feel that has been influenced by me in the Meters, and they’re able to pull it off and get something out of it, of what we did. It’s very encouraging and very flattering and I try to abide by that.
RR: It extends pretty far so I can see the dilemma. I look at bands that have been influenced by the Meters, and I’ll just name a few: Led Zeppelin, Prince, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and about two and a half decades of hip hop acts. Obviously, the issue is whether a band is influenced by your work, or they are directly copying the work. Is it safe to say that your opinion has remained fairly consistent about that?
LN: Yes. One interesting thing you just made me think about it is that you have groups that have been influenced by the Meters’ work, and, then, a lot of people who don’t know who the Meters are listen to these groups that were influenced by the Meters, and they get influenced by the group that was influenced by the Meters. (laughter)
So it’s an ongoing thing. If you’re seeing and hearing stuff that’s like the Meters’ music, they might have never heard about the Meters; they’ve heard the music that other groups have gotten from the Meters, and it might not be associated with the Meters.
We were invited by Led Zeppelin to play a party in New Orleans in 1973, right before we went on the road with the Rolling Stones. It was in Cosmo’s Studios, where we recorded “Cissy Strut” and all the stuff. We said, “WOW, we’ve been invited to play a party by Led Zeppelin.” So we got all dressed in our outfits and uniforms and whatever we wore, and we got to Cosmo’s Studio and there wasn’t nobody there; I mean nobody. You know, the owner, Cos, himself, and the people setting up for the party with the food and stuff were there, but there weren’t any guests. We started setting up our stuff and getting ready to play, thinking that the people were going to come later. The elevator comes up, and it’s just three people and their entourage and their manager. It was just three people—Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Robert Plant. Just those three. In point of fact, we played a party for them. They were the only guests. Know what I mean? We were thinking there might be a hundred people in this place, and there was never any intention of having anybody else there but them. They just sat down and watched us play.
RR: Yeah, I think of Stanton Moore again. Two of Stanton’s biggest influences were John Bonham, the drummer in Zeppelin, and Zigaboo Modeliste, the Meters drummer, so it all comes back around to your band anyway.
LN: Exactly. Wow, you know…I just had…the longer I live, the longer I’ve been around people, makes me know, makes me realize, how much of an impression, that impact that music had, and what that music did to the music industry.
RR: Right. Several generations have been influenced by your work. What about the audience? How have audiences changed in your mind over the years? Has their knowledge base shifted? Are today’s audiences too far away from some of the roots of music in the same way that you were influenced when you started out?
LN. I would say no. I wouldn’t say that. In particular, specifically, let’s look at Meters music. I play in front of fans from ten years old and on up to people that are 70 years old. They come to my shows, and I think the younger people are still aware of the Meters through an engine called sampling. That has helped re-make those songs. Songs that were written 30, 35 years ago, all of a sudden become new. It has to stand the test of time because of the structure of the music, but, still, you have to think that these people are aware of the Meters because of the samples. The Meters have been the number one, two, or three most sampled groups in the world. And it’s a process where a rap artist is doing a rap over your music. They have the credits now on the back of the CDs or the albums or whatever, so everybody knows that Ludacris or Heavy D has sampled the Meters. They’ll look and say, “This is a track by the Meters. Weren’t they around in the 60s and 70s?” They get familiar with the Meters music through that engine. That makes them know who the Meters are and know the music.
I’ll often get e-mails from people that are like 15 years old, and they’ll have questions about certain songs that were written 40 years ago. A lot of the material is in movies and television and stuff like that, and people see the credits and see the Meters’ name, and even though the Meters have been around for 40 years, it’s like they’re still here, a group that will never go away.
RR: What about the economic implications of sampling songs you’ve written?
LN: Well, the economics are great. If you’re referring to the financial benefits of that, yeah, everything is in order. Find out one time we wasn’t really getting paid, but I would say that it has been a pretty consistent avenue of (laughs) economical help. I know some people have said, “Look, I’ve heard about the Meters stuff; man, I hope those guys get paid.” Business is well together now that we’re finally getting paid for it, I would say, over the last 20, 25 years.