Billy Iuso will be taking the stage in a number of different capacities during this year’s Jazz Fest, which kicks off in New Orleans this coming Friday. He’s got a variety of gigs scheduled around the Crescent City, including a Dead Feat show with Paul Barrere, Fred Tackett and Bill Kreutzmann, a charity crawfish boil, a musicians benefit with Widespread Panic’s JoJo Hermann and that’s all without even mentioning his May 1 set at the festival proper.
Iuso is one of the most versatile guitarists on the New Orleans scene these days. While he’s built up a reputation as a top-notch player in the funk and rock arena, his latest album, Naked, showcases his abilities as a songwriter above anything else. We caught up with Iuso to talk to him about Naked, his Jazz Fest plans, the evolution of the jamband scene, playing with members of the Grateful Dead and Little Feat and more.
So you released your latest album Naked last year. I very much enjoyed the record, though it seemed to be more focused on crafting songs than building jams. Would you say that this is a fair assessment, and is this a stylistic move that we can expect from future releases?
I think for a little while, yeah. You know, I actually started with songs. I started my career pretty much playing as an acoustic artist myself and then slowly developed into bands. So I always started with songs, and I’m kind of old school in that way where I’m more of a Grateful Deadhead than say a Disco Biscuits fan just because I like to think I’m more attached to a song than just a jam. Call me old, whatever you want at that point but to me that’s kind of the difference in some of the newer jam music and some of the older jam music. It’s more song-oriented, making two songs together was the jam, or a segue in a middle of a song or something like that. So I wouldn’t say that it was a stylistic change that I made. I think I’m just coming back to it and realizing I do that better than I do endless jamming and funk jams. So I would expect to say I am writing songs for a new record right now, and they do lean towards similar to what I’ve been writing on Naked.
Can we talk about the next record? What’s going on with that?
Well it’s in the early stages at the moment. I do have George Porter signed up to play bass on it. I’m probably going to use different musicians than I normally use. I usually work with the kind of core of the Restless Natives, but I think for this record I might use musicians from different areas. Not just New Orleans musicians either, because I have used so many New Orleans musicians and I just feel like I’m not exploring some of the options of people I’ve played with in other scenarios. But I am excited, and I plan on doing it this spring. Once I get into it I am able to create more things and put pieces together. I have notebooks of lyrics and iPhone messages to myself of rhythms on guitar. So once I piece through all of that and put it all together like a puzzle I usually can find a couple more songs out of what I have.
Do you flesh these songs out with Restless Natives live before you go to the studio with them or do they come first on the record?
Lately they’ve come more first on the record just because we have all been pretty busy. But it really depends on the song. Some songs develop live. Some songs I’m much more anxious to play live before they’ve been released. I would say it’s more song-to-song. It’s not really a process. It’s more song-to-song. If it just fits, then it fits. I’m not afraid to bust out a two chord jam at a gig if nobody’s even heard it. It’s a little risky in that way.
You first gained notoriety with your old band, the Brides of Jesus, who used to play out in the Wetlands scene up in New York City. How has the jamband scene evolved since those days in your opinion?
It’s gotten bigger, obviously, and like the times, it has changed just in its creativity and ways to survive in the environment of our economy. And what I mean by that is that the festival scene has become more popular. There were a lot less festivals back then.. Maybe it just appears that way with the internet, but it seems like there used to be to be a lot less festivals that big. It’s definitely grown, but it’s hard to compare the two.
The New York scene back then was very small. You had CBGBs and Wetlands and Nightingales and a few other places, but it was pretty small with a core group of bands that were playing. I’m sure that was going on all over the country in different scenes, but it just seemed that it was more spotty and there were less scenes. You had your San Francisco scene, you had south scene from Athens, Georgia. But now it seems with the Internet you can just do it from anywhere, so there’s just a lot more. I think that’s the best way to compare it. It has just grown, and it’s become more creative too. Jam Cruise and the Island Getaway things and stuff like that, people have gotten more creative about how they get more people out to these events.
Would you say that that’s a good thing? Do you appreciate that development?
It’s a good thing. It can always grow. You have to expect, in life, that there’s always change so you roll with it. It’s a good thing because there is more of it, but on the other hand there are also more bands competing for those spots and a lot easier accessibility. When I started I was pretty gung ho in my twenties, and we would just sit around after rehearsal and mix tapes for hours. Now you just create an event on Facebook and press send. So it works in many different ways, where it’s a lot easier but there’s a downside. I mean, how many events do you get on your Facebook every day? (Laughs) Whereas, you used to just get a flyer from The Blues Traveler or Brides of Jesus back then in the mail. I think it works in both ways. There’s definitely more money in the scene now. I don’t know where it gets all spread around, but it does. (Laughs)