Ivan Neville comes from New Orleans royalty. The veteran keyboardist and singer is the son of famed singer Aaron Neville and the nephew of Cyril Neville of Royal Southern Brotherhood, saxophonist Charles Neville and founding Meters keyboardist Art Neville. Ivan learned about funk, soul and R&B from a young age and hasn’t stopped pursuing his musical muse since. From sitting in with his father’s Neville Brothers as a teenager to playing with The Rolling Stones and Keith Richards’ solo records (including last year’s Crosseyed Heart ) to his current work with NOLA-based Dumpstaphunk, which continues the family tradition with his cousin Ian, Ivan’s musical pedigree and resume are unmatched.
This weekend, Ivan will play an intimate run at New York’s Blue Note for what is billed as the Piano Sessions, a three-night, six-show affair that will feature Dumpstaphunk bandmates Tony Hall and Nick Daniels, along with drummer Raymond Weber. Ivan talked with us this week about the upcoming run, his rich musical career—including a triumphant battle with addiction—and how he sees New Orleans and funk music fitting into today’s musical landscape.
What kind of relationship did you have with your uncles when you were a kid, along with your father?
We were a very musical family, a very close family. Me and my dad, as I got to be a teenager, we were kind of like brothers. He was like a big brother to me, and my uncles as well. It was just very cool growing up watching them do what they were doing, with the music thing, and eventually becoming a part of their thing, and performing and playing with The Neville Brothers as a teenager was a big deal to me. It definitely helped shape who I was to become musically.
Was music something that your family pushed or pulled you into?
Nobody nudged me that hard. Nobody had to twist my arm, because it was something that was very appealing to me to begin with. So when my interest in music elevated to the point where I was thinking, “Maybe I want to be a musician,” it was a no-brainer. It was like, “Oh, I get to play music, and this could be my job? Shit yeah I want to do this. Oh yeah. Sign me up. Let’s do it.”
When was the first time you played with The Neville Brothers?
I don’t remember that first exact time, but I remember any time in the early days it was absolutely a blast. It was some fun stuff, being a teenager. I mean, I was in my upper teens, like 19, 20 years old. Nothing like it being up there playing with my dad and my uncle. It was something special.
Back then, when you were starting out, were you set on the idea that you were going to do music for your life and continue this legacy that your family started?
At that point, I pretty much knew that was my calling and that there was nothing else for me. That was what I think I was put on this planet to do.
And now you’re playing with your cousin Ian who is a little bit younger.
By the time I pulled him in to start the Dumpstaphunk band, he had been playing guitar for a while. He’d been playing often with his dad, and he’d been sitting in with the Funky Meters as a youngster as well. When I started Dumpstaphunk, I mean, it was pretty much a no-brainer that Ian was going to be a part of this. And he was definitely down to do it, and he was definitely up for the task. And we’ve been rolling together ever since.
With you playing with The Neville Brothers and him playing with the Funky Meters—what is it like for such a young musician to be able to play with legendary artists like that?
They were just like my uncles and my dad, so I didn’t really look at them like they were legends. They were just were my family. Everyone else looked at them with the legendary status attached, but I looked at them like, “Oh, there’s uncle Cyril and uncle Art and uncle Charles. Oh, and that’s my dad,” you know?
Speaking of playing with legends, I’m curious how you started playing with The Rolling Stones.
The connection was actually made through The Meters. The Meters had opened up for The Rolling Stones, I think in 1975, and then The Neville Brothers opened up for The Stones in 1981. That’s when I first met them, in 1981, and I got acquainted with Keith and Ronnie Wood and those guys. And basically I ended up singing some backups and playing on a recording called Dirty Work, and that was in mid-‘80s. And then Keith started a solo band. He started working on a solo project around ’87, ’88, and I ended up being a part of that. Basically we just got tight. He’s a good friend of mine. In those times, I was an aspiring, young aspiring musician trying to just do a little bit of everything I could get involved with. I was fortunate enough to spark up friendships with Keith Richards and get to do stuff with The Rolling Stones. I ended up being a member of this band, The X-Pensive Winos, and that’s nothing short of— I’m blessed.
I’ve gotten to do stuff like that. I’ve participated on the Voodoo Lounge album with The Stones as well, and I did a little something on Keith’s latest solo record that he just put out this past year. It’s just the stuff that you aspire to do as you coming up playing music. You want to hopefully form some relationships with the special musical friends, and I would definitely consider that a special thing I got to do. To play with Keith Richards and The Stones and consider him a friend is an amazing thing, an amazing blessing. You know, growing up wanting to be a musician and you never dream that you’ll get to play with somebody like The Stones, stuff like that. So it’s all gravy, man, all gravy to get to do this stuff.
What would you say you’ve learned from them, especially Keith? What do you think you learned as a musician?
Mostly what I got from Keith was that it’s all about the music and it’s all about the songs. It’s all about putting yourself into the music, and that’s what we’re blessed to get to do. I mean, that’s what it’s about. Being a music lover, you get to realize this. So put your all into it.
You’ve had some issues with addiction in your past. Obviously drugs and alcohol and things like that go hand in hand with music more than some people like to admit. I read an interview you did where you’re talking about right before you went into rehab. You had heard that Dr. John and your father were about to set up an intervention for you.
Yeah that’s a true story.
What was it like crawling out of that sort of thing while still being in the music culture, especially in New Orleans which is known for its parties?
Well, I was living in California—Los Angeles to be exact—when I got sober. The Neville Brothers were playing a show, and Dr. John was on the show as well. They were scheduled to perform at Universal Amphitheater the weekend that I ended up going to rehab for the last time. I had previously gone to rehab maybe five times before, just for the record. Then I finally went that last time in 1998, and I’ve been sober ever since, 17 plus years. I had a lot of fun over the years, dibbling and dabbling all that shit, but it kind of comes [to a point] where if it’s not working for you and you’re becoming more of a detriment and a liability, you gotta figure something out. I was lucky. I was able to figure it out. Some people don’t figure it out, and they end up dying or their life ends up being pretty fucked up. I was lucky, and I caught it. That’s basically it.
When I got sober I was worrying about my musical situation, and what I was going to do. How was I going to get back and play music without doing all the crazy shit I used to do? But over a period of time, you get back into it and you learn a new way. Basically it’s a new existence. I don’t have anything against the idea of people partying, drinking and smoking and whatever the fuck they wanna do. They do whatever they want. But just for me, I already did that, and I did my share. I don’t get to do that anymore. Now I’m getting high off the music. Which, I mean, everybody could get high off the music, and that’s where I get my stimulation, so to speak. So I figured that out, I started playing and performing and I actually started to feel better about my abilities to play and sing and stuff like that, when I had been sober for a while. And gradually it just stuck with me. I’ve been sober for a long time, so it goes without saying. I’m in situations where I’m hanging around festivals and all the places we go to play music, and people are doing what they’re doing, and I have nothing against them. I have nothing against people doing what they doing and enjoying themselves. But, like I said, I used that card up. I don’t get to do that anymore, and I’m fine with it. I’m heather now than I’ve ever been. That’s the bonus, I get to live a little longer now—hopefully.
What do you think that allowed you to climb out of it, where so many people don’t get that?
It’s a lot of things. It’s part luck, I think. And you gotta do some stuff. You gotta go figure out your path. I went to some 12-step programs, some stuff like that. I continue to do that stuff. I have a lot of friends who I share that path with, that have that in common with me, who I stay connected to. That’s how you keep that going.
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