This year, legendary New Orleans funk godfathers The Meters are celebrating their 50th anniversary, and to honor the groundbreaking and influential music that the band created, original members Zigaboo Modeliste and George Porter Jr.—who founded The Meters with keyboardist Art Neville and guitarist Leo Nocentelli—are presenting a 50th anniversary celebration with Foundation of Funk, a group that features Modeliste on drums, Porter Jr. on bass and a revolving cast of guitarists and keyboardists.
For the 50th anniversary shows, though—which started at this year’s High Sierra Music Festival and continue this week with a gig at The Capitol Theatre and a set at Virginia’s LOCKN’ Festival—the Foundation of Funk lineup is keeping it in the NOLA funk family, with vocalist Cyril Neville (Art’s brother, who performed and recorded with The Meters in their heyday) and a trio of Dumpstaphunk members: keyboardist Ivan Neville (son of Aaron Neville, nephew to Art and Cyril) and guitarists Ian Neville (son of Art and the youngest Neville) and Tony Hall.
Here, Modeliste, Porter Jr., Cyril, Ivan and Ian speak about the importance of keeping the music of The Meters alive, what it was like for the band to receive recognition earlier this year in the form of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, what the future holds for Foundation of Funk and more.
Let’s start with how the concept of Foundation of Funk first started.
Zigaboo Modeliste: Well, there was a period, a hiatus, when The Meters were not working together as a group. We all had different things we had going on just didn’t seem like it was possible at the time. I was living in California, and my wife and I bought a house in Oakland in 1999. It was a fixer-upper, and you gotta put a foundation on the house first—that was the biggest thing we had to do, the most expensive thing. So she came up with this idea that me and George could work together, you know, do a few gigs see how that works out, and I used my own band that I had out here to fill up the rest of the void. So she came up with this idea about the Foundation of Funk—let’s call it that. We didn’t really think too much about it, just said, “OK, that’s as good a name as any name.” We did a few dates and it just amounted to that few dates. Other things transpired where we couldn’t keep it going at that time, so we just kind of put it on the back burner.
Then, in 2015, after The Meters got back together and did a few things, Art was getting a little bit under the weather, and I was trying to do something to keep our music alive. You know, you have your music, and you want generation after generation understand what your music was all about. I believe that it’s important. I tried to get another incarnation of this with The Meter Men, and that went on for a little while and then we couldn’t do that no more—other people had other obligations. You know how it is with bands. So then I decided to try to get this together with George and myself. After all, we were the meat and potatoes of The Meters, the bass and the drums. It’s all coordinated around that. It’s my belief that it wasn’t so much about the songwriting; it was about the collaboration of the four guys, plus the engine: the drums and the bass. I believe that sets us apart from any other group in the world. That’s only my opinion—and maybe the opinion of a few others—but I’m not Einstein. I’m just a drummer.
Ivan Neville: I mean, the bass player and drummer from the Meters—if that ain’t the foundation of funk, I don’t know what else is.
Zigaboo: So anyway, in 2015 I presented George with this idea again, and we got together and said, “OK, who are we gonna use?” I said, “Let’s start off with what we know.” We had a couple candidates that know the music—Ivan Neville and Tony Hall are members of Dumpstaphunk, and they all really cut they teeth on the music of The Meters. They all started at a really early age—we watched ‘em. They got they fame and fortune right now, but it all started with them learning from The Meters’ music. So we had a couple of dates in 2015, and that was the beginning of the rekindling of the Foundation of Funk.
That went on pretty good, and then scheduling and other things comes up, so I said, “Well, let’s don’t just sit on it. Let’s try to see what other dimensions we could put in it.” So then we started going outside of Ivan and Tony, and we got a host of other musicians, really good musicians, to come and help us. Anders Osborne, Eric Krasno, Jimmy Herring, John Medeski, JoJo Herman, Jon Cleary, Neal Evans—all of these people helped us were nice enough to come and do this, because they thought it meant something as well, to perpetuate the awareness of The Meters’ music in general. It doesn’t mean that the original players all have to do it together. That’s not etched in stone nowhere in the world. But it does mean that the people who put it together, they should be at all times—while they livin’—trying to promote their music and let people know how important this music coming from New Orleans was to the world. And that’s basically my mission.
The show at High Sierra was the first Foundation of Funk gig with this exact lineup, right?
George Porter Jr.: Yeah, that was the first. We have done [Foundation of Funk] with Ivan and Tony a couple of years ago at Jazz Fest in New Orleans—not at the festival, but one of the night shows. But we haven’t done it with Ian and Cyril being a part of it. That brought some extra punch, because a lot of those original Meters songs, there’s two and three guitar parts, so having Ian and Tony there, there were elements of the songs that were brought back that had been missed out on with us just being a four-piece band. And then with Cyril being there, we’ll do some of the song that he actually performed with the band.
How did the High Sierra show go?
Ian Neville: It went pretty dope. I felt good about it. It was fun playing a lot of the songs that I would love to play, but only in the right setting. And we got all of the ammunition to do it, you know—Zig and George, they’re open to make setlists, and then the rest of us Dumpstaphunk guys with our other shit held down. It was wild man. There was not even a sound check for that festival. We’ve all played those songs together before in various configurations, but in that exact lineup, that was the first. It was kind of a no-brainer for us—we all definitely did our homework and stuff and just made sure everybody was down for the right keys, and the rest was just that New Orleans shit that worked itself out.
Cyril Neville: You know, what I think most Meters fans want is for The Meters to get on stage and be The Meters and play and have fun, and that’s what’s happened every time we do. It’s a rush; it’s a spiritual thing. And the audience’s reaction proves it. You look out in the audience, and it’s all ages—I see that this music has touched several generations, and for it to keep doing that, and continue to influence people, it needs to touch the next generation that comes along.
Ivan: Oh it was killing. It was killing. It was pretty much like, you know, with our eyes closed, let’s just go—BAM! It was new and exciting, and we felt very good about what we were playing. When we first started playing, we knew that the set was gonna be pretty magical. It felt good. Obviously we hadn’t, up to that point, rehearsed or had any kind of real soundcheck for that first gig, but I thought that was a very positive edge to have going in for that first run. We had to be on our toes, and we knew there was gonna be a great deal of spontaneity involved, which always makes that music even more special. We had to listen to one another, and that makes for a great combination of chemistry. It makes that stuff groove like it’s supposed to groove.
The three of us—Tony, Ian and myself—we grew up on this stuff. Ian came around a little later, but me and Tony, we came up as youngsters wanting to emulate that sound and having the fortunate access to these guys, with me being Art’s nephew. Tony was really close to George Porter when he was young. So the people coming up underneath these guys as aspiring young musicians, we were soaking that stuff up. We pretty much lived and breathed that vibe, that music. So it was a natural thing. Other than the guys that created it, I don’t know of anyone else that knows that music any better than this group of people.
Ian: I was close to that material since I was zero. I started playing guitar in the fourth grade—I was like eleven. And then I started playing with Funky Meters when I was about 13 or 14. A little bit here and there. I sat in with the original Meters a couple times.
Did it occur to you when you were young how big it was to play with these guys?
Ian: Um, no. Like the full scope, no. Later on, I realized the gravity of their music and the catalog that that band has, and what it means to music in general. Also just the little lessons that were hidden in getting to do that, which were to be cultivated later in life, you know what I mean? I am still figuring shit out from back then. Like, playing with Funky Meters back in the day, they never had a setlist. Brian Stoltz was playing guitar, and I got to shadow him a lot and learn a lot from him. Like the hidden message with them was there was never a setlist, so just be ready to hang and know how to listen and pay attention and read signals and non-signals and hear cues that may change—just like that kind of subliminal lesson that, if it was an overt thing, it wouldn’t have came across the same way.
How is it being the younger guy in this Foundation of Funk group? Do you mostly defer to the others, or do you try to make your voice heard?
Ian: When I was playing with the Funky Meters as the main guitar player in that band, we were running something and George was playing a song in this key, and I was like, “George, that’s cool, but it ain’t in that key on the record.” And he’s like, “Yeah, it is” and blah blah blah. I was like, “Well, no it’s not, but we can play it in whatever key you want.” I bet him, and I won that shit. So in that circumstance, I’ll express [my thoughts]. It’s those guys’ ship, but we all—Tony and Ivan included—have been around those guys since they were kids as well, so it’s a similar relationship. We can mess with each other like that, so it’s cool.