Cover Story

New Squeeze

Accordionist Travis Matte's risqué zydeco is breaking cultural boundaries and packing local nightclubs.

Between sets at his recent show at Grant Street Dancehall, Travis Matte sits backstage stripping and taping wires that went out during the first half of his performance. Matte easily fixes the wiring, but the rest of the night isn't going so smoothly.

For starters, there are problems with the club's sound system, which one of Matte's crew says sounds muddy. And a sold-out crowd here would be another feather in Matte's growing list of accomplishments, but the turnout is meager tonight.

In typical Matte fashion, the crowd is an eclectic mix. A blonde wearing a shirt that reads EXPERT dances by the bar, shadowed by a fellow sporting both a Mohawk and a buttoned-down, white Oxford. Perfectly pressed and starched cowboys two-step alongside pretty girls with curves in trendy clothes and 50-year-olds in slacks. Steve Riley, fresh from playing a wedding, leans against the bar in a sport coat. In the merchandise corner, Matte's wife Alison sells thongs and T-shirts in both pink and blue bearing the words "I'm a Vibrator," a reference to Matte's most popular song.

Critics, detractors and fans have all dubbed Matte's sound as "booty zydeco," an apt title with staying power.

His music stands out as the most unique in the genre on many fronts. Not only is he a young Cajun man playing music tied to Creoles, but he's playing it his way ' with swamp pop and Cajun leanings. He sings in English and, most notably, has an ear tuned to rap and hip-hop played by club DJs.

Matte's inspiration ' unlike his zydeco predecessors who sang of hard work, love and rural settings ' are the nightclubs where young men flock to dance with young women who shake their bodies at Mach 5 speeds. His lyrics take the innuendos a step further, some of them pushing radio standards. Others like "What it Do" take cues from popular rap songs.

Backstage at Grant Street, Matte shrugs off the modest turnout. "It's not a booty zydeco crowd," he says. So in the first set, he opts to play favorites like "The Kaplan Waltz," "The Back Door," "Mathilda" and, possibly testing the waters, Horace Trahan's "That Butt Thing." When he opens the second with "Booty Call," only a few dancers oblige.

He's not too concerned ' Matte knows tomorrow's gig will be much, much different.

The next night Matte plays Cowboys, the blue-collar country bar just outside the city limits. Cowboys stays open an hour late, drawing patrons chasing one last hour of liquor sales. When the bands finish or take a break, the DJ cranks up fast, electronic booty music and a mix of cowboys, cowgirls and trendy club-goers bump and grind to the 3 a.m. closing time. Even having played the bar a few weeks ago, Matte draws a packed house and sings "Vibrator" multiple times.

At venues like Cowboys, Matte's fans pack houses, test fire codes and set attendance records to hear his saucy take on zydeco. Not long after the Grant Street show, he drew a full house at Mojo's in Evangeline Downs, and an estimated 400 fans were turned away at the door. After The Kingpins released their second Zydeco Train CD in 2005, "Vibrator" and "Booty Call" exploded locally, making Matte & the Kingpins the most played and requested band on Eunice's KBON 101.1.

Almost overnight, The Kingpins soared to one of Acadiana's most popular and in-demand live acts. In an era when Internet music downloads are sending retail sales plummeting, Matte's been a godsend for Todd Ortego of Eunice's Music Machine. Ortego estimates local bands generate 70 percent of his business ' with 30 percent of that coming from Matte's albums. At the recently shuttered Louisiana Heritage & Gifts, during the height of "Vibrator" fever, owners Mitch and Lisa Reed cited his Zydeco Train as one of the store's few buoys. Matte estimates that "Vibrator" sold more than 10,000 copies ' and he raked in more money by selling thousands of cell-phone ring tones at $2 a pop. Teens and college-aged crowds devour his ultra-modern music, making Matte the most successful Cajun or zydeco artist on MySpace, with 189,000 plays, 88,000 views and 7,000 friends.

With the younger audience's interest in his music, Matte is adding his name to the list of distinguished performers who have created a crossover appeal to south Louisiana music. Wayne Toups blended Cajun, country and zydeco into Zydecajun tunes and Rockin' Sidney concocted "My Toot Toot," a song fit for the dance hall, the skating rink and, eventually, the Grammy Awards. Just as they attracted a larger audience, so is Matte. Looking out from the stages he plays, Matte sees a couple in their 60s or 70s who attend every show dancing alongside the college kids. Many of his young fans tell him they don't listen to Cajun or zydeco music. But Matte sees his success as a way to introduce his newfound audience to the traditional music of his childhood.

"When I first started listening to Wayne Toups when I was a kid, I think Wayne led to people being more interested in Aldus [Roger], where it might have not been a whole bunch (of people) interested if there wasn't something that appeared to be cool from a rock standpoint," explains Matte. "You don't want to tell your friends, 'Man, I like this Aldus Roger.' They kinda like Wayne Toups. They'll hear this and they might listen to Aldus, Belton [Richard], Dewey [Balfa], or whatever. â?¦ They still have an opportunity to hear it, and they would have never heard it before."

When he was a teenager, Matte's mother, Judy, had no clue what style of music he liked. Walking by his room, she heard Aldus Roger, Johnnie Allan and Clifton Chenier. Another pass and she may hear KISS, Black Sabbath or Metallica. Next time, she might hear rappers N.W.A. coming through the door. While his strict and conservative parents didn't approve of his heavy metal collection ' they destroyed his Metallica CDs ' their eight-track and LP collection encouraged his open mind.

Matte's parents ' his mother is the daughter of fiddle player Ernest Bearb and granddaughter of accordionist Pierre Bearb ' had it all: Fats Domino, Clifton Chenier, Conway Twitty, George Jones, swamp pop, and dance hall Cajun music. Matte was a quick learner, picking up the guitar and intensely studying Johnnie Allan, Wayne Toups and other swamp pop artists. Though he speaks only a little Cajun French, after picking up the fiddle in 1992, he soon began an apprenticeship with many Cajun greats like Varise Connor.

"If you played fiddle, I was at your house," remembers Matte. He learned old standards and country songs note-for-note, which later got him work with country bands.

In three months of playing nearly every waking hour of the day, Matte won his first fiddle contest. Before long, he helped form Le Bande Passe Partout, a band that won the 1994 Cajun French Music Association award for best album with its Cajun Sentiment. The same year, Matte was honored with his first of three CFMA fiddler of the year awards. For the next seven years, he gigged and recorded with numerous bands, including Robert Jardell, Sheryl Cormier, Belton Richard, Wayne Toups, Dexter Ardoin and Blaine Roy.

At Roy gigs, he played country. At Cormier gigs, he showed off the Cajun style he picked up from the masters. At Toups' gigs, he played the blend of zydeco and Cajun Toups made popular. With Ardoin, he performed traditional Creole styles. The one style Matte never mastered was his own.

"It takes years before you can figure out exactly how you play," says Matte. "And with the accordion I didn't want that."

In November 2000, Matte realized he had everything he needed to record his own album as he played numerous instruments ' drums, steel guitar, fiddle, guitar ' and owned professional recording equipment. He lacked only an accordion. When he bought his first one, he learned how to play it without mimicking anyone. If he wanted to play a song, he tried to recreate it from memory. As a result, his style is unique, at times playing the instrument like a lead guitar.

"Everybody calls me for lessons, but the best thing you can do is if you have a song, like the 'Eunice Two Step,' you know how it goes, just put that in your instrument," says Matte. "It's gonna take a lot longer but when you do it, it's gonna sound exactly like what your heart and your mind says it's supposed to sound like."

With the new accordion in tow, Matte worked up his own material before forming The Kingpins.

In 2004, he released Dis ain't Cha Momma's Zodico. Stumped by finding a genre that caught his inclusive sound, he figured he would shop the band around to festivals and clubs using the CD. One standout track, "Barbecue and Drink a Few" found a nice reception locally, gaining play on a mainstream country station. But it was "Zydehop" that planted the seeds for his popularity. The track, carefully tucked away at the end of the CD, used the 808 drum sound ' a deep bass drum loop popularized by '80s hip-hop.

On Wednesday nights, KBON's Layton Thibodeaux showcases a mix of Louisiana music on his "Spicy Cajun" show. His daughter and her friends normally don't tune into the show, but they became repeat listeners after hearing him play "Zydehop."

"That was my first introduction to a whole 'nother audience right there with that one song," says Matte. "It sounds different than the regular zydeco."

Capitalizing on the popularity of "Zydehop," Matte's second CD, Zydeco Train, included a few more 808-fueled songs. The idea for "Vibrator" came to Matte as he and his original rubboard player Bill Collins noticed a girl at Cowboys dancing on top of a speaker box. Like a vixen out of a rap video, she dropped down low and shook so fast that Matte started calling her the vibrator.

Much of the standard zydeco repertoire is from an older, more rural time. While earlier performers just wanted to dance with Colinda while her parents were away, today's zydeco exists in a world where young women shake their bodies to fast music at dance clubs and go on one-night stands dubbed booty calls. Matte's younger audience doesn't relate to "Paper in My Shoe," "Johnny Bill Goat" or even Toups' version of "Johnny Can't Dance." As Matte explains it, he's creating traditional music ' the traditional music of now, just as Harry Choates fused Western swing with Cajun fiddle and Clifton Chenier married Creole and the blues.

When "Vibrator" and "Booty Call" hit, KBON and Matte seemed to blare out of every open window in Acadiana. People who normally don't listen to zydeco or Cajun music suddenly locked in their dial to KBON to hear the nearly hourly rotation of Matte songs. Matte's success is intertwined with the radio station, where Matte attracts some of the core traditional Cajun and zydeco fans.

"I have to say, at first I was very surprised at the calls from the listeners that I knew were really more into the traditional Cajun music," says KBON owner and DJ Paul Marx. "So many would say, 'You know, he can play the traditional Cajun music good too, yeah.' I don't know if it was their way to justify them liking his new stuff, or that they just feel comfortable knowing he is really one of them just doing something different music-wise."

Capitalizing on the popularity of Zydeco Train, between November and February, Matte released two records ' the salacious Christmas album Ho, Ho, Ho and Booty Zydeco and a Mardi Gras two-song single that garnered instant radio play with "Mardi Gras with No Bras." All three holiday records find Matte diving deeper into the double-entendre songs that make him a local favorite. He's even getting bolder with songs like "I'd Tap That" and "Panty Ankle," and showing his goofy sense of songwriting on "Cheech and Chong," singing, "If I could roll you baby like a big old doobie, I'd smoke you head to toe, and girl I'd smoke ya booty."

At live gigs, Matte caters to both audiences by throwing out classics like "The Back Door" and "Mathilda." When he needs to rope the younger fans back to the dance floor, he pulls "Vibrator" or "Booty Call" from the set list. "To keep a younger audience having fun and entertained with older traditional sounding music is nearly impossible without adding crucial components that they are accustomed to hearing in modern music generally played in clubs," says Matte.

For all Matte's success, he's persona non grata in Cajun Renaissance circles. In sharp contrast to KBON, where he might get played hourly, his name and songs are scarcely uttered at KRVS 88.7, the National Public Radio affiliate station whose Cajun music programming is entirely in French.

And while he's received thousands of positive e-mails from fans, a few angry Cajun and zydeco fans have gone as far to tell Matte that his music is an insult to the late musicians who played traditional south Louisiana music.

Though bona fide Cajun and possessing the hard work and deep family roots that are the foundation of Cajun life, Matte and his band possess different musical tastes, leaning more toward mainstream America than Mamou for inspiration.

"Some people take it on the lines of religion or politics and they get offensive," says Matte. "Me, personally, I don't like bands like the Backstreet Boys, but if you like them, I'm fine with that. I'm just not going to buy the CD, but I'm not going to hate the people. Some people take it personally â?¦ They don't like me. I'm a pretty good old guy. Just if you don't like the music, that's fine. Not all music's made for everybody."

Some critics even argue Matte's music isn't zydeco, and that he's diluted it beyond recognition. The idea of "pure" zydeco makes Matte chuckle.

"You look at Clifton Chenier, John Delafose and Beau Jocque, three zydeco artists. They don't sound nothing alike," says Matte. "I mean they are apples and oranges. It's hard to say, 'Zydeco is this.' Look at country â?¦ Who won entertainer of the year? Keith Urban ' this guy sounds like rock and roll. There's not a steel guitar, no fiddle â?¦ This is a rock band. I just think that people around here move slow in accepting the change, and they want things to remain the same. But, in country music if everybody sounded like Hank Sr., people would be burnt out. They wouldn't listen to it anymore."

In Matte's defense, south Louisiana music has a tradition of change. Barry Ancelet, the noted folklorist and preservationist of south Louisiana music and culture, points out that classic Cajun music was once considered radical and shocking. This list includes the time-honored names such as Nathan Abshire, Lawrence Walker and Belton Richard.

"Of course, experimentation and improvisation are part of any living music tradition," says Ancelet. Citing Dewey Balfa's recording sessions and performances with Rockin' Dopsie, Bois-Sec Ardoin and Cajun swing-influenced musicians, Ancelet notes that Balfa considered tradition as an ongoing process, not a fixed product. Ancelet warns, however, that not all experimentations work. Massive hits such as "Lâche pas la Patate" or "Don't Mess with my Toot-Toot" don't have the sticking power of "La porte d'en Arriere" or "Allons a Lafayette."

"Genuine quality has lasting value, and this is determined in the long term by the public, not by musicians themselves or by the cultural police," adds Ancelet.

A more accurate, and somewhat controversial, assessment of Matte's music is that it's not zydeco because of his cultural heritage. Zydeco, though constantly evolving with outside influences, is regarded as a possession of Creoles. In the early 20th century, the color lines were crossed on occasion (Dennis McGee performing with Amede Ardoin, most notably). Today, it's not impossible for Cajuns to perform in a zydeco band, like Bobby Broussard playing with Terry & The Zydeco Bad Boys, or vice versa, as Creole fiddler Cedric Watson demonstrates with the Pine Leaf Boys. But usually these performers aren't the lead singer, accordionist or main songwriter. Like Toups before him, Matte serves the same role as Elvis Presley. He's taken a black form of music and delivered it to white fans.

"My thoughts on that are no one color owns a genre of music," says Matte. "Black people started blues and rock but, we still have Eric Johnson and everyone from Elvis to the thousand of rock bands since then. So, no different with zydeco. Basically music is music and is colorless."

In contrast to the lackluster crowd at Grant Street, Matte receives the star treatment at Fezzo's Restaurant in Scott, a restaurant where his CDs are sold by the cash register. Fans, employees and strangers all approach to shake his hand.

Though very recognizable in his home area, he has yet to become a true regional star but knows that he's one mainstream hit away from breaking out. Next week he makes his tour debut, venturing to St. Petersburg, Fla.'s Cajun/Zydeco Crawfish Festival. And Matte isn't coasting on the three records he released since November. He's got a DVD in mind that will tell his story and show live concert footage to whet the appetites of fans who may not go clubbing. The flip side of the dual disc will feature audio tracks.

With niche songs as "Mardi Gras with No Bras" fresh in everyone's mind, Matte now faces the task of trying to make lightning strike twice. The clever Matte isn't worried about the pressure of a creating a sure-hit follow-up.

"The only pressure is if the band is satisfied with it," says Matte. "If the band does it and they are satisfied with it and everybody did their 100 percent and we like it â?¦ that's it, I'll sleep well.

"Some things are magic," Matte adds. "The band could do 100 songs, and they are all good. One song might stand out more. There's no science to creating a hit."