Cover Story

Stepping Out the Box

by Dege Legg

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys prepare to release a ground-breaking new Cajun record. By Dege Legg. Photos by Robin May

"I'm pretty sure we work harder than other Cajun bands making records," says musician Steve Riley. "After putting out so many records, we don't put out a record unless we have something to say."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys prepare to release a ground-breaking new Cajun record. By Dege Legg. Photos by Robin May

"I'm pretty sure we work harder than other Cajun bands making records," says musician Steve Riley. "After putting out so many records, we don't put out a record unless we have something to say."

At 18, Steve Riley formed the Mamou Playboys with fiddler David Greely. Riley and Greely opted to name the band Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys to capitalize on Riley's higher profile playing with Cajun music legend Dewey Balfa. They soon began playing festivals, touring the U.S., Europe, Australian and Japan. Eleven albums and 22 years on down the line, they are still going strong. The current lineup of the band includes Riley on accordion, fiddler Greely, guitarist Sam Brousard, bassist Brazos Huval and drummer Kevin Dugas.

You know the name. You've heard the music. You've seen them live. And you think you know them well, but Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys still have a few tricks up their collective sleeve. It's a difficult task to stay relevant in any genre of music. The listening public is often fickle, quickly disposing of one band after another in a wacky quest for the newest thing. Firmly rooted in the past, Cajun music has a strange and often difficult relationship with artistic evolution. On Feb. 22, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys will release Grand Isle, their first record in five years. By doing so, they add to a growing trend in Cajun and zydeco music - as evidenced by recent releases from Feufollet, Horace Trahan and BeauSoleil - to push the musical envelope.

Grand Isle is a combination of many things: a genre busting collection of songs, a pensive meditation on Louisiana and a mid-career, high-water mark for a band pushing toward its third decade on active-duty status in Cajun music. There's no debating the band's passion for Cajun music. Well established in Louisiana music circles, they are on track to being crowned Cajun music royalty in some form with future generations speaking their name in reverence.

"I was about 7 years old when I learned my first song on the accordion. I grew up hearing Marc Savoy, Dennis McGee and others at my grandparents' house," says Riley. "All my life I've been around music and loved it just as long."

For Grand Isle, the band - tiring of the usual studio routine - wanted to shuffle the creative deck, so they turned to local musician and close friend CC Adcock, who produced two of their previous records (Bayou Ruler in 1998 and Happy Town in 2001). "The band came to me even though the two records I'd done with them got poo-poo'd by the press. I mean, I got hate mail for Bayou Ruler," says Adcock. "But I think people are way more open now and realize the future is in pushing the envelope, not just care-taking the legacy of the past."

"I wanted Charles [CC] involved and his expertise in the studio," says Riley. "He's good at capturing cool sounds. He knows what he wants and how things should sound. Although we might have had a few disagreements at times - we both have strong opinions and big egos - we worked through it. I'm really pleased with the final product."

Hot off contributing songs and producing tracks for HBO's True Blood soundtracks as well as recently producing Brit sensation Florence and the Machine, Adcock seemed like the logical choice. Riley and band took their hands off the wheel and let Adcock drive them through his Jack Nietzsche-inspired, studio cheerleading and song-conjuring wizardry wherein the essence of each song is closely examined and divined by any number of traditional and nontraditional methods - depending on the situation - from sonic manipulation to alchemic tinkering to bacchanalian hoodoo summoning to the last desperate act of beating on walls in pure artistic frustration. All is fair game to get a great song in the can.

"I just felt like something new had to be done," Adcock recalls. "It's a time in their careers and in Cajun music where they had to make a statement. It'd been five years since they made a record. I think things had become a little stale from constantly touring and just the monotony of what it's like to be a working, touring band these days, which is harder and harder to do - there's not a lot of people that can do it and still make a decent wage. People used to look to Steve and the band to be the frontrunners, and then a whole new crop of bands came up a few years ago that have breathed new life into the local scene. I felt it was the Playboys' time to prove they're still a vital, relevant band that can make good new music."

The life blood of any tradition is a combination of historical reverence and a willingness to progress into the future. For those saddled with the responsibility of care-taking a tradition, that's a daunting task to accomplish, especially within the tourist-versus-purist confines of Cajun music.

"It's got to start with songs. It can't just be about studio tricks, styles, special guests or being modern or retro. Being modern is just as suspect as being retro. It's just a gimmick. The band needed some new inspiration, and that can only come from songs. A lick is not good enough. An idea is not good enough. A style is not good enough," says Adcock. "There's not even much need to record old, obscure Cajun covers anymore. It's all been well documented now and is really accessible. That ain't a card to play anymore. You got to write your own tunes and come up with new stuff, because everyone knows the old songs."

Recording at several different studios over the course of three years - in between touring - the slow pace gave the songs space to thaw, evolve and develop. "We'd written and collected a lot of songs, so we took our time, but it was a lot of work," says Riley. "And it was the first time that I've completely put a record in the hands of someone else."

"Steve, David and I had wanted a different slant on things for a while, but we weren't all on the same page about it," says guitarist and vocalist Sam Broussard. "For example, Steve's naturally adventurous, David is very organic and I have a studio where I'm kind of like an eighth-grader with an atom collider under the house - music can get hurt that way. We've been successful producing ourselves in the past, but when a band gets to a vision crossroads, it's often best to call in someone from the outside. CC brought a sharpened aesthetic that's part vision and part seat-of-the-pants improv, plus he's from down here and has done his homework. The result is an album where no two songs sound the same, which is what Adcock wanted. The design is like a south Louisiana vinyl listening party; no two records ever sound the same no matter how drunk you get."

Adcock pushed the band to experiment with drum loops - a staple present in much of modern pop - to expand its musical palette in service of the songs. Some examples of such non-Cajun-like music techniques included playing a waltz to a drum machine, using a sample of submarine sonar as part of the rhythm track, and collaborating with New Orleans proto-futurist Quintron on "Chatterbox," a song written by Quintron about going to an eatery after the funeral of former Eunice native and Circle Bar owner Kelly Keller.

Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys are kind of like a Cajun Beatles in that the band includes three accomplished songwriters - Riley, Greely and Broussard - with each handling lead vocals duties on their respective songs.

"We usually sit at home and come up with ideas, then get together to hash them out and bring them to the rest of the band," says Riley.

"They're all great songwriters, great singers," adds Adcock. "And they all come from really different places."

Dewey Balfa and Steve Riley, early '90s

Grand Isle contains many highlights. The above mentioned "Chatterbox" rocks like some kind of Lomax, indie pop. "Dance Without Understanding" has the pronounced vibe of an '80s two-step with a Kajagoogoo haircut. Sam Broussard's "Pierre" - recorded entirely at home by Broussard - is steam punk meets Euro-Delta blues.

"Pierre' was improvisational songwriting: straight to hard drive, then edit," says Brousard. "My usual method is late-'60s verse/chorus with hopefully a no-cliché zone - harmonically and especially lyrically. Vibe is big now, to suck people in. I try to do that with song, which is fading these days. Maybe I should fade with it."

"Sam recorded all that in his house, beating on file cabinets and weird sh*t," says Adcock. "It didn't have any music to it, just him and a beat. I said, That's going on the record just as it is. It's great.' Sam's a genius."

Riley gives some of the best vocal performances of his career on songs like the sweet and celebratory "Lyons Point" and the Cajun-on-coconuts-in-the-Caribbean synth pop of "This is the Time for Change."

"CC always pushes me hard vocally. And I need it," says Riley. "I want someone to push me in the studio. Pushing me to go for things - the delivery and singing with as much character as possible."

In the wake of the BP oil spill and toward the end of recording, Greely wrote the song "Grand Isle." The song was so good that the band ditched an early working title for the album and went with the name of the coastal town that has come to symbolize so many of the ups and downs of Louisiana.

"I used to camp out at Grand Isle, romping in the surf, daydreaming about becoming a marine biologist, watching dolphins coming up for air from the old Caminada Bridge," says Greely. "It was a funky paradise without any Dairy Queens or McDonald's. I was sad beyond measure when they fouled it up. I kept thinking, why can't we have nice things?"

The deal was further sealed after seeing Allison Bohl's proposed cover art of an oil covered bird. "Instead of calling the record C'est L'heure Pour Changer,' which is long, we decided to call it something English and to the point, so people will get it right off the bat," says Riley. "After seeing several images of the water, coast and birds covered in oil, it stuck with us. It's simple and powerful."

CC Adcock

The intensive sessions, guided by Adcock's unorthodox orthodoxy yielded some of the most distinctive tunes of the band's career. "Around here bands think they should just play live and put a mic in front of it or else they're being fake," says Adcock. "Cajun music is very much an '80s music. It came to prominence in the '80s and crossed over into a pop consciousness where teenagers were listening to it and it wasn't just an old man's music anymore. I wanted to address that in this record."

Much like recent albums by other eminent Cajun/zydeco artists, it is almost a given that Grand Isle will be nominated for a Grammy. The songs, the timing, the collective effort and the historical stature and robust discography of Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys are very much in evidence on this album even when they are attempting to deconstruct and/or evade the legacy of their past. But that's kind of what great artists do - avoid repeating themselves too often to the point of parody.

"Since the arrival of the zydeco/Cajun Grammy category, there's been a lot of unofficial live releases nominated - like these guys that record Jazz Fest and get it nominated - stuff that lowers the bar of what we're about, just floods the market and attempts to get some Grammy attention. It's foolish," laments Adcock. "There's really no reason not to make great records. But lately you can start to slowly see the bar being raised with local bands putting out great records. Feufollet, Lost Bayou Ramblers, BeauSoleil and others - they're showing the best of what Louisiana musicians have to offer."
"We're a great team as a band, with great songwriting. And an even greater team when CC produces," says Riley. "He pushes us all to dig really deep and gets stuff out of us that we couldn't get out of ourselves. This band and him working with us produces great results. He produced two records for us 10 years ago, which I like. I think we're better musicians now, better songwriters. And I think he's a better producer. And the result is Grand Isle."

Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys CD Grand Isle is available at

by Dege Legg

Steve Riley straps in for a lap around the old Posthaste raceway.

History of Steve Riley in five words, more or less.
Music, sports, whiskey, women, love, marriage, children, music.
Why music? Why not Steve Riley: Safecracker or Master Thief?
**Playing music is like stealing all day, except I won't do time!

Has anyone ever gotten you mixed up with heavy metal drummer Steve Riley (born January 22, 1956 in Revere, Mass.) who played in both W.A.S.P. and L.A. Guns?
A few times over the years. If you Google my name, you see our band name first, but more images of him. He's not too pretty, but I hear he's done the name pretty good, though.  
CC Adcock produced your new record. What is his most annoying in-studio habit?**
He never stops talking! That's pretty much all the time. Not just in the studio.
What does Steve Riley read while on an 18-hour flight to some faraway country?**
I love John Grisham, but I mostly watch the choice of 20 movies available on those long flights when I'm not sleeping.

You grew up in the '80s. You ever get the urge on stage to turn to the other guys in the Mamou Playboys and say, "This is a little tune called You Got Another Thing Coming.' It's in E minor. Let's rock!"**
Not really, but I did play in a rock band in high school, and I often turned around and said, "Let's play the Mardi Gras song." And we did and the crowd went nuts!

Open to interpretation. What do you think this means in sign language?   
Key of C. I use this almost every night.

Worst gig ever?
15 or so years ago while performing in Wales, after our first song, I said "It's great to be here in England" followed by boos from the whole audience. I then said "C'mon, it's all the same isn't it?" Couldn't turn that one around.

Best gig ever?
We had to replace Etta James at the 4th of July Celebration on the Mall in Washington, D.C., at the last minute in the mid-'90s. We played for 100,000 people, saw the most amazing fireworks show ever, then had a great party in her penthouse suite afterwards.
What is one thing no one knows about Steve Riley?**
It ain't always "The life of Riley."
What's in the future for Steve Riley?**
I've learned if you live right, good things happen to you, so I'm going to try to continue down that road for sure. More love, children and music as well.