For much of the '90s, rock 'n' roll scenesters--from Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson to Alex Chilton and Peter Buck--have moved to New Orleans, drawn as much by the city's Flowers of Evil darkness and spirit of perpetual carnival as by its musical heritage.
It's interesting, then, that Cowboy Mouth, the finest of the town's tide of successful rock bands (including Better Than Ezra and Dead Eye Dick), has built a devoted following through a decidedly non-Dionysian "celebration of life." As evidenced by their stormtrooping concerts, or by Are You With Me?, their inaugural major-label release for MCA, Cowboy Mouth blasts out a literate, primal-screamin', pop-music-as-the-new-Chautauqua brand of Louisiana rock 'n' roll--and the underlying premise is that life is a voyage best navigated with passion and abandon, but tempered by a responsibility to oneself and to fellow humans.
It's a message that's spreading across U.S. radio on the strength of "Jenny Says," the album's hit single, which is memorable for a chorus which exhorts: "Let it go, let it go, let it go/When the world is coming down on me/I let it go!" While the song, at its most basic level, is a remembrance of babes past penned by drummer-front man Fred LeBlanc, it says just as much about Cowboy Mouth's view of the world as a fascinating, arduous, wonderful, and terrible place.
"The first night we broke up," LeBlanc says of his relationship with the titular Jenny, whose name is peppered throughout his songbook, "I took off all my clothes and drove down the interstate at 110 miles per hour screaming my guts out. Then, when I actually made it home, I taped paper all over my apartment walls and wrote LET IT GO as big as I fuckin' could, over and over. And the song kinda came to me. It occurred to me later that 'let it go' applies to a variety of life's circumstances."
As a veteran of numerous bands and years as a hard-boozing, disenfranchised N'Awlins punk, LeBlanc had an epiphany the morning he woke up and found bile-infused vomit--the fruit of a long night of heavy drink--completely coating a pile of neatly folded laundry he'd spent the previous day washing.
"Something clicked in my head," LeBlanc says of that golden dawn, "and I thought, 'I'm really tired of doing this to myself, and I don't deserve this. I've drunk some since then--this is the city of Mardi Gras, after all--but I went through my period where I wanted to die young, and I'm over it. This may not be in vogue to say, but I want to live a long, healthy, full life."
Gradually, LeBlanc evolved a philosophy which is, in many ways, expressed by the "let it go" litany of "Jenny Says." He thought back, for instance, to watching a Sunday morning television show which emanated from an old New Orleans black Baptist church.
"It came on right before Bugs Bunny," LeBlanc explains, "and I thought, 'Man, these people rock.' Because they were celebrating: They took all their problems and frustrations--and they were pretty harsh--and worked 'em out in a constructive, energetic, and passionate manner to where they could go face the week again totally cleansed."
He pauses. "What I learned was that life's never going to be easy, but you can make it work for you if you approach it with an attitude of making sure that whatever it is inside of you that's bringing you down, just get it out of your system. And there are a lot of ways to do that--some better than others, obviously--but I choose to do it with Louisiana rock 'n' roll."
Hence the exorcism of "Jenny Says," which actually surfaced back when LeBlanc was in his final days as a member of New Orleans' notorious and wildly popular drunk-rock act, Dash Rip Rock. Like its composer (who, by the way, has been happily engaged to a post-Jenny woman for some time now), the tune has aged gracefully since LeBlanc quit Dash in the late '80s and formed Cowboy Mouth with Paul Sanchez and John Thomas "The Griff" Griffith.
The musicians, both guitar players, had sterling musical pedigrees: Sanchez played with LeBlanc in the Backbeats, a synth-pop outfit, and later established an enviable solo reputation as a folk-rocker; Griffith was a member of Red Rockers, the city's prototypical new wave band whose "China" was an MTV hit in the early '80s.
With original bassist Steve Walters, Cowboy Mouth recorded three increasingly successful indie releases for the Monkey Hill label: It Means Escape, Word of Mouth, and Mouthing Off Live. When Walters retired, he was replaced by Rob Savoy, founder of Lafayette's zydeco/rock Bluerunners. With four lead vocalist-songwriters and a live show focusing on LeBlanc's front-and-center drum kit and Sgt. Carter-on-acid stage persona, the band began to draw an exponentially rippling crowd through the South's fraternity circuit.
In performance, Sanchez, Griffith, and Savoy lay down a second-line amalgamation of gospel, Cajun punk, country, and rhythm 'n' roll, while LeBlanc courts the manic crowds like a lunatic mixture of Billy Sunday, Vince Lombardi, Ted Nugent, and Dale Carnegie. It wasn't long before major labels came sniffing around.
"We'd gotten some interest," LeBlanc says. "But a lot of major labels don't want to sign a band that: a) has a drummer that's one of the main singers, and b) has a lot of lead singers."
Fate intervened in the benevolent form of Hootie and the Blowfish, old friends from the frat circuit, who tabbed Cowboy Mouth as the opening act on an arena tour at a point when the Hootsters were the biggest band on the planet. Cowboy Mouth consistently blew the walls down on that tour, and suddenly their desirability increased dramatically in the corporate corridors.
"We've always looked at our job from the fan's perspective, period," LeBlanc says. "But that involves different logistics on an arena tour: We focus on the guy who bought the tickets for him and his girlfriend, who hopes to buy the T-shirt and would like a beer, but the ticket he can afford is in the bunk seats.
"So we played every night to those people. We got a wireless mike and just ran across the arena, aimed for the shitty seats, and said, 'Hey, this is a rock 'n' roll show, this is not a fucking garden party. Get off your ass!' Anyway, after that tour, MCA got on board and said, 'OK, let's do a deal.'"
When it came time to make the record in early '96, there was little question that the band would record in New Orleans--preferably during Mardi Gras.
Savoy says, "Timing-wise it worked out, because we knew we'd be doing some in-town shows, and the studio and [producer] Michael Wanchic both happened to be available. Some of it was done during the crux of Mardi Gras, when night parades were rolling. When we'd hear the parade drums, we'd go, 'OK, time to take a break.' And we'd go downstairs and watch a parade and get all hopped up on that, then go back and record something very rhythmic because we'd just experienced the real deal."
Upon release, Are You With Me? puttered along, selling heavily in Cowboy Mouth strongholds, and winning a respectable number of converts on the sheer strength of the material. Along with "Jenny Says," LeBlanc contributed "How Do You Tell Someone" (probably the next single), "Take It Out On Me," the Darwinian "New Orleans," and the gorgeous, bittersweet "God Makes the Rain," the genesis of which came about when LeBlanc discovered his older brother, to whom he was extremely close, was terminally ill.
Meanwhile, collaboratively and separately, Sanchez and Griffith wrote such in vivo stompers as "Light It On Fire" and "Man On the Run," as well as the gloriously catchy songs "Laughable" and "Louisiana Lowdown." The result is an album virtually without weak spots--an almost unheard-of achievement in today's frequently banal rock marketplace. Only newcomer Savoy was left out of the compositional lineup, a fact which can be attributed to his brief time in the band.
Incessant touring kept pushing sales figures, but it wasn't until earlier this year, at a Gavin showcase at New Orleans' House of Blues, that Cowboy Mouth probably kicked open the doors to big-time radio success. "We were really good that night," LeBlanc says. "And we just lucked out and had a lot of radio programmers there. The upstairs was reserved for radio people, and I hopped up on the balcony and was swinging from the banisters and stuff. Now, downstairs was full of our crowd, and I pointed out the radio people and said, 'These people do not get to leave until the end of the show.'
"And I looked up at the radio folks and said, 'You can't leave because, if you try, these people down here are going to fucking tear you apart! Now: Are you gonna play our record or not?'"
LeBlanc laughs heartily and adds that, since that time, airplay has "just been crazy," a statement validated by album sales and by the increasingly large, exuberant crowds wherever they perform. Although they can't worry about their own artistry and sincerity, Cowboy Mouth does occasionally wonder if their growing legion of college-guy fans gives the wrong message at their manic shows.
"Sometimes we see a group of frat guys," Savoy says, "and they're doing the whole thing: screaming, jumpin' around, and throwing beer on each other--but one guy in the group will look up onstage and kind of apologize for his buddies. And we know at that moment: Well, he got it."
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LeBlanc adds, "Of course I worry about that stuff. But at the same time, people are going to take from Cowboy Mouth whatever they want to. I can't say, 'No, it means this.' Look: our whole thing is about trying to take a certain amount of responsibility--not that I have to be Ozzie and Harriet--but if I say something, I damned well better believe it. And if we give that much thought to what we play musically, and if I'm going to believe in that a thousand percent, then I might as well say something constructive onstage rather than just"--here he affects a phony rock star voice--"rock and roll, people!"
Cowboy Mouth's mission, then, is as singular as its music--an engaging blend of positive vibes, modern rock, and New Orleans tradition. And though LeBlanc has no problem communicating these feelings--musically and otherwise--the Cowboy Mouth philosophy is perhaps best articulated by the final words from the liner notes to Are You With Me?, as written by LeBlanc's ill brother, Patrick, shortly before he died: "To those who are still alive, what are the things that are truly important? And while you are still alive, what are you doing about them?
Those are two questions the guys in Cowboy Mouth can easily answer.
Cowboy Mouth plays at Edgefest on Sunday, April 20, at Starplex.