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Mardi Gras guitar marshal: An interview with Leo Nocentelli

Leo Nocentelli w/ The Original Meters @ Voodoo Experience 2011 || Photo by Jimmy Grotting

“As long as we stay positive and stick together, we’ll probably be doing some more shows. I don’t think The Meters will ever stop playing together. The response to that show at The Howlin’ Wolf says it all about what people think about The Meters in New Orleans.”

That good news is from Leo Nocentelli of Meters funk guitar fame, interviewed by phone from his home in Burbank, Ca. He added that he’s eager and “getting ready to come down to the Gumbo and do what I do.”

This weekend marks a special trip for Nocentelli back to the Big Easy, as it will be the first time the New Orleans native has ridden on a Mardi Gras float: He will serve as a grand marshal in Sunday’s Thor parade in Metairie.

Additionally, the guitarist will be receiving an honorary Mardi Gras Gibson guitar prototype billed as “The Bourbon Street” that, if all goes as planned, should hit store racks soon.

Fans wanting to see the guitarist perform this weekend are in luck, too, as Nocentelli will also be performing with a polished cast of players as The Meters Experience on Friday night at Tipitina’s.

Among other topics, Nocentelli chatted about the chances of a more extensive Meters reunion, the origins and phonetics of the Nocentelli name, and a solo album with some special guests in the works. Continue below for the unabridged transcript of the interview.

Looks like a big weekend ahead in New Orleans for you, with a Friday show at Tip’s and the opportunity to serve as Grand Marshal in THOR on Sunday.

Yeah man, as you know I’ve got the show at Tipitina’s on Saturday night with The Meters Experience, but the real unique thing about me being in New Orleans this time is the fact that Gibson Guitar, who I’ve endorsed for the last 12 years, have made a Leo Nocentelli Signature Guitar and it’s the colors of Mardi Gras: purple, gold and green. The guitar is being called “The Bourbon Street.”

So when are they gonna start selling that?

They built me two prototypes; that’s the usual protocol. They’ll build the prototypes and then they’ll look at the market and value of it and hopefully it’ll pass that and I think that it will then be in the stores, hopefully soon.

Leo Nocentelli @ Tipitina’s Uptown – 2/26/2011 || Photo by Jimmy Grotting

Is this your first ride on a Mardi Gras float?

Yeah man, I’m so excited, man. There’s gonna be some other Gibson dignitaries and some other musicians up there. I think it’s a great thing that Gibson is doing for New Orleans and for New Orleans musicians, so I’m glad to be a part of it. They actually asked me to be the Grand Marshal up there. It’s an honor to be asked to do that to represent my city. I’m really looking forward to that.

Hopefully we can get about 1,000 or 100,000 or so people in the city to come on over to Tipitina’s. It’s looking like this is becoming a recurring event; this is my third year playing this show.

We were there for the gig last year, and the band you’ve had going was pretty on-point.

It’s good, man, because at one time I could hardly get a gig at Tipitina’s. I wanna mention Wayne and Lindsay at Tip’s. I think Wayne is a great credit to the city and Tipitina’s man. He’s very open-minded and knows music and brings some great talent through there. I think with the management and the way they’re running it right now, it’s a really cool time there.

Tell me a little bit about the origins of that particular band, how it got together and the what the future holds for the project.

You know I’ve been playing for years, man; I’m not doing anything different then I’ve been doing for the last 100 years. The only difference is this is the first time as a solo act I’ve had some significant players, so when they come to see Leo they know what they’re gonna hear. You know, everybody that comes to see me solo wants to see me play, but rather than saying “Who’s Leo got with him tonight?” everybody wants to hear the band now, too.

I recently met Bill “The Buddha” Dickens who’s played with everybody, Stevie Wonder, Janet Jackson … I met him and told him I wanted to implement him into what I’m doing with my music. Luckily man, we’ve been doing this three years to the point where we’re starting to work on an album now. There’ll be some product coming out with Bill and myself and I’ve also incorporated Jamal Batiste, Russell’s little brother, and lemme tell you he’s a monster. I mean this little guy can play!

Must run in the family, right?

Yeah man, my hat’s off to the Batiste family. One of the most unsung musical families in New Orleans, very talented family. Jamal is really great with the band. The stuff that I’m doing is a lot of stuff I wrote for the Meters and some new material. But it all still sounds like me. I was fortunate to be like the main writer in the Meters and the music now is just a continuation of what the regular Meters were doing. But to make it different I kinda put some different twists on the music. For example, on “Cissy Strut” I kinda change the time signature from 10/8 to 11/8 to offer a little surprise. I try to do that with most all of the material that the people are familiar with, and it seems to be going over really well over the country.

You don’t see too many funk bands operating in 11/8, do you?

Yeah man, I’ve played so many of these songs so many times, like “Fire on the Bayou,” that it’s good to add some different things in there that I think are complimentary to the song, without people complaining and saying things like, “Man, what is that? That doesn’t sound like that song!” So I think I’ve been able to accomplish that with some of the stuff that’s already been recorded awhile back.

But with the new material I do my thing. I’m working on a new album called the Funkin’ Truth. I’m in conversation with people like George Duke to do some guest appearances on it. I’m trying to go that route and get some high level musicians to appear on my album.

Where’s that being recorded?

I did some of it here in L.A. and some of it in New Orleans and been in conversation with George Duke, Bobby Womack, Peter Gabriel and some other people.

I’ve loved seeing Bobby Womack’s resurgence over the past few years.

Ah man, I love him, I always did. He’s created some interest and right now it’s just getting off the ground. I think with the endorsement of some major artists who are involved with me, everyone might wanna start wanting to participate and it’ll hopefully lead to a domino effect.

Soul Rebels Brass Band recently recorded one of your songs (“Say Hah Ney”) for their new record that came out last week (Unlock Your Mind). How did that recording come about and what are your thoughts on their take on your song?

Well, you know I helped produce it in a sense, so I love it. What they did was record the track in New Orleans and they shipped me the files of the track and I recorded the guitar here in L.A. So when you hear the guitar with the Soul Rebels it wasn’t as if I did it with them simultaneously. It’s just one of the new miracles of recording; it’s wonderful, I love it. Not like when I was doing a ton of recording, which was cool, but those days are gone.

I guess it is a lot easier to get things done nowadays…

There’s also no more times where you get to Take 75 in a recording process. I remember trying to record a song and it could take 60 takes; those days are gone and that’s really cool. They way they’re recording now, you could do a riff or a rhythm and go for 8 or 16 bars and just loop it, and I love that, man. I liked the old way too, but for me, I think I like this better; but the older I get, the more lazy I get, so this works for me [laughs].

Who are some musicians you jam with out in California? Any interesting musical friendships you’ve formed out there in recent years?

I would say that one of the people who is a really great friend of mine is James Gadson. We recently did a Mint Jam with myself, Bill Dickens and Stanton Moore. James is the drummer on “Night Fever,” all that stuff with Bee Gees, all with Marvin Gaye, Paul McCartney’s new album, he works with Beck now, and also worked with Patti Labelle in the past. To be honest with you, I don’t do that much performing out here in L.A. Every now and then I might play a club, every three or four months or something like that, or go in and do a recording session. But to do recording you have to be around, you have to be there when they call me and I’m not around. I kind of just use L.A. as a place to lay my head. My wife came up with a saying: “I live in New Orleans, but I sleep in Burbank.”

No matter where you go, New Orleans will always be your home.

I’m really excited about coming home; every time heading home I’m counting down the minutes. I can smell that air and I start to feel at home. I don’t care about the humidity man, I’ll breathe some jello. I always say it’s thick enough, it’s like breathing jello. I love New Orleans; that’s my home, that’s where my roots are at, that’s where my family’s at, it’s just a great place regardless of all the crime, Katrina, it’s just a wonderful place. You don’t really realize that until you get away from it.

Where does Tipitina’s rank among venues to play around the world? As a follow up to that, what’s your favorite city to play outside the U.S.?

I have to rank Tipitina’s No. 1. I’ve been playing there for as long as it’s been open, since it was nothing but a hole in the wall. It has a special feeling to it, a spirituality to play there. To see where it is now, is amazing. I think the people there, the staff is really great people to work with. It’s just a pleasure to work there.

As far as outside of the U.S., I’d say Italy. I got to a chance to play in Sicily, that’s where my grandfather came from and that’s where I get my last name. I’ve got an interesting story about playing [in Sicily], we’d always pronounced my name “No-sen-tell-ee” but when I went to check into the hotel the guy at the front desk said “Room 300, No-chen-tell-ee” and I ask him to say it again and that was the first time I really knew how to pronounce my own last name.

When was that?

Ah, I’d say that was about 15 to 20 years ago.

So did you make the adjustment or just stick with the old way, since you’d been saying it for so long and so many of your friends probably won’t change?

Oh yeah, I make the adjustment and anyone who says “No-sen-tell-ee” I quickly correct them. You don’t say Al “Puh-seen-oh” [Pacino], you say Al “Puh-cheen-oh” or “fet-uh-cheen-ee” not ‘fet-uh-seen-ee,” so it’s the same thing.

I like going over there; in fact, I was talking to some promoter over there about going over to Italy in a few months.

You guys have your first NOLA club gig in a few decades coming up during Jazz Fest. How much can we expect to see of The Meters in 2012; you guys just playing it one gig at a time right now or are there more shows in the works this summer?

It’s kinda hard to say, man. I personally would love to do Meters all the time and nothing else, but you got politics involved. You’ve got other people telling four guys what they should and shouldn’t do and I’ve always felt indifferent towards that. We’re four guys who deserve to go out there and finally get the just reward that we’ve deserved for so many years.

Preachin’ to the choir there, my man.

Ya know what I mean, man? There’s certain elements out there that, believe it or not, that’s as good as the Original Meters playing together and also finally in the way of getting some of the financial rewards from performing that we earn. Still, there’s people who’d rather not see it happen.

That’s surprising after the responses I saw and heard to the shows at Bonnaroo this summer and at Voodoo at home in October.

I would say it’s unique, too, man. You’ve got a bunch of people saying these four guys have played together for all these years, I’m so happy for them, I wanna see them, they should just keep going, and I want to see them get the rewards before they can’t do it anymore and all die. Then there’s people who are just crazy and evil and don’t wanna see it happen; they’re just evil, you know. As long as we stay positive and stick together, we’ll probably be doing some more shows. I don’t think The Meters will ever stop playing together. That show at The Howlin’ Wolf says it all about what people think about The Meters in New Orleans.

It sold out in less than two hours!

Yeah man, there were people breaking their necks trying to get tickets and those were $70 a ticket! That says a lot, man, if nobody can’t see through that that this should happen and keep happening, then they are crazy.


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