I had the opportunity to see Natalie Mae open for Valerie June at the Circle Bar recently; two talented women with distinct styles paired in powerful concert for an extremely packed house. The Valerie June Pushing Against Stone Southern leg finished up on Sunday the 14th, but the folksy jams from the New Orleans show have certainly stuck in my head. I sat down and talked music with John Thompson of Total Riot Records, the label on which Natalie Mae is signed.
WYAT: What is your position at Total Riot?
John Thompson: “I founded Total Riot, but I am by no means the leader or the boss. I simply use Total Riot as a hub to connect local bands in a network. These days musicians are multi-talented and wear many different hats. I simply try to help musicians pool together their skills and resources. For example, Jason Kareores is in charge of booking at Total Riot and is also the guitar player of Strange Roux. He is pivotal to the success of Total Riot and a great team player.”
WYAT: Natalie Mae seems to have a great following. Pairing her with Valerie June was perfection, as their sounds are similar. How were you able to connect with Valerie June and set up this particular show?
JT: “Natalie Mae is a brilliant songwriter, has a beautiful voice and has some of the best musicians in town in her band. Michael Lentz plays guitar. He lays down some pretty sweet solos. He owns this Fender Jazzmaster that he bought in Germany. It’s a wonderful instrument. Josh Wexler is the keyboard player. He switches between piano and organ tones. Wex is one of the most interesting people I know. I really respect and admire him. He plays the hell out of the blues, too. Pat Fee is the drummer. He is one of the nicest musicians you’ll find; very sincere. He plays with passion and knows exactly how to compliment the song. The bassist is Ted Long. He’s been playing professionally around town for 4 years with acts Irma Thomas, Lynn Drury, and his own trio, the Ted Long trio (every Friday night at the Columns). The whole band as a rhythm section is rock solid.
The pairing of Natalie Mae with Valerie June was all Jason Songe. He is the talent buyer at Circle Bar. He is experienced with the scene. He knows what he likes and what works.”
WYAT: What venues in town does your label-signed talent normally play?
JT: “I can’t think of a local venue that at least one of the bands hasn’t played. Blue Nile, DBA, One Eyed Jack’s, Hi Ho Lounge, All Ways, Circle Bar, etc. There is not a lot of touring, but Strange Roux has been touring along the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Florida. Natalie Mae has played Jazz Fest and VooDoo. Strange Roux will be at Mirliton Fest this year.”
As far as roots-based Americana Blues Rock, Natalie Mae is a force to be reckoned with. Her sound reminded me of something you’d hear on Beale Street or perhaps at Austin City Limits. I’m a bit claustrophobic, therefore not the biggest fan of extremely intimate settings, however Jason Songe did a great job recruiting fans for the Circle Bar show. Despite close quartered personal space fouls, I fell in love with a new artist, and for that my ears are truly grateful. –Jhesika Menes, Where Y’at Magazine
Esqueleto. You can stream their album “Be My Baby Kitty” for free, or buy it from Bandcamp.com. C-Rage! Records has pressed VINYL copies of the album, which you can purchase at shows.
Total Riot is proud to announce the newest (and cutest) addition to the roster: Natalie Mae. Click the side link for to hear music!
A relatively recent addition to New Orleans’ live music scene, the quintet that makes up Strange Roux had been making do with male singers until Michelle Cunningham came along and put the group into a new place: one that gained them their first recording with local label Total Riot Records. Though this Roux bills itself as being Southern roots rock, the music of Boogie Man goes beyond those storied roots with the help of Cunningham’s vocals—a seductive blend of Amy Winehouse and Meschiya Lake— and some powerful guitar work from the double-barreled duo of John Thompson and Jason Kareores. Digging in with the slow rock of the title track, the EP is propelled even further with the speedier, yet hardly throwaway thrash of “Gator Bite,” then brought to a more languid pace with “Cold, Cold World,” which features Cunningham’s vocal virtuosity more than any other track. The true gem of the EP, however, is the pocket epic “Midnight Dancer,” one that pours all the Roux’s strengths into one song. This is a band raring to go farther and higher with its songwriting power and its performance mojo, and Boogie Man is a delectable tasty treat. —Leigh Checkman, Anti-Gravity Magazine
Total Riot Records
Strange Roux’s debut EP, Boogie Man, serves up a traditional brew of classic Southern rock, made exotic with a spicy seasoning of modern rock motifs. Lead singer Michelle Cunnigham’s bluesy vocals are more haunting than soothing, giving the songs a sharper tang than more rootsdriven Southern rock. What really sets Strange Roux apart, though, is their masterfully minimalist use of drum and bass. Tony Frickey (drums) and Eric Burgess (bass) give the songs their pulse, holding the beat at a brisk and continual cadence; stripped down, these two seem more fi tting for a pop-punk act than classic rock. Listen to the drumming during the refrain on the title track, and the bass and drum line on “Midnight Dancer” and you’ll hear it. It is this energetic pop simplicity that allows the complexity of the guitar work to shine. Jason Kareores and John Thompson have a bluesy sound that brings to mind Led Zeppelin– this is best exemplifi ed in the track “Yellow Moon Blues,” the album’s standout track alongside its eponymous opener. The album’s most fun tune is the rabid hard rocker “Gator Bite,” a fast and furious punk-meets-Southern rock rager.
Boogie Man gives a unique update to a classic rock sound. Rather than diluting its essence like many modern rock efforts, the album’s pop sensibilities accentuate the distinctiveness of its infl uencing style–even giving it a more danceable, indie-rock feel. A solidly conceived fi rst act from an exciting up-and-comer. –Greg Roques, Where Y’at Magazine
by Greg Roques, Where Y’at Magazine
The Roux is the base for many traditional Cajun dishes – a dark, boggy broth that defines the texture and boundaries of a recipe. It’s also a blank canvas, given image and intensity by its unique blend of seasonings. These extracts are often clouded to the eye by the thick, murky march of the sauce… but like a preying alligator lurking in a foggy swamp, the flavors are waiting to sink their teeth in.
Strange Roux’s swamp rock stew is brewed much like this: a spice rack of musical inspiration – dating from the ‘30s till today – seasoned in a soup of Southern blues. Where Y’at sat down with to discuss the evolution of the band, their upcoming album, and their insistence on only playing original music.
Strange Roux is:
Michelle Cunningham – Vocals
Jason Kareores – Guitar/Slide
Tony Frickey – Drums
Eric Burgess – Bass
John V. Thompson – Guitar
Where Y’at: You guys went through several changes this year. Tell me a bit about where you are now.
Kareores: The biggest change was bringing on Michelle as our new lead singer earlier this year. In the two years Strange Roux has been playing, we’ve only had male vocalists. She’s added a whole new personality and feel to our songs, especially the old ones.
Thompson: Michelle makes all the difference.
Many of our songs start off with a heavy guitar riff… the listener anticipates this heavy, masculine voice. A soulful, feminine voice comes as a surprise… it’s a pleasing contrast.
Kareores: When we auditioned for a new singer earlier this year, we weren’t looking for a female singer. We auditioned maybe eight people before Michelle showed up. She was the first woman, and we knew she was it.
WYAT: [Michelle] What is your vocal inspiration?
Cunningham: Amy Whinehouse has been a huge influence, that ‘50s soul sound. I’m also really into ‘20s and ‘30s Jazz, singers like Billie Holiday. I didn’t take up singing until after college; I got my start performing with New Orleans street musicians… I still do.
WYAT: Describe your song writing process.
Thompson: It usually starts off with one person – an idea. Someone will come up with a line or a riff, then everyone will experiment and build on it. That’s how all the songs end up being our songs – we all add our own flavor to it. It’s a layered process.
Burgess: We really try to focus on the dynamic of the group. For example, if Tony comes up with a beat, I need to think, how am I going to hold the rhythm? That’s where the layering happens. Also, being a roots rock band, it’s all about the guitar work.
Kareores: The lead switches between John (Thompson) and myself; we’ll alternate solos and rhythm. The important thing is to hold the beat of the song and not let any one element overpower the music. Yeah, we want to kick your ass a little with a heavy riff, but music is all about dancing – you need to keep a rhythm.
Frickey: To be honest, I don’t really like the way drums sound. It is very hard to not let drumming overpower a song, to drown out the vocals. Drums are meant to carry a rhythm. Tone is very important. When you overplay, you lose the tone; you need to let the tone breathe and hold the backbeat.
Thompson: I also want to point out how important Eric (Burgess) is as a bassist. Many of our songs have a simple, rhythm, and a repeating bass line. Most people don’t realize how difficult it is to perfectly execute a single bass line throughout a four – five minute song. Eric’s timing is flawless.
Kareores: At the end of the day, none of us is trying to show off. We are all about bringing together our various skills and backgrounds to achieve the end product – a great song.
WYAT: Speaking of your varied musical inspirations, what is the first album you got that made a difference to you?
Cunningham: [laughs] Wow… Whitney Houston – The Body Guard Soundtrack Burgess: Metallica – (The Black Album) Thompson: I guess I can’t go with the Chipmunks Christmas Album… I would say it would have to have been a Chuck Berry or Beatles album.
Kareores: The first album that meant a lot to me was either the first Led Zepplin album, or The Beatles (White Album), I can’t pick.
Frickey: I’m not going to lie; it was Matchbox 20’s Yourself or Someone Like You.
Thompson: That’s interesting; now that you mention it, there is a pop-element to many of our songs, especially newer ones since Tony (Frickey) joined the band, like “Six-Shot Alarm Clock,” and “Waiting for You,” which has a huge ‘90s alternative influence.
WYAT: You’ve reworked several of your older songs since Michelle joined the band; do you have any new songs in the works?
Kareores: We have six new songs completed, and are working on several more. You can listen to many of them on our website. We are hoping to have an album out at the beginning of next year.
WYAT: You’ve had several shows the past few months. Tell me a bit about your live performance.
Thompson: Our performance sets the mood for our audience’s night: we want to give them a complete show. For our Halloween show, we decorated Blue Nile to look like a swamp. We also dress up in suits. Our music has a mood and an atmosphere that needs to be consistent with all elements of the show.
Kareores: We also have a label, Total Riot Records; it’s more of a community, a group of musicians to tour and perform with. We want to put original bands together that have good music and bring different kinds of people together. As musicians, we are all in this together – people like all different kinds of music in this day and age.
Thompson: The digital revolution erased the music hierarchy that existed for so long. Before, people would listen to rap, or pop, or rock. Thanks to the iPod playlist, people now listen to rap and rock and pop – it created this network. Everything became immediately assessable; audiences expect that variety from a show.
WYAT: I notice you only play original songs at your shows, no covers.
Kareores: New Orleans has such a rich musical history. With everything that has happened here in the past eight – 10 years, there is so much to write about, why play someone else’s song? People want New Orleans music – why not give them something original?
Thompson: We write our own songs because even though our music exists in a certain period of time, we want to evolve it; we can mix many time periods and make it our own. When you play covers, or only music just from a certain period, you limit yourself.
Frickey: Everything’s already been done; every note has already been played – the trick for musicians today is how do I make this fresh. Creativity is being able to make connections between unrelated elements. Music is all about fusion now.
Kareores: At the end of the day, we make New Orleans rock and roll. We now have a strong lineup of musicians that jells, and we keep expanding our sound into new territory. I think we are blending styles together in a way a lot of other New Orleans musicians aren’t doing, and are afraid to explore. But at our core, we play Southern roots music – blues is at the heart of our sound.