Q&A with Leo Nocentelli of the Meters

Leo Nocentelli is most well known as the innovative guitarist in the pioneering, New Orleans funk band the Meters. His clipped guitar tone and smoothly executed improvisations have been imitated by virtually everyone who has ever tried to play funk.

Growing up in New Orleans, Nocentelli had the opportunity to get into the music business at the tender age of fourteen, doing studio work for legendary music producer Allen Toussaint whose work with Lee Dorsey produced a string of hits including "Working in a Coal Mine."

Forming The Meters in 1965, Nocentelli and his bandmates helped to define the aesthetics funk with a series of albums including 1970's Look-Ka Py Py as well as the band's groundbreaking self-titled 1969 record. The Meters also collaborated with Dr. John on his classic 1973 album, In the Right Place.

The band broke up in the late '70s, but has since recently made a return to touring. Nocentelli is playing a string of solo shows in Colorado, and will be playing a great deal of his most famous material, as well as tracks from his newly released Rhythm & Rhymes Part One. We recently had a chance to chat with Leo about his musical background, his clear pride in having come up in New Orleans and his collaborations over the years.

Westword (Tom Murphy): How would you say that New Orleans-style funk differs from other styles developing at the time you were pioneering that form of music?

Leo Nocentelli: New Orleans is a very unique place in terms of the culture there and not just the music -- just life in general, there's no other place like it.

When you're a musician coming up in New Orleans the difference in terms of where it's at and what New Orleans is is reflected, not only in your personal life, but also in whatever endeavor in which you might be involved. I happened to be involved in music.

I'd have to say that the interpretation of any type of music in New Orleans be it funk, be it jazz, be it classical, you receive it differently in attitude and that's probably what makes my style relatively unique.

WW: What sort of attitude would you say that is?

LN: It's one of those intangibles I can't explain. When I give seminars and clinics, a lot of the young musicians and guitarists ask me how they can learn funk to enhance their outlook.

Quite frankly, I tell them that, honestly, "If wasn't born with it in your body, forget it, don't even try it." It's something that has to be instilled in you, you're born with it. It's not like jazz and classical -- you can go to school for both of those things. You can't go to school to learn funk.

WW: Maybe I misread this but it sounded like you were doing studio work as a teenager. What kind of musical upbringing did you have and how did you end up doing studio work at such a young age?

LN: I had a reputation at a young age. I had developed a certain amount of talent, and I started doing recording sessions, and one of the earliest things I did, was working with a producer by the name of Allen Toussaint, who was a very prominent guy at the time. He had hired me when I was fourteen years old.

We went into the studio with a guy named Lee Dorsey, and I remember that one of the songs we did was called "Ya Ya." It just continued on. The only thing I can think is that it was a God given talent, because I didn't train for it or anything like that. I guess some people are born with certain things in them, and if they're fortunate enough, as I have been, to recognize it, utilize it and cultivate it, then I think that's a good thing.

New Orleans is not a very big place, and anywhere you go, there is about fifteen minutes away. Word gets around in the musical community. There are a lot of musicians, but it's a small world. My dad used to play music, but not to the level on which I wound up being. He bought me my first ukelele, and started instilling the musical inspiration in me to consider that is what I wanted to do. When it happened, I just couldn't stop it. I was influenced by my dad, not by his musical knowledge, but by his attitude about music. He played banjo and guitar.

WW: What kind of equipment set-up do you use now when you play live shows?

LN: I endorse Gibson Guitars, so I use a 335. I also endorse Mesa Boogie, so I'll be using a Mesa Boogie Lone Star. I'm old school, so I don't use many effects, and I try to get effected sounds out of the guitar itself. I'll use wah-wah and that's about it.

WW: What inspired the sound of and how did you develop that clipped guitar riffing technique?

LN: Like I said, growing up in New Orleans, I was inspired to develop the sound that I have. I wouldn't say I listened to a lot of people. When I first started playing, I was fixing myself to be a jazz guitarist, and I would listen to people like Ken Burrell, John Smith, Wes Montgomery, and people like that.

To survive in New Orleans you had to know three or four different genres of music. Once, I had four gigs in one day. I'd do a Dixieland gig on Bourbon Street, I'd go do a jazz gig somewhere else, play at a fraternity house, do some R&B stuff.

So I would say it was that accumulation of different genres of music that molded me into the musician I am now. Everyone has a certain uniqueness, and I think mine came out in my songwriting and that carried on into my playing.

WW: How would you describe the musical and cultural climate of New Orleans when you were coming up and how would you describe it today?

LN: The music never really changed, man. The music culture is always alive. It's like one generation turns on the next generation on to what's going on. It's an ongoing thing, it never changes. I think the culture is about the same as when I was coming up.

That's good, and I think that's what makes New Orleans music what it is. There are only a few cities that have a certain musical identity. You can't say "LA music," or "New York music," or "Wyoming music," or "Denver music," but you can say "New Orleans music." Nashville comes out of that same kind of thing.

The culture of New Orleans makes it so unique. There were groups that came before the Meters that inspired the Meters. Although I have to say the Meters were pretty unique -- one of a kind. I don't think you'll see that kind of thing again. Like Michael Jackson -- that kind of thing only comes once in a lifetime.

WW:: What was it like when you went on the road to the rest of America with your old band?

LN: It was pretty strange because New Orleans was such a unique place and exploiting what it was about to the rest of the world, the rest of the world was used to hearing this kind of generalized thing. Here's some New Orleans people coming up with different kinds of stuff, so people had to absorb it before they could react to it. I think that part of New Orleans music spreading around is over. Now you can go anywhere in the country and play New Orleans music and they know what you're doing.

WW: When you toured with the Rolling Stones in 1975, how did audiences receive you? Was it very different on that 2006 tour?

LN: Of course the Meters being an established thing now, it was much easier in recent years. But in the beginning it was really strange. There was a lot of pressure opening up for a group like that with the magnitude of the Rolling Stones. For the most part the gigs were great and people received us really well.

There were a few rough times when people were sleeping out three days in the cold because it was open seating and they wanted to see the Rolling Stones, and they didn't want to see anyone else. It could be the president of the United States -- they would have booed him.

WW: What did you record with Stevie Wonder, and what was it like working with him as opposed to how it was working with Allen Toussaint and, more recently, Dr. John?

LN: We didn't do too much work with Stevie Wonder. He was an admirer of the music, and he sat in with us a few times. He still does some of our music at his gigs like "Cissy Strut." He has a thing where he breaks down by himself with the keyboard and plays that. It wasn't that much of a working relationship, though.

Allen Toussaint was a guy that anyone who works with him would come out a better musician. It was a learning process, in terms of how you should approach music, he was a pro. He was a mentor for a lot of musicians. I learned a lot of stuff from him as a songwriter -- he really opened me up to the mechanisms of writing a song.

Dr. John is like a brother. I grew up with Doc. We were fortunate enough to work with him on a project called "Right Place at the Wrong Time." It became successful for him. I'm glad it happened like that. I still work with Doc. We do a duet together on two of the songs from my new CD called Rhythm & Rhymes Part One.

WW: You've had a broad range of musical experience for going on five decades now. What keeps you engaged in music beyond the sheer momentum you've built up and what, if anyting, do you strive for that you have yet to accomplish?

LN: Being a musician, it's the passion that keeps you go. Music is a very brutal business, and you could easily say, "I don't want to have anything to do with it anymore." And sometimes I feel like that. I even feel like that now. I think that whatever that intangible thing you can't see, though, is called passion, and I think that's what keeps me inspired to keep doing what I do. As for what I want to achieve, I don't know. I think I did what I wanted to do from the beginning: Be a musician, have respect and contribute to the world of music and I think I've done that.

Leo Nocentelli Colorado solo dates: Saturday, December 26, 2009 at The Fox Theater, 8:30PM, $15; Monday, December 28, 2009 at The Sheridan Opera House in Telluride, 7:30PM, $20; Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at Cervantes' Other Side, 8PM, $24;Thursday, December 31, 2009 at Cervantes' Other Side, 8PM, $30; Sunday, January 3rd at Belly Up in Aspen, 9PM, $22.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.