Warp + Weft: The Meters – ‘The Josie Years’

The Meters
Look-Ka Py Py
Struttin’

Josie Records (Re-issued by Sundazed Records)
1969–1970

If you think you haven’t heard The Meters, you’re wrong. You’ve heard “Cissy Strut,” because every funk band worth their salt has covered it at least once, and it’s also on the soundtrack to “Jackie Brown.” “Live Wire” appears on the soundtrack to “Chasing Amy,” and their songs have appeared in “Drumline,” “Calendar Girls,” “Hitch,” “The Bag,” and many other films. And then there are the countless hip-hop samples, from Digable Planets (“Here Comes the Meter Man” provides the beat for “Dial 7”) to The Black-Eyed Peas (“The Hand Clapping Song” is sampled in—unsurprisingly—”Clap Your Hands”) to EPMD (“Just Kissed My Baby” is lifted wholesale for “Never Seen Before”) to Amerie (“Oh, Calcutta” contains the drum break that “1 Thing” is built around). Minneapolis’ own Lazerbeak has sampled “The Hand Clapping Song” for an as-yet-unreleased Doomtree beat. There are two essential reasons that this four-piece funk band whose recording career stretched from 1969 to 1977 find themselves popping up again and again on soundtracks, rap songs, and in the collections of so many music connoisseurs: firstly, all their early output and perhaps 80 percent of their entire catalog is instrumental funk, and as such perfect for sampling and soundtracking; and secondly, they’re simply the best funk band ever in the history of funk. Ever.

The Meters’ story begins in New Orleans, where Art Neville formed a group in 1966 consisting of his brothers Aaron and Charles on vocals, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste on drums, Leo Nocentelli on guitar, and George Porter on bass. They went by the name Art Neville and the Sounds, but after signing on with Sansu Enterprises (a label run by producers Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn) to be the label’s house band (minus the vocalists), they went by The Meters. They performed as the backing band for many New Orleans artists, including Toussaint himself, Lee Dorsey, and Earl King, but during their early days, they also cut instrumental tracks for use by vocalists who needed an extra song here or there for their albums. Lucky for us, some of these tracks were simply released as singles and eventually, in 1969, their self-titled debut was released on Josie Records, with Look-Ka Py Py and Struttin’ following in 1970. What had begun as filler tracks became Top 40 R&B hits.

As with all music (and more so with music that revolves around groove), there’s a certain ineffable quality to the greatness of the instrumental Meters stuff. Call it feel, call it swagger, but their early tracks embody some qualities—loose tightness, gritty cleanness, a kind of spare richness—that look odd on the page but make perfect sense when you actually hear the music. A lot of this obviously comes down to the individual musicians and how they meld together. Nocentelli’s guitar playing is alternately prickly and generous, primarily melodic and supportive and only occasionally flashy. He rarely plays full chords, instead opting for tiny chunks of harmony, and he never seems to fall back on mindless vamping. Without exerting himself, he’s slyly and constantly attentive to his place in the song, and the same goes for all the other players. Modeliste is a hero to drummers and an architect of what has come to be known as New Orleans funk. It’s a feel that’s once again an odd amalgamation of propulsive and laid back, characterized by multiple accents on the snare and multiple levels of syncopation between the kick and the rest of the kit. Porter anchors the band and Neville provides the melodic/harmonic complement to Nocentelli. It’s like a sandwich, really—maybe a po’ boy, in the spirit of the band’s hometown: Porter’s the bread, Modeliste is the meat, Neville’s the lettuce, tomato, pickle, and onion, and Nocentelli’s the mayonnaise and mustard.

\"Image\" But of course, the best ingredients mean nothing unless they’re combined in the right proportions and order and cooked correctly, which is where the actual songs and the unique sound of The Meters’ instrumental recordings comes in. Their songs are almost ridiculously simple, but that doesn’t mean they’re just blank grooves for the lead players to noodle over. One of the things that distinguishes The Meters from so many other funk bands is how much work they put into the actual groove of the songs and their sprightly little melodies. “Thinking” from Look-Ka Py Py (streamed below) is a great example.

{audio}http://www.reveillemag.com/images/audio/Thinking.mp3{/audio}

It’s just over a minute and a half long, and all it does is cycle between two parts. The bass doubles the guitar, and the guitar and organ ride easily along next to each other, calling and responding in kind. The second part loosens the chunky groove up a bit, the guitar fuller, the organ driving it forward with generous chords. But what’s really incredible are the drums. Modeliste leaves huge gaps in the rhythm throughout, and so everything he does is ten times as impactful. He’s actually playing the exact same pattern in the B section as in the A section, but the lean economy of everything the band does makes this sound completely natural. When musicians are working out a song, there’s always a temptation for each individual musician to change his or her part to reflect a change in the song, but resisting that impulse can often make a song more powerful. The changing organ, bass, and guitar in the B section change the drums without Modeliste having to change what he’s doing at all. It’s an arrangement technique that’s come to the fore in hip-hop, where a chunk of sampled drums can be exchanged wholesale for another sample, but not without disrupting the tone of a track completely. As such, hip-hop producers often rely on changing the pieces around a sample to change the song. Think of “Nigga What, Nigga Who” from Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life by Jay-Z: The drums remain the same throughout, but the chorus brings in female vocals, strings,and vibraphone to change the texture of the song.

One of the clearest examples of how the instruments interact to amplify the contours of the song itself comes in “Cardova” from their self-titled debut. It’s streamed below.

{audio}http://www.reveillemag.com/images/audio/1-07%20Cardova.mp3{/audio}

It begins with a pretty basic two bar pattern where the guitar and the bass play a riff that leaves the fourth beat of each measure open, moving away from the root in the first measure and then back up to it in the second. There’s a variation that comes in, but in the midst of the organ solo, at about he 1:28 mark, Modeliste changes his drum pattern subtly and suddenly the song is locked in an entirely new way. He strays away from it, but when the head (that’s jazz for the melody, or top part of the song) comes back in, he returns to it. It’s a plain enough part; just kick, kick-snare, snare-kick, kick-snare-hi-hat, and it doesn’t look like much sitting there but it’s a compelling little drum melody that turns each bar into a low, low-middle, middle-low, low-middle-high pattern. In the first bar of the head, which ends unresolved and away from the root, that last hi-hat hit extends the tension, but in the second bar, where the riff returns home, the hi-hat signals resolution. Same pattern, different result, and it’s as if, in that moment, the entire band is breathing and thinking as one.

Beyond the riffs and that almost telepathic musical communication, a lot of credit for The Meters’ unique sound has to go to the way they were recorded, and this is best appreciated with a sweet set of headphones. Nowadays, a band with four instruments will often be mixed to fill up the stereo space as much as possible, but The Meters’ early records were mixed with a maximum amount of separation and space between the instruments. The drums are usually mixed into one small slice of the stereo picture and often panned hard right or left—a technique that was largely lost through the ’80s but has been brought back by bands like Spoon and Menomena (these bands, along with others like Battles, also do a lot of layering of patterns to create dynamic change, rather than relying on individual parts changing). The other instruments are also very small sounding—partly through production and partly due to the players’ styles. Nocentelli usually plays his Les Paul clean, giving it a sometimes nasal, sometimes chiming quality that’s very different from the guitar sound most often associated with funk nowadays: a chunky or thick Stratocaster. Porter’s bass has almost no high end to it, and Neville’s organ is mixed more like a carnival organ, and less like a giant B3. Once these decisions were made, the basic principles of how to put the instruments into the stereo picture become straightforward.

Listen to “Pungee” (from Look-Ka Py Py) on headphones and you’ll see what I mean. The drums and the bass are panned hard right, the guitar and organ hard left. If they had wanted to separate the guitar and organ, the drums probably would have been moved left and the guitar to the right, but the organ and guitar play the opening figure and the verse in harmony, while the bass locks up to the drums and nudges the melody along from the right. When the organ takes its solo, the guitar is swung to the right, where it drops back into line with the rhythm section. In “Thinking,” by contrast, the guitar and bass are panned together to the left since they’re playing complementary lines and the drums are left by themselves on the right side of the stereo picture.

\"Image\"This distinctly ’60s approach to production (try listening to a couple of Beatles songs with the volume panned hard right or left—you’ll miss out on a lot of music) has a couple of interesting effects. First of all, it makes the instruments modular. Since the guitar and organ stay almost completely out of the way of the bass, they can be moved around without adversely affecting the sound of the record as a whole. When you’re mixing records, one of the key things to worry about is the interaction of the instruments when they begin to step on each other’s frequencies. But with The Meters’ early stuff, the guitar locks so tightly with the organ and the bass locks so tightly with the kick drum that they can be shifted through the stereo picture without clashing. A lot of this recedes into the background when the records are played through speakers, but it’s still there, even if you’re not directly perceiving it.

The second interesting thing about this approach is that it makes their stuff absurdly easy to sample. After all, it’s a lot easier to separate out a drum groove when the drums are panned entirely away from everything else in the song. And the parts themselves are simultaneously dependent on all the other parts to make the song—that is, there’s very little inessential stuff being played on their early records—but they’re also perfectly formed pieces, ripe for the plucking.

Which is exactly what hip-hop producers have been doing for decades now. In fact, while The Meters have reunited several times to play shows and tour, there have actually been two versions of the band out there playing shows: The Funky Meters, led by Neville, and The Original Meters, featuring Nocentelli and Modeliste. The reason for the split? Neville and Nocentelli disagreeing over payment for samples of their music, although all the original members played together for the first time in 25 years at New Orleans’ JazzFest in 2005 and have since been playing as The Original Meters. Their actual music is not the only thing embedded in the DNA of hip-hop; their approach—fitting perfect little pieces together into a web of interdependent units—is at the heart of sample-based music.

For better or worse, they may always remain musicians’ musicians, since instrumental music is never the easiest sell to the public at large. I first learned about them from The Broadcasters, blues guitarist Ronnie Earl’s backing band. I was 17, and attending the National Guitar Summer Workshop—kind of like band camp for guitar kids. I had struck up a friendship with Broadcasters bassist Rod Carey and one day when I dropped by The Broadcasters’ Rhythm Section class they were playing “Cissy Strut.” Everyone knew the tune already, and I tried my best to play along, feeling out the snakily descending guitar line, the tightly grouped answering chords, the bridge with its pam-pam hi-hat ending. Two minutes into playing it, I knew this was the best song I’d ever heard, and I couldn’t believe I’d never heard it until right then. It felt like being let in on a secret—like The Meters held the key to what it meant to be in the pocket, to be not just four guys, but to really be a band.

MORE METERS — FIVE FAVORITES
Sing a Simple Song
{audio}http://www.reveillemag.com/images/audio/2-16%20Sing%20A%20Simple%20Song.mp3{/audio}
Hey! Last Minute
{audio}http://www.reveillemag.com/images/audio/1-16%20Hey%21%20Last%20Minute.mp3{/audio}
Sassy Lady
{audio}http://www.reveillemag.com/images/audio/1-11%20Sassy%20Lady.mp3{/audio}
Yeah, You’re Right
{audio}http://www.reveillemag.com/images/audio/Yeah%2C%20You%27re%20Right.mp3{/audio}
Funky Miracle
{audio}http://www.reveillemag.com/images/audio/Funky%20Miracle.mp3{/audio}

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