Trombone Shorty is one of the most electrifying young musical artists to come out of New Orleans in years. He spent some time with theGrio to talk about his new album Backatown, the city of New Orleans and how the oil spill is effecting life in the Gulf region.
theGrio: Where does the name Trombone Shorty come from and how did you get into music?
Trombone Shorty: I started playing when I was about four-years-old and the name came because the horn was much taller than I was at the time. My brother James Andrews is the one that’s really responsible for bringing me around the world. By the time I was seven-years-old he brought me on tours across Europe and Haiti and Saudi Arabia, and we played a bunch of festivals and being inside that all my life I just grew into my own person and stole a bunch of names from him. Music is the heartbeat in the Treme neighborhood where I’m from. We had had all the great musicians. I was able to be a youngster growing up and have them show me some things firsthand and from there I just continued to play.
Tell me about the sound of your new album, Backatown and some of those like Allen Toussaint and Lenny Kravitz who appear on the release.
Well I think what makes it unique, we call it a “supafunkrock.” It’s just basically a musical gumbo and each one of my band members are influenced by different styles of music. We all allow each other to bring that style whatever they’re heavily influenced by into the music. We have a studio in New Orleans we call it the Gumbo Room and we just go in there and throw everything in the pot. My drummer Joey, he’s heavily influenced by Ministry and Garth Brooks and all those types of people. He brings that style and we just put everything on it and try to make it fit each other musically. You know it’s a group effort and everybody has major influence on each other and we all listen to whatever someone brings into the room and we all kinda jump on it and add our own spice to it and see what we can do to to make it ours.
We just tightened it up a bit and focused a bit more more on the record. We recorded a bunch of songs and we had to narrow it down to see what fits and what sounds like it should be on here. Working with Allen Toussaint you know he has the only cover on the record. We wanted to do a cover and I thought it should be something by someone from New Orleans that we really look up to as a great song writer and we just switched the song up a lot. We called him and asked would he mind being on it and I was really nervous to let him hear his song. We changed it up that much but he liked it and he told me that we’re bridging the old and the new together.
It was just an honor to be able to hear that from Mr. Toussaint you know someone we look up to on all types of levels. Lenny is a good friend of mine and I was down in the Bahamas working on his record and he heard the song and I was listening to it just to make sure I didn’t want to correct anything before we turned the record into the label. He liked it and told me that he wanted to be a part of it and that’s how it happened. Another friend of mine Marc Broussard, I worked with him over the years and we we’re supposed to work together for a while and the time finally came on my album and I just thank him also.
What does Backatown mean in New Orleans?
Backatown is definitely a part of the New Orleans language and it’s just a bunch of neighborhoods in the city. You know like if you’re in the French Quarter and you say, you tell somebody meet me Backatown it’s just everything that’s away from the French Quarter. Like Treme is part of the Backatown thing. It’s just one of those things that’s a part of our culture. I didn’t want to call it Treme and I just needed something that nobody never used and we just say it all the time. It’s just one of those natural things that falls off our tongue.
You were born and raised in Treme how did that influence your sound?
Without Treme I wouldn’t be where I am. The neighborhood was just so musical you know. Like I remember being a kid and getting ready to go to elementary school and there was a jazz show and I remember the same day coming home and somebody was celebrating a birthday and you could see a rebirth jazz band marching up and down the street two times for two different occasions. It’s all just music like it’s the heartbeat. Even people that aren’t musicians would even have an influence on me.You know they’ll come beat on some drums and they don’t know what they’re doing but everybody had some type of rhythm. I think just being surrounded by a musical neighborhood and a neighborhood that really looked out for each other it influences me the most with everything that I do. You know I just took that sound, what I’ve been taught and what I grew up with and incorporated it with different things that I was interested in: Rock, hip-hop and soul and just tried to see how I can make that work.
The first single on the new album is “Hurricane Season” which is familiar to New Orleans. What were you trying to say with that song?
It’s just about what happens. People get nervous and different things since Katrina and everything. People take it really serious when the say there’s a hurricane season. So everyone’s always on their toes. A hurricane was coming a couple of years ago and they were like man, this is after Katrina, I hope that it doesn’t hit us but if it does we need to go catch Rebirth Brass Band because it might be a time you know. So I try to incorporate that type of brass band thing. Anyway it’s just a feeling that I had during one of those hurricane seasons. We realized after Katrina how much the music and culture mean to everybody and I just wanted to put that in there. All my friend wanted to do if we had to evacuate was just go see Rebirth Brass Band and that stuck in my mind and I tried to write off of that experience that I had.
You toured with Lenny Kravitz at the young age of 18, but that was also the time that Hurricane Katrina hit. How did you manage those two things?
I was on a break from Lenny’s tour. I went home for two weeks and during that period the storm happened. So I was able to get my family out and get them settled in Dallas and Houston and then I went back on tour a couple of weeks later. It was still tough even then because we still couldn’t find people and I had to leave and do shows every night all over the world and I was just trying to be there to help. Mom would keep me updated on who we found and some family members were in those arenas and shelters and different things. It was just mentally tough not being able to be there physically but I was there emotionally with everybody but you know know it was a tough time for everyone from the city.
How did Hurricane Katrina effect places like Treme?
The hardest hit place was the 9th ward and it needs a little work. Everywhere else is coming back. Treme you know it’s closer to the French Quarter so it didn’t really get any flood damage. It got a lot of wind damage. The neighborhood is different now because the people that I knew just six years ago that lived there, they’re not there anymore because when the came back the price of rent was higher and you know most people can’t really handle all that. They had it fixed to where they could live there and be comfortable and do everything else they had to do and when the rent went high a lot of people weren’t able to come back. The community that I knew in Treme is definitely a different place these days but everybody that’s from there, it’s hard for us to stay away. Even though some of the people don’t live there anymore they find a way to hang out there everyday and for years since then. The city’s doing wonderful and we’re coming together. We’re not a hundred percent but it’s getting there.
As if New Orleans and the Gulf Region haven’t suffered enough in recent years, now there’s the BP oil spill. What’s the feeling in New Orleans about how this could effect the area?
I mean it’s hard you know we’ve been through a lot and we’re still trying to recover from all that, the hurricanes and then the BP thing. It’s just a hard time for us but we’re a strong city and a strong Gulf Coast. But you know the oil and everything is going to damage a strong part of our food culture. A lot of people in New Orleans make their living off of the sea life and seafood and as people know around the world that’s one of the strong points of our food culture of what we do down there. So it’s going to damage a lot of things and we just got to stay strong and pray for the best and try to help those people out that are going to lose out on their livelihood to some extent.
You contributed to a single aimed at assisting the Gulf, and it’s titled,”It Ain’t My Fault.” How did that come about?
Well Lenny was in town and I was going to visit him. He was rehearsing with his band and I think Mos Def and Benji from Preservation Hall they already had the idea and they called Lenny. Then the called me up and I was actually hanging out with Tim Robbins in the Treme and told him to come over and see the Treme brass band. I said Tim I just got a call to go hang out and do this song with Lenny and Mos Def at Preservation Hall and he came over and it just happened like that and the song is actually a remake of an old R&B song that probably was written in the 60s or 70s. Mos Def rewrote the lyrics and we just redid it. It was just one of those spontaneous things. They called and they got some people. We actually did it inside of the Preservation Hall. We opened it up at like 1am and we did a couple of takes. Then after that we did a few more and then we jammed out for another hour or so just all of us playing different instruments. It was just one of those things and we just wanted to be able to help out as much as we can.
What do you think BP and the president need to be doing to make sure this spill doesn’t get any worse?
Well it’s very simple. They need to plug it up and stop it. That’s too much you know to look at those birds and pelicans you know on TV drenched in oil. It’s just a sad situation. So I think the only thing they need to do is stop it and hopefully we can salvage what we can salvage.