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The Underbelly of New Orleans's Rich Musical Scene

An excerpt from 'New Orleans: The Underground Guide.'

This month a horde of out-of-towners will descend on New Orleans for New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. JazzFest celebrates traditional Louisiana culture and heritage and showcases some high-profile local acts while serving up a heaping mound of ultra-mainstream acts like Robin Thicke, Arcade Fire, Bruce Springsteen, and Eric Clapton. Those who are in New Orleans for the festival will likely spend days in the city without dipping into the rich array of music played in these parts every night, most of which will never wind up on the JazzFest stage.


Earlier this year, the third edition of my book New Orleans: The Underground Guide—which I wrote with Brian Boyles and which features photos from Zack Smith and Jonathan Traviesa—came out from LSU Press. The purpose of the book is to counter the incomplete image of New Orleans that has been planted in your head. Yes, the city does often still sound like brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians, and trad jazz, but New Orleans’s old-school image is mostly a marketing template the tourist industry is loathe to relinquish. The French Quarter has morphed into a beautiful shopping mall where almost none of the city’s important contemporary music is played. New Orleans’s past should be glorified, its amazing traditions kept alive, but not if it means the world ends up thinking the city’s most important artistic days are behind us!

I’ve been writing about New Orleans music and playing myself on the city’s stages for a dozen years, and the book is my way of highlighting all the bands and other local institutions that don’t get the press they want and deserve. Along with listings for nightclubs, record stores, thrift stores, restaurants, and hotels, the Underground Guide includes interviews with New Orleans’s best modern, non-traditional bands, solo artists, rappers, and DJs—musicians who sound like New Orleans without playing old New Orleans music.

Here are two of my favorite interviews in the book. The first is with screamer Mike IX Williams, of classic New Orleans sludge metal band Eyehategod, and the second is with Katey Red, the transsexual queen of bounce rap.


Eyehategod performing at club Siberia. Photo by Gary LoVerde

Mike IX Williams has fronted the slow, heavy band Eyehategod for over 25 years, and also published the excellent dark and hilarious poetry book, Cancer as a Social Activity (Southern Roots Publishing). We interviewed Williams about Eyehategod, the history of New Orleans metal, plus other heavy southern bands you can go and check out (most likely at club Siberia) while you’re in town.

Eyehategod didn’t have a lot of company on the local music scene when y’all started in 1988, right?
Mike IX Williams: Not in New Orleans. The cool thing at the time was thrash metal. Slayer was cool. Even I had a thrash band in New Orleans. We heard the Melvins and we were also into Black Flag, side two of My War. And obviously we were into Black Sabbath and Saint Vitus and stuff like that. We weren’t even 100 percent serious at the beginning; it was just something to piss off people who would play these shows, and just have fun and watch people’s reactions when we’d just do feedback for 15 minutes, and throw in three riffs as slow as we possibly could. Before Eyehategod, Soilent Green was around. But they were more influenced by Napalm Death, and they kind of started playing slower later on… There was Hawg Jaw, and we were all friends so it wasn’t like anyone was stealing from each other. Graveyard Rodeo was a local band that had similar influences. Eyehategod was like taking the Melvins even further, more filthy and dirty and with the bluesy southern feeling to it also. There were bands in other cities, Cavity in Florida, BuzzO*ven was kind of starting up in North Carolina or Richmond. There was a band in Boston called Grief. And there was Neurosis of course, who were still a hardcore band at the time but were starting to play slower. We were hated for a long time; people just didn’t get it. We had a few fans who understood that it was just supposed to be heavy—in 1986 to 1988, as we were forming, people thought the faster you play the heavier you are, but that’s obviously not true.


And now New Orleans is one of the metal capitals of the world!
Yeah, people have moved here from other states, man, even other countries, to be part of the scene here. Though a lot of people left after Katrina, a lot of people came down after Katrina. That was a great time for music actually, right after Katrina, with bands starting back up and new bands forming. The greatest thing is around 1998 and 1999 when we did take a sort of hiatus because of personal problems and record label trouble—during that hiatus we noticed bands were popping up in England, and Japan even—a Japanese band called Greenmachine—Iron Monkey in England, bands all over the world with like this same exact kind of sound. That’s when we noticed it was something bigger than us.

Tell me about your affiliation with Phil Anselmo’s (of Pantera and Down) Housecore Records label.
I used to play with Phil Anselmo in Arson Anthem, where we had Hank III on drums. That since kind of fizzled out. Then Outlaw Order was a side project of Eyehategod but that kind of fizzled out too—though we have been trying to keep it on the burner. Now we have The Guilt Of…, which is a noise band with me and Ryan McKern. We have a 12-inch out with Merzbow. I also started a band with Scott Kelly from Neurosis. We did a three-week tour with no record, no press, no interviews, just got in a car and went out and we all did solo sets where I came out and did a reading, then Scott did his mildly dark acoustic stuff, and Bruce does experimental saxophone, and then we have this guy Sanford Parker with some drum machine stuff and just loud noise—then at the end we come out do three songs together that we wrote. That band is called Corrections House. A new seven-inch should be out as we speak.


Note: The first new Eyehategod album in 15 years—the last recordings featuring longtime drummer Joey LeCaze, who recently passed away—will be released this year.

Katey Red. Photo by Robin Walker

As hip-hop evolved throughout the 1980s, before bounce came along, New Orleans rap consisted of complex rhyming, and true-school MCing in New Orleans was the norm, with lyricists such as Tim Smooth, Gregory D., Bust Down, MC Thick, and Legend Mann. Then in 1991, “Where Dey At,” allegedly the first bounce song, was recorded in two versions by both MC T. Tucker with DJ Irv, and then shortly afterward by DJ Jimi as “Where They At.” Bounce MCs demand responses regarding your ward, your school, and your project. The lyrics are often dirty. As with almost all other New Orleans party music, fun is stressed over art. Some of the zillions of pioneering bounce artists include Partners-N-Crime, Ms. Tee, Mia X, and 5th Ward Weebie, whose track “Fuck Katrina” captured local sentiment after the storm—though the only real national bounce hit so far has been Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up.”

In 1999, New Orleans’s Take Fo’ record label, founded by bounce pioneer DJ Jubilee (known as the “King of Bounce”) issued Melpomene Block Party, the first full-length release from Katey Red, a gay transgender MC from the Melpomene Projects. Other gay bounce artists have followed on Katey’s (high) heels, most notably Big Freedia and Sissy Nobby. We got Katey’s advice on where you should (and shouldn’t) party while in New Orleans, plus which bounce artists you should check out, and where.


Do you have friends outside of New Orleans who come to town to visit you?
Katey Red: Quite a few. Mostly when my friends come to town they want to go to my shows. But if they just want to have a few drinks we either go on Bourbon Street, or else sit in Siberia. Ian Polk, the creator of [TV show] Noah’s Arc, he came down and wanted to hang out with me, so I took him to a few gay clubs out here. I brought him to one of my shows at One Eyed Jacks, and I took him to Club Fusions because he wanted to see the drag show I was performing in.

A tuba locked up outside Pal's Lounge. Photo by Jonathan Traviesa

Some people disparage Bourbon Street, but you’re a fan?
You can never go wrong with Bourbon Street. I am not an every day Bourbon Street kind of girl though, so when I am out there it’s new to me, like going out of town somewhere. If I am on Bourbon I end up either by Oz, or the Bourbon Pub. They have pickpocketers and crime but… after Katrina, Bourbon was the first thing poppin’. That’s where New Orleans make they money at the dance clubs and strip clubs and gay clubs as well as heterosexual clubs. They got bounce music, reggae music, jazz, it’s all kinds of entertainment on the side street. They got people doing card tricks, they have people doing statues, people tap-dancing, people sitting on the stoop singing live and playing keyboards. And they also have historical things. It’s nice out there. Why would they talk bad about Bourbon?


Did you actually have your pocket picked on Bourbon?
Um, I had a fight on one of my birthdays on one of the side streets off Bourbon. Some guy was for some reason like, “Don’t look at me.” And I was like, “Don’t look at me!” And he ran up on me trying to fight me and I got him off me. That was the only thing bad ever happened to me on Bourbon Street. Normally people just want pictures and stuff.

What about Club Caesar’s on the West Bank? You’ve performed there quite a bit.
Most of my out-of-town friends are Caucasians, so they don’t really want to go to places like Caesar’s, or Encore, cause it’s too wild and too rough. They want to hear bounce music all right, but they have Caucasian clubs that play bounce music. I would suggest that for them. If they wanna be around a different kind of environment and say, “I want to hang out with some black people, I wanna see where you hang at,” I take them to Club Fusions. It’s a lot of bounce going on in there. My fan base is real, real high in there. They may have a fight in there, but there’s no gunplay.

Chris Owens performing in her club. Photo by Jonathan Traviesa

Where can you hear bounce rap on Bourbon Street?
The Bourbon Heat or sometimes the Cat’s Meow. Maybe it’s because when I come in the club they recognize who I am and so then they start playing bounce music, but if they don’t [usually] play bounce music, they play it when I’m around.

Doesn’t Chris Owens's club also play rap and bounce?
I been there before. It’s real wild. I wouldn’t suggest my out-of-town friends go there. Sometimes they getting wild. I seen all kinds of things going on in the bathroom—stuff you only supposed to do at home! Wow.

If you're in New Orleans, you can pick up copies of New Orleans: the Underground Guide at two book parties. The first is on April 30 at Buffa’s and will feature noise artists plus a lecture and presentation by electronic musician Justin Peake; the second is on May 4 at Vaughan’s and will include sets by local rappers plus a live interview and poetry reading with Katey Red.