The first time I listened to Louis Michot play was a few years ago at a party. I had never heard of the Lost Bayou Ramblers before, but when he picked up his fiddle for an impromptu performance along with a few other members of the band, it was clear that these musicians were water from a deeper well. They only played a couple songs, but for the rest of the night the party had an electrified atmosphere, and I remember thinking this music was some strong medicine. Michot is a frontman with undeniable charisma, but what I find most exceptional about his musicianship is how close he stays to the source. To Michot, playing traditional, regional music isn’t about remaining stuck in time; it’s about a connection to the ancestors and making sure the memory of Louisiana’s long and strange history stays alive. Sometimes this means playing the way musicians he grew up with played. Other times it means performing a 40-minute Cajun experimental jam like “The Stoned,” which is being released as its own LP on Michot’s new label, Nouveau Electric Records. Michot and the Ramblers have collaborated with musicians from all over the country and world, from legendary Louisianans like Dr. John to rock’n’roll greats like the Violent Femmes and Spider Stacy of the Pogues. By staying open to all kinds of sounds, Michot allows regional traditions to both live and evolve. As a result, his music serves as a crossroads where Louisiana’s past, present, and future converge to put on one kickass show.
So I know you and the Ramblers have been on break for a while, but you’ve kept busy playing with the Melody Makers. Tell us about that project—who’s in the band, and what are you guys up to?
The Melody Makers is a fiddle band. It’s a way for me to reach into this semi-forgotten repertoire of Cajun music that barely made it into the recording era. Before accordions came into the music, it was mostly fiddle. And there are really only a few fiddle recordings that bring in all these different dance rhythms that went away with the accordion era—when it went into waltzes and two steps and blues. For a while, the Melody Makers was whoever, whenever, and it was all improv. As to say, I would start a song, and everyone would figure it out if they didn’t already know it, which worked great. The point of the band was to give me a chance to try all these old fiddle tunes that are so great, but aren’t always as easy to do justice to, as they’re not like modern Cajun music. They have different rhythms, arrangements, and many are like another dialect in the musical language. Since starting the group in Brooklyn in 2015, I finally settled on an amazing group of musicians. It’s [Rambler] Bryan Webre on bass, then Kirkland Middleton is the drummer; he’s played with the band for about two years—since he was 19—and then became the Lost Bayou Ramblers drummer a little later. Then there’s Mark Bingham, who owned Piety Street Recording Studios. He’s an awesome producer and guitar player who brings so many decades of experience to the group. He’s worked with so many people over the years, from Boozoo Chavis and Dirty Dozen, to Allen Ginsberg and R.E.M. But he’s never really played Cajun music, so he has no preconceived notions. He just plays it how he feels it, and not how you’re “supposed” to play Cajun music. It’s great.
Is that music you grew up with?
I grew up with a modern idea of “traditional” Cajun music, but this is actually a whole other world of music that I’m trying to tap into. The fiddle band is something that barely exists now. Once you start digging into the old recordings, you start finding stuff that’s different from the Cajun music I did grow up with, and I wondered why people stopped playing these tunes. One reason is that it’s a different melodic range than the accordion; when you remove that, it’s a completely different thing. The accordion appeared in Louisiana in the 1800s, but around the turn of the century, these department stores started carrying Sterling and Monarch brand accordions, making them readily available, and it had this awesome dancing rhythm. So we lost this amazing tradition of fiddle music because it wasn’t popular enough. Just like any culture, it evolves.
That reminds me of the deep dive you did with your album, Kalenda, a reference to a dance that is a historical link between Louisiana and the Caribbean.
Yeah, I think being in an area that is so defined by post-Civil War segregation, you can forget that Louisiana has a much more complex history and society than that simplified black-and-white version. I think the Kalenda is a representation of what we have in common. It shows us how much each culture has contributed to our society. I first heard of it from the song “Allons Danser Colinda,” (Let’s Dance With Colinda). In the song, Colinda [which is often spelled Kalenda or Calinda] is a girl, and she has to go out with a chaperone cause all the boys want to dance with her. But then I realized Colinda isn’t a girl—it’s a dance, a rhythm that comes from that shared history. It’s a sexual dance, so that’s why she needs a chaperone. Whether it’s Spanish, French, or African, everyone loved the dance and it stayed around for a few centuries until it became a rock’n’roll song. By studying the music and trying to dig deeper, you find out more about your own people. The old history is creeping through in the music; you might take it literally, but after years and years the language and history reveals itself to you. That taps into my own history—the Michot family that came from Haiti.
One of the most distinctive aspects of your songs—from the ones you play with the Ramblers to the Melody Makers songs—is how often your lyrics are in French. How does the language play into your sense of connection between music and history?
So much of why I love French is that it seems to hold so much history and knowledge. The more I learn about it, the more I learn about myself and my place in the world. I think had the music not become so popular and done well commercially, the language would have fallen off a lot earlier. It’s all connected. One thing I realized is that the music truly is an expression of who you are. It’s like tapping into who you are and the humanity you belong to. It comes from within, and it’s wrapped up in the whole history. That’s why I feel such a need to learn the language: I feel incomplete without it.
Are you talking about the French language generally here, or Louisiana French?
There is so much encoded in the local dialect. Certain words in Louisiana French have no meaning in standard French, and vice versa. It changes with each town and each street and person; the dialect is always its own scavenger hunt in itself. My wife actually does a lot of continual work with dialect and words, listening to a lot of her people from Ville Platte. Every day she listens to, and sometimes hosts, this radio show [“La Tasse de Café” on 92.5 FM KVPI] and is constantly coming up with these words that sound like they’re from the 1500s, things that were brought over by the people then and are still used today.
Did you grow up speaking Louisiana French?
For my generation, it was always a secret code that the old people used to speak among themselves. I didn’t know it was French—it was just the language the old people spoke. Then when you grow up, either you let it be something you’ll never learn or you have to get that base of Standard French first. It’s very hard to learn here, as there isn’t a critical mass to learn orally. I did what so many of my generation have done; I went to the University of St. Ann in Nova Scotia. It’s a five-week immersion program that has helped hundreds, if not thousands, of my generation. You go and hear all those same last names of the people there—Comeau, Saulnier, Leblanc… it’s our distant Acadian cousins that stayed. I could say barely anything in French when I got there, but as soon as I started learning, it came quickly, and it was like it automatically came out in Cajun French since I had been hearing it that way my whole life. So I did five weeks, then hitchhiked around Eastern Canada for a few months. I had my fiddle, I’d play in the streets, play for rides. Studying the words of the songs helped me learn the language. French and fiddle both take a while to learn, and by travelling I was able to be away from people. When I started to annoy someone, I’d go on to the next place.
Did you always know you wanted to come back?
Like any teenager, the first thing you want to do is get the hell out of wherever you’re from. But as soon as I did, I realized how lucky I was to be from where I was from. A year after I got back from Canada, we started the Ramblers. My brother was learning the accordion at home while I had been learning the fiddle on the road. The traveling had turned into the music. I never made a decision to be a musician; music helped me travel, travel helped me play music. Then [when I got back] a friend of ours invited us to come play and we didn’t have a name, so our friend—Ryan Domingue, Rest In Peace—named us Lost Bayou Ramblers. We’re now in our 20th year.
It’s amazing how much energy you bring to your performances, considering you’ve been doing it for so long. How do you keep the music fresh?
What’s so enjoyable about it is always doing different stuff and having fun with it. It’s about trying new things rather than trying to perfect a show note for note—that gets boring quick. It’s like what I said about the Melody Makers. I don’t necessarily look for people who love Cajun music, but for people who love music. We’re always getting people from Lafayette who play all kinds of different music.
Very often I find that live performances are about recreating studio sessions, but with you guys live shows are so surprising. I wonder if you have to almost train your audience not to come to shows expecting something that meets their preconceived expectations.
We’ve definitely had to go through some periods of giant growing pains with our audience. If you’re throwing out new things and they’re not used to it, they may not like it; but if you’re coming to see the same thing all the time, you’re in the wrong place. People are expecting a certain thing. We’re a Cajun band and proud to be in that category, but our mindset is that it’s always been a culture that has adapted to the time it’s in and has renewed itself over and over to keep surviving.
So tell me about the residency you just did, and the album you put out after?
John Zorn invited me to do a residency where you do twelve completely different shows over six days. I was really honored to be asked. I put together these shows starting with the family band, Les Freres Michot. Spider [Stacy] came up, and the Melody Makers, Leyla McCalla. I wanted to do one that was completely improvised with Johnny Campos, Brian Webre, Kirkland Middleton, Ryan Brasseaux (who was our first drummer with the Ramblers—now he’s a dean at Yale) and then a free-jazz drummer from Lafayette who is living in Brooklyn, named Jason Ribera, plus his sax player Jeff Tobias. We were just messing around, really. We went off this one Cajun melody and started with that, and let it take us where it took us for the next 40 minutes. It was a really surreal experience. I decided to make it the first LP on this record label I started last year, Nouveau Electric Records.
“So much of why I love French is that it seems to hold so much history and knowledge. The more I learn about it, the more I learn about myself and my place in the world.”
What’s the vision behind the record label?
The record label is something I’ve been wanting to do for the last few years, and on January 1st, 2018 I thought, it’s time. I find there is so much amazing music around here, around me, that might not fit into a Cajun/zydeco genre. It’s stuff that just stands out on its own. I know how hard it is for bands and artists to make a record and then promote it; you have to do eight different jobs at once. The main mission of the label is this: we have to build something so that we can promote both experimental and traditional music of South Louisiana. Some of it’s in French, some of it’s not, but we can help them get their music farther than it would otherwise.
How does it feel to win the Grammy for “Best Regional Roots”?
In our category, you have Native American music, Cajun, and Zydeco; one might be a Hawaiian band, one from New Orleans, so you have all these diverse subcultures competing. The music is completely different, but what we have in common is that it’s our own rhythm and our own languages and that we are all performing for our own people. The Grammys can be so political, so it was great for us that when we won, we didn’t do any politicking. It meant a lot to us for it to have happened after we put out one of our best artistic manifestations without asking anyone to vote for us. It’s exciting to be attracting people to the music that might have never been interested in it otherwise, but we’re just doing it to honor ourselves, and allow ourselves to be free artistically. You hope that the result is that you’re not restricting yourself to the box of what’s expected of you, and you hope that by experimenting like that people will respond.
Louis Michot will be playing a one time performance of “The Stoned” at Saturn Bar on February 8, along with performances by the Melody Makers and Greazy Alice. For more info on Louis Michot and Nouveau Electric Records, check out lostbayouramblers.com and nouveauelectricrecords.bandcamp.com
Top photo of Louis Michot at the Music Box Village by JOSH BRASTED