Published Jan 21, 2014At 28, New Orleans' Trombone Shorty has already grown quite familiar with acclaim. Not just the type of acclaim that comes with a good review. No, the sort of acclaim that comes from playing alongside local legends of the jazz scene as a child protégé, from performing at the White House for the president and friends to headlining New Orleans Jazz Fest last year (the youngest to ever do so). David Simon saw his 2010 album Backatown to be a significant enough post-Katrina New Orleans event to base an episode of his HBO series Treme around the release party. Despite that, a humble Trombone Shorty and his band Orleans Avenue hit the stage on January 16 at Toronto's Phoenix. I sat down with Shorty in the venue's lounge earlier that evening just as the sun was beginning to set. He spoke on the audacity to try something new in a town so steeped in tradition, the wide range of musicians he's worked with, and just as we were completely enveloped in darkness, using music to save young people's lives.
The new album, Say That To Say This, what's the meaning behind that title?
It's just a NOLA expression, a New Orleans expression. People normally say it when they're telling a long story and when they're coming to a closure they might be like, "well, I say that to say this." They're getting to the point.
So are you getting to a point with this album?
Well we're just saying we're not going to talk much, we're not going to explain it, we're just going to play.
When I'm reading the liner notes for an album, one of the best things I like reading is "Produced by Raphael Saadiq." So when I heard the album, thought it was dope, and then I read that...
It makes sense huh?
How did that come about, and what did that do for this album that was different from previous albums?
His bass player is a good friend of mine, we went to school together in New Orleans and he introduced us some years ago. But I've been a big fan of Raphael's music for a very long time, since I was a kid, listening to Tony! Toni! Tone! and things like that. What he brought to the studio for us is he's actually a great musician, a great songwriter and a great producer. So having him get in the studio was basically him just joining the band for awhile. His progressions that he might normally go through is different from then what we would do. So we'll just follow him and he'll try to follow us. We just mashed it together and was able to create some music that stretched our ears and our imaginations in a way that we wouldn't normally think.
We just played it all, besides one track, played it through without overdubbing. Nothing digitally enhanced. If we messed up a couple things [the band] really played it again, instead of punching in, we did like they would do it back in the '80s and '90s. The last records we used some drum machines on top of the drums and added some type of digital aspect to it, but this time we just played it straight through and pushed ourselves musically. It worked out well. It just opened us up to a whole other world and we opened him up to some things too, so it worked out great for both of us.
You've had a number of big gigs in the last few years. You've played the White House, headlined New Orleans Jazz Fest. What's the biggest deal to you?
Well those two are the the biggest deal to me. Playing for the president at White House alongside BB King, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, that was a dream come true all at once. At one point I really forgot I was at the White House, because I was so startled at all the musicians I was on stage with. I'm playing and I'm looking on stage and I'm overwhelmed by the great musicianship and the people I grew up listening to and borrowing things from musically, and then I look into the crowd and there's the President.
I've always grown up in New Orleans and the last 10 to 15 years I've shared the stage with the Neville Brothers to close out the festival, and playing by myself at the festival for a while. We as travelling musicians all of us have found out that New Orleans itself has a fan base, without the music, without us. People love New Orleans. When people get a little taste of the festival, you're getting a taste of New Orleans all in one place. From the food to the Mardi Gras Indians to the brass bands and the second liners parading through the street, Jazz Fest presents New Orleans in one place. And then you add Bruce Springsteen, Lenny Kravitz, and all these type of Kid Rock, Charlie Wilson, Maze, and Earth, Wind & Fire. You add that with what we have in New Orleans and just becomes big. Just big.
Jazz Fest and the White House is probably my biggest things I've been really excited about, but whenever I get a chance to play the stage that's always big for me.
My introduction to you and your music was through HBO's Treme [Trombone Shorty played himself]. Your character was almost an antagonist to Wendell Pierce's character, with his struggles as a musician versus your success. How did it feel to be put on a bit of pedestal?
You know, I didn't know that, I was just given my lines. I was like, damn if I had known that I could have done a little better or could have acted differently. It's just a lot of respect from my local band members and musicians around town. They've seen that I've been able to make it out of the city and I represent wherever I go. It's just one of those things. I think Wendell in that series was just an older musician who's a bit jealous, and that happens in real life. But overall the music brings us together. That was a fun thing, and I'm just happy they even thought to even talk about me. I haven't had a chance to really watch the whole series, I just did my parts and watched it right when we done it. I have to catch up, you know more than me.
Well I haven't seen all of the last season yet, but the first episode of it prominently features the release of your Backatown. I was really surprised by that album too, and I assumed that was just my own ignorance. But seeing the show and seeing the characters also be blown away by it, it had me wondering what is it about that album that made it stand out so much?
Well, I don't know. I've been doing it for a long time, and we just happened to put it on album. I've toured for years and years and built up a big fan base in anticipation for something. It could have went a different way for me. I think what probably took people by surprise was I wasn't afraid to take the risk. We added what I grew up listening to, everything I was a part of from hip-hop sounds with the horns, even my instrumentals, people can hum those. I just, I don't know, I really don't know. I just did it, and it took off. I wanted to be able to capture New Orleans but take a risk to reach a new person who might not know that this comes from New Orleans but it's something hip. I had to take that [risk] and be ready for any backlash I'd get from my New Orleans people.
Was there any backlash?
No, no it was cool. I mean, not that I know of. Some of the older musicians maybe, but that was before I even put down any records, that was just me stage diving, playing rock and roll and different things. It's a very traditional city, but you have to have some balls to really do it. A lot of people supported me because they felt it was time for someone to change things.
I guess some of the attention you get comes from you being the young face, the new guard. So what do you imagine 20 years from now, when you're not the young face anymore, what are you going to sound like then?
I don't know. Hopefully I can stay around a lot of young musicians and feed off of them. I've never planned on a sound to be like this. Even touring this far, I never saw that, I was just so far into playing music. Hopefully in 20 years I will continue to stay passionate about what I do and continue to listen. The more we tour with different bands, we'll be influenced by them. We just finished touring with Zac Brown Band, a country group, playing arenas every night. And now the other night I found myself playing a little riff from a song of his. Right now there's a group of young musicians in New Orleans that's influenced by what we're doing, because they've seen that we've been able to take it outside of New Orleans. By them attempting to do what we're doing, they're creating their own sound, and I'm influenced by that. So it's all just learning from one another and using your imagination. But other than that it's just about staying true to the music and staying true about being a musician.
Tell me a little about the Trombone Shorty Music Academy.
It's a school program, it happens once a week. I have Donald Harrison Jr. who's a great saxophonist, and a Mardi Gras Indian who's in Treme too. He's a great educator. He's been my teacher and my band's teacher too. I just wanted to give some of the kids an opportunity to learn music at a higher level. Most of us will learn on the street. We'll play with some musicians and they might not tell us theoretically what we're doing, but they're showing us how to play a song. I just wanted to take both of my experiences from learning on the street and [from attending] NOCCA, the New Orleans Center for the Performing Arts, where I was formally trained. And you know, music might save some of their lives. I just wanted to help out, because we lose a lot of kids.
Who have you not crossed paths on the road with yet, that you feel you really need to see and maybe work with?
Trent Reznor. Jay-Z. I've seen Stevie Wonder perform, but we haven't collaborated together. I've seen Lil' Wayne around New Orleans back in the day, but I haven't seen him in a couple years. Ministry, you ever heard of them? They're like a death metal band. There's certain groups like that, Garth Brooks, I like him. There's just different little musical neighbourhoods I like to call it that I like to flow into, just bring all that knowledge into one thing.
You've had a couple years that are tough to top. What's next for 2014?
What's crazy about my life is that the biggest things that have happened, just happen. Besides us playing, I don't really know what's there yet. The music always takes us to different places. We'll just continue to play and see what doors open from there.
I think that's a good point to end.
Okay, thank you, I appreciate it. See you soon.
Yes, thank you.
(Shouting back) Oh yeah, Drake! I want to work with Drizzy.