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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014

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In Festival Guide

Bayou rockers Cowboy Mouth will bring their crazed Creole music stylings to Summerfest on Thursday, July 3.

Cowboy Mouth brings a bit of the bayou up for Summerfest


Summerfest offers its crowd a taste of just about everything – spiral dog, anyone? – including a little Creole-spiced kick thanks to the presence of New Orleans-based rockers Cowboy Mouth. In its over 15-year existence, the band has kept busy, touring to about 150 shows every year, recording 11 studio albums, appearing in a movie or two and in general bringing the bayou across the nation.

A bit of Southern comfort is exactly what a so-far mildly chilly, very foggy Summerfest could perhaps use, which is exactly what Cowboy Mouth will bring Thursday, July 3 to the group's headline gig at the Johnson Controls World Sound Stage. Before then, however, OnMilwaukee got a chance to chat with the Cowboy Mouth's frontman Fred LeBlanc about the band's new album, the art of the cover and his once-tight relationship with critically acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh.

OnMilwaukee.com: Your "Born to Run" cover is one you've done in a lot of your live shows and is very beloved by many fans. What was your thought process when you decided to cover such a popular song and put your stamp on it?

Fred LeBlanc: Honestly, I wanted to pick the most recognizable song, a song that people don't think anybody would ever have the guts to cover and not only cover it, but kick the hell out of it.

OMC: Was it hard to do what you wanted to do with it but still staying true to the original song? Or did you just kind of kick the original song out?

FLB: A good song is a good song, and "Born to Run" is an excellent song. It's well written, there's a lot going on in the song and at the same time, it's an incredibly basic song. You can play it with all the extra accoutrements – time changes, tempo changes – or you can keep it basic, and it retains its essence. I think what we wanted to do is keep it simple.

Basically, I wanted to play it like The Clash would've played it: simple, rocking. It sounds a lot more ornate when you listen to the Springsteen version, because he just piles and piles and piles stuff on there on the recording. Obviously, it sounds wonderful, but I wanted to get down to the essence of the song and just keep it as simple as possible. The emotion and the idea has to connect with the audience on a very basic level. It wasn't very hard to do.

OMC: Just this month, you guys released a new album "Go!" What were kind of your goal, inspirations and motivations for the new album?

FLB: For our albums, I like them to have some sort of a theme. Even if they don't have the same cerebral theme, I want them to have an emotional thread through them. The thing about "Go!" I guess for me, it was an album about looking forward and looking back, longing for the past but at the same time accepting growing up.

Like the song "Go!" is a punk rock song about growing up and accepting that the best may be ahead of you instead of behind you. We live in such a kid-oriented culture, as basically the growing up experience gets co-opted by corporate America and the mainstream media and all that kind of stuff. It's hard to find and tell of the human experience from an honest level without trying to sell them something.

I wanted to be a part of something that would be uplifting, that would be an emotional, visceral, powerful rock 'n' roll experience that would leave people feeling better, not only about the experience they just had but about themselves. I think "Go!" touches on those things. Like the song "My Little Secret" is about that first time you fall in love with somebody, but you also have a song like "Where's The Rain?" which is about my dad passing away. It's looking forward and looking back, and understanding that the best is still ahead.

OMC: How do you try to go about bringing a live performance energy to an album?

FLB: It's difficult because recording and performing live are two very different animals. When you first start recording, you think all you have to do is go in there and bash it out, but that doesn't always translate because the way the audience experiences a live performance and the way they experience a recording are two very different things. One's very communal, and one is very intimate, so you have to translate that same energy and feeling to an intimate experience.

The way to record a live feel in the studio is just to go in there and get it done. Don't stop until you get it perfect. Don't stop until you get it the way you want it, and if it feels good to me, then it'll feel good to the audience. That's about the only criteria that I've got.

OMC: The weather so far for Summerfest has been a bit eclectic: a bit of fog, a bit cold, a bit warm, a bit rainy. What were the craziest weather conditions you've had to perform in?

FLB: I played a college in Mississippi in 19-degree weather. There was a thousand college kids all bundled up like one giant organism. It doesn't sound that unusual, but for me, being the drummer and lead singer, I have to play in shorts and a cut-off shirt because if I decided to wear a long pants and a long-sleeve shirt, I still sweat. It was like having five-pound dumbbells on my arms.

OMC: I'm a big film guy, so I have to ask: You worked on the film "The Underneath" with director Steven Soderbergh. What was it like working on that film with him?

FLB: It was easy! Steve Soderbergh and I were actually friends. He's from Baton Rouge – that's where he grew up – and I knew him from the scene there. He actually did a video of an old band of mine years ago as a favor back when he was just d*cking around in film labs in Baton Rouge at LSU.

But I've known him for years. Obviously, we haven't been in touch because our paths have wildly diverged, but he was always good, back in the old days, of helping out friends. Like he was friends with Cary (Bonnecaze) the original drummer for Better Than Ezra, and he put a song of theirs in one of his movies, and he got us in "The Underneath," and it was fun. It was three days in a nice hotel, and every once and awhile, I get a little residual check – something I can bring the wife to Chili's on. (laughs)

But Soderbergh's an incredibly talented guy and an incredibly creative guy, and he always was. I was really glad to see things pop for him, and the fact that he came back to try and give us a helping hand says a lot about him. I haven't spoken to him in probably about 15 years, but that's cool. I wish him nothing but the best.

OMC: I didn't know you guys were so tight.

FLB: Yeah, we were big Beatles fans. He used to have this really swank stereo set-up in his house, long before people started listening to everything on MP3s. He was such an audiophile because he was such a cinephile, and we would just pour through these Beatles albums when they first came out, just digging the sound. He loved music – I don't know if he still does – but he had such a passion for music.

He was a fan of the band I was in at the time, and then he was a fan of a later band Dash Rip Rock. It was so funny; I was playing a Dash Rip Rock gig in Baton Rouge, and he took off to do a documentary on the prog rock band Yes. That was one of his first big gigs, and he came back I guess about a year later and was like, "Hey man, what's up. I'm making a movie! I got some money for my movie!" I said, "Oh really? What's it called?" He said "Sex, Lies and Videotape," and I was like, "That's a pretty stupid title; you might want to think about changing that." (laughs) And then literally three months later, he was on the front page of the newspaper having won the Palme d'Or and all that stuff.

He's a good guy. He was very focused, he had a vision, and it's pretty cool that he's not only succeeded in the art form that he's chosen, but he changed it in a very tangible way to make it better. That's pretty cool. Whatever his work is or is not, he's made a palpable impression on the art form itself. The guy I knew back in Baton Rouge would've just sh*t a brick if he knew that was going to happen. (laughs)


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