Welcome to part two of an interview I did with Willy DeVille in December 2007 for the German edition of Rolling Stone. It was published in their February issue, and this is the first time it's been published in English. We pick up the action with us talking about Willy's new CD Pistola. Be sure to read part one.
I'd like to talk about some the songs on the album. Tell me a little bit about any particular inspiration, meaning, or intent that you might have had. Let's start with the first one "So Sir Real."
I just wanted to write a really good rock and roll song with a great guitar line and a good lyric… but you know the world has become pretty scary, I don't remember it being this bad 20 or even 10 years ago, and so that's part of it – it gets to the point where it's harder and harder to believe that this stuff is going on – but of course it is.
"Been There Done That" (track two) – is just what it says, you know. I was having a conversation with Monk Boudreau and he was saying something about something, and I said now why in hell would I do that man, I've been there, done that. It stuck in my head. The rhythm developed out of that you know. Like I said it's much more New Orleans than reggae – the horns are very New Orleans.
The fourth song, "Louise," is the only one on the album you didn't write – it sounded familiar, but I couldn't place it.
It was written by Paul Seibel, he put out two albums, and I'm sure you could get them if you wanted; one was Jack-Knife Gypsy and the other was Woodsmoke & Oranges. I wasn't even sure he was alive, but Nina [Deville's wife] looked him up on the computer and we found him. So I called him up and said, "Hey, I've recorded one of your songs." He wanted to know which one and asked if I had the lyric and could he hear it. So I said yeah and played it for him – this was through the telephone you know so I told him not to expect much – but he really liked what I had done.
I told him he should come on up and I'd love to play some music with him, and he said he couldn't any more – that the business had ripped the heart out of him. It's a shame you know, because I think he's just as good if not better than Dylan when it comes to lyrics.
"The Band Played On" (track five) is obviously about New Orleans….
Yeah, that's right. The horns at the beginning are playing a funeral march. It was awful watching that you know. I had been down in the south west going through some personal stuff and I got back home to see this on the television. Man, it was devastating. I lived there 30 years. It felt horrible watching the streets where I used to hang out under water. So yeah this was my tribute to New Orleans.[NOTE: At this point we got into a brief conversation about New Orleans and the current situation down there. The majority of people who were displaced by the hurricane have still not been allowed to or are able to move home. The governments are dragging their feet on rebuilding all the housing and infrastructure – it's cheaper to keep the people in the displacement camps than it is to rebuild public housing which doesn't make big money for developers.
According to Naomi Klein's latest book Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, they have no intention of rebuilding any of the poorer neighbourhoods where many of the musicians lived and performed – the plans for redevelopment include luxury condominiums, expensive hotels, and convention centres. One of the first steps they took in order to discourage people from returning was the privatization of public schools. There used to be 104 public schools servicing the area in and around New Orleans – there are now only four – the rest have all been issued with private charters.
As I told Willy this he was repeating it to Nina and she knew about most of it already – I heard her say in the background, "Make you sure you mention about Brad Pitt using his own money to try and rebuild homes for people."
I know that the two women who sing back up for Willy in the Mink DeVille band, Lisa West and Doreen Carter, are both from New Orleans so I asked Willy about them. He said that they've moved back there, but there's no work at all and that the tour is a blessing for them. Organizations like the Jazz Foundation of America are trying to raise money to replace instruments for people, and get them jobs playing in schools – but that's only short term – the real disaster in New Orleans is still going on as thousands of people are still living in refugee camps (nearly all of them black by the way) and may never see their homes again.
It took Willy and I a couple of minutes to find the thread of our conversation after that – but we found our way back – he was obviously shaken up – and if you listen to this song you can hear how much he loves his New Orleans – and the heart and soul have been ripped out of it – never to be returned it seems.]
"Stars That Speak" (track eight on the disc) made me think about an artist looking back on what he'd done over the years, and realizing his accomplishments.
Yeah that's what I was trying to get across. I wrote that back in 1980. I was in Paris, and I wanted to experiment with the idea of recitation. You know, sort of reading poetry over music. So I had the idea of the artist looking back at his work and wondering where the time has gone. At the time there was also the very romantic idea about being in Paris and writing poetry, but there's also something about being there that is inspiring and I was trying to tap into that as well.
Phil (producer Phil Shenale) asked me this time what other material I might have floating around, and there was this and a couple of others. He'd been wanting to put this on an album for a while, but I kept putting him off. This time he said Willy, your voice sounds just right for it -lets keep put it in. Being in Paris when I wrote it there's the whole romantic thing about "being in Paris," and like I said earlier about admiring what Leonard Cohen and Jacques Brel do with lyrics and sound, I wanted to make the attempt.
The final cut on the disc, "Mountains Of Manhattan," tell me about that. But first who is playing the flute?
I was, it's a Native Cedar flute you know [Me: Yeah I recognized it – I have a friend who makes them.] Oh, okay, so you know what there like. While I gave Phil a whole bunch to work with and he used it with the voice. This was another recitation piece, and I guess it's about acknowledging who you are.
When I was kid we were lower-middle class right? And we were taught to hide who we were and nobody talked about our heritage. It's only been recently that I've found out about the Iroquois blood in our family – so there's that to it as well. But there's the power and the mystery of the spoken word that I love in it as well. I did a little of it on Crow Jane Alley on "In A World Gone Wrong," but "Mountains" and "Stars That Speak" have much more emphasis on it. And I think they worked out.
I thought they were two of the most powerful pieces on the disc; you've got a great voice for recitation.
Pistola is being released in Europe on February 4, 2008 and you're going to be selling copies of it direct from your website. Are there any plans for distribution in North America?
Just hold a second, let me check with Nina on this; she keeps track of that stuff. (In the background I hear Nina: "We've held on to the North American rights because we want to try and get our own distribution deal over here." ) Did you hear that? Yeah, well you know they only pressed 500 hundred copies of the last one (Crow Jane Alley) for North America and we don't want that again. So we're looking for a distributor over here for the disc.
This business hasn't changed much. Too many guys didn't get paid for the music they did or they got shafted out of their rights. Deaf guys who can't hear a note but will know a hit when they see it, and blind guys who can't see an inch in front of their faces, but know exactly how much money is in the roll in their pocket so they can reach in and peel off a hundred to some poor sap so he can go out and entertain some girl. At the end of the day not only is his heart broken cause the girl only wanted him because he was famous – he ain't got a cent to his name because that hundred bucks was his rights.
Now that's not my situation or anything, but I have to wonder about the music business. It's just like everybody wants to be a star, but doesn't really care what they put out as long as it makes money. Nobody wants to be the poet anymore, because there ain't any money in it.
Talking about changes – you've been doing this since the early '70s. Did you see yourself back then still doing this? And have you changed your approach at all to the music?
I still love the music and I still like to tour. There's nothing that beats that connection you make with an audience when the music is right and they're digging it, you know? I mean, I really am pretty lucky, you know? I'm still doing what I love to do and it still makes me happy, and I guess there aren't too many people in the world who can say that, are there?
I'm really still doing what I've always been doing, keep trying to apply the things that I've learned and find different ways to create the sound that I'm after. It's still going to be my sound, because that's who I am, but there's always a new angle to take on something or a fresh approach. The main thing is though that I love the music.
Obviously the new album and the upcoming tour are a priority right now, but have you given any though about further down the road?
All the stuff that's been going down in with New Orleans makes me want to put together a Victory Mixture ll type album – as a tribute to the music and the people. Get Dr. John, Alan Toussaint, Eddie Bo, and any of the others available and make another recording of that great music – maybe even do another tour.
I'd also like to do some movie soundtracks, acting – heck there's a lot of stuff I'd like to do. But so much of it requires doing business and I'm just not cut out for it. The art is hard enough sometimes as it is. I've been phoning some agents and things and everybody sounds surprised that I'm still alive. That was Johnny Thunders and one of the Ramones who died, not me.
But like you said the immediate future is busy. We're off to Sweden for a birthday party,- then a week of press tours in advance of the tour in February, then back here to rehearse with the band. Then it's the tour….
Well you know, I think that's it. I should let you get back to your day. Thanks again for taking the time Willy … it was great to talk to you again.
Yeah you too, take care.
To be honest – I made those last two sentences up; we were just wrapping up and Willy's phone died. He said to me just before it went, "You been hearing those beeps? If we get cut off it's because the phone's battery is gone…" and then the line went dead. I gave it a few minutes and phoned back and left him a message saying thanks, I had all I needed, and wished them both a Merry Christmas and good luck.
What struck me most about this conversation, is how much the music still excites him and how passionate he still is about what he does. I know he's been through his share of ups and downs in life – and yet here he is, after more then 40 years of playing music and dealing with the bullshit of the business, still loving and caring deeply about the music.