Cowboy Mouth is an energetic, fun-loving, pure-hearted New Orleans rock band with a twist of cajun and blues influence. Since the release of their first album, Word of Mouth, in 1992, the band has gained notoriety nationwide. With a current string of shows and a new album, Go, the time was perfect for us at Murfie to get in touch.
Below is a transcript of a phone call between Cowboy Mouth frontman Fred LeBlanc and myself (Kayla), from a few weeks ago in January. Fred is an entertaining fellow with a lot to say about the 90s music era, the changing music scene, the influence of big labels, and the vibrant energy in the southern United States. Read on and enjoy!
K: Right now I have Fred Leblanc on the phone from Cowboy Mouth.
K: Welcome! Where are you calling from today?
F: I’m calling from my house in Mississippi.
K: How’s the typical winter in Mississippi?
F: Well, seeing that you’re calling me from Wisconsin, I really have no reason to complain about anything as far as winter goes, ‘cause I could sit here and whine about the temperatures in the 40s, and you guys would probably think, “Oh, what a puss”—and you’d be right about that! But I get to do the same thing during the summer. As you sit there and complain about temperatures in the 70s and 80s, I’m sitting here, you know high 90s early 100s, or something like that, and I could call you a puss back. So I’m not gonna complain, it’s beautiful, every day above ground. Right?
K: Absolutely. You guys are doing your thing down south, and Cowboy Mouth has been in action for two decades at least, so it’s cool to talk to you because you have all this perspective on rock music and the industry—
F: Haha! That’s a nice way of saying, “Gimme what you’ve got, Grandpa!”
K: Haha! So it’s really valuable, and I’m sure you’ve seen a lot, which leads me to something I was wondering about—the rock scene, and how it’s changed over the years. I know it was kinda grunge-y when you got started. So how have you seen things change?
F: Well we were kind of like, not the antithesis to the grunge thing—it’s more of a matter of timing. In fact, we were around a couple years before that burst forth on the national zeitgeist. In fact, we would see a lof of those bands in the same clubs that we played. I played at a club called Raji’s in L.A. a bunch of times, and then I saw that club on the back of Nirvana’s first album Bleach. There’s a picture of them performing at Raji’s. So it was all kind of bubbling under, and then it just kind of took over for a while. You had big bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, other bands who got notoriety like Mudhoney. They had all been around a while. Then a few years later, we were kind of lumped in with some of the other 90s bands who weren’t quite as angst-ridden, bands like Better than Ezra, Hootie & the Blowfish, Matchbox Twenty, all these bands who had just been touring around the same time. So for me, in terms of changes, a lot of the big changes came close to later in the 90s, when everything changed and went either hard-hard-hard rock, or obscene hard-hard-hard pop. And for me, I was kind of glad to see the whole major label game disappear because, as their influence became a lot more…unable to shake off—the music got kind of worse. You had the emergence of things like Britney Spears and Fred Durst [Limp Bizkit] at the same time. You know, it’s just not my cup of tea because musically they were both so extreme. This music fits comfortably into this box. I call it “McDonald’s Music”, in that it’s designed to be eaten, and crapped out, making room for the next musical Big Mac. And there’s a place for that—that’s fine, but that’s not why I wanted to play music. I always wanted to be a more creative person, take a chance with styles, learn new ways to perform, and ingratiate those. I didn’t want it to be just one thing continuously over and over and over again. But that’s me.
K: Sure, that’s some truth about the industry. And yes, there’s a consumption element to it all, that maybe wasn’t there when music was more pure…
F: To a certain extent—I mean, you’re always going to have to find a customer base, because that’s the business model. Whether you’re somebody just playing gigs for your friends, or you’re some national band, there has to be a customer base. But at the same time, it doesn’t always have to cater to the easily graspable elements, you know what I mean? I mean, there is creativity with somebody like Britney Spears—but at the same time, it becomes a lot more obvious, and something that’s designed to be swallowed up by the marketplace on a national level. When you put something out there like that, it by necessity of its own survival in the marketplace has to be kind of dumbed down for large numbers of people to get it without really having to think about it. And you can say it’s good or it’s bad, or whatever—it’s just kind of an “is”. It is what it is. And you can choose to take part in that or not. We went through the whole 90s major label system. We had two major labels, and we had a few hits here and there. It was easy for us to get swallowed up and spit out, but at the same time, I always told myself that I can’t jump in the shark tank and complain about getting bit. It’s just, “Okay, this is what I chose to do, let me try this, and if it doesn’t really work for me I’m gonna go do something else.” No harm no foul.
K: Absolutely. It’s kind of like a shark tank nowadays with a lot of big labels with a lot of money.
F: It’s always been a shark tank. When you’re dealing with that playing field, it is what it is. I learned a long time ago that when dealing with big labels, they weren’t always going to get what I did, simply because I’m a drummer who decided to be a front man. Cowboy Mouth on the one hand is very accessible. It’s hard not to like us. The music in itself is very melodic, it’s punchy, it’s passionate—so we can appeal to a lot of different people. At the same time, I’m a very energetic front man, and it’s a very energetic band, so it’s not like we’re putting that complex of a message across or an idea. But we do it in an unusual way: Drummer as a front man. There’s a bunch of different people to look at. We’re not espousing something that’s negative and therefore easy to grasp on to. I push something positive-leaning simply because that’s the energy I want to put out in the world. And that’s the energy I want back. I did my time in narcissistic punk bands, and after a while it gets to a point where you’re like “Okay, this is going to kill me.” You know, nihilism and all that stuff. It’s kind of a dead end road. At some point in life, you have to make choices that are going to benefit you. You have to decide what those choices are, and you have to decide what benefits yours are going to be: Money, or this or that, or is it going to be something that enriches the whole. Everybody needs to make that choice on some level at some point in their lives. None of the choices are wrong, it just depends on what suits you and who you are. For some people it’s money, prestige, vain stuff, and for other people it’s the creative experience. There are some people who have been able to blend both those elements, and that’s fine. You have to be true to your own soul. Everybody’s soul is very different. That was a long answer to a short question!
K: I like it though! Those are the insights I wanted. The path that you’ve chosen to go down with Cowboy Mouth has led you guys to a dedicated fan base. A big part of it is because of the really high energy at your shows. What do you like most about your fans who you can see enjoying the music?
F: The thing that I like most about it is they seem to genuinely get something out of it. Now what that is changes from person to person. Some people are just looking for a fun time, or maybe they have a few drinks, or smoke a little ganja and kind of cut loose, whatever, that’s fine. And other people get some deeper meanings that either are there or aren’t there that they may put in. But I like the fact that everybody can get from Cowboy Mouth exactly what they want to take from it. Because once you play the music, once you perform the music, once you put it out there, it’s not really yours anymore in terms of how people interpret it. I’m very pleased that there seems to be a large number of people who have chosen to use what I-slash-we do as a catalyst for something positive. That’s great.
K: That’s really rewarding to see.
F: It is, honestly that’s the best part of it.
K: Cowboy Mouth is playing some shows around the country right now, and you mentioned you’re calling from Mississippi. Is that where everyone in the band is living?
F: No no, the band is based out of New Orleans, but my wife works in Mississippi and that’s where her family is, so that’s where we are right now. But the band is still out of New Orleans, the band’s home is New Orleans, I pay taxes out of New Orleans.
K: I’ve never been there, and I was wondering what the local music scene is like in New Orleans.
F: It’s very healthy right now, because since Katrina, there’s been a giant influx of finances and energy—both mental and physical. There’s been a lot of people who really put thought and intent into New Orleans since Katrina. Which has been great, you know. There’s a lot of money coming in from the feds, a lof of investment, and when you have that type of input, it can only benefit what was already a creative environment in and of itself.
K: It’s good to hear it’s thriving. So what about Mississippi? It’s another place I haven’t been—maybe driving through there, but—what kind of music are people into there?
F: It depends, you know. In the last 20 years or so, with the rise of bands like R.E.M., or even Zac Brown recently, in the south there’s been a tremendous kind of self-awareness. Which has been really good to see. Because for so long, the south has been divided, pretty much since the civil war, on a cultural level. In terms of, let’s say you have someone like Tennessee Williams who writes about the seedier side of the south, the more negative aspects. Great work, but it’s just like…not everyone here is this tragic heroine who’s drowning their sorrows in alcohol and drugs. In the past 20 or 30 years I’ve seen a lot of creative self-awareness of the southern United States, which has really been wonderful to see. You know, we’re not a bunch of cousin-screwing moron hicks here. There’s a lot of vibrant, strong creativity that travels the gamut culturally, racially, spiritually, the whole shebang. It’s a giant melting pot down here, in Louisiana and all across the south: Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina. It’s very healthy and it’s very generously proportioned. I really enjoy that and I think there’s a lot of that blossoming in Mississippi in the last 10-15 years. Mississippi tends to get pretty snake-bit because of it’s supposed reputation. But I find down here there’s a lot more harmony and a lot more understanding between the different cultures that exist side by side. There’s an awareness and an acknowledgement of not only the past, but of the present as well. It’s easy to sit there and say, “This group of people or this idea was bad, yada yada.” It’s history. You get all of that through the ages. It’s not a matter of pointing fingers, or sitting there and saying this person said or that person said, this happened and it’s terrible so that makes you and your grandkids terrible people. The question is: How are we going to work with each other to fuse a good today and an even better tomorrow? And I find that people who sit there and push separation, in terms of any “ism”, whether it’s racism or sexism or this or that—when somebody is sitting there and using that type of terminology, somewhere along the line they’ve got their hand in your wallet. Somewhere along the line, they’ve got their hand in your pocket. How can I put this…when I travel around the country talking to different people of different races, religions, you know, whether it’s black, white, yellow, whether it’s middle-eastern, foreigners, Iranians, Jews, Palestinians, the whole shebang, people don’t sit there and rail about different colors—they talk about their kids. They talk about their family. They talk about the things they like to do. People tend to be more inclusive than exclusive. And when you meet those type of people who tend to be exclusive, somewhere along the line they’ve got their hand in your pocket. That’s been my experience and perspective, so there you go.
K: It’s great to hear about the harmony and diversity where you’re located.
F: And nothing’s perfect. You’re not going to get a point where people are always going to get along. There’s always going to be people who travel in tribes, you know. That’s just the way human nature is. It’s always going to be difficult to cross a bridge. But a lot more of those bridges exist than I think used to.
K: Thankfully you’ve had these experiences traveling, to give you an even bigger perspective. I hope that everybody in their life has the potential to travel. So, on your upcoming string of shows, is there anywhere that you don’t visit that often that you’re excited to go back to?
F: I always love playing in Milwaukee. Milwaukee for some reason has always been great to us. We normally do Summerfest every year, and they’ve always been really generous to us. Wisconsin during the summer I always love. People always ask me, “Wisconsin?” It’s like, “Man, if you go there during the summer it is beautiful!”. It’s lush, the people are always in a good mood, the weather is gorgeous, and you know, it’s great! Whenever people think summer they think Florida. Which is great, which is wonderful, but up north it’s like 70, 80 degrees. People are always in the best mood, and Milwaukee has always been very generous to Cowboy Mouth. So I love going up there. Milwaukee is a great city, and it’s growing. And people seem to be figuring that out, which is nice.
K: Right. You know, people gravitate towards places like L.A., San Francisco, New York. But there’s certain places in Minnesota and even in Texas that are kind of growing, even Madison is kind of a tech hub.
F: Yeah! Madison’s great, Minneapolis is great. Nowadays with the growth of the internet, you don’t have to be in one of those cultural centers in order to thrive. And that’s great. You can make your life wherever you want it to be.
K: Totally. And when you guys play in Milwaukee, maybe you guys can bring some of that warmth to us in the winter. Because you’re right, people are really happy here during the summer because the winter is so long—and we have to get through!
F: It’s true! I don’t know how y’all do it. We did two arena tours with Barenaked Ladies, in 2001 or something like that. And they talked about winters in Canada, about how they enjoyed it—and we were all sitting there like, “How the hell do you deal with that? That’s insane!” Different strokes for different folks.
K: Well you have some exciting shows ahead of you, and a new album out, Go. I was wondering, when you were approaching this album, was there anything in particular that you were intentionally trying to do differently? Or would you call it a steady stream of work?
F: I would say it’s a lot more concentrated than some of our other albums. Our albums tend to be…not scattershot, but just kind of all over the place simply because I’ve never wanted to limit us. I’ve never wanted to do “Jenny Says” over and over and over. But I think Go benefits from the fact that we had a good budget this time. The last few albums we did, there were a few times when we had to cut separately, like in different cities using different people’s studios, because, it’s the nature of the beast. Studio time built to record a group of musicians in one place can be expensive. And so this time we had a really good budget, we had a really strong producer, an outside guy who we trusted, who kind of took what he thought the best elements of the band were and put them together. So I was really happy with the way it came out. There’s a good energy to it, it’s very focused, the songs are good, and it’s a strong collection of songs all the way through. It kind of touched on some of the rootsier aspects of the band,. Not just rock, but blues stuff, which I like. You know, like rockabilly and things like that. I was really pleased with it. You know when I listen to it, overall, I think it’s one of the best records we’ve ever done.
K: Right on, that’s awesome! It’s always a good feeling when that happens.
F: It’s a really good feeling, and that’s always been my thing with Cowboy Mouth. Whenever I finish doing something, whether it’s a show, or an album, the feeling that I get of knowing that I did my very best, that’s satisfying. That’s better to me than money, or notoriety, or any of that stuff. Just the knowledge that I did my best. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that.
K: That’s a great way to go through life. It’s all about your outlook, and that’s a great way to see things. Otherwise you’re always going to be trying for something that’s not permanent, like money.
F: You don’t want to sit there and base your life on something like other people’s opinions or things like that. You’ve got to be true to you, and just do your best. Everything else will come together eventually.
K: Besides the tour you’re about to go on, do you have any exciting plans for 2015 with the band?
F: We’re playing New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on Sunday April 26th. It’s our 25th Jazz fest. We’ve been doing a lot of great shows. We’re finishing this little Mardi Gras run up through February. I’m not exactly sure what we’re going to be doing this summer, but we will be celebrating our 25th anniversary this year so I guarantee there’ll be a pretty fair amount of partying.
K: Well happy 25th anniversary to your band. I appreciate you taking time to chat today, this has been great! Keep in touch.
F: Back at ya, and best of luck with everything you guys are up to at Murfie, it all sounds really really cool. Hope to see you guys in the future. Come up and say hello sometime!
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Kayla manages social media and customer support at Murfie. You can hear her on the radio hosting U DUB, the reggae show, Wednesdays on WSUM. She enjoys hosting the Murfie podcast, cooking, traveling, going to concerts, and snuggling with kittycats.