When he’s not out touring, rising zydeco star J.J. Caillier can be found working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
At night, he tries out new material on the crew.
“I bring my accordions offshore and practice,” he revealed during our recent interview. “[I spend] 14 days in the middle of the gulf. You’ve got some of the best cooks in the world on the rigs … everything you’d have at home. [But] I guess the hardest part, for some of the guys, is just being out there.
“The work isn’t that hard,” he continues. “I have a lot of time to practice and create new songs. You get new ideas just from hearing guys talking, different problems that they’re having; [I] take some of their lives and write songs about it. I bring the rubboard out there so they can keep a rhythm with me, and everybody wants to get on it and play.”
When not at sea, the 32-year-old Caillier lives where he was born — in Lafayette, La. His father, J.J. Caillier Sr., owned a music store there, producing Clifton Chenier and many other local zydeco acts in the area on his own record label (which now features J.J. Jr.). In those days, the younger Caillier was happy just soaking it all up.
“I was always around those guys, so it gave me a chance to learn,” he says. “They’d come by the record store and hang out, and even Rockin’ Sydney would come hang out and just talk, and play the accordion.
“My dad tried to get me to play accordion about 18 years ago,” he recalls, “but I just didn’t want to do it at the time. I was like, ‘I don’t like it.’ I was more drawn to the piano. But I started taking a liking to it.” In his current band, The Zydeco Knockouts, Caillier finds himself not only a good friend of the squeezebox, but a demanding taskmaster, challenging this traditional zydeco instrument to adapt to some very nontraditional settings. Some have dubbed the result “zyde-funk,” reflecting the sound’s seamless blend of old and new.
“I just try to keep up with different ideas, throw something different in there instead of giving people the same thing. I listen to everything,” he says with a laugh. “It gives me a chance to broaden up and get different ideas into it. When I get the chance, I listen to the radio, sometimes a country station, sometimes top 40, sometimes rock. You just got to listen to different things, get different ideas, to give the people what they really want.
“I like to listen to some of the old stuff, like Clifton Chenier and Buckwheat Zydeco,” he continues. “I like to listen to Beau Jocques because it gives you that funk feel. I listen to these zydeco shows on the radio, and they play all the different zydeco groups out there,” he elaborates.
In his own work, Caillier uses a modern rhythm section of bass, drums and electric guitar — and to good effect. “It’s starting to get more funky now. That’s what people want to hear,” he acknowledges. “If it had been left like the old way, there wouldn’t be too many people listening to it now. You make it a little bit funky, and everybody’s starting to dance on it. Even the younger kids are starting to go out to the stores and buy it, as opposed to rap or something else. They’re saying ‘Let’s go buy the new Zydeco’.”
The Knockouts prominently feature drummer Joseph Sylvester. “The drummers know a lot more now than they did,” explains the front man. “Years back, they used to just play a lot of straight beats and keep the rhythm simple. Now, we try to take different beats and put it all in together.” He’s joined by bassist Chuck Bush, described by Caillier as simply, “one of the baddest bass players you’ll ever meet.” Guitarist Ken August drops a little Jimi Hendrix into the mix at times, and Derrick Thomas mans the rubboard with authority. Together, they shine on the swampy second-line groove, which Caillier claims is often mistakenly identified with New Orleans: “That rhythm has always been here, but a lot of people go to New Orleans, so they [think] that the style came from [there], but it actually didn’t. It’s more from South Louisiana, bayou country.”
On Drop It Like It’s Hot (Caillier Records, 1999), Caillier — for the first time — concentrates on the single-note Cajun accordion (as opposed to the more common piano-note accordion). It was a decision prompted by public demand: “Everywhere we’d go, [it was] ‘Hey J.J., when you going to play the Cajun accordion?’ I was, like, ‘The next album, we’ll do it.’ So I bought [one], started writing songs, and I played it.”
What’s the difference? “A piano-note accordion can play in any key,” Caillier instructs. “My Cajun accordion is a B-flat, so you have to play in the key of B-flat. And when you push and pull, it gives you two different notes. If you pull out on a piano-note, it’s going to be the same thing as if you push in. The single-note is different. I just decided, ‘Hey, they want to hear it, so I’m going to have to learn how to play it.’ I sat down a couple hours one day, and I couldn’t believe how simple it was.”
With upbeat tunes like “Everywhere I Go (They Like To Zydeco)” and “Tu Le Ton Son Ton,” Caillier is promoting the music with a looseness and fun that’s infectious. “That’s what makes it roll — when everybody’s up there having a good time, when the band is getting into it.” He has fond memories of a certain Asheville gig (namely, the First Night celebration) that fit such a description, commenting, “I look forward to going back out there and tearing the house up again.”