Swamp groove

“We pissed a lot of people off, and I’m glad we pissed them off.”

In the soft cadence of Steve Riley’s southern Louisiana accent, this malediction comes out sounding strangely appealing. Others, however, would probably disagree: Riley readily acknowledges that when he and his band, The Mamou Playboys, started straying from the strict Cajun formula they began with in 1987, a few hotheads rebelled.

“Those people are closed-minded,” he says simply, adding, “They want to hear one thing only.”

But another school of critics and fans remains amazed at how successfully band members have been able to assimilate a growing slate of influences into their music, while still retaining their base sound. On one hand, strains of country, rock and pop have strutted into the mix, with no apologies. On the other, Riley is still known as an upstart maestro of the instrument that paints any non-Cajun tune with a layer of swamp funk, like it or not: “In 300 years, music scholars will be writing articles about his accordion playing,” gushed one follower.

Ironically, the band’s very popularity has been the catalyst for its musical evolution.

“When you’re playing music, you travel a lot, and you’re exposed to a lot; you get to listen to a lot of different music,” says Riley. “It’s only natural that [those influences] seep into what you’re doing. We’re always playing new places. We went to Japan, and there were even a few Cajun bands there.”

It seems particularly unfair to blame Riley and the Playboys for absorbing different influences, given that every other region in America has been grasping at Cajun culture like crawdads for the past decade.

“Everybody is into what [comes out of] southern Louisiana: the cooking, dancing, the music,” Riley muses. “[That’s] because it’s different here, unique. … Southern Louisiana is like no other place in the United States.”

He explains the difference between the Playboys’ fiddle-heavy Cajun feel and zydeco, the other indigenous southern Louisiana sound and the first spice they added to their initial stew. When Playboys fiddler David Greely began moonlighting on the saxophone, the band’s subtle odyssey of style acquisition was under way.

“We started with traditional Cajun, then added zydeco,” Riley explains. “Zydeco is played [traditionally] by Black Creole folk. It’s R&B-based, with a different accordion [groove].”

The band’s latest CD, Bayou Ruler (Rounder Records, 1998), is a mix of reverently chosen covers (the group pays homage to departed pioneers like Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa and zydeco great Clifton Chenier) and high-energy, if poppy, originals — though the Playboys’ dreamy French waltz “La Rosee” has the honey-slow simplicity of a future classic.

“I grew up in Mamou, a small town of 5,000 people. I heard a lot of really good music growing up. I was surrounded by music,” remembers Riley. The Playboys’ frontman first picked up the accordion at age 7, but lost interest in the instrument after his music-loving grandfather died. Around age 12, however, Riley’s passion was reawakened through his grandfather’s posthumous influence.

“The records he left me spurred my interest again,” Riley explains. By age 15, he had joined Dewey Balfa’s band, and at 18 he formed his current group — named after an early Cajun band from his hometown. (The current Playboy roster is: Riley on accordion, fiddle and vocals; David Greely on fiddle, saxophone, piano and vocals; Peter Schwarz on bass and vocals; Kevin Dugas on drums and triangle; and Jimmy Domengeaux on guitar.)

“When I started [playing traditional Cajun music], I didn’t really understand French,” Riley admits. So he honed his command of the language.

“I wanted to know what I was singing,” he says with a laugh, adding modestly, “I’m not as fluent as I should be, but you can not understand the lyrics and still enjoy the music.”

Their audience, Riley explains, “runs the whole spectrum, from teenagers to old folks. Mid-30s is probably the average age, and a lot of college kids. What’s happened, as our music has changed, is we’ve gotten a younger audience.”

A busy touring schedule often leaves Riley missing the more laid-back atmosphere of home. This is one band that’s still emotionally attached to their native region, naysayers and all.

“We all grew up [in southern Louisiana]: That’s who we are,” Riley proclaims.

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