They’re purported to be famed vampire chronicler Anne Rice’s favorite band. If it’s true, the dark novelist must be exploring her sunny side, these days, because the seven-year-old New Orleans quartet Cowboy Mouth is about as far from gothic as, well, dead is from undead. Think bouncy, not brooding.
To be sure, the band’s latest release, Mercyland (MCA Music, 1998), serves up plenty of songs about broken hearts and soured relationships, but even its bitterest lyrics can’t squelch the polished optimism that pervades the work. You might call their sound “upbeat alterna-country-rock, with an edge.” And it’s a hard sound to marry to the band’s allegedly unpredictable live performances, which can include assorted on-stage stunts, according to the testimony of fans in the numerous Web sites devoted to the group It’s not that Mercyland represents any stylistic departure from the band’s earlier offerings; in fact, the disc includes some of Cowboy Mouth’s established songs. It’s just that it’s a more well-rounded sampler of who they really are as musicians, maintains drummer/lead singer Fred LeBlanc.
That’s right — drummer and lead singer. In a departure from conventional musical wisdom, LeBlanc sits right up front with fellow band members Paul Sanchez, John Thomas Griffith and Rob Savoy — an unusual display of solidarity, and a welcome personal departure from his pre-Cowboy endeavors.
“I got tired of looking at guitar players’ behinds for so many years,” is how he puts it.
That camaraderie extends to their audiences, too — with determined intensity. LeBlanc has little patience with singers who take their fans for granted, sacrificing intimacy for ego.
“For so long, rock music has been about the separation of the artist and the audience,” he muses. “The artist puts forth his illusion, whatever that may be — ‘I’m angry, I’m sexy, I’m lonely’ — and the audience is expected to sit through it and just go, ‘Oh, you’re great.’ And that’s fine [for those artists], but more so than other bands, we encourage the audience to participate in the experience. The things we sing about are things that everyone goes through. … We encourage people to look inside themselves and release anything that might be pinning them down, and experience the joy of being alive. Anybody that has a heart and a soul can relate to this music.”
In print, such statements edge toward the grandiose, but LeBlanc’s easy confidence sounds inborn, not manufactured; you get the feeling he could sell taffy to a toothless man, if the notion struck him.
The drummer/singer is also grateful for his roots in what he calls a “musically incestuous” town.
“The experience of growing up in New Orleans is very different from the experience of growing up anywhere else,” he explains. “When [you’re young] you’re listening to marching bands at Mardi Gras. … [The musical diversity] permeates you from the time you’re born. It’s a kind of relaxed feel, here; nothing’s really that big of a deal. With Cowboy Mouth, we just stir all of our [musical influences] up in a big pot to create a big old rock ‘n’ roll orgasm.”
After nearly a decade on the road, LeBlanc is still known for his wild stage shenanigans (“Lord, I’ve been known to do some pretty silly things,” he laments, recalling the time he literally swung from the rafters), though he allows that he’s indulging in fewer crazy stunts, these days. Otherwise, not much has changed for the band since it signed with a major label; LeBlanc has no trouble admitting that heavy touring is still a necessity, not an option.
“It’s the only way to really survive,” he notes. “You have to prove yourself all the time, because [the big record companies] see bands as disposable products. Like anybody else, they’re interested in keeping their jobs.”
And how do band members handle their burgeoning responsibilities?
“It’s about playing music that we think is top-notch,” he replies, not missing a beat. “It’s about taking people on a journey and making sure every show is a complete and total celebration of being alive. Our shows are not like a [typical] rock show, where you wait for [the band to play] the hit, and then you leave.
“A lot of people agree that ours is the finest rock ‘n’ roll show in the world today,” he can’t help bragging. “People leave smiling, singing, dancing and screaming, and we don’t stop until we get that response.”