Living In The Greatest Musical Toolbox: Stanton Moore Talks NOLA, Allen Toussaint, Galactic & More

 Photo by Marc Pagani


Words by: Chad Berndtson

If you’ve seen or heard New Orleans legend Stanton Moore play drums in Galactic or otherwise, you know he’s a pretty exuberant guy. Still, to hear him talk about Allen Toussaint and his forthcoming album of the New Orleans legend’s compositions, With You In Mind: The Songs of Allen Toussaint, is to hear deep admiration and intense enthusiasm — a want to have gotten it right, and successfully done so.

The album coming out on July 21 via Mascot Label Group/Cool Green Recordings features Moore’s trio — himself, keyboardist David Torkanowsky and bassist James Singleton — surrounded by an all-star cast, including Cyril Neville, Maceo Parker, Trombone Shorty actor/musician Wendell Pierce, Galactic touring vocalist Erica Falls and many others.

Stanton took us through the making of the album, what’s ahead for Galactic and other projects, and his typically epic Jazz Fest.

JAMBASE: This is such a warm and inviting record. I know you played some with Allen Toussaint. Did you know him well?

STANTON MOORE: I wanted to work with him so much more. I wouldn’t say I knew him well. We got to work with him a good bit, though of course I wanted to do so much more in the future. Going back to our first meeting with him, it was after we started a little instrumental four-piece to play instrumental Meters stuff. We didn’t want to just play that as Galactic so it was myself, Rich Vogel, Robert Mercurio and Jeff Raines, and we got a weekly gig at Benny’s, a local blues bar on Valence Street, which was one of the first places The Meters played.

We were playing there, and this guy who was an associate of Allen’s came and heard us and said, “I really dig you, and I want to introduce you guys to Allen.” We had just recorded [1996’s] Coolin’ Off, it hadn’t come out yet, and we were starting to tour a bit, and in between we were doing this little side project. We waited a while, and we still hadn’t met Allen, and a few weeks later this guy called again and said Allen wants to meet. By then we’d been at Sea Saint [recording studio] a few times, and we went back and were going to meet Allen in his office, which was like a time capsule to 1974, with green shag carpet and paneling on the walls. He’s sitting behind his desk and we all sit down and talk with him and he said, “Nice to meet y’all, and it seems like y’all are on your way.”

He later invited us to Dooky Chase’s, the New Orleans restaurant where he had a private room. And we went there and to a long table, and he was sitting there with Reggie, his son, on one arm and Alison, his daughter, on the other, and he starts talking about writing together eventually. Later on, we released Ya-Ka-May [in 2010], and there were two tunes — “Bacchus,” which is on the record, and “Muss The Hair,” which wound up as a Japan release bonus track — that we did with him. I remember as part of the EPK [electronic press kit], I got elected to go up and sit on a Steinway piano with him in front of cameras and talk with him.

JAMBASE: What was he like to work with?

SM: Well, somewhere in the midst of all this, we ended up doing a few shows with him, too. He came and sat- in with us, and he opened for us on piano. During all our rehearsals with him, what I found amazing was he never phoned anything in. Not anything. He was super present, and this was on songs he’s played like a million times. He’d hear strengths and weaknesses and every time we’d play through a tune, he’d have these little details, like, now, guitar player, give me some more on this section, or horns, how about this for this section. Each time we’d play it, he’d add a little more. It was not an arrangement that had been pre-worked out, it was arranging, right there.

I remember sharing this with Reggie, his son, who was like, man, he wakes up, and every day he writes at least one new song. After he passed, I had breakfast with Reggie to tell him about this record, and he told me about how, before Allen passed, they were living together, and there’d be nights where at 3:00 a.m, Allen would call out, “Reggie, you awake?” [laughs] And Reggie would say, “I am now.” And Allen would say, “I got an idea. Let’s go to the studio.”

Morning, noon and night he was living and breathing music. We’ve heard just the tip of the iceberg of what he’s written. Seriously, there’s so much Allen music that no one will ever hear. That’s how you get better as a composer — doing it that often.

JAMBASE: Relentlessly.

SM: Yeah, he grew up in an environment where every day — literally every day — he was writing for artists in a studio. I think it went back to the late ‘50s, when he started, and he was a factory, just churning out tunes. He was very prolific, and the output was a result of having to do it every day. Nowadays people have bedroom studios, they do things on their own, but there’s no record label or anyone standing over them making them write three, five, six tunes a day. That model no longer exists to produce another Allen Toussaint. He was on a deadline, and he had to write all the time, meaning he got incredibly good at it.

Some of his tunes are deeper than you think, too — he was way more political than people give him credit for. “Yes We Can,” obviously, but also “Freedom For The Stallion,” “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further,” some of these song are really tight statements. And they sit alongside, you now, “Here Come the Girls” and stuff you party to. But the breadth of his output, man. You hear an Allen horn arrangement, you know it’s one of his even if you have no idea what the song is. You know he produced it or was in some way part of it. He wrote the horns for [The Band’s] Rock Of Ages album and the legend is he showed up and the airline had lost his arrangements.

JAMBASE: That’s right, just disappeared.

SM: Right, right, you’ve heard the story. He had basically an hour and a half to recreate those charts before people were going to start rehearsing, and he said, “Get me a room and leave me alone.” He locked himself in the room and did the charts again, from memory. Reggie can corroborate all that, but my point is, talk about the breadth of his talent. The horn parts he did for that are incredible. Not only did he write all these great tunes, he did horn arrangements for The Band and all these people.

JAMBASE: You shelved another record you were working on to focus on this album. Will you return to that material?

SM: That’s a great question and it’s one I’m debating now. How do I top this record by just going in and doing a trio record? I’m super psyched about how this record came out, because we really went in with no plan, except to make a trio record. We started talking, and saying what Allen tunes do we want to do, and coming up with arrangements, and hey, now we need a singer, so let’s call Cyril Neville, and he came to two tunes, and then we called him back and he ended up doing five tunes … and that’s how these things go.

Living in New Orleans as a musician is like living inside of the greatest toolbox you could possibly imagine. We need some horns. OK, so what would be the most epic horn section would could try here? How about Nicholas Payton, Donald Harrison and Trombone Shorty? Or how about Skerik, Mark Mullins, Eric Bloom and Aaron Fletcher? You just have the most incredible musicians and talents who can be at your disposal here. Mike Dillon, my friend — hey buddy, want to come play some of this? Sure, yeah. And Kiki Phillips, wow. Tork was like, “You gotta get this girl on your record.” I knew she was a badass, and when she sang, the hair stood up on my arms and neck, in the studio, through the headphones. And then Erica Falls and Ivan Neville. We really just kind of winged it, while at the same time being very specific and deliberate about the arrangements.

JAMBASE: Why do you think you and Tork and James Singleton have such excellent chemistry?

SM: I grew up watching those guys play, and I took in the influence of watching those guys and listened to a lot of songs they had written and played on. Both have a lot of common tunes they knew — they can both swing, and play jazz, and have a deep understanding of Mardi Gras Indian music, and groove. You don’t always find guys who are incredible jazz musicians that also actually love funk, or vice versa. They’re passionate about funk and jazz and everything in between, and they can kill it: swing, play second line, play funk, it was painfully obvious that these guys would just make this all fall into place. The two of them actually hadn’t played together, beyond here and there, in like 10 years. It wasn’t like they used to, so they were really excited to play together again, and I was and am really excited to play with them.

JAMBASE: Turning to Galactic, you guys will spend much of your summer tour with Gov’t Mule. Lot of history there — you looking forward to it?

SM: Oh yeah, 100 percent. We always have loved those guys, and it’s honestly been a while since we’ve had a chance to do anything with them. This will be real time spent: it’ll be four weekends, and we usually try not to be out any longer than three weekends. So it’ll be a nice chunk of time, and hopefully we’ll get to develop some new rapport and share the stage and have Warren [Haynes] play with us and us play with them.

I like being on the road like that where you go to sleep on the bus, and you wake up in the place you’re going to be that day. I carry a little practice kit with me under the bus, and if I have to, I’ll set it up outside, behind the trailer even, especially if the weather’s nice. So on a tour like that, I look forward to playing, and practicing, and writing. Now that I have the Stanton Moore Drum Academy I have to write a hell of a lot of lessons [laughs]. That’s going great, but it’s like working on a DVD and a book at the same time. I love the process, but I need to spend time on it. So on tours like this, I have all day to work, and at night we get to play with the Mule.

JAMBASE: Is Galactic working on new material?

SM: Yeah, absolutely. We’re always working on new stuff – just this week we started rehearsing one of the new songs that’s about ready to be mixed. We plan to release a few tunes as singles before we put them together as a record, and we have two that are almost done and that we’re ready to start playing live. But we’re always working on new stuff. I’m not sure when the full record will be released, but we have our own studio so we always have new stuff coming.

JAMBASE: Erica Falls has been out with Galactic for a while now. Is she sticking around?

SM: I don’t see why we should change it! There might be some times where she has her own things — she went to Australia recently and we had Cyril for some of it and Corey Glover for some of it. But for the most part, we have her and want her as much as we possibly can. To use a David Torkanowsky quote, “We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to singers.”

JAMBASE: Speaking of an embarrassment of riches, how was your Jazz Fest this year?

SM: It was great. I played I think 27 gigs.

JAMBASE: That’s all?

SM: Yeah, man. [laughs] I did 31 one year, and that just about killed me and I was saying that might have been too many. But this time I had about 22 or 23 and then I started adding a few private gigs and a few others that came in last minute, and it wound up being 27. In terms of memorable moments, The Heat — which is myself, Oteil [Burbridge], Eric Krasno and Ivan Neville — that was one of the nights where we were looking at each other like, wow, what the fuck is going on? In the best way, you know? How much fun are we having right now? It was incredibly good.

Galactic at the Fairgrounds was great, too. One of the other standout moments was my set in the Jazz Tent where we were playing as the trio. We did a few tunes as the trio, and added Skerik and Eric Bloom, and then Cyril came in and we did some of the Toussaint material. It ended with a standing ovation and some of the people who were outside the tent told me it was like 15 people deep outside of the jazz tent. I was hoping that would be a great set but it just exceeded all of my expectations. It was one of those moments between us and the audience where it was just, hey, they loved it, and we loved it too. We worked hard on that record and hard on rehearsing to present it live, and to have it all come together in that moment was really impactful.

JAMBASE: Twenty seven gigs with that, amazing. But we’d kind of expect nothing less from you.

SM: You know, it was 27, and I can’t even think of one that looking back I would have said no to. Every single gig was a gig I wanted to do with musicians I wanted to play with. I have no plans to cut back. It’ll be the plan going forward.