Down by the Levee: The Deslondes’ Sam Doores and Riley Downing

Left to right: Dan Cutler, Riley Downing, Sam Doores, Cameron Snyder, Mat Davidson (Photo: Adrienne Battistella)
Published  May 2016

The 9th Ward Holy Cross levee sits directly across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, the curve of the city’s crescent plainly visible from its banks. From this vantage point, New Orleans appears close yet far away, an old friend to reflect upon from a distance. The connection to the natural environment here is deep and immediate.

Left to right: Dan Cutler, Riley Downing, Sam Doores, Cameron Snyder, Mat Davidson (Photo: Adrienne Battistella)

Left to right: Dan Cutler, Riley Downing, Sam Doores, Cameron Snyder, Mat Davidson                  (Photo: Adrienne Battistella)

Just below the levee, at the end of Deslondes Street, sits a small house. A tour van with a Stax Records license plate is parked in front. A chicken coop backed by a line of young trees stands in the expansive backyard. A fire pit ringed by old lawn chairs sits invitingly. I’m here to interview Sam Doores and Riley Downing, who have, after many years in other bands, come to a place of stability as The Deslondes, along with fellow band members Dan Cutler, Cameron Snyder, John James Tourville, and newest addition Mat Davidson.

A roots band with a deep country sensibility, The Deslondes’ sound is both familiar and novel. New Orleans classic rhythm and blues and long-forgotten stars of Sun Records stand alongside early gospel as influences. Although a dance band intended for pleasure, a deep melancholy pervades The Deslondes’ stronger songs. As a five-piece ensemble—each member a songwriter—the band has an intensity about them that seems to come from another place and time.

The Deslondes’ second, self-titled album, produced by Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff), was released last summer on New West Records to positive reviews. As the band prepares for a summer touring schedule that includes the U.S., U.K., and the Netherlands, I sat down with Sam and Riley to reflect on a changing New Orleans and bridging the gap between past and future through song.

 

Sam, your house backs up to the Mississippi River. Not many New Orleanians get the experience of being able to be so close and connected to the physical environment. How does that influence the band’s musicality?

Sam Doores: This place is really the heart of the band. It became a place where a lot of friends could stay and we’d all just hang around the fire and sit on the porch and trade tunes. I think being right on the river bend and having a bunch of open space around us made it feel a little more like living in the country… it was more peaceful, we could make noise, we could record… it just felt like a little step away from the city. But also, just being on the Mississippi River feels like you’re a part of the bloodstream of American history and music, you know? There’s something special about being by the river and being right on it.

 

Tell me about your experiences with gospel growing up.

SD: I was born in San Francisco, went to school out in California. Sometimes we’d go hang out on my grandpa’s farm in Kansas in the summertime. I grew up singing gospel in Baptist churches around the Bay Area, in Oakland, San Francisco, Marin City… we’d do that a couple times a week from the time I was seven to the time I was 18.

 

What was it about gospel that was captivating to you? I mean, you did it because your family did it, but beyond that, what did you love about it?

SD: The music is just infectious. I got the same feeling out of it as a kid as I got out of rock‘n’roll; it had the same kind of energy and passion behind it. There were big dances, and people would get up and clap and stomp and go crazy—it was just a lot of fun. And the people that were singing it, they usually really believed in what they were singing. There’s something to be said for that, too. It’s less about ego and more about making music that you believe in.

 

When you sing gospel songs within the band’s repertoire now, do you attempt to make it as close to the original as possible? How do you approach a cover?

SD: We usually try to put our own spin on it because it’s pretty hard to beat a lot of those old recordings. Especially if you’re trying to do it like they did it; it’s just never gonna be quite as powerful. But whenever we approach a cover we try to make it—

Riley Downing: We tip our hat to the original but keep it creative.

SD: Yeah, exactly. Bring some kind of new take to it, either lyrically or musically or arrangement-wise.

 

And Riley, you’re from Holt, Missouri. Tell me about the musicians in your family.

RD: Well, it used to be just me, and now everybody plays music. [laughs] But I did have relatives—my grandma’s uncles played old-time and bluegrass—they used to go to the opry every weekend, that was their thing. They’d go to Old Country Buffet and then they’d go to one of the oprys… just the small town, country show kind. I used to have to go to those, and I really didn’t like country music. I had to listen to Willie Nelson every day as a kid and it made me sick after a while. I didn’t like love songs and all that. Then I played in rock‘n’roll and punk bands in high school.

 

Photo: Brandt Vicknair

Photo: Brandt Vicknair

When did you get your first guitar?

RD: I got my first guitar when I was 14, made my first CD when I was 15, and I didn’t know you had to tune it ‘til I was 16. [laughs] I hope nobody ever hears that thing. I ended up learning power chords and didn’t really know, or I was a little too stubborn, to learn all the letters. It was like I knew it was something I had to learn but didn’t want to think about it. And then I went to the Winfield Bluegrass Festival in Kansas and was part of that as an 18-year old. Seeing that for the first time got me really excited to play with other people.

 

Sam, what was the first song you wrote that you were proud of ?

SD: I think the first song I ever wrote was called “When I’m Out on the Wind.” I wrote it for my high school sweetheart. I guess at the time I felt pretty proud of it.

 

Howd it go over?

SD: I was really, really nervous the first time I sang it for her. [laughs] But the first song I was really artistically proud of, I think, was “Cricket’s Creed,” the second-to-last track on our first record [Holy Cross Blues, recorded as The Tumbleweeds]. And that was the second song I wrote.

 

Interviewers always seem to ask whether having five songwriters in the band causes any problems. I’m not going to ask that because I see it as an asset, but I do want to know about your decision-making process for choosing songs.

RD: I think we honor any song anybody writes. We’ll try it out, try to make it as full as we can get it and record it just to put it down. Even if it doesn’t make it on an album, we’ll hold on to it and hopefully someday we’ll just have too many of those.

SD: Yeah, I think we try to all be aware intuitively of choosing our own songs to bring to the band, something that would fit and then we can kind of judge. It’ll either click and sound great or sometimes it doesn’t click and just kind of fades away. But there’s always a decision-making process. I think our last record we recorded 22 songs and had to choose 12, so… Some of your favorite recordings don’t make it, just because it’s also about what songs go together on a record, in what order, and you want to make sure every person has a voice.

RD: We learned a lot on the last record.

 

You recorded it at the Bomb Shelter in Nashville, yes?

SD: Yeah. Andrija [Tokic] worked on both of our last records.

RD: Andrija is one of our best friends. We all know how he can motivate us and we’ve all worked together long enough to know how to push and pull a little bit. But we learned a lot off the last record just by trial and error. We’ve been with him in the studio for how many years?

SD: I guess three or four years.

RD: Three or four years now. We all just work really well together.

SD: He understands where we’re coming from. And I think he likes to push us a little bit to try. He’s coming from a more experimental and garage rock aesthetic, and we’re into that but we’re also a roots band. I like the friction that happens where we both kind of push each other. He engineers and gives us the space to produce our own record but also comes up with good ideas and co-produces it with us.

 

Sam, being a multi-instrumentalist, do you approach songwriting differently depending on what instrument you’re working with?

SD: I think it definitely affects it for me. The songs I write on a piano are completely different… I would never write them on a guitar, I think. I actually like writing songs on instruments I don’t really know how to play, like the fiddle… Your hands aren’t in habits already, you’re not just doing something out of force of habit.

RD: I would love to have a piano on tour because Sam and Cameron can just tear it up on piano. When we got together and worked in Georgia, we just locked ourselves up for a week and worked on new stuff, which we’d never done before. But it was really good. There was a piano in the other room we didn’t notice for two days. Seems as soon as that thing got put in the room—

SD: —the album came together. I think there’s gonna be a lot of piano on our next record. I like writing on the drums, too. You just get in that rhythm for a second and think about how you want people to dance to the song and then build it from there.

RD: We’ve got the simplest kit in town; we don’t have any cymbals. [laughs] SD: Yep, just kick and snare drum.

 

Dancing seems to be really central to the band’s sound.

SD: For sure. I mean, it’s a community here, where the music and the dances are tied at the hip and have been that way for a long time. We go out every week dancing to our friends’ bands. Everybody social dances and two-steps and I think that had a huge impact on what we wanted our sound to be. When I first came to New Orleans, I was a singer-songwriter and I was expecting to play in places where people would sit down to listen. And I quickly realized that wasn’t gonna happen. When we saw our friends dancing, we ended up just writing a lot of songs people could dance to. One of our first gigs in town, we started this country night at Desperado’s Pizza and people were coming out and dancing. Then it got moved around; it was at AllWays Lounge for a little while. But we couldn’t keep it going because we were on the road, so Matt and Joy from The Wasted Lives took over and they’ve been running it every Tuesday since, kind of giving a space for all our friends to come out and dance.

RD: It’s their fifth or sixth year doing it.

SD: It really helped continue the whole social dancing scene for country here, maybe helped encourage other bands to play more jug and country music.

RD: It’s great when you see out-of-town country bands come to town and play gigs. Where they’re from, they don’t dance like they do in New Orleans, and so they play some of the best shows they’ve played here just because everybody’s dancing.

 

You both have talked a lot about how Woody Guthrie has been a primary influence. What is it about him that’s influenced you the most? His worldview? His musicality? The point in time he was working and writing?

SD: It was definitely the whole picture. First and foremost, I was attracted to his worldview and just his perspective on people in general and his life spirit. He had this clear vision of what was happening, the injustices that were happening, and he wrote about it all in a way that everyone could relate to. And he had this crazy energy: he wrote thousands of songs while he was traveling out to California with everybody with the Dust Bowl migration… I’m more attracted to his life spirit and soul than I am to his musicality, but even his musicality is just so simple and sounds instantly familiar. It’s rhythmic and it’s easy to get into, and I think it encouraged me to first start learning guitar because it didn’t seem unattainable to learn those songs.

RD: He’s not the best singer in the world and he’s far from the worst. SD: Exactly. I was like, maybe I can play those songs and sing kind of like that. If I had tried to sound like Otis Redding or Stevie Wonder at the start, I wouldn’t have even tried, you know? RD: We all met at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival [in Okemah, Oklahoma]. We were all kind of there for similar reasons. We were sitting across the camp fire and somebody started playing a Cast King song and I was like, “how do you know that song?” and they were like, “how do you know that song?” And Abner Jay songs, too. It was just like we all finally realized that we were listening to the same stuff, finding the same stuff, digging the same stuff. We saw each other at the Woody festival for a few years and then we decided to make a go of it.

SD: The first song I ever heard Riley play at the open mic was “When I Was Born Again.” It’s a Woody Guthrie song he found the lyrics to, but Woody had never recorded it. Riley wrote this beautiful music and melody for it and blew me away. As soon as I heard it I just knew I wanted to play music with him.

RD: I probably didn’t play that song again until I joined the band. The first few times I played here I was shaking. I was thinking, “I’ve got [Hurray for the] Riff Raff behind me, I just showed up in New Orleans…” I’m like, “I’ve never been in a band this good.” [laughs]

 

You both came to the city after Katrina, as so many others have. Was being part of the rebuilding process important to you?

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Photo: Brandt Vicknair

SD: All of us definitely came here out of immense respect for New Orleans music and wanting to honor it. We wanted to help keep that feeling and that tradition alive to the best of our ability. We’re not coming from that tradition. We’re definitely influenced by New Orleans rhythm and blues and New Orleans music, but I think in general we’ve immersed ourselves in the whole current New Orleans music culture and we’re just trying to help make a space for that and give as much of ourselves to it as possible. RD: And defend it a little bit. Spend enough time somewhere, that’s what you do. I remember when Katrina happened, I remember watching the news and thinking, I should go down there and do something. And I had buddies who came down here and did stuff, church groups, but still I didn’t move here until later. I don’t think we’ve done any bad here. I still feel like we wanna do as much good as we can.

 

Do you run into many preconceived ideas, like you’re out touring and people see you’re from New Orleans and expect a certain thing ?

SD: Quite often we get the “you guys are from New Orleans but you play country music!” They’re surprised there’s any country music coming out of New Orleans. And we’re not a “country band” in my opinion; we’re a band that plays a bunch of different styles, but people are still surprised.

 

Thats kind of a microcosm of New Orleans, in a way. There’s always been a country scene here and there’s always been waves of transplants to the city, since the very beginning. It’s just been amplified and more complicated after the storm.

SD: Right. There’s a huge country scene here. And New Orleans has always been a meeting point for different people and different cultures. That’s gotten more intense after Katrina, but it’s always been that way.

 

So what’s the new band news? Your pedal steel player has moved to Asheville, correct? But he’s still going to record with you?

RD: Yeah, John James is playing around with some other musicians in Asheville.

SD: John’s still killing it playing fiddle, pedal steel, and guitar out there now. He’s been doing a few runs with us and he’s still writing some really good songs that we’re gonna record for the next record.

RD: Oh, and we’re a full family band now!

SD: Yeah, Dan just had a little baby girl, Ida Lou.

RD: We’ve got the same birthday, May 5th. She made it by like 15 minutes or something. Was hoping they’d name her Riley. [laughs] And Cameron’s in a few bands right now.

SD: Cameron’s been playing with our neighbor, Lee, and with Esther Rose—he’s playing lead guitar in that band and singing beautiful harmonies. He just keeps getting better and better at everything he plays. He’s got some great new songs we’re gonna record too.

 

Whats the plan for the next record?

SD: We’re in the process of figuring out the details, but we’re gonna get Andrija to come down here and set up a little makeshift studio somewhere. We’re sort of leaning towards the Tigermen Den. It’s a beautiful space. We recorded our first record half in the front room of this house and Andrija was thinking about that as an option, too. Just mixing it up for this one cuz we’ve been in his studio for the last two. I think it would be fun to be in a different headspace and a different physical space. It’ll probably be out late winter/early spring, hopefully before this festival season comes round again.

 

Do you return to the same influences when writing new material? Or do you purposely try to seek out new ones?

SD: So much of what inspires me in my songwriting often comes from the same place. Right now I think of campfires and sitting on the porch and just hearing everybody’s original material. There are so many incredible musicians in town— everybody knows that—but all these great musicians that don’t make a living playing original music also write heartbreakingly good songs. And a lot of them don’t have a venue for it. We’re hugely influenced by old records and 45s we had in common, but also hugely influenced by our friends who live in town. And being here in New Orleans and being part of the scene here on Deslondes Street has been a such a big part of who we are as a band. That was a big part of the reason why we chose the name Deslondes, because this was a space for people to come together.

RD: A lot of those kids who go out and busk every day too, even though you might hear them playing ragtime or whatever, they’ll come sit around the campfire and play you a country song. That’s where I’ve heard the best music in New Orleans—sitting right here around the fire.

 

For more info on the Deslondes, including upcoming U.S., U.K., and Netherlands tour dates, check out thedeslondes.com

 

 

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