George Porter Jr. isn’t a household name, unless of course, you’re a bass player aficionado or just a huge huge music slut. But the New Orleans great has been laying down funky bass lines for the better part of 30 years. He’s played with New Orleans music royalty like the Neville Brothers, with bands like The Funky Meters, The Meters, Running Pardners and currently with Porter Batiste Stoltz.
But he’s also been a requested session player for the likes of, um, oh let’s see if some of these names impress you: David Byrne, Tori Amos, Dr. John, Jimmy Buffett, Robbie Robertson, Sir Paul McCartney and Allen Toussaint. We got the chance to talk with George recently over the phone and it was an all too brief conversation, but we left feeling like we coulda spent all afternoon talking with him.
And it should be noted that his birthday, Dec. 26, has become an unofficial holiday celebration in New Orleans, afterall he is “the funkiest bass player in the history of music.”
He has a relaxed demeanor, but as he talks it’s almost like the words and excitement tumble out of his mouth. It should be noted too, that the interview was conducted at my work’s lunchroom and most of the people kept looking at me like I had seven heads, which is a good sign.
Sly Oyster(SO): Hi George! Is this a good time?
George Porter (GP): Yeah this is the time you were supposed to call me. (Noise in the background) Can you hold on a minute. Sorry about that there was some stuff going on at my studio.
SO: So you just got back from a couple of cruises, does it feel good to be back on dry land?
GP: Oh yeah, I got back last Sunday.
SO: So what was it like to play Jam Cruise and the Rhythm and Blues Cruise? It must be different with no where to run from the audience?
GP: It was total free formin’ ya know. I originally thought, man, I’m gonna get mauled every day, but we went to breakfast, lunch, dinner and no one bugged us. People are hollering at you when you play, but then no one is jamming you up otherwise. it’s very comfortable. Then on the R & B Cruise I was one of the least known people, hardly anyone knew me and I was like, man, I’m gonna have to make these people know who I am if you know what I mean.
SO: So how is the new album coming along? How’s it gonna differ from the first album [Expanding the Funkin’ Universe]?
GP: The new album, well, with Brian [Stoltz] being a song oriented player, what happens is that it does bring three elements together. We’ve got free form off the hook stuff and songwriting and I find with this one, the thing is that we looked at what we could’ve done better and the end result – the mix – it was blowing us outta our chairs. It was recorded in my home studio and we were blown away by the sounds and quality that was happening.
My bass was getting two di’s and Brian’s guitar come off so clean. We had two channels of sound for everyone, one was direct and one was a live one off of the amps; just having two choices of sound for the mix and then the solos were done by cranking another rig and then the vocals in the other. The big difference between this one and the last one is the quality of the recordings and I think we did some better songs.
SO: So when can people expect to see the album or hear some of the new tunes off it?
GP: We’ll have it at Jazz Fest. At the month of March, let’s see? We recorded fourteen tracks and we’ll refine and cut some more tracks right up until I have to present it to the studio on March 17. We’ll pick ten tracks and then mix it again and send it. It’s funny I was just looking at my iTunes and none of the songs even have names yet.
SO: Speaking of iTunes, I know you’ve recently come around to some of the new technologies for recording, like large capacity hard-drives and CD burners, but have you given much thought to the digitization of music?
GP: Shit, yeah, it’s a double-edged blade. Big companies when they had total control they get you out on a broader scale, helping you promote or on the radio, but then I think with internet access people all over the world can hear your music. I got an email from a kid in Russia who wanted to know all about me and my music and I couldn’t imagine that ever happening and then to think about how in the heck he found out about George Porter Jr. or the kids in the Ukraine. I never did get an email from China though.
SO: That’s hilarious. Give it time I’m sure some kid’s trying to figure out how to share your music files over there. In a way, though, you almost get more exposure with people sharing your music. I know that’s how I discovered you guys, when a friend burned me a concert and I was just blown away.
GP: Yeah man, everybody has access. I never got anything like that with Warner Brothers, they kept me in the dark. But everybody, like all these garage bands have access to get their music out there. I never knew where my music was being duplicated back in the day, like I said, they kept it secret and you’d be selling records and not getting points for it. Artists can maintain a bit more control. The other side is just where it’s being ripped and they seem to not be protecting you.
SO: I was thinking how the internet has basically become radio, it’s the place you go to listen and share new music. And for PBS I can’t imagine your music getting much exposure on the traditionally radio.
GP: If you got a song over four-minutes long you get no play. We sat down and were trying to keep our songs in that range, but it ain’t gonna happen. Then we were like let’s try to keep them under six. And then we were like ah screw it. You just got to go where the groove takes you sometimes and you can’t worry about other things.
SO: In a lot of quotes you say the time is right for Porter Batiste Stoltz to go out on your own, but I want to know what is it about playing with Russell [Batiste] and Brian [Stoltz] that’s been different, good or bad, from the other litany of musicians you’ve played with over the years?
GP: Porter Batiste Stoltz that band is fun [he stretches the word out and accentuates the u]. It’s not rehearsed. We don’t rehearse, we do things off the cuff and it don’t happen right we just laugh about it. I think that it’s fun in that way. You know, we take the music serious, weren’t not a comedic act, but sometimes shit be funny and you gotta laugh about it. Music is meant to be enjoyed.
SO: This year, it’s not so enjoyable, but it will be three years since Hurricane Katrina. Um, have you seen a change in the music of New Orleans in that time and how has that affected you and your music, outside of having to rebuild your home and whatnot.
GP: Katrina. Yeah, the music has changed, but I can’t narrow it down. I’m learning and growing as an artist. I’m learning how to write songs and how to be an audience and listen to music. I know how to be in someone else’s band like Tori Amos or Steve Kimock. I was a professional sideman and now I’m an artist. I cannot close the bank on learning. Except I still mess up on mathematics.
SO: Yeah thank god for calculators and computers. I have no idea how anyone functioned without them.
GP: Ha! I don’t know.
SO: You recently celebrated your 60th birthday and from all accounts it sounds like it was one hell of a party. I know you’ve been working on possibly releasing it, what’s the status with that?
GP: It was great. My daughter did everything and had a budget and then brought the party in under budget. That’s what it’s all about. Getting it out on an album, I just need some downtime and after touring in PBS I can stop working. I haven’t heard some stuff, well I have heard “Just Kiss My Baby.” It’s a rough mix, but it’s killer. We had on stage five horns, two drum kits, two guitars. Man, it was killer.
As for the release, I gotta secure it. I wanna give everyone a copy first. We have 38 channels in pro-tools, and we want to give everyone their own sets and get three or four songs from each to put on it and then put the entire Running Pardners set. Cause everyone played about 45-minutes. It was just a wonderful evening.
SO: So George before I let you get back doing your thing. I just wanna say thanks. So, what’s the better achievement: being regarded as the funkiest bass player in music or having your birthday become a holiday in New Orleans?
GP: Ha! Both of them look pretty cool. I’m not gonna alter either one. I’ll probably hang them up on my wall and enjoy it. But you know, I just wanna be remember as someone who when people see George Porter Jr. they know he gave them his all – 100% of everything. Ha! I just can’t choose, I like them both.
SO: Thanks George, have a good one.
GP: Thanks you too.