Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Erica Rivera Interviews Dr. John

Q&A: Dr. John

Dr. John is a New Orleans legend known for his unique hybrid of psychedelic funk and blues. Raised in the Third Ward, the man otherwise known as Mac Rebbenack was introduced to prominent jazz artists through his father, a record store owner. A producer at Ace Records by the time he was sixteen, it wasn’t long before Dr. John adopted a stage name and released his own breakthrough album, Gris-gris, in 1968.

Despite a dramatic life—Dr. John has survived shootings, stabbings, and overcame a heroin addiction—this Bayou crooner not only solidified his place in the musical community, he’s surpassed most of his peers with 30 albums, multiple Grammys, and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Now 72 years old, the singer, songwriter, pianist and guitarist continues to tour the globe and impress audiences with his indelible energy, multifarious sound, and salt-of-the-Earth attitude. His latest album, 2012’s Locked Down, was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and called a “weird-ass gumbo of grotty funk and R&B” by Pitchfork.

A deeply spiritual man, Dr. John has spoken at length about his belief in voodoo, the “meat world” we all inhabit, and how he values societal well-being over personal wealth.

We spoke to Dr. John from his hotel room in Quebec.

Q: Was there a moment in your youth when music struck you in a particularly poignant way and you knew you wanted to dedicate your life to this?

A: When I first got into producing records and writing songs in the early ‘50s, I was already getting the idea that this is what I was gonna do ‘cause, you know, I didn’t want to do what my father did, which was fix televisions or radios or record players. This is what I wanted to do.

Q: What changes have you seen in the music industry over the course of your career?

A: I’ve seen tons of changes. I happened to be there in the early days when funk music was starting out and I was real blessed to be around a lot of the guys who created the funk.

Q: Do you feel funk is not as popular a genre as it used to be?

A: Well, I think it’s in a lot of music today. I mean, a lot of music came down the pipe from the Joe Texs and the James Browns and all of those kind of people, then it stretched into the hip hop things, so it’s still there but it’s in slightly different forms.

Q: You’ve worked with so many great musicians in the past; is there anyone left who you idolize and with whom you want to collaborate?

A: I’ve always believed that if I’m supposed to work with somebody, I’m gonna do it. I have a lot of friends in this business that’s always been really good to me in different ways, whether it’s Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin and I’ve had a lot of fun doing stuff with them, you know?

Q: Can you describe the New Orleans music scene for someone who hasn’t experienced it before? What makes it unique?

A: I think that so much of the music…it goes in so many different directions and it’s usually around the drums. All these drummers traveled all over the world with different musicians. Earl Palmer probably played on more hit records and more movies than any other one drummer and so many drummers like that caused a major impact and that’s what makes N’awlins something completely different.

Q: Talk about writing your autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon (St. Martin's Griffin, 1995).

A: Well, at the time the government was garnishing a lot of my wages ‘cause I owed the IRS a lot of money. They said if I wrote a book then they wouldn’t do it—but they still did it, so they got their money back. I never read the book. I had a lot of complaints from people that were in it in it and didn’t like what I said or people who weren’t in it and didn’t like that they weren’t mentioned. They had a lot of flak about that book.

Q: Is that reaction similar with songwriting?

A: I think people either feel good about being in a song or if they not in a song, they don’t care one way or another. People that gets in a song can at least say, “Hey, that’s me!”

Q: What was your motivation to get clean from drugs and what helps you stay clean on a day-to-day basis?

A: I feel the path I’ve chosen is a good, healthy path. I go to N.A. meetings. I might be breaking my anonymity saying that. I believe that certain things can help certain people.

Q: What’s the best piece of music advice you ever received?

A: I remember early on Paul Gayten told me that you have to have your own arrangements to everything. You can’t play music like anybody else’s record and I thought that was great advice. Paul was a great record producer for the Chess brothers in Chicago. He did a lot of records with Etta James and Sugar Boy Crawford and he did tons of hits. I worked for him as a studio musician. Good times.  

Q: Do you know what song you want played or sung at your funeral when that time comes?

A: I really hadn’t thought about that too much. In fact, I hadn’t really thought about it at all!

Originally published on in July 2013.