The moment these guys take the stage, you know you’re in for a special evening. They’re synonymous with New Orleans Rock ‘n Roll and their shows are a little bit different than the typical rock show. Cowboy Mouth performances are energetic, passionate and powerful experiences, driven by the heart and soul of the band, their front man, drummer Fred LeBlanc. Yup, that’s right, their drummer is front and center, belting out vocals, leading the band and energizing the crowd all while wailing away on the drums; and damn, it really works.
LeBlanc and lead guitarist/vocalist John Thomas Griffith have been together for 15+ years, playing straight from the heart rock ‘n’ roll and impressing throngs of fans with their one-of-a-kind performances. They do it all with an unabashed connection to their beloved New Orleans, where they’ve basically become the Unofficial Band of Mardi Gras. If Cowboy Mouth is the Rock Band of Mardi Gras, Fred LeBlanc is surely The Patron Saint. We were able to carve a few minutes of his studio time to chat about the band, his city and Cowboy Mouth’s unique connection with their fans.
Cretin: When rock music fans think about the New Orleans music scene, typically the first band they think of is Cowboy Mouth. Is that something you’re proud of?
Fred LeBlanc: Yeah, I’m definitely proud of that. My whole career I’ve been trying to show that you don’t have to go to a big media center to make a living in music. But with the advent of the web and all of the other advances over the last ten to fifteen years (it’s easier). I tend to look at being in the music business like owning a small business. I’ve always found that it’s better when you’re that exotic visitor from out of town.
Cretin: Yeah, rather than being one of many in a large market?
Fred LeBlanc: That’s tough trying to come in and mark out some of somebody else’s turf. It’s always better to be a visitor, to go somewhere and get out. And it helps if it’s from some place colorful like New Orleans. Growing up I didn’t really have a sense that New Orleans was so different. It’s not until you’ve traveled around that you realize there’s no po boys in Atlanta, there’s no red beans and rice in Norflok, Virginia. New Orleans tends to celebrate its highs and lows. Our ability to laugh at ourselves for the things that are both positive and negative about the city is a unique spin on life.
Cretin: For folks from New Orleans, including Cowboy Mouth, you seem to wear your emotions right there for everyone to see, whether it’s joy or sadness.
Fred LeBlanc: You know, we played a show in New Orleans last Sunday at The Mardi Gras festival and before we played “I Believe” we mixed it with an older song I wrote called “The Avenue.” It was written right after Katrina. I didn’t want to write anything angry or pointing fingers, I wanted to write a song that was like a musical arm around the shoulders to say “Hey, this is bad, but everything will be okay.” Coupling that with “I Believe” on this tour shows that we’ve been to the bottom, we’ve been to hell and back, and we got back due to our faith in each other as people and in our community.
Cretin: You’re right the city’s recovery came a lot from inside the community.
Fred LeBlanc: That’s kind of like the whole Cowboy Mouth idea. In the song “I Believe” it’s about how faith above everything else can bring out the very best of you in terms of strength. It’s the act of having faith and what that creates inside the human spirit to make us go above and beyond.
Cretin: So, getting back to Katrina, you guys had some personnel changes right after Katrina. Did that event have any impact on the way you approached music and your shows?
Fred LeBlanc: No, I think it reinforced what we did. We had some personnel changes after Katrina, but those were coming long before Katrina anyway. Keeping a bunch of musicians focused is a very difficult thing, because musicians by definition tend to follow their own muse. We’ve had people in the band who’ve wanted to go do their own thing, and that’s fine. When people part it’s never pretty, but you need to wish them the best and move forward. You go through all of the crappy emotions, but eventually time heels everything… It’s just life, and you learn as you go on.
Cretin: I think that’s why you connect so well with the crowd. A lot of the lyrics and themes to the songs are things people can relate to, even people who’ve never seen Cowboy Mouth before.
Fred LeBlanc: Well, thank you. When I formed the band, my goal was to create something kind of spiritual. I grew up Catholic. I wanted to believe, but it was all about “you’re an original sinner, you’re terrible,” and then the things that took place with some of the priests; it shook your faith. I had a friend of mine in New Orleans, I’d sneak out of the house on Sunday morning because they had a black Gospel church and these people were just going to town, dancing and screaming, raising a ruckus, and they all left in the best mood, feeling great as a community. I left thinking “I want to do that.” And, I wanted to bring that to rock and roll.
Cretin: The Gospel roots definitely come through in your shows.
Fred LeBlanc: I wanted to bring that energy to rock and roll without limiting it to a certain religious message. As far as religion goes, the worst thing you can do is limit the almighty. I tried to write about things that everybody goes through, you know, “write what what you know.” It was not trying to make grandiose statements, it was more “Hey, this is what I’ve been through. Here’s how I got through it. Isn’t it great to be alive?”
Cretin: And, a lot of people resonate to that.
Fred LeBlanc: They seem to. I’ve been doing this 22 years, so obviously I’m doing something right. I also think that with Cowboy Mouth, I get a lot of attention for being the front man. It’s not about me just saying “Ain’t I wonderful, Ain’t I the shit?” No, I take all of that energy the audience is enthusiastic to give and I just focus it back on them.
Cretin: I’ve tried to describe Cowboy Mouth shows to people who have never seen the band nor know the music very well. It’s hard to compare to any other show, but I say it’s a combination of passion, good music and almost a feeling of togetherness, which no one else can replicate. It’s something unique that you guys do really well.
Fred LeBlanc: When people leave a Cowboy Mouth show, they feel good. How much these days is designed to make people feel good about themselves? Look at mass media, it’s designed to keep us scared. A Cowboy mouth show is a celebration of yourself. I’m not really into the status thing or trying to play cool. I have no problem of being looked at as some kind of musical court jester, because at the end of the day, the court jester is the only one who can tell the truth to the king.
Cretin: You mention how your shows are different; there are other drummers who play huge roles for their bands: Don Henley, Dave Grohl and Phil Collins, but none of them do it the way you do. You’re the only guy who is front and center. Was that something you drove?
Fred LeBlanc: I got tired of sitting in the back and watching guitar players butts who weren’t better singers. I thought “I’m a better singer, why am I in the back? My songs are more hooky and better than that guy’s songs.” The truth of the matter is I kind of just got tired of it. I got tired of the whole “You’re just a drummer shut up.” I had put together a nice backlog of songs, and I quit the band. As good as the band was, it was really just a crazy drug psycho-fueled, wild hayride, but I needed to get away from it. It got to the point where I needed to do something because this is killing me. It wasn’t just killing my body, it was killing my soul.
So, that’s it for part one. We’ll have part two posted on Fat Tuesday as we continue our chat with the Patron Saint of Mardi Gras...