Ed Volker is a master New Orleans songwriter. For over 33 years, Volker was a member of the legendary New Orleans band, the Radiators. He is performing a solo set at Jazz Fest 2013 in New Orleans on Sunday, April 28 at 2:20 p.m. on the Lagniappe Stage. Read the interview below about what Ed is pulling out of the vault, his days with the Radiators and writing and performing songs. If you’re thirsty for more local legend playing New Orleans Jazz Fest this year, check out our interview with New Orleans musician Marcia Ball!
McClain: How does your process work, your songwriting process?
Ed Volker: It used to be I would get a phrase, a verbal phrase that would serve as a spark or trigger for my imagination. In the course of riding a bike, taking a long walk, long car ride, dancing maybe, sometimes it’s watching stupid TV, the lyrics would start to come to me. I let that phrase marinate in my nether regions of my conciseness. I would cook up some lyrics and then I would bring it to the piano in the morning, usually. I would see what occurred. That’s basically still my M.O., I guess. What I’m doing these days – I’m still writing new material, but I’m doing a lot of archiving. I’m going from ’67 to 1984. I’m on 1984 right now. I’m trying to make new cassette copies of old material, so I have fresh copies. It seems like decent cassettes last longer than CDs. I’m using that technology. I’m revisiting things that just passed me by in the hastiness of my youth. Unless the Radiators learned the song or somebody else did the song, a lot of stuff just lies fallow that I’ve written. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time crafting when I was younger. I started crafting more in the last 15 years. I have the luxury on working on the lyrics of a song for about a week. Living with the lyrics, feeling them out, trying to get them so I have a sense that, “Oh yeah, this is the right one.” I was just in too much of a hurry to do that. It’s surprising how often I got it, I don’t know if right is the applicable term. It’s surprising how often the lyrics did what they were supposed to do.
M: That’s got to be nice to be able to really get in there and fine tune even more so.
EV: I just recently released on nugs.net, something called, “Love in the Ruins.” I think it’s 12 or 13 tunes, really good tunes, that I didn’t really spend any time working on when I initially wrote them in ’83-’84. Over the course of last year, I’d take one of them and I’d try to bring them to a fuller realization than what I did back then. That’s very edifying to finally let these things see the light of day and let them be in a more complete form. Back then, I was drinking lots of tequila amongst other artificial religious substances. I wrote tons of things. Some of them actually needed to be written, but not a lot of them did. A big change came over me seven or eight years ago, where I just didn’t fool with things I didn’t see a need for. I didn’t have to do therapy through music. I didn’t have to weigh down the songwriting with any personal stuff. I needed this song, or maybe the song needed my attention if it was going to be a half-decent song.
M: It’s got to be fun to be able to go back and tap into different eras of your songwriting. How do you feel you’ve evolved as a songwriter?
EV: More through the crafting than anything else. One of the things that impressed me, in working on some of this old stuff and bringing it to a more full-fleshed life, was how easy it was for me to write simple. It’s very hard for me to do that now. Not that I only use long words only Bob Dylan would dare put in a song these days. It’s just how twisted and perverted with sophistication my mind has gotten as I’ve aged. It’s hard to leave that behind. I didn’t have it back then. I was a simpler person, what can I say?
M: Back in the day, when you were first starting out with the Rads, how did your process work then? Would you create the song and bring it to the band to fill out? How would that work?
EV: I was pretty open-ended about things. As I noted earlier, my songs were simpler. There was more of a rhythm and blues structure to everything. There were definitely some licks and sometimes the song itself would be arranged. We really were a pretty lean machine for about the first three or four years that we played. There wasn’t like a whole lot of filler. You listen to stuff from ’79, ’80, ’81, ’82, people didn’t start playing with bigger amps until the mid ’80s. By the mid ’80s, our sound had changed a lot. I think the approach had really changed. The kind of rhythms and openness we had came from very small equipment. It changes things. We started more rhythm and blues, country-based. I guess what people would call roots. Then, it got more into rock, with the bigger sound and the bigger drumsticks. That worked for us. We probably would have never seen a contract with Epic Records if we were the lean machine we were when we started out.
M: That still formed the overall basis of your sound.The sound got bigger as the years went on.
EV: We were just trying to charm them, and then we decided we were going to stun them.
M: Well, that worked.
EV: It did. I have to say it did.
“That’s the whole thing. You don’t know what is going to happen. There is more of a chance of some spirit thing happening if you change up the equation all the time.”
M: It’s amazing the way you guys have always mixed so many different sounds and styles. I like that you’ve always done your own thing. I think that a lot of bands, they try to fit into a certain pattern. They try to please people. You guys do what you do.
EV: We definitely come from that ’60s eclectic sensibility. Dylan always changes his style from album to album. The Beatles sounded like seven different bands on one record. It definitely informed us. The fact is, we just love a lot of different kinds of music. We had either the stupidity or audacity to actually attempt to play Merle Haggard, Jimi Hendrix and Chris Kenner all in the same night.
M: From a piano playing perspective, what artists inspired you to start playing piano?
EV: I love the old Minit and Instant sides, with Chris Kenner and Allen Toussaint. Huey “Piano” Smith, playing that New Orleans piano. I heard ‘Fess’ singles, but he wasn’t a constant presence, like Chris Kenner, Allen Toussaint and Huey “Piano” Smith. Growing up in the ’50s, we had a very open radio station situation. There were two black and two white stations that I listened to. The white stations played some whiter stuff and the black stations played some blacker stuff, but there was a lot of common ground. I didn’t even know, until I was older, that there was any difference. I’d search the dial and find a good tune. Then, I got into Ray Charles when I got a bit older. I really loved how Ray played. Ray had a big effect on the cats down here. As I got older, I started searching things out. I got into Champion Jack. I love the sides that Jelly Roll Morton did for Alan Lomax in 1939, 1940. Alan Lomax sat him down and Jelly Roll basically didn’t shut up for a long time. Rounder put out the musical segments of all those interviews that Lomax did.
M: NOLA is such a hotbed of different styles of music, and has been for years and years. Everybody from NOLA just has a different viewpoint on things, a different spin on things.
EV: Definitely. Things change so much so quickly. The way people talk, they things they talked about, the phrases they used 20 years ago, are already strange. If you hear them again, or you read them, or you see an old movie, you go, “Wow, we don’t say that anymore.”
M: You’re pretty much putting out everything on your own now, right? That’s the way you do things these days?
EV: That’s the way I do things. I don’t know if that will change. It suits a much more lazy style. If somebody had the money and put me in the studio, I’d have to do a lot of prepping. I’d have to make a lot of decisions before the fact. There’s not a whole lot of money in it. I just do this homemade, do it yourself, music at home. I have friends around the country that help me spiff it up. We even have a cover for it. I sell them down at Louisiana Music Factory. People can download them. I sell a few, not a whole lot.
M: That’s the thing that’s nice. You have this passionate fan base of people. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a band with fans more passionate than Rads fans, Fish Heads. It’s great that you can put your stuff out there and are people waiting for it.
EV: That’s part of what I was saying, loving the music, toleration and luck. That’s the luck part, there. We are very lucky and fortunate to have the passions of our fans to keep us going. Even at some of the most far-flung, hopeless gigs in burnt-out places, on highways that probably aren’t even on a map. We’ve played some really obscure gigs, and there’d be 15 passionate Rads fans. It would make all the difference between despair and fun. We’d have a good time.
M: No matter where you go, fans will come out. Once people saw you live, they got totally sucked in by it. New Orleans artists, if you’re playing, you really have to bring it live. Did you guys always change it up every night, from the beginning? Obviously, no set is ever the same.
EV: Pretty much. I don’t even think in the Epic days, when we had our brief fling with fame. Ungodly amounts of money to play for 2,000 or 5,000 college students. We only played an hour-and-a-half set in a big place. Even back then, I would throw a blues or something off the beaten track. Just to keep things interesting.
M: Just keeping things fresh every night?
EV: That’s the whole thing. You don’t know what is going to happen. There is more of a chance of some spirit thing happening if you change up the equation all the time.