Track By Track: The Radiators _Welcome to the Monkey House_
In January, The Radiators made a surprise announcement: In conjunction with a three-night 40th anniversary stand at New Orleans’ famed Tipitina’s, the group revealed that they had recorded a new studio album. The news came as a shock to their legion of devoted Fishheads. Back in 2010, the veteran New Orleans ensemble—Dave Malone (guitar, vocals), Ed Volker (keys, vocals), Camile Baudoin (guitar), Frank Bua, Jr. (drums) and Reggie Scanlan (bass)—issued a statement indicating that they would cease performing. Although they have reunited for a few select appearances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and at Tip’s since that time, they have not released a studio album since 2006’s Dreaming Out Loud.
“While the fans were surprised about the album, we were pretty taken aback, as well,” Malone admits. “The Radiators officially called it quits because Ed Volker decided he’d had enough of being on the road. He’d just had enough of being in a rock band: He did not want to get on a plane, he did not want to get on a bus, he did not want to get on a train. He didn’t want to go anywhere. I don’t think he’s left New Orleans. He also wanted to get back to just playing piano. He’s one of those songwriters who writes every day and he wanted to focus on that. None of us could fault him for it. We weren’t happy about it, but we had to honor his wishes.”
The other four band members continued to cross paths and perform together in various incarnations, such as Raw Oyster Cult, in which Malone, Baudoin and Bua teamed with Papa Grows Funk’s John Gros and Dave Pomerleau of Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes. Meanwhile, Malone remained in contact with Volker in order to solicit new material.
“While I was getting together with Ed, looking for songs, we talked about being ashamed that we had not gone into the studio more and recorded because Ed is really prolific,” Malone admits. “We had all these songs that we’d done onstage that had never been recorded in a studio and thought it would be cool to record them one day. I was waiting for Ed to give the go ahead, and he was finally ready.”
So, in October, the quintet entered Jake Eckert’s Rhythm Shack to work with Eckert and his New Orleans Suspects bandmate Jeff Watkins on what would become Welcome to the Monkey House. “We cut for just a couple days,” Malone recalls.
“It was very laid-back, very low key, no pressure. The studio was in a building in Jake’s backyard, and we all know each other really well. We all got together and, as soon as we started playing, it became this familiar sound. If I bring together the greatest players out there and mix in a couple of Rads, it’ll sound good. But if you get us five knuckleheads in a room together, all of a sudden, boom, it becomes this sound that only the five of us can make—like it or not, and I do like it.”
WELCOME TO THE MONKEY HOUSE
Our fans are hardcore music fans who know a lot about all different kinds of music. At some point, we had this notion that, when we’re there with this big family, a weird energy fills a room. “Welcome to the Monkey House” expresses that big family connection when it’s us looking out at our fans and there’s this mad energy in the room. I don’t know for certain if that’s how the song came to be, but it was a song that Ed wrote that I really liked and, somehow, monkeys became the theme of this album.
TIME TO RISE AND SHINE
Ed wrote this song after The Rads broke up, and I just really loved it, so I insisted we do it. It also was a chance for us to put vocal harmonies on a song, which was really cool and something The Rads aren’t really known for.
BACK TO LOVELAND
Ed wrote this song a while back. We had played it on a few rare occasions and I always loved it, and he agreed that we should record it. That’s the way we always did things. Ed is really prolific and, for half of the existence of The Rads— maybe longer—he and I got together to pick which songs we wanted to sing and then we brought them to The Radiators. The two of us did this more than anyone else because we were the two singers in the band.
I’m probably the guy on earth who has heard the largest percentage of Ed’s songs. Originally, I would get cassette tapes and then, later, CDs of his demos. Sometimes it was just piano and vocals, and sometimes he would do percussion and keyboard overdubs and stuff. He’s a really good percussion player.
We didn’t let his arrangements influence how they became Rad songs, but he would decide which ones he thought were a good fit for The Radiators and wanted to sing. I would do the same thing with my songs or someone else’s songs. He would constantly be surprised which songs I picked, but they always just came out really cool. That’s why we have had such an incredible, nutty, diversity of songs over the last 40 years. But it’s just as simple as me picking something I like and him picking something he likes.
Ed wrote the first version of this song years ago. Then, when I was doing some stuff as the Malone Brothers, I brought Ed’s demo to my brother Tommy, and we took parts of it and rewrote it. “King Earl” is about the New Orleans guitar player, songwriter and singer Earl King. The Rads were Earl King’s backup band for a while. But, after Tommy and I rearranged it, I rearranged it another time and added some more pieces, and it became this.
BRING ME THE HEAD OF ISAAC NEWTON
I’m looking at the CD and I just realized they spelled Isaac wrong. It’s supposed to be two “As” not two “Ss.” What a weird song; I love it.
RUN RED RUN
Ed wrote this song a long time ago and it’s dear to his heart because it has something to do with his grandmother, whose nickname, I believe, was Red. Ed always loved it, but we didn’t play it that much because the guys didn’t like playing it. They thought it was OK, but a little too repetitive. So, I said to Ed: “You love this song; I like this song. Let’s do something to it so we’ll all love it.” And we toughened it up and made sections where less is going on. It came out really cool. So, I’m finally satisfied with that goddamn song. [Laughs.]
MAKE YOU SAY HOT DOG
Every year, The Rads would play during Mardi Gras for this crazy party called the MOMs Ball—MOM stands for: Mystic Orphans and Misfits. This is an organization that came from The Rads’ regular Wednesday night gig in the early days, which was at a pizza joint called Luigi’s. That’s where our fan base started. Then we moved over to a place on Frenchmen Street called the Dream Palace, which became this crazy thing in everyone’s lives. Every night, everyone got a little—let’s just go with “loose.”
At the MOMs Ball, if you didn’t have a costume that the door people—the costume police, let’s call them—deemed you had put some thought and effort and creativity into, then you weren’t getting in, even if you had a ticket. If someone just stuck a rubber mask on and tried to walk in, they’d say, “No!” They took that very seriously and so did we. People like Dan Aykroyd even got turned away. It was the best party of the year that no one remembered. Every year, the MOMs Ball would have a theme and Ed would write a song for the theme. “Make You Say Hot Dog” was just one of those, “Let’s have fun and have a party” songs because it’s real chanty and stupid. We love it for that reason.
16 MONKEYS ON A SEESAW
I wrote this song as a left-field political commentary on the way that people act: Eight monkeys on one side of the seesaw, eight monkeys on the other. I brought that to Raw Oyster Cult first, and then brought it to The Radiators, and it ended up on the album with this monkey theme.
I GOT A BUZZ ON
This is one of those jokey Ed Volker songs that we could hardly get through without laughing because it repeats “Buzz on” quite a lot and people just love that. It’s really sing-songy in a sort of psycho way.
“Nightbird” is one of Ed’s melancholic, ballady things. He was on the fence about it, and I said, “No, we are doing it.” I think it came out great.
This song is along the same lines as “Welcome to the Monkey House”—they’re similar in attitude more than anything else. We’re all part of this big Fishhead family because we originally started calling our music “Fish Head music” a million years ago, partly because someone just came up with the name. Ed wrote a music column in an old New Orleans music rag and his pen name was Zeke Fishhead when he was writing these musical articles, or articles having to do with philosophical crap with a musical bent. So, we started calling anything we did Fish Head music, long before the band Phish, so our fans started calling themselves Fishheads.
THE FOUNTAINS OF NEPTUNE
“The Fountains of Neptune” is one of those songs where you hear it and go, “Where the hell did that come from?” But, I figured out, decades ago, not to even bother asking that question of Ed Volker. [Laughs.]
“One Monkey” sounds like some old New Orleans R&B number, as does “I Got a Buzz On” or “Hot Dog,” for that matter. We were all very inspired and affected by old New Orleans R&B players like Ernie K-Doe, Jessie Hill, Lee Dorsey and Earl King. In fact, when we first started going on the road, we would play those guys’ songs and people would ask if those were our songs. We’d think, “What are you talkin’ about? This was a big hit!” But, as it turns out, they were big hits in New Orleans, but not necessarily anywhere else, except for “Mother-in-Law” by Ernie K-Doe, “Working in the Coal Mine” by Lee Dorsey or “Come On” by Earl King. We used to do a version of “Turn on Your Love Light”— the most well known recording is by a Texas blues singer named Bobby “Blue” Bland. That song was written by Deadric Malone. So when people saw the credits, they would see D. Malone and they thought I wrote it. I wasn’t even born when that song was written, but I always got a kick out of that, so I never corrected them.
RIDE RIDE SHE CRIED
“Ride Ride She Cried” is an interesting song and I loved singing it with Ed. I didn’t ever ask what that weird hook part, “Ooh bomma lady” meant, and I don’t care. In the ‘60s, there were songs like this where I didn’t care what they meant. Sometimes the sound of a word works best in a section of a song, more so than the meaning of the word because there’s a percussiveness to a word that can enhance a song even more so than what the word means. That sounds kind of general, but it’s really true. And you can hear that with the refrain in the chorus part of “Ride Ride She Cried.”
DOUBLED UP IN A KNOT
“Doubled Up in a Knot” is a song that we had been playing since the mid-‘80s as a short intro song to one of our kind-of hits on Epic Records, “Love Is a Tangle.” We expanded it—and it’s still only two minutes and 40 seconds—but Ed wanted to have that recorded in a studio. So, if he really wanted it, I said, “Sure, let’s do it.”
“First Snow” is a very slow, melancholy song about snow. Back in the day, when Ed was a little kid in New Orleans, it was rarer than hen’s teeth. It seems to be happening more often now, but we won’t go into ol’ global warming. [Laughs.] Along with the imagery from his lyrics, it’s got a nice lope to it. Ed’s got a calliope sound on his keyboard, and it’s just him singing and us playing. I don’t do any background or harmony vocals. We were having so much fun playing the groove. It’s very slow and laid-back with a lot of places for a person to show that they understand that it’s better sometimes not to play.