It's well into midday on a Saturday afternoon, yet Ivan Neville, on the phone from his New Orleans home, sounds beat. Maybe he's recovering from a gig the night before, or perhaps it's the result of some revelry down on Bourbon Street.
Whatever the reason, if Neville's tired now, it's easily excused. The fact is, he's been practically tireless for the better part of the past two decades. The son of legendary crooner and Neville Brothers co-founder Aaron Neville, he's juggled a successful solo career that's spawned a Top 40 hit ("Not Just Another Girl"), ongoing stints with the Nevilles and the all-star New Orleans Social Club, and supporting roles with the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, and Keith Richards' X-Pensive Winos, both live and in the studio.
For the past four years or so, his energies have been focused almost entirely on singing and playing keyboards in Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk, a band that also includes his cousin Ian Neville (son of Ivan's uncle Art) on guitar, bassists Nick Daniels and Tony Hall, and drummer Raymond Webber. All veteran players, their collective résumé includes stints with Dave Matthews, John Mayer, Trey Anastasio, and Emmylou Harris.
The group initially coalesced as Ivan's backing band for a solo gig at 2003's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The show was so successful, the five members opted to evolve it into a full-time commitment, leading a number of publications — the New York Times among them — to dub them New Orleans' finest funk band, no small distinction in a city where rhythm reigns supreme.
"I wanted to do something different, so I called the guys I like to play with, who happen to be some of the best musicians New Orleans has to offer," Neville recalls. "I decided to call it Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk because I knew it was going to be funky. People liked it, and we enjoyed playing together, so we just kind of decided to do a band thing. So this is the priority right now."
Dumpstaphunk's first recorded offering, a five-song EP aptly titled Listen Hear, reflects the band's fertile roots in New Orleans musical tradition — a trajectory nudged along by the Neville Brothers and the Meters as well as the jazz, rock, and R&B styles pervaded by past and present favorite sons like Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Dr. John, and the Wild Tchoupitoulas.
"Believe me, we're influenced by all of it. That's the amazing thing," Neville observes. "The brass thing, the Mardi Gras Indian thing... I mean, we're all influenced by it, in some way. Still, there's the freedom to go out and do your thing, whether it's leaning more toward the funk, more toward rock, more toward singer/songwriter stuff — whatever. There's a lot of different-sounding bands in New Orleans, a lot of different people doing their own thing."
In fact, the EP finds Dumpstaphunk's adventurous instincts and social sensibilities coming to the fore. "Living in a World Gone Mad" kicks things off with a tough, tenacious indictment of a planet that's become increasingly unhinged. Other songs — "Turn This Thing Around" and "Meanwhile..." in particular — maintain a sturdy backbeat while lashing out at government indifference to the suffering of the populace, obviously referring to the beating the Gulf Coast took from Katrina two years ago. "Shake It Off" rails against a variety of social ills, while urging patience and persistence.
Those messages may be embraced by a beat, but Neville doesn't mince words when describing his own indignation over the failure of the feds to fully provide for the storm victims. "Yeah, yeah, you know, there was a lot of red tape and bullshit," he snaps. "Look at the country we live in. It's supposed to be this great nation, and there's a bunch of crap that goes on. Billions of dollars are spent on all kinds of bullshit, and you got your own folks here going through what they went through in New Orleans. You would think we got the resources, the money to repair and to rebuild, but you don't see it being done the way it should be done."
Not surprisingly, Katrina had an impact on not only New Orleans' physical structure but on its psyche as well. That's evident in the way the city's struggles have worked their way into the recordings released by homegrown talent since the storm.
"I wouldn't say it's taking over, but obviously in many ways, Katrina gave people something to write about," Neville suggests. "In music, you write songs about different things, and this was a tragic thing that happened. So obviously it brought attention to New Orleans, and then I guess a lot of people realized, damn, New Orleans is a great place. So that made people maybe put a little bit more value on the culture of New Orleans, and people started paying attention to New Orleans music again."
Ultimately, Neville realizes his destiny is tied intrinsically to his surname. Like any offspring of successful parents, he expects the inevitable comparisons to his forebears. However, he shrugs it off, insisting he doesn't bow to the pressure to be anyone other than himself. "I know there are people who hear the name and have a certain expectation of what they think my music is about," he concedes. "Sometimes people think of Aaron Neville, my dad, or the Neville Brothers, my uncles, and whatnot. All of that is very much part of me. But at the same time, I don't feel intimidated, I don't feel expectations... as far as me having to prove anything to anyone or anything of that nature. I don't feel it at all. I never really felt that."
These words flow almost too effortlessly, and Neville realizes he's only telling one side of the story.
"Obviously, when you grow up in a musical family, you're in your family's shadow. I mean, there were times where I maybe felt, you know, a little something, I felt someone may be predetermining what they thought I would sound like. But that's their problem, that's their decision to do that, and when you hear what I do, you either love it or you... whatever. I do what I do, and I'm comfortable doing it."