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Not So Big Easy

Cowboy Mouth, a we're-from-New Orleans-and-we-won't-let-you-forget-it rock band with heavy pop-punk leanings, espouses what can only be called a relentlessly upbeat attitude. In fact, drummer, vocalist, and bandleader Fred LeBlanc talks about it so much, both in the press and at every show, that the band's positivity seems less like a demeanor and more like a policy. Personally and professionally impacted by the Katrina disaster of 2004 — not to mention a couple of brushes with major-label indifference earlier in the band's career — Cowboy Mouth still fosters an overriding sense of gratitude for life whenever there's an audience around.

Which is not to say that LeBlanc's yen for joy comes from the plastic-smile approach so often found in the entertainment world. Indeed, smiles and flowery language alone couldn't support the type of resilience through optimism that LeBlanc encourages. He describes Cowboy Mouth as a conscious decision among himself, cofounder John Thomas, and recently departed cofounder Paul Sanchez to create something positive without being saccharine. The more LeBlanc talks about keeping one's head above water, the more it becomes clear just how much work it is. Above all, though, he stresses that he wants audience members to be able to celebrate who they are.

"The world's got a lot of bullshit with it these days," LeBlanc says with a weary laugh in a telephone interview from his hometown. "And truth be told, I just want to make people happy. When the flood happened, I tried to keep in mind all the things I was thankful for. The thing that helped get me through all that was saying to myself, 'OK, this too shall pass.' And it has passed. Things have gotten better, and they're slowly getting better. It's tough, just like anything, but I don't feel a need to add to the cesspool.

"New Orleans' attitude was never lost. I mean, we're not as crazy as people think we are down here — when horrible things happen, you have to deal with them. But the way we deal with things is by celebrating."

LeBlanc explains that, although this reflects deeply in his own individual M.O., it was an encounter with Bo Diddley more than 15 years ago, during Cowboy Mouth's formative days, that would end up permanently steering the band toward keeping its compass fixed in the ever-present direction of silver linings. A road-oriented act even at that early stage in the game, Cowboy Mouth's fate intersected with Bo Diddley's needing a backing band for a gig in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"Some friends of mine were promoting the show," LeBlanc recalls. "I was like, 'I know he uses pickup bands, and that gig would be the dream of a lifetime — hellooooooo...' It was literally within the first three months of the band, just something we totally lucked into. Usually, he's pretty brutal to the bands who back him. He's one of those old R&B guys, like Chuck Berry. They just kind of show up and expect people to know their stuff. But we had a real strong knowledge of Bo Diddley songs.

"He was only supposed to play an hour, but he had so much fun with us that he ended up playing over two hours that night. He told these awesome stories afterwards about being on the road back in the '50s and '60s. And he told me something really thorough about life. Because I was like, 'Bo, can you give me any words of wisdom?' He said, 'Boy, I'll tell you what you need to know: Whatever happens to you in life, all you gotta do is keep it simple and think of church.' I was like 'oh-kayyyy...' But it makes sense: Keep your feet on the ground and keep a good sense of who you are spiritually, emotionally, and all that stuff. He just translated that to 'keep it simple and think of church. '"

"That's pretty much," LeBlanc adds with a laugh, "the philosophy I've tried to live by since we played that gig."

LeBlanc, who plays barefoot because it feels "free," says he experiences no difficulty singing and playing drums at the same time. "It's the most natural thing in the world to me," he says. "I don't know how it is. I guess because I started both singing and drumming at such an early age, they never came in conflict. I cannot [for example] play bass and sing at the same time."

LeBlanc suggests that the connection between him and his chosen instrument might have something to do with the fact that he was born deaf.

"In order to draw me out of my shell — because I was just a lump — my folks used to lay my head on stereo speakers and crank the music so I could feel the vibrations," LeBlanc recalls. "The old family story is that I started singing before I could actually hear." It wasn't until LeBlanc received corrective surgery at 3 years old that he could hear.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, LeBlanc does have an affinity for darker music, such as Joe Ely, the Clash, Nirvana, and Slipknot — a reflection of his trying to remain versatile as both a listener and artist. In fact, in the '80s, before the formation of Cowboy Mouth, when LeBlanc and John Thomas were busy trying their hand at being skinny-tie-wearing new-wavers, both of them saw a Joe Ely concert that not only jolted them into ditching new-wave but also gave them the inspiration to believe their work didn't have to adhere to any particular sound.

"Joe Ely," LeBlanc explains, "was just somebody who didn't follow the rules or limit himself. He didn't stick to a certain musical genre and say, 'This is where I fit.' I've never really thought that music should have to fit anywhere. You've got a lot of bands who play in a certain style. They just keep playing it and playing it and playing it until it clicks with the public and they get a hit record. I got nothing against that, but I look at Cowboy Mouth as something we're all trying to bring a lot to and trying to grow with. We do some funk, we do some punk, we do rhythm 'n' blues, we do a little country. It's definitely not what you'd expect from a New Orleans band. It's not the Neville Brothers or Rebirth Brass Band, but there are elements of that in us, because you can't lose that stuff. I like to think I'm as influenced by Aaron Neville as I am by [Green Day's] Billie Joe Armstrong."

Collectively, the members of Cowboy Mouth have experience with major-label hits. (The lineup now also includes bassist Sonia Tetlow and guitarist Vance Degeneres, Ellen's brother, former Daily Show correspondent, and a longtime friend of the band who played in the Backbeats with LeBlanc and Sanchez in the '80s and is replacing Sanchez for the tour.) Though he isn't shy about describing the band's experiences on MCA and Atlantic, the band's former labels, he shrugs them off, emphasizing that Cowboy Mouth is now putting out records in "a situation we can control" and "having a good life."

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Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

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