Photo by Dwight Marshall, with Coleman 2nd to right
Tex-Mex roots rock bliss via New Orleans
interview by John Wisniewski
New Orleans fixtures the Iguanas started out at the end of the '80's, infectiously mixing Tex-Mex, soul, salsa and roots rock. Bassist René Coleman was there almost from the very start with the band (who recorded for Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville label) and has had an impressive career backing up outsider oddball rockers like Alex Chilton, Tav Falco and Willie Deville as well as making film appearances and working with his other band the Geraniums. We caught up with Coleman via e-mail to talk about his wide-ranging career.
PSF: When did you begin playing music?
RC: My father is a musician who always had his own band. I grew up around all of that, studying with different guys who played with him. I started playing professionally in dance bands when I was 13. I also was fortunate to have a lot of great older guys to play with who encouraged me in the right direction.
PSF: Who were some of your favorite music artists in your early days?
RC: I have so many favorites. Early favorites as a kid were Leon Russell and Mose Allison. Miles Davis, Clifford Brown and Coltrane were guys I got into after that. I was the exact right age to get knocked out by punk rock and loved the Ramones, the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols and a lot of that stuff. The guys I was playing jazz with in high school could never understand how I could listen to punk rock. My punk rock friends from high school could never understand how I was into jazz. To me, I saw a lot of commonality of motivation across the genres. Bowie is one of my all-time favorites, and Lou Reed and Dylan are always tops for me. And we can't forget the great New Orleans music, like Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, the Meters, and the Mardi Gras Indian records like the Wild Tchoupitoulas. When you grow up in New Orleans, you can't remember a time when you didn't know about that music. It's like mother's milk.
PSF: What was it like being a native of New Orleans, listening to all the great music?
RC: Growing up, as a kid, I didn't realize how lucky I was to have been born in New Orleans. Everybody thinks wherever they're growing up is a drag, and I couldn't wait to grow up and go somewhere good. As I got on the road with Alex [Chilton], and started traveling all over the world, I began to realize how fortunate I had been. New Orleans is filled with terrific players and a real musical identity. The level of musicianship among even neighborhood guys is pretty remarkable- just a very strong tradition of lots of different indigenous styles of music that are very rich and specific. It's a living tradition that's passed on from older players to younger players in the streets and on the bandstands.
PSF: You mentioned your work with Alex Chilton. Could you talk more about that?
RC: I was recommended to Alex when I was just getting out of music school. He was looking for someone who could play with a cow punk band that he was mentoring as well as play with him on some more sophisticated stuff that he was into at the time, particularly the Michael Jackson Off the Wall record. Meeting Alex was real turning point for me. It was just the kind of thing I was looking for to get me out of school and opened a door to a whole new world of players and making records. I learned a lot from Alex. He had a great love for a lot of different kinds of music. That's something we shared right from the beginning. He was also really fun to be around. Alex was a rare talent who could sit in a room with a guitar, sing a song and be truly great. It wasn't enough for him to just play the correct melody and changes for a song. He wanted to really understand the nuances and the vocabulary of that specific piece of music, even if he was only going to go that deep so that he could deconstruct it or twist it in some kind of way. He had a great respect for every kind of music, and he didn't care if anybody else thought it was cool or not. If he dug it, that was enough for him.
PSF: How did you meet Rod Hodges to form the Iguanas?
RC: Rod Hodges and Joe Cabral had moved to New Orleans separately, but knew each other from having played together in Colorado years before. They started the Iguanas about a year before I joined the band. They'd had a rotating cast of players until then, but I joined at the same time as a second saxophone player and we became the permanent band. A couple of years later, we were able to add the great Memphis drummer Doug Garrison, who I had played with on all of the Alex Chilton records and tours I had done. Doug was up in Memphis and seemed like the perfect addition for the wide variety of styles the Iguanas were operating in. He moved down to New Orleans to join the band, and the final piece of the puzzle was in place.
PSF: What attracts you to mixing genres in your music like jazz, blues and Latin?
RC: I'm a fan of all kinds of music. It's great to be able to dig in and learn the vocabulary of all these different styles. After a while you start to see the commonalities they have between them. When you have other similarly-informed musicians to work with, it's the natural thing to work in a more fluid, stylistic approach.
photo by Rick Oliver
PSF: You held down weekly gig at the Circle Bar in New Orleans. What was that like?
RC: I loved the Circle Bar. It was started by some close friends of mine, Kelly Keller, Dave Clements, and James "the Hound" Marshall. Right away, it was our little clubhouse where you would always run into people you knew. Kelly immediately started booking bands seven nights a week. Big bands traveling on national tours would play the Circle Bar just so they could say they played New Orleans. I had steady gigs with several different bands there over the years. The Iguanas did a Wednesday night every week the last five or six years that the Circle Bar was open. It was great having that weekly low-key residency for the band to keep our muscle tone in shape and be able to pull out old stuff or new stuff. The room was very small, but if you knew how to play under the threshold of the room, it sounded fantastic in there, like you were inside of a speaker cabinet. The room really sang. I wound up playing the very last gig of the existence of the Circle Bar with my band The Geraniums. It was a memorial gig for our drummer who had passed away a few months before. It was March 14, 2020. Everything got shut down for COVID the very next day, and the Circle Bar never reopened. After a year and a half of being shut down, they lost their lease. It was the end of an era but we sure had some great times in there.
PSF: You have been in movies. Could you tell us about this?
RC: I've been involved with a bunch of different movies in terms of them using music of mine in the soundtrack. Our band the Iguanas have had lots of cuts used in movies going back to the '90's. Also David Simon is a big fan and has used our music in television shows of his, Homicide: Life on the Streets and Treme. My screen work in film is pretty much limited to the Doris Wishman film, Satan was a Lady. I got involved with that because my songwriting partner Glyn Styler had been tapped to be the male lead in the movie. They also wanted him to provide soundtrack music. They used his classic recording "You Killed my Love," which we had recorded at the Mermaid Lounge/studio, another clubhouse of ours that ran for about 10 years. It was co-owned by the guitar player in the Geraniums, and the three of us got together to make some more incidental music for the film. I flew down to Miami with Glyn to hang around as they filmed. Doris Wishman, being the consummate fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants filmmaker, instantly put me in the movie and wrote scenes for me. That was a real treat, to be around her. She was a classic B, C and D movie maker who went back to the '50's, making nudie pictures. She was in her late 70's at the time we made Satan was a Lady, but she still had all of her girlish charm intact. It was an honor to be connected to that continuum through what wound up being one of her last films. I did some music for her next film, but I'm not sure if that even was released. I'm still very close to Glyn Styler, and we often talk about how much fun it was being down in Miami with Doris working on that picture.
PSF: You've also worked with Tav Falco. What was that like?
RC: Tav is a great artist. Not a great musician, but a great artist. He approaches everything with a tremendous amount of thought and a specific point of view. Coming out of a somewhat primitive approach to music, Alex once told me, "forget everything you know about music, and just follow Tav." I took that advice to heart. I've applied it on every other musical project I've worked on since then. It reset my musical priorities. When you're playing with a singer, the singer is the focus. It's everything. You've got to be with him where he is. I really admire what Tav created over his entire career. There's a great Panther Burn army of players who have been in that band over the last almost 40 years. It's almost like being a marine. Once a Panther Burn, always a Panther Burn. You could be reactivated at any moment.
PSF: How about working with Willy DeVille; what was that like?
RC: I worked with Willy when he came down to New Orleans to make a record of New Orleans music which wound up being called Victory Mixture (1990). They brought in all these guys who had cut classic New Orleans records like Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Eddie Bo, etc. It was a thrill getting to revisit all this classic material with the actual guys who had written the songs. I played on the entire record except for one song that George Porter from the Meters played on, so I was in pretty good company. I did some more work with Willy after that, recording demos from time to time. He eventually moved out of New Orleans. I never saw him again. But he was a unique talent. Lots of personality, and that ineffable quality that makes a great recording artist.
Also see Rene's podcast at https://troubledmenpodcast.castos.com/ and the Iguanas' website at http://www.iguanas.com/.
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