The Bayou Brothers is a band from San Diego that blends zydeco and Cajun music. Before a show at Iva Lee's in San Clemente, John Chambers (accordion and keyboard) Tim Cash (bass) and Ric Lee (drums) spoke about the band's beginnings, history, and what drew each of them to the style of music they play.
You’ve been together twelve years. How did this band form?
(Tim) A jam session that we had. Ric and I were playing on it and John would come and play it now and then.
(John) It was an open mic.
(Tim) We were just networking and having fun. We had another guitarist as well. He’s no longer with us, but he was with us for five years. Now we have a series of guitar players including me again.
(Ric) I think Steve is number sixteen.
(Tim) He was number two or three, wasn’t he?
(Ric) Yeah, he left and came back.
(John) Our first guitarist decided to check out the zydeco thing with the accordion. That was the whole thing, made it different. He started learning a lot of different songs by listening to some of the great musicians from Louisiana.
(Ric) We didn’t want to be just another blues band. There’s plenty of those.
What was it about zydeco that drew you in?
(John) It’s a straightforward, infectious, happy kind of music.
(Ric) For me, about twenty years ago, someone gave me a tape of Queen Ida. I wore that tape out. I loved the whole presentation. It was probably recorded on a one-track. I hadn’t played anything like that ever. I thought I’d love to get in a band that does that, like one’s gonna come along in southern California. When we all got together, we thought we could, just for fun, model something after that. We didn’t think we’d ever really get a gig. It was more like the Sheryl Crow Tuesday Music Club.
(Tim) Then we found out that there was a dance group just for the Bon Temps social club. They’re all over every city in America.
(John) There’s particular types of dance for zydeco.
(Tim) The first time I heard of zydeco, I was on the road in a disco band of all things in Louisiana 1979. When I was there, we used to go to the after-hours places. They’d play until five in the morning. The band wouldn’t start until ten or eleven. I couldn’t wait for my gig to end at midnight so I could play the after-hours places and meet the musicians. I started going out and buying albums when I was down there twenty-five years ago.
(John) We all just wanted to get away from what we were doing. It was bar band stuff, old rock and roll, Top 40. This opened up a whole different thing for us.
(Ric) We got to open for Boozoo Chavis. I learned a lot from him backstage, not just on records. And Buckwheat Zydeco. We opened for him at the Belly Up.
(John) We put our own southern California spin on it. We weren’t raised in the bayous. We were raised on the streets getting loaded and finding out who’s got the best weed.
(Tim) We’re straight guys.
(Ric) We’re stoner buddies, without the stoner.
(John) Still kids that haven’t grown up.
(Ric) If you’re a songwriter, you’re always looking for something different, a different genre, not the same thing you’ve been doing your whole life. And that was the attraction to form something of your own and not just regurgitate Top 40 stuff.
What was the first zydeco song you wrote together?
(John) That’s a real good question.
(Tim) Maybe “Cajun Casserole.”
(Ric) I think it was "Bernadette." It’s a very Cajun two-step about a girl that lures you and steals your wallet. She hides it under her tight dress somehow. You don’t know how. It goes with Mardi Gras on the lowdown side.
(Tim) In Louisiana, you could never tell what you were gonna get on the radio. You’d get blues from Chicago and the signal would fade away. You’d get country from Texas. Then you’d stuff from the Bahamas and Florida.
(Tim) Puerto Rico. You could just never tell what the heck you were gonna get. So what they do down there is make their own versions. They might only hear the song once, but they got big ears and they really listen good. It was really cool. That’s how a lot of the zydeco songs came about. They made their own versions.
(John) Very simple progressions, but real earthy, and accordion-oriented.
(Tim) Back in the bayous there’s two kinds of music. There’s Cajun and zydeco. We’re kind of doing a combination of both. Cajun was kind of the white folks’ country, with fiddle and accordion, guitars, bass, maybe even a jews harp.
(John) But it’s not bluegrass.
(Ric) Sometimes they call our music zydecajun. We take Cajun to the funk side.
(Tim) That’s the blues, R and B influence.
(John) We also take old country songs and put the zydeco feel to it. That works real good for us. We have maybe ten original pieces.
(Tim) About fifteen.
(John) We’re constantly trying to come up with different ideas.
(Tim) We have seven CDs that we’ve recorded. When you have that many things…if we had to have a company, they would always be on us. “You gotta have all these songs.” We only have us.
(Ric) The main push right now is we’re trying to make it to Europe before we’re just too damn old. I see they have a huge zydeco scene over there. I think we could do pretty well. We’re kind of on the first step getting there.
[the waitress arrives with Tim’s and Ric’s dinners]
I want to ask you about your tradition of inviting people in the audience to come up and play the rubboard.
(Ric) Mostly we like to have the women do it because we find they put on a better show. We’ll let anyone do it really, but the women have the better rhythm.
(John) It’s amazing.
How did that whole tradition get started?
(Tim) Ric’s daughter started it. We were playing in a place called Calico Ghost Town, past Barstow on the way to Vegas. We were doing a gig out there. One day, she came out and she goes, “Let me see that thing.” She sat down and started playing it. She was fantastic. Our jaws dropped.
(Ric) From the first note. I had hauled her along with me in a bassinet. Mister Mom. I didn’t work a day job, I just played at night. I put cotton in her ears and I just put her under my drum stool. She must have soaked all that up. I didn’t really think about it until later. It’s pretty cool to have a father-daughter rhythm section, and we play pretty tight together. Jessica, she kicks ass. And I’m not just saying that because she’s my daughter. I’m saying it because she does.
What would you be doing if you weren’t playing music?
(Tim) I’d probably be driving around on a big Harley.
(John) I’d be turning wrenches.
(Tim) I’d be turning wrenches too.
(Ric) I’d be an astronaut.
(John) That’s really hard to say.
(Ric) I can’t imagine being anything else.
(Tim) I make speaker cabinets.
(John) But that’s music. That’s a cop-out. I’d be an agent for an all-girl band. That’s what we all wanted to do.