Louisiana’s Mark Bingham has been the go-to studio guy for the most artistically diverse cavalcade of stars, including such sparkling luminairies as The Rebirth Brass Band, Allen Touissant, Andrei Codrescu, Allen Ginsberg and Dr John. Additionally Mark has collaborated with much of my foundation artists: Glenn Branca, Elvis Costello, REM and Marianne Faithfull.
Back in the swamp, my exploration of Cajun music has largely consisted of following Louis Michot around, seeing his teenage version of Lost Bayou Ramblers perform in likely the same Arnaudville venue (there aren't that many in Arnaudville) some decade or two before the gig mentioned below. This was before they bent the chank-a-chank around the magnetic waves of the avant-garde, creating a water moccasin-eating-its-tail of Lousiana weirdness. Bingham had joined in on Michot's latest venture, Michot's Melody Makers, a rather anodyne name for a unit this unorthodox, soaking everything from motorik throb and downtown skronk into the sponge that is the French music of Lousiana.
Cosmic Cajuns from Saturn was recorded live last December at New Orleans’ Saturn bar, a nexus of Old Weird New Orleans still somewhat untouched by the gentrification land grab. I wish I'd been at that show and am glad there is this document of it. The record makes my tentacles quiver.
Recently we spoke to Mark about his return to live music...
OUTSIDELEFT: What was it about this project that got you out of the production chair and got you to strap a guitar back on after all these years?
MARK BINGHAM: It was a process. In 2016, I started recording the Lost Bayou Ramblers at Nina Highway - a score for a film about Nutria. At that time, Louis had a portable studio set in Lafayette where he worked on the film cues that weren’t done with the full band at Nina. Soon after, the Lost Bayou Ramblers “Kalenda” album was mixed by Korey Richie at Nina Highway.
Kirkland Middleton mixed the Nutria film on his own rig and Bryan Webre was involved in the recording.
Each person in MMM records, produces and plays as a matter of course. I play guitar on a daily basis, I just didn’t play many shows since the late 80s.
In Jan 2018, the Melody Makers played a gig in Arnaudville. Louis asked me to come by and sit in. It was memorable, we had that “sum greater than the parts” action that often defines unique bands. Louis started calling me for gigs. We never rehearsed, I learned the music on stage, listening. By the time we recorded Blood Moon, I still didn’t know the names of the tunes. 90% of what I played on that record was overdubbed after the bottoms were done. Byran had played all the acoustic guitar parts. I’d do 4 electric takes per song, Korey picked what he wanted to use. We’ve played roughly 40 shows since summer 2018 until the pandemic shut us down.
OUTSIDELEFT: Piety Street Studio in New Orleans was legendary. How does it compare to working in Louis' homespun analog space?
MARK BINGHAM: Louis works at his house, I don’t. Piety Street was OK. Running a big studio was a royal pain and I'm grateful that I don’t have to do it anymore. Nina Highway has much of the gear that was at Piety Street, with a Neotek console instead of the SSL.
OUTSIDELEFT: What is your history with Cajun music? Were you well-versed in it before entering the Michot version of it?
MARK BINGHAM: Like many non-Cajun geezers, I first heard Cajun music via Doug Kershaw. After that, I heard more Zydeco than Cajun. I had heard Clifton Chenier multiple times in the 70s, but didn’t know much Cajun music aside from seeing Les Blank’s J'ai Ete Au Bal. Moving to Louisiana in 1982, I went to the Swine Festival in Basile. Dewey Balfa was the 1982 Swine King, which seemed odd to me as his wife had died of trichinosis in 1980. The Swine Festival was a pivotal experience for me in understanding Louisiana and Cajun culture, which at that time was very open, welcoming and friendly.
In the 80s , I made live recordings of Savoy-Doucet band, Eddie Lejeune, Boozoo Chavis, John Delafose and more, so I had a clue about the music. I also mixed the 1991 Bluerunners debut album, which was jacked up Cajun music.
Cut to 2016 and the culture had changed drastically. The Michot version of Cajun music is more like it was up to the 1990s homogenization of Cajun music via folklore and the condensing of sonic political power in the hands of a few. When I first witnessed the scene, the bands and the audience were essentially equals, with the band, the dancers and the folks cooking food all a part of the same organism. Then “stars” were born. That’s an overly simplistic view of a scene that also included swamp pop and rockabilly and the Highway 190 Black bar R+B and Zydeco circuit since the late 1940s. I did have some Swallow LPs when I lived in Indiana in the early 70s but I don’t remember who - I was into any exotica and Cajun music was that. I liked Lawrence Walker and Belton Richard.
OUTSIDELEFT: You know gear. What are you playing: guitar, amps etc.
MARK BINGHAM: I have an Egnater amp. Small. Easy to move, loud enough for stage. I play an early 90s Clapton strat with lace sensor pick- ups. I use 10’s on that guitar. I use 3 EH pedals, the mini delay, Ocean reverb and Soul overdrive. I don’t use a pick. In the studio I have Pro Tools ultimate, Focal monitors and a 24 channel Neotek console. Some records get mixed on the console , others are all inside the computer after tracking.
OUTSIDELEFT: Are you feeling the old fire from when you used to play in groups, or is it a whole different thing no, playing guitar in the Melody Makers?
MARK BINGHAM: It’s a musically supportive situation. I can play it as I hear it and that happens to work for Louis. Bryan and Kirkland are excellent musicians and they bring sounds and ideas from their musical development and I get to respond to that. It’s fire alright. Hard to compare eras and situations.
OUTSIDELEFT: MMM is very much about innovation. What is the wildest notion they have come up with and are you game for it?
MARK BINGHAM: I’m not really sure what innovation is in music in 2020. MMM is not purposefully different or trying to be innovative, unless listening and responding, call and response are now innovative. Perhaps using the pads is innovative but we are not a genre band so we can play as we please. There are few solos, but there is steady counterpoint and interplay. Maybe never playing a song the same way twice is innovative but it’s just what we do.
Photogrpahy: Zack Smith (Zak's website is here)
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com