Singer, songwriter and master of multiple instruments Louis Michot of the Lost Bayou Ramblers gives Kreol Magazine readers an exclusive inside look at the band’s beginnings and what inspires Michot musically.
In 2012, the Lost Bayou Ramblers released their wildly successful “Mammoth Waltz” album. Founding band member Louis Michot tells Kreol Magazine how he got his own start in music, what inspires him and how he balances music with family life.
How did you get started in music?
Louis Michot: I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1979, and raised in Lafayette. My mom is from Shreveport, LA. My dad, who came from a family of ten, is an accomplished accordion player. His dad, Louis Michot, was from Lafayette and raised in Mamou, and his family all played music. My great grandpa, the original Louis Michot, and his mama played accordion in Marksville Avoyelles Parish. They had come there from New Orleans where they had been for a couple of generations via Haiti; via France. The music has pretty much been in all our family.
Grandma Michot–she ’s from Canada–had said we’re not Cajun; we’re Creole. Cajun back then was associated with the very poor, working class Acadians who were an amazing people. We have that in our blood as well, but very distinct from French Creoles of New Orleans.
My dad was part of a family band called Les Frères Michot. My brother, my cousin and I all ended up being raised around that and playing music from an early age. There’s six brothers and four sisters; five at a time would take turns playing as Les Frères Michot. They played everywhere from New Orleans to Washington DC, New York and Europe. They’re still actually doing it; they’ve been playing for about 35 years or so.
My band co-founder, brother Andre, and I would take their places as other reatives would be vagabonding on the road. The tit-fer (triangle), was my first instrument, and I picked up the standard bass guitar. Andre and I played with Les Frères Michot for about fifteen years, a couple of times each week, all throughout school and college. My first time \[with the band], they said, “Uncle David’s not here, so we need a bass player.” They basically threw me on stage with a stand-up bass, and I just had to learn, you know, on stage. That’s how our music and tradition just rolls on. It’s not by classes and it’s not by workshops; it’s out of necessity and out of fun. I say that to some of my friends: “I’m gonna teach you how to play this, and you can play with us.” And it works, you know; you get some great musicians that way, too, if they got it naturally. iddle is my primary instrument, now; and I play stand-up bass, guitar, accordion and triangle, and I sing.
I learned the basics of music playing every weekend, mostly local, but we travelled a good bit, as well. When I was 19, I went to a five week immersion program to learn how to speak French at the University of St. Anne in Nova Scotia, Canada. As soon as I started learning French, it came out Cajun, because it’s like music: you can’t speak a language when you don’t know what it sounds like. To me, what I knew it sounded like was what I heard growing up–Cajun and Creole and local French which I didn’t know what sounded like much. So, it came out Cajun.
My grandpa gave me a fiddle when I was 18, and I took it with me to Canada. I learned fiddle at the same time I learned to speak French, and I was learning how to sing French, too, because I knew hundreds of songs in my head from playing guitar and bass. I brought them all out and learned how to play them all on the fiddle.
That’s when I learned and started taking the music f or myself. Before, it was just something that was part of my life that I didn’t realize how unique and special it was. It was something I grew up doing, like you go to school, or you go to church on Sunday or whatever. When I got to the ages of 18- 20 years old, I really started appr eciating all the beautiful music, the new music, the old music and all the French music.
Andre had learned to play my dad’s accor dion while I was in Canada. Neither of us knew that the other was learning the two lead instruments. I got back from my trip, and we sat down and wrote a tune right there. We started our band about three months later; that was in 1999.
Where do you get your inspiration from in writing your music?
LM: I’ve written at least a couple of dozen songs. I write them in French, I don’t translate them and I write them very quickly. They’re from real moments. I don’t try to think of a scenario and write a song; I just do it; it just comes naturally.
How long have you been really putting your mind to actually playing music?
LM: I started playing f or myself when I was 12. It was Mardi Gras and my uncle gave me his old pawn shop guitar. The first thing I learned was Jimi Hendrix’s National Anthem. I’ m 34 now, so that was 22 years ago. Since then, I’ve always wanted to play music and loved playing music. Actually, I didn’t think that I could do it as a profession; I just never really thought about it one way or another.
You have a family, do they miss you when you travel?How do they cope with your not being around?
LM: Music does r equire some longer hours or tours. My wif e–she’s from a musical family–was teaching Cajun French to high school students. When we started having children, she kept working. When we had the first one, I was still playing music, and when we finally had our second child, we decided for her to stop working and stay with the children; really made a decision to go after what we really want in life and not try to chase the dollar too much. We took the risk of relying solely on music, together.
It’s an inter esting lif estyle, having a family and being a musician; but the great thing is that I’m completely in control of my destiny. I have so much quality time at home; I mean, sometimes, it feels like I don’t work. Sometimes it feels like I’m home all the time. Other times, I’ m gone a little too long; at the most, two to two and half weeks, and I had three of those last year.
Which has been your most successful album?
LM: “Mammoth Waltz” by far. We just went all the way and did exactly what we wanted to do, took all the time and creativity and completely ignored any restraining voices. “Mammoth Waltz” has excellent reviews and praise, especially for completely blowing the top off for this genre.
It’s great to be a success. It can also be restricting, because there’s a risk of getting pigeonholed, you know: “We’ll put you in the Cajun Zydeco stage,” or, “We’ll put you here.” But, a lot of times, you don’t have the chance to access the general public without a preconceived notion of what you’re supposed to sound like. That’s something w e’ve w orked on the whole time, and this has r eally solidified our ability to take Cajun music and bring it to the masses and let them understand it and lov e it without having to accept it as a twostep waltz dance music that’s going to sound the same every time. We bring them a true performance and dynamic music. Music has to change; it has to evolve to stay alive. Otherwise, it becomes a historical timepiece of a stage for the sake of tradition. But tradition has got to breathe and live, and that’s the thing about the Mammoth. It’s got a lot of levels to it, but taking something so old, these old tunes, these old rhythms, you know, Mammoth old, and bringing them to a new age and fusing them with all of our modern influences, and bringing something very heavy and real to the modern Cajun and Creole musical landscape. This album is by far the most that Cajun music has been taken along. It’s a scary jump from a tradition where people aren’t expecting it, but I’m inspired by the Zydeco. A lot of my inspiration for this album and the songs I wrote come from that really old, just very emotional feeling [of early Cajun music]. People say tradition is this or that, those guys that we say are traditional now, they were innovators, they were pushing the edge back then and I always say if they had the technology that we do today, they’d be taking it a lot further than any of us.