It’s been a big year for the Lost Bayou Ramblers. The young, Louisiana-based band contributed a song to the acclaimed indie film Beasts of the Southern Wild. The New York Times got in-depth with the group’s singing fiddler Louis Michot about how he harvested house-building materials from the swamp.
And nearly a decade after the Ramblers’ first album, the guys released Mammoth Waltz, a combustible combo of Cajun roots tradition and psychedelic garage rock attack that could grab attention even if it didn’t feature guests such as Dr. John, the Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano and actress-singers Scarlett Johansson and Nora Arnezeder.
It’s obvious that all this hasn’t gone to Michot’s head, though, as he fields questions while doing laundry on tour.
CMT Edge: What in your background prepared you and your brother Andre to pursue a nontraditional approach to the Cajun music tradition?
Michot: Andre [Michot, his brother who plays accordion and lap steel] and I are the only ones [in the band] that grew up playing Cajun music, but we all grew up listening to psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll. When Andre and I started playing accordion and fiddle on our own and having our own Cajun band, we took many years to learn. I mean, we had our first gig a month after we started playing accordion and fiddle. We started right away. And we happened to pick them up during the same month randomly. It was very weird.
We had played music together all of our lives, playing guitar and bass and rock ‘n’ roll and Cajun music and all that. And once we did fiddle and accordion, we really took many years to hone in on our rhythm and the melody and really focusing on the beauty and the haunting mystery of what is that old amazing Cajun music. … And once we felt comfortable with our own sound and with our own band and our repertoire, we just [started] writing more songs. It was kind of a gradual evolution. Our guitar player Cavan Carruth has really helped bring a lot of sonic openness to the band.
That’s him playing electric guitar on Mammoth Waltz, isn’t it?
Yeah, exactly. He plays a hollow body and uses a bunch of pedals and stuff. And that’s been something that we’ve been working in, as well. It’s just kind of been an evolution. Mammoth is really just a snapshot of where we are basically. And we did put a lot of studio time in, of course. And the drummer had never really heard Cajun music before he played in our band. So he kinda learned our sound, which was already very different than most of the Cajun bands. Even when we were called traditional, we were still not embraced as traditional.
When you said that you and Andre grew up playing Cajun music, you meant in the band that your dad and your uncles had, right?
Yeah, we basically played in that band [the Michot Brothers] from a pretty early age — from our early teens professionally — and before that, just kinda here and there. … It wasn’t like we were part of a scene or anything. It was just family on weekends at different events. And we were the only band we knew. I didn’t know any other Cajun bands or any other Cajun musicians until I was, like, 18.
Fiddle and accordion are the instruments at the heart of Cajun music, aren’t they?
Exactly. They’re the melody and the lead instruments of Cajun music. So I mean, really, if you think about it, we had a good decade of guitar and myself on stand-up bass at Michot Brothers shows. So we did a decade of just learning the songs without fiddle and accordion, and that’s like hundreds of songs in the Michot Brothers repertoire. Then when we picked up fiddle and accordion, it was like all those years of playing in the rhythm section for my family’s show, it was like it all came out — like we knew all the songs already. We just had to access them in our minds, you know?
How have you put your own spins on those instruments? I thought I might’ve even heard some distortion on them on Mammoth Waltz.
You’re definitely right. … I mean, playing live has really done it mainly. We both play through amps, our fiddle and accordion through amps, like they used to do in the old days. The old dance hall bands used to. I mean, it was all amps. It was real loud and distorted, and that’s a lot of our inspiration — those old ‘50s Cajun bands.
But even past that, Andre uses pedals on his accordion. He’s always kind of been a musical magician, even when he was 15 years old playing blues guitar at Tabby’s Blues Box [a bar in Baton Rouge, La.]. He just kind of stands there and makes amazing things happen. He’s very experimental and open-minded musically and very traditionally rooted. He learned from my dad and from Ray Abshire, who learned from [Cajun music legend] Nathan Abshire. He’s an accordion builder, as well. And myself on the fiddle, too, I’ve always liked a very overdriven sound.
So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that you’ve made such a psychedelic Cajun album.
Exactly. People that have been to our shows over the years, the better the show, the more psychedelic we are. It’s kind of always been like that, but we’ve been really tapping into it and learning how to do it naturally. It’s definitely been a natural progression, not something we made a decision we were going to do one day. …That’s probably why we don’t play a lot of local dance halls, even dance halls nationally. I mean, they just want you to play two-step waltzes, and we want to jam out. So we go where people want us.
You mentioned Andre building accordions. You do a lot in addition to music-making too. I read about the Cultural Research Institute of Acadiana, where you do collection and preservation work.
I definitely wear a lot of hats and have a lot of interests. I’ve always loved music so much. I never really thought I’d play music for a living. I always thought it’d be something else. But it’s kinda been the other way around where I play music for a living … But it’s also been part of a diverse lifestyle where I’m able to follow my other interests as well. I started the Acadiana Seed Bank, the Cultural Research Institute of Acadiana, in ’07. It’s like the songs, as well. It’s just these old gems that are just too beautiful and too important to let go of. Some of those songs have so much of our own story. … To me, music passes knowledge from one generation to another. The same with the seeds.
You’re talking about a very conscious devotion to preservation. Did you see the worth in staying in touch with your roots when you were a kid, or was that something you had to grow into?
Definitely something I grew into. I think like most young Americans, we strive to be more American until we realize what that actually means and what you’re actually leaving behind. In Louisiana, that’s a lot. There’s a lot that we’re leaving behind in embracing the American identity, leaving our language, our heritage, everything. Everything that everyone goes to Louisiana for — the food and all that.
As I got older, I started really seeing the beauty of where we come from and who I actually am, how my ancestors lived and how we became like we are. We’re blessed with such a prolific culture, and that’s such a beautiful thing. It’s really hard to watch it change and hard to watch you lose it over the years like I’m sure every generation goes through. It’s such a dualistic thing. You’ve got this whole beautiful old world French thing going, right in the middle of oil-strip Lafayette modern America. It’s just such a dualistic culture that we’re raised in. So definitely it was in my later teen years when I started getting an appreciation. That’s basically when I picked up the fiddle and started a garden, you know?