TAB BENOIT: I first got into music at birth-probably before birth-my mom said I used to kick to the beat in her stomach. As far as I could tell I’ve been playing something all my life. But I didn’t think about doing it for a living until I was out of high school. It didn’t seem like it would be possible-coming from a little bayou isolated life. But when I started getting into New Orleans and getting gigs during the week is when it started to show itself. I played in all different types of bands growing up-just weekend stuff. Frat parties and college gigs and things like that. I might play in a country band one night and a Cajun band the next night and a new wave band one night and a rock band the next night-it was all over the place. Whoever needed a guitar player or drummer or anything I would go play. I was even a stand up comic too.
AD: How was that experience? How long did you do that?
TB: Too long– probably about a good year of actually getting paid for it. When you can get a hundred dollars doing 20 minutes worth of work, that’s pretty damn good. I got into that. That’s really what opened up the doors to singing for me. I wouldn’t have had the guts to get out there and sing if I didn’t do stand up comedy. It’s kind of screwed up but it’s true. I would have to say it, but yeah. It changed my life. I dare anybody to try it. Go stand up on a stage by yourself with a microphone and white lights with an audience waiting to hear something funny. Just try that once. It’s not an easy thing to do and I respect anyone that does it, 100%. I love that stuff-it’s live entertainment. It’s all the same.
AD: A performer is a performer.
TB: It’s live art.
AD: I had read in your bio that you are committed to spontaneity and being in the moment. Well, first off, did you apply that to your comedy routine?
TB: That’s where I learned it. You have to, you don’t have a choice. If you play a song that not the whole crowd is really digging they can still stomach it and go through it and wait until they get the song that they really want to hear-they’re not going anywhere. In comedy, you can lose a whole audience over one bad joke. There is no recovery. So it gets a lot more urgent when you are on the stage with comedy to grab onto something-you better find something quickly so that we can all get together and move from there. I do the same thing in music to this day. I’ll start it off and then somewhere in there I’ll find what the audience wants, what the band wants, what sounds good in the room, what feels good at the time and then go with that.
AD: Have you ever been unable to pull that off?
TB: No, because from comedy, there is no such thing as can’t. You can’t ever say you can’t do it. You do not want to leave that stage feeling like you just lost them. It’s actually a lot easier when you give up to the moment instead of trying to give up to the moment. It doesn’t seem like it, because it’s that jumping out of that airplane thing. It’s the same thing in any kind of art. It’s the same thing with painting, once you start it you got it.
AD: The owner of Tabby’s gave you this piece of advice: “As long as you play the blues you’ll always have a job.” As someone who doesn’t, what does that mean to you?
TB: Have a job?
AD: No, that I have. I was referring to the blues.
TB: You’ll always make money playing the blues. Even if you don’t have a club, or you don’t have a band or anything, you can sit on a street corner with your guitar and people will drop money in it. It’s universal, it’s easy to understand and doesn’t go over everybody’s heads but it’s the simplified version of human emotion in music.
AD: How do you like playing Austin?
TB: It’s been a long time, I don’t really remember.
AD: You’ve got the Funky Batz crew taking care of you tonight.
TB: That’s so far so good. It’s nice to come back; I need to come back more often.
AD: You seem to bring a lot of joy to people.
TB: I didn’t ask them to. I wasn’t trying to do this. It wasn’t my choice. I was not trying to be a musician.
AD: Tell me more about who you were trying to be.
TB: I was supposed to be a pilot. I went to school to be a pilot. I was flying. The music was always around but I was never encouraged to do that for a living. My parents wouldn’t have it. They wanted me to be somebody and have a real job.
AD: What happened?
TB: I flew airplanes every day and then it got to the point where I got more offers for gigs and I was turning down more money than I was making flying cause I was really trying to do the right thing.
AD: You said your parents didn’t encourage it, did you still feel a sense of responsibility? That it was somehow calling you?
TB: I had to know for sure that it was possible before I went out there and tried. I wasn’t going to go out there and stick my neck out unless I could see that it was possible. For one year of my life I didn’t play anything and purposely picked up all of my instruments and got them away from me and just really applied myself to flying.
AD: Was that hard?
TB: It wasn’t hard at first and then it starts eating at you after awhile. There was something that was just not right. And even if I had a great job it still was not fulfilling. I didn’t feel like I was using my talents; I didn’t feel like I was using what I was given. I really didn’t think it was music-I didn’t know what it was. Doing the music thing at first was just a way to get away from flying and do something else for a living that was more along the artistic side of things. I could teach you to fly an airplane, anybody could fly an airplane-it’s similar to driving a car. You don’t have to be all that talented to fly an airplane. Now there are talented pilots out there and there is a difference between them and the average guy out there the same way there are drivers who are talented. But most people on the highway aren’t the people ain’t those guys. In fact some of them shouldn’t be driving at all. They shouldn’t be out there. Same thing in the arts; same thing with music. There are some people that shouldn’t be out there. And I never wanted to be that guy; I never wanted to be the one that shouldn’t be doing it either. I was really cautious about it.
AD: You said you didn’t want to just stick you neck out, was there a defining moment when you knew it was ok to?
TB: Yeah. After a year I was teaching flying and I told the school I was working for that I would give them a year. So I really gave it a year and at the end of the year I was just going through it and reviewing what I had done. That year is when I had picked up all the instruments and didn’t touch them and that year I had more calls for gigs. And when I saw that monetarily I was an idiot to by flying; I should be playing music. So now I know I can pay the bills playing music and eventually I can persuade my parents to put me back in the will.
AD: How did you break it to them? Did you hand over the financials?
TB: No, that wouldn’t have worked. I wasn’t mean about it, I was just trying to say, “Hey, I’m not ya’ll. I’m myself.” So yeah, I just told them I’m quitting my job as a pilot. Thanks for sending me to school and paying for all this but I’m going to go play music for a living. It was a battle; it was tough.
AD: Have they come around?
TB: Now she gets a hold of the tambourine and I can’t get her off of the stage.
AD: Once you made that leap, were you scared?
TB: No. I knew what it was all about. The only thing I was a little shocked about was how evil the record labels are. They are very mean people.
AD: You weren’t prepared for that?
TB: I thought that people were going to be fair and things would be straight up. I assumed that and it bit me in the ass and I learned what not to do. I learned some of the jargon-just learning the language and the legal shit and what it actually means.
AD: I know it’s a tough blues music scene in Louisiana. What was it like to be accepted there?
TB: I’ll put it to you like this: everybody in Louisiana plays music. You are just like the rest of them. That’s what my parents were saying: “Everybody plays but you don’t see anybody doing it for a living do you?” It was that kind of thing. Everyone has talent. To be accepted as a professional is a big thing there and you have to earn it. Some places if you just have musical talent they put you up on a pedestal and make you think you are something special. In Louisiana, that ain’t the case. In fact you’re lower-you’re nothing special. You’re just one of us which is actually a better place to grow up because they are going to be honest with you and truthful with you-they aren’t going to blow smoke. That can be very harmful. If you grow up as a kid and all you heard was how great you are, you get out in the world and it’s bad. Look at Michael Jackson, he is not right, and he will tell you he’s not right. In a lot of ways I’m very lucky that I wasn’t encouraged and pushed and told that I was great. It was better for me to do it my way and wait until I had gone through everything that I had gone through and became an adult before I did this. There is a lot to say for that. I really don’t think kids should be doing music professionally.
AD: You don’t?
TB: I really don’t. It takes a lifetime to learn-it’s an art form. You don’t see kids painting paintings for a living. You don’t see that. What you see is these kids being dragged around by their parents being worn down and they end up hating it. You have to learn how to use your talent to give the world what you have to give. You’re not going to know that at 16 years old. It’s not up to you at that age; it’s up to your parents. I think the only guy I knew that was doing it when he was 15 years old but he was on his own was Derek Trucks. That’s the only guy I’ve ever seen that was on the road before he was old enough to drink with his own band without his parents dragging him around.
AD: Tell us a little bit about Voices of the Wetlands.
TB: It’s just a handful of people trying to push all the powers away so that we can get back to what we are dealing with as people. Voice of Wetlands got started for me from going to hurricane Pam meetings which FEMA held years before the hurricanes about the day New Orleans would flood. They wanted to figure out what the plan was. The plan never mentioned people. And that’s why I started Voice of Wetlands. We had no voice. So the idea was to try and get Dr. John and the Neville Brothers and the Meters and all the guys from New Orleans to help get people to understand that they were not included in the plan and if you want to be included you better speak up.
AD: Do you think we can save the wetlands?
TB: We always could. It only takes one thing: the President has to say that we are making this a national priority.
AD: And if that’s not going to happen?
TB: It sounds simple.
AD: Is there a grassroots effort that is rebuilding and replanting?
TB: Very small scale stuff. The bottom line is that the Mississippi River Delta has to be rebuilt by the Mississippi Delta River. We’ve stopped that from happening by channeling the river all the way into the Gulf-that’s what started the erosion process. The level of the river is above sea level and if it does break it is coming down with a big wall of water. Eventually that will happen if we don’t do it ourselves. We have the biggest port in the country. We have the majority of the refineries. A lot of people rely on us for oil, seafood, sugar-there are a lot of things that are important to this country and a lot of people don’t understand why or if it is that important. The problem was that we weren’t allowed to have our own voice as a separate state that has its own laws and rules and all of that was pretty much wiped clean. Louisiana is not a free state right now. It’s the beginning of the end if you ask me. We are on the frontline of something that’s changing our country, big time, and it has to do with oil. If people don’t want to wake up well then be prepared for what is coming. We’re not the only oil power on this planet. We were a big powerful one but right now we’re not. We’re buying everything from China. China and Russia are getting together to become an oil superpower. We have a bunch of oil and we are buying everything from China and everything we are buying is failing. There is lead paint in the kids’ toys, there’s military equipment that fails every day. If they wanted us, wow, what a great set up. We’ve lost of our industrious side of our nation and we are so far removed from it I don’t think we can ever start it again like we had. Remember when US made goods were huge and the export of US made goods was a big part of our economy and our culture. If you’re making all your decisions based on one economic product, which is oil, then everyone is coming up your back door to take everything you’ve neglected. And that’s what’s happening right now. And Katrina really opened up that door to squeeze people out of those areas that they really want the resources out of. They are drilling in New Orleans East right now. They want us out of there and it shows. It is blatantly obvious. The problem is people down there are so afraid to lose their jobs that they can’t talk about it. That’s thanks to the Guest Worker Program that was passed right after the hurricane. See, things were put into place right after the hurricane that people didn’t put two and two together with. Right after Katrina, the port issue came up; Bush had basically sold the ports. He had pretty much made a deal without Congress and even his guys in Congress said, “Hold on there, you can’t just do this.” That came up because the port of New Orleans had nobody to run it-the whole population of New Orleans was gone. That didn’t fly. So then the immigration issue comes up. We have to pass the guest worker program at all costs–Bush’s idea. The Guest Worker Program allows companies and the government to go to Mexico or wherever and pay guys and bring them in. The government gives them visas for a year and all they have to do is house them. The people can’t have a residency or address and then they go back home. People were thinking that that was for the farms in California. The farms in California are already full of people working. This was for oil. As soon as the winds died down nobody was rescuing anybody, they were rescuing refineries and oil rigs. They were instantly there with military helicopters bringing Mexicans out there. I watched them in my hometown-huge military helicopters unloading Mexicans 20, 30 at a time. And meanwhile the world is watching people die in New Orleans with no help for five days.
AD: You did mention earlier that there is nothing grass roots that can save this. It has to be on the national level. Having said all that, and talking about the government and the current conditions, doesn’t the outlook seem somewhat grim?
TB: No, not really because it’s not just us now. I mean we are still so far behind on the Katrina stuff we can’t get that bridge repaired in Minneapolis. And now you’ve got all of Southern California burned up so I think the country is about to wake up and see that nobody is coming to fix anything.
AD: According to media reports the government seemed to do a great job with the California recovery efforts. There was a wellness center at the shelter.
TB: Media is false. Wait to they start tying to get their insurance money.
AD: You can’t help but wonder.
TB: Of course you should wonder but what are you going to do, just lay down and die?
AD: I don’t believe that’s an option.
TB: You have to fight these things with truth and we have it happening right in front of our eyes. New Orleans is a great example of the truth and how badly our government is running our own country. We have the tools to use and ability to go to them and say no. The first amendment allows us to do that; that’s what the first amendment is really about. It’s not about being able to print what you want. The freedom of speech is about being able to speak out against your government because it is your duty to do so. It is welcomed by our founding fathers; I can’t say it’s welcome by the people in power right now. I tend to keep going back to the stuff they taught me in school and about our government in elementary school and how they warned us about these times. I mean what happened to, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself?” This guy has everyone so scared of terrorism they will do whatever they want. It was supposed to mean, don’t be scared of anything except being scared.
AD: And you think all we have now is fear?
TB: Benjamin Franklin said, “If you are going to give up freedom for security then you deserve neither.” And we are doing it right now. We are giving up our freedoms to make ourselves safer but are we really safer? I would think we are worse off. The rest of the world looked up to us at one point and thought that we might have had it right because the people were in charge of their government. And now we are showing them that we are scared and just following them like a dictatorship anyway. So we’re really not the strong country that we think we are. I’m so tired of hearing every time a politician gets up there and says, “We’re the best country on the planet.” I don’t believe it. I’m embarrassed. I’m still embarrassed about the 2000 elections. I don’t believe in elections anymore, I don’t believe in the news anymore. I believe in what I see and I believe in us as people. And so on the optimistic side we can do anything we want. All we have to do is be able to talk to each other and tell each other what is going on so that we can rally together. Pick something; anything.
AD: There does seem to be a lot to choose from these days.
TB: And we can start in Louisiana. Look, California can’t run without Louisiana. Nothing runs without what is going on at the mouth of the Mississippi River. It is our biggest resource.
AD: Do you think people get that?
TB: Not at all. Part of the whole thing is to educate people on how important it is and how important it is to maintain it. It’s the third largest river on the entire planet. It’s what makes North America what it is. That river running through the middle of it has been a major resource for us before this place was called America. It was a major resource for the Native Americans and they knew that you never mess with rivers. They are your life blood. It’s like messing with your veins or your arteries. You don’t mess with that. You keep them free flowing and you use and don’t abuse. We’ve damned every river in this country.
Everyone thinks that if you are an industrial nation and technologically advanced that you can overcome these things. I have news for everybody in the country: every major power plant, every major factory, is sitting on a river. Don’t sit here and think rivers aren’t important. Technology just hides the fact. Even technology needs rivers.
AD: I think most of us suffer from the disconnect.
TB: I totally understand the disconnect. That’s why artists such as myself should be using their powers to educate people to understand these things. People listen to us. Let’s give them some information, not just entertain them. Leave a positive stripe on the planet with your talents-that’s my whole goal. Help as many people as I can in whatever way that it can help. If this is it, then you’ve got to take it for what it is. I never would have dreamed I would have been doing this but I saw gaps that needed to be filled and I felt like I could fill them so I had to do it. Do that or you’re not a human. We’re supposed to take care of each other. If we are really going to be the country that we think we are you can’t just say, “Oh that’s a Louisiana thing.” You have to say, “That’s our country and we have to take care of all of it.” It’s a dying thing. Nobody understands the scope of how much money we are spending in Iraq and how much that really is. 150 billion dollars a year is huge amounts of money. That could be 3 billion dollars to each state each year to do whatever the hell you want with as a state. We wouldn’t have any of these problems we have right now.
I saw a documentary on the Apollo program. President Kennedy made it a national program; we are going to the moon. No price tag, we are going to the moon. And we went. Well then it was too expensive to continue we are just going to stop. The whole thing cost 24 billion dollars. We could have colonized the moon for what we spent in Iraq.
AD: We could’ve have had condos on the moon by the time we are done with Iraq.
TB: And Iraq still looks like a pile of rocks. The streets should have been paved with gold by now with that kind of money.