Jon Cleary Pumps Things Up

“Talking about Jazz, funk, rhythm and blues, and soul,” Jon Cleary sings in “Bringing Back The Home.” You’ll get all of these styles in the multi-instrumentalist’s fun new album, which he tells Pollstar is not really a New Orleans record, but then again, “it’s undeniably a New Orleans record.”

The keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist chatted with Pollstar a few weeks ago about the LP, the “eccentric endeavor” of being a musician, and falling in love with New Orleans as a 17-year-old who moved to The Big Easy from England, heading straight from the airport to see performances at the Maple Leaf Bar.

In the 35 years since, Cleary has worked with acts including B.B. King, John Scofield and Taj Mahal; spent 10 years as a member of Bonnie Raitt’s band; and recorded eight albums between himself and his backing band, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen.

Cleary’s latest album, GoGo Juice, is due out Aug. 14 via Thirty Tigers. Produced by Grammy Award-winning producer John Porter, the LP features members of the Absolute Monster Gentlemen and some of New Orleans’ top session players including guitarist Shane Theriot, keyboardist/vocalist Nigel Hall, and the Dirty Dozen horns.

GoGo Juice kicks off with the brass-heavy, sing-along, tap-your-toe single “Pump It Up.” Along with “Bringing Back the Home,” other stand-out tracks include “Boneyard” and “Brother I’m Hungry.” 

After devoting his 2012 album to compositions by Allen Toussaint, Cleary got the musician/composer/arranger/producer to write most of the horn arrangements on GoGo Juice.

“I’m very proud of that,” Cleary said. “It’s a thrill to have Allen Toussaint contributing.”

Photo: Danielle Moir

GoGo Juice is your first new release since 2012’s Occapella. When were the new songs written? Did you write any on the road or did you set aside specific time to write them? 

Some of them were brand new, written specifically for the record and some of them were actually songs I’ve had sitting on scraps of paper for years. If you’re a songwriter you generally collect lines as you hear them and make notes of ideas. And you build up a large sort of mental filing cabinet of song ideas which are in various stages of completions. Sometimes you’ll write and complete a song in five minutes and then there are some other songs that you start and you don’t finish until 20 years later. (laughs) So every record I make is a combination of brand new stuff and other ideas that I’ve had waiting. And it’s a matter of just selecting songs you think will complement each other, but provide sufficiently diverse styles and textures and color to make for a diverse listening experience. I personally don’t think you want to have nine, 10, 11 songs that all sound the same. I like to go through a variety of keys, a variety of tempos, a variety of moods, so that you cover a lot of musical bases [and] have a big, wide world of musical vocabulary to draw from.

A song like “Brother I’m Hungry,” for example, I wrote years ago when I lived in New York, at a time when you … [saw] a lot of homeless people going through the trash, looking for something to eat. Every time I stepped out into the street you were confronted with several people asking for money and people that were hungry. It was something that you couldn’t ignore. So that song was really written a long time ago and sat there on a very scratchy old demo tape waiting for a time when I was going through ideas. … Songs like “Get’cha GoGo Juice,” for example, were written right before we actually went and recorded.

You’ve said you “wanted to infuse this album with a sound that was true to the city I love.” Did you have a plan for the sound and feel you wanted before you wrote the album?  

No, not really. I mean, you select songs on a song-by-song basis and then if you feel that you’ve got more than one song that covers a particular area then decide whether that’s a good thing or if that song should be replaced with something else to cover a different style. Really, it was selecting song by song with a sort of overview of how they would fit together as a collection. But there wasn’t really an attempt to set out to make a particular style of record.

I mean, it’s not really a New Orleans record, if you’re familiar with New Orleans music. There are some references that obviously come from New Orleans but it’s not really a New Orleans record, other than by virtue of the fact that all of the musicians on the record are from New Orleans and learned to play music in New Orleans. And we cut it in Louisiana. We actually recorded it in Lafayette. But you know, New Orleans music is so popular around the world that [there are] Germans playing Dixieland jazz or Japanese guys in Tokyo playing New Orleans funk or English guys playing New Orleans ‘50s rhythm and blues. I mean, there’s all so [many] different aspects of New Orleans music that have made … different styles popular around the world for the last century.

And I think when you’re approaching New Orleans music from the outside, you tend to try and make New Orleans music. When you’re approaching New Orleans music from the inside, you just play music. You don’t think about whether it sounds like it’s New Orleans music. And I think that’s actually been the case throughout … the history of popular music. New Orleans has always been a great instigator and style maker and the place where the blueprint was written. Other people took it and turned it into different things. But really, jazz started here and rock ’n’ roll started here – rhythm and blues as they call it, here in New Orleans. It all came from people who were just playing music. The music here isn’t something that people sit down, think [about] what they’re going to play. Like the way music has always been traditionally made by human beings on the planet, it’s just something that they do. And if happens, it happens. The folkloric music, the traditional folk music of New Orleans, is the one style of folk music that’s actually so good and so appealing that people all around the world took it up and started playing it. … Other people in other parts of the world choose to play it and down here they do it because this is what they grew up listening to. We still have the original raw ingredients [that] can still be heard on the streets of New Orleans on a Sunday afternoon on the second line parade. So it’s a long way of saying that really, it wasn’t set out to be a New Orleans record. I don’t think it really sounds like a New Orleans record, from an outside point of view. But from a local, New Orleans musician’s point of view, it’s undeniably a New Orleans record. Does that make sense? It’s kind of like a musician’s answer to a good question.

How did you come up with the title of the album, GoGo Juice? 

Well, I used to play with a great respected songwriter here called Earl King and his advice to me was, “Whenever you hear a good line, write it down. Don’t think you’re going to remember it because too much stuff gets lost. Always write it down.” He would always keep a little pad and a pencil and write stuff down. Now I use my iPhone. Whenever I hear a line that I can use or if I see a quote in a newspaper or wherever it may come from, on the radio or overhearing a conversation in the street … then I make a note of it. And so I have pages and pages and pages of lines of raw material for song lyrics. Sometimes you’ll use them verbatim, word for word, and sometimes they’ll suggest an idea that becomes a song but it’s good raw material for a writer. I don’t know where I came across the phrase “GoGo Juice,” [maybe] in a novel or in a newspaper article somewhere, but I dug it. And I had this idea for a funk tune that I wanted for the record and so I went through my library of quotes and made a song up entirely out of nonsensical, quite funny lines that I’d overheard. … So it’s nonsense. Makes no sense at all. …“Get Your GoGo Juice” is kind of a metaphor for the funkiness of New Orleans.

The album was produced by John Porter. Had you worked with him previously?

Yes. I’ve worked with John a great deal. I met John Porter in the early ‘90s at Keith Richards’ house of all places. And we became friends. And then we hooked up a year later when he asked me to contribute some songs to Taj Mahal’s recording session. And then that led to me joining Taj’s band and playing on the album. So I did two Taj Mahal records that Jon produced and then he would call me to play on other projects where he needed my style of piano playing or guitar playing. So various albums like Ryan Adams and B.B. King. Quite a few records, really. … He’s from England originally but he’d been a producer in LA for years and there was a point where he decided to make a change and he came to New [Orleans]. He’d fallen in love with New Orleans on a visit here one time when he came to make a record with me. We made three or four records together, maybe more, maybe five records of mine. So he moved to New Orleans and was here at the time so it made perfect sense. So yeah, we’ve collaborated a lot over the years. John’s a great friend and he’s a really good recording producer and a really good engineer and a really good musician too. He now has moved to England so I don’t get to see him as much but we’ll be collaborating on things. We’re actually collaborating on a Bobby Womack thing at the moment.

How did the recording process go on this album?

It was a conventional process. The last record I made, Occapella … I decided as an exercise to play all the instruments myself. I have a studio in my house and so it was a chance to brush up on my recording skills, brush up on my drumming and bass playing and all the other instruments. And so that was an interesting exercise and it involved me basically recording one part at a time. I did a whole album like that. For this record, I wanted to actually make a conventional record, so actually be in the room with all the musicians. So totally different approach.

We cut what they call the “beds,” the main tracks, at a nice studio called Dockside in Lafayette, La., way out in the bayou country, out in the jungle. And then I brought those back to my home studio and then we did all the overdubs at home, the vocals and the horns. So sort of a bit of a hybrid approach, conventional recording and then using my home studio to do all the finishing touches.

Photo: Danielle Moir

You moved from England to New Orleans at age 17. Was it love at first sight with the city?  

My family were musicians and they loved all aspects of New Orleans music. My uncle had lived in New Orleans and so I’d grown up hearing funny stories about what a great place it was and what an eccentric place it was. I decided as a young kid that that’s what I wanted to do, as soon as I left school was to move to New Orleans. And so I did. And came with high expectations. In the back of my mind I was old enough to realize that perhaps my expectations were too high and I might be disappointed. But actually the opposite was true … it was even better than I thought it was going to be. I loved it from the minute I set foot. I went straight from the airport in a taxi to the Maple Leaf Bar and walked in and Earl King was playing and I felt like I had died and gone to heaven really. There was no doubt in my mind. It fit me like a comfortable old shirt or suit. And I still feel the same way about New Orleans. I love New Orleans.

What’s one of your favorite things about the city?

Well, there are many things, of course. But I suppose you could sum them all up in one word, which is eccentricity. I think if you’re lucky enough to have [been] born with a brain that can process musical information quite easily then you’re already hardwired in a certain way and music is an eccentric endeavor. Music is such an important part of the social fabric of New Orleans. It’s hard to say whether it was the music that made New Orleans eccentric or the eccentricity of New Orleans that made the music sound the way it does. Chicken and egg, I’m not sure which came first. But I loved everything about it.  If you’re artistically inclined this is a very liberating place to live. Traditionally there hasn’t been business here. When you get up in the morning you want to sing, you want to play music. Or you want to write something down. Liberating I think is a good word. It lets the spirit, the artistic ideas out, without any hindrance. Everywhere else I feel a bit of a sort or a round peg in a square hole. But here in New Orleans, I think along with all the other eccentrics that live down here, you feel quite at home, quite comfortable. I think most people that are born here grow up funky because it’s a funky town. Most people that move here, move here because they’re funky anyway (laughs). … It’s not like anywhere else in the United States.

How many years have you been playing with the Absolute Gentlemen? Has it been consistently the same lineup?

We’re all freelance musicians. So we’re all band leaders and sidemen and session players. Like all musicians you have to be able to wear many hats if you’re going to make a living and do this full time. The band as it is, the first time we played together was about 20 years ago. I put a band together for Jazz Fest and we had so much fun we just continued to do it. The lineup has changed as people have been doing other things here and there, but the basic lineup is still the same. We still go and do different gigs but we come together when we can. And we have a great deal of fun. And I think it’s a special band because in this band the other guys in the band all come from a church background where … everyone sings and so they’re all good gospel singers.

I think it’s the vocal harmonies on the songs that I write that set us apart from a lot of the other bands down here. Hearing human voices is a great bridge from the stage to the audience. It’s a way that people feel they can sort of connect immediately. … I think that’s one of the reasons we have our fanbase down here and people like to come see us when we’re playing out of state or even out of the country. … It’s the voices, the harmonies, the intricate arrangements. We do mostly new songs but we also pay respect to the traditions of New Orleans and we’ll throw in old songs from the 1950s or 1970s. … I think people see the sense of continuum, the way that music, good music is natural in New Orleans whereas other parts of the world it’s so fabricated by a music business. Here it’s … the folk music of New Orleans, it’s a very natural thing here. It naturally has evolved over 100 years. … Every new generation takes what went before and they add something new to it and so the tradition moves and advances and stays current. And with this band I think people can see that. We’re the result of that process.

New Orleans seems like such an inspiring place.

New Orleans has an amazing history musically. It’s got an amazing history in every other respect too but the cultural combinations that coalesced made for very fertile soil for people with musical ideas. The marriage of African percussive sensibilities and harmonic sensibilities along with … Spanish sense of melody, which was based on Islamic, North Africa, along with the classical French tradition. and the fact that New Orleans has people from all over, other parts of the world too, meant that there were all these very rich flavors. A lot of people use cooking metaphors because they’re actually quite a good way to describe it, and I’ll refrain from using the dreaded gumbo cliché. But it is a unique sense of different flavors and spices musically that makes for a dish that bands will serve up down here.

Congo Square in New Orleans was the first place where slaves were allowed to freely congregate. Other parts of the South they took drums away from the slaves. In the days of slavery on a Sunday afternoon slaves could congregate freely and play music in this one area and they called it Congo Square for that reason. And arguably that’s where jazz started in the United States, a whole new style of music.

You played In Bonnie Raitt’s band for 10 years and you’ve also worked with many other musicians including BB King and Taj Mahal. Wondering if there was any advice you were given or lessons you’ve learned that you’d like to share.

As a musician there are lots of things you have to learn. And if you’re lucky enough to work in different contexts, it makes that learning process quicker and easier. From my point of view, I think it’s great as a band leader to know what it’s like to be a sideman. I’ve spent most of my life being both. I’ve always been a sideman in other people’s bands and at the same time, I’ve always, if possible, tried to do my own shows too. I think it makes you a better sideman because you know what a band leader wants from a sideman and it makes you a better band leader because you can appreciate where the side men are coming from. … Not just from the professional business side, but really in the way you put the music together, learning to give concise and clear musical direction to the side men, learning not to strangle their creative input. Hire the best musician you can and allow them to contribute in the most creative way, while at the same time maintaining a clear idea of the way everybody has to work together. I’ve learned that from the experience over the years, whether it was in Bonnie Raitt’s band or Taj Mahal’s band or Walter Washington’s band. I made my living as a sideman in my 20s, playing in a band with the old men down here who invented New Orleans rhythm and blues in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, so that was great schooling for me. Sort of the university of New Orleans funk was going out and doing road gigs with Earl King and Snooks Eaglin and Johnny Adams, people like that.

It seems advantageous to be able to see things from both sides, as the band leader and the sideman.

[As the band leader] you have to have the ability to read an audience, to know whether at a given point if you should take it up or bring it down. You have to have the flexibility to allow a musician, if they’re taking a solo and really getting into that zone, to let them ride the wave.

You have to make analogies with music, it’s very hard to actually talk about the notes themselves. … [When] everyone’s brains are working like four parts of a really well-crafted machine, when inspiration [like] a wave comes and hits us all at the same time, you have to be like a surfer and be able to jump on that wave and ride it. That might not happen on every gig. It might happen on one song one night and on another song the next night. But as a band leader you have to be able to give quick direction.

There’s different ways of running a band. My personal thing is to have a lot of arrangement details that give the musicians something fun to work with, which involves doing lots of work, lots of rehearsals, and at the same time having the freedom at any point to throw the rule book out the window if you think better music will be made as a result. So you have to make millions of very spur-of-the moment decisions. Every gig is different. There are no two nights where the songs are played exactly the same way. It’s exciting. The biggest thrill in the world to be at the control panel of a band like my band, because all the guys in my band are really great musicians.

Every gig we do, a large percentage of the audience is musicians. We’re not really a show-off band. It’s not like everyone’s showing off how fast they can do. It’s the exact opposite of that. … There’s a lot of technical prowess on the part of all of the individuals on stage but everyone knows that ultimately we’re delivering a song and we’re delivering a musical experience that excites and lifts people up – whether they can’t sing a tune or know anything about music, or whether they’re the most brilliant musician on the planet. It doesn’t matter. People can appreciate it on whatever level they choose. But it works for everybody. That sounded a bit big-headed when I said that, didn’t it? But I have no qualms whatsoever about bragging about my band members. (laughs) … I’m the first one to sing the praises of all of the musicians in my band.

The musicians are brilliant and sometimes we get the best results from playing the simplest thing, but that’s the way music should be.

Photo: Danielle Moir

Upcoming dates for Jon Cleary:

Aug. 7 – Galway, N.Y., The Cock ‘n Bull    
Aug. 8 – Morristown, Minn., Camp Maiden Rock West (Big Wu Family Reunion)  
Aug. 20 – Manchester, England, Band On The Wall
Aug. 21 – London, England, Ronnie Scott’s            
Aug. 22 – London, England, Ronnie Scott’s            
Aug. 28 – Iowa City, Iowa, University Of Iowa (appearing at Iowa Soul Festival)
Aug. 29 – Shreveport, La., The Warehouse 
Aug. 31 – New Orleans, La., Maple Leaf    
Sept. 12 – Urbana, Ill., Krannert Center (Ellnora / The Guitar Festival At Krannert Center)          
Sept. 26 – Bogalusa, La., Cassidy Park (Bogalusa Blues & Heritage Festival)
Oct. 1 – Le Thor, France, Le Sonograf         
Oct. 2 – Clermont-Ferrand, France, La Cooperative de Mai
Oct. 3 – Cleon, France, La Traverse  
Oct. 5 – Differdange, Luxembourg, Aalt Stadhaus  
Oct. 7 – Massy, France, Centre Bailliart        
Oct. 8 – Paris, France, Le Meridien Etoile    
Oct. 9 – Paris, France, Le Meridien Etoile    
Dec. 4 – Washington, D.C., The Howard Theatre (appearing with John Scofield)  
Dec. 5 – Ardmore, Pa., The Ardmore Music Hall (appearing with John Scofield)    
Dec. 6 – Bethlehem, Pa., Musikfest Cafe At ArtsQuest Center (appearing with John Scofield)       
Dec. 7 – New York, N.Y., B.B. King Blues Club (appearing with John Scofield) 

Aug. 20-29 and Sept. 26 feature the Absolute Monster Gentlemen.

For more information visit Click here to pre-order GoGo Juice via iTunes.