George Porter Jr. is always down for getting busy, as you’d expect from the bassist and founding member of The Funky Meters. And lately he’s been so engrossed in his little home studio that a reckoning’s imminent.
“I’ve got to finish something,” says the New Orleans native. “When you’ve got 32 new pieces of music, you need to start finishing something.”
Not that Porter couldn’t rest on his legacy if he so chose. The Meters are one of the most sampled soul combos in rap history and a New Orleans institution on par with gumbo and po’ boys. Although they didn’t enjoy the same pop success as James Brown, they’re equally respected within the music community and helped launch Art Neville’s career.
Though The Meters broke up in 1980, they’ve reunited in a variety of lineups. Porter now plays with groups billed as The Original Meters, The Funky Meters, and The Metermen. All this requires a lot of communication between agencies since the various Meters-related outfits try to avoid crossing each other’s paths. (This all is in addition to Porter’s own band, The Runnin’ Pardners, which also comes in a trio, quartet, or quintet form.)
You damn near need a checklist to keep track of all of Porter’s bands, and sure enough, while talking to Porter we discovered his need for a librarian. It seems the renowned bassist (and trained multi-instrumentalist) has kept recordings of everything he’s ever played, from jams to concerts to soundchecks. Talk about a hoarder.
“I’m just glad the last 10 years, it’s pretty much all digital,” Porter says. “The only problem now is I need to get bigger hard drives. I have too many hard drives sitting here with music on there. I need to get an archivist to go through them. Because even though a hard drive is there, they don’t fail because they’re being overused — they fail because they’re not.”
Not that you should get the impression he’s too sentimental. “Probably a lot of that stuff is trash,” Porter laughs.
Organizing the music helps him as he works out basslines for future songs — sort of like a work-study. “I go back and listen to just to find if there is a bass line that warrants something being built on top of it. And probably out of 100 gigs, I find five to six bass lines that are worth pillaging,” says Porter.
We’re certainly not questioning a process that’s served him well for nearly 50 years. Porter founded The Meters with singer/keyboardist Art Neville, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, and drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste in 1965. They released 10 albums over the next decade before breaking up, primarily due to Neville’s growing personal ambitions.
In many ways, the separation symbolized the way music changed from the Sixties to the Seventies. Lead singers began to battle a peculiar sickness that found them seeking success away from their bandmates. That’s when the idea of “the songwriter” began to overshadow the song.
“The whole idea changed so much between basically songwriters and bands that collaborated in a unit to create songs,” he says. “It started that way, but when it became this sole writer of a band or organization, and then it’s kind of like they became that writer’s band.
“That’s kind of what happened with The Meters,” he continues. “Once the band stopped collaborating as a unit to write music, some of the players became sidemen to the songwriters, and I think that was the downfall of the band.”
It’s certainly a familiar situation, and it’s why a band will simply run its course. In last week’s issue of the City Paper, we mentioned Rich Robinson’s (Black Crowes) frustration with his brother Chris’ autocratic behavior and Porter sympathizes.
“I can understand when guys are like that,” he says. “You know? ‘I’m not sharing my thoughts anymore. I’m keeping my thoughts or I’m claiming the rights to all of my thoughts rather than waste them.'”
While many bassists are facilitators who are comfortable as the glue, Porter is a little more unique. He was originally a rhythm guitarist, and for a time he played the drums in a marching band, so he came to the bass from a different perspective. Still, his relationship with the drummer is a giving one.
“The pocket that the drummer sets up, it’s kind of, ‘Are we going to be comfortable?’ and it’s a dictated world. I am the bass player. I have to find that statement that’s being made,” he says. “I try very, very hard to stay away from his backbeat, so whenever his backbeat makes a statement, I’m not there.”
Porter had a chance to revisit 16 old Meters tunes on his last Runnin’ Pardners album, 2011’s Can’t Beat the Funk. And he made some changes in the songs, though they’re more cosmetic than anything.
“One or two things that I did was to slow the songs down some. I like the slower, deeper pocket,” he says. “Some of the songs where there was a B-3 solo, I made it a Fender Rhodes or a piano solo or even maybe a sax solo — but the pocket of the original song is still there.”
That same mentality will go for his show in Charleston. “I’m trying not to live off what I’ve done,” Porter says, “but write and produce new music and trying to keep George Porter Jr. fresh.”
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