The New Orleans Suspects came about when three accomplished young talents (Jeff Watkins, CR Gruver, and Jake Eckert) joined up with two Big Easy veterans — Reggie Scanlon and “Mean” Willie Green. Scanlon gained notoriety as the bassist for The Radiators — the longest-running rock act in the city’s history — while Green drummed for The Neville Brothers. He also recorded tracks with big names like Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, and Paul Simon.
“On paper this looks like it would never work. It’s one of those things — the quirkiness of it — it’s just happenstance that things fell into place,” says Scanlon. “We just stopped trying to figure it out. It works. It feels good. It’s like, ‘I don’t know why your playing works with mine, but let’s just move on and enjoy it.'”
After lifetimes in New Orleans institutions, Scanlon and Green sought a new challenge. They hooked up with saxophonist Watkins (James Brown, Josh Stone), guitarist Eckert (Dirty Dozen Brass Band), and keyboardist Gruver (Billy Iuso, Outformation) during an impromptu jam session a couple years earlier. They felt great, immediate chemistry.
The guys kept The Radiators going as an intermittent side-project until the main songwriter Ed Volker shut the group down after 33 years. After the breakup, Scanlan’s first call was to his fellow Suspects. The energy they’d shared was that undeniable. “That’s the point where you make the decision: Is this enough of a rapport to make a commitment,” says Scanlan. “Everybody realized that this might be the most creative shot everybody was going to have at this point, certainly for me and Willie at our age.”
Every band member had good-paying side gigs, so everyone made a sacrifice when they decided to make the Suspects official — but there was no hesitation.
“You have to take a leap of faith and do what you did when you first got into music,” Scanlan explains. “It’s never easy being on the road, and the older you get, it gets harder. But doing something new and challenging gives you that same feeling you got when you were 20, and that’s what it’s all about.”
In a town where supergroups assemble and dissipate in the time it takes to run up a good bar tab, the Suspects are out to show they’re for real, and hope their second studio disc, Ouroboros is exculpatory evidence.
Gruver says, “It was a good two-and-a-half years before people took us seriously. With this record, it’s like people will finally see, ‘Oh shit, this is a real record made by a real band.’ It doesn’t have that feeling of five separate musicians. It’s very cohesive.”
The disc is by all accounts their first truly representative release. They released a self-titled and live disc within their first year before they took two years to create Ouroboros. Recorded with Eckert in his home studio, they had the chance to take their time and really craft this disc.
“We tried to be as meticulous as possible without beating it up,” Gruver says. “It’s a double-edged sword. It gives you the latitude to really take your time and try out a lot of different things, but you also have to be aware. At some point you have to say, ‘You can’t keep going down that road.’ There’s a sort of discipline involved, but when you don’t have to be watching the clock all the time, it is a lot more fun and easier to get to the place you’re trying to get to.”
The New Orleans Suspects’ sound is a loose, still evolving synthesis of everything from Southern rock and swamp soul to Big Easy R&B, Latin funk, roots-jam shuffles, and dark, jazzy rag. The playing is much more precise than Scanlon’s previous outfit, and he makes no secret of the Suspects’ interest in being more than a jam band.
“We really put a lot of work into the tightness and the arrangements. And unlike a lot of jam bands, we don’t really do a lot of going off into the ozone and noodling around,” Gruver says. “There are spots in the songs for that, but they’re always embedded in something that’s a pretty tight arrangement.”
As for the album’s title, “ouroboros” refers to the archetypal image of a snake swallowing its own tail. Across ages and cultures, it’s been associated with the Phoenix myth, Gnosticism, and August Kekulé’s revelation of the carbon double bond that launched organic chemistry around the time of the American Civil War.
For Gruver, the name and its intertwined idea of death and rebirth captured the entire spirit of their efforts.
“I kept coming back to the idea that half the band — Willie and Reggie — are these old dogs out of New Orleans who’ve played with all the guys, and Jeff and Jake and I are the post-Katrina new guard,” Gruver says. “It’s this thing of one thing ending as a new thing’s beginning. Then as we developed these tunes, just the way we put the songs in order was like a cyclical thing. It starts out with the big rocker and goes into the dirge in the middle and then wakes back up, and by the end it’s Mardi Gras again. In so many ways, that’s what we were about and what the city and our music is about.”
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