Had a Friday night off so I went to check out a friend’s band, the Luke Allen Trio, playing at one of the nearby live music venues, the AllWays Lounge. Due to the late start time, I’m getting this post in well after the calendar has ticked off another number, but I really wanted to feature this gig today, so we’re all just going to have to live with that. (See my post from December 3rd to shed light on my rule for the breaking of rules that I made up.)
Luke Allen is the songwriter and frontman for the long-established New Orleans alt-country/rock/folk outfit The Happy Talk Band. Having formed in 2001, Happy Talk (as it is informally known) boasts a veritable who’s who of local musical royalty, including members of the Tin Men and the legendary sort-of-defunct-but-occasionally-reunited funk rock window rattlers The Morning 40 Federation. The songs, says the bio on the band’s website, feature “space monkeys, bank robbers, aliens, Romanian junkies, anesthesiologists, murderers, veterans of war, alcoholic bike riders, scary giants, suicides, muggers, strippers, and Jesus. But really, in the end, they’re all mostly love songs.”
Allen, who is originally from Salinas, California, moved to New Orleans in 1993 and has lived off and on in the Bywater area since then. He put together the Luke Allen Trio earlier this year, at the behest of a friend. It is comprised of Happy Talk bandmate Casey McAllister (formerly of the New Orleans Bingo! Show and currently hitting it big with Hurray for the Riff Raff) and cellist Helen Gillet (Wazozo) who has played with Happy Talk on and off over the years. The trio play a few scaled-down and bracing versions of some Happy Talk songs, but most of the material is new, and they’ve worked on one cover for each of the first 2 shows, “Can’t Put Your Arm Around a Memory” by Johnny Thunders and “Chelsea Hotel” by Leonard Cohen.
Though a big fan of Happy Talk, I hadn’t heard Luke perform in this incarnation before tonight. In fact, it was only the band’s third public appearance. This, along with his easy and uncensored banter between songs, lent the experience of watching them an informal intimacy that seemed even farther removed from the unpretentious and earthbound grittiness of a typical Happy Talk show. Playing acoustic guitar, Luke has the raw, sort-of salty voice embodied in the poetry of his lyrics. In this format, sheltered between the shimmering melancholy of Gillet’s cello and the ever-present conversation woven by McAllister on organ, banjo and guitar, Luke seemed to be given the opportunity to play around within his range, and push it, at times, exploring the corners of the sparse and haunting melodies that make the Trio seem fuller than they are, sitting before you on stage. His subject matter, as advertised, explores the nuances of a narrator that always seems—whether it is himself, a character, or the voice of a complicit community—to be trying to sing himself out of a hole. In a song about Hurricane Katrina called “Dog Year,” he sings:
It’s been a dog year since she came and washed us down the drain……I’m down Louisiana way, where the summers last a thousand years, Man, get me, get me outta here.
I sat down with Luke before the gig to chat about his new project, his history in New Orleans, and how he approaches writing songs:
SS When did you start playing music?
LA I was playing in Santa Cruz, and before that, I’d been writing songs for a long time, before I could really play guitar. I mean basically, I’d learn one chord and then I’d write a one chord song, learn 2 chords, write a two chord song, that kinda thing.
SS What is the genesis of this grouping, you and Helen and Casey?
LA Casey has been in Happy Talk since before the last record. He wasn’t on the first 2 records. But he and I have been friends for awhile. Helen has been on the last 2 records, but is not really a member of the band.
SS She doesn’t really play with you live, right? [w/ Happy Talk]
LA She has. She has off and on over the years…at random gigs here and there. So the three of us, you know…they both know my songs and I’ve got this new grouping of songs and John Driver over at [the bar and music venue] Chickie Wah Wah is the one who kind of made this gig happen, it was his idea. He wanted to just have this version of the band, so he kind of booked the first one.
LA I’ve got a ton of new songs. I taught them those songs, we rehearse at Helen’s place in Musicians Village and…I love it. It’s super chill and laid back…
SS So you play mostly stripped down versions of Happy Talk songs?
LA No, it’s mostly new material and a few Happy Talk songs, and we try to do a different cover each show. Tonight, hopefully, we’re gonna do “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen.
SS Talk about your songwriting process, and I guess specifically how you think—because really, there’s no way to know how much doing something changes what we do and how we create—but how much do you think the move to New Orleans affected your songwriting?
LA It’s hard to say. I moved here when I was 23, which is a kid, you know? So…what would my songs have been like if I’d stayed in Salinas, California, or like, in Santa Cruz, where I was writing songs too? Because I wrote songs—some of the songs in Happy Talk, in the beginning, I didn’t write here. You know, but…this city, this place was like, it was beautiful. The girls were easy, the rent was cheap, the bars didn’t close. It was Paradise. I had never been happier. And I was, you know…I wrecked myself for almost twenty years. But there was no place like that, and the place that was is gone now, I would say.
It’s just not like that, these kids moving here…? I think they had good parents or something, they don’t drink like they used to, you know what I mean.
LA They’re not as self abusive, you know? It’s bad for the bar business. [Luke is a co-owner of the downtown rock bar Siberia].
SS It’s not good for the songwriting business, either.
LA Maybe not, I don’t know. This city has provided—you as a bartender as well, you understand this— we basically have the therapists ear where everyone tells us everything all the time, and stories reveal themselves. But we, unlike a therapist, are allowed to tell everyone’s stories, you know?
LA And the names have been changed to protect the infected.
LA Oh man. I’d say it’s 50/50, and I think the songs are divided between omniscient narratives…and then other ones where I take on a character, and other ones that are just straight up me. The first record is pretty much, that’s all me, with the exception of one or two. So it’s pretty balanced. As I go along more—I went to school for writing short fiction and a lot of what’s going on with some of my songwriting is a frustrated fiction writer, a frustrated prose writer, and so I’m trying to contain novels or short fiction into a three minute song.
SS UC Santa Cruz?
LA Yeah. Ron Hansen was my professor, he wrote “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”. He’s a really good writer. He was my mentor.
SS Do you have any intention of recording with this trio?
LA Yes, absolutely. Nick Jaina, who’s a songwriter here in town, an old friend of my wife’s and a good friend of mine too, he’s recorded some of the songs. I’ve talked to Ratty [Scurvics] about doing some stuff, I’ve talked to Goat. There’s different…animal-named people that might possibly record me.
LA I’ve talked to Moose, apparently he doesn’t do that. I talked to Otter, but she runs a theatre. [Both Moose and Otter are the nicknames of well-regarded local artists] Um..I talked to…
SS That’s hilarious. Can you talk a little about both Helen and Casey, in regards to the New Orleans music scene.
LA Helen has Wazozo, her solo project and her French orchestra. She plays cello and she’s a songwriter, she does a lot of looping stuff. She’s classically trained, and amazing. Casey McAllister is a Baton Rouge musician, he’s been around forever— Liquid Drone, New Orleans Bingo! Show—and then Happy Talk. And now he’s in Hurray for the Riff Raff, which is his main gig…. Everything that he touches he plays really well, he’s a great musician. He just finished a soundtrack for this film that’s going to Sundance, and he’s just an all-around badass and level-headed dude. In this band he plays electric guitar, dobro, this little chaplain’s organ that his dad got him, it’s from the Korean War, and it’s collapsible, and he plays banjo too. Helen does some background vocals as well.
SS What’s going on with Happy Talk right now?
LA We have a gig coming up at the end of next month. The Lesseps Street Festival. I’ve got a group of songs that I’m doing mostly with them, that could be on the next record. I’m in a position to probably do a record with this project and do a record with Happy Talk, but no one’s hammering on my door to pay for the recordings.
The 3 Happy Talk albums—Total Death Benefit (2004), There there (2007), and Starve a Fever (2010)—are available on iTunes. You can listen to song clips there or on their website, and there are several low-fi videos of Happy Talk live available by search on YouTube.