The Iguanas are a New Orleans band whose music is a delicious brew of styles, influences, and song subjects. The band weathered 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in exile in Austin, Texas, eventually returning to New Orleans to rebuild their homes and work on their newest album, the recently released If You Should Ever Fall On Hard Times (see Voice review here).
The following are notes from a conversation with Rod Hodges, the band’s lyricist and lead singer, who spoke to us from New Orleans.
The Rhythm and Blues Connection
One of my earliest memories is hearing my mother singing Fats Domino songs as she was washing the dishes. That was her era, and Fats was popular worldwide. I loved the old songs: ?Blueberry Hill,? ?Walkin? to New Orleans? . . . And then I was also a blues singer from the time I was a teenager and started playing guitar. Then in my early twenties I got turned on to Professor Longhair and that style of New Orleans R&B from the ?50s.
Joe Cabral, the saxophone player in the group, is also a big lover of ?50s R&B. That’s what I knew about New Orleans music. I didn’t know that much about traditional New Orleans jazz, although I love that stuff now. I would come to New Orleans jazz festivals in the early ?80s and just love it. I told myself that even if I had to live on the street it would be worth it just to be around these guys. I didn’t even care if I made a living doing it as long as I could just be around that music.
I think they took to our music because It’s very rhythmic and danceable and different from anything else in New Orleans at that time. There was rock, R&B, jazz, and Latin but nobody who mixed it like we did. We sang our songs half in Spanish and half in English, and we did some blues. It was just a mixture no one around here had heard before.
The Latin Connection
My grandparents were from Mexico. Although my mother was of Mexican descent she didn’t speak Spanish to us when we were little, but my grandparents did. I didn’t really learn it but I heard it spoken. People would come up to me speaking Spanish and I would feel bad that I didn’t know what they were saying. When I got into my teens I began asking my grandmother how to say this or that. But I wasn’t very fluent, like a lot of Chicano people are in the United States. It took effort on my part to learn it.
Then I learned a lot from travelling to Mexico and from hanging out with people and speaking with people, especially when I started going to dances and learning to play the accordion. Joe Cabral’s father is Mexican and has a mariachi band, so Joe grew up speaking Spanish and playing that music.
Most people just want to play the blues or play Latin music but we had this thing we mixed together. It’s very New Orleans in a way; a lot of people will tell us that our music isn’t really New Orleans music but I say you shouldn’t just play some form of New Orleans music that you might have heard before.
I need peace and quiet to be creative. I love being in a sunny room with no distractions, with a cup of coffee, and sitting in a chair with my guitar. That’s my ideal for making music. I need to have my little space. While I was in Austin I tried to create that little space for myself. I collected a lot of books and CDs, some of which I already had but they were back in New Orleans. I kind of had to surround myself again with some of the stuff I had back in New Orleans.
When I was in Austin I really got into Shakespeare. He was just calling out to me. I read a lot and read a lot about his work. It’s got to be deep stuff, obviously, if It’s lasted this long. It was deep enough to keep me going. I also read a lot of Nabokov, one of my favourites.
Writing a Song
I find it very hard to sit down and try to write a song. Willie Nelson is one of my all-time favourites. I don’t recommend this method, but sometimes he won’t write a song for a year. That always made me feel good. If Willie says It’s okay, then maybe it is okay. There are people in Nashville who will go to work every day, sit down, and write songs. Granted, a lot of their songs are crap, but I kind of admire that. For myself, unless the song seems really good, I don’t have the work ethic to keep at it.
Writing a song happens different ways. Sometimes I’ll get an idea. I remember one time I was sick and we were on the road. I felt like crap, and before we were supposed to play I was outside lying in the van because I didn’t feel good. This song just started running through my head so I wrote down the words, and that was basically it.
Another example is ?Her Red Fishnets.? I was watching TV and I saw them taking Fats Domino out of his house. They thought he’d perished in the storm but he was still alive and they went down there and rescued him. And there he was climbing into the boat. So I started thinking about him and all those people down there in that part of New Orleans. I started strumming on the guitar and came up with that song.
Post-Katrina New Orleans
The fact is, New Orleans will never be the same. Huge neighbourhoods were completely destroyed, vibrant neighbourhoods where people lived, where musicians lived, for hundreds of years. They’ll never come back. There’s nothing there but empty lots. We now have a population of about 300,000 whereas before it was at least 500,000. Some of those neighbourhoods were the breeding grounds of a lot of the music.
A lot of people are gone that used to live here, but a lot of people did come back. Every time somebody comes back it feels great. Our complete band is back in town, and everybody who came back is trying to make a go of it and everybody feels pretty good now. Whenever hurricane season comes along everyone gets real nervous; It’s hopeful with a bit of trepidation.