NYC musician Moses Patrou wears many hats. One night, you might find him playing the bass drum at the Apollo or entertaining at the opening of the Highline with his brass band Sugartone. The next night, you could catch him playing drums and harmonizing with guitar ace Scott Sharrard or saxman Jay Collins at the 55 Bar. On another night, he might be singing and playing piano jazz with a trio at the Blue Water Grill. During his 15 years in New York City, he has established a reputation as a groovemaster par excellence, but in recent years he has become more and more focused on the piano and on writing songs. Patrou released his first solo CD, Introducing Moses Patrou in 2007. This year, he put out his second album of original songs, Can’t Stop, Vol. 1. The back cover contains what can be viewed as the artist’s manifesto: “One thing is for sure, if you love something like it’s all that you’ve got, you might fall down but you just can’t stop.” Patrou recently told some of his story to ROLL Magazine.
How did you become a musician?
I guess there was always music around me growing up. My father plays piano and I always wanted to play too so I would bang on the piano. Then my father gave me some little Mickey Mouse boxes and I set them up around me and I’d beat them to death. This was in Madison, Wisconsin. I must have been about four when we moved there from Nashville, where I was born. Some of my earliest memories are of my father having parties. Other musicians would come over, bring their instruments, set up in the living room and play. It was pretty wild — half practicing and half hanging out, you know how musicians are. Half the time they’re having fun and the other half they’re serious. It looked like fun to me. My father traveled all over and when he did a gig in Madison, he really liked it. It was a nice place to grow up. It’s funny because a lot of people really sleep on a lot of the stuff in Wisconsin and even in Illinois in terms of the music. I think there are a lot of great musicians in that area and for me it became a really great place to come up. I had a lot of access to a lot of musicians and because it was so small, I was able to be one of the better players as I got older. A lot of the people who came through would gravitate toward me. So I was able to be at the right place at the right time.
What was your first instrument?
I started playing bass in a punk rock band with my friends. I must have been about 14. About the time I turned 15, I saw a guy who played congas. He was great and he had a big smile and looked like he was having so much fun. I thought, ‘I want to do that.‘ So I took a class with him. He was part of the Ko-Thi African Dance Company and he was trying to get out of teaching but he said why don’t you take some lessons with Matt Rappaport? He was a Berklee student who had gone to Senegal for a year and he showed me stuff he learned over there. I think I took one paid lesson and then I kind of became his understudy. I learned a lot from him. The University of Wisconsin had this Sin Fronteras program where they were bringing in folks from South America. I wasn’t going to college but I became indirectly involved through my teacher. They were bringing in tremendous musicians and I ended up studying with some of them. One of them was Giba Conceicao, from Salvador, Bahia and I was able to hang with him and he taught me a lot. When I was 18 and finished with high school, I didn’t go to college — I traveled. I went to Brazil to meet Giba and that was pretty incredible. But before that, I went to New Orleans, my first time going anywhere by myself. I went into Donna’s and I saw the Soul Rebels and other groups and I said, ‘wow this is a new kind of thing.’ You never really saw that type of thing, where they’re playing hip hop music and everybody’s playing instruments. It was new and it was old at the same time. It had this… thing. And that was exciting too.
Where did you go other than Brazil and New Orleans?
I went to Cuba, that was pretty heavy. I was going back and forth between Madison and New Orleans because I was playing with this group in Madison. Mama Digdown Brass Band was one of the first brass bands from outside of New Orleans that was really attempting to really learn and play that style and give it respect. We started going down to New Orleans two or three times a year when I was about 18 because we had a spot — Donna’s — the place that always ended up giving us the gig. She put us up at her house and really took care of us. It was kind of a home away from home. We, the three youngest of that band, eventually broke off from them and formed the Youngblood brass band. (I left them in 2001 to come live in NY but still did some touring with them in Europe up until 2005. They’re still touring over there doing well for themselves.) But all that was happening at the same time that the University brought in Roberto Vizcaino, a percussionist from Havana. He played with Chucho Valdes, won a Grammy with him and the quartet, and he was incredible. He was a Tinker Visiting Professor and wanted me to help him in the class like an understudy. When he left, he told me, ‘you need to leave here, you need to go to New York, you need to do something.’ He was a clairvoyant kind of person, he would tell people stuff about themselves. So I went to Cuba to see him and I was there for almost a month. That was pretty incredible as far as the level of music.
Isn’t it nearly impossible to go to Cuba?
It wasn’t really that hard. It was pre-September 11 and it was looser at the time. I went through Canada. I didn’t know anything about artist visas at that time and I wasn’t really involved in any school situations. I never had a lot of money but I got sideswiped and instead of using the money to fix my car, I went to Cuba with it. That’s kind of how my whole life has been. I never had much but I had enough to do what I needed to do. You can still drive a car if it’s got a dent in it.
How did you finally get to NY?
I made a mixtape of a lot of different music that I was into at the time. I‘d been hanging out with somebody from Peru and her culture was Afro-Peruvian music where they would play the box — the cajon — and it really interested me, it’s beautiful music. I also had some African music that I like and some Cuban music. I was playing percussion with this hip-hop band, Black Poets Society, and the drummer gave my mixtape to another drummer named Yorel Lashley, who had lived in Liberia and in the Caribbean. He really loved it. He moved to New York around 1998 and started a music program called Drum Power up in Harlem. I came out to visit him and he said I could probably work four days a week up there. And he had a friend with a room, it turned out to be Jay Collins! So I moved in with Jay down on Front St. It was a house full of musicians, it was great. I was paying $400 a month for a little room right off the first subway stop in Brooklyn and I was living with guys playing with John Scofield and Vernon Reid! So it was one of those situations where when you practiced there, you felt self-conscious. I was just 24 when I moved there but they were really great to me.
I started playing with Jay’s band a little and gigging around some. I started a brass band here right around 2002 called Sugartone and I’m still working with them. They’re actually starting to work a lot now. But I wasn’t working then like I am now. Now I’m working 4, 5 maybe 6 times a week. But at the time, I had the teaching thing that sustained everything. I was young, so a lot of the kids took to me and it was fun. I still teach, but I think as I got older, there was more of a disconnect. I think kids tend to gravitate to a younger teacher, maybe it’s more fun for them.
I hear you have also done some high profile commercials.
When I was still in Madison, I started doing some recording with Leo Sidran — his father is jazz historian and pianist Ben Sidran. When Leo got to NYC in 2007, I started working with him again. He was at a commercial studio doing jingles. I was trying to finish my first album with him and started recording at that studio and somebody working on a Coca Cola ad heard the album and needed a singer so I demo’d it. They’d say, ‘Sound like you’re really happy!’ and there’s these guys, producers, they’re dancing around the studio like monkeys trying to make me laugh while I was singing this thing. It was hilarious. They called me up about three days later and said, ‘you got the spot! They picked you but they want you to go out to California so they can see if they can get a better take.’ So they flew me out to Santa Monica, picked me up and I sang a couple of things there.They ended up using the original take anyway, but it was fun. They showed the thing in movie theaters and then at the Superbowl in 2007. I remember going to the movie theater with my wife and all of a sudden we see the commercial! It’s kind of crazy, when you see this big screen and then you hear your voice in stereo like that. The song went ‘Give a little love, it all comes back to you.’ It was simple, just a silly little song. Paul Williams wrote it.
I did another thing in that same studio with a different producer. He wanted me to do some Brazilian percussion stuff, and said ‘by the way, can you just sing some stuff for a Comedy Central show?’ So I sang and they didn’t use it but three years later, the producer called me up and said he submitted it to the Schick Razor company for another spot— just cut and pasted it into this track — so I was going to be getting residuals. And I said ‘what?!’ Because it was one of those times when I didn’t have any money and I was about to have my daughter. When he told me that, I felt this weight just lift off me. I was in the studio recording Jay’s (Collins) album at the time up at Levon’s studio. We weren’t making a lot of money so when I got that call, I said ‘man, that’s beautiful.‘ Because I knew that that was going to help for at least that year for me. More recently, I did a drum thing for Candid Camera that they ended up using, so that was cool. But that’s not like a residual thing – you just play the drums and get paid.
Do you think that at some point you became more of a singer than a drummer?
It’s funny, I did the percussion thing for years and I studied and went to Brazil and Cuba, and then at some point it just stopped being as important to me. I had always written songs, always played piano, although I didn’t really start taking piano seriously until I was about 18 or 19. But I started to think I could do that. My dad could do it, so I could too! So I started messing around with it and he would help me, showed me how the New Orleans thing goes like this, and the Kansas City thing goes like that. But I was really learning to play piano by writing songs. I would find some cool chords that I thought were great, I’d figure out what they were later, but they were just shapes and sounds to me. And it worked and I would write full songs with bridge and chorus and intros and I don’t really know how it would come. I would just hear something and just go with it and be kind of haunted by it for days until I got it off my chest. It’s still like that now— some of these things really get to me, I can’t sleep right until it’s done. Sometimes it will be maybe a couple hours and I’m done, or maybe I’ll go into a room with a guitar and come out half an hour later with a song and it’s done. But some of them drag on for a month where it’s not quite right. But that part of me has kind of taken over, whereas before I was interested in this and interested in that, now I just want to play the piano. If I get 30 minutes, I’m not going to go practice the drums, I sit down at the piano. And to my detriment, probably. I’m not one of the cats. There are a lot of great drummers in the city and they get the calls because they can do it all. People still know me as someone who can play well, but I’m not some kind of virtuoso. I’m the groove master — they’ll call me when they want the deep pocket. I don’t mind because I don’t really play drums, I play the song. I think that people know me for that, and that’s fine with me.
You just got back from playing in the south of France. Tell me about your French connection.
My first record came out in 2007. At the time, I was playing with this Cuban band at Havana Central uptown. One of my band mates in Madison, who was from Cameroon but lived in Paris, moved to NYC and I started playing with him here. He brought his friend Pierre Sibille to one of my gigs because he fell in love with my CD. Pierre’s a piano player and lives in the south of France. He played the CD for his friends and they said, ‘we got to bring this guy over to France.’ So Pierre came to my gig and said, ‘I really love your album and I got this gig in Paris at this hotel and they’ll pay for your ticket to come over. First you’ll come to the south of France and we’ll play a couple of things and then we’ll go up to Paris and play the hotel gig. We might not make a lot of money but it will be fun.’ So I did that and then I did it again and this year was my third time being there. I hadn’t gone back for a few years because the hotel stopped doing music. But the bass player in the band got a hookup at some festival in the south of France and they said we’d like to bring you over. The ticket was expensive but we did it and it was great.
Where are you playing around here these days?
I’m not doing a whole lot here with my music, for whatever reason. Here it’s kind of funny — it’s like pay to play. You play these little places and to get a band in there you end up having to pay everybody. And I’m playing these little gigs, like at the Blue Water Grill and they pay, but if you want to make money you have to have a shtick. You gotta have a DJ and a cello player. It just seems like you have to have a gimmick. And sometimes even if you have a gimmick it won’t work. It takes time too. But music has always been good to me. I haven’t made it to the point where I’m making lots of money, but I always get what I need.
With Sugartone, the brass band, we were on the scene here in 2002 and we were the only kind of brass band playing this New Orleans thing and now there’s like 15 different brass bands and they all try to hire me. It’s funny because now that thing is becoming popular —maybe ever since Katrina. Nobody really knew anything about second line music up until that point with Treme and all that.
Did you get to be in the TV series?
No, I wasn’t in Treme. But I think the first time that I played and really got my ass kicked on the instrument, I was in Treme. We were in a place called Joe’s Cozy Corner and we were playing and I had the bass drum strapped on me and somebody started on the tuba and James Andrews, Trombone Shorty’s big brother, came up behind me and grabbed the mallet and he stood there hugging me, basically, until I was playing it right. There were some other guys in the club that were second line dancers and that was their thing. When you played it right, they were moving to it.
The first time I saw a Treme brass band was in Donna’s club. They heard about us already and Uncle Lionel, the bass drummer, said, ‘here, come put this drum on.’ So he put his drum on me and ran out of the club. I don’t know what he went to do, probably smoke some weed or something, but he left me there with the band and that was that. I think I did all right, but I came there to see him! But later I got to see him and I got to hang out with most of those guys.
Now the thing has become popular and we’re starting to get calls all these years later. I’ve been playing that bass drum for 18 years now. I spent a lot of time in the culture and around the people in the culture really giving the music its due. I had a lot of friends in the Hot 8 – to this day those guys they come up here and if their snare drummer has a problem, they call me to come do the gig. I end up playing with them in CT or the East Village or wherever.
What about your brass band? Are you playing a lot?
I just got a call to do a gig for CSI, the crime show. They’re going to be based out of New Orleans now so they called me wanting us to do a parade in the city, go walk around. We get some calls like that. I have also been playing with this other guy from New Orleans, Kevin Blanc. He works with the music union Local 802 and they’ve been doing a lot of parades for various causes. Yesterday I did one parade with Kevin and then I played at the Apollo with Sugartone, my band. All the guys that have brass bands in this town will call me. They’re having this thing by Penn Station, some kind of after-work show, so there’s been about four different bands that called me for the same gig. The guys at Penn Station say ‘wow, we see this guy a lot’ and this is just starting so I’m sure they’re going to be scratching their heads on that.
I know you also play at the Blue Water Grill by Union Square. How did that come about?
They have a lot of guys who have come from the west coast down there, but they’ll also call me for gigs. There was some funniness about only female vocalists for a while and then I came in there and started singing and drumming at the same time. But the people that manage the place seem to like what I do and the songs that I choose. I haven’t tried to force myself into any situation with anybody ever. I just do what I do and if I get the call for it, great. And if I don’t, I’ll do something else. I see a lot of musicians really pushing and I think that if somebody’s gonna call me, I want them to call me for ME, not because I forced myself into it. I think everybody does that at some point, but it’s also tough for me to book gigs because I have that same kind of mentality. Like why should I have to go and beg this dude to put me on this gig? But at the same time, you have to put some of that aside in order to do what you want to do. I had to really change my approach and become a little more assertive. I think that’s something that a lot of musicians deal with and have to face up to: ‘I am valuable, I place this value on myself, this is what I’m worth’ and really stand by that because I think a lot of times we sell ourselves short because we’re scared of not getting the gig. I think if you spend years playing and learning and watching and really trying to further the music, it is worth something and has value and it’s important.
Tell me about the new record, Can’t Stop, Vol.1.
I was working on it for years. I started playing with Scott Sharrard in Jay Collins band. I love the way he plays and it turns out he’s from Milwaukee— I didn’t know that! We really hit it off so I approached him and his friend Charlie Martinez — a great sound engineer who works with Steely Dan. We started working on some stuff in 2009 and recording little things here and there, got the bass tracks done, laid the foundation with Jeff Hanley, myself and Scott and then we brought in Ben Stivers, a great keyboard player. We have a certain thing: the way we play together is complementary. Everybody listens, and it just worked. It’s a different style than the last record. This album is a lot grittier, has a little more rock edge to it. There’s slide blues guitar on one song, rock guitar on another one, “Mistreated Your Love,” and then I still go back to the mellow song. One song (“Can’t Stop (People Change)”) has violins. I don’t want to say it’s more sophisticated, just a little more grown.
Where do the songs come from?
Some of them were written when I was going through things. One of the songs was written when I got burned out. The place where I was staying with Jay Collins burned down one night, almost with me in it. I was basically homeless for a couple of months in 2004. It was pretty rough. But I had people helping me through that. One of the songs on the album is “Song for my Friend.” “Didn’t Want to Fall in Love” came out of that too. It was a situation where you really didn’t know what was going to happen to you, but you kind of go with the flow and be thankful for the people that you have around you. With the song I said I didn’t really want to fall in love, but something about you got stuck on me. It’s kind of that thing where you give yourself to the moment as opposed to trying to always dictate how your life is supposed to be. I had to learn that the hard way, but I’m glad I did because I know a lot of people that still are my age and they’re still trying to run that same 20-year-old game. Grow up. Once I stopped being part of that whole thing, I was able to spend some time doing what I was supposed to and I realized how much time I had wasted.
You’re a family man now, right?
Actually I got married pretty young – I was 27. I was dating this girl at the time that the house fire happened in 2004. I was a wreck after that so I was between a friend’s place and my girlfriend’s mother’s place. Now and again they’d let me crash over there, but we got married not too long after that fire. We found a place for ourselves at Ditmas Park, before it was really trendy. It was nice, a spot on the top floor of one of those old Victorian houses. At the time, there weren’t a lot of people over there, now it’s like a circus. Two years ago we moved to Staten Island and bought a house.
It’s funny, I moved to New York on September 1, 2001, so I saw all of September 11 happen from the rooftop of my house. Then we moved to Staten Island during Hurricane Sandy. We signed on the place three days before Sandy hit. We moved some of our stuff but couldn’t move the rest because the bridge got closed down. Finally we finished moving the rest of our stuff over there and as soon as we got the stuff in and turned the key, the lights went off in the whole neighborhood. I got the last box in — I swear to God — turned the key and it was like the key turned the lights out. It was crazy. We had no real damage, we were lucky. We’re kind of on the northern part of the island on high ground. I have enough friends in New Orleans that had the flood so I made sure that the house was on high ground. We had a little part of our fence knocked over, but it was fixable.
The new record is called Volume 1, are you working on Volume 2?
Yes, I’m getting the songs together. I don’t know if it’s going to happen yet, but we’re trying to figure out if we can record over in France, at least get some of the bass tracks down because I like what’s going on over there. We had a lot of positive reaction, the people really liked it. The group that I’m working with over there is called Blues Up. I did a master class over there and I put the bass drum up on a stand and said, ‘we’re going to play New Orleans bass drum and you’re going to learn how to do this.’ The problem with a lot of drummers is that we all start from the snare drum, north of the Mason Dixon they all start with the snare drum and the cymbal — they’re playing jazz —and it’s all virtuosity. But when you’re down in New Orleans and Mississippi, everything is like rhythm from the bottom. That’s what I tried to teach them.
You seem very high on France!
I get to go over there and play my music! I’m not playing cover tunes. My music, especially some of the newer stuff, is more pop oriented. It’s still based in the blues, still got a real heavy blues influence and even a little country influence because my father’s a hell of a guitar player and he can pick. He’s incredible, he’s been playing for almost 50 years and there’s just so much music, so many songs, so many nights, so many musicians he’s played with. I’d like to get him over there too. They would bug out.
Is your father still playing out?
Yes! He’s still in Madison, he plays at a restaurant, where they really take care of him. He’s been there about 20 years playing solo, and he’s also got a band he plays with. He’s happy, but I think it’s tough for me to be so far from him. I’ve been gone for 13 years. I’m the next generation and my daughter’s the next one after that. She’s gonna turn four this month and she’s always singing and wanting to beat on things. And we started piano lessons.
I think the great thing is that no matter where you are, you can always learn something, and this is not just about music. I think if you’re open to receive the message, if you just open yourself up, you can learn anything at any time. I thought I knew all this stuff about bass drumming and I was playing a party and they put on some old Dirty Dozen from back in the day and it was Uncle Lionel’s son playing bass drum and you could hardly hear it, but I’m listening and I said to myself, ‘ok I could play it like that, that’s a little easier.’ It was just right there. I wasn’t watching anybody, I just heard it and I was able to pick it up. It‘s like when I saw Clyde Stubblefield when I was young. My dad used to go to these clubs and he would sit in or be playing the gig and he would take me down to go see. I didn’t think it was making a big influence on me at the time but just watching Clyde play the drums and sing like that, really singing and really playing at the same time was such a cool thing. And it wasn’t like he was showing me how to play or anything. It was just being there and seeing that, it’s something that always sticks with you. The guys in Europe are hearing it, but to be right up on it and see what it looks like and what it feels like –that’s the difference. A lot of these guys, they’re old now and if they haven’t passed on already they’re getting close to it. I was able to take on some of that. Other people have had the same experience that they’re able to hold onto this piece of tradition, because we’re not the ones that are coming out of the Mississippi Delta but we were hanging out with the guys that were. The Hubert Sumlins and those other guys, they’re gone now.
Did you ever play at the Ramble and get to watch Levon?
Yes, it’s funny when I was in France guys would say to me, ‘you play like Charlie Watts. When your snare drum’s hitting, you’re not playing the hi hat and that’s like Charlie Watts’ and I said ‘no, really that’s Charlie Watts copying Levon!’ I got to see Levon play and I managed to incorporate some of that too. I’ve always taken something away with me anytime I met any of these drummers. I met Alex Acuna when I was 14. My dad took me to Milwaukee to see him, and I took a load of stuff away from that. Every drummer that I’ve ever hung out with or spent time with or just saw live, I always walk away with something. I could go to a show and I could be in the back row. It’s like carpentry, these things fit, it’s not rocket science. Every thing has its place if you know how it works. I always come back to American music or blues music because the way I always related to everything was through my own experiences growing up with my father and his musician friends. But music is music. Everyone has a different accent, just the way they speak differently but to me samba is no different than second line is not different from comparsa in Cuba or any type of music. It’s all directly related. I spent most of my life dedicated to these musics for whatever reason but I realized that it all is directly linked and if you learn something in one type of music it applies in another type of music, like the way a country song could be played with a reggae beat. It’s like Dr. John says, there’s two kinds of music: there’s music that makes you feel good and music that make you don’t feel good. I love that.
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