Ivan Neville Talks Keyboards in New Orleans Funk

KEYBOARD celebrates the life of Art Neville with this profile of his nephew Ivan from our archives
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New Orleans native Ivan Neville literally has music in his DNA. His father Aaron (see our May 2013 cover story) has been frontman for the Neville Brothers for over 35 years. Uncles Charles (horns) and Cyril (percussion) are essential members of the Neville Brothers along with Art (keyboards), who has also laid down some quintessential grooves with legendary Crescent City funk outfit the Meters.

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Ivan joined the Neville Brothers fresh out of high school (as third keyboardist, along with Art and Gerald “Professor Shorthair” Tillman) and went on to score stage and studio gigs with Bonnie Raitt in the late ’80s and the Rolling Stones—contributing keys on 1986’s Dirty Work and 1994’s Voodoo Lounge. With four solo albums to his credit, Ivan’s 1988 debut,If My Ancestors Could See Me Now on Polydor, landed a Top 40 hit, “Not Just Another Girl.”

Currently, he’s ensconced in Dumstaphunk, an all-star collective comprised of cousin Ian on guitar, the double bass attack of Tony Hall and Nick Daniels III, and Nikki Glaspie on thundering drums. Their third studio outing, Dirty Word, brings a booty-shaking blend of funk, blues, gospel, second line, and rock and a host of friends and family from Uncle Art Neville, Trombone Shorty and the Rebirth Brass Band to Skerik and the Grooveline Horns, Ani DiFranco and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Is the organ a fundamental instrument of funk?

Definitely! The Hammond organ has a vibe about it; organ has soul. It’s very important because it can be played rhythmically and that embodies what funk music is. You need to have an organ if you’re playing funk—an organ and a Clavinet. There are some digitally generated sounds available, but the way the real instruments feel influences the way I play. And when I play an organ I play different stuff than when on a Clav. Same with a Rhodes. Having one keyboard that does all those sounds is just not the same.

Where does New Orleans fit into the sound of funk?

Oh man, it’s the sound of the streets in New Orleans. It’s all about an attitude; what’s in the air, the food. You have brass bands and guys who play sousaphone in the most rhythmic way you can imagine. It’s all funk in some way: Dixieland music is funky in its own way. Second-line brass bands are funky because they make you want to dance. You can’t help but move.

Who are some of your influences and how do they inform your playing?

As far as piano players, New Orleans is full of them: Professor Longhair, Uncle Art [Neville], Doctor John, and Allen Toussaint. James Booker, who’s one of the most amazing piano players I’ve ever heard in my life, was a friend of my mom and dad. Stuff like Sly and the Family Stone really captured my attention early on; so did rock ’n’ roll like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Obviously, The Jackson 5 was inspirational, too. I like mixtures of different music and I think over the years, it’s kind of created its own gumbo in me.

How about drummers? Your playing has a very percussive quality.
I’m sure that comes from being around the Meters and specifically Zigaboo Modeliste, the drummer from the original band, as well as my Uncle Cyril. I definitely listen to the drummer a lot when I play. In the Meters, Art would play along to Zigaboo’s hi-hat and hit those ghost notes that you don’t really hear but that are still kind of in there.

How would you describe your playing style?
I listen a lot. And that’s probably my biggest gift; what I’m most talented at. I like to listen to the other instruments and what’s going on with the music, and that’s what determines what I play. I’m very good at not playing, if you understand what I’m saying. I can play very little and have it be quite effective.

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Which begs the question, what’s your definition of groove?
Wow, I don’t know if I can describe that. I can picture it. It’s basically like a puzzle. You fit pieces into it and then there are places where there are no pieces. That’s what I think about funk. You’ve got a pulse and things moving in and out, and then you’ve got areas where there’s nothing. And that’s just as important as where there is sound. You can feel it in your body and it makes you want to dance.

Which tracks on the new record best showcase your approach to groove?

On “Reality of the Situation,” I’m doubling organ with Clav, which I do often, and I overdubbed a bit of Rhodes on top of that. I like the texture and think the instruments work well together.

We did a cover of Graham Central Station’s “Water.” I’m obviously influenced by the guys that played with Larry Graham.

“They Don’t Care” has a very ’70s rock vibe. I’m playing eighth-notes and the best description of where that idea comes from is the Who or even Manfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light.” I wasn’t consciously thinking of those but it kind of came out like that. I played a little bit of Rhodes on it with some delays in tempo and really dug the way we textured the song.

On “Take Time” I’m playing organ and Clav and I added a kind of Moog synth sound, which I played on the Nord. There’s a cool organ solo on that one, too.

“Raise the House” has a more traditional second-line feel and I play organ and Clav like I normally do, but my Uncle Art overdubbed Rhodes on that, too—which is kind of cool because when I was playing it in the studio I was thinking about his sensibilities. My solo on that is very Art Neville-esque.

When you’re writing, do you know instinctively what instrument(s) you’re going to play on a particular song?

It just kind of happens, but for the most part, especially with this band, it’s usually going to be organ and Clav some way unless it’s obviously calling for something else. On “Dancing To The Truth,” that song defined what was going to be played the way it was developing and the way the groove felt. My playing is pretty minimal on it and I love that. I’m playing a left-hand Clav and right-hand organ at the same time—which I do a lot on the whole record. There’s not a lot of overdubbing, most of what I do is live with Clav on top of the organ. The Clav part actually stands out because it’s got that wah sound. I’m playing little complimentary stabs and rhythmic stuff on the organ and every now and again you’ll hear something slightly melodic but the vocals are what leads that song and obviously the bass groove underneath it. My playing just sits in there.

Dumpstaphunk has transcended traditional funk boundaries. What is the future of funk?
Funk ain’t going nowhere! We’re always going to revert back to funk in some fashion. All of the new music being made in some way borrows from funk: electronic dance music is borrowing from funk, especially in that it makes people want to dance.

James Brown was one of the most important fathers of funk. He also had some of the key members that ended up being in Parliament-Funkadelic like Bootsy Collins. Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker were all influential in creating that sound along with George Clinton. Look at Gospel and blues music and how it evolved and influenced rock ’n’ roll; it’s all kin.

We’re happy that we can incorporate bits of those influences into something that pushes the boundaries of what funk is—which is a lot broader than most people realize. With Dumpstaphunk, the music will definitely be rocking, it can lean a little bluesy and pop and get a little spiritual—and we tend to make it a little dirty and nasty, too!

Phunk in the Trunk: Ivan Neville's Gear

The core of Ivan Neville’s stage rig is a vintage Hammond A100 organ played through a Leslie model 147, plus a Clavia Nord Stage 76. Here are more details, in Ivan’s own words.

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“I run the Clav through a Dunlop wah pedal, to a Dunlop Bass Envelope, to a DigiTech talkbox, to a DOD delay pedal with tap tempo and from there to an amp—lately I’ve been using a Peavey that bassist Tony Hall turned me on to. Also I have a [Dunlop MXT] bass D.I. that I use for the Rhodes. I like having an amped signal and a signal that goes through a D.I. so I can blend direct and miked sounds.

“The Nord Stage is very nice. You can dial your sounds with delays and other effects. Obviously, I’d rather play a real Rhodes, which I do in the studio. But live, the Nord gets some Wurlitzer and Rhodes sounds that are very good. The analog section has some synth sounds like Minimoog and some poly sounds where I can play multiple notes. I can save things so I have my go-to Dumpstaphunk sounds on the road.

“On fly dates, we have backline and usually they provide comparable stuff, like a Hammond A100 or B-3. I really try to get a Clav, too. Every now and again, in some remote places, the venue or backline rental people won’t have one, but they’ll usually have a Nord. If I have three or four patches that I can dial in before the gig, I’ll be ready. The Nord’s ‘Square Bass’ is a good starting patch for synth sounds, along with ‘Foggy Bass.’ I can turn those two sounds into any analog or Minimoog-like sound I want.”