Morning 40 Federation brews a mix of New Orleans and alcohol

The members Morning 40 Federation in a typical 7 a.m. pose

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 29, 2004) – For musicians whose collective identity is inextricably linked with its home base, New Orleans, the Morning 40 Federation is an odd lot. The closest any of its members comes to having grown up near New Orleans is drummer Mike Andrepoint, who founder Josh Cohen calls “a coon ass from a little town called Mamau near Eunice.”

“No one else is from Louisiana,” said Cohen – who brings his eight-piece group to Club Helsinki next Tuesday at 8 -- in a recent phone interview from his home in New Orleans. Cohen himself is from Washington, D.C., and other members hail from Arizona, Missouri and Georgia.

But people who are drawn to settle in New Orleans have much in common, according to Cohen.

“There’s no last call here,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to be in a town where you can drink until six in the morning and the bartender is encouraging you instead of kicking you out. Sometimes on tour it’s a shocker to us when we’re told we’re cut off at two in the morning, because we’re so used to doing whatever we want. It’s like an adult Disneyland here.”

Cohen is unabashed about his group’s fondness for the culture of imbibing. Its very name is a reference to a practice known only to natives or thirstier types.

“At first it was just kind of a joke that we’d start this organization we’d call the Morning 40 Federation, where we’d be giving change to desperate alcoholics,” said Cohen. “Sort of like a Salvation Army, except instead of asking for money, we’d be giving away money for people to spend on their morning fix of malt liquor.”

The band has its genesis in bars, too. “Sometimes I would get drunk at the bar and come up with what I thought was a funny little song, and I’d call my answering machine at home to sing it to myself so I’d remember it later,” said Cohen, who by day is a glass artist, “and then I’d put it on my answering machine so people could hear it.”

Later on, those songwriting sessions grew to include a group of friends, none of whom really knew how to play their instruments. “It was originally conceived as something to do with our time -- to go to friends houses, drink a lot and write songs and see what it took to get some structured music going,” said Cohen. “At first we just all picked up our instruments and played, not even listening to each other. After a while we decided it was ridiculous. We needed some structure, a beginning, middle and end. So we went through the painful process of teaching ourselves how to write a song.”

Seven years and several recordings later, Morning 40 Federation sounds like a party band whose music ranges across the 20th century, from early jazz to New Orleans dance music to jug-band, swing, funk and punk.

“Over time we’ve matured a lot,” said Cohen. “One of our guitar players was even a band before he joined us.”

Over time, too, the group established its boozy, brassy sound. “Eventually we figured out what we thought sounded cool,” said Cohen. “I’m a big Tom Waits fan. We also have influences like the Stooges, the Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains. A lot of us came from a punk-rock adolescence where we thought punk-rock was cooler than heavy metal. Even though we’re not conscious about our influences, it’s unavoidable. While we don’t attempt to emulate any artists in particular, we do inadvertently.”

Of course there is the influence of their adopted hometown’s rich musical tradition. “It’s almost impossible not to be influenced by New Orleans music,” said Cohen. “We’re surrounded by it. When I ride my bike to work up Decatur Street, there’s a brass band I pass by every morning rehearsing in a courtyard.”

Still, even after seven years, Cohen and his bandmates cling to their amateur status. “Knowing too much can be harmful,” he said. “If I knew how to rip up and down every trail on the saxophone, I’d have a bag of tricks, a whole set of riffs for each key. And if somebody wrote a song, I’d dig into that bag of tricks. But being an ignorant musician, untrained and inexperienced, to me I’m more likely to hear a melody in my head which is compatible with whatever I’m presented with.”

And then of course, the group has its reputation to live up to. “A lot of our material was written while we were drunk, which is appropriate because we play mostly in bars where people are drinking while listening to our music,” said Cohen. “Even when we play a wedding, there’s alcohol available. We’re very much alcohol-related -- hence our name, hence the city we live in. And one of our landmark achievements is the fact that the clubs that have us play in them sell by far more alcohol on average when we play. We’re great liquor salesman.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 31, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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