Water Seed Taps into New Orleans Heritage in Sprawling New Funk Album

Water Seed typically kicks out an album every six months or so; that didn’t happen with this latest album, We Are Stars, due out in the spring.

“We initially set out: ‘We just want to make a funk album. Nothing else,’” guitarist and bandleader Lou Hill says. They certainly landed on that result, but what took place between the beginning and the end was one of the most involved journeys in this band’s history. “With We Are Stars we wanted to figure out how to really capture the communication between the instruments. We wanted to really go old-school with it, and just perform.”

Based on the audio we’ve heard so far, it sounds like they’ve achieved that and then some. The past and the future merge here. This is a pretty hefty album, one comprising 14 cuts of 100-percent New Orleans funk. And after a stint in Atlanta — almost an “exile,” as others have described it — Hill and the band clearly wanted to get back in south with their NOLA roots.

“If you live in the city of New Orleans, you can’t escape music,” Hill says. “It gets on you, in you, and that kind of thing. New Orleans is great because it has its own kind of sound.” Beyond the top-40 drivel that can still be found in certain corners of the touristy sections of town, the bayou’s roots music permeates every facet of life in New Orleans. Visitors of the city would do well to soak up the sounds and get in touch with everything that’s offered — the shows, the the parades — but, for those who live and perform there, the music scene takes on a much deeper meaning.

See, musicians in New Orleans tend to start young, and they get involved with a certain strand of DNA in the city’s music genome. Hill, for instance, started off with the sax around age 7. By 12, he switched over to the drums (“I decided late, for a lot of people,” he says.) That’s when Hill began considering an eventual career.

The idea in New Orleans is to find the program that jibes with your style — and then to integrate your world into those teachings and that history.

“New Orleans musicians give you everything, you know,” Hill says. “They give you every bit of who they are when they teach you. They don’t hold back.” With that comes a huge responsibility for the student. No matter your age, you can’t be half-assing this work; you’ve got to be all in, too.

Artistically, in a similar sense, there’s no isolation in style. Versatility is a virtue in the city, and the musicians who succeed know that — they understand how the lineage of their program and their city works. Nor is there isolation in community; you really can’t be a loner and make it big as a musician in New Orleans. But that’s part of what makes the scene so rich.

And that’s the scene that Water Seed returns to after leaving town amid the disastrous wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Getting back to this idea of dropping a pure funk album — and really taking the time to hone the instrumentation and message for this one — it’s pretty clear that Hill and the band created an excellent addition to the New Orleans canon. There’s plenty of traditional funk slathered across this record, but there’s also a hint at something completely different — a sound that reels in disco grooves and jazz-futurist motifs. The songs here work well for both the headphone listener on the morning commute and the nimble-toed couple trying to get down on the dancefloor in Cleveland.

For Hill, the new album really serves as one work of art. He’s less interested in the world of singles than the more mainstream artists tend to be. “I would like fans or anybody listening to listen to this from beginning to end,” he says. “We organized it in a way that’s designed for it to flow in a particular direction.”
From the get-go, the album opens with a really interesting one-two punch in “Open Sesame” and “Bollywood,” with the latter following a simple funk riff that weaves through Eastern synths and percussion during the chorus. The album certainly bears the flow that Hill was talking about, with the songs here being different enough in their shared traits that the experience really comes off as such: a listening experience.

“When I talk to people, I say, ‘Look, it may not be our Purple Rain. But it needs to be our 1999,’” Hill says, referring to a few albums released by the late Prince. Hill and everyone else in the band are huge fans, and that hybridization of rock ‘n’ roll that Prince so famously molded is certainly on display throughout Water Seed’s stuff.

Additionally, realize that 1999 was sort of Prince’s breakout album — both the commercial leap forward and the point in his career where his voice really became an entity that listeners and critics could point to. (“Everything changed after that album,” Hill says.) Here’s Water Seed; New Orleans taught them, and now they’re running with everything they’ve learned. The point is to stay true to themselves.

“And that may be contrary to the state of music right now,” Hill says. “But we’re rolling the dice.”

Water Seed
8 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 6, Nighttown, 12383 Cedar Rd., 216-795-0550. Tickets: $15, nighttowncleveland.club