"A musician should die on the last song of the show, that way his people get to see something they’ll never get to see again."
Mac Rebennack – aka Dr. John – has forged a career out of being something of a mysterious, curmudgeonly character who for decades has channelled the sounds and spirit of all that is alluring about New Orleans into a heady mishmash of blues, funk and soul music.
When we catch up with him he's in a studio in Ohio, but he's not working on a new Dr. John record. “We're writing some charts for a record we're doing. It's a tribute to Louis Armstrong,” he croaks in his drawn-out drawl.
His last album, 2012's Locked Down, was undoubtedly his finest work in decades. Not only was it praised widely by critics and fans, it opened him up to a younger audience who discovered this gem of an artist for the first time.
“I think everything went cool,” Dr. John says of the record. Much of the appeal for the younger audience was the deft touch of The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, who worked as producer. Safe to say the young gun got the seal of approval.
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“I think he did a good thing. I like how he operates. In some kinda way he reminds me of when I was young doing some other stuff like that. In another way he reminds me of something else and I like both sides of that.”
The record sees Dr. John sounding more like The Night Tripper that enjoyed popularity in the late-'60s and early '70s, but he's not willing to say this reversion to an older character and style was at all contrived.
“I look at it like I've made a lot of records in something to do with that style at different times, but I don't think about what I'm doing in that way. I just do what I'm supposed to be doing spiritually and that's all I know.”
His early career saw Dr. John record and release albums at an insanely prolific rate. He says he learned to work quickly in his early years as a session musician.
“I tried to do it fast – comin' up back in the '50s you had to learn how to do stuff fast, because you had to make an album in less than six hours. So, when you look at it from that perspective, when you do something later you keep that in mind.
“I don't know if it's such a good idea to take weeks or months to make records,” he says in reference to the modern standard. “I think it's just a good idea just to do records spiritually how long it takes to do it, and that's it. You shouldn't take forever to make a record, that's ka-ka.”
When Dr. John decides it's time for him to stop playing, he'll literally have to be carried out.
“A musician should die on the last song of the show, that way his people get to see something they'll never get to see again. Also the band doesn't have to play an encore and the band still gets paid.”