In part one of a two-part story, Louisiana artist Dustan Louque talks about the long road to his current relationship with the Crescent City.

dustan louque photo
Dustan Louque

[Updated] I struck a nerve with Dustan Louque

When the Atlantic Records’ imprint Lava released his 2004 album, So Long, he was presented in a press release as simply “Louque”—a Louisiana artist who called his music “faya,” a blend of “dub, dancehall, electronic and alternative music.” So Long, the press release announced, was “bar none, one of the sultriest albums of 2004.” 

“If you like old-skool reggae and dub, you will dig Louque, if you despise what’s on the radio, you will dig Louque.”

At the time, Louque had minimal presence in New Orleans, so when Lava presented us with a single-named artist who came with a sound that required a new name, it was easy to be suspicious. It felt like we were being sold a New York boardroom’s version of New Orleans’ music, one with a Cajun element a hundred or so miles off course.Telling Louque this memory darkened the clouds on a conversation that had been had been pretty cordial to that point. He didn’t become confrontational, but telling him this brought back old frustrations with New Orleans, and he shared them without reservation.

Still, his relationship to New Orleans is better than it once was. These days, he uses his full name and he has a slightly higher profile in the city. When Wilco performed a surprise show at The Music Box in City Park during Jazz Fest, Louque filled out the band, along with Sean Yseult, Rob Cambre and Luke Winslow-King. He takes the gigs he wants for his own reasons, and he’ll next play at Goorin Brothers hat shop on Magazine Street during Art for Art’s Sake October 3.

This summer Louque released a new album, Campo Santo, that presents a more personal version of the music he made on So Long. Much of it borrowed too heavily on trip-hop to get out of Massive Attack’s shadow, and while Campo Santo is similarly a studio-crafted project, his touch is far more subtle. Countless studio decisions give his folk and blues a currency that many of his peers lack as they try to recreate sounds made 30 to 40 years earlier. Every instrument sounds carefully, meticulously tweaked to suit the songs’ moods and purposes. 

“I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing,” he says deliberately by phone. “I’m happy with my circumstances, and I’m embracing it. It’s fine. But for years I’ve had to deal with that, the questioning of my Louisiana roots. And trying to be a modern musician living in New Orleans—you get frustrated.”

For Louque, the challenge has always been to find his place. He grew up an hour outside New Orleans, and while his dad loved Fats Domino, his idea of New Orleans music was what he heard at such dance clubs as The Gold Mine and The Blue Crystal—The Smiths, New Order, and the new music that he could only hear there at the time. When he moved to New Orleans in the ‘90s after attending Mississippi State, he realized the market was there for more iterations of New Orleans’ funk, jazz and R&B, but he didn’t see how he could make a living playing his music. 

New Orleans has long had a reputation for being a rough place for rock ’n’ roll. The college-age audiences that forms the backbone of the rock market in other cities came to New Orleans to see brass bands or Frenchmen Street. Older music fans that stopped going to clubs and exerting influence on the market in other cities still go out in New Orleans, keeping older music viable longer than it might elsewhere. Because of that, rock musicians have long felt for years like the redheaded stepkids of the New Orleans’ music scene—humored, tolerated, perhaps even oddly respected, but never part of the in-crowd. 

That situation has improved in the last decade, but if Louque wanted to make his music and have it heard in the early 2000s, he felt it had to happen elsewhere and moved to New York City. He settled in Brooklyn, became part of the music community that included TV on the Radio and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “I wasn’t really a musician,” he says, but he had ideas. He started recording songs on his own, first to a four-track recorder, then to his computer. The tracks were heavy on atmosphere as he used loops to flesh out the songs. That made his songs hard to play to live, but he did so occasionally anyway. He also hustled and hustled well; his fifth gig was Bonnaroo in 2003. With little to show anyone but ideas and the album he made, he found a manager, a support team, and got the attention of record labels. 

Lava Records has been the musical home to Matchbox 20, Sugar Ray, Porcupine Tree, Uncle Kracker, Basement Jaxx, and Edwin McCain, and when its A&R people saw Louque, they were interested.

“I didn’t like anybody on Lava, but they were letting me put my imprint on the record and we could use their services,” he says. “Maybe use their PR, which ended up not being the right way to go.” He went with them, but started to regret the decision soon after. The PR department that he counted on to get his name into the did so in a way that embarrassed him. “Always spinning Louisiana! That whole thing became too much of a selling point. Then it was the Williamsburg thing—Hip! Hip! Hip and cool!” That became harder to live with when he would visit the Lava offices and see PR reps calling media outlets to push him and Kid Rock with the same tone and intensity.

The last straw came when he was sent out on tour to perform his bass-and loop-heavy sound solo on an acoustic guitar as an opening act. He knew those shows wouldn’t represent his music properly, and doing that was so far from the part of music that Louque found fun that he bailed on the label and live performances for years. He kept recording music on his own, layering parts as he had before, but he got out of the business of trying to sell it. He made music to make it while he figured out what came next.

He moved back to New Orleans, bought a house, renovated it, and at one point got a job job. He couldn’t quit music entirely, though. Some of his New York friends had relocated to Woodstock and he checked in with them periodically, playing and keeping relationships alive. He played and made music, but he the idea of plugging back into a music industry in flux didn’t appeal to him. 

Most people dream of the major label deal. I’d been through that and saw how that was. I wasn’t going through that again.”

Monday: finding a new path

Updated September 20, 10:36 p.m.

A link to part two of the story has been added.