“How does the record sound?” Ryan Scully asks over the phone. But the hoarse musician can barely hear my response above the din at BJ’s, the downtown New Orleans bar where he’s drinking at 4 p.m. on a Monday afternoon. He and his bandmates in the Morning 40 Federation emerged from the storied Ninth Ward almost a decade ago, and have since made a cottage industry out of daytime boozing: Their moniker refers to the habit of downing a 40-ounce beer at dawn, and all their slovenly horn-rock songs are about getting effed up, New Orleans–style. As in: thoroughly. As in: The last time they hit town, Scully puked on his monitor mid-set at Mercury Lounge.
The album he’s asking about, Can You Deal With It? (out on Bloodshot in late July), is actually a collaboration with Andre Williams, a 71-year-old, Chicago-based r&b magnate turned cult-worshipped eccentric who charted in the ’50s, co-wrote with Stevie Wonder and Ike Turner in the ’60s, was strung out and homeless by the ’80s, and spent the ’90s working with young bands (the Sadies, the Dirtbombs) and cutting records with titles like Silky and Greasy. His lavender three-piece suits and penchant for sleaze-rock were a perfect match for the Federation, whom he met after opening for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in New Orleans in 1998. (His relentless substance abuse was familiar, too.) “I didn’t even want to make music with him at first,” says Federation guitarist Bailey Smith. “It just seemed impossible.”
And it almost was. It took three years to make Can You Deal, officially credited to Andre Williams and the New Orleans Hellhounds, a group that includes members of the Federation, Dixieland hipster Clint Maedgen, and organ-noise freak Quintron. In the process, Williams demanded cocaine and broke studio equipment when he didn’t get it, had a seizure and almost died while hospitalized, and got sober and then fell off the wagon at Mardi Gras, an episode captured in the upcoming documentary Agile, Mobile, Hostile. As for Scully, he “lost his mind,” ran away from home, and nearly wrecked his marriage. All the while, the group was laying down catchy, dirty r&b songs about coke whores (“Pray for Your Daughter”) and true love (“If It Wasn’t for You”), at times in a laborious, piecemeal fashion, with a very sick Williams painstakingly overdubbing his vocals.
By the time the record was in the mastering stage, Scully and Williams were calling each other “son” and “dad.” (“I’m just proud of him being proud of me,” says Williams, now staying sober at a rehab house in Chicago.) Like the addicts who spawned it, the record is wobbly, erratic, and occasionally brilliant. To answer Scully’s question, it sounds like it was really hard to make.
The Morning 40 Federation plays Mercury Lounge July 4 and Bar Nine July 5