Stepping in as the drummer for acclaimed New Orleans act Dumpstaphunk, Alvin Ford, Jr. had some big shoes to fill, but he was up for the challenge. In this L4LM exclusive, we talk to this young superstar about everything from what it was like to audition for Dumpstaphunk, to his feelings on the music industry in New Orleans, to what he’s currently listening to (the results will surprise you!).
L4LM: You just played New Orleans Essence Fest this past weekend. What is the craziest Essence Fest experience you’ve had?
Alvin Ford: By far my most epic Essence Fest situation was my first time playing Essence Fest in the Superdome. Our band had won a competition which gave us a slot on the main stage before Mary J. Blige. I was playing in a band that I still play with–all of my friends who I came up with. We knew we were about to play in front of 70,000 people, in the Superdome, in our hometown, on the main stage. Me and all my friends were acting crazy, excited for our set.
We go behind the stage, where there’s a gap separating the stage from the big screen behind the stage. The band before us was still playing. For some reason they made a hit, and the house lights came on and lit up the entire dome, so we could see the tens of thousands of heads we were about to play to. That was the most epic Essence Fest moment for me. It was at that moment where it hit us–“Oh my god, look at all those people…”
L4LM: Did you have drummer mentors growing up?
Alvin Ford: For me coming up in the city, I had guidance, man. Some of the top drummers in the city were right here, lending out helping hands to me, so that went a long way. You have Terrence Higgins, who’s like my uncle. I met Terrence when I was like 13 or 14, he’s been one of my biggest mentors–he guided me up to this point. I met him when I was playing in church. I’m super grateful for him. Also, Jeffrey “Jellybean” Alexander from Jon Cleary’s Absolute Monster Gentlemen. Bean and my dad are really good friends. When I first started working and getting calls, he would help me with the ins and outs of making sure that I’m a likeable person, that people would want to be around me. He taught me that your playing isn’t everything–it will only get you through the door. When you’re on tour, the show is only like 2 hours. Meanwhile, you have to live with these people for the other 22 hours of the day!
L4LM: Your father was a famous gospel drummer. Can you illustrate your Gospel-based drumming influences?
Alvin Ford: My dad doesn’t count on this list, because he’s my all-time favorite drummer, and he’s my dad, and he’s a whole other conversation. Growing up in the gospel world and in New Orleans at the same time, I had my favorite drummers that were on completely different sides of the spectrum. So, you had guys like Jeff Davis, Joel Smith, Dana Davis, Calvin Rodgers, all amazing gospel legends Aaron Spears, who plays drums with Usher, all that American Idol stuff, he’s a gospel guy. Mike Reeve, who plays drums with Rhianna now–gospel guy. I gotta mention Mr. Thomas Pridgen–the guy played with The Memorials and The Mars Volta. And gotta get Sput in there. I grew up watching him–he used to play a lot on Kirk Franklin’s stuff and all that. Before he was with Snarky Puppy, he used to play with Timbaland and Snoop Dogg. Sput can play everything, but he grew up as a Gospel guy from church.
L4LM: Then there’s Chris “Daddy” Dave, who just closed out Bonnaroo on D’angelo’s set.
Alvin Ford: Yes, Chris is a gospel drummer–people don’t know that. He’s from church. Chris Dave is one of my favorite drummers, man. And while we’re talking about D’angelo, you know his guitarist Isaiah Sharkey? Church guy outta Chicago.
L4LM: Most people don’t know this, but so many gospel drummers tour the world with some of the biggest pop artists in music, from Kendrick Lamar, to Common, Beyoncé, Usher, Chris Brown, Demi Lovato, Nicki Minaj, Mary J. Blige…
Alvin Ford: They’re all gospel guys whom I’ve been knowing for a long time. I became friends with a lot of them, dudes who I met when I was six, seven years old and hung out with every summer at the Gospel Convention of America. My dad would take me every summer, in a different city every year. So that’s the Gospel community I’ve been a part of. The funny thing with a lot of these guys is that the world is just catching on to them now, but they’ve been amazing drummers and playing on that level for years.
L4LM: Ok, so how about your New Orleans influences as a drummer?
Alvin Ford: When I consider my New Orleans influences of all ages, I think of the generation up from me: Terrence Higgins, Raymond Weber, Jelly Bean Alexander, Stanton Moore, Doug Belote. Then the next generation up, legends like Zigaboo Modeliste (Meters), Herlin Riley, Shannon Powell, James Black. When I consider the younger generation, I think of myself, Terrence Houston, Joe Dyson, little Alfred Jordan, and Joey Peebles, who plays with Trombone Shorty. Me and Joey were in the same classes together from 1st to 3rd grade. We used to talk about drums every day for like the first four years of elementary school. We used to be playin’ kickball together!
L4LM: Let’s move on to Dumpstaphunk. What’s it like to join an established New Orleans funk group? Did you feel pressured by playing with some of the local heroes that you grew up around?
Alvin Ford: You know, Dumpstaphunk is a funny situation for me. It would seem like it would be a pressure-type situation. But for me, it actually felt more at home–I was actually more comfortable going into Dumpstaphunk than any of my previous situations, because these are the guys that know my entire family–went to high school with them and everything. I grew up in the exact same neighborhood as them. So with Dumpstaphunk, man, like I’ve known these guys since I was like a little kid.
L4LM: What’s the craziest aspect of the transition, then, coming from groups like Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Bonerama, and then replacing Nikki Glaspie on drums in Dumpstaphunk? Was that an awkward move?
Alvin Ford: I think the craziest thing about the Dumpstaphunk situation for me was being a part of such a fan favorite in New Orleans. You know, they are one of my favorite New Orleans bands, if not my favorite band period. I’m third in line on drums after Raymond Weber, who’s like a New Orleans legend, and Nikki Glaspie, who’s like a sister to me–dude she’s a freak on drums! I watch her play and like, I don’t want to play after her! She plays so hard, so consistent, she’s so funky, takes some of the baddest songs you ever heard in life, and then it’s just like, “You want me to come play after that?” That’s the most pressure-filled situation about Dumpstaphunk: the fact that I have to play coming after a badass drummer like Nikki. And she’s such a fan favorite because it’s like, dude she’s a girl and such a badass drummer at the same time. Nikki’s such a likable person, like one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.
L4LM: How did you get the Dumpstaphunk gig? Did you audition? Did they call you in?
Alvin Ford: Yes, it was sort of like an audition. It was funny–I specifically remember where I was when Tony Hall called me to mention that they were thinking about trying out a few new drummers for the gig. I was in DC playing at the Hamilton with Bonerama, when Tony called me. We talked about it and that was that, I get on the plane the next morning and I’m flying from DC to Richmond, Virginia, to start the Dirty Dozen tour. The day I get to Richmond, I get to my hotel and get onto the tour bus and Dumpstaphunk was at the same exact festival as Dirty Dozen! And so I just played on their set, maybe like two or three songs, and Tony was like, “Yo, come play.”
L4LM: So basically the live gig was the tryout, and you got the job? Did you have competition?
Alvin Ford: So, it’s funny. The day I was technically supposed to try out, I was going to be out of the country. I was playing with this guy Gary Brown in Austria, so I ended up having to do my audition a week earlier. Tony and Ivan gave all the prospects like two or three songs, something like that. So instead, I learned the whole record, ‘cause I really wanted the gig! That was like one of the first gigs that I really wanted. They’re such a fan favorite that so many people would want that gig, so I knew that whoever else they reached out to must be some badass drummer. So I took my situation as, the day they were supposed to try me out–which was a week earlier because I was going on tour–I would take full advantage of that opportunity.
L4LM: What did that feel like?
Alvin Ford: Aww dude! It was like a feeling of relief because I didn’t know what would happen. It was a good feeling. But with the whole situation man, I look at it like, I’m so grateful for all of the people that prepped me along the way to get to that point.
You know, I have dudes who I play with in the Sonic Bloom collective: Eric “Benny” Bloom, Eric Vogel, Nigel Hall, Andrew Block, Calvin Turner, Derwin “Big D” Perkins. We’re friends and they’re all big brothers to me. I’m the youngest one, so it’s like, everybody can see what my dreams are, and those guys are really hard on me–and it looks like its fun and games and we end up having a good time on stage–but in the process all of those guys are constantly sending me records to check out, constantly telling me to study certain drummers, study their feel, study their vibe, how they’re playing a song, you know. I’m so thankful to so many dudes who’ve helped me get to this place in my life.
L4LM: Speaking of Sonic Bloom–I talked to Eric earlier, and he wants to know who your top 5 favorite jazz drummers are.
Alvin Ford: Why am I not surprised that Benny wants to know that? I’ll go with: Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, and Jeff “Tain” Watts. In my generation, I vote Joe Dyson, Jamison Ross, Justin Faulkner, Mike Mitchell, and Robert “Sput” Searight.
L4LM: What do you listen to before gigs?
Alvin Ford: This’ll have people laughing–Drake. I’m about to go play a funk gig but I have Drake on my phone.
L4LM: That’s not what I expected.
Alvin Ford: Right now I’m into Taylor Swift’s 1989 album, Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 record. The production on those is crazy! I think 1989 is probably the dopest record I’ve heard in a really long time.
L4LM: Moving on…What is TYSSON and how did that group come to be?
Alvin Ford: TYSSON [pictured below] is me and my buddy John Michael Rouchell (JM). It’s funny–we came up from two completely different worlds of music, with the common ground of loving Prince. JM is really into checking out the dynamics–how someone sings a song, what helps enhance the chorus, where the intensity comes from, things like that. He’s great at that, and that rubbed off on me checking out all these different situations as well. So, that got me into more pop music. So I’ve started checking out totally different bands, bands that I never heard of in my life, bands like Bleachers, HAIM, basically name your favorite pop band out. And–he’s gonna hate me for saying this, he hates this band–21 Pilots. I think they’re dope!
L4LM: TYSSON is completely different from any music you’ve ever played. How do the two of you make the creative process work?
Alvin Ford: TYSSON is more pop, for sure, but with funk. We always have this saying of, “We wanna write these pop songs that can work on the radio, but when you see us live, the song truly feels great.” We don’t want it to be “pop-y” and feeling like nothing’s happening. We want you to still dance and move like you’re coming to see me play at The Maple Leaf. The cool thing is, we’re both big go-getters, and we both listen to a lot of really, really different shit. So we’re always bringing ideas to the table. To apply that to the production process: A TYSSON song will go through like five or six revisions before we’re cool with it as the final song. I have my influences and hear things a certain way, and so does he. We always work on everything together and check and balance each other out until we are both satisfied.
L4LM: How is the TYSSON situation different from any other you’ve been a part of?
Alvin Ford: This is completely new to me. Since being in TYSSON, and seeing the way things are rolling and working out, I am invested in this group in a way I’ve never experienced before. It’s probably my most pride-filled situation, because it’s really mine. I’m still in some situations where it’s like, I’m a part of a band as an equal member and all, but with TYSSON, I have way more decision-making power. There’s only two of us, so my vote completely matters. We discuss everything.
L4LM: How dedicated are you and John Michael to TYSSON?
Alvin Ford: It’s an all day, all night focus. There’ll be plenty of nights where we’ll be working on music from 10 in the morning to 1 in the morning, call it a wrap for the day, and then be back to work together at 10 the next morning. We have a lot of pride in what we do, a lot of hard work and dedication. We both feel as though it can be something special, with the right work and time put into it. I’m having a real blast in TYSSON, man.
L4LM: What can we expect from TYSSON in the near future?
Alvin Ford: Our first EP is done, and we’ll be dropping that really soon. I’m really interested in seeing how everybody likes it. I’ve played it for a few friends, and it’s caught people off guard. Everyone’s dug it–it’s not what people expect from me. Even with John Michael, with his previous project, My Name is John Michael, it’s completely different. So, us together, we’ve formed something pretty cool and different.
L4LM: Is over-saturation a big problem in the local New Orleans music market?
Alvin Ford: Overkill is definitely an issue here. I understand everybody’s playing around town, and you have gigs, and have a responsibility to work, and things like that. But to me, it just seems like you’ll never get that big event that you want to pop off for your band if you have a weekly residency in the city. It’s pointless to pay $20 to go see you when I know for a fact that I can pay $10 to see you on a random Tuesday.
L4LM: Dumpstaphunk tends to play headlining stages in New Orleans more often than most other local acts. Do you find that the band might be in danger of flooding its own market?
Alvin Ford: Well, it’s crazy and kinda cool, because with Dumpstaphunk, we never really play in town like that–we play occasionally, but not often. So when we do play, folks always come out to see us, because there are just some special guys in that band that people just love to see.
L4LM: Are you applying that strategy to TYSSON?
Alvin Ford: Absolutely. When we do a show in town, people want to come out. It’s like, Ok, cool, I’ve been hearing about them, but they play rarely enough that I haven’t had the chance to see them in person. I’ll never forget it–We just played Wednesday at the Square this past March–which already has a built in crowd–but people actually knew about us coming in. There were so many local musicians at that TYSSON show who probably hate pop music, but knew it was our band, never seen us play before, and had just been hearing about it so much.
L4LM: So you successfully started a buzz about it.
Alvin Ford: Exactly–everyone we knew wanted to come check us out. When we got there, it was basically like *name your favorite musician* was there. Now, I believe if we were playing in town a lot, instead of on random rare occasions like we have, we would definitely not have had those people out that day, such as those musicians or even just friends.
My feeling for TYSSON–this is how I view it, and John Michael views it the same way–is that it could really be something special. It could really be something big. It could really be something next level. So, you know, we’re not rushing just to put stuff out, just to please anybody. We just want everything to be right.
L4LM: What did the breakout performance at Wednesday at the Square show you?
Alvin Ford: It was really, really cool because it kind of showed us two things. 1) People like our music; 2) the “cool” kids liked the music. And for us, and this is how I feel all the time, TYSSON songs should feel great to where even the musicians can’t deny it. There are those people who don’t like your 2015 pop music and rap and everything, because they think it’s all bullshit – I’d like to make the music where you can’t deny the fact that it feels great. So we’re thrilled if we can do that musically, and at the same time all the cool kids who are like 18-24, 18-30, are hangin’, that are wearing like some Jordans, a snapback, tattoos and gold chains, ya know, and all this at the same time they’re dancing and going, “Oh yo, this is a dope song…dope sounds, let’s play this on the radio, let’s play this at the party” and shit like that. So that was the thing for me, where all those different folks were there digging the music and thinking the music was real cool, that kind of made me feel like, OK, cool, something is going well.
L4LM: Were there any other TYSSON experiences like that this year?
Alvin Ford: I will tell you about the gig that made me feel that same way. We played Voodoo Fest last year, and we were a new band so of course we had one of those earlier slots. We go on and the first song we play on stage is to no one–it’s completely empty – like, nobody’s there. But by the time we get to our second song, mid-second song, you can see the crowd, all the masses of people, making their way over to our stage. So, you know, to play those first songs man, and this…we’re a new band, those people don’t know us. And to play Voodoo Fest, that’s different than playing Wednesdays at the Square where there’s local people who’ll know your resumé–they’ve heard of Dumpstaphunk so they say “Ok, lets go check that out.” Voodoo Fest, that’s not that crowd – that’s not that crowd at all.
So the hope is to do those, or to go play Nashville, New York, L.A. soon, and to get the response from people who don’t know us at all, have no clue who we are as individuals or as a band, ya know, never heard of Alvin Ford, they’ve heard of Dumpstaphunk. You give it what you got and then you play, and you see people into it and people liking it and people coming up like “Yo, this could be something special, this could be something great if ya’ll do it right.” That gives you all the more confidence because it makes you feel like “Ok, cool, the shit we’re sitting up all night and spending all day working on is working.”
L4LM: That’s phenomenal.
Alvin Ford: Yea, yea. You know, I’ve been in a bunch of different situations and this is mine, so I wanna make sure it’s done right and I wanna do it as best as I possibly can.
L4LM: How do you, as a working musician, keep your chops up to speed while playing with all different types of genres and musicians?
Alvin Ford: Playing a bunch of different things out of my element. Honestly, I’m a YouTube-head, so I watch YouTube all the freaking day and night – literally, all day and night, so I always run across these random clips of like, people from the most random unheard of town, EVER, in the United States. And they’re playing some of the baddest shit that I’ve ever heard in my life being played.
L4LM: Does that keep you motivated?
Alvin Ford: Yes. I say, let me not think that I’m the shit right now, and let me sit behind my drums and work some shit out. Because clearly this YouTube guy is on a whole other level playing some shit that I clearly cannot play. And then I see the younger generation; they keep me so motivated. I see the older generation that I was inspired by…you know what I mean? Like my man, Terrence Higgins, dude he’s always on the go. Herlin Riley, Shannon Powell – you watch these guys and they’re still amazing, and I see that and I’m like, I gotta keep going because they’re still next level.
Then, you turn around and see the younger generation like little Alfred Jordan, or my little brother Ashton Ford, and little Darryl Staves. You see these little dudes who like, they’re teenagers, barely legal. I see these younger dudes and I really gotta stay on top of my game because they, like, they comin for everybody hats, dude! If they wanted everybody’s gigs, they could completely take them from everybody right about now, literally, because they’re all playing on that level. Luckily for us, we’ve been around to know more folk than those guys. So we keep gigs, but you see these guys playing and it’s like – I have no time to be sitting around.
L4LM: Have either of your kids picked up the drums?
Alvin Ford: Aw dude, so my little man, dude he’s two years old and he can full-fledged play the drums! Like, I’m gonna show you a video of my son man, it’s one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen. I had my first gig when I was like 6 or 7, but to see my son at 2 do this–and I’ve never, ever sat down and showed him how to play the drums–that’s so crazy man. That’s a crazy inspiring thing for me. You know? Like that’s my son!
L4LM: In a perfect world, if things all worked out for you, what are you doing musically?
Alvin Ford: In a perfect world for me man, I’m touring the world with TYSSON, having a great time, just living life and doing what I love. I think my dream is more to live my situation that I know for a fact grew from absolutely nothing to something. Because I know that most every band that I’ve been a part of, from my first gig with Big Sam when I was 17, to going around with the Dirty Dozen, to Dumpstaphunk, and all of those bands were already-established situations. TYSSON was nothing. I remember sitting down at Parkway with John Michael and saying, “we’re gonna be a band.” So, yea, in a perfect world for me, TYSSON is successful and I’m able to live a great life.
L4LM: What are your top 5 places to play in New Orleans?
Alvin Ford: The Maple Leaf, Blue Nile, Spotted Cat, Snug Harbor, and Preservation Hall.
L4LM: Which bands have you played with in NOLA?
Alvin Ford: Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Khris Royal & Dark Matter, Nigel Hall Band, Sonic Bloom, Pocket Time (ft. Big “D” Perkins and Cornell Williams), Bonerama, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Dumpstaphunk, TYSSON.
L4LM: How do you Live for Live Music? What does it mean to you?
Alvin Ford: I think live music is the greatest thing that has ever happened. Ever. And you know, there’s so many instances and situations where live music is getting cut out and people are just playing at computers and DJs and shit like that…
L4LM: And spending too much time at bars…
Avin Ford: Exactly. When you can go to…Dude, live music is such a fulfilling moment. There’s such a…you can only experience that at live shows.
L4LM: What is it that you’re experiencing at live shows?
Alvin Ford: So for me, and I’m going to speak from a musician’s standpoint. I’m the type of guy, and I’ve always been this way…I can have a shit ton of issues going on throughout my day, and when I get a chance to play a live show, all that shit is gone away while I’m on stage playing. Its completely gone; because I’m happy. Everybody is dancing around, everybody is having a great time, and Live for Live Music – that’s why when I first saw the hat I thought it was the dopest shit ever, because I was just like, “dude, that’s some real shit.”
L4LM: Do you have a message for the kids who might be on the fence about live music?
Alvin Ford: Support live music, man. Live music is the way. You don’t go to live shows and see people down and sad. That’s everybody’s happy moment, everybody’s time to enjoy – dancing and having a great time with the most random jumble of motherfuckers that you’ve never met in your life, that you’re probably never ever going to see again. You’re gonna exchange info but you’re never ever gonna see them again. But it doesn’t matter – ya’ll just had the greatest night ever enjoying some live music. And that’s what that shit does. People really live for those moments.
I’m a musician, so I really live and die by that shit…live music is just the fuckin way to go. I don’t wanna go sit in a bar and listen to somebody play music on the fuckin radio. No, I wanna feel, I wanna see you sing your song and I wanna feel everything that’s coming from you–like Nigel Hall singing “Golden Time of Day” by Maze. When he sings songs you can feel that shit. You feel that shit.
L4LM: He’s channelling Frankie Beverly.
Alvin Ford: Exactly. He’s channeling it and that’s like, a live moment. You’re really experiencing what he’s feeling. You don’t get that shit when you just listen to shit on the radio or at a party – I’m not gonna say you don’t get it, it’s just a different thing, it’s a whole different vibe. Live For Live Music, man, when I saw the logo for the first time, when I first met Kunj (L4LM Founder), I thought he was the coolest dude. Just a little dude running around, like he’s the first person I ever saw smaller than Eric Bloom, but when I saw the logo I was like, “I’ve gotta get that shit, I’ve gotta rock that.” That’s some real shit, so I rock it all the fuckin time. Make sure you see this fuckin hat – this is real. Doesn’t matter where I’m going, like ok, I’m hanging with some DJ buddies, but…
L4LM: So who are you channeling when you’re playing live?
Alvin Ford: When I’m playing live, it’s a mixture of guys. I have my dad all the way. My dad is by far my favorite drummer and my biggest influence. My dad was a gospel drummer and played on a bunch of popular gospel records – one of the greatest drummers that everybody knows. He was kind of tough on me growing up playing the drums. Never really made me play, but made me stay serious. So my dad, Zigaboo Modeliste, because Zig – I don’t play anything like Zig, but Zig is, when you think of funk drums, anybody in the world when they think of funk drums is gonna think of Zigaboo. So, that’s like automatic…I have to channel my inner Zig. And between trying to channel Zig and my dad and every other great drummer…I’m like a sponge, I like taking bits and pieces from everybody. Like when I’m playing some second line stuff, some street stuff, that’s like my inner – I wanna sound like Herlin Reilly or like Shannon Powell. Or when I’m playing some more laid back funky stuff, I wanna play like Zig or Terrence Higgins.
L4LM: Have any crazy Festival stories?
Bear Creek, Rest in Peace. After the last show of the weekend, there was a late-night hang that Paul Levine and all them threw in the woods somewhere that like nobody at the festival knew about. So its like, literally you get up to this spot and the band The Heard is playing–Chris Rogers’ – I mean Chris Ragers’ band – and it’s like, 150 people max at this little hang. So you can imagine the shenanigans that everyone was getting into…
L4LM: How about some Jam Cruise stories?
Alvin Ford: Alright, so I got one for you. My first time on Jam Cruise, I wake up in the middle of the night. It’s maybe 2 o’clock in the morning and I hadn’t eaten because I missed dinner because I was asleep. I get up thinking I’m gonna go up to the cafeteria and get some food. Walk out my room and Nigel Hall is in the hallway. Low and behold, Nigel Hall’s room is like 4 doors down from mine. So Nigel is like “Yo, you comin with me to the jam!” I’m like, “Nigel, you fuckin’ crazy dude, I’m going to get food and then I’m going back to bed – its 2am!” He’s says, “No, you’re coming to the jam!” And I’m like, whatever, this motherfucker is crazy, but ok.
We get to the jam room and it’s fully packed, a full-fledged jam. When I walk in it’s George Porter Jr. on bass, Eric Krasno on guitar, Robert Randolph was playing, Warren Haynes, and maybe either Adam Deitch or Nikki Glaspie, Karl Denson, Tony Hall – some really, really ridiculous shit like that. And then you name your favorite band on the circuit and all those guys were there too, hanging out. With a boatload of people just clowning, like you get to the jam room and you can’t get in the room.
L4LM: What is your world view?
Alvin Ford: I think that no matter what happens in the world, there’s always going to be demand for music. You’re always going to reserve a little bit of money, a little bit of what you’re making, to go have an experience with live music.
-Interview conducted by Malcolm Finkelstein for Live for Live NOLA