Easily the most identifiable aspect of the subdudes sound has been Steve Amedées tambourine. Indeed, just saying that the band relies on a tambourine instead of a drum kit doesnt remotely begin to describe the fat, aggressively percussive sound that Amedée coaxes from a simple mylar-covered wooden shell.
Amedée and the band stumbled upon the sound largely by chance.
When John Magnie and Tommy Malone organized the first subdudes show in March 1987, the rule was that whoever showed up could play only what they could carry into the gig: An accordion. An acoustic guitar. A tambourine.
Up until that point, Amedée had been playing a traditional drum kit. But for the early subdudes experiments, the guys wanted an extremely stripped down sound. They decided to experiment with a tambourine. Initially, Amedée used a wooden spatula to tap out rhythms on it.
Amedée sums it up: The thing with the tambourine just happened magically at the gig. Today, he generally augments his tambourine with a hand drum, kick drum, snare and cymbal and he even plays mandolin on some songs.
* * *
Steve Amedée grew up in a family of drummers and musicians in tiny Edgard, La., the same small sugar-cane-growing town where future subdudes Malone and Johnny Ray Allen also grew up. Two brothers were drummers.
Jeff was the rock n roll drummer. … After (he) went off to college, he left the drums to me. He left the set that he had bought in 1967 to me, Ive still got them I love those drums! Amedée says.
Malone and Amedée had known of each other for years they literally grew up across a cane field from one another. While in high school, they formed their first band, Elroy. Steve was a senior; Tommy was a sophomore.
We did our favorite songs a lot of it was Beatles and whatever soul songs we liked at the time, James Brown and Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones. After the band dissolved in about 1975, Amedée put away his drum kit for years. He didn't start playing again until after hed moved to New Orleans in 1978.
Amedée had been living in his brothers apartment (My bed was underneath the kitchen table.) but soon moved in with some old friends from back home: Malone and Allen. Naturally, they formed a band.
The band became The Cartoons and featured Malone and Allen on guitar, Amedée on drums and former Rhapsodizer Becky Kury on bass and vocals. But when Malone left to join Lil Queenie and the Percolators and when Kury started moving in different musical directions, the band drifted apart.
* * *
Amedée spent the next several years toiling relatively anonymously but making good money as a musician on Bourbon Street.
It was good for me. It opened my ears to a lot of different styles that I had once made fun of, that I was ignorant about like country music and bluegrass music, which I love now. But at the time, it involved getting humbled and learning a lot, he says.
Around 1986, Amedée hooked up with musician Ernie Cosse. They called themselves The Boogie Boys featuring Liz Barnes and played a mix of oldies, R&B, country whatever anyone requested. That band worked a lot, the short time I was with them. ... We played three gigs a day some days. On Saturdays, wed start off at 1 (p.m.) at Storyville, play from 1 to 5. Then wed play on Bourbon Street from 5 to 10, and then drive up to Slidell and play from 11 p.m. until 5 in the morning.
* * *
Amedée was working with Barnes and Cosse when Magnie and Malone invited him to rehearse with them for a show at Tipitinas, where Magnie had a regular Monday night gig.
The response to the shows initially was muted, but the guys knew they were on to something. But the band had a tough time finding work. Few gigs meant few dollars.
We played four or five months around (New Orleans) and then decided we needed to move out of town before we burned ourselves out before we lost the little bit of magic we had created. So we moved up here (to Fort Collins), he says.
In October 1987, the subdudes moved en masse to Colorado. The original plan was to continue on to Los Angeles play a few gigs in Fort Collins, make some money, and then move further west. That never happened.
Almost immediately, they were a hit, drawing hundreds of fans a night to clubs like Hermans Hideway in Denver. It was only a matter of time before record labels came knocking.
The subdudes toured relentlessly for the next nine years, with the madness grinding to a halt in the fall of 1996.
* * *
Returning home to Fort Collins, Amedée soon re-immersed himself in the local music scene, playing drums and percussion with old friends, including, naturally, John Magnie.
Magnie had begun work on his first post-subdudes solo album, which featured Amedée on harmony vocals. Eventually, Amedée was joining Magnie on stage with songwriter and former subdudes tour manager Tim Cook. The informal arrangement evolved into Magpie, later renamed 3 Twins.
When 3 Twins started, John just had me playing a floor tom, at first we actually did a few gigs like that. Then I expanded a little bit.
Between 1999 and 2002, the 3 Twins Magnie, Amedée and Cook, plus a guitarist and occasionally a percussionist performed widely throughout Colorado.
Fans hoping to hear old subdudes chestnuts at 3 Twins shows were probably surprised to hear all new material, but they invariably were won over by the tight three-part harmonies that really shined in the more stripped down setting.
In late 2001, Malone, Magnie and Amedée began discussing the possibility of working together again. A few shows followed in February. Those went well, and the band has been on the road ever since. Within a year of those first few Dudes reunions, they were the subdudes again.
Q: Wasnt your uncle also a drummer?
A: My dads brother was a drummer in a little swing band that played all over the River Parishes, between White Castle and Thibodaux and Vacherie all those little areas outside of New Orleans. My dad actually bought the drums for him. My dad was an aspiring drummer. He bought a set, started to practice on them, but then got married and ended up giving the drum set to his brother.
Q: In the most general of terms, can you explain your technique? How do you get all those sounds out of one tambourine?
A: When you hit the head, with no finger on it, it makes a big, low, boingy, resonate-y sound, like a big floor tom tom. As soon as you apply some pressure, that sound becomes a thud, like a bass drum. To get a pop, you press the head hard (with your thumb). You can get as many different pitches as you want, depending on how strong your thumb is.
Q: Your tambourine technique continues to evolve, even after 15-plus years. Whats next?
A: I use a Regal Tip Blastick that I doctor up for the way I need it. Im going to try to incorporate making little miniature mallet ends on it, where I can flip it over and have, like, mallets on it. I havent done it yet, but theyll be coming soon. I like little soft rubber balls like little girls use for playing jacks. I havent quite figured out how to fasten it yet (to the stick). Just going to have to experiment.
Q: Can you give us an example of the way you guys are collaborating on songwriting?
A: Most of (the new songs) have come from us just sitting around and throwing out ideas. Theres a new one were doing now, it happened when we had the last big blizzard (spring 2003). Tommy was up here. Tommy had this chord progression, this real nice, melancholy-sounding progression, with a lot of little changes. Real moody. Hes playing it for us, and John is in the kitchen getting his coffee. Next thing you know, he (Magnie) takes out his notebook of lyrics, and he just starts singing these words hes got. Its beautiful. ... Its called "Cry, Cry."
Q: Who has the best sno-ball?
A: My favorite sno-ball stand was Hansens Sno-Bltz on Tchoupitoulas (in New Orleans). The Jr. Atomic is the one I used to get all the time. I forget what was in it. It was a bunch of different flavors. But Bubblegum that was my favorite.
(Editor's note: A sno-ball is New Orleans vernacular for a snow cone. The Hansen's variety is extremely finely shaved (not crushed), flavored ice served in a cup. A Jr. Atomic is flavored with crushed pineapple, crushed cherry, cream and marshmallow syrup among other things.)
Article by Richard Russell; © 2004 Richard E. Russell.
Photo credits: Amedée portrait by Yiannis Samaras, courtesy of Back Porch Records. Elroy band photo is courtesy of Tommy Malone. Other photo credits are listed with the photo when known.