New Orleans-based band Cafe Au Lait sees music in a philosophical light. While music provides a good time, it can also do something. That something goes beyond powerful lyrics by approaching melody and rhythm as vehicles of change. “We want to manipulate the space-time continuum,” drummer Anthony Knighton says. “It’s easy to lose two hours with us.”
On the surface, Cafe Au Lait evokes a feel-good, dance happy sound that blends soul, R&B, rock and jazz in curious and exciting ways. “We want to make the audience move,” guitarist Andrew Davis explains. But underneath all of that flash – and it’s exciting flash, no doubt – exists something more profound. What the band aims to provide is a cathartic moment, one that emphasizes a spectrum of emotions and transforms audiences. It’s a lofty goal for a local band, but one they seem more than capable of achieving. “Oh, we’re going to pull it out you,” Knighton chuckles.
Cafe Au Lait has a long history, replete with different versions and band members than what audiences see today. Knighton and bassist Lawrence Ussin have known each other since their elementary school days. After listening to the Funk Brothers’ Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Knighton realized they could add to that musical conversation. “I want to be Louisiana’s Barry Gordy,” he laughs. Knighton started the band Mirage with his friend, vocalist Michael Vincent Liuzza. Ussin later joined and together they experimented with an “indie-pop-rock” sound before eventually seguing into a jazz heavy sound.
With college came an expanded musical knowledge, as well as new musicians to continue influencing their sound. Knighton and Ussin attended Southern University, where they met Davis. The pair invited Davis to play guitar on a recording session, and together they formed a band called Category Six. Life changes and different responsibilities stilted any progress the band might have made, though.
For the past five years, Cafe Au Lait has existed in its current form. Knighton, Ussin and Davis form the backbone of the band, a strong foundation against which Liuzza and other collaborators can lend their talents. The music changes with each show because the core three will ask different musicians to sit in on gigs. And at times they might not even have to ask. Musicians who attend their show often want to jump in and be a part of the fun.
Whether they seek it out or whether it finds them, the three thrive on collaboration. Everyone who lends their talents to Cafe Au Lait becomes a part of the band’s family for life. “This is family. It’s blood in and blood out,” Knighton says.
When it comes to writing music, there is no one set script the members follow. At times, they work from the idea that they’re crafting a universal soundtrack to life. “Our songs range from friends to divorce to death,” Knighton says. Then there are moments when the sheer challenge of accomplishing something difficult becomes the motivation. Davis recalls, “Someone told me, ‘You can’t write a song about a Hawaiian pirate,’ and I said, ‘Watch me!’”
No matter the subject, Knighton, Ussin, and Davis all share a vision for their music. They see the possibility that music connects people to some hidden or unacknowledged part of themselves, and therein lies their philosophical approach to writing and playing.
“We’re encouraging free thinking and accountability,” Knighton says. After the BP Oil Spill, the band wrote “Don’t Tread on Me,” which reflected their frustrations regarding the event. “We see something that doesn’t make sense and we play through it.”
Davis says, “Blues, jazz, and all of those genres come from the heart. It’s got to be felt for it to come across right.” That feeling must first originate with the band members. Shortly before a gig, Davis was having a bad day that he simply couldn’t shake. The heightened negative emotions he felt translated to a completely raw and self-described “vicious” take on the classic song “Stormy Monday.” “I felt good afterwards,” he laughs. “Music is a way to get something out.”
Their self-aware approach to music lends it a power that must be experienced to be believed. That power attracted an international booker, who invited Cafe Au Lait to perform in Haiti at the 2014 Destination Aquin International Jazz and Heritage Festival, which showcases music from regions around the world. “We thought he was fooling us at first,” Lawrence explains. Lo and behold, Lawrence received a call two weeks later. “The guy said, ‘Hey, get your passports together because the people from Haiti want to get you set up.’”
Cafe Au Lait’s popularity in Haiti reinforced what the band members already knew: They were doing something special. “The people didn’t speak English, but ‘Wooooo!’ is the same in every language,” Davis chuckles. Cafe Au Lait’s genre-blurring music, their energy on stage, and their French name sparked something in the crowd. Ussin adds, “People dug what we were doing,” Knighton says. “We were walking around the festival and people were calling out our names, ‘Hey, Cafe Au Lait!’” It’s a recognition they haven’t fully attained back in Louisiana but, if Haiti is any indication, this band is destined for big things. They’ve even been invited back to perform at the 2015 Destination Aquin Festival.
The band currently splits their time between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, playing gigs and, as David explains, “spreading the love of music and the light of knowledge to anyone willing to listen.” Their aspirations for the future are as big as their approach to music. “Gigging is cool because we have to make a living, but we like to put events together. Eventually we’ll rent out the Super Dome with full production,” he says with a huge, knowing smile.
For more information, visit Cafe Au Lait’s Facebook page.