Russell Batiste: Play It Like You Mean It

russell batiste

Russell Batiste doesn’t want you to call him a drummer. “I’m more of a musician than I am a drummer,” says the 43-year-old Funky Meters percussionist.

These days, Batiste is doing his best to live up to that claim. The New Orleans native wrote two of the tracks on his latest release, a live album by Porter Batiste Stoltz titled Moodoo. The disc teams Batiste with fellow Funky Meters George Porter Jr. and Brian Stoltz. Added to the lineup is Phish keyboardist Page McConnell, forming an eclectic mix that leads to eccentric sets.

“We go from playing Funky Meters stuff to Pink Floyd to Fats Domino,” Batiste says. “It’s synergized music from New Orleans, man. Everything we do has a New Orleans flavor.”

New Orleans flavor is something Batiste knows well. Growing up in a family embedded in the city’s funk tradition — his father is David Batiste of David Batiste And The Gladiators — Batiste was practically born with Big Easy rhythm flowing through his veins. “I came out of my mother’s womb playing the drums,” he chuckles. “The earliest I can remember, I had sticks in my hand.”

It didn’t take long for him to put those sticks to use, either. Batiste was playing full songs by the time he was three, and landed his first professional gig when he was 12. He picked up the sax in fifth grade, studied music theory in college, and now works to mesh all those forces into a singular sound. “I try not to sound like anyone else,” he says. “There are great drummers in New Orleans, and in order to stand out, you have to be different.”

Veering from the norm is where Batiste seems most comfortable. Ask him about his thoughts on soloing, for example, and he’ll tell you he’s just not into that sort of thing anymore. Ask him what kind of drums he prefers, and he’ll point out how he played a kit he’d picked up at JCPenney on two of his albums.

“There’s no particular drum name or brand that’s going to make you sound better or worse than what you have on the inside. Anybody can beat a drum; anybody can have name-brand stuff. But not anybody can play music and make you feel what they’re feeling,” he says.

“No matter who you are or how many fills you can nail, if you can’t play a simple beat that makes somebody in the club swing their head from side to side, you’re a drummer — not a musician.”

And for Russell Batiste, being a musician is what it’s all about. Because in the end, he believes, a player’s legacy isn’t about his chops. “There’s nothing I can play that no one else can’t play. One thing no one else can do, though, is have my attitude or my approach to music. That’s something nobody’s ever going to be able to figure out. Even I haven’t fully figured it out,” he laughs.