Interview: The Bayou Bros
Photos courtesy of Elmo Stephens
The Bayou Bros are Elmo Stephens and Phenix Crowley, DJs and producers from Baton Rouge, Lousiana. They're best known for a string of cult classic 12"s released via their own Reach Records, as well as a pair of compilations highlighting the broader Louisiana breaks scene via Of The Mind Recordings. This interview took place over a video call - Elmo joining from around Baton Rouge, Phenix from Central Florida - late this past November.
Those interested in purchasing original and unplayed Bayou Bros records direct from the source are encouraged to reach out to Elmo via email: email@example.com.
Elmo had mentioned this’ll be your first interview - why don’t y’all start with quick introductions?
Elmo Stephens: I’m Elmo, half of the Bayou Brothers, Reach Records, and I’ve been fortunate to meet Phenix here, get to know him, make some really cool tracks, and just experience music together.
Phenix Crowley: Definitely have to agree with you on that. I’m Walter Phenix Crowley Jr., I lived in Florida ‘til I was like 12 then moved to Michigan. I came of age right around the electro scene that was going on up there - the hip-hop scene, the break dance scene, into the late ‘80s when club music started hittin’. I moved to Louisiana and heard a bunch of the music down there, kind of a freestyle mixed with Florida breaks. Elmo was a DJ, I was a DJ, and we met through mutual… actually a cousin of mine, he was making music at the time. A lot of the music that we were playing, we were trying to play something better. A little bit harder, kind of like Front 242 compared to Depeche Mode, if you know what I mean. I had all these influences, and Elmo was playing a harder-edged electro that I was into. He had a lot of the soft sounds, the melody kind of shit that I got into. Basically, we started playing clubs, to the point that our stuff was harder-edged compared to Florida breaks, so we combined our love for that stuff - we started DJing together, got in the studio together, had a little hiatus, got back together again, and started sayin’ “let’s take a chance at making a record.” I know I jumped the shark right there by telling you about who I am, but I figured I’d just tell you about the journey to what became the Bayou Brothers.
Elmo: You did better than I did, man [laughs].
Phenix: I hadn’t thought about it in a long time because we don’t make music much these days. Together anyways, but on the side - I think Elmo’s started making music with his son.
Elmo: He actually came to me less than a year ago and said hey, I want to make a track. So I made a track with him, that was the first thing I had done in a very long time. I know Phenix had done some stuff after we stopped writing, he’s got some really good stuff he did.
What type of music did your son want to make? What’s he into?
Elmo: Man, he’s all over. He likes a little bit of the drum and bass style, but we made some downtempo, kind of electronic. Real funky stuff, I could send you the link for it later. This was a new experience - me and Phenix always used MPC2000s and keyboards, right? We still have all that, but it was having issues, so we got an MPC on software. Same programs, but this was all through the computer. All the stuff we did for the Bayou Brothers was MIDI-based, sample-based, that’s how we wrote.
Y’all always had more of an acid influence compared to the trancier Florida sound.
Phenix: There was a lot of the old club music that eventually ended up into the Perfecto label, people got into the kind of progressive trance. But the state of Louisiana, the way the breaks worked was: there was really no breaks in New Orleans, they didn’t like breaks; a couple of clubs, you could hear some breaks, but it was all progressive, drum and bass, jungle, lounge music. The Lafayette crew did more what we called “girly breaks,” it was breakbeats with a lot of girl samples in it - a lot of hooks, a lot of build-ups with snares and all that. The same thing happened here in Florida, where if you look at the lower part of the state the people making breaks are completely different from the West Palm [Beach] breaks, which is like Dynamix. Funk Lab, they had the Tampa, Sarasota area. You had the Rabbit in the Moon, Hardkiss sort of influence in that area, also. Florida was always the breaks place, except the West Coast, which me and Elmo got into a lot. West Coast was like Symbiosis, Hardkiss.
Baton Rouge really didn’t have anything but a couple groups that were kinda like that, so when me and Elmo decided to do what we did, we played more hard electro, which reflected into the music we made together. When we shopped that around, people were like “Aaah! What’s that shit, man?” We shopped Swamp Beats around a bunch and nobody wanted to buy it. We wanted to be an independent company, which Elmo founded - Reach Records - so we said fuck it, we’re gonna do it on our own. It was a struggle to get that record out there, took us probably about a year to get into distribution. Funny story, DJ Icey and Omar Santana was playin’ at a party at the Riverboat Hallelujah, and I went there and passed out a couple of Swamp Beats records. I gave one to Icey and one to Omar Santana, and it was two days later in the studio, writing “Secret,” and Icey called saying “this is my distribution company, I want to buy ‘em all.” So we have DJ Icey to thank, when I thought it was Omar Santana that would like it. Dark Side of the Shroom was the stuff he was comin’ out with back then, and that shit was hardcore.
Elmo: I know Vicious Vic had a copy too, and he was playin’ all over the world. He actually called one night from Tokyo and said that “Swamp Beats” was the song of the night. Once we got it out and started handing ‘em out, we gave away more than we sold at first [laughs]. It finally paid off, as far as gettin’ our peers to see what we was doin’.
Phenix: It just clicked in my head - I remember during those times, it was the raves going on in New Orleans, you had a bunch of parties going on in Lafayette, and there was a couple in Baton Rouge. Me and Elmo eventually decided to do our own clubs - we were playing at all the after hours, so we had a good presence in the South. And we played Club KLSU several times - I remember listening to some of my first dance music when I moved to Louisiana on Club KLSU, so that was cool to do. But we built our own scene up around the music that we liked, and eventually all the DJs that we were playin’ with started throwing a big party called Undiscovered Country. That was a party out in the middle of nowhere, everybody camping - I won’t say Woodstock, but everybody just chillin’, having good times, cooking, and lots of music for at least 24 hours. We had to create our own scene in Louisiana, but we sold records - lot to Spain, Florida was a big sell. That was all we strived for, back then; as long as we could pay for the next record to get pressed, that’s all the money we needed.
How would you describe the audience that you ended up finding?
Phenix: You gotta look at it almost like if you’re looking at a music wave - this might sound a little creepy, but all the music waves are on different frequencies. They’re all on different lines, so when you look at all these people that are listening to this music, as long as you can take a little bit of everything and warp into your own little song, everybody loves it. They’ve heard that shit before, it’s just been written a little different. So our core audience was some people that like to dance hard, some people who like to chill - it was all over the place.
Had y’all made much music individually prior to working together?
Phenix: When I first met Elmo, we were just DJs. My cousin calls me up like “hey man, this DJ friend of mine is over here, you might want to check him out.” Actually, him and Elmo were datin’ best friends, something like that. So I end up coming straight over, next thing you know I walk into Elmo’s bedroom and he’s got this old-ass Roland S-50 with a fuckin’ floppy disc [laughs]. I was like “holy shit man, this dude is doin’ it.” Elmo had the equipment before I did, but I definitely had a thing for drums when I was a kid.
Elmo: To be honest with you, whenever I met him I was fresh into it. I had literally just got that keyboard, hadn’t actually put anything out or made a cognitive song, really. I wanted to hear something a little different, I enjoyed listenin’ to the music so much that I wanted to get in there and make it, you know?
What about growing up? What were you listening to before breaks came around?
Phenix: My family were old heads, so it was a lot of class rock and roll, Pink Floyd, that kind of influence. Then when I moved to Michigan, I went to a couple different scenes - I went to this one place called The Basement, and that’s where I first heard Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, Depeche Mode, Front 242. It was the whole goth, electro, nasty raunchy breaks. That’s where I really got into the hard electronic vibe of it, and then when I came to Louisiana it was softer, more rhythms. Which actually eventually led to Elmo finding one of the first Hybrid records, “Finished Symphony,” that was our introduction to progressive breaks. But other than that, I literally went from hippy shit to industrial, to club breaks, basically. That’s how my journey went.
Elmo: Hybrid was one of the ones that still had that raw grit, but it was so refined that you could add a nice vocal to it… it was a very good balance, he did it well. He changed a lot of stuff. But man, I had a big journey. First thing I ever remember listening to would be probably Elvis, to be honest with you [laughs]. ZZ Top. Some old rap, and then when it got gangster-fied I didn’t fool with that, so went into the early dance scene. Freestyle, electro kind of. Then I started DJing around that era.
Were you a dancer at all?
Elmo: I would get out there and move a little bit [laughs]. I don’t know how good it was, but I would get out there and have fun. But it was definitely, whenever I experienced the first loud PA system with the subs and everything, it definitely made me think differently.
Phenix: We were both addicted to bass, and we said we were gonna drop those fuckin’ beats, that’s for sure. I remember one time we were at the State Palace, and it was the Moonshine Over America tour, Überzone came out and the bass went [imitates bass slide] while the beats were still kickin’. Next think you know the ground was shaking, everybody went crazy. It shook the entire Palace - I tell you what, we went straight home from that party and we locked ourselves in the studio for two days.
How did people like you to mix back then? Were you scratching much, or was it long blends?
Phenix: Mine are long, that was another thing that helped us writing music - we were DJs first, so we knew that if you were gonna blend it to this long, or that long, you’re gonna need to give yourself that much more space as an intro. At the time, I think we were callin’ it “journey blends” or something - back then, electro songs were kind of minimalistic, so if you took two and blended ‘em together you made one badass little song.
Elmo: Yeah, some of the little dubs would be 3-4 minutes long, and you’d have a nice, long 8-minute track, mix the whole thing, and drop another one on there. We definitely both liked the really smooth blend, we’d basically have two records goin’ the whole time. It reminded me of when we were in Florida playin’ on four turntables. That was fun, man - he had two turntables and I had two, we didn’t rehearse, didn’t practice, just cut up and had fun. As far as scratchin’ and stuff, we both could. We did it very tastefully, if you will, not trying to get out there and do all that. It was normally when someone would ask you to do it. It was more about the mixing and blending, seein’ how smooth you could be without anybody noticing.
Looking at some of the B-side artwork from the singles, there’s a pretty strong psychedelic influence alongside the alien imagery. Was that coming from any particular source?
Elmo: All the artwork for Reach was actually done by Phenix - the aliens by the tree, that was done by him.
Phenix: [laughs] I’ve seen my own UFOs throughout the years, I’ve seen some pretty creepy stuff out there flyin’ around in the sky, so I was definitely like “there’s somethin’ to it.” Matter of fact, we were in the studio writing “Swamp Beats,” and we were tryin’ to come up with a sample for the song. We were outside looking up at the sky, and the words came out: “you ever wondered how many stars out there actually have life?” We were looking at each other, like “we need to put that on the record!” So that ended up on the record - the “Swamp Beats” Life remix is the one that everybody liked the most, that we sold out of. There was an original, the Life remix, and then we repressed it with the Anatopic Forms remix. That one, we actually pressed on a green-colored vinyl. We did 500 colors as an exclusive, and we did 500 black. But the green marble is badass, I don’t have my flight case around or I’d show you one.
Speaking of distribution, I get how stuff from Florida might have made its way over, but how were you finding out about the West Coast stuff given how limited some of these runs were?
Elmo: Back then, you had a record store in Lafayette, one in New Orleans. Those were the good ones, but I would get on the phone two, three hours a week calling California, New York, Florida, Chicago. You’d have people that you knew and you’d just sit there on the phone and listen - “Yeah, send me that one. Yeah, send me that one. Send me two of that one!” They’d put the headphones right there on the thing and you’d listen to the record. Everybody that was really into it had their stores across the United States, and they would call. They’d have stacks set aside, “I’ve been waitin’ on you - listen to this, listen to this” [laughs].
Phenix: Also back in the day, when you’d get your record pack - I used to order from Simply Jeff, in California. We’d get these packages in, and there would be flyers for all these badass parties. Promos and shit, like “wow, look at what’s goin’ on over there!” We knew we could call here, call there, and get that secret stash, because we were doing the legwork. I remember bringing this club track back from Texas, “Suzie Q” or one of them songs, I can’t remember. I played in New Orleans one time, everybody went wild. I had five in my flight case, because I knew these people were gonna want these things. I sold ‘em for $25 a pop back then [laughs].
Elmo: If something was really good, we’d buy all of ‘em. The Symbiosis one, we found that and I was like “Holy cow, do you have any more of this guy?” The old Mad Mike, Final Frontier. I never went digital, I still got all my records that I had. They got it made nowadays - when we was at the Winter Music Conference, they were just coming out with the digital-coded records. We used to have to lug crates of records - you used to have to worry about ‘em in the car, you couldn’t let ‘em get hot, some idiot bumps the turntable and you scratch ‘em.
Any type of breaks discussion seems to end up at the Winter Music Conference - what was that, exactly?
Elmo: How many years did we go?
Phenix: 2000, 2002… I think we skipped 2004, I know we went in 2005. That was when the Winter Music Conference pretty much ended, because at the time there was all kinds of crap going on with the war. So a lot of other countries were not buying vinyl at the time, we even got vinyl shipped back from Spain after 9/11 and all that shit happened.
But WMC was basically the beginning of that whole scene, where everybody was making their own records and helpin’ each other. Back when we would do some of these parties, they were record release parties. Each one of our events was a record release party. So with all of our friends, we started sayin’ “hey, make a record with us.” We would split the cost, split the record, and promote whenever we came out with a record with different artists. We were trying to promote Louisiana artists, we came out with the Louisiana Artists EP. We had pressed a lot of solo tracks, DJ Flyhead - he was the one who was always inviting us to KLSU, so we invited him in on it.
Phenix: I’m not gonna lie, this is actually creepy that you’re asking me this because I was sitting around earlier thinking about a buddy of mine, Techno Tim, that passed away a couple of years ago. He got into a bad wreck on the Pontchartrain. I was thinkin’ back and all of a sudden it popped into my head - he had named me Phenix because I would always play this Hardkiss song, God Within “The Phoenix,” down in the clubs. It would always freak everybody out and chase ‘em off the floor, but it was actually a badass song. But he eventually named me Phenix, and he was kinda my mentor during those times. So it’s kinda crazy that you asked me that, because I just thought about him earlier. That’s definitely a sign from my boy up there. Thanks for asking that man, that’s some cool shit.
He was a good dude, man, he used to throw a lot of parties. He would book us, and then we would book him as a return favor. A lot of the stuff that we had going on, I don’t know if you know the site but it’s ravers.org, that was our way of promoting back then. Before that, it was flyers - we were drawing our own flyers and taking them to Kinko’s to print out 500. We’d go and pass them out, put them on windshields to try and get parties goin’.
How did y’all end up linking up with Freaky Chakra?
Elmo: We actually got hooked up with him, that’s when the studio was in Baker. He came from New Orleans to Baker to write, but we would go hang out with him in New Orleans a good bit. We got introduced somehow through you, Phenix. We was sayin’ we was gonna meet him, Phenix said “Hey, we’re gonna meet with Freaky Chakra,” but we had just sampled something from him [laughs]. But he had written it at 33, and it was a slower track. We put it on 45 and sampled a little piece. We were about to meet him and I said “Oh, good lord” because we didn’t get clearance back then. But we met him and we played it for him, but he could not hear it at all. He was so excited that we did use it, but he had never heard his track like that before.
Phenix: We actually went and played a bunch of music with him and a bunch of other people - DJ Spice and a couple of other guys. We hung out there, we called it the Daum Shelter because you had to climb down these stairs like you were in a submarine. It was all keyboards, six or seven of us playing instruments. We don’t have any recordings from that, I wish we would’ve. That’s the kind of stuff it was with Freaky Chakra, we did one record with him. One of the remixes on there is called the “Baby Seat Blow Out” mix because he had a flat tire on the way [laughs]. When you get together, musical is the universal language for sure, but they don’t call him Freaky Chakra for nothin’. He’s a pretty funny dude, he fit right in in New Orleans.
I remember gettin’ a tape out of a magazine, it was Urb magazine or something, and I sent away for a free tape. It was an Astralwerks promo tape, and I remember it was Freaky Chakra’s “Aura” somethin’, I can’t remember the rest of the name. That song was on that shit, so I had been vibin’ with Freaky Chakra for a long time. It’s been a wild ride, man. I haven’t even thought about it in a long time.
Elmo: I know, I’m glad Corrigan reached out and made us think about this, go down memory lane, man. Just listening to music now, the technology - thinking about having to call back and listen to records over the phone, the things you actually had to do to do what we did… it’s pretty crazy. And where we come from, with the heavy bass - I first started spinnin’ on “boot the booty, ain’t nothin’ but tutti frutti, get on the floor if you got booty,” all that type stuff. He came in with the hardcore electro and I fell in love with that. It spun into its own little thing, its own little journey for sure.
What was the reason for moving away from the Bayou Brothers project?
Elmo: I know personally, unfortunately for me it became convoluted with other things than music, so I personally had to slow down and step back a little bit. I had to get my life in better order with my Lord and savior Jesus Christ, so that was a slowin’ down factor. But you had a lot of stuff goin’ on at that time as well, they was crackin’ down and wanting to arrest people if you used the word “rave,” all kinds of crazy stuff. The scene was changing bigtime, it was wild back then. But Phenix continued to write, he’s got some very good stuff out.
Phenix: Elmo had priorities in life, which, to be blunt, he had to raise some babies into great people. Including his son, who’s in the Armed Forces today. That’s a man right there. Music’s always gonna be there for you no matter what - I’m not gonna lie, I stepped away from it and came back to it. But in the end, music consumes you if you’re like us.