By Mark Guarino
Self-made performers don’t get much more original than a mischief-maker and inventor named Mr. Quintron and his partner, Miss Pussycat. Over the past eight years and seven albums, the New Orleans duo built a growing underground following based solely on their live shows — wild dance parties that incorporate organ-fueled disco, maracas, a homemade drum machine called the Drum Buddy and puppets. The funhouse excess is nothing George Clinton or the Flaming Lips would find unusual. Like them, Quintron believes the first and foremost purpose of a live performance is having a good time.
“We’re not a band. We never have band practice. We never sit down to talk about it. We work everything out on tour,” said Quintron, whose real name is Jay Poggi. “My music totally depends on the energy of the audience. It would be flat without that.”
Quintron arrived in New Orleans following wife Miss Pussycat, a puppeteer, seamstress and club owner named Panacea Theriac. They met in 1995 when Quintron played her club while on tour as a one-man band. A St. Louis native, he had been living in Chicago for six years, where he drummed in the indie rock band Math, played music for Theatre Oobleck and operated the Milk of Burgundy, an underground club he ran out of his Wicker Park apartment building. Once the neighborhood started gentrifying and Math broke up, Quintron saw the writing on the wall and moved to New Orleans — after he and Pussycat married in Vegas along the way.
The difference between both cities became apparent from the start when he got a job playing keyboards in strip clubs and later worked neighborhood lounges where he was “the music guy in the corner behind the plant.” “I just felt more necessary,” he said. “My playing was more functional than something to be thought about or judged and observed. It had an actual place in parties. It became my job.”
Quintron’s evolution into a high energy lounge lizard was solitary: he was too absurdist for the indie rock hipsters, too ironic for the city’s frat party bands like Cowboy Mouth and he didn’t feel he had much in common with the serious funk and jazz players found in residence in almost every corner bar.
Eventually, he found solace in one of the most eccentric characters ever to come out of New Orleans: Ernie K-Doe. The path to understanding what Quintron and Miss Pussycat do leads directly to K-Doe, a one-hit wonder whose minor claim to fame developed into a kind of life-long performance art. K-Doe sang in gospel and R&B groups in the ‘50s but scored his only hit, “Mother-In-Law,” in 1961. As soul music evolved into lush production numbers with orchestras and away from the catchy, singalong style that was popularized in New Orleans, K-Doe shrank into obscurity. He worked smaller gigs, battled an alcohol problem and found work as a DJ on the local community radio station. His resurgence came in the mid-‘90s when he married, got sober and opened up the Mother-In-Law Lounge, a small club he designed as a shrine to him and his music. The jukebox was stocked with only his songs, a life-size portrait that showed him as an emperor of the world, hung over the dance floor and merchandise bearing his image, from silk roses to boxer shorts, was for sale at the door.
Refashioned to his new audience in a extravagant wardrobe and proclamations as a living legend, K-Doe was a fusion of James Brown and Sun Ra — a manic and extravagant entertainer who seemed to operate in his own orbit. To Quintron, he made immediate sense.
“He matched my attitude and proved I wasn’t wrong. If this guy had to say ‘(expletive) everyone else’ … and that success is not based on how much praise you get but is all about the audience, all about the moment — that proved to me I was right,” he said. “He was referred to as insane a lot but it really wasn’t true. He called every record a hit record. That was his message. He wasn’t just an egomaniac, he was a religious leader and preacher of self-empowerment, in believing in yourself and drawing that spiritual power that comes from believing in yourself.”
Quintron joined K-Doe’s band and played with him a week before K-Doe died, in 2001 at age 65 of cirrhosis. Antoinette, K-Doe’s wife who still operates the bar, gave Quintron her late husband’s Fender Rhodes organ which she had been using as a kitchen table. Quintron dedicated a song (“Teenage Antoinette”) to her on his new album, “Are You Ready For an Organ Solo?” (31G Records/Rhinestone).
Since then, Quintron, who is 29, and Miss Pussycat have built a life in pure K-Doe fashion. Their two-story, double shotgun house in the city’s Ninth Ward sometimes doubles as the Spellcaster Lodge, a house club known for hosting touring underground acts that don’t get booked in the local rock clubs because, Quintron says, “New Orleans is so clueless about so much stuff.” “Peaches and Andre Williams couldn’t get a show anywhere else but our house.” The homegrown atmosphere is important, Quintron says, “because it’s the best way to see music” and besides, his “greatest talent is throwing parties.” During Mardi Gras season, the pair can also be seen around town, playing music on the back of a pick-up truck for what they call “Drive-Bys.”
Quintron’s music — a combination of catchy melodies, singsong lyrics, space effects, fire-stoked organ and disco beats — has lately been enhanced by the Drum Buddy, a light-activated analog drum machine he invented that’s played like a synthesizer. He sells them for $999.99 on a website and through a low budget infomercial he filmed that’s aired on public access television in New Orleans, Chicago, New York and Germany. Quintron, who apprenticed with his father, an electrical engineer, builds the machines by hand. Forty-four have sold, and for reasons he can’t pinpoint, the most orders have come from bands and gearheads from Chicago. The appeal, he says, is that you play it “with your whole body and mind like it’s a living thing.” “There are no keys or notes. It won’t do the same thing every time. It’s a really, really, really chaotic element I needed to hear,” he said.
So far, Quintron and Miss Pussycat are playing to an audience — the gay disco crowd, indie rock hipsters, theatre types — that is anything but predictable. The diversity of faces is something that happened naturally, he said. “We found each other, I guess. We’re not locked into any genre. It’s not like ‘we are a garage rock band and if you like the White Stripes, you’ll like us.’ I think it’s better to create your own thing than to have a genre specific audience. Eventually they’ll be fickle … and that trend will be over.”