Food Drink

There's This Little Bar Down in New Orleans... Interview With Chris Hannah

Photo of Arnaud's from Arnaud's Restaurant.com.

Bartender Chris Hannah is an old soul who's perfectly suited for Arnaud's French 75.

When you go to New Orleans, you get drunk. Tourists tend to treat the French Quarter like a Las Vegas of the South. I lived in Baton Rouge for three years, and visited New Orleans many times. It was probably six months before I realized there is more to NOLA than drinking. But hey, the drinking is excellent!

That’s part of the problem -- everybody who has ever been will excitedly impose upon you the story of the greatest night of their lives there and demand you pop in to the bar where it all began so you, too, can have the misadventure of a lifetime. Or drink the world’s original Sazerac recipe. Or sit where Tennessee Williams sat. Or drink out of a plastic grenade that is bigger than your head. Or meet a famous stripper.

I have a dear friend, born and raised in Baton Rouge, who has been tending bars in the French Quarter for more than a decade. In all that time, she has only given me one recommendation for a bar that wasn’t the one behind which she was serving. That bar is French 75, the charming sidecar attached to Arnaud’s, on Bienville between Dauphine and Bourbon. It’s technically just half a block from the chaos, but once you’ve stepped inside, you may as well be a thousand miles away and a hundred years in the past.

The head bartender there is Chris Hannah, by all accounts the nicest famous bartender alive. He first acquired an esteemed reputation among locals -- no easy feat in the French Quarter, where you can always just walk ten paces to some other bar. He’s been there since 2004, earning local love as a leader in his cocktail community when he didn'tt ditch out of the city after Hurricane Katrina. Hannah became part of the Prohibition era cocktail revolution that launched French 75 to the top of every “best bar in America” list from year to year, and Hannah’s charming innovations have garnered constant attention from Tales of the Cocktail. He was at French 75 before he got famous, and he’ll likely be there long after.

Why would you leave a place that once gifted you the chance to serve cocktails to Hunter S. Thompson just a month before he died? Why would you leave a place with the world’s greatest and most secretive house-blended bloody mary mix? I dream about that bloody mary, sometimes. It’s not just the horseradish; it’s not just the right texture of tomato juice. Does it have some kind of shrimp juice in it, or Guinness? Is it some quality of the bathtub it’s made in, like the virtues of a cast iron skillet in cooking? Maddeningly, Hannah will never give up the secret recipe.

Over the years, I’ve had many pleasant chats with Hannah about the beauty of the bar culture at French 75, what makes him tick, this and that. Hannah, impeccably hospitable even at a distance, was happy to have another conversation for the readers at PopMatters.

Baltimore and New Orleans are both seafood-heavy cultures (and of course the town of Duck, North Carolina). I know your dad was in the Navy. What else draws you to cities on the water?

I guess I’ve developed a sense that no place is more special then where water meets land, and accessing it has always been important. That has been a running joke inside myself because I can do nothing with the Mississippi River. Port cities have a tendency to be very interesting places and usually attract a vast mix of people, which in turn creates many cultures in one area. It’s why New York has such a great history, and same for New Orleans.

Yes, water has always been a pretty important part of my life. Maybe I associate the edge of water and land with the ability to leave more freely and easily? Everything is behind you when you’re at the edge of the water and land; it’s special.

What’s the allure of travel bartending? If you had to leave New Orleans for another American city, which one would it be?

For me the allure of travel bartending is reminiscent of our jazz musicians here in New Orleans. I often loved chatting with the members of my restaurant’s jazz trio about their travels, showing the world New Orleans music and representing our town. So whenever I get on a plane to another country I feel like I’m close to doing what Satchmo did back then. I have been very lucky to have bartended New Orleans Nights in several countries, and I love representing NOLA’s cocktail history.

I often contemplate moving to Charleston; it’s the only other American City I think I’d move to. After these two options, it’s gonna have to be an island… flower shirt and straw hat every day.

What did you learn from working in kitchens for eight years?

What helped place my bar up at the top was what I learned in the kitchen. Ten years ago a lot of ingredients needed in classic cocktails weren’t available, so I made them. I’ve made my own Orgeat, Falernum, Allspice Dram, Crème De Mure and many other syrups and ingredients in the French 75 Bar, and all for over a decade now.

My experience in the kitchen making soups and sauces helped this work to be second nature. Same can be said for cocktail creations, knowing what flavors work together because of what I cooked in the kitchen.

Work ethic and sense of urgency have a big role in working a busy bar as well, and this I attribute to the kitchen. I attribute all of the French 75 Bar’s success to the kitchen. There are codes for chefs and one of them is to always teach someone how to make something, don’t withhold ingredients and recipes; you’re always teaching.

What’s the difference between a bartender who has mixology training and one who doesn’t? Has your lack of formal credentials in this area cost you anything, or has it been a kind of advantage?

For me, an interesting difference between a bartender who has mixology training and one who doesn’t is that the one who doesn’t more often than not will actually be a better bartender. I appreciate the mixology training and people who are striving for it to educate themselves and others. But it always ruins it for me when young bartenders use knowledge for something other than their cocktail-making arsenal, and instead to selfishly make themselves look good, forgetting the hospitality part altogether.

I think for me my advantage has always been wanting to bartend for that whole hospitality bit, before I ever realized it could put me in a newspaper or a magazine. I always ask myself, when bartending isn’t pretty anymore, who’s going to keep bartending?

How does publicity impact what you do? Does recognition from James Beard or Tales of the Cocktail make you feel pressured, or grateful?

Sometimes it affects me because I do feel like I need to keep making drinks when I really just hope classics and house staples are enough. I’m tired. I rent out the other side of my house and that’s a second job, and then working New Orleans’ seasons and conventions has me spent. Next thing you know, it’s my 30th year there.

I'm grateful to be on any list that these people write up. It makes me think I’m actually doing a good job to be on these top lists of bars where my immediate peers are working, because I know how amazing they really are. Then you go to the James Beard Awards and see how impressive a group of people you’re amongst actually is. It definitely does remind me that, at the bar, we can’t rest on our laurels and keep making the same drinks. We need to continue to create and explore. But I’d be lying if I told you I can’t wait to be the age when it’s OK for me to just make five drinks and have the guests happy they came for those, just those five.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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