Stretching Out Through Restraint: Next Is Now for Eric Krasno and Soulive
Surf over to the Soulive homepage. While you’re over there, take note of the innovative interface and excellent design work, but don’t stop there. Consider the following nuance: their tour schedule is listed under Events. Not shows. Not gigs. Not concerts. Events.
Why make such a distinction? Well, take your basic elements of funk guitar, keys and drums. Layer that with a four piece horn section, a soul singer, and a DJ, then let Master of Ceremonies Shuman preside over the whole affair and you’ve got yourself a party that might just make promoters of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus jealous. Hell, if Soulive took to firing an audience member out of a cannon each night, they might even be able to employ the moniker Greatest Show On Earth.’
When I caught up with Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno, the man at center stage of the 21st Century Soul Revue, we discussed his longtime side project, Lettuce, the band’s latest release on Blue Note Records, simply titled Next, and the ghosts who may or may not be lurking about the halls of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
MW: With the recording of Next, Soulive officially added alto saxophonist Sam Kininger to the band. Was there ever any reluctance to add a fourth member?
EK: There was pretty much no thought behind it. We weren’t looking for a fourth member, but Sam was always on our minds. We always wanted to have Sam play with us at whatever chance we could. He’s a busy guy, but we did this one tour with the Dave Matthews Band [in the spring of 2001] and we were like Let’s bring Sam out on the road. It will be fun to have him out with us.’ So we went out on the road and started writing new tunes and he was just a part of that process.
MW: Could you talk a little about the recording process of the new album Next? I am curious to know how it compares to Soulive’s first studio release, Get Down.
EK: With Next we went into the studio and had a week to work whereas Get Down was done in a few hours and it was the first time we had ever played together. But in a weird sort of way, they are probably the two most similar albums in terms of the creative process: we had ideas for stuff, but a lot of it took form while we were in the studio. With Doin’ Something [Soulive’s 2001 release on Blue Note] we had the tunes and we had already performed them live. We just went into the studio and played, but unfortunately I don’t think it had the same energy as a live show. With Next, we spent a week in the studio which is long comparatively to the other records we’ve done, but it would have been nice to even have more time, you know like months. We’d love to have an opportunity like that.
MW: What are your thoughts on the studio versus the live setting?
EK: Our live shows are pretty widely circulated with our fans and we tour a lot. When it comes down to it, that is the band. We are a live band, and we’re developing our studio abilities. Anyone that I meet when I tell them about Soulive, I tell them to see the live show. I think that is the element that has the most impact. I like the CDs too, but I am looking forward to making a live record which I think is going to be our next release.
MW: I could even see a live DVD or something like that.
EK: That would be really nice. We have certain limitations with what Blue Note wants to do, but we’ve actually thought about that in the past. With any record label you have certain limitations, but the fact that they’ve let us be in control as much as they have is great. The ultimate would be for us to have complete control and do whatever we wanted. Then we would put out live shows every couple months, but you got to play by the rules for a little while I guess.
MW: The rappers you brought in to the studio for Next, Talib Kweli, and Black Thought from the Roots, tend to bring either socially or politically charged lyrics to the table. Did you actively look for this style of vocalist?
EK: Definitely. We worked with those guys because we were fans of them already. I listen to Black Thought a lot and I listen to Kweli especially. I really dig what he’s saying. On the Kweli track [Bridges To Bama (Hi-Tek Remix)], he really listened to the track and we communicated about what the track sounded like to me because I wrote the song, and then Hi Tek added his flavor to it. That is what it is all about in hip-hop music. Saying stuff that is positive and insightful at the same time. It doesn’t all have to be political or social, but talking about money or hos or cars is not what we’re into. But at the same time we love hip-hop music so right now things are in a weird state. Luckily there are people like Black Thought and Kweli out there that are keeping it real.
MW: The new record and current tour shows Soulive is willing to cross any and every boundary. Why bother though? You have this formula a jazz organ trio that works really well, why change it?
EK: One of the main reasons is to keep it fresh for ourselves. To be honest, I don’t listen to other organ trios. I wasn’t really a huge Jimmy Smith fan. I mean, I like Jimmy Smith, nothing against him, I listen to Grant Green too, but I grew up listening to funk music. The reason we started as an organ trio is total circumstance. When we started, the concept was just forming. Now the concept is changing because we are adding in everything we dig and listen to.
MW: Have you ever considered taking on the role of backing band? Like the Meters with Paul McCartney, but maybe more in the live hip-hop or R&B arena.
EK: Actually we’re doing that right now. We’re backing up N’Dambi for a set during the tour right now. We also have Shuman up on stage with us and we do some stuff with him. We’re definitely open to something like that.
MW: The studio discs over the last couple years have featured guest musicians and now you guys are out there touring with a bunch of guest musicians. Did you guys feel limited with what you could do as a trio?
EK: We didn’t have the resources before to bring any more people on the road. We didn’t even have resources to bring ourselves, but we did it anyway [laughs]. Now we have the ability to bring out talented people that we like to work with. Like you said it was just kind of a logical step.
MW: Soulive started off as a band with three basic instruments and has evolved into a more complex organism this tour. Where do you go from here?
EK: I don’t really know. All I can is the tour right now is brand new. I really hope things keep rolling because by the end of the tour things are going to be pretty slamming. Having the horn section has been off the hook.
MW: Are you bringing the horns with you for the Dave Matthews shows this summer?
EK: Probably not at this point, but there is still a possibility of it.
MW: Does working with a larger musical vehicle make it harder for you to improvise?
EK: Definitely not, we get more inspired by that kind of stuff. We don’t have music charts on stage or anything The horn section is talented so they know where and when to do what. You can still hear the band, it is just when that organ swell gets to that peak, there are little horn hits behind it that really accentuate it. If anything the horns accentuate everything else there was before. There are certainly parts where we feature them, and they solo, so there is a little less organ solo, a little less guitar solo, but not noticeably. It’s actually refreshing, like Oh cool, there’s a sax solo.’ Its not just me screaming in your ear all night [laughs].
MW: Tell me about the gig at the Apollo on April 26th. Fred Wesley, who will be playing with Soulive at the show, has stated, “There will be ghosts waiting for me there.” This is going to be a special night.
EK: It is such a legendary place and there are two challenges for us. One is to bring our crowd which is a mixed crowd, but Well, not many of them live in Harlem [laughs]. Bringing our crowd up to Harlem is going to be a real cool experience for them. I think the other challenge is trying to get some people from the neighborhood out to our show. We are all from New York and we’ve probably played in New York more than anywhere else, so offering a new kind of experience will be a lot of fun. I think it will be a treat for the band as well as the audience.
MW: I think that is a great idea and I’m glad you are following through on it.
EK: I hope we can be pioneers in some way in terms of developing that room again. I hope this opens up another legendary place to have shows in New York. It is sort of a mission that has a lot of different sides to it. There is a musical one for sure, and there is also a cultural one too. We’re really psyched about it.
MW: Now let’s talk a bit about Lettuce. What makes this band so special? [Editor’s note: Kraz, in high school at the time, was participating in the Berklee School of Music summer program when he formed this group with some of his classmates in 1992.]
EK: Lettuce has been around forever and we’ve all known that we want to keep doing it. It is not the type of band where there is ever going to be a breakup. We’re friends first and foremost so we’re going to play music regardless of any other circumstances.
MW: Lettuce has a new record coming out soon. Obviously you play guitar on the record, but are you engaged in some of the production aspects of the release as well?
EK: With the Lettuce record, there wasn’t much production to be done. It was more just playing in the studio and trying to get good sounds. Our vision of the record was to sound old and new at the same time. We used two-inch tape, we didn’t use anything digital, it was all analog instruments, so it was pretty straightforward.
MW: And you have some other studio projects going on too?
EK: I’m doing a lot of production on the other side of things. I’m making an album with Shuman and I’m also producing stuff for different singers. I make a lot of electronic music and I’m also making my own album which is a combination of my electronic music with live instruments.
MW: Is there knowledge you’ve gained from working on the technical side of the recordings that you are able to bring back to playing guitar in the live setting?
EK: Definitely. I think they are both intertwined. If anything, more recently I’ve been into playing less. I love playing, I love improvising, but there are also a lot of other elements to the music. I think Soulive has been trying to explore all sorts of different avenues. Basically incorporate all the stuff we listen to into what we play and that is ever changing. We’re always listening to new stuff and looking to stretch our music out. We’re trying not to limit ourselves to anything