Through The Eyes Of Soulive
[Editor's note: As the following article suggests it's been a whirlwind year for Soulive. As befits that, we'll have two pieces on the band over the next two issues: This month by Matthew Shapiro and in December from Andy Tennille].
Since their inception in the spring of 1999, Soulive has gone on to become a global sensation by creating a musical style that is uniquely their own. Soulive’s sound is a blend of Jazz, Funk, Hip-Hop, and Soul. The trio consisting of Alan Evans on drums, his brother Neal on keyboards, organs, and hand bass, and Eric Krasno on guitar, have written one of the jam band scene’s greatest success stories. The group came together in March of 1999, when the Evans brothers invited Krasno to jam with them in Woodstock, New York. This initial session produced Get Down!, their first EP which was released on Velour records. That summer the band recorded their first full-length disk Turn It Out, which featured appearances by John Scofield, and Oteil Burbridge. In the fall of 2000 Soulive was signed to the country’s premiere Jazz label, Blue Note. In the winter of 2001, the band played a sold-out run of shows through Japan, and that summer they took a month long tour of Europe. That summer the band also opened a good deal of stadium shows for the Dave Matthews Band. Before each show Matthews would introduce them as "the greatest band in the world". On Next the band’s second Blue Note Album following Doin’ Something, the band expanded to a quartet with Saxophone player Sam Kinniger. This fall the band returned to its roots as a trio, recording the shows for their next album. One of the fall tour’s high points was their opening slot for the Rolling Stones.
I sat down with the band before their show at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs New York. I found three intelligent musicians, who seem undaunted and are quite modest about their success. The band was quite forthcoming in sharing their opinions ranging from, race in music, the jam band scene, and the state of popular music as a whole.
Matthew Shapiro: I’d like to start by discussing a cultural phenomenon that has always struck me as quite odd. Jazz is one of the four artistic styles that were born in the United States, yet it is extremely under appreciated here. A good example is that for years American Jazz artists had to go overseas to gain success. To what do you attribute this lack of appreciation?
Neal Evans: I think the major reason why are its origins. It started as a black art form, like much of our popular music originally does. But for many years the mainstream looked the other way. It wasn’t until Elvis and the Beatles came around and that shit began to blow up, that you really see black musicians getting recognized. That’s when the soul and Motown sound gained its popularity. But for many years it was totally different game. For years black artists couldn’t even have their pictures on the cover of their albums, they had pictures of white women and shit. That doesn’t mean it’s all better today, there are still issues out there. Race in music works like a sick cycle, sometimes it benefits you to be a black musicians, and sometimes it really hurts you. It’s ridiculous, but that is probably the biggest issue.
Eric Krasno: Also American kids are subject to what’s on the radio and MTV, neither of which deal with jazz. I think they don’t know how do deal with it. They don’t know what to call it, so it’s not really marketable for them.
NE: That’s it, if it’s not going to sell; they’re not going to advertise it.
Alan Evans: What’s popular is always going to be maintained and advertised, that’s the bottom line. If these cats put the type of money to advertise jazz, that is put into Britney Spears, who knows? But it would probably be a different story. Americans are forced to absorb that shit; it’s shoved down their throats. That’s the real reason stuff like that maintains it’s popularity. It’s forced.
MS: Now considering this difficulty Jazz has in the United States, what is it that Soulive has done differently, that as given you so much success both stateside and around the world?
NE: First off we’re not really jazz.
MS: But you are on (Blue Note) the country’s premiere jazz label.
NE: That’s true but I still wouldn’t categorize us as just jazz, it’s only one of our elements.
MS: What would you categorize yourself as?
NE: I don’t know it’s really soul funk.
AE: We’re different because, we’re not playing straight ahead standards. We’re more accessible.
EK: That’s the key; younger people can relate to it, it’s danceable. Although it does have that jazz element to it, we’re basically playing what we grew up on. So there are many elements to what we do, you’ll find hip-hop, soul, funk, rock, it’s all in there. Plus we don’t operate like a jazz band. We hit the road like a rock group.
AE: Also along those lines, the venues we play are different. I’m sure Blue Note would love us to do a five night stand at a club like Birdland in New York City, but that’s not our thing. We play regular clubs, like any rock or funk band would. This way we attract a younger audience, the same audience that goes to see the rock shows at the club will see us because the club gives us legitimacy in their minds, you know what I’m saying?
MS: Definitely. Now let me ask, you guys are considered amongst the more prominent bands on the jam band scene. What’s your take on the scene? And to what do you attribute the success that other instrumental bands have found on the jam band scene?
NE: I think our success and any other instrumental band’s success on the scene, comes first from gaining recognition. The festivals are also a big help it goes back to advertising. It gets you seen, and gets you recognized. Once that happens the venues want you, and that’s how you get around.
EK: These kids through hearing Phish, leads them to want to start digging deeper into their influences, which is great. They’re finding everything from classic rock to Zappa to jazz. These kids realize how much is out there, and they have such open minds. That what’s really so great about the jam band scene is everyone is so open-minded. Almost any style of music can flourish with in the scene. That makes it an invaluable resource to many different kinds of bands. It’s crazy to see that hip-hop acts are even getting in on it now. It’s like a party that everyone is invited to and everyone feels welcome at. I mean honesty, I don’t think we are a jam band per se. I don’t mind being called one, I just don’t know if we are. I think words can’t really describe what we do. I guess we do have many of the jam band elements. We improvise, we’re always on tour, and we’re working from the ground up. To me the important thing is how you rock a show. People like Christina Aguilera; they care about, money, posters, and imaging. This here is about music I don’t care about albums. I mean I enjoy doing them, and I hope people, buy and enjoy them. But to me that’s not why I do what I do. I want to rock a great show night after night.
AE: Listen pop is always going to be here, that’s a fact, but you can do something cool with in that medium. Take the Dave Matthews Band. Those cats are cool. First off, those are some badass musicians. But more importantly Dave Matthews uses his popularity to take it in the opposite direction. He does everything in his power to promote, what you would call jam bands or bands who put music first. Dave Mathews is forcing his audience to recognize what’s out there. He’s exposing them to these bands, which they probably would have no contact with if it weren’t for him. He really cares about that. It’s a lot like what Bill Graham used to do at the Fillmores. For example you know that series of Miles Davis Cd’s Live at the Fillmore, those were recorded when Miles was opening for the Steve Miller Band. It’s really the same thing.
MS: It’s funny you mention that because I just read Graham’s autobiography, and he talks a lot about that. One of his best stories was when he put Buddy Rich on a bill. It’s funny because Rich didn’t want to do it, and the audience didn’t exactly give him a warm welcome. Graham told him to open with "Norwegian Wood", and from there he had the audience in the palm of his hand.
NE: Man Buddy Rich was the shit, and he blew up after that. It shows that sometimes you have to open the doors for some people and shove them through. You know how Al said before, how pop is force-fed to the public, you have to do the same thing, and that’s what Bill Graham did.
EK: He even put Cannonball Adderly on a rock bill
NE: He had Otis Redding open for the Stones, which was huge. The importance of that can’t be measured and it’s the same thing Dave is trying to do now. He really gives a shit, you know, and I’m sure he takes heat for it.
MS: Let’s talk about where the band is at now. Your last album Next was seen by many, as a statement that you guys were taking a new step forward. First you expanded to a quartet (adding Sax player Sam Kininger). Then you went about recording the album with all new songs that had never been played live. After the release of the album, you took another step in a new direction by creating the Soulive Revue, which featured a full horn section, vocalists, and rappers. Now this fall you guys toured as a trio again, recording the shows for what will be your next album. So once again you guys have made a radical departure from your previous work. First I’d like your thoughts about returning to a trio, should this be considered another step in a new direction, or a return to your roots?
NE: First the idea for the album came about after we listened to one of our shows on satellite radio. We never really listen to our own shows, but it sounded good. It just so happened that Sam wasn’t on that set. That’s where the idea came about really. It was like lets see what we could do with it, how do we take it a step further.
AE: The trio is the base. We can add and subtract to that, but you have to keep changing to keep it interesting.
EK: That’s really the important thing to maintain longevity. The challenge is keeping it fresh, especially music. Keeping the love evident is so important, and that goes with any album. People will know when that’s not there, and then you’re done.
MS: So it should be considered a definitive step in a new direction?
EK: Oh yeah, without a doubt. Our writing is different now. It’s a totally new approach. We’ve grown since the last time we were a trio.
AE: Our experience playing with the horns has changed us. We’re not playing the way we used to. We approach things differently now.
EK: But people can still identify our sound, even if it has Dave Matthews’ singing over us. Our sound is still there and fully recognizable. We are maintaining that sound, while finding new ways to explore with in it.
AE: It could have been easy for us to stay with the trio. It worked. However you have to keep pushing. Someone might like your first album, they my like your second album, but by album four, if you are still doing the same thing, people will catch on, I guarantee you that. You have to keep challenging yourself and your audience, or you’re going to end up going through the motions.
MS: Since we are on the topic of trying new things. One of the things that really amazes me about you guys is how quickly it took for you to gain prominence, on a global level. On the flip side of that I wonder that since you got so big so fast, did that take time away from really developing the band. You still can be viewed as a young band, and you have had to do the type of adjusting and experimenting that most young bands do in front of a couple hundred people (if they’re lucky), but you have had to it in front of thousands of people around the world. Can you describe what that is like?
EK: Playing a show that’s easy, it’s fun. That doesn’t change from show to show. We don’t think about it that way. We play so much, such a different amount of gigs. Literally one day we can play to 60,000 people, and the next night we’re playing for 250.
AE: And that doesn’t matter, it’s all cool. Your mindset can’t change by the amount of people you’re playing in front of. If you are playing to fifty people, that’s still fifty people who paid to see you, you have to give them your best. Playing for a small crowd can be real cool.
NE: It’s what the Stones are doing now. What they’re doing is great, getting in to the theaters and small clubs.
EK: When you look at what they’re doing now, it really is amazing. They are obviously not doing it for money. When we opened for them I was talking to Chuck Leavell and he said this is what it’s all about. Performing in front of a small audience, especially for those guys, it’s special.
MS: Not to mention how special it must be for the fans, and I want to get back to the topic of the Rolling Stones in a bit, but what I was trying to say was, with the level of success you have achieved, you are put somewhat under a microscope. Most young bands can alter themselves and it wouldn’t go as noticed as when you do it. So does that make it any harder to do the type of alterations to the band that you guys have done?
AE: No, not at all. You have to remember that we have been doing this for so long now, just playing. Way before Soulive, that now it’s just instinct at this point. We want to keep making it a different band. We’re having fun with it. There are some things that will always be constant. I know I’ll always have Eric next to me, with Neal on the other side. Other then that anything goes. We’re not a band that is concerned about the audience. We’re not trying to distance ourselves from the audience. Actually it’s quite the opposite. You have to trust the audience. You trust that if you give them everything you got, then they will respond to it. It drives us to keep giving them something fresh. I think that trust brings us closer to the audience because there’s an understanding there.
MS: I’m curious to know about the process of recording an album of new material on the road. What has that process been like? And do you think taking the studio out of the equation takes some pressure out of the recording process?
NE: No, I don’t feel pressure in the studio or on the road. I don’t feel that a song needs to be a perfect length or anything like that. Not at all, doing that will drive you crazy. By recording on the road, you do get what’s real. You’re not listening to someone trying to play a perfect solo; you hear what’s in the moment. Listening to it afterwards is pretty crazy. It’s so different then how you remember it happening. It’s never sounds the way it you think it will. Especially if it’s in a moment when we’re really on.
EK: That’s why we recorded the whole tour, because you never know when the moment will come. So many factors go into making the moment. It could be the audience, the place we’re playing in, the vibe in the room, or weather we slept the previous night or not. You never know, that’s why we recorded everything.
AE: It goes from tune to tune. Each song develops differently throughout a tour. So it’s cool to listen to that process, because that is one of the things that we don’t always realize when it’s happening.
NE: For that reason you almost want to do what Pearl Jam did, and release everything, a whole tour. That’s pretty ambitious, I don’t know if anyone would buy a whole tour, that’s one hell of an investment. Actually Prince is doing some cool shit online, where his fans can download stuff he’s done that will never be widely released. I think that’s pretty hot.
AE: What it comes down to really is believing in yourself, and believing in your work. How you listen to something is always going to be different then how people listen to it. I’ve had people come up to me and say they love the way we did a certain song, but I thought it was a total piece of shit, or vice-versa. Once it’s done it’s out of your hands, and into the people’s. That’s something you have to live with, cause there’s nothing you can do about it at that point.
EK: Especially with people recording our shows. It really amazes me how seriously people take that stuff. I’ve spoken to people who like study and dissect our shows. It’s weird but it’s cool, if that’s what people are in to. You hear so many opinions on it though. It just goes to show, that you never know what people will dig. Actually I’ll tell you a story. Can I go off a little bit here?
MS: Sure, the floor is all yours.
EK: So dig this, when we were in Italy touring with the John Scofield band, we had this impromptu jam thing happen. It was us and basically everyone in the Scofield band. We were hanging out at this club late at night.
NE: It was like 2:30 in the morning or something.
EK: Yeah it was real late, and this place was having like an open mike thing going. One by one we’d get up there and play. It was like a revolving door, guys going in and out. This went on for a while. We were having a good time, but it was nothing serious. Just a bunch of guys messing around. It turns out that there was some hippy kid from Eastern Europe there, who recorded the whole thing. As the tour went on, some kid comes up to me with a CD of this jam. He told me that it was one of the hottest sets circulating around Europe. I was shocked. It seemed to mean a lot to so many people, and to us it was just us up there messing around. It was fun and all, but it was no a big deal. But to that kid it was like a masterpiece. Which shows that you never know.
MS: One of the other interesting aspects of Next was the addition of more vocals. You had a great gamut of vocalists contribute to the album. What role do you think vocals play in your music? How do you see that role in the future? Neal do you see yourself doing more vocals?
NE: I don’t know I really don’t consider myself a singer.
MS: On the album Live Down Deep, that you did with your former band Moon Boot Lover, you do a good deal of vocals, both lead and background.
NE: Yeah, again I don’t know, I could sing but I’d probably listen to it, and think we could find someone better.
AE: We could be content wanting to sing it ourselves. But it would have to be a real good song. The way we look at is if the song were good to start with, it would only be better if we got someone who can really sing on it. We’ve been so lucky to be able to get cats that are great singers, who want to work with us. Why mess with that. That album gave us the opportunity to work with fantastic singers, and it let us try some crazy shit. I mean take "Joyful Girl". We got Dave Matthews to join us in covering an Ani DiFranco song. That’s wild.
MS: Yeah I always wondered how that came about. How did you choose that song?
NE: It’s my favorite Ani song. It’s such a beautiful piece of music.
EK: We had actually recorded it instrumentally. Then we talked to Dave about doing something on the album. We had nothing specific in mind, just talking. Then the idea to do "Joyful Girl" came up, and Dave had just had twin girls, so it made more sense. He was thrilled at that point to do the song. It all seemed to just come together.
AE: I find it so funny. You know Ani’s fans are mostly women, with a good deal of them being lesbians, you know? Now here we are four dudes covering one of her songs, fronted by one of the major male pop forces of our time.
NE: It’s really homage to her. She’s great at everything she does. It was really an honor to do it.
AE: You see though, that right there is the epitome music. It’s the appreciation of pure music. It doesn’t matter who you are, a good piece of music anyone can appreciate. It’s universal.
MS: Kind of a follow up, do you guys ever receive outside pressure to add more vocals as a tool that might make what you do more marketable?
NE: No, not at all.
MS: You guys have played all over the world, can you tell me how the audiences are different overseas that what you have found here in the states?
EK: Well as far as Japan goes it really depends on the venue. The Jazz clubs we played in, were real uptight. The audience is much more attentive, there’s absolutely no talking. If we’d take a break in the middle of a song there would be dead silence. So that was a little weird. Europe is different wherever you go. We could spend all day on that topic, and the differences from country to country.
MS: Then lets Switch gears a little bit, one of the highlights of 2002 for you must have been opening up for the Rolling Stones. Can you tell me a little about that experience?
AE: It’s funny we weren’t really bugging out before that show. I don’t know why, but at first it was like just another gig.
EK: Oh totally, it wasn’t like when we first got the Dave Matthews tour. Then you were flipping out. But I don’t know why this was different. I think what it was, is that it didn’t seem real. It didn’t really hit me till we were backstage before the show and there’s Keith Richards roaming around.
MS: Did you get to hang out with them at all?
EK: Oh yeah, well everyone but Mick. He was off doing his own thing I guess. But yeah Keith Richards was real supportive. The craziest thing was that during our set I look over, and there he is, standing right to the side of the stage tapping his foot. That was pretty surreal. But they were all real cool.
AE: Driving back from the show was hysterical. That’s when it really hit. We were bugging out the whole way.
EK: What’s weird is after that we kind of got labeled as the "jazz band that opened for the Rolling Stones", and I don’t know what to think of that. After it happened, that’s all people wanted to talk about. But it was great, and again it exposed us to a totally different audience.
MS: I briefly mentioned Alan and Neal’s past band Moon Boot Lover. I’d like to talk to you guys about some of the other things you are working on. Alan and Neal I’ll start with you. I interviewed (your former Moon Boot Lover band mate) Peter Prince a couple of weeks ago, and the topic of Catskill Martian Dogs (an album recorded in 1996, but never released) came up. He told me you are currently mixing the album Alan, can I get your thoughts on the album?
AE: Oh shit, what else he tell you? Nah it’s cool, it’s coming along slow though. I just finished listening to it again, and now it’s like where to begin with it. What’s funny about the album is that we recorded it and right after that Neal and I split the band. After that I kind forgot about it. But over the last couple of years Peter and I have been talking more and it’s cool now. He wanted me to listen to it, and I was pretty taken aback by it. I had to first remember everything. I’ll tell you, what’s really cool about listening to it now, is hearing where Neal and I were at back then. I can hear the things that we were trying to do at that time. There’s a lot heart on that album. But what’s great is, that we are now able to do the things that we were trying to do then. So that is a real good feeling.
NE: I haven’t even listened to it yet.
AE: Yeah it will take time but it’s coming
MS: Eric let me ask you about your original band Lettuce, you still play with them when you have the time. What’s going on, on that front?
EK: That project is just a lot of fun. Those guys and I have been friends since, well some of them since we were 13, but we were all close friends by the time we were 15. We’re still really close friends. So when we are not doing anything, we’d be hanging out anyway, so it’s like we might as well do some gigs. It’s laid back. It’s cool. Playing with them is just all about having fun together.
MS: By any measuring stick 2002 has been a great year for you guys. You are getting 2003 of to a great start by playing Hawaii in the beginning of January. What does the rest of 2003 hold for Soulive?
NE: After Hawaii we’re probably going to chill for a bit. Then we’ll do a spring tour and a fall tour. Probably go back to Europe during the summer.
EK: We’re kicking around some different ideas, some different artists we’d like to collaborate with. We have to finish the work on the live album coming out. We also plan to go into the studio and record. The studio album probably won’t be released till 2004, but it will be recoded by the end of next year.
AE: With us the best shit is the stuff you don’t plan. Like the Stones, you know that came out of nowhere you don’t plan on that. The unknown has been real good to us.
EK: That’s so true, and it’s been that way since the beginning. When we first did Get Down! for Velour (the band’s original record label, run by Eric’s brother Jeffery Krasno), it was like my brother wants to put something out so let’s just do it. Someone said jokingly that maybe in a year Blue Note will want it. Then sure enough, a year later we’re on Blue note. Our whole ride has been so unpredictable.
AE: All you can hope for is that there will be more positive unknowns in 2003, than there were in 2002.