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Published: 2009/04/26
by Mike Greenhaus

The Air Up Here Part 1: At Home with Soulives Alan Evans

Soulive was born on March 2, 1999 when drummer Alan Evans and his organist brother Neal invited guitarist Eric Krasno into the studio to jam, and a decade later the trio musicians are still perpetually recording: Alan Evans currently runs his own studio in Massachusetts, Neal Evan divides his time between recording film scores and working on a solo album of his own and Krasno is in the midst of recording a solo album, a record with his band Chapter 2 and bouncing between projects with the production team he runs with drummer Adam Deitch. In addition, the trio recently helped start Royal Family Records to house the various projects by their inner circle of musician friends and celebrated they 10th anniversary by releasing the stripped down studio disc Up Here. A sharp charge from No Place Like Soul, which relied heavily on vocals and production tricks, Up Here was born out a studio a few quick studio jams in Alan Evans’ rustic studio. Along with longtime auxiliary saxophonists Sam Kininger and Ryan Zoidis, the three musicians bring things full circle on Up Here, stripping Soulive’s sound down to its organ-funk core. Below, Alan Evans gives Jambands.com the skinny on Up Here’s recording sessions, Soulive’s change in direction and what’s in store for the Royal Family.

Let’s start by talking about Soulive’s new album. When did you first start working on Up Here?

In the fall we did it in two, three-day sessions, and after the first session we had a show at Northeastern University. We really took 2008 offwe did a few shows here and there but nothing major. So during that year I opened up my own studio for my own projectsI was just kind of recording and mixing albums for other bands. It is hard to remember because we have all been so busy since then. At first there wasn't any intention of recording an album, actually.

So one day I was just hangin' out in the studio, just kind of messing around on something of my own, and I stumbled on something I kind of dug. I emailed a 30-second snippet to Eric and Neal so that they could hear it. You know, we hadn't really hung out, and I said, “Maybe you guys should come up and hang, just mess around and record some music.” That was the idea: to just kind of hang out and have fun. And then, as we got into it, and that music kind of turned into an album.

Had you guys played any of the material on Up Here before those impromptu recording sessions?

For the most part we came up with these songs on the spot, though we had done a version a version of the song “Tonight” live, but we completely flipped it around in the studio because it used to be sort of an interlude. Now it is a full-on song with horn arrangements. Also, there is this one tune called “For Granted,” which was the first tune we recorded on the session. It's a tune Eric wrote a long time agoI think we tried to record it for either Turn it Out or Doin’ Somethin’. But we just never got the groove until now. So some of the tunes were actual song ideas that I had or Eric had or Neal had, but a lot of them, especially all the horn sections, were written on the spot. So it is definitely a complete 180 from our last album.

Would you say the album was in certain ways a reaction to No Place Like Soul, which relied heavily on vocals?

Yeah, no doubt. I mean, we never like to stay in one spot for too longit gets kind of boring. But after doing this album one thing we were all really digging is being in the studio. I mean, it's just the place for creativity. Some elements were just kind of missing on some of our albums, but now I think we all feel comfortable who we are. I like No Place Like Soul, you know, and we weren't sittin' up in the studio tryin' to write hit songs or anything like that, but I'd say that there was more of a focus on others things than just havin' fun and playing music. And now we just kind of feel comfortable where we are. It's been ten years and, looking back on everything we've done, it's easy to see which project we had the most fun with and those were usually the ones where we really not concerned with the business angle. It's probably the music that we dig the most.

After working with [vocalist] Toussaint on No Place Like Soul, we decided to go back to a trio. Obviously we've been diggin' having the horns, and we always kind of dug that, but you can hear that the focus is guitar, drums and keys. It just kind of feels natural. It's not hard for us to be a backing band for cats. There's a lot of cats that can do that, but you know, sometimes it takes running into your friends or whatever to tell you things to help reaffirm what you're doing. Over the years, man, we've known a lot of catsI mean some heavy musicians who play with like Janet Jackson or Usher. I mean, that is the illest gig you can have as a side-musician. Those guys are incrediblelike mind blowingand then they come out to a show when we're in town, and they say, “Man, I wish I could be doing that.” And we're like, “Uhh, okay…” But I guess it's kind of one of those things where the grass is always greener on the other side. But there's just something about being a band and knowing what you're good at and just pushing toward doing that, and I think that focus can be heard on this album more than a lot of our previous albums. So I don't want to say last time was a mistake, but you definitely learn from every experience.

At what point during the recording of this album did you guys bring the horns in?

The first day. It was as simple as, Sam's around, Ryan's around, let's get together. It wasn't a situation where it was like we laid down a bunch of stuff and then said, “We need horns or we could put a vocal on this. It all happened very organically, just right on the spot.”

I assume Rashawn Ross couldn’t contribute because he is on the road with Dave Matthews Band?

Yeah, it was really difficult because Ryan always plays tenor, Sam plays alto and usually there is a trumpet to help round out the section. Ryan just happened to borrow a baritone from a friend and brought it to the session and it worked like magic. We all said, “Holt shit, this is what we've been missing” and then we obviously filled in the section with tenor. But it took us in a completely different direction in terms of the horns, and then with the overall sound of what was going down. So that was a lot of fun. The whole album wouldn't sound the way it does if they just kind of showed up with that instrumentI don't think we would have made the same discovery. It was really important that we were all there together and it just happened.

As you said before, you’re working on a lot of different projects and play different roles in the studio. How do you think wearing those different hats has influenced your band’s sound?

We all produce stuff, and we've learned a lot over the years, but in the past we've run into situations where we have too many cooks in the kitchen. And on a lot of our albums, you can kind of hear that. Break Out really sounded like it was more of a compilation than an album because there were some tunes that Kraz produced when I wasn’t even around in the studio or places where I'd cut some stuff here is Massachusetts and then bring it down to New Yorkthe whole album was completely all over the place.

Then on No Place Like Soul we brought in a producer so we could just lay back and be the musicians or songwriters. This album never had the feel of anyone producing it. We just went in there and just vibed the whole thingwe were all on the same wavelength. There were times where I would be mixing a track while Kraz was working on horn stuff with Sam and Ryan and Neal would come out of the lounge and be like, “let’s try this.” So people would kind of all throw in their suggestions on horn lines or whatever. It was a totally different process. As for as my role, I definitely had a vision of what I wanted it to sound like, and I guess from the previous experiences of the compilation sounding albums, I wanted it to sound like an album and have a vibe to it rather than just a cool group of tunes that were recorded pretty well. This album was produced by all of us.

You know, we're ten years in so [artistically] we can do whatever we want. We're not gonna be up on MTV and all that kind of shitnot that we has that intention, but there's always that carrot being dangled by labels and whatever. Now, we're just very comfortable in our skin as a band.

Speaking if your 10th anniversary, did the band do anything to celebrate?

Well, I was just kind of hangin' out at home. We knew the day, you know, I was sittin' at home and said, “Wait a minute, today's March 2!” So I called Eric and Neal. I think those cats went out for a drink that night but I was up here in Massachusetts.

Can you tell us a little bit about your new studio, Play on Brother Studios?

I guess I've been in there a little over a year, but before that I had my recording studio at home. That was cool for me for the past eight or nine years, but then I started mixing stuff for people and eventually I started to record other people’s album at home. At first it was just people I knew really well and as word started spread I didn't really feel comfortable with people I didn't know coming into my house. We have two kids, and it was becoming a whole thing between scheduling and recording around when my kids are in school or whatever. It was just really difficult so I was like okay, “I gotta find a place.”

It's a really amazing place too, you know? It's really big, and you never have to worry about the clock ticking. So it's great man, a lot of fun.

How does your studio tie into Soulive’s new Royal Family label?

Like I said, in 2008 we kind of chilled and focused on these different projects. I started a studio, Neal scored music for The Black List on HBO, and then Eric started Royal Family. In the beginning it was just a website where people could find out what's going on with all of us, in one placethat's always been really hard. Eric wanted one place where everyone could find us, so he got that going, made a compilation CD that we all put some tunes on, and he was just kind of throwing them out there. Honestly, I don't really know what the vision was. But after we recorded the Soulive album, we knew that we didn't want to put it out on Stax. We were just kind of done with that whole major label scene. And so I guess it kind of made sense to turn the Royal Family into a record label, so at that point Neal and I were pulled in officially. So it all kind of happened from all angles: we wanted to record an album, I had my studio and now we have a place where we can record all the Royal Family Records.

Can you tell us about some of the projects you are currently working on?

We are working on Eric's solo album, Nigel's solo album and the Chapter 2 album [Krasno’s other band]. Eric also have some material that they recorded elsewhere, so I've been mixing a bunch of stuff. I'm almost done mixing Eric's whole album. Actually, I was in the studio last night until about 3 AM recording some solo stuff of mine own and then I'm also in the studio right now with my band, the Play on Brother band. It's crazy manI've been pretty busy. And I've just been working on some outside stuff too, it's been pretty nuts. I'm excited about all of it, everything is sounding really cool. And we're all into other styles of music and writing or whatever and those styles have always kind of crept into Soulive’s albums, and I don't think that always necessarily works so well. So now, everybody has a place to completely do their own thing, and we can focus Soulive a bit. For instance, Neal's working on his solo album with Eric and I, but it doesn’t sound anything like Soulive. It's exciting to hear so much new music.

Now that you guys created these songs on the fly, what’s the process been like getting ready for the road?

We've only played maybe between two and four of the songs live. And we're getting together in a couple of days next week before the tour starts for a few days to rehearse. I had to send Sam the album that's the one problem with doing it that way, everything kind of happens so fast that you don't really know the stuff, so we're going to rehearse for a few days. Everyone's been listening to the album, and we'll get together and rehearse and get it tight. I guess before the end of last year going into the New Year's Eve run we played a few of the tunes. But we decided to wait until the album comes out to really dig in. So yeah, we're going to really start playing it all live this spring, and then maybe throw in some other tunes. We'll be out for five weeksthe tunes are really going to develop, go in a few different directions, and we'll probably come up with some new stuff as well. We're excited to get back into the studio and do another album already. It's definitely been fun. The last time we went on a tour like this was a while ago. It's funny but you can say that the world has changed since the last time we were on a tour like this, so it's going to be interesting to see what it's going to be like. I've kind of just been hangin’ here, doin' shows once in a while. I don't really know much of what's going on outside my little world here other than reading or watching the news or whatever. That's one thing I really enjoy about going out on the road. And that's something that really feeds your creative juices.

Mike Greenhaus airs his dirty laundry at www.greenhauseffect.com. He also encourages you to subscribe to Relix Magazine.

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