The Air Up Here Part 2: Eric Krasno
Last month, we caught up with Soulive’s Alan Evans shortly after his band’s tenth anniversary. The drummer offered a state of the union on the entire Soulive world, including a look at the trio’s new studio album, Up Here. This month we check in with Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno, who offers his thoughts on the improv-heavy recording sessions, as well as the group’s new, psychedelic sound. In addition, Krasno gives us the skinny on his new project Chapter 2, Lettuce’s future plans and what’s next for the Royal Family.
Let’s start by taking about the new Soulive album, Up Here. I know most of the material was written in the studio, but did you have any song ideas going into the recording sessions?
I had a couple ideas that I broughta couple grooves, and a couple things that Adam Deitch and I put together. It was literally a bass line here and a groove there. But that was just two or three different ideas, and I don’t even think we used all those. For the most part we just got together and pretty much started playing and there were a few times when I was like “Oh, there’s this bass line I thought of, let’s try messing with that.” But anything we brought to that session got totally changed into a whole new thing.
Up Here is the first Soulive album in several years to feature just the classic trio with horns. Was this configuration change a reaction to No Place like Soul’s vocal tunes?
It’s funny because we didn’t really talk about it, but once we got up there and started playing it turned out that way. You know, we don’t all live in the same house together like the old school band mentality and so we all do our own thing for a lot of the year. I’m producing a lot of stuff and writing a lot of stuff and generally a lot of that is vocal music so when we got back together we were like, “OK, why don’t we apply that to this” when we made No Place like Soul, and so we kind of did a lot of prep for that album. I love that album but it sounds like us doing a vocal record and it probably would’ve been more appropriate to call it something else. It was a total departure with the same musicians. I’m glad we did it but I feel like this time we went back to the original format of sitting in a room and coming up with stuff. That’s kind of how we started: Alan and Neal [Evans] were living together, and I’d go over there and we’d just hang for days and record and play. So you know we kind of brought back that mentality and definitely brought a new approach because we’ve been doing so much outside stuff. It’s not as much ten-minute long jams, but our approach to making the record is closer to how we did it in the beginning.
We were excited to go into the studio, but it was kind of like, “We’re gonna go into the studio with no tunes?” [laughter] and it ended up being that there wasn’t enough tape to get all the ideas that were coming. It’s also cool because it’s Alan’s studio, so there was a great vibe there. It’s relaxedit’s not like we have tons of engineers waiting on us to do this that and the other thing. We were able to explore and just mess around. You know, I could spend two hours on my delay on my guitar, and a lot of the things were written from sonic things. We’d get a sound, and also we brought a bari sax to the session which totally changed the sound of the whole record because rather than going for a more of an Earth, Wind and Fire horn thing we went for more like a 60’s all saxes, and the horns have a totally different sound of this record. I feel like it’s more of a psychedelic album than our past albums. I dig it.
You guys are producers as well as musicians, but because you now have other outlets to explore those other personas, do you feel you were able to focus in on a “Soulive sound?”
Totally true, totally right, that hits it right on the head. Adam and I are doing a lot of soul/pop/R&B stuff and working with all different people, but this is an outlet for us to really play and explore some different sounds. When we’re playing with those people it’s great, and I love crafting songs and working on a four-minute piece for days at a time, but this time it was lie, “Let’s see how far out there I can get with my guitar sounds,” like “let’s go for a surf vibe on this one.” And some of it didn’t make the record because it was totally weird, but some of it made sense. Either way, we get to explore which is what’s great about having our own studio, and our own label, because, who knows, some of those outtakes could wind up on some weird album that we decide to put out.
Speaking of different projects, can you tell us a bit about your Chapter 2 band?
It started a long time ago. I’d been writing a lot of vocal stuff, and, years ago, I was writing a lot of soul but still rock tunes. Originally I sang a lot of the demos, and some of those wound up on No Place like Soul, like “Don’t Tell Me,” and a couple other songs that I’d written originally for my project but when we decided to do a vocal album I was like, “Ok, let’s use some of these tunes, so that kind of spilled over.” Basically, I’ve been recording for my solo album for years, and it’s took all kinds of different turns because some of it is instrumental, some of it is just straight rock, and it was all over the place. So, over time, I was like, “This song will go to this project, this one to this project” and so on and so forth. So basically, I made a solo album which I’m just mixing now.
In fact, I was just listening to some of the mixes that Alan did for me, and that’s mostly instrumental, but then Chapter 2 was kind of the outlet for the vocal tunes. I met Nigel Hall like a year or two ago, and I brought him down here to sing a few of my tunes and record them, and then we started writing and recording a million tunes. Basically, we have hard drives full of stuff, and then as we came closer to having our own label I was like, “Ok here’s what’s going to happenI’m gonna put out this instrumental record, because I know that I’ve been wanting to get that done so that’s that.”
And then I’ve got Chapter 2 which is me, and Nigel, and Deitch, and Louis Kado who recently came into the picture. We were like, “ok, we need to get some live gigs so who are we gonna get to play bass, and everybody was like Louis. I’d heard him play drums, but I’d never heard him play bass. So he came into the studio and just blew us away on bass, and then picked up a guitar and blew us away on guitar, and then started playing drums, and scared Deitch out of the room. He plays everything: he also plays trombone on the album in the horn section. So anyway, I had a million different tunes, and rather than make one record that makes no sense, I’m gonna make three cohesive records. So I have my own solo record, and then the Chapter 2 record which is gonna be the live band in the studio together playing a bunch of these tunes, and then the Nigel Hall album, which is just an old school soul/R&B album.
So Chapter 2 is us playing music from all of those projects because we feel that once we get on stage we can play all of this stuff because it’s all about how we interpret it. It’s a lot of the same musicians, but then we bring in Neal for some stuff, and Al, and that’s why we call it Royal Family because it’s sort of everybody collaborating with each other on everything.
*When did you start branding members of the Soulive and Lettuce family as
The Royal Family?*
About a year ago. Last year at Jazz Festival we sort of officially started it, and we made a compilation of the stuff I’m talking about now. We were kind of like, “Let’s put this all together.” We had a few tracks that we’d done with Talib Kweli and Chaka Khan that never came out, and we thought it was a good opportunity to bring this stuff out so we made a compilation, brought it down there, started giving it out, got the website going, but our first official release is this Soulive record. That was just to get things going, and to raise awareness, but we actually now have distribution, so it’s finally official.
I think we’ll all do some production. The first few releases I’ve been working on for a while, so I’ll be the producer for those first couple of things. But it really depends because Al’s album will be done within a few months, and hopefully we’ll sign some other people, and I’m open to whatever, but I think that first we’ll concentrate on the stuff we’ve been working on, but I’m hoping to start bringing in other artists and musicians so it’s definitely open.
Has branching out musically changed the relationship and direction of Soulive?
I don’t know that it really changed anything that much. I mean, it changed Lettuce alot, but for Soulive I don’t think it changed anything as much. If anything it made us define that when we write a song we know that this one is gonna be for Lettuce, and this one is gonna be for Soulive. It’s hard to explain exactly what makes those tunes different. Lettuce is all about funk. It’s all about groove, and percussive horn lines and stuff like that. Soulive to me is going in a more psychedelic directionat least with this record. Live you’ll see we’re getting more into dubbing things out on stage and letting things breath a lot where Lettuce is all about being ultra tight. And Soulive is also about being tight, but we like to really open up the songs, and let them breath. And that’s what’s so cool about having Neal playing bass and keys because harmonically, he has so much control and also the three of us have played together so much for so long that once we sink into a groove we really trust each other to go anywhere. There’s no format, it’s just go, and if I start playing something, they’ll just pick it up and we’ll just go. We could write no set list, and just get out there and play, have a great time, and not have to worry about where it’s going to go. With Lettuce, we get very into the setlist, and the segue and the horn parts, and who’s taking this solo. It’s more like a Tower of Power. And we still improvise too, but I think Soulive is more based on improv. When you’ve been playing together for ten years you’ve got to be creative and have fun with it because if you play the same songs the same way every night you’ll get sick of it. We haven’t really been touring that much the last year or two so we’re all really excited to get out and do this tour.
Did you do anything to celebrate Soulive’s tenth anniversary this spring?
We didn’t really celebrate, actually. We talked to each other, but we decided that we would celebrate on tour. Our official party is going to be at our Brooklyn show this summer. We’re also putting together a festivala Royal Family festival in Massachusetts, and I’m sure the party will spill over into that too.
It is September 12 I believe. We’re gonna have some of the different projects playing and a bunch of other bands playing that festival too.
How many songs from your first official album, Turn it Out, are still in your live repertoire?
A lot of those are staples, “Steppin’” we play all the time, “Uncle Junior,” and “Jesus Children,” so at least four or five. I’m on a mission to bring back a couple others on this tour. I’d like to play “Turn it Out” again because we haven’t played that in years. Neal’s songwriting back then had a sound that we’ve gone away from because it was really jazzy at times, so some of those tunes got put to bed, like “Turn it Out.” He doesn’t love it but I love it. Sometimes when you write a tune yourself, you kind of get sick of it, and it’s hard to play it, but what we do in those cases is try to re-mix it, and change it up so maybe we’ll come up with a new version.
Soulive is also featured in the new Masters of Jazz documentary. Can you give us a little background on that project?
I haven’t seen it yet, but I like the concept. It shows where jazz has gone, and where people are taking it now. It’s funny because I don’t like to use the word jazz but it’s sort of the only word to describe what’s going on but it’s basically the way people re-interpret things, and how people have absorbed the different influences and there’s still a scene going. It used to be a lot more popular, it used to be like pop, but now it’s a little more underground. But you got groups like the Duo and Skerik who are really amazing players but they also have all these other crazy influences from Nirvana to Radiohead, metal to hip-hop. So it’s interesting to see how people take the improvising mentality and throw all these other influences in there. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve seen some clips of different people’s interviews and it was really interesting so we’re gonna feature stuff from the movie on this tour and help promote it. Russell Gunn is gonna perform with us, and he was also in the movie. I think they’re going to show pieces of the film in between sets, or do a video thing while we’re playing. They won’t be showing the whole movie, but different clips as a backdrop.
Finally, can you tell us about some of your current production projects?
Nigel’s album is the one that I’ve put the most into just because I’ve written a lot of lyrics with him, and those are a lot of my songs. It’s really from the ground up, and I’m part of every element of it so that’s the one I’m really excited to get done and have in my hand. We’ve been in the studio with a lot of different people, we just finished a record with a group called the Dry Eye Crew from Sierra Leone, and it’s kind of a combination of West African rhythms with dancehall, and hip-hop, and reggae so that’s going really well, almost done. We’ve also worked with Matisyahu on his new project, and we’re also doing a hip-hop project with Chali 2na and J-Live, so all-different stuff going on. We’re about to do a “Headhunters 2000” thing which is gonna be Neal Evans and Eldar whose this totally amazing keyboard prodigy, and then me, and Deitch and that’s going to be a fusion thing that we do after this tour. So we’re doing all sorts of stuff, we have a studio here in Brooklyn right near my house, and Deitch lives right down the street, so we’re kind of camped out there. It’s definitely been a long time coming, but now we’re comfortable, we have our own studio, and do mostly projects that we really want to do. We don’t need to take every little gig that comes our way, we can pick and choose a little bit. So we still need to pay bills but we can have fun and make music that we enjoy so I feel really blessed to be able to do that.