A Chat with Neal Evans

By: Dennis Cook

Neal Evans by Susan J. Weiand
There is more to Neal Evans than even his voluminous resume with Soulive and Lettuce reveals. Evans is a tenacious keyboard explorer, punching keys and massaging pedals in search of new sounds, new rhythms, and perhaps most accurately, newness in the widest, freshest regard – very much the torchbearer of the visceral tradition of Brother Jack McDuff, Stevie Wonder, and Les McCann. Despite a rep that has largely placed him in the soul-jazz camp most of his career, anyone listening closely already knows there’s no limits on where Evans will draw from, assembling music we thought familiar into appealing, unique reconfigurations.

However, the one aspect of his gifts that hasn’t received the spotlight it deserves is his compositional acumen, but that’s been rectified with Evans’ long-awaited solo debut, Bang, which dips into cinema score territory (Henry Mancini and Bernard Herrmann spring to mind), crunchy electronica-esque spaces, and generally does as fine a job of wordless storytelling as we’ve heard in 2012.

It’s a set that fans of his work in Lettuce and Soulive will jive with BUT it’s not really like anything he’s done in those outfits, instead working in more concise frameworks and stoking the pleasures of melody and mood throughout. Attention to fine details and a real appreciation of brevity’s power infuses Bang with a punch befitting its name.

We grabbed Neal Evans recently to discuss his solo debut, being a freak for reverb and more in this in-depth conversation.

Solo Debut
JamBase: This album shows off sides of you that aren’t readily apparent in your regular gigs.

Neal Evans: That’s definitely what I was trying to do. [Putting the spotlight on my composing] was a big part of my thinking. Kraz and I have played together for so long, and there was a point with Soulive when we were on the road a lot and just focusing on one thing and that’s all anyone knows you for. Outside of Soulive, we were all producing and recording, but it’s an aspect that most people are completely unaware of. Maybe it was a selfish thing, but I felt I needed to do something for myself that really represented other sides of what I do that people never get to hear. In the beginnings of this process, I was aware that I didn’t want to completely alienate our fan base, so it took a while to really hone in on a cohesive idea/viewpoint of what I wanted to get across musically. I think I did that even though I still stick around this soul/funk thing, but it also expresses my passion for film scores and things I do outside [Soulive and Lettuce] like scoring instrumentation. I think there are only two tracks with Hammond organ, and I played drums on the entire album.

JamBase: Stevie Wonder is giving you a spiritual high-five right now!

Neal Evans: [Laughs] It’s a lot more work, and it would have been much easier for me to call Alan [Evans] in or call [Adam] Deitch up.

There’s something subtle and valuably intangible to doing it yourself. You’re bringing what’s in your head out in a way only you can. It’s reminiscent of Stevie but also folks like Todd Rundgren and Brian Eno. Stevie Wonder could have had anybody in the world drum for him in the 70s. He could have called Billy Cobham and said, “Come play some pop tunes, motherfucker,” and Billy would have been right over. Crafting one’s vision down to that bedrock rhythm has value.

It’s made me try to be a better drummer because I hear these things in my head and I want to try and get them out. People ask me if I like playing with bass players, and I tell them, “Not really.” Even though there are tons of better bass players than me, I like having control and it’s hard for me to give it up. There are times I wish I could be in a band by myself [laughs]. I have this friend Ben Kenney – a great guitar player, singer, drummer, bass player – and he’s doing everything, and it’s so cool when you hear that. It does represent more sides of someone when they’re able – through technology – to compose and execute their ideas.

Taking music from conception to fruition on your own is very different than creating with a band, where you’re trying to explain to someone the sound you hear in your head. It’s fun to skip that translation process sometimes, and one hears that on Bang. It’s an overused metaphor but this album is really cinematic in spots. I want to make little movies to many tracks.

Cool! I was just trying to come up with these cinematic breakbeats. My wife and I are huge movie buffs, and there’s some great music in films. One specific influence was L’Avventura. We sat down to watch it – one of those movies we’ve meant to watch for years – and both of us were so blown away we were a little freaked out [laughs]. This movie is from 1960 and it shook the world when it came out, and the score is so incredible! We finished the movie and I was hearing music in my head. I didn’t ever put it on again or listen to the soundtrack, but the next day I started working on a song and my wife said, “Sweetie, I think that might be copyright infringement.” I was just hearing this music in my head and had to record it. Only when it was all done and I checked out clips on YouTube of the movie for the score did I breathe easy because they sound nothing alike.

Neal Evans by Rob Chapman
Nothing like your lady to make you nervous about your art! One of the biggest virtues of instrumental music is the range of reactions that occurs between one’s intentions and how the music is interpreted. Instrumentals allow a great deal of space for both the originators and the listener.

It definitely does, and I think I’ve gotten alright at that after working at it for years – I was writing real songs at 12. When I write music I hear vocals and then I have to change it to the instrumental format. But I’m constantly thinking of melodies and forms that make sense as songs.

That makes sense given how you solo, where there’s a very voice-like, human quality to your playing. In your mind you’re singing.

Oh yeah! Every night I perform I lose my voice because I’m singing along to what I’m playing. In the studio it’s even funnier. On the new Lettuce album [discussed on JamBase over here], I had to do this acoustic piano part for this song I wrote and the mic is right on the piano, and you can hear me almost as loud as the piano [laughs].

Your enthusiasm for what you do is part of your appeal. It’s very charismatic to see a musician that LOVES what they do and shows it unashamedly.

Lettuce by Dave Vann
I completely agree. I love meeting musicians and artists in any realm that are passionate about what they do. There’s an absolute difference in what they’re creating and what they stand by and represent when they love what they do. I gave this lesson to someone recently, a guy who builds satellites for NASA, and he said, “I love this because I get to do this on the side.” And I said, “I love this AND this is what I do.” This is fun.

It can be a challenge to remember those things once you twist your talents into a shape where money falls out. The fun can drop out when it’s a career, but you seem to balance these elements pretty well.

A lot of it is making my own music. As much as it’s great to go out and perform with Soulive – when we’re up on stage for those 2-3 hours it’s awesome – it’s a job, too. It’s a really great job but it’s not always easy.

A lot of fans don’t understand the personal costs and wear & tear of being a touring, working musician. So, let’s dig into the solo album a bit more. The title is a lovely bit of onomatopoeia.

It’s a name I’d had in mind for a while. It’s like, “Here it is! BANG!” For me, it was like, “Here I am. This is me. Finally.” It’s an explosive word, and there is a lot of emotion behind that title.

Things generally go ‘bang’ when they get broken or shot out of a gun.

Neal Evans by John Margaretten
This is my own voice, but even still, it’s only a fragment, a facet of the many sides of what I can do. I’m so amped for people to hear the new stuff I’m working on, and even other stuff that will totally depart from Bang. I have to have faith that someone will enjoy each piece, be it orchestral stuff, rock stuff, whatever it is.

This album shows off new sides of you but it’s clearly only a taster.

I’m glad I was able to convey that.

Bang works as a whole, as an album, and doesn’t come across as disjointed bits strung together. Solo efforts, especially ones delayed for years, often show off too many colors and try too hard to be diverse – here’s my honky tonk tune, here’s my Return To Forever tribute, here’s my Dr. John song. Bang has a personality, even as it expresses things we haven’t heard previous. For example, “Crashland” is electronica aware but married to a strut one might encounter on a great 70s street hustling score.

My wife was a huge part of me consolidating all of my thoughts. She helped me make sense of them. I was writing stuff down until I found a clear idea of what I wanted to do. This album could have gone the way you describe with all these different sides that wouldn’t make sense. Sure, they might have been good songs but I wanted to make something that made sense to me. I can take the criticism that my drumming sucks, but I didn’t want anyone to be able to say the album sucked for some reason. I thought very hard about where every kick drum was placed, about every snare drum hit, every keyboard choice, etc.

The Beatles in the Studio with George Martin
60s music is the most driving part of my musical existence, and that influence comes from all different sides of music during that period. There’s something about the reverb, the way people played, the instruments they used. So much music came out of that time, and it was jazz, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, country. It was probably the greatest time – period – for music.

It was a renaissance for every kind of music, and given the uncertainty about what would succeed or fail in such an environment, even the record companies got behind this creative flourish. One can’t even conceive of a band like The Beatles being welcomed by a major label today.

They did a bunch of weird stuff! People just accept The Beatles today because most people like to jump on a bandwagon. Yes, they wrote great songs but there were lots of bands at that time that wrote great tunes. The Beatles wrote a LOT of weird stuff. It wasn’t until we did our Rubber Soulive album and I listened closely that I realized how weird they were. It’s so great that they were able to put this stuff out and people were behind it.

Reverb in Action
Now, even though I love this certain era in music, I also love modernity. So many of my beats are straight 80s b-boy stuff, and there’s lots of tricks in the sonics that came out in mixing that are very contemporary. The use of reverb creates something…[trails off dreamily].

You tap into the philosophical underpinnings of 60s music without trying to emulate the sound of it. There’s a lot of recreation-ists these days, and even with many of them doing a really excellent job of sounding like The Byrds or Jimmy Smith, it’s always more interesting to hear someone take those ideas and make them relevant and impactful in a modern way.

I agree, and that’s something I’m doing more and more with the next stuff that will be coming out [after Bang]. I do embrace synthesizers and doing weird things with them so the listener says, “What the hell are you doing?” I’m always trying to incorporate modern keyboards into things I love. Honestly though, I’m really just a freak for reverb [laughs]. You put it on anything and it makes it cooler. All the rap music out there would be much cooler if they just put a bunch of reverb on it. It just sounds great. It makes you better. It makes your recordings better. I don’t know why but it just does.

You use reverb really well on Bang. Even an exposed bit like the piano on “Farewell,” it’s the reverb that gives it that special glow, that hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-standing-up feeling.

Neal Evans by Susan J. Weiand
I didn’t know if people were going to get that song. It came out of nowhere, and it made the hair on MY arm stand up. It’s just a beautiful melody.

This tune gets to the heart of the idea that this album shows off a Neal Evans we haven’t met before. But to your credit, you get this message across in a really succinct way. This album and its various tracks never overstay their welcome. The lack of 20 minute jam solos is awesome.

I was very conscious of that. There’s one keyboard solo and a Cheme [Cochemea Gastelum] solo on “Is That It,” which is just phenomenal! Oh my gosh, that was one take in the studio and it was perfect. I can bore myself, and even in the live format I’m constantly pushing myself, pushing boundaries. I do what’s necessary to solo, but hate to go on too long.

You’ve created a calling card for yourself that’s unique but retains enough touchstones with your earlier work to not lose fans. Conformity is the easier path. It’s natural and even sensible to keep going with the groove that’s been paying you.

Soulive by Rob Chapman
I feel – sometimes to my detriment – that I always have to prove myself. I don’t know why, but it never stops. There are times I wish I could be the sort of person who just puts stuff out and doesn’t worry about it. I have friends who do that and I don’t see any real stress in them, which I think is incredible. I wish I could do that but I’m SO critical of myself. I feel like I have to prove myself every time I get onstage, every time I put something out. I’m constantly looking for approval from people. However, I’m not worrying about what will make this or that person happy, it’s, “How do I make what I’m doing better so people will like it?” There’s a big difference.

You’re not sculpting to an expectation. You’re looking at what you do with an honest, critical eye and seeing how it can be tinkered with and improved, like acknowledging that a solo was good but if it was 30 seconds shorter it would have been even better.

I’m the editor and everybody knows it [laughs]. I’m always trying to figure out how I can tighten things up and remove anything unnecessary. You have to know how to trim all the fluff and fat and keep what is essential. You can have longer pieces just so long as you know everything is supposed to be there. There’s so much in our society where this doesn’t go on. People often aren’t critical about what they make or consume.

You see this dynamic in the mainstream music industry as clearly as anywhere in our culture, where people put care and time into the 3-4 singles they plan to release and surround it with subpar crap, tracks that any artist with half a brain and a small amount of real love for music would reject in demo form. So, the public accepts that albums are shitty for the most part, and that in turn helps lower the bar for what we expect from art in our culture. Mediocrity becomes the norm and we stop expecting Rubber Soul or Innervisions. The single becomes all people expect.

I know a lot of people who have incredible lives making this shit [laughs]. You just can’t believe it. So, I honestly feel like what I’m doing should be pop music. It’s not some underground thing. Aretha Franklin used to be Number One on the charts. All the stuff I grew up listening to – The Police, Van Halen – was Number One. This great music was pop music. We can have great pop music again.

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