Interview: Eric Krasno Talks Jazz Fest, Chapter 2, Bowlive & More

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There are few artists in our scene as closely associated with New York City as Eric Krasno, who’s been onstage at local jam band clubhouses like Brooklyn Bowl more often than most bands have gigs in a year.

All situations evolve, though, and as Kraz has spread his wings well beyond Soulive, Lettuce and the other situations with which he first made his name, his focus too has shifted, to more of his own music and specifically to his long-developing role as a producer for and collaborator with a wide range of artists in an even wider range of genres. And what’s more — though it doesn’t feel like it given how often he plays in New York still! — Krasno is now a left-coast denizen, having moved to Los Angeles earlier this year.

What hasn’t changed, though, is just how busy and committed he is: producing for all different artists, developing his own bands, writing songs, turning up with the likes of Phil Lesh & Friends and Foundation Of Funk and countless other groups, and being all over the place at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, as Kraz is wont to do. And it’s not like the hallmarks of the “old Krasno” have fallen by the wayside. He returns to New York this week for four nights and eight sets with his mighty Chapter 2 band — and a number of guests — at New York’s Blue Note. And July marks the return, after its 2018 absence, of Bowlive — the last vestige of what used to be a New York City staple, the proper Soulive residency.

Here’s Krasno on an action-packed 2019: thus far and what’s to come.

JAMBASE: How was your Jazz Fest?

Eric Krasno: It was epic, man. So many highlights. One big one was I sat in with Phil Lesh and was hanging with him later, and then I told him I was playing with George [Porter Jr.] and Zigaboo [Modeliste], and I was like, come down and hang … and if you feel like playing? He said, “Well, yeah, that sounds good.” He had texted Grahame [Lesh] and said I’m going to go play with Kraz and George, and I think we somehow coordinated to have another bass amp out there. We got onstage and spoke to George, and I think Zig was kind of unclear as to what we were going to do, but we explained, they [the Grateful Dead] used to do “Iko Iko” and “Hey Pocky Way” and stuff like that and we ended up doing those and found our way into “Lovelight.” That was spur of the moment, and it was so fun to watch Phil watch that band and then sit in and have a blast.

JAMBASE: You’ve been playing with Phil off-and-on now for a few years going back to that show in Central Park. Sounds like those collaborations will continue.

EK: Oh yeah, I hope so. But just looking up and seeing how excited he was — that was amazing. He came out with us to the Maple Leaf and watched Grahame and me sit-in with the New Orleans Suspects, and then he went to see [John] Medeski at the Maison. But those were just a few highlights. I played with George and Medeski and the Shady Horns; I had so many gigs.

New Orleans Suspects – The Cisco Kid/Fire On The Mountain Captured by Mike Quinlan

Another great one was at Shaggy’s Crawfish fest, we got to close out with an Eric Krasno & Friends set and bring in Terrence Higgins, and George, and Ivan Neville. Marcus King sat-in on that too — that was a highlight. And then the night after that we did the Daze Between band, which has kind of become my yearly event at Jazz Fest, the Wednesday between the weekends. We had Mononeon come out, Sput (Robert Seawright) from Ghost-Note and Snarky, Weedie Braimah, Jen Hartswick, I think Marcus sat-in on that too. That night has just become this amazing night. There’s people coming into town who’ll be playing their gigs on the weekend, and then there’s the hardcores who have stayed at Jazz Fest through the week. Everyone in the crowd on that Wednesday late night is really into it — serious music people.

JAMBASE: How do you put this all together, every year? You’re a veteran in that you balance planned gigs with spontaneous things and somehow you end up everywhere and it works.

EK: It’s become somewhat second nature. I’ve become comfortable with putting shows together and also fortunate enough to work with so many great musicians and over time, gain their trust so they say, “OK, I’ll do this if you’re planning it” and not get resistance. But it’s amazing to have watched this scene evolve. Not many places where you can play with George or Phil one day and the next with Mononeon. You feel like there’s no genre anymore — it’s just people playing music together. And so many people come primarily, or even just for, the night shows, which is pretty amazing.

JAMBASE: You recently moved to L.A. We’ve come to think of you as a New York guy of course; why the move?

EK: A few things, I think. I wanted to have more space, and I’ve always dreamt of having a recording studio where I live. I’ve been part of shared situations before. I also looked at doing this in upstate New York and thought about a number of different places. But L.A. made sense. My brother moved here, and I’ve always been coming here — so many people I know are here. It was a Hail Mary situation, but I found the house with the recording studio setup I wanted, and I’m just doing it. I’ve been talking about it for so long, it was time to do it. Between being here and then going up to the Bay Area a lot for shows, it makes sense.

I love New York, and honestly, I’ll be there for shows probably as much as before. I’m really going to enjoy being a visitor in New York, partly because I love the city so much and I know it so well. The hang in New York is amazing. The everyday grind got to me after a while.

JAMBASE: You’re back at the Blue Note this month for what’s becoming a mini-tradition of Eric Krasno shows. How do you pick who’s going to join you? Ledisi you’ve known for ages, but do you know Lisa Fischer that well?

EK: I met Lisa a few years ago. I’m music director on a few events, one of which is run by Greg Williamson, who also does Love Rocks and others, called The Tipping Point. Lisa was a guest on that show in New Orleans, and I got to know her when I was planning the set and putting that together.

Since then we’ve done various things together. We did the 50th anniversary of the Apollo together. She’s an amazing person — one of the most incredible singers in the world. It’s fun being able to jump in and out of these situations and then to pull these people into my world.

JAMBASE: What kind of experience are you going for here? The Blue Note connotes something more intimate than a club show, per se — a listening room.

EK: The band for this is Chapter 2, which I the one I put together for the Reminisce album I made a while back. Louis [Cato] was like 18 when I first met him. [laughs] He was a drummer first, and I had heard he was also a great bass player. He did the first few shows with us on bass and Adam Deitch was on drums. He then moved to drums when Adam couldn’t make more shows, and we had Chris Loftlin come in without even rehearsing and just went from there. When that band locked — with Nigel Hall on keys — it was there. Everyone in that band is super busy, so it’s not a band I can do that often — it mainly happens if we’re in New York and folks can come into town because Louis is on the Colbert show.

JAMBASE: Speaking of New York happenings, Bowlive returns in July. There wasn’t one in 2018 — we missed you guys.

EK: Yeah, I missed it too. Neal [Evans] was on the road with Jack White for a lot of last year. I’m excited for this year’s format of doing three shows, and then three shows. The 10-show thing just wore us out so bad. It was madness so this will be good. Our guests this year are my favorite list of guests ever. I can’t say who they are yet, we’re working on an announcement of that, but you’ll find out soon enough. It’s the usual suspects and a lot of our favorites.

JAMBASE: Every time it looks like Soulive is on permanent hiatus, you guys seem to come back with new shows or new music like Cinematics. What’s the state of Soulive today?

EK: Yeah, we’re all just really busy. We’ll never just quit; it will always be there and will fire up again at some point in a bigger way. But there’s not a ton on the horizon. Part of that is me — I’m releasing a record this summer and have a lot going on with that, among doing a lot of other stuff. Everyone is busy. We’re in a good place, though, and we really enjoy it when we do come together.

JAMBASE: Talk about your new record. This sounds like a big one for you.

EK: This has been a big thing for me – I’ve been working on it for a few years now. It’s kind of my ode to New York, and specifically to Brooklyn. As a concept album, it follows a storyline of a group of people living in an apartment building. And it’ll be built out, it’s going to have an animation companion to it that unfolds with the songs. I wrote all the songs and created the landscape for the music, and I think it merges all these different worlds: pop records, psychedelic stuff, cool sounds and textures.

A lot of my solo records are eclectic, and there’s differences song-to-song. This one kind of combines a lot of those things into one bigger thing. It’s the most cohesive album I’ve ever made. Songwriting has been an evolution for me. I’m excited for people to hear it, and curious to see how they react to it.

JAMBASE: Will you tour this material at all?

EK: That’s a really good question that I don’t know the answer to right now. I want the production around it to fit the concept of the record so I don’t know how it would work in clubs and stuff.

JAMBASE: It doesn’t sound like this would fit easily in any band you’re part of now.

EK: Maybe? I don’t know. I’ve rehearsed some of it a little with a few people, but I don’t know what shape this would take.

JAMBASE: What else are you working on? I mean, as if you’re not busy enough!

EK: A lot. Let me see. I’m producing Kat Wright’s album. I got with her and we worked on creating a sound for her new record that’s a little unique for her — it’s different than what she’s done before and different from what I’ve done before. I’ve also been working with Mihali on his record. Same kind of story: he went a little left, I went a little right, and we found a cool sound. I’m working with a lot of younger artists — one guy, named James The Eighth, he’s a singer and songwriter. And there’s Victoria Canal, she’s a piano player and singer. There are more artists too, some I can’t really announce yet, but I’m spending a lot of my time in studio.

JAMBASE: You’ve always enjoyed this piece of it, the producer piece.

EK: It was something I was focused on from way back, in college. I always had my hopes set on being a producer and figuring out how to do that was the hardest part of all off it. Soulive was kind of a left turn for me, actually — I didn’t foresee myself being a guitarist in a soul-jazz group. During the touring years, I was always in the studio, studying what producers were doing and trying to get inside of what they did. And not just how they did what they did as far as music and sounds, but you know, how they got to the gig — what is a producer all about? So it’s something I’ve always focused on, and in more recent years, it’s become in the center of what I do.

JAMBASE: It’ll be good to have you back in NYC, although as you said I’m sure it’ll always feel like you’ve never left.

EK: Yeah. And I meant to add I’m working with Ledisi, too. I’m so excited to do these shows, she’ll be part of them and so will others. We have our band for the night, and also some TBAs. We leave room for some pop-ins, as there always are.

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Eric Krasno