Soulive: Vocals are the new Soul

Listen to Soulive’s new album, No Place Like Soul here, or check out Soulive on Rhapsody here

By: Forrest Reda

As Soulive, Alan Evans and his brother Neal have been making music with guitarist Eric Krasno since 1999. The soul/funk group is known as one of the best live experiences around, and has achieved true crossover success, evidenced by tours with The Rolling Stones and Dave Matthews. Until now, Soulive was instrumental, with occasional guest vocalists. When it was time to record the band’s sixth full-length album, No Place Like Soul, the musicians realized the songs they were writing were vocal-based. Collectively, the musicians decided to reinvent themselves to remain artistically fulfilled, and adding vocals was the next logical step. The timing was perfect, as the band had just reconnected with vocalist Toussaint, a friend of the band for years. Toussaint’s path brought him to Soulive as much as the band’s path brought Soulive to him.

Read on as drummer Alan Evans shares the synchronicities behind No Place Like Soul, which becomes the inaugural release from the newly rejuvenated Memphis soul label, Stax Records.

JamBase: Tell me about the deal with Stax

Alan Evans: What happened is that our record label [Concord] bought Stax. They bought the whole catalog. Concord put out our last album, Breakout. Even before we ever signed with them, releasing a Soulive record on Stax was one of the carrots they were dangling. They told us, “We just bought Stax, but we don’t know what we’re going to do with it. Maybe we’re gonna try and re-launch it, but for now we’re just going to put out catalog stuff.” So, the whole time we were kind of hoping it would happen for Breakout, but really in the end I’m kind of glad it didn’t ’cause I think this is more of an appropriate album [for Stax], and the timing is right.

JamBase: How did the band meet Toussaint?

Toussaint with Soulive
Alan Evans: Toussaint is originally from Indiana, but then moved to Boston. He was kind of kicking it around Boston with some cats that we knew who lived there, like Adam Deitch, who plays with Eric in Lettuce, but we never connected. So, we started hearing about him, but he was only a reggae singer, as far as we knew. He would come out and sit in with us every once in a while on a reggae tune. We could tell he was a dope singer, but I had no idea.

So, a while ago we were on the road. We did this soul revue with this woman N’Dambi. At the time, she was managed by this cat named Otis. We were all on the bus together and we did the whole country. She used to sing with Erykah Badu. Otis and her parted ways after many years. Otis moves to New York City, and at this time, Toussaint is taking a bus back and forth between Boston and New York just to hang out. Otis saw Toussaint singing in the subway station or something, and was like, “Yo man, this cat can sing!” Kras has a studio in New York where he does R&B and hip-hop production, and Otis brought Toussaint over and they connect. Toussaint and Eric know some of the same people and they actually recorded a couple things and it sounded pretty cool, but again, nothing that is like, “Oh my god, that’s the catch.”

Years go by, Toussaint leaves Boston and comes out my way, and he’s living in North Hampton. Sam Kininger calls me up one night, and he’s like, “Yo dude, do you wanna come play with my band in North Hampton?” And I’m like, “Yeah man, I’m home. I got nothing to do.” I pack up my drums and go down there and Toussaint’s there. He had hit me up on MySpace, so I knew he was around, but I wasn’t too close with him yet. Anyway, Toussaint comes out to the gig [and] we’re playing, and we’re doing all funk. You know Sam, it’s straight funk. Toussaint comes up and starts singing Marvin Gaye, D’Angelo and all this stuff off the top of his head. I was just like, “Dude, what’s the deal?” That’s when he filled me in. He grew up in church in Indiana. He traveled all around Indiana with his family, singing gospel in churches. His whole family sings. They’re incredible. So, I’m like, “Cool, man, we’re both in North Hampton. We should try and hook up.”

Toussaint & Krasno by Krolick
Later, Soulive goes out to Colorado doing a little tour, this is when Reggie Watts [Maktub] was with us. Now, Reggie’s an amazing stand-up comic – that’s his passion – so at that time he was kind of over the live music thing and he had this opportunity to go to South Africa for a comedy festival. So, Reggie leaves early from the tour, and we had just been offered a gig with Dave Matthews. We had opened up for him a few times and also the Rolling Stones, just doing the instrumental thing. That’s cool but you don’t really grab people’s attention. We’ve done some shows with Reggie, and we noticed a difference when we had vocals. We were heading in that direction in terms of our own writing anyway, so I’m like, “Yo man, I just did a hit last week with Toussaint in North Hampton.” I was telling the cats this, and Kras was like, “Yeah, that dude can sing.” So, I just called him up and said, “Yo dude, do you wanna just come out and do some shows with us?” So, he comes out on this little run with us out to Colorado and California and we just start writing and it’s clicking.

How does having a vocalist change the dynamic?

It’s funny, with Tous – for the first time really – we didn’t notice that we had a vocalist. Neal put it really well [when he said], “It’s the first time that I didn’t notice when Tous was onstage or offstage.” He knows when to come out, when to lay back. That’s when we kind of knew that there was something there, and then we just started to slowly build on it, jump into the studio and blah, blah, blah there’s the album right there.

Continue reading for more on Soulive and Toussaint…

I don’t want to say “own you” – that’s totally wrong – but there’s a strong connection because they’re there. They are supporting you. There’s a symbiotic relationship, I guess. At the same time, what has gotten me here, personally, is that I don’t care what people think. I’m not trying to say that in a negative way, but you really have to sometimes stick to your guns and write music that you want to write and play the music that you want to play.

-Alan Evans on the addition of Toussaint and meeting fan expectations

Photo of Toussaint & Krasno (Soulive) by Susan J. Weiand

From a compositional standpoint, what’s the difference between instrumental music, and music with vocals?

Alan Evans by Weiand
We’ve gone through a lot of changes man – having Sam Kininger with us, having a full blown horn section, different singers, we had Ivan Neville come out and do a tour with us, N’Dambi and Reggie. We adapt well to different situations. There’s definitely a difference with Tous. It’s one of those things that’s really hard to explain but it just feels very natural. Obviously when [Soulive] started rocking together, there’s little cues that aren’t obvious to the average listener in what we’re doing, but that’s just our communication between the three of us. It’s really kind of hard for someone to pick up on. Kras would be in the middle of a solo and Tous would come up and start singing back into the verse. Those are just things that he had to adapt to, and we had to adapt to his thing and learn. Now, it’s so natural. It feels like he’s always been there, which is really cool. There are a lot of people that we hear say, “Oh, Soulive’s got this new singer,” and when they see it it’s different. Cat’s are like, “Oh, I wanna hear such and such, this old-school tune, that old school tune.” Well, we’re not really doing that stuff. The thing is, we’re very lucky. It’s different but people are really digging it. There are definitely some skeptics out there but Tous is just really bad [read: good], and we all work really well together. We’re just having fun. The vibe is really good.

How much of the set is instrumental?

At this point, it’s probably only three or four [songs] a night and the rest is all vocals.

Has the addition of a vocalist opened the door for you and Kras to sing more?

Toussaintn, Krasno & N. Evans by Krolick
For a while I was doing lead vocals for certain things. Yeah, man, I’m singing a lot actually, and Kras is too. And Neal’s going to be singing pretty soon. So yeah, it’s pretty tight.

Are there songs that you wrote that Toussaint sings?

I wrote a lot of the music for a bunch of the tunes, and he came in with lyrics. [On] the last tune on the album, “Kim,” I’m singing. I wrote that whole thing, that’s my entire composition.

That song sounds like it came from Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. It might be my favorite.

Thanks, man. I also wrote the music for “Mary.” That’s one of the first tunes that Tous and I worked on. There was a time when Tous was coming over here and we were working a lot together and that was one of the tunes that we were really psyched about.

Soulive has had a few incarnations, with saxophonist Sam Kininger, a full-fledged horn section and other guest musicians and vocalists. Do you foresee more additions to Soulive in the future?

Neal Evans by Weiand
Right before this, we were with horns for a while. We know when the feeling is there, and right now, it’s not there. We’re just really digging where it is right now. When we add more people, like a horn section, things get a lot tighter. Not that we’re not tight right now, but when you have people playing parts and things like that, it’s kinda hard to stray away from things, and that’s something we dig, now. It goes back and forth. Neal and Kras want to blow more, so we get rid of a horn section, but then I end up having to add fills for half the set [laughs]. No, we’re feeling so good about it right now, that if it’s not broke…

How have fans reacted to Soulive moving from pure instrumentation to a singer? Do you feel like you have to meet their expectations?

Toussaint & Krasno by Weiand
It’s a line that you walk. I’m sitting here at home, and I have a nice studio here. This is all I do. A lot of that is because people have paid to come see us play and they buy our albums, and we’re very fortunate to have that. So, to some degree, a lot of people feel that they, I don’t want to say “own you” – that’s totally wrong – but there’s a strong connection because they’re there. They are supporting you. There’s a symbiotic relationship, I guess. At the same time, what has gotten me here, personally, is that I don’t care what people think. I’m not trying to say that in a negative way, but you really have to sometimes stick to your guns and write music that you want to write and play the music that you want to play. In the end, you have to be happy to do this or else it’s really hard, almost impossible, to keep your sanity if you’re not happy playing music. So, like I said, in the end we’re going to do what we have to do to keep it interesting for ourselves. We got tired of playing instrumental music all the time. We felt like we hit a ceiling artistically. These things come to a head. These opportunities are only presenting themselves because this is the kind of music that you’re playing. Okay, well that’s cool, whatever. At the same time, if you’re just getting tired of playing instrumental music all the time, that in combination with all that other stuff, it’s time to change.

There were a couple ways we could have gone. One way was just like, “Peace, okay, everyone go their separate way.” Ya know? But, it turned out that all of us were on the same page, secretly in our labs writing a lot of vocal stuff and different feels, more on the rock tip. We had the option to do our separate things and come together every once in a while and do a half-assed job of putting together some Soulive instrumental record because some fans dig it. But that would show through, and people would just say, “Fuck you, we’re out of here. We’re going to go find some people that are emotionally attached to their own music.”

So, Toussaint came into the picture at an ideal time for Soulive…

Soulive by Weiand
Like I said, man, it’s just timing. It kinda just happened that we were about to start working on the album. To get to my original point, if some people dig it, cool. If some people don’t, cool. We can’t force anyone to dig it, but what people will see and hear is that we really love this stuff. It’s not like we did it because someone said, “Here’s some more money because you have a vocalist.” That’s not the case, obviously. We just love this music. We have so much fun, and I think in the end that will put some skeptics at ease, just to know that this is coming straight from the heart.

Every time I’ve seen Soulive I’ve noticed how happy you guys are making music together.

It’s feel-good music. That’s the thing. The vibe, the soul of the band is the same as day one. It’s the same energy [going] into our show and into our recordings. It’s the same band, the same cats, just different tunes. We’ve been living with this album for a while now and it’s funny because a lot of people haven’t even heard it yet. We’re excited for people to check it out.

Soulive tour dates available here. You can purchase the new album here.

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