On Friday, a day before Soulive came to town, I spoke with drummer Alan Evans over the phone. Originally informing me that he only had ten minutes to spare, Mr. Evans proved to be exceedingly cordial and enthusiastic throughout a conversation that ended up lasting nearly half an hour. We discussed a variety of issues ranging from the band’s dynamics, the present state of the music industry to the future of the digital age.
AK: In 2001, Soulive played at the Hall of Presidents to an audience that will most definitely pale in comparison to the audience expected for tomorrow night. There wasn’t much buzz preceding your show then, but here we are three and a half years later and not only are you playing a bigger venue in The Palace Theater, but your show is pretty much nothing but the talk of the campus at this point. How is this growth in popularity at a microcosmic level indicative of the group’s growth as a whole over the last few years?
AE: You know man, it’s just a steady, steady growth man. You know what I mean? We’ve just been on the road banging away … in the studio whenever we can. It’s different when you’re in it, you know? You’re just doing it all the time, so sometimes it’s kinda hard to see the growth. Because most of the time, as fast as it may seem to be jumping off, it’s still kinda slow cause you’re just inside it. You know? You got so many other things going on that you have to pay attention to. But then, every once in a while you catch it, you know – different shows that are pretty huge that you didn’t expect. It’s just a day-to-day thing for us man. You take everything day by day.
AK: Without radio airplay or MTV exposure, a band like yours builds its career on the road. How do you guys continue to make things interesting for yourselves and the fans?
AE: Well … I mean obviously we always try to write new tunes, or you know, change old tunes around. Also, we all have other things that we do. Other musical interests that we pursue. So I mean that’s one thing that helps keep it fresh – not doing it all the time. You can get really burned out that way, you know? Bottom line is that we really love what we’re doing. It keeps it easy for us, you know? Keeps it fresh. And I would think that when people come out to see us, they can see that we really dig what we’re doing. It’s not like we’re just up there looking at our watches, like ‘ah f— man, when’s this gig gonna be over with?’ You know, people pick up on that kind of thing. We just have fun man, that’s the bottom line.
AK: On the other side of things, as fun as it is, being on tour is also a hard life. It puts a lot of strain on families, finances, etc. The costs of putting on a tour are very high. Has there ever been a point you guys came close to calling it quits because of such strains?
AE: Yeah it happens all the time, you know. It’s definitely hard. But you know, that’s when you just kinda need to take time and sit back and just look at what it’s about. It’s a pretty amazing thing that we make our living … playing music, you know? We don’t have a day gig or anything like that. It’s easy to lose sight of the real positive things … that this life brings. A lot of times it’s so easy to jump on the negative things. You know, like you said man, it’s definitely really expensive to go out on tour. It’s expensive to…own your own studio, go in the studio, record an album. There are definitely a lot of times where you wanna just call it a day and go do something else. But again, we just dig it so much, that’s just natural. That’s just natural human reaction. Everybody feels that about anything they do. You know, wherever you’re in school or working on Wall Street or whatever, you know? That’s just the human experience man … that’s the easy thing to do though … to quit. It’s hard to keep it going, but if you do, it pays off in the end. Maybe not monetarily or whatever … financially … or whatever … but it’s in our blood. You can’t deny that.
AK: On your recordings, there is a constant horn presence. It’s a staple on your studio records as well as a lot of the live recordings I’ve heard. As a result, people, when they think of your songs, are inevitably going to think of the horn arrangements because they’re so integral to the group’s uniqueness and power. Do you find it necessary when you’re playing live to always have a horn section? Would your tunes feel vacant otherwise? If so, how would you compensate for this absence?
AE: Well, obviously we started off just as a trio and a lot of our tunes are trio-based. But I mean, I don’t know, again, we just got tired of playing just the three of us. I mean, we’ve experimented with vocalists and different horn sections, you know? But now, we’ve got it right. You know, we’ve got the right cats playing with us and we’ve got the right tunes. I think definitely at this point right now, if we had to do a gig tomorrow without them, it’d be kinda rough. We definitely rearranged a bunch of our old tunes with the horns and we have a bunch of new tunes that are written with the horns so we couldn’t even play those. I mean, we could try, but … it’s just where we’re at right now. Who knows? Maybe next month or next year we might go back to being a trio or we might, I don’t know, do something else. This is just where we’re at right now. This just feels right, you know. We just dig the sound. All about experimentation man.
AK: Okay. I want to ask you a few questions about the current state of music. Specifically, do you think there is a light at the end of the tunnel for music in the modern age, despite all the corporate brainwashing, blind consumerism, and the threat of illegal downloading? Where do you see music going in the digital age?
AE: Well it’s kinda funny you mention this. I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago when I was out in L.A. with this producer friend of mine and he is pretty deep in the pop-world industry or whatever. And he was saying how pretty soon, cats have been talking about how music in general is gonna be free.
AK: That’s interesting. I was going ask you about that.
AE: Well this is what he was saying is going on the industry, what cats are getting ready to do. There are gonna be a lot of corporate-sponsored artists. So basically there’ll be no more record labels. And say if you go into, Target or Walmart or something like that, you know, and you spend such and such amount of money or whatever, you’ll be able to download tunes for free. Or if you go to Starbucks you can download tunes for free or something like that man, you know? And they’ll do away with record labels. There’s actually evidence of this already man where there’s certain, uh, musical artists – older artists, not new artists, but older artists – that have signed with, like, auto companies instead of record labels. And the auto companies give their music away. It’s an interesting concept, I don’t really know if I could see a total … I could see it happening … but like I said there’s evidence already, you know? But I don’t know man, it’s … things are moving so fast now, and no one really knows what’s the best way to handle it. I mean I think in the end, I’m hoping in the end, that people are still gonna wanna in some fashion, pay for it. It’s all relative though. If you go into Starbucks and buy a coffee and get like a couple of tunes or something, I guess you’re still paying for it. I don’t know, I really don’t know. We’ll just have to see what happens. Everyone has different opinions in the industry. Obviously the record labels have their opinion. And we’ll just see. It’s definitely a pivotal time though.
AK: Do you think that it’s getting easier or harder for a struggling independent band to get their music out there with the presence of the internet and iTunes and all that?
AE: I guess in a way man, it’s easier. It’s definitely a little easier than when I was coming up to get your music heard. But I mean at the same time man, sure you can create a website, get your tunes up there, and the problem is then: how do you get people to your website? There are so many out there man, it’s insane. So in a way, you’re right back to where it started anyway. Back in the day you’d have like a cassette tape. Okay, well what am I gonna do with this tape? You have to get it out there. People have to hear it. It’s the same thing. It’s easier to get your music around the world, around the web, for people to check it out, but you still have to deal with getting those people to the stuff. It’s all the same, you know. It’s all the same.
AK: Recently the record industry has been filing lawsuits against college kids. And like you were saying before, music is becoming public and free. There is a dichotomy between record execs and certain artists who espouse private ownership and would-be consumers who claim downloading and file-sharing should not be illegal. These people are essentially inferring that music should be treated as part of the public domain. Is there any way of balancing the two so that both factions are satisfied? Obviously artists wouldn’t want their music to be free, it’s their art.
AE: I mean, really man, I think that in a perfect world, the artists would be able to decide what they want to do with their music. If they want to sell it, then whoever digs their music would have to buy it. If the artist feels like giving it away, then that’s their choice. It’s a drag that you have these middlemen like the record labels who are like “no, no you’re gonna have to pay such and such.” And that’s another thing. It costs record labels pennies to produce the physical CD. When you’re talking about downloads, like downloading something off of iTunes, it’s like 99 cents you know? But come on man, in the end the artist gets pennies off each thing sold. And it’s ridiculous to me when you hear about kids, college kids or high school kids getting sued. I mean the amounts these record labels are claiming from these people … is just insane, absurd. I mean, come on man. Hundreds of thousands of dollars because they downloaded some tunes, man? That’s insane. Like I said man, in a perfect world, the artist would have more control in terms of how they would get their music out there. That would be the best situation.
AK: On that note, another thing I noticed on your website is that your bio talks about the group’s entrepreneurial talents. Obviously that’s played a key part in your survival in an otherwise ravaged music business. Could you elaborate on this? How do you guys keep your head above water?
AE: A lot of it’s luck man, to be honest. There’s enough people out there that dig what we do, that keep us afloat. That’s what it really comes down to. I mean, we can do as much as we can to promote our product or whatever you want to call it; to promote ourselves or market ourselves or whatever. But at the end of the day, it’s the people who support us.
AK: I guess it is. It’s just unfortunate that some really good artists don’t get the attention they deserve.
AE: Yeah, that’s true man. … Like ‘ah man there’s this amazing cat playing downtown and there’s only five people in the club, whatever, whatever.’ There’s definitely some effort you have to put into marketing yourself. It’s not all just about the music at that point. We’re lucky that we have people around us, who work for us, who really know what they’re doing. But again, we got lucky right from the beginning man. We knew a lot of people who hooked us up with great opening spots and this and that. I don’t know man. Some of it you can’t explain, you can’t figure out. It’s just dumb luck sometimes.
AK: Your website mentions that your next goal is to make ‘the definitive soul record for the 21st century.’ Obviously the 21st century is still in its infantile stages and it’s hard to predict the progression of culture and music. Some people might consider this an overly audacious claim, citing the overall death of soul-power and music in the modern age. What is your vision for such a record? How do you respond to such naysayers?
AE: Well, (laughs) … Okay. The ‘definitive soul record’ whatever, whatever. Just put it this way: the three of us didn’t come up with that. Again, you know, that’s cool. Certain people who work for us, that’s their job. Gotta feed the fire or whatever. Keep something fresh, keep something new for people to talk about. So with that said, I mean, man we’re just trying to make an album that we really dig, you know? And we just hope that people really dig it too. I mean we listen to all kinds of music. And I’m like the most old school cat out of the whole band. So I don’t really listen to too much new stuff. Cause most of the time I’m just really disappointed with what I hear. And whatever man, we believe that we could do a better job than the stuff that’s out there. That’s not being egotistical or whatever … that’s just how we feel. And that’s how a lot of people feel. That’s how you keep things competitive, keep things growing, moving forward. I just personally don’t think there’s enough really good music out in the … whatever you want to call it, the pop world or whatever … the mainstream, whatever. So we’re just taking a shot at it. We’re not making a pop album, we’re just hoping it gets noticed, you know. It’s just our little contribution man, that’s all it is … just a contribution … to the whole process. So you know, if the people who are doing our marketing or promotion or whatever want to call it the greatest album ever or whatever, that’s cool. I hope that doesn’t turn people off. At the end of the day, we just like the music to speak for itself and let people make the decision. That’s it, you know? That’s it.