bill bodkin speaks with Neal Evans, keyboardist of funk/jazz trio Soulive …
“Soulive has never been defined — we continue to evolve.”
The evolution of Neal Evans and his band Soulive, is a perfect mirror image of the jazz genre which he performs — highly improvised, teeming with creative energy; taking both the artist and the audience on an amazing trip through the world of infectious grooves, cinematic break beats and foot-stomping, hand-clapping soul anthems.
This musical evolution has taken Neal and Soulive the world over — opening for The Rolling Stones and The Dave Matthews Band. It’s allowed them to amass an army of amazing musical accomplices ranging from Allman and Neville kin to legendary funk and jazz artists. And ultimately it has allowed them to play by their own rules — running their own label, Royal Family Records, a label that has allowed to take their vision and let it evolve beyond the restrictions of the corporate world.
Recently, Pop-Break’s Bill Bodkin caught up with Neal Evans and spoke to him about his new solo album Bang, his work with Soulive, the band’s 10 day stand at the famed Brooklyn Bowl and his wide array of musical inspirations.
BB: You play the Hammond B3 organ — not an instrument a lot of kids aspire to learn. What was your inspiration to play it?
NE: Years ago when I was playing in another band with my brother, I was playing the left-handed bass. I turned to the organ because it was an instrument of convenience, despite the it weighs an absurd amount, but with the organ you can play bass, lead stuff and chords at the same time. I was 19 years old when I first started performing on it. I didn’t grow up playing, I just played the B4 only a couple times before. I was really known for playing the bass at first.
BB: So you started out playing the bass when you were young?
NE: (laughs) No man, I was a drummer first. Then I played the keyboards. I started when I was 8. I really want to play an actual bass. Eric Krasno (Soulive’s guitarist) was a bassist first. He told me, “If you learn how to play bass, in a month you’ll be killing it.” But to get to the level [playing bass] as I am playing organ, it’d take some time.
BB: You’re releasing a new album, Bang, in April. Can you talk about the concept behind it?
NE: That took a little while to figure out. My wife really helped define the direction of the album. I can just sit back and write music — I’ve got so many ideas — but I wanted a cohesive feel to the album. My wife and I love films and I love incredible film scores. I wanted to create a cinematic break beat album. I wanted to make a score for a ’60s film in mind, and the tracks would be like snippets from the movie. There was a lot of cinematic imagery in my mind while composing it. It was great writing with a guideline. In the end, we ended up editing 12 to 14 songs.
BB: I got to tell you man, I really, really dug Bang. I’m more of a metal guy — Metallica, Anthrax, etc. — but what you put together was amazing.
NE: (laughs) Thanks, man. Growing up, I was into a lot of diverse music. When I was a kid, I was hanging out with friends, skateboarding a lot listening to bands like Suicidal Tendencies, Public Enemy, The Smiths, The Police, Bad Brains. Good music is good music, man. I was lucky I never had to listen to one type of music. But I was lucky I had friends who did and I was influenced to them.
BB: Going off that, can you pinpoint your musical influences? You and Soulive have a very unique sound.
NE: That in itself is an interesting thing, man. We do some wild instrumentals, and I never imagined being an instrumental artists. You always want to be a vocal artist as a kid.
My dad was really into jazz and classical, also Joe Cocker. Alan and I have an older brothers who in his mid-50s. He was listening to James Brown, early Stevie Wonder. He was a DJ through the ’70s, and he first introduced me to Bob Marley when I 4 years old. Alan and I also had friends were huge into rock and pop. Eric’s house was big into The Beatles and Hendrix. Alan was into Hendrix and tons of funk and fusion stuff. That’s what I grew up hearing.
The three of us are fans of overlapping music genres and into other stuff individualistically. We didn’t start to be out to be like we are. Eric got into funk when he was playing with Karl Denson & Tiny Universe and Grey Boy All-Stars. When we got into a lot of Grant Greene. And when you have a band with three people in it playing drums, organ and guitar, you get the jazz stigma attached to you. I mean, we were composing these tunes, wearing these suits, but we didn’t want to be a retro thing you know.
See, Soulive has never been defined — we continue to evolve. Bowlive is a reflection of our musical range. We have all our musical friends performing, we’ve had legendary jazz musician John Scofield, members of the Allman Brothers Band, Talib Kwali, Q-Tip, The London Souls. These are all our friends and we all play together. We have tons of bands that we’ve met and hung with who’ve hipped music to us like Derek Trucks and Ivan Neville. Like, we’ll be hanging with Derek, and he’ll be hipping us to some Indian music. All of this has an effect on Soulive. Something new happens every time we come on stage. Every Soulive performance something new happens — we continue to evolve.
BB: So I guess, going back to our first question … I honestly forgot where we left off.
NE: The album. It’s inspired by the great movies of the ’60s and ’70s, but also the early ’80s b-boy and b-girl culture. It’s got the breaks that breakdancing and DJ culture of that era could recognize but with a modern take on it — not some sort of retro thing.
BB: What were the movies that inspired you?
NE: The second track “Adventurer” is inspired by La Aventura, an Italian film from 1960. The film’s theme has got that mandolin in it. It’s such incredible film, and I went to bed and I just heard the song in my head. The next morning, I woke up and cut the track. I played for my wife and she was like, “Oh my God, did you just rip off the theme to the movie?” It was cool because I played the original, and [my song] was nothing like the original, but I was able to capture the film in that song.
As for the rest of the album, there’s just so many movies, man. I love the production of Jerry Goldsmith — he’s my favorite composer. He did my favorite score, Planet Of The Apes. He also did Chinatown. And then’s there The Godfather. Oh my goodness, it’s the direction, the acting, the score, the framing — it’s perfect. It’s amazing when a film meshes together like that. It’s like a perfect pop song. And that’s why the great songs stay with you — there’s something perfect about it.
BB: One thing I noticed on the Royal Family Records website is that you guys have a lot of side projects, but … all the members of Soulive are in all your side projects from bands like Lettuce to even your solo projects.
NE: Lettuce actually cam before Soulive. Those cats were like 16 years old, and they came together at a Berklee music camp. They toured the Northeast and they opened for our old band. So we’ve known those cats like Eric for years. And that’s how we met guys like Adam and Jeff.
These cats are family — they are my brothers. This is our Royal Family crew. It just makes sense that we want everyone to be on our albums. It’s hard to go outside that. Like, I had to have guitars for this track, so I had to run and cut it with Eric. I needed trumpets for a track and I had to run and cut it with Nigel Hall. It’s this web that keeps expanding — we really are a family.
BB: Is Royal Family Records your own label?
NE: Yes, it’s ours.
BB: So why go on your own? You guys were on a major jazz label in Blue Note. Why not stay there instead of doing it yourself?
NE: We were on Blue Note, then Stax after. There were great people at all those labels — they’ve got great intentions. Soulive has an incredible fanbase that keeps growing, and they’re totally down with us and this way we can hip them to some like Lettuce. We’ll be hyping people to everyone else’s music. The No. 1 thing [about having your own label] is there’s no restrictions. It really frees up everything. Music is at this great moment. There’s this process where I can cut a song and I can just put it out with absolutely nothing to think about [when releasing it]. This way fans don’t have to wait a year for a new album or a new track, they can be like, “Who this guy just put a track,” and then a few weeks later, here’s another one.
People think we’re a soul label, but hey man, I think Metallica’s a soul band. Anyone who puts their heart and soul into their music, it’s soul music to me.
Also, people know that every time they invest in the label by downloading a track or buying an album, the money is going to the artist not to some mega-corporation where the artist is never going to see it.
BB: I agree, man. I tell people that despite rock ‘n’ roll being “dead” in terms of popularity that it’s an awesome time to stop coasting and start discovering new music.
NE: It’s a great time especially when people become hip to your music and then they come to see you live. We’re live musicians, and when you come out, you’ll see an incredible show. And it was a great time for us to start Royal Family Records. It was our 10th anniversary and it was like we came full circle. We started independent and we’re independent again.
BB: Moving on to Bowlive … this is a crazy event. How did it come about? And for someone who’s never seen it before, what can we expect?
NE: The owner Pete Shapiro, who owned The Wetlands [and current owner of Brooklyn Bowl], we’re dear friends. Jeff showed our manager and Eric the Bowl before it was nothing. Pete really had a vision that had never been done before. He really wanted us to do a residency there even before it was open. I was like, “A residency?”
But, time frame was a big issue for us since we’re always touring. Timing was everything, but then I went inside, and it was incredible. I mean, it’s a bowling alley with a concert venue and they have my favorite restaurant Blue Ribbon there.
This is a state-of-the-art venue. I was hanging recently with people who work at Brooklyn Bowl, and in general, they notice no what people are doing, bowling or eating, people are having a good time. Sometimes people will be taking up some lanes, bowling, not knowing what band is playing and after they come up and they say, “I never heard your band before, but you’re awesome.”
But after last year’s Bowlive, Peter wanted to do another event in the fall. I gotta tell you, man, it was one of the most grueling experiences I’ve ever done. We’d get to the venue at noon rehearse with the [guest] artists ’till 6 p.m. Stop for a couple hours, then perform. I don’t unwind after a show for a few hours, so I wouldn’t fall asleep til like 4 a.m. and then go back to playing again. We played our asses off. So when Peter asked for fall, I said, “No way, man.”
So we made it an annual thing. I mean, this is a really an honor. I mean, when I think of residencies I think of the Allman’s at The Beacon Theater.
BB: Here’s an odd question: What is it about Williamsburg in Brooklyn that has made it like this cultural hotbed?
NE: It’s a great spot to check out bands. I find new bands, and they’re from Williamsburg and Green Point. It’s a really great environment — a hotbed for artistic expression. It’s got a great vibe and a great place to get turned on to all types of music.