bill bodkin speaks with the lead singer of collective soul as he rolls into Asbury Park, N.J., as part of the Southern Gentlemen Tour with Better Than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin …
Ed Roland is one of the most prolific hitmakers of the 1990s, creating a slew of No. 1 rock singles and multi-platinum albums throughout the decade. However, his success didn’t stop when Bill Clinton left office — he’s penned a number of hits throughout the last two decades for Collective Soul and has formed two other popular projects: The Sweet Tea Project (which scored a huge folk hit with “Shelter From the Storm” off the Bob Dylan tribute album Chimes Of Freedom) and the Southern Gentlemen Tour, a two-man bill he’s doing with Better Than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin.
The duo will play The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., on Thursday, Feb. 23. Pop-Break’s Bill Bodkin spoke with Roland about songwriting, the tour, Collective Soul — and Ed even took time to answer questions from our staff and our readers.
Pop-Break: How did you and Kevin get together to form the Southern Gentlemen? I’ve read you teamed up to do some acoustic shows at some private BMI shows, but talk about the impetus of getting together?
Ed Roland: It started years ago. We’ve known each other since the mid-’90s through our bands. We were out performing together one night and the idea of co-writing came up. [That idea spawned] doing some shows together. He really helped me learn how to co-write, got me through the baby steps. Plus, our boys are the same age, we’ve got a lot of similarities. We thought ‘Why not give it a shot?’ It was just a natural thing. And he’s an easy date — make sure you keep that in! [laughs]
PB: What was it about co-writing that made you get really interested in it?
ER: I had gone to — well, I don’t want to call it a camp — they had all these writers come out … oh well, I guess you would call it a camp then. It’s a refresher course on songwriting. For so many years, I was in the back of the bus writing by myself and there was no one really to tee off of or hear, ‘Oh that sucks’ or ‘That’s good.’ So to start having some feedback and also learning different ways to incorporate chord progressions, melodies, all that, it was just an eye-opener for me and it changed the way I was writing. And I really enjoyed it. It was more than a learning experience, it was good to just have another soul in the room to talk about something — whatever you’re writing or the subject you’re writing about, even if didn’t even come up, just to have someone else in the room was just refreshing. [laughs] And then watching Kevin, who’s been very successful at it, and he’s great it … to be able to start with someone who I can entrust, for a lack of better terms, my feelings, you really have to open yourself up and be honest with everything when you’re co-writing. You need someone, who’s a friend, to kinda ease me into it. It’s something I enjoy doing.
PB: Post-BMI session, what was about it Kevin that made you want to go on the road on with him?
ED: Well once again, what you said — it comes [down] to songwriting. You have to respect each other in the songwriting. I think Kevin respects me and I know I respect him, and once again it’s one of those people, not only do we enjoy each other’s company, but he’s someone that can help me learn writing. I just been around a room watching another dude guitar noodle and I feed off that and I think he does too. We’re very similar in our backgrounds, so it’s made this transition in a selfish way. It makes the co-writing very easy for me. He’s an easy cat to be around.
PB: Are there any plans of doing an original Southern Gentlemen record?
ER: That’s what we’re in the process of doing. We did not do it till we went out on this first run [the Southern Gentlemen Tour started in fall 2011], and that’s when we thought, ‘Well, this makes a lot of sense.’ Once again, we’re not trying to take away from Better Than Ezra or Collective Soul at all. That’s still Kevin’s baby and Soul is my baby. But this is something that I think helps those bands. It inspires he and I. So when we got done with it, the two-three week run, we were like let’s get together seriously and start writing songs. So we’ve got about eight songs we’ve written and then we’re going to do another week of writing and start recording. He just texted me last week he was at The Grammys and he was like, ‘Let’s go get the sessions fired up and start recording.’
PB: What’s your personal favorite Better than Ezra song?
ER: You know what there’s so many of them. I like … you know … it’s funny you always go to ‘Good’ because it’s the first one that introduced you [to Better Than Ezra]. Before The Robot is just a good record. I mean, the whole body of work … it’s hard to me to pinpoint. I like Kevin’s writing because he’s not trying to give you nine good songs and some that aren’t that great. They all kind of fit together. I pride myself on trying to do that too … there’s no filler or anything like that. I know for Collective Soul, we can put in [Better Than Ezra's] How Does Your Garden Grow, and it’s one of the few records that can stay and everyone’s like, ‘This is cool. We can listen to this.’ [laughs] Everybody has their own tastes, so it’s hard to just pick one song.
PB: Your live show is you performing, then Kevin performing and you two jamming together, right?
ER: Oh yeah yeah. I do ‘Good,’ he does ‘Shine’ with me. We do that, you don’t wanna give away too much of what we do, but I do a couple of Ezra’s [songs] and he does a couple of C. Soul’s [songs].
PB: Okay, so what Better Than Ezra song do you just love to play — ne that really hits you in the soul that you just have this passion to perform?
ER: I love doing ‘At The Stars’ I love that because I get to sing that. I picked it. He picked one that he really wanted to do. We both look at each other and we say, ‘What song would you like to do?’ You get to sing one, I get to sing one and we’ll work on the other ones. That was the one I picked, ‘At The Stars.’ Then I just go back to ‘Good,’ and it brings me back to that era and that time. We had just gotten signed, they got signed. Life was crazy — songs can do that to you. I can remember songs from high school that bring you back to that particular moment. So those two songs definitely for me.
PB: Speaking of that time, the mid-;90s, our managing editor, Brent Johnson is a huge Collective Soul fan — and he has a question for you. He feels that the during the height of your fame in that decade, there was an emphasis on melody. He feels that in today’s rock scene, melody isn’t embraced. He wants to know if you agree with this statement, and why do you think it’s happened?
ER: Well, I don’t think it does as much, but I do it’s refreshing to see someone like the Foo Fighters, who I think’s one of the greatest bands of all-time, be noticed by The Grammys and win things like that. Yes, I still think it’s out there — I don’t think it’s out there that much. It’s hard to get in that world. I’m just not into saying ‘what is’ and ‘what isn’t.’ I look at the glass half full. I still think there are bands that have that melody. I just don’t hear it as much. It’s tough to answer things like that. When we came out in the early ’90s, every generation has that spark, rock was interesting, there was excitement and things like that. It’s petered off since then. I still think there’s good songs out there. The Head And The Heart, not sure if they’re rock, but they’re melodic. Civil Wars … they’re great. They’ll call them folk … James Taylor is rock ‘n’ roll to me. That’s the beauty of rock. The Beatles set that parameter — there are no rules. There the ones who would do a folk tune and the next song they’d be tripping and rocking out. I guess the rule for rock is: There are no rules. With Civil Wars, there’s melodies, it’s sparse and it’s plain, but it’s beautiful melodies. It’s still definitely out there.
PB: You’ve got another project, The Sweet Tea Project, which covered ‘Shelter From The Storm’ on the Chimes Of Freedom album — the all-star Bob Dylan tribute record. The album charted at No. 11 on Billboard 200 charts and No. 1 on the folk chart. Can you talk about this new project and about how you got involved with the Dylan record?
ER: It started out when I came home to Atlanta, and there’s a bunch of friends I don’t see. And I had just moved into my house, which has a studio in the basement. So I became popular with the local musicians around town. [laughs] It was just a hang place. I’m not int the studio business, charging people, so it was just a hang place. It was like a singer-songwriters in the round — they would play their songs and I’d play songs that aren’t Collective Soul songs. I can’t stretch that too far, it has a brand, it has its own thing. But there are songs I wrote that aren’t Collective Soul songs and I started to play them and everyone was like, ‘Man, we should do something like this!’ So it started out once again having fun and that’s what we did. We finished about 15 tunes — we’re excited and time-permitting we’re looking to get out there. We’re very serious about it, it’s a lot of fun. We’ve got a lot of co-writes going on — it’s me opening up and feeling good about. And it’s about seeing old buddies in Atlanta.
Then, getting on this Dylan tribute was just wonderful. They called and I think they wanted Collective Soul to do a song. We’re taking time off, but we’re getting back to that world later in the year. But my manager was like, ‘You’ve got this other project, it’s very Americana.’ And that was the other we wanted to use instruments that weren’t in Collective Soul. You’re not going to hear banjos in Collective Soul, you’re not going to hear mandolin. It’s just a different way and a different expression of me. They [the Dylan tribute producers] said, ‘Well let’s hear some of the music.’ So we sent them what we recorded and they said, ‘Great … can they record this song and get it to us tomorrow?’ [laughs] So thankfully I was doing a show with Collective Soul, so I flew in. We did ‘Shelter From The Storm,’ so I did acoustic, sang it and left. The other guys, everybody else had gigs that night, so they came in and did it later. So we did an old school fly-in, fly-out kinda way.
It’s been a lot of fun, but I’m very serious about this project. It’s not a side project to me. It’s passion, I love what’s going on with it.
PB: You said the project started as a big hang. Are you a little surprised at the success your song had on the charts?
ER: You’re always pleased when people like what you do. Why we do it — we always want to get patted on the back. [laughs] We want people to like us — I don’t really know what to say. Especially when you started out just having fun with something, it’s very rewarding. And like I said the rest of the record, I’m just really excited. We had so much fun playing. That’s the way Collective Soul started, too — it’s the way they all should start. We’ll see where this goes, you know. We’re still in the honeymoon phase with The Sweet Tea Project.
PB: This comes from a reader, Jackie Durrett of Sayreville, N.J., who also wanted to see if you’d marry her. But in all seriousness, she asked: Your father was a minister. Did growing up in that world, influence your writing in Collective Soul or any of your other projects.
ER: [laughs] Well, I am married and have two children. So tell her I am flattered. [In regards to the other question,] it has a big influence, both my father and my mother. My mother played piano in the church, my father was the minister of music and the minister. So for 17 years, that’s the only style of music that I knew. My dad was very open about music. The first concert I ever went to was Johnny Cash. He took me to see Johnny Cash, Liberace, Elton John — he was all over the place. But we grew up listening to gospel and things like that and very much about Christian values and the bible. I learned because that’s the book I read I the most. It’s one of those books that I borrow phrases or words from. The beginning when I was starting, I didn’t realize I was doing it. I’ll never forget my dad came to me and said, ‘You know “Shine” is a prayer.’ And I said, ‘No it’s not, I wasn’t praying.’ Now I go back and look on it and dad being dad, he was right. It was like someone write a little small prayer — I didn’t intend it to be. I was a starving musician out of desperation looking for help. If you go back on it, it truly was my upbringing and what I was taught was coming out.
PB: Her second question relates to the band’s 2006 album Home, featuring Collective Soul playing with the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra: The performance of the song “Home” is gorgeous. What were songs that were the hardest to do orchestral arrangements for Collective Soul?
ER: The hardest ones for me were probably the ones you don’t even hear it in there. ‘Heavy’ was one where I had no concept, where you were going to fit the strings in because it moved so quick, the riffs were so quick. But these guys did an amazing job and even more amazing were the kids, the 14-17 kids who rehearsed two hours, that’s all we rehearsed with them and they just nailed it. That’s great question. I never get asked that. But looking back on it, my first instinct was ‘Heavy.’
PB: Our next question comes from reader John Mendoza of Marlton, N.J. At the end of the day, when the sun is setting on your career, what is the song you want to be remembered for?
ER: I don’t think I’ve written it yet — and that’s what keeps me going, I’ve got to be honest with you. If my life ended right now, I hope it doesn’t, I don’t even know what I’d say. I’m just trying to right that next song that gives me that release. I was up till 2 o’clock in the morning last night working on this song that I think it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever written. If I don’t that, I need to stop. I just haven’t written that song. If I thought I had, I’d have to be like: ‘That’s the best I can do, why even try anymore?’ I don’t know, I don’t think I’ve written it yet. I’m not copping out, it’s how I live and how I write and that’s just me. Eventually time will tell, I can’t.
PB: What else can we expect from you in 2012?
ER: The Sweet Tea Project. The Southern Gentlemen, which’ll hopefully finish up. And Collective Soul, which’ll start up at the end of the year. And I just got invited to play in South America. It’s called The Titans Of Rock. It’s me and Gene Simmons, Duff from Guns ‘N’ Roses, Matt Sorum from Guns ‘N’ Roses, Joe Elliot from Def Leppard, Steve Stevens from Billy Idol. I get to go and sing four songs a night with all my heroes. It’s going to be wonderful.
PB: I hope that gets filmed and put on DVD or online, because that sounds amazing.
ER: I get chills just thinking about it. Not that I don’t chills hanging out on the bus with Kevin, make sure he understands that. [laughs] But those people I just named, how in the hell did I end up in there? They must’ve been like, ‘We gotta get one hillbilly in there. Roll dice … Ed won!’ I’ve met all those guys before, and they’re all great guys. Oh, Sebastian Bach, he’s going to be there. It’s going to be crazy dude.
PB: That is really awesome.
ER: I know, I don’t wanna fucking sing before or after Sebastian. That crazy guy can sing his ass off!
PB: Everyone forgets about him. How good he is.
ER: That dude, if he rips into ‘Monkey Business,’ I’m right in the front row, baby.
PB: ‘Slave To Grind’ is probably my favorite from Skid Row. But the one guy out of that group that I would be afraid of is Gene Simmons. I’d be afraid that I’d make a joke and he wouldn’t react and give me some sort of disapproving stare. And then you’re like, ‘Ahhhh … why did I just say that to Gene Simmons?’
ER: Have you read that Ace Frehley book? You gotta read that … it’s saying what you just said. His forte is really business and he’s done so much there. But with Family Jewels, he looks like he’s lightened up and having fun. I’ll do my best to make him laugh. I’ll let you know how it goes.
PB: If you call or text me telling me you killed with Gene Simmons, it might be the greatest phone call I’ve ever received.