Soulive: Eric Krasno Talks Bowlive In Brooklyn

Eric Krasno’s rolodex must be positively Warren Haynesian by now. He’s never far from a stage, and if you think about all the people he and his two Soulive bandmates have played with over the years, well…it probably wasn’t hard to put an all-star guest list together for a much anticipated residency.

Which is precisely what Krasno, Alan Evans and Neal Evans – together, as ever, Soulive – have done. Their first proper New York City residency in ages kicks off Tuesday night at Brooklyn Bowl, and according to Krasno, the announced guest list – which already includes such decorated talent as Vernon Reid, Marco Benevento and DJ Logic – is only the tip of the iceberg. These 10 shows at Brooklyn Bowl, dubbed Bowlive, will be old school Soulive throwdowns, sure, but they also feel like part of a kickoff to a new era, one where Soulive itself is part of an expanding family of like-minded musicians. Kraz will be there. So should you.

Glide caught up with Krasno a few days before Bowlive kicked off, to hear about Soulive in its eleventh year, all the things that keep Kraz awake and seemingly always on stage, and what’s to come during 10 potentially epic nights in Brooklyn this month.

The dates are booked, the guest list looks sick already, and it’s high time we had a real Soulive residency in New York again. Tell me about how this run of shows came together. You guys have known Peter [Shapiro, Brooklyn Bowl co-owner, Relix publisher and former Wetlands Preserve boss] for many years.

Oh yeah, it goes way back to the Wetlands days, and if I’m not mistaken, he’s the one who gave us our first residency in New York. We did a similar thing back then where he matched us up with all different groups. I remember Robert Randolph was part of it, Das EFX and Black Sheep and 90s hip hop groups, all kinds, that was the concept. Over the years, what we’ve thrived o n is not only doing our thing as the trio, but also exploring and collaborating with different people, different horn sections and singers and all that kind of stuff. Brooklyn Bowl is also really popular right now – plus it’s right down the street from where I live – so it was the right place to do it. We’re 10 years into this thing at this point and we know a lot of people that want to play with us, and who we love collaborating with. There are some announced guests, but I’ll tell you that most of the guests will be unannounced. Let’s just say there are a lot of people in town that have other shows. There will be a lot of surprise guests. It’s going to be great, man, and we’re going to document it and eventually put out a DVD of the whole event.

The guests at Bowlive, are they all people you’ve played with before?

Most of them we’ve played with before. But I’ve been talking with Henry Butler, for example, and he’s going to try to come down. We’ve never played with him, so that’ll be interesting. I’m trying to get the Antibalas horn section, we’ve never played with them. I’ve done stuff with them in the studio, but they’ve never actually played with Soulive. Overall, though, I just have a feeling random people are going to show up that we haven’t even invited [laughs]. I’m open to whatever’s going to happen.

Can you talk about the structure of the shows?

Nigel Hall, who’s on our record label, is going to open the show every night. Then we’ll do one Soulive set, then take a break, and then we’re going to figure out who’s there and what’s going to happen when we come back. That’ll be the huddle. Now, sometimes during that break we’re going to have people do other performances. We’ll try to have, like, Charlie Hunter and Nigel do something as a duo during the setbreak, or Raul Midon play a song. And it’s not just going to be Soulive with other people, we might do combos like Neal and Charlie, or me with someone. That’ll be fun, too.

But Nigel will kick it off every night?

Yes. Nigel’s will be a solo thing, a few tunes, maybe piano and voice, kind of set the vibe.

So Eric, I caught up with Alan sometime last fall just looking at, well, first how fast 10 years goes by and how you guys, despite a lot of the changes in lineup, have never lost your essential three-man chemistry. To you, how has it changed, or maybe, evolved is a better word, over the past decade?

I think the chemistry has always been there, and that’s what everything we’ve done has been built on. The difference now is that we’ve established all these relationships and honed a lot of skills both in and outside of Soulive. We all work with so many different writers and producers and other artists. Neal does a lot of film scoring, for example. Alan’s like a serious recording engineer at this point. Adam Deitch and myself have the Fyre Department, where we’re producing for all kinds of hip hop and pop acts. We all go off and do these other things, and we always get back together and we find that it’s enriched our stuff – all of it infuses the music.

If you look back, our first album sounds very organ trio. But then as things evolved it was the organ trio evolving into music that became all these other things. We incorporated Latin stuff, reggae, lots of things. The more you play with each other, the more you know where the other people will go, and the best moments for us onstage are when one of us starts to find a totally new idea or groove and everyone else follows that. That’s what great about being the trio, especially when two of the guys are brothers and have played together their whole lives. It’s easy to change directions. Changing directions in a band like Lettuce is like turning a cruise ship: it’s eight guys. But this band can just explore and I’ve always loved that element of it. We’ve definitely been exploring lately since we got it back to the trio. We did a project of Beatles tunes – they have the coolest harmonic structure – and riding those in all different forms.

I’ll circle back to the Beatles album, but I did want to stay on this idea of the core trio for a minute. Did you reach a point where it just became necessary to get back to it? You went through plenty of lineup experiments, including with Toussaint [on vocals], and I know that threw some of your longtime fans.

I understand, and I’ll say that we experimented: it’s what we had to do. If you do the same thing for a really long time, you get bored with it, and then the audience gets bored with it. We were trying different things. I was doing a lot of writing at that time – lyric writing – and Alan and I wanted to use some of our tunes to express that. We wanted to try something where we just gelled with one person as a singer, and that was the idea [with Toussaint]. What we didn’t want to do was call it something different, which may have been smarter, but at the time people were worried we wouldn’t draw and no one would know what it was if we didn’t call it Soulive. You know, I really dig the album we made with Toussaint. People were a little shocked and it wasn’t what they were expecting for the band, and I understand that. But some people liked it. I’m glad we did it.

These days I put that writing into other things. In a lot of ways the three of us have decided, you know, this is Soulive and when we come together as Soulive we’re just going to work together and write together in the studio. There were a few albums where we just spent a lot of time producing and writing and trying to create something different, and we realized over time that the best of Soulive comes when we just sit in a room and play. We’ve gotten back to that, but we’ve also added all these other things that we’ve learned and figured out. We add in Nigel a lot, for example. We’ve learned how not to complicate things, and we’re concentrating on the core three of us while sprinkling in other things.

With all the projects you guys are involved it, it seems like creating Royal Family was as much for need of an organizing principle – some place to house all of these pursuits – as a label. Accurate? With Nigel, for example, he’s not a band member, but he plays with you guys so often and it just happens naturally, it seems, and it doesn’t need to be labeled this or that.

Yeah, we needed a place to organize it all. It’s hard to keep track, I know. With Nigel, I called him down to New York to sing all these tunes I’d written, and from that we formed Chapter 2, which is now a whole other band. As we started writing more together, we started writing stuff in his vein, which is soul. He’s just such a great singer, you know? But when all these things come together, we needed an umbrella so that when people go to the website, they can see what these different projects are and own they’re related. The idea was also do the Royal Family Ball, which we’re about to do for the third year in a row in New Orleans. We still feel it’s the beginning. My album is going to come out [Krasno’s first solo album, “Reminisce”], and then Nigel’s will come out, and Neal’s is going to come out and we’re just going to keep going. What we want to do is tour where we have a bunch of different bands inside the label come out on the road at once. We tried that with the Royal Family Get Down [in Northampton, Mass., in September 2009]. We’re going to do that again, too. I feel like there’s more to do, and a lot more to accomplish.

Will the Royal Family Get Down return to Northampton?

Yes, in the same spot [the Pines Theater]. It rained really bad on it last year, but we’re going to bring it back and we really want to develop that. We don’t know exactly all the details yet, and we’re working on an exact date.

Do you plan to keep adding new acts to the Royal Family?

Absolutely. We’re concentrating on what we have at the moment, but we’re always keeping our eyes and ears open for another thing. It’s gotta be something that definitely hits us hard, but we’re open to it for sure. There will definitely be more down the line.

Let’s talk about Soulive’s Beatles album. You’re not the first band I’d peg to do something like this, but it makes a strange kind of sense. Where did it come from?

It’s an idea that we’ve been throwing around for probably five years. I can’t remember how it initially started, but we were doing the Toussaint sessions and thinking, we could do this Beatles tune, and this Beatles tune, and this Beatles tune, and someday let’s do a really good covers album that has those. Me and Alan are both big, big, big Beatles fans. Neal not so much, but now he is a lot more. Alan and I kept throwing out the idea, and finally, we had a bit of free time so we went up to Al’s studio in Massachusetts and said let’s just go in and try it. I bought one of those boxed sets of Beatles music and just dumped it all into Al’s computer, and we just started listening. Every time we got to something cool that we really all like we’d listen to it and start playing it. Some of it we changed up pretty drastically, and some of it we played faithfully but with our instrumentation. It’s not one of these whacked out albums, all of the tunes are very recognizable. Sometimes you’ll hear jazz versions of tunes and they’re out there, but this really isn’t like that. We picked a lot of tunes that grooved, and a lot of them translated really well to our thing. The Beatles were the greatest writers, and the lyrics are so good, and yet, the music is so strong all by itself without the lyrics. That’s definitely a testament to the songs.

Do you focus on a particular Beatles era or all over?

Originally, we were just going to do Rubber Soul. My crazy brother kept going on and on and was all like, you guys have to be Rubber Soulive! I loved the name, it was great and we do do a few Rubber Soul tunes. But then we were like, we gotta do Eleanor Rigby, we gotta do I Want You. There were all these ones we loved so we ended up going all over the place.

When does the album drop?

I’m now not sure. It was supposed to come out next week, and there’s been an issue with the licensing of the tunes. It’s going to be fine, but it is red tape and my brother is trying to work it out. It’s a pain in the butt.

You also have a new release, Live at the Blue Note Tokyo. What do we have here?

That was basically our version of a best-of: the best of the first 10 years. We were in Japan for about a week with a horn section, with Christian Scott who was great, and we recorded every night and decided to go through the catalog of the first 10 years and pick out our favorite tunes from each album, then record it live. They were also filming for Japanese TV, and it was just fun to go through the tunes. We did about half just us and then half with the horns, and tried some different arrangements, things like that.

Your fanbase in Japan remains particularly strong if I’m not mistaken.

We’re lucky to have our Japanese fans over there. They’re constantly supporting everything we’re doing.

Turning to a couple your other projects, it seems safe to say that Chapter 2 has graduated from being a quick project into a real band. True?

Absolutely. And it is very confusing. When we started working on all these tunes, Chapter 2 started becoming its own thing, and we thought we needed to make it is own thing. It’s got this rock and soul vibe, though it’s still grooving, and we thought, “We just need to cut an album with this band.” I love playing with those guys. I’ve played with Adam [Deitch] forever. Louis [Cato] is a guy I met in the last few years who just blows me away. He plays basically anything you hand him. Then there’s Nigel and me, and it’s all just a cool opportunity.

Your solo album, “Reminisce,” will that feature the same people?

It’ll be some of the same people. But Alan’s on some of it. Louis and Nigel are on it. I played a lot of the bass on it. Stu Brooks from Dub Trio is on it, and then all the usual guys, Ryan Zoidis, you know. I’ve been working on it since like 2006, doing tracks here and there, and it’s me going through some of my favorite guitar periods. I have some songs that have a George Bensonish vibe, some of it’s kind of a Jeff Beck vibe, and it kind of goes all over. You can tell that it’s me, though.

And, as I go down the list, what’s new with Lettuce these days?

We’re going into the studio sometime soon, it’s probably going to be May or June or as soon as Adam and I sit down and write songs. Our other guitar player, Adam Smirnoff, has things he’s been working on, too. Everyone usually comes in with these little demos, and we get together and knock it out. We do shows every once in a while, and we’re playing at Jazzfest again. We all have so much going on.

I know there were rumors going around that you were going to be part of the new Derek Trucks-Susan Tedeschi band. You did a session with them, right, but you’re not in the permanent lineup?

No, I probably won’t be, although they’re still figuring things out for that, too. I know Nigel is going to do a few shows with them. I may pop up here and there. I did do some writing with them, and it was really cool working on some of their recordings; Adam and I went down to do some with them. I know Kofi and Oteil are going to be doing some shows with them.

When you’re not on stage, you’re in the studio, and when you’re not with one of your bands, you’re sitting in with everybody. Do you have other hobbies? Do you sleep?

Oh, I’ll have time for all that later. Really.

Chad Berndtson writes about music for The Patriot Ledger, Glide, Hidden Track, Relix, PopMatters and other publications. He lives in New York City; drop him a line at cberndtson[at]gmail[dot]com. His favorite Soulive song is “Aladdin.”

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