Story by David Bienenstock
Photo by Jimmie Katz
Guitarist Eric Krasno is the only member of Soulive who smokes pot, so it’s no big surprise when he’s the one selected to handle the HIGH TIMES interview. The remainder of the trio, brothers Alan (drums) and Neal (organ) Evans are tied up with last-minute arrangements. The band leaves tomorrow for a week of shows in Japan, followed immediately by an extended US tour in support of Soulive, their third release since signing with Blue Note Records.
The band’s cramped studio is in the basement of a nondescript building in New York’s once-notorious Hell’s Kitchen district. Soulive have made the city their home base, though they spend as much time on the road as off, including lengthy headlining tours, festival appearances, and high-profile opening-act assignments for the Dave Matthews Band and the Rolling Stones. Not bad for an instrumental jazz outfit that was formed just four years ago, fittingly during an impromptu jam session.
It was March of 1999, and the Evans brothers were looking to regroup. They’d spent years playing together in Moon Boot Lover, which achieved a small following in the Northeast, but never hit the big time. Krasno knew them casually from the road; occasionally his band, Lettuce, would share a bill with Moon Boot Lover. When they suggested he take a trip to their Woodstock, NY recording studio, no one had any big expectations. They planned to just play and see what developed. The result was Get Down, a spontaneous combustion that became Soulive’s debut album, and quickly earned them a reputation among the jam-band crowd.
"I wouldn’t call us a jam band," contends Krasno. "I don’t really like the term, but I’m not against it, because everyone needs a category to know what’s what. I’d really rather there weren’t any labels on us. We’re definitely not like most of the jam bands I hear."
In essence, Soulive have a foot firmly planted in two worlds: jam-band and jazzbo. They’re a jam band in the Medeski, Martin, and Wood vein, able to flex legitimate jazz chops, while maintaining enough drive and rhythm to keep a young crowd up and grooving. On their first Blue Note release, Doin' Something (2001), the trio was expanded to incorporate a horn section, while 2002’s Next served as a vehicle for guest spots from John Scofield, Talib Kweli, Dave Matthews, Black Thought, and other eclectic accompanists.
Asked to pick a label for the music his band plays, Krasno simply calls it soul. "It’s the root of jazz, hip-hop, and funk," he explains. "Our concept for Next was ‘Let’s give our flavor to all these different styles.’ We were listening to so many things at the time that it became a total mishmash. We figured if we’re going to go into the studio, let’s do something we couldn’t do live."
The band’s current album has a "back-to-basics" approach. It’s Soulive straight-up—no horns or guests, just the original trio format that brought them their first wave of attention in 1999. The tracks were culled from a string of live shows during the fall of 2002. "It’s our first full-length live album, which we’ve been wanting to do for a while," explains Krasno. "Playing live is the true essence of what we do."
As the interview winds down, Krasno poses a question of his own: "So did you bring me any of that Cannabis Cup stuff to sample?" When an answer arrives in the affirmative, the guitarist quickly disappears into the control room in the back of the studio and returns with Soulive’s 2002 HIGH TIMES Doobie Award for Best Jazz Album. It’s a functional bong. And a well-used one at that.
"My dad thought it was funny," he says. "He saw me on the HIGH TIMES Website holding a bong trophy." After a quick sampling of some Cup-worthy cannabis, Krasno notes for the record that the laws regarding pot are absurd. For him, smoking weed is personal choice, and also part of his creative process. "When we’re rehearsing as a band it doesn’t really work, especially since I’m the only one who smokes," he says between tokes. "It’s more of something I do by myself, when I’m producing, making beats, or thinking of ideas."