Tracking Down is a newish Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
Late last year, Collective Soul released their second live album — the first was 2006’s Home, a collaboration with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra — but this was the first to showcase their plethora of mostly ’90s hits in their standard onstage formation. Fact is, they hit pay dirt in an era when a lot of things were different, particularly when the right guitar riff could fling you up the charts. They had a bunch: “Gel,” “Precious Declaration,” “December,” “Heavy,” and their first single, “Shine,” which split the difference between grunge and gospel and eventually won Dolly Parton a Grammy. Several of their biggest hits featured a riff that maybe wasn’t actually on par with “Walk This Way” but certainly shot for that kind of glory earnestly. (The jaggedly funky “Heavy” might have actually earned it.)
They had some memorable choruses, too: “Listen,” “Compliment” and “Why Pt. 2″ deserved to be bigger than they were. Their hooks also hinge on the word “yeah” more than most bands would feel comfortable. It makes total sense that a band this far from cool in 2017 would release a plain ol’ live record, titled Live to boot. At times, Collective Soul are like a meat-and-potatoes rock band without the potatoes. But they can still cobble a knockout riff together; try 2007’s hypnotically grinding “New Vibration.” And somehow bands of this stripe have become increasingly rare as the rest of rock joins them at the farthest point from the “conversation” possible.
With the playing field leveled so that nearly all rock is taking a backseat to the head-spinning innovators in pop and R&B, and an always-threatened “’90s revival” by plenty of quality grunge-bred new jacks from Colleen Green to Charly Bliss, it’s maybe time to revisit one of the premier guitar-rock success stories on mid-’90s radio as they prep their 10th studio album, to be released in 2018. We spoke to frontman Ed Roland about, among other things, the early confusion between the band and the Christian rock genre (as well as subsequent subliminals thrown by a rival spiritual band), and an entire record he wrote for his wife to celebrate their 10th anniversary.
STEREOGUM: What made you guys want to release a live album now?
ROLAND: Because we never have! I kind of feel good about where the band is, and doing a few years of touring, over 150 shows… I think it’s a good way to set up the next studio recording, which will come out [this] year.
STEREOGUM: How far into that record are you guys?
ROLAND: Literally, I just gotta sing a couple of songs. So we recorded a record while we did a few years of touring, too.
STEREOGUM: Did you record at all different places on the road?
ROLAND: The studio’s at my house. I get to stay in my bathrobe.
STEREOGUM: Have any songs undergone a really radical transformation for your live set?
ROLAND: I don’t think radical, but when you play “Shine” or “December” for 20-odd years, you look for different ways to… you don’t want to take away from the song, but you wanna renew your spark of interest in it. Like, I play piano on “Shine” now. There was no piano in it, but it gives it a fresh twist, we think. “December,” we’ll make it long, turn it into a little jam thing. No modulations or key changes or anything, though.
STEREOGUM: Have any of your songs taken on new meaning for you two decades on?
ROLAND: I think they take on new meaning each night! I love playing live and I love the guys I play with. I don’t go home and pop in Collective Soul [on the stereo], it’s the last thing I want to do, but each night we challenge ourselves to do the best we can. I don’t mind playing “Shine” live but I sure as hell don’t wanna hear it when I get home or in the car. I’ll change it immediately.
STEREOGUM: Is there a Collective Soul album you actually do pull out to listen to for pleasure occasionally?
ROLAND: I do enjoy Youth every once in a while just for the production side of it. I’ll listen to that just to see where I was on guitar sounds. I don’t necessarily listen for songs per se, but more the technical aspects of it.
STEREOGUM: You guys had some really interesting production going on for Disciplined Breakdown and Dosage, there’s plenty of loops and some psychedelic effects.
ROLAND: Yeah, we had to make stuff up! We recorded [Breakdown] in a cabin on a cow farm because we were going through a lawsuit and had nowhere to live. A friend of my father let me live [there]… seriously, I had to go cut wood to put in the stove to eat in the cabin. So we didn’t have any money to afford proper studios; I don’t know if you remember ADATs? We hooked three of those up so we had 24 tracks of ADATs just to record there.
STEREOGUM: What was the lawsuit about?
ROLAND: Oh, just management. No big deal, that all got settled 27 years ago. But during the lawsuit we were given a $150-a-week salary.
STEREOGUM: Which of your hits has the weirdest origin story?
ROLAND: “December” is the only one that comes to mind where the band really didn’t like the song when I presented it to them. I was pretty adamant about it because it’s just four chords constantly, and I was trying to challenge myself to come up with different melodies. It’s like four different melodies so each turnaround I’d introduce a new melody on top of the previous one, and at the end it kind of crescendos up to all four. When I presented the song to the band I was sitting there playing these four chords over and over and they were like, “this is the most boring shit ever.” I was like, “no no no, there’s other melodies, I just can’t do it all at once.”
STEREOGUM: Is there any song of yours that you didn’t like that much that the band liked more?
ROLAND: Mmm…oh you know what, on the last record, there was a song called “Contagious,” and I liked the song but I didn’t feel comfortable with my performance. So I went back in and sang it until I was comfortable, which was them pushing me, but it was good.
STEREOGUM: You don’t really see much songwriting now based around riffs too much —
ROLAND: Haha, no, you don’t.
STEREOGUM: But with Collective Soul it sounds like you write a lot of riffs and then build the song around them.
ROLAND: It varies. I was just showing Jesse [Triplett, lead guitarist] on the guitar something I wrote, and the manager ran in and said, “what was that?” and said, “we need to do that.” Sometimes I’ll build a song around a riff that’s interesting to me and sometimes I’m just strumming. I have no formula, for lack of a better term, I guess. I’m just happy when it happens.
STEREOGUM: Is there a particular riff of yours where you can’t believe you wrote that?
ROLAND: I do like “Contagious,” I was drawn to that riff, but I wasn’t giving it the performance. There’s a couple of them I probably can’t even play now, just because I write ‘em and then I hand ‘em off to the guys. I probably couldn’t figure them out if I had to.
STEREOGUM: What about when you first came up with “Heavy?”
ROLAND: I was challenging myself with the lyric content because I didn’t want to have the title in the song. So I had the chorus, “all your weight…,” oh, “Heavy!” That fits because it’s a heavy riff.
STEREOGUM: Until you mentioned it just now, I didn’t even notice the song didn’t have the title in it, because the lyrics and the riffs fit that title.
ROLAND: Then I’m doing my job.
STEREOGUM: I guess the blue album is a lot more riff-based than Hints Allegations And Things Left Unsaid. Did that come from working with a real band?
ROLAND: I think it was. Hints was just a batch of demos I made over a five-year period to get a publishing deal, it wasn’t meant to get a record deal. But when “Shine” took off, it was riff-based, so I was like, “OK, the next one that comes out, I needed to focus on the riffs.” And I had “Gel” sitting around and that was kind of riff-based, so I was like, let’s just keep writing riffs, see what happens.
STEREOGUM: What was it like for you when Dolly Parton covered “Shine?”
ROLAND: Aw, that was awesome. An icon and such a sweet lady, she was so kind and said nice things. I was in Arizona at the time, and my father, who was in Atlanta, called me and goes, “you’re not gonna believe this; Dolly Parton’s doing “Shine” on David Letterman.” I said, “that’s awesome! But what are you doing up watching David Letterman?” I excused myself from dinner and went home and sat there and waited. I sent her flowers.
STEREOGUM: What records of yours do you wish received as much attention as the hits?
ROLAND: When we went independent, we were fighting an uphill battle all the time with Youth. I do enjoy that record, and the last record [2015’s See What You Started by Continuing], because it’s the first one we did with Jesse and Johnny. Our second one, that’s a never-ending… that’s from back in the day when we were selling CDs. We’d sell two million and be like, “well, why aren’t we selling two million and one?” I kind of gave up on it, but I do wish more people could hear the body of work. The last one was a good start.
STEREOGUM: It’s always so weird what ends up selling and what doesn’t, like you were dropped after Blender even though that one’s especially full of the most pop songs you’ve done to date. One sounded like Prince, one had Elton John on it.
ROLAND: That was that world there at Atlantic. It was not only under-promoted, there was never any standup for us. When Blender came out, people were like, “That’s a pop record,” and OK, I’ll give you a little bit of that, but we covered a Morphine song [“You Speak My Language”], for the love of God. That was not a pop song, we rocked the fuck out of it. We did a benefit for Mark [Sandman of Morphine] up in Boston and the guy running it, I was like “did you even know we covered one of his tunes?” He was like, “no, I didn’t know!” And that’s when I kinda go, all right, nobody’s paying attention to us. Actually, I love our version of that. That is one song I wish more people heard, because it’s Morphine too, and we were rocking on that one.
STEREOGUM: I’ve read that your father was a Baptist minister — how did that affect you going on to write songs and play in a band?
ROLAND: Well I’m sure it did because I grew up in the church for the first 18 years of my life, in a small town in Georgia, so [I was] heavily influenced by spiritual meanings and spiritual words, I guess. I do believe in separation of church and rock ‘n’ roll, but at the same time, what you grow up reading and learning, you incorporate it. It’s just another way of using the English language. “Heaven let your let shine down” could’ve been anything, “God I feel good tonight” or something. At the same time, my father was a rock ‘n’ roll fan, the first concert he took me to see was Johnny Cash, the second one was Liberace, the third one was Elton John, then he took me to see the Kinks. And then every day when we were in the church we were singing gospel, so it was an awesome childhood.
STEREOGUM: I’d bet “Shine” gets sung in churches now, no?
ROLAND: I think it does! I’ve had churches call me and ask me to sing it and I’d say, “Nah, it’s not my gig.” I’ve had people from younger bands tell me they’d sing it with their parents, who were stricter than my family, and say that’s what they grew up on.
STEREOGUM: Was there any pressure to bill you guys as Christian rockers when it first came out?
ROLAND: Oh yeah, yeah. And again, I was just writing about asking for guidance. I’m a spiritual cat, but I’m not one to tell anybody to pick or choose which flavor ice cream they want to lick.
STEREOGUM: But you didn’t get booked at Christian festivals or anything?
ROLAND: Nah, we didn’t even get asked. I think when the second record came out, no pun intended, that went to hell. [Laughs.]
STEREOGUM: I remember when dc Talk’s “My Friend (So Long)” was in rotation on alternative radio, and thinking, this is the weirdest beef.
ROLAND: Who had beef?
STEREOGUM: Do you remember dc Talk? “My Friend (So Long)” was this minor radio hit they had around 1998, that was allegedly directed at Collective Soul for like, betraying your faith or something. It was this bizarre Christian rock diss song. You’re familiar with the band?
ROLAND: Yeah, I know the band.
STEREOGUM: But no one’s ever brought the song to your attention.
ROLAND: Nah! Interesting! I’m a hippie dude, man, I’m not trying to piss anyone off.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, it was really random! Like neither one of you is a particularly aggressive group.
ROLAND: Oh well.
STEREOGUM: So, your son’s a guitarist, too?
ROLAND: Yeah, my oldest. He’s in school in Chicago.
STEREOGUM: What does he think of Collective Soul?
ROLAND: You know, we never talk about. I’m Dad and that’s all I want to be. We go shop for LPs, he’s getting into vinyl, which is good. He likes Phoenix, Walk The Moon. Of course, he loves Foo Fighters. If he asked, I’d talk to him, but we never really talk about it! I never finish music and send it to him, I’m just Dad! He’s like my wife, he’s been around us recording it for six albums, probably tired of hearing it by the time we’re done. [Laughs.]
STEREOGUM: What did your wife think of the album you made her for your 10th anniversary?
ROLAND: She loved it! But I gave it to her and she did nothing with it, so I’m like, “Well, I may take it back if you’re not gonna do anything with it!” Give it away for free or something. [Laughs.] I don’t care, but let people hear it because I was proud of it.
STEREOGUM: Was it challenging for you to write those songs for that occasion?
ROLAND: Actually, it was real easy! I was trying to do in chronological order, like of us meeting. It was the easiest one to record, too! Did it in like three days. It was mostly Collective Soul, my old drummer came to town and it was good to reconnect with him. I thought were gonna do two or three songs, do an EP. But it was moving so quick, I was like, okay, a couple more! So we just kept going.
STEREOGUM: That sounds like it might have been the easiest concept album ever put together.
ROLAND: I know!