Interview

Ed Kowalczyk On The Live Reunion And Michael Stipe’s Love For “Lightning Crashes”

Tracking Down is a Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.

Ed Kowalczyk has just flown from Denver to Austin. Immediately before that, it was back to the States after playing a festival in Europe. But the Live singer doesn’t sound tired at all. In fact, Kowalczyk sounds downright refreshed. “We’re having a blast,” he says. And you know what? I believe him.

Kowalczyk has plenty of reason to feel kinetic these days. It’s been nearly two years since the York, Pennsylvania native reunited with the band that made him a ’90s hard-rock icon, and if there are any lingering hard feelings around their years-long separation (he famously split from the group in 2009), you would never know it.

Instead, the singer, who is perhaps best known for gravelly rock-radio staples like “Lightning Crashes” and “I Alone,” is beyond psyched to be back — back on tour (in addition to the festival circuit, Live is hitting the road with Counting Crows) and back in the studio. Not only are the foursome readying an EP release, but they’ve recently put out a vigorous new single, “Love Lounge” — the first music featuring Live’s original lineup since 2006’s Songs From Black Mountain LP.

Of course, in Kowalczyk’s absence, Live did release a full-length without their longtime singer in 2014, The Turn, featuring replacement vocalist Chris Shinn. But it’s not a time they look back on fondly. (Lead guitarist Chad Taylor has memorably referred to the band’s time with Shinn as something out of The Twilight Zone.)

But now the middle ground between light and shadow has cleared, and all Kowalczyk wants to do is move forward with his friends, each of whom he met when they were just middle school kids in York. We called up Kowalczyk to talk about what’s next for Live, the “tiny little Oprah moments” in reuniting with the band two years ago, and that time in the ’90s when Michael Stipe just called to say he loved “Lightning Crashes.”

STEREOGUM: How’s tour going?

KOWALCZYK: Oh my God, so good. We’re having a blast. We’re in Austin, Texas today, we play here tomorrow night … We popped over to Holland for one festival show, at a festival called Bospop. We had committed to that before the Counting Crows tour came up, so we had to jump over and do that. So, yeah we’re getting some miles in for sure.

STEREOGUM: I listened to “Love Lounge,” and I thought it was one of the most energetic Live songs I’ve ever heard. Is that energy a reflection of how you’re all feeling being back together and making music as an original group again?

KOWALCZYK: It really is. That’s exactly right. It’s just such a level of excitement and sort of renaissance kind of going on between us and at every level, that it is just inevitable that it would come out in the music.

We started writing and kind of messing around in the studio, really right when we reunited. It’s just so natural. We really hit a new stride after we started to do shows for the first time in seven years last year when we did mostly festivals like, down here in Austin, we did Austin City Limits. And we did Lollapalooza. We got so inspired by just being back on stage and back in front of the fans, that when we got back to the studio, late last year, early this year, it really kicked up a level in terms of the energy.

We had a really specific direction after those shows; we just wanted to rock really hard after we did all those festivals. And so that had an inspirational effect on us. “Love Lounge” came out of that. Then the rest of this EP that we’re mixing right now, we’ll try to have out in the fall. All the songs feel like “Love Lounge.” They’re all really rockin’.

STEREOGUM: What was the thought behind the name “Love Lounge”?

KOWALCZYK: Well, the backstory is we’re all from Pennsylvania. I lived in Southern California for about 13 years. I moved back east about five, six years ago, and these winters are so intense. But I also found they’re really creative times, too, ’cause there’s just really nothing to do but like go inside and stay warm.

And so, [it’s a] stream-of-consciousness going like, “You know, I just wanna be in a warm love lounge, a warm pub, you know get out of here and chill.” And so the lyric kinda came from that. It was really just this fast stream-of-consciousness thing, where Zak — we have another guitar player who’s playing with us, who’s in my solo band — his name is Zak Loy. He’s just a really great writer. He actually had this riff that he sent to me and I just started to go with it. I remember I was riding home from my local Whole Foods, I had most of the lyric and the melody so it was really, really fast. But it was also really cold. I think I was just living in this sort of fantasy world of going to this bar that I opened called the Love Lounge.

STEREOGUM: Did your moving back east eventually catalyze your reunion with Live?

KOWALCZYK: There was some synchronicity there but nothing that I’d planned. Because the band was still, six years ago when I moved back east, the band was still solidly broken up. Just yeah fate, whatever, we just kind of … don’t work out initially. When the band got back together it was perfect because I was so close.

I’m [living] in Connecticut. Close enough to drive, as opposed to being in California. Yeah, it was a beautiful thing the way that worked out ’cause the beginning of the reunion process and all that, we spent a lot of time together, so that course would have been more difficult otherwise, but it was great.

STEREOGUM: Yeah, I read a few interviews that you did right around the point where you guys did reunite, and it sounded like people were hoping for this big, dramatic story, and it turns out it was just as simple as you and Chad Taylor getting together for a beer.

KOWALCZYK: There were tiny little Oprah moments, but there wasn’t one big one that would have been worthy of the show, where we all fell down in a big heap of hugs and tears.

STEREOGUM: So, I presume you’ve been playing some new songs that you haven’t released yet while on these tour dates?

KOWALCZYK: Well, we’re just playing “Love Lounge” right now. We have a 70-minute set with The Crows, and we play that [song] second and then back to the other records.

STEREOGUM: How do you think about your ’90s greatest hits like “I Alone” and “Lightning Crashes” today? Have they taken on new meaning for you?

KOWALCZYK: Thankfully, they’ve become just really good friends. They’re like these creations that have stood the test of time with us, with our fans. In fact, in some ways I’ve had people tell me that some of these songs actually matter, or mean more to them now, than they did before. Which is a wonderful thing to hear as an artist because … I know there’s lots of music in the ’90s that I don’t really need to hear again. Not mentioning any names. So just to hear that, to hear that now a song like “Lightning Crashes” … Like, if fans will say “Oh man, I didn’t have any kids back then, I was in my 20s, now I got a family. And every time I hear that song it just means so much more to me.” That’s just awesome.

We took a little bit on the chin there back in the ’90s where we were the [so-called] “serious” band, and we couldn’t get any slack there. But, that actually ended up playing out really well over time because again, these songs — the way they were written, the lyrics, really allowed for not only the fans that have told me that they’ve grown up with it and it means more to them, but [for me to feel that way] too. And so now when we play those songs, when I sing ‘em, it’s this combination of what they mean now, but also just what a celebration they are. Of the band, of the songs themselves and how much they still mean to people. So I’m really just up there partyin’ in my mind when I’m singing those songs. I’m just tickled that we still wanna play them, and they still sound great, and people still like it. And like it a lot.

STEREOGUM: When you look back to the Throwing Copper years, what stands out in your mind as one of the most surreal memories?

KOWALCZYK: I remember I was in my apartment right after Throwing Copper came out. I was in my apartment in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And the phone rang, and it was Michael Stipe. Who, for me, was like the president. And so he called and he was just talking about each song and talking about how great it was, and how moved he was, and how he had to pull his car over when “Lightning Crashes” came on. He pulled over just to listen to it with his friend. And I was like, I couldn’t even say anything. I was speechless. But that was pretty surreal.

STEREOGUM: So now that you’re writing new songs with Live, how would you say the studio dynamic has evolved over the years with the rest of the guys? When you got back in the studio post-reunion, was it like — for lack of a better metaphor — riding a bike?

KOWALCZYK: I use the bike metaphor all the time, so it feels like a brand new bike. You know how to ride it, but it’s this brand new feeling, too. We found something again that was really valuable, and it was like we had lost it. And I think there was that excitement of that. You know the writing process … It’s interesting the way we’ve done the EP and the way that it’s unfolded is really sort of similar to how it’s always kinda been in terms of the nuts and bolts.

I bring fully fleshed-out songs. There’s a song called “Waterfall” on there that I had written a while ago, which the band put this sorta new energy into. There’s a song called “Be A Giver Man,” where Chad Taylor started the riff and then I finished it. And we all finished it together. That’s the way that Live has always been, this mix of me bringing fleshed-out songs like “I Alone,” or “Lightning Crashes.” And then there’s songs like “Lakini’s Juice” that were started with a riff and we all kinda worked on it together. It hasn’t really changed. I think lyrically on this one I was just going for something that I wanted to have fun with. But at the same time, put a little bit of meaning in there, but not get really heavy. I think after [playing] those festivals, we just wanted to rock.

STEREOGUM: I remember an interview you did with Rolling Stone last year where the interviewer was talking about Live’s reputation as a Very Serious Band in the 90’s, compared to a band like, say, the Chili Peppers. Regardless of how you saw yourselves then, it’s possible that today’s audiences may see that seriousness lifting a bit on the new material.

KOWALCZYK: It absolutely has. I think that maybe I’ve finally found a way to get the fuller spectrum of my personality out there in music … Like, people’s vision of us [was that] all we did was sit around and meditate. And you know, never did anything. It was just the kind of music we were inspired by and we wanted to make and that had that feel, but I think now with the reunion there’s so much fun and there’s just such a level of gratitude. There’s this new kind of confidence in the band and I think that it’s given me this new vehicle to kind of say, “OK, I’m gonna give you a whole other color here.” But at the same time I mean, it’s still really heavy music … I think it’s a whole new direction and sound for us. But at the same time, it has the core of what we are, and the passion about it and the excitement’s still there.