The sound of a new wave of American soul music is in the air. But it's not just about horns and Hammond organ. The embrace of bands like The Suffers from Houston, Texas and Alabama Shakes is an indication that there is a real desire among a new generation of musicians and audiences alike to communicate person to person, reach out to one another, and narrow--as much as possible--the space between the stage and the front row.
While much of the music business is hoping the glut of high-profile festivals will somehow save-the-music industry, The Suffers are taking the high road, hitting the clubs, and turning on fans city by city. And it's paying off for them as evidenced by their now classic apperance on the equally classic David Letterman Show as well as NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, the Newport Folk Festival, and Austin City Limits. Epiphone caught up with founding Suffers guitarist and Epiphone fan Kevin Bernier about the band's hometown of Houston and what's next.
Thanks again, Kevin for speaking with Epiphone. Houston, The Suffers' hometown, has a rich musical history--Z Z Top, Johnny Nash, Eddie Vinson, Lightnin' Hopkins.What kind of music drew you together and what were some of your early shows like?
We are indeed from Houston, a city with a rich musical history. The Suffers was the brainchild of the keyboardist/drummer Patrick Kelly and bassist Adam Castaneda. The original intent was to be a cover band focusing on Jamaican musical styles - ska, rocksteady and reggae - of which we are all big fans. I was one of the very first people invited to join. Everyone in the band knows each other from having shared the stage in one form or another, but the one other band that almost all of us have in common is local Latin ska/punk legends Los Skarnales. It was through that band, which itself has a 20+ year history, that I got to know everyone else in The Suffers. Naturally, our earliest shows were in front of reggae and punk rock audiences, and many of those fans are still with us today.
What's the music scene like in Houston now?
The music scene, like the city itself, is extremely diverse. It's also a very tight knit scene; nobody seems to have more than three or four degrees of separation from anyone else. It's not uncommon for us to be involved in other projects or musical endeavors outside of The Suffers whenever we are home. We proudly represent Houston music everywhere we go because we love and believe in our city. Kam, our lead singer, doesn't play a single show without making absolutely certain that the audience knows who we are, and more importantly, where we're from. This is our way of putting Houston on the map, for the city itself as well as for its community of musicians.
How did you begin playing guitar?
I started playing guitar when I was about 15 years old. I'm mostly self-taught, based on my experience as a tenor sax player, the little bit of music theory I learned when I was in my high school jazz band, and other musical concepts I've picked up along the way. I love a wide variety of genres and artists both old and new. From doing that, I've found that each genre is it's own musical language, and each instrument has it's own way of "speaking" within that language. Spoken languages evolve, overlap with each other, and create new languages. Music is the same way. For me, the light bulb moment came when I started to notice the distinct - and at times subtle - differences between country, blues, early rock and roll, and rockabilly. Therefore, my general approach to any new musical situation is to treat it as if I'm learning a new language.
Tell me about the Epiphone you’ve been playing on the road.
Generally speaking, I don't have a "type" of guitar that I gravitate to the most. I instead prefer to pick a guitar that best lends itself to whatever musical situation I happen to find myself in. I've always wanted a semi-hollow body guitar anyway, and The Suffers' overall sound created the need for one. However, I could never find one that had the "it" factor for me. I have a tendency to look beyond the obvious choices when I look for any type of guitar, which is why I didn't simply run out to the guitar store and buy an ES-335 and be done with it! Recently, the band was invited to visit the Gibson Showroom in Washington, D.C. It was there that I got to try an Epiphone Elitist Country Deluxe. I instantly fell in love with its tonal palate, which is equal parts country and soul - just like Gulf Coast music! Its versatile tone, not to mention the classy look and built-for-comfort-and-speed feel, made it a keeper.
You're touring a lot now. What has the reception been like?
In a word--phenomenal. People seem to be blown away by our show, and I am equally blown away and humbled by their reaction. This is not what I envisioned my life being like two years ago!
The Suffers are a big band. What's your arranging process--as a guitarist--in the studio?
There are ten of us, and it's just not a guitar driven band, so I have to look at the songwriting process as if I'm one part of a musical engine. We each have to be working just right in order for the "engine" to run smoothly. To that end, the first thing I like to focus on is what the drummer and bass player are doing, listening to both the rhythmic and harmonic foundation that they are both laying together and responding to that in a way that gives the rest of the band room to express themselves.
Does the band tend to record live?
Yes. The key to that is pre-production: solidifying our parts and rehearsing the songs until we are as tight as we can be, before going into the studio and knocking out the basic tracks as a band, not just the rhythm section. Only after that do we add anything else, like background vocals, additional percussion, etc.
What have you been listening to that might show up as an influence in what you do next?
Much like myself, the other members of the band listen to a wide variety of music, and we are constantly turning each other on to different artists and genres, both old and new. Although we get pegged as a soul band, we don't limit ourselves to drawing inspiration only from other soul artists. We're still huge fans of Jamaican music. We also listen to a lot of indie rock, punk, latin music, hip-hop, etc. I'm actually quite the metalhead, as a matter of fact!
Artists like Pokey LaFarge, Alabama Shakes, and others have piqued people's interest in classic American music forms. Are those kind of comparisons a good thing for the band or does that make it harder to get people to really listen?
All we can really do is focus on playing the very best music that WE can play, as individuals and as a band. That said, we are huge fans of Pokey LaFarge and Alabama Shakes, and we love seeing the success of those artists and others. It means that more people want to hear good music that is from the heart, which ultimately helps everyone.