A Conversation With NY Rockers Hard Soul
(Hey everyone! Here is a great interview I did with the Albany rock group The Hard Soul. We talked music and stuff…duh. They are pretty chill dudes and I think you’ll enjoy the conversation)
Derek: So tell me how you guys got started as a band?
Johnny: It was the fall of 2011, and I had taken some time off from performing following the break-up of a previous band I was in for a number of years touring around the northeast. I started reconnecting with acoustic guitar after casting it aside during my teenage years in favor of power chords and heavy metal. At first I started with the open mic and coffee shop circuit road testing the songs I had been writing, and eventually I ended up making some demos of how I wanted them to sound in a full-band setting. It was always my goal to form a new band, not just play solo. From there I went into the studio and tracked the first 5 songs on my own that ended up on our first EP ‘Love Eats the Young’. After that I wrangled up some guys who wanted to play and we just went from there. The rest, as they say, is history.
Nick: I had been playing guitar by myself for about 5 1/2 years. Tabs from Black Sabbath, Dio, Iron Maiden etc. One day I was in my room playing and thought I was good enough to try to play in front of an audience. Cue Hard Soul craigslist ad (laughs). I responded to Johnny’s ad in November of 2012, did two auditions, and have been in the band ever since. It was a different line-up back then but I remember feeling happy as a clam because each person was an awesome individual. Very nice, patient, and supportive. I learned a lot from them.
Ryan: I met Hard Soul back in 2013 when my previous band, Neversink, opened up for them at their Seize the Year vinyl release show. Soon after, Neversink had decided to move to Boston but I was going to be staying in Albany. The night of my last show with Neversink, I ran into John and Nick who told me they were looking for a full time bassist. I auditioned with them a few days later and have been playing with Hard Soul since.
Mark: I joined on the Seize the Year tour in 2013, and kept going.
Steve: I just recently joined the band officially. Johnny started the project before I met him and it grew to what it was before I joined. I filled in for a bunch of shows when needed. It eventually just made sense for me to join.
Derek: How did you develop your sound and figure out what styles of music you wanted to emulate?
Johnny: I come from a diverse background musically; the radio or stereo was always on when I was a little kid. I grew up on classic rock, and that music is imprinted on my DNA. But I didn’t really figure out who I was as a songwriter until this band, to be honest. In the past it was these speed metal sociopolitical anthems that I wanted to shove down people’s throats at full volume. But once I found my own voice rather than trying to emulate someone else’s. I really began to feel comfortable enough to write more personal and nuanced music that meant more to me.
Nick: I just play what Johnny writes and enjoy the heck out of doing it (laughs). I am still searching for a tone that I like and have been experimenting a little with strings, guitars, amps, pedals etc. I want to emulate 80’s metal/hard rock a la Iron Maiden, Dio, Black Sabbath.
Ryan: I think as a band we develop our own sound based on our influences. We come from different musical backgrounds and I think that shines through in the music we make. Personally, I grew up playing a lot of pop punk and you can see that influence on songs like This Is Blood. At the same time, we all have an appreciation for classic rock, pop, and metal. I think that gives us the ability to perform songs in a lot of different styles.
Steve: As a later addition to the band, the sound was pretty much established already. It’s part of what drew me to be in the band. It was easy to fit in with this style, though. It’s great and fun!
Derek: What first brought you to music? Was it a series of events or one really specific moment?
Nick: I’ve always been a fan of music, as early as 3rd grade when I played the flute. I played that for 5 years before picking up bass guitar in high school. I picked up electric guitar to impress a girl I was dating at the time. My parents introduced me to Deep Purple, Rainbow, and The Doors at a young age and my judo coach Jason is a rock encyclopedia. Those three influences helped mold my tastes.
Johnny: Like I said earlier, I was surrounded by music as a child. But like Nick, it was my attempt at impressing a girl that led me to get my first guitar (a black and white Mexican-made Stratocaster, for those who are keeping score). However, I think it was the moment when I first connected a band and their songs together. That band was The Beatles, and they really made me realize how powerful and magical music could be. I would spend hours laying in bed with headphones over my ears getting lost in their music, and it’s where I learned what melody and harmony really was.
Ryan: I’ve was always really into music as kid. My friends and I would always dissect our favorite bands, trying to learn as much about them as we could. I didn’t get into playing music until I was probably 15 or so. My brother came home with a Silvertone Starter Kit one day so when he wasn’t playing it, I would pick it up and try it out. I started out with online tabs for songs I liked and, by my senior year of high school, I was jamming around with some buddies.
Mark: Feeling how inspirational music was in life, it only felt right to produce it rather than sit back.
Steve: A lot of my family is musical so I gravitated toward music that way, probably. My dad taught me how to play guitar.
Derek: Who do you consider to be influences for you musically?
Johnny: With age comes a more discerning, and some could argue more open and receptive, ear. My three favorite bands are Thin Lizzy, Oasis, and The Beatles. So from a songwriting perspective I’m talking Phil Lynott, Noel Gallagher and the Lennon/McCartney duo. Top notch songwriters all around, and I hope to achieve what they have in their careers one day. However, my early years were a lot of music that skewed heavier, like Megadeth, Metallica, Sepultura, Anthrax, Slayer, ect. So it’s a bit of a mix.
Nick: I’ve always been a fan of Toni Iommi. I respect how he’s overcome many complications (including the early loss of the tips of his two fingers) to become who he is today. I see many parallels with his music career and my pursuit toward the Olympics for judo. Adrian Smith, Dave Murray, and Janick Gers from Iron Maiden are also major influences
Ryan: Queens of the Stone Age and The Who are my two major influences. There is no better bassist than John Entwistle.
Mark: Neil Peart, Danny Carry, Chad Smith, and Lars Ulrich.
Steve: Personally my father would be closest. He taught me guitar as mentioned above. Also, while growing up he was in numerous bands and I attended many rehearsals and gigs, not to mention all the guitar playing he did around the house! My high school music teachers (Terry Bradway and Joseph Bonville) are also big influences on my music interests in general. Dave Matthews Band is also a big influence on my playing. When I started my heavy playing it was mostly acoustic. Might seem like a strange mix for this band, but it works!
Derek: Let’s talk about your EP Fairer Shores which I love. You funded the album’s recording/distribution and supporting tour via Kickstarter. What made you use crowdfunding, and what do you credit with giving you the ability to raise all the necessary funds?
Johnny: Persistence and planning. We set a goal and had all intentions of hitting it. That, and the incredible support we had from our fans. Without them we are nothing. Crowdfunding is a perfect example of a new way forward for bands who don’t have the luxury of label support. We can’t be more grateful for the help we got from everyone who pledged to make our EP and tour a reality.
Nick: Consistency, Consistency, Consistency…Getting to 100% of our funding goal was a night and day 24/7 task. Emails, twitter, Facebook, Instagram, text messages, phone calls, video uploads were all used to help raise that money. I learned a lot during that month. Fortunately Johnny had previous experience with fundraising (the band had a successful Kickstarter back in 2013), so with his input (and the rest of the band’s as well) the project didn’t crash and burn “Top Gun” style like so many other crowd-funding projects do.
Ryan: The five of us decided to use Kickstarter because we were planning some pretty ambitious touring to support Fairer Shores as well as release the EP on vinyl. Both of these things take some serious cash to get done and it would be tough to shoulder the expenses completely on our own. The support from our fans was overwhelming. It goes without saying that the Kickstarter would have been nothing without everyone’s help.
Mark: Nowadays people do not have the cash to fund production and distribution.
Steve: It gets expensive to “do it yourself” record, produce, press, and tour as a band. Hard Soul had done another successful Kickstarter in the past and (at the time) with the upcoming plans of EP recording, pressing to vinyl, and the tour it made sense to give another one a shot. I credit, mostly, all of Hard Soul’s great fans and supporters.
Derek: Walk me through writing the tracks for Fairer Shores, how did they come about? Did you take from personal experiences with the lyrics and how did each member in the band contribute to the overall process? Was there a specific theme/concept that you were trying to follow?
Johnny: Each song I wrote for this EP represents a specific moment in time. I generally demo the tunes out in my home studio and present them to the band. After some rehearsal time and maybe road-testing the tunes live we went into Four Legs Records studio in Washingtonville, NY to track them. It’s 2 full band tracks and 2 acoustic tracks that were recorded during another session a month or so later.
“The Sweetest Heart” – this song was one I had been working on since mid-2014. The phrase “the sweetest heart” had been rolling around in my mind for a long time and I didn’t have a chance to use it until this song started to take shape. In a specific sense it’s about a failed relationship, but in a larger more general way it’s about the emotions that you cope with following some sort of vacuum in your life when you lose something you love. Anger, frustration, yearning, and eventually the realization that you are better off moving ahead. It’s got a super infectious beat and melody to it, and it’s the song a lot of people say they connect with live when they come talk to us after one of our shows.
“It’s All Gone Wrong” – this particular song came together pretty quickly in its early stages. Originally it was a perspective on stagnation in someone’s life and the frustration of navigating through it. Looking back at it now, I can probably say it’s more of a reflection on my own attempts to embrace patience when it comes to the creative process. As a DIY band we don’t have managers or handlers giving advice or dictating how things should go. So I will have bursts of creativity and suddenly have 4 or 5 new songs that I want to start playing or recording so that we can capture that energy instantly.
“Fairer Shores” – In my time as a songwriter I can think of only three occasions where a song came together as quickly as this one. I don’t know where it came from, but I was preparing for a friend’s wedding one morning and suddenly these lyrics started pouring out of my head and onto paper. I quickly grabbed a guitar and fleshed out some chords (including an intro chord pattern that I had been saving for the “right song”) and demo’d the whole thing in a few hours, fast enough to send to both the bride and groom before the ceremony. I’m incredibly proud of that song, and it’s a personal favorite of mine.
“Have to Be A Miracle” – It’s an incredibly personal song for me, and it’s tough to actually dissect it without feeling a little too exposed, you know? It was written very soon after I wrote “Fairer Shores” and every time I get a chance to sing it I’m taken back to the exact moment that inspired it. I’ll let the lyrics speak for themselves. In many ways it’s a follow-up to the acoustic version of another one of our songs “We Burn Like Fire.”
Nick: Having been in the band for all but 1 album, I can comment on some of the overall themes that I’ve seen in the music. The songs are eclectic in thematic nature (and style of music) ranging from optimistic get what you want – heartbreak. However, each song is under the same thematic umbrella of “the human experience” or life as some would say. These songs, deal with emotions and experiences that ALL OF US have felt at one point in our lives. That being said, our band can speak to literally ANYONE on the planet. No audience is cast out, ignored, segregated, or overlooked… sounds very Salka to me.
Ryan: Fairer Shores was the most active I’ve been so far in the writing process when it comes to my bass parts. I definitely put my own spin on the tunes from Heart of Plaster, but I had a little more freedom this time around. When John first showed me the new songs, those bass lines IMMEDIATELY popped in my head and we threw them down on the demos right then. Especially on “It’s All Gone Wrong.”
Steve: Last summer Johnny and myself went out on a little acoustic tour around the northeast. He came to me with the idea for “The Sweetest Heart” as a new one to road test on this tour and it sounded great. We were able to play around with it and see how the arrangement fit. The other three tracks came together quickly after that. The original plan was to do a single with a B-side but because the other songs quickly evolved, we decided to include them, too. In recording the full band tracks on the EP, we were all able to put our personal take on each respective part.
Derek: How has the local scene in upstate New York reacted to your music? Do you have tons of diehard fans?
Johnny: Only supportive. Every show we play there is positive energy flowing out from the stage to the audience and we receive it back from them. Every show we pick up some new fans who stumbled onto our music and find some kind of connection to what we’re doing. I’m very humbled to hear from those folks who dig what we play.
Nick: All I can say is that since the band’s inception (a mere 4 years ago) we have had a steady audience growth and consistent elevation in our level. Higher profile gigs, more gigs, new audiences, more air time. Seems like a good reaction to me. However, I am not satisfied until we’re on the cover of Rolling Stone (laughs). Our fan base is growing and for that I am extremely grateful.
Mark: “Tight” is a word that is brought up consistently when describing our shows.
Ryan: We’ve been given nothing but love from Upstate and beyond. The reaction has been absolutely amazing. Since the band has started, our fan base in the area just keeps growing. Starting off at open mic nights and working our way up to shows like Alive at 5 [The City of Albany’s premiere summer concert series] has been a pretty cool experience.
Steve: I’m not sure about the history of this band regarding this question, but anyone I’ve spoken to since joining the band love the music and energy we bring.
Derek: What do you hope that your tour will accomplish for you as a band?
Johnny: Well, obviously we want it to be a success in all aspects. Many of the stops are in cities we haven’t had the privilege of playing in yet, so it’s a first step in acquainting ourselves with potential new fans. Then repeat endlessly! The core element of being in a band is performing your music to fresh ears, and as long as we do that every night I’m happy to call that success. Plus it’s like going to rock n’ roll summer camp with a bunch of your friends!
Derek: When you play live, what type of experience do you want to bring to your audience?
Johnny: From a personal perspective, I strive to play the best show absolutely possible each night; my guitar playing has to be top notch, my voice on point, because I want to put on the best performance possible for myself. But the songwriter and lyricist in me really wants to connect with everyone through the music and the words. It’s about creating an atmosphere, or vibe, or whatever you want to call it, that will envelop everyone, even for just a moment and they can maybe connect to something in those songs. I also want to showcase all the facets of our sound, be it the full-tilt rockers or the more nuanced acoustic tunes like the ones on the new EP.
Nick: I want people who see us play live to be able to walk away saying “Wow, what a tight band! That was awesome when _____”. Long story short, I want people to enjoy our set and walk away with memories. Guess it’s partially on me to figure out how to create them (laughs).
Mark: People to see the energy I provide to then feel it and live it.
Ryan: I want our live shows to be a fuckin’ party. I’ve been to some live shows where the band just puts their heads down, plows through their set, and it’s boring as hell. The audience should feel like they’re getting their monies worth and the best way to do that is put your heart into every performance.
Steve: A high energy, great show. Want them to remember who Hard Soul is.
Derek: Where would you, dream big here, like to see Hard Soul go in the future? Any specific venues, festivals or anything else that comes to mind?
Johnny: Dreaming big? Probably opening for Oasis on their reunion tour (if that ever happens). Realistically, Warped Tour would be an awesome run of summer touring for us; I think we’d fit the bill pretty well. Any opportunity to perform is a thrill for me. With that said, I think any band that has the guts to leave the safety of their own town to hit the road would probably say the same thing, and I’m happy to be in that category.
Nick: Madison Square Garden, The Times Union Center, The Staples Center. I want it all. Lollapalooza, Warped Tour, you name it.
Ryan: In a perfect world, Hard Soul is opening up for Queens of the Stone Age on an international tour. Josh Homme then asks me to play on the next Desert Session record.
Mark: More shows.
Steve: Just to continue growing and writing great music. Playing bigger venues, sharing the experience with a bigger audience would be great!
Derek: Is there anything else you would like to say before we conclude this interview?
Nick: Anyone want to take me out for sushi?
Mark: Rock on, mates.
Ryan: Stay golden, Pony Boy.
Johnny: Love yourself, love one another. As Johnny Marr says: “Be who you wanna be.”