By Brian Tucker
Late last year Soul-R Fusion released its self-titled debut. Mostly acoustic folk music, the album’s personality shares an amalgam of subtle flavors bubbling just under the surface – rock, bluegrass, soul, and funk. The material is reflective and observational, led by Tim Koehler’s invitingly rustic timbre, a voice that seems to measure years with a cheerful outlook on things.
Recorded as a trio (though they play mostly as a guitar/bass duo) musicians Koehler (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Alex Goodell (fretless bass), and Roger Manning (drums) have crafted soulful, earthy folk and Americana music. Soul-R Fusion came together almost two years ago, with the players meeting at a benefit gig and struck up a friendship and admiration over one another’s talent. Koehler later joined Goodell and Manning playing on a mutual friend’s studio project and he asked them to help him record his original material.
Koehler says that the project began as a way to merge rhythmic music, soulful singing with a folk sense of lyrics and a down-to-earth presence. For all the songs about looking back and looking ion the mirror (“This All Will Pass,” “More Than Glasses”) the band knows how to have a good time and share a sense of humor (“Apes,” “It’s All Good”).
Below Koehler and Goodell discuss their songwriting process, not losing good song ideas, the role of fretless bass in the duo, what’s in the band’s musical stew, and a interesting selection of covers they’ll perform at shows.
I like your vocal personality , do you have history playing in rock and roll ?
Tim: I started in rock and roll bands in high school doing stuff like The Eagles, The Beatles, and The Steve Miller Band, and then had a few successful cover/bar bands in the 90’s in New Jersey, but early on a friend and I formed an acoustic duo. It was then that I kind of fell for acoustic singer-songwriter type music, like Cat Stevens and James Taylor, and storytellers like Harry Chapin and Arlo Guthrie. I spent a lot more time playing solo acoustic in bars and clubs after that then I did in bands.
Alex, playing fretless bass, does it significantly effect how you write , even learn to approach the instrument?
Alex: I started playing bass about thirty years go, and a couple of years into it I got my first fretless bass. Fretless bass can be more challenging than a fretted instrument due to extra accuracy needed to hit the right notes, but I feel it’s worth the effort because it’s possible to get a warmer, richer, more expressive tone. Even though I started playing fretless bass a long time ago, I took a break from it for a while and played fretted bass in a variety of bands including classic rock, an Elvis tribute band, surf-instrumental, funk, and country-rock.
It wasn’t until I started working with Tim, that I picked up the fretless again. Tim has a very rhythmic guitar style and this frees me up to play melodic bass lines. Often, in addition to laying down a groove, I play counter or co-melodies to his rich vocal lines. Playing fretless gives me a sense of musical freedom and it enables me to play more expressively and melodically.
When I first started writing the bass parts for the songs on Soul-R Fusion, I wrote the parts for “It’s All Good” and “Hands Up” on the fretted bass. “It’s All Good” has a kind of funky groove, and I initially played it with a thumb slap-pop technique that works well with frets. “Hands Up” has a lot of partial chords in the bass part, which can be difficult to play in tune without frets. However, I ended up playing these both on the fretless because I like to challenge myself and I love the sound of the fretless bass, but also because I didn’t want to have to carry more than one bass to gigs.
I wrote the bass parts to the other songs (for the album) on the fretless, and I now write and play exclusively on the fretless with Soul-R Fusion. While I am a fan of simple in-the-pocket bass lines, what I really enjoy about writing bass parts for Tim’s songs and playing music as part of Soul-R Fusion is having the opportunity to be rhythmically, melodically, and harmonically creative. Fretless bass is such a versatile and beautiful instrument and I try to get that across in our music.
The album is heavy on acoustic soul but underneath there’s rock and roll energy.
Tim: I think that’s a pretty fair observation. The songs were written for the most part in a “singer-songwriter” style, but working with Alex and Roger on the arrangements and rhythms brought out some things in the writing that went beyond folk and singer-songwriter. In my heart I love rhythm and energy, plus I love the feel of singing a soulful vocal line. This whole thing started as a way to merge rhythmic music and soulful singing with a folk sense of lyrics and down to earth-ness. Kind of like squishing Van Morrison and Bob Dylan into a soul blues setting – but on acoustic guitar.
Alex: Before we met Tim, Roger and I had played in the local surf-instro band The Meteor Men which specialized in high-energy music. Roger is a Rush and prog-rock fan, I played for several years with a northern California based rock power-trio, and early on Tim played in Jersey based rock bands. So I guess our misspent rock-and-roll pasts seep through our acoustic soul a bit. Also, Tim’s rhythmic acoustic guitar style brings an energy to our music that is not often heard in acoustic-based music.
There’s a Midwestern rock vibe , especially “Song A” and “This All Will Pass.”
Tim: I listen to all types of music, so I draw from everywhere generally. But as a young songwriter, the first influence I can really point to that made me want to write songs and document the world around me would be Pete Townshend and The Who’s Tommy. I could envision every song on that album in my head like a movie. This was way before the movie came out. I love lyrics and the process of putting words to music to tell stories and I’m still influenced today by all kinds of artists, from Dylan to Tom Waits to newer guys like Frank Turner.
One of the most recent songwriting “a-ha moments” was from a guy named Chuck Ragan. He had a song where one verse had four lines and the next had five. Once I grabbed hold of the idea that everything in the song doesn’t have to be equal, it just needs to be right to tell the story. That opened up my head a bit and also opened up my lyric writing.
What do you mean by “Soul Powered Poet Rock”?
Tim: The phrase was meant to describe the sound Soul-R Fusion created. Rhythmic and soulful, but with thoughtful lyrics, which goes to the second part of the question, yes, I try never to lose the “Poet-ness” of the lyrics, or the storytelling aspect of it. As I said before about Townshend, I always try to make my songs as visual as possible without losing the soulful feeling.
Do you write lyrics first or write them to the music you’ve already created?
Tim: I generally get a phrase stuck in my head that becomes some sort of hook to hang the rest of the song on. It doesn’t have to be the chorus and it can just be a mood generated by a line against a certain chord. Like “Apes” had no chorus just the tagline “get your stinkin’ paws off me.” Then I write and re-write and re-write until I feel like it’s done. But believe it or not, the bulk of the song generally comes out in the first writing session, and then the rest is tweaking words or phrases to fit the lyrical pattern.
After that, Alex and I will sit and arrange the song rhythmically and make sure it fits what we do as a duo. The process is a bit faster these days having someone to bounce ideas off of. Some of the tunes on this CD took years of me tweaking and re-tweaking them by myself. But I kind of obsess over lyrics. I’m constantly fiddling with words even on songs that we currently play out live. I change lyrics as the songs take on different meanings over time.
What do you do when a song idea happens and you’re nowhere near your instrument?
Tim: Back in the day if the song was a “keeper” then the idea would hopefully stay with you. At least that was the theory, but I lost a lot of good ideas that way. These days I always have my phone on me so I can record voice memos of song ideas as they happen. Sometimes if the idea is persistent it means lots of thirty second recordings in a row, and if I’m at work I usually run someplace private like the bathroom to sing ideas into the phone.
“Apes” is fun. Does it go over most people’s heads or does everyone find something in it?
Tim: It’s funny, but that songs lands pretty solidly with everyone that hears it. I first thought that the Charlton Heston reference would go over most people’s heads, but they really seem to get it. It seems to work on a lot of different levels for sure. You can get the spirit of the frustration with technology and this life we are leading, or the lyrics themselves poetically, or the humor and cultural references, or all of the above.
Alex: When we’re playing live we can’t always tell if people are listening to the lyrics, but usually with “Apes” we hear laughter and we assume people are laughing at the lyric. Most people relate all too well to the “Apes” scenario, and it’s fun too because it’s one of our few bluegrass influenced songs.
Creating these songs, how much was born out of rehearsing/jamming versus coming in with specific ideas?
Tim: I think I brought all these songs in initially as kind of solo acoustic songs and we rehearsed them a bit and brought out the rhythms that were there hiding in the songs. Alex and Roger definitely brought the funk to a lot of these and I play pretty rhythmically myself so, it was kind of there waiting to be brought out by the right arrangements.
Alex: Tim initially gave Roger and I demo CDs with rough versions of the songs and we wrote drum and bass parts respectively. Once we had ideas for the songs we worked through them at rehearsal and the songs were fleshed out through collaboration. We didn’t really start gigging as a band until the songs on the CD were recorded, and the songs continued to evolve as we played them more and got audience feedback.
Since the CD came out the end of last year we’ve been mostly writing and playing as a guitar/bass duo, and we now have many more original songs that we’re looking forward to recording. We enjoy being able to play our original music for audiences and often test-out new material at local open-mics.
Is “It’s All Good” the most fun song to play live? Do you get to expand on it, jam a little, during a show?
Tim: We have changed the arrangement a bit to accommodate the fact that it’s just bass and guitar now. Alex jams out a solo bass intro to the song before it starts in proper, but yeah the groove that we get between us can be pretty infectious, not only for us but for the audience too.
Alex: Yes, of the songs “It’s All Good” is the most fun for me to play live. We have a few new songs now that are rivals for the “most fun to play” title. It’s got a funky groove, a section where I play harmonics, and slide-y parts. While the main parts – verses, choruses, main chord structures, are fairly set. I have lots of room to play around and improvise. I don’t think I have every played this one the same way twice!
Can you share the story behind “The Moment B4”?
Tim: “The Moment B4,” I had read a book a number of years ago, I’m 99% certain it was by Deepak Chopra, and he laid out the theory that we create our own reality through the things we do. Now the things we do come from our own ideas, such as I have an idea to write a song, then I write it, and now my reality has been altered by now having one more song to sing.
You can take it further into your life by saying that you basically think or have an idea about everything you do before you do it and once you’ve done whatever it is your life is forever changed. I’m okay with that theory but I started wondering, since thoughts are all separate then what’s between the thoughts. Or what’s the inspiration for them. I thought maybe that’s where we are all connected to, call it whatever you want, a higher power or group consciousness. Or like that’s where the mojo is, in that gap between the thoughts that shape our reality. The split second before you have a thought or idea, or as I put it in the song “right in the Moment B4.”
Recording at Low Tide, were many songs recorded as single or ‘live takes’?
Tim: Jim Fox over at Low Tide managed to capture some awesome performances, especially where my vocals are concerned. Almost all of the tunes were done over two recording sessions and each song in basically not more than three takes. “Imagine Yourself,” which was the first song that I brought to the project and was the working title of the CD, was recorded weeks after the initial recordings with just Alex and me playing together live. I think we did four takes and used the second or third one
Alex: “Imagine Yourself,” which is a guitar/vocal and bass duet, was recorded as a live take. For the other songs on the CD the drums and bass were recorded together with Tim playing scratch (rough tracks) guitar, vocals, and harmonica. The guitar and vocal parts were later re-recorded, and we ended up using the scratch harmonica takes.
You write original music but what covers do you mostly play?
Alex: We are constantly in the process of expanding our catalog of cover songs, while at the same time revising it to reflect the style of our original music. We play our own versions of songs from soul and R&B bands, like Van Morrison, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Otis Redding, and The Staple Singers, and from acoustic singer-songwriters like Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Cockburn.
When we play other people’s music we inevitably do it in our own style, which usually means adding, accentuating and/or completely changing the rhythm. Sometimes it means adding parts, for example we play a song called ‘Memphis” that was originally done as a solo guitar/voice song by John Wozniack of the band Marcy Playground. We really loved the song and wanted to play it, so we added a bass part. Going in the other direction, we play Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” which has two bass parts, so in our version the two parts are kind of morphed together. We also like to play songs written by our friends. We do cover versions of “Stand to Learn…Let it Go” by Tucker Hill of The Clams, and a version of the L-Shape Lot song “Beautiful Day” written by Eric Miller.
Tim: We draw from wherever feels right. I think a good song is a good song no matter who has written it or where it comes from. That’s why we fit Bob Dylan right next to the Crash Test Dummies, next to Willie Dixon, or Norah Jones and Bruce Springsteen next to Gladys Knight. We try to shake up all our covers to fit our Soul-R Fusion sound. Which I think if I had to describe it would be me holding down the rhythm on acoustic guitar and Alex’s bass and my vocals playing counter-melodies against each other. Acoustic Soul Folk music, or something like that.