It’s a cold gray day in December 2008 and Live frontman Ed Kowalczyk is ensconced in his home in Ojai, amiably answering my questions over the phone. Kowalczyk and the rest of the band-drummer Chad Gracey, bassist Patrick Dahlheimer, and guitarist Chad Taylor-have finally landed some down time after a long stint on the road, which began after the release of their seventh CD Songs from Black Mountain in 2006 and culminated in November 2008 with a five-week gig as part of Europe’s annual mega-concert series Night of the Proms, held in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain.
Along the way Live also managed to film their first-ever concert DVD, Live at the Paradiso. Recorded in Amsterdam at the church-turned-music-venue Paradiso, the disc aptly captures the powerful live shows for which the band is known. In conjunction, Live has released an accompanying CD of the concert that also includes two new studio songs-“Forever” (“Forever” has already been climbing the online alternative radio charts and the band performed the song on the Ellen Degeneres show earlier this year) and “Purifier” (featuring John Popper)-both slated for their upcoming album due out at the end of this year.
Are you at your house in Ojai?
Yeah. It’s been a long couple months. But we’re finally home.
How long have you guys been touring? Seems like two years.
We had a good portion of this year off and then started in earnest at the end of June. And then went till about three weeks ago or so. So yeah, it was pretty long.
Are you home for a while?
For the most part. We’re going to be doing a lot of promotion for the new live record and DVD. Then start to get our feet wet again and not go too long without playing some and getting back together.
You guys are scattered all over the country?
Two of us are here in California and two are in Pennsylvania.
I guess with technology these days you don’t need to get together too much to exchange song ideas and whatnot.
Not really. It’s totally different now. We all have Pro Tools. Of course we see each other so much on the road anyway we need a break. (laughs)
Let’s talk about your DVD, which is amazing. I was very impressed.
Yeah, I feel like they really nailed it. It was a Dutch production team and:it was filmed in Amsterdam and all the production stuff was done there. They just did a fantastic job with it. It had a [great] venue; it had an inherent kind of drama to it. I’m very, very pleased with it. And the fact that it was our first one it was nice that it was so good.
What was it that came together for this DVD that made this the right time to make it?
Well, you know it’s a combination of sort of fate and they way the cookie crumbled, as they say. We tried to do it in Brazil a couple years ago but:it ended up getting pushed around in favor of other projects. Then, about this time last year we finally said “hey in ’08 we’re doing this DVD and that’s it.” So we started to talk about where we were going to do it. We’d played the Paradiso a few years ago and thought immediately, wow, this would be great to do a show in. There’s been some other filming there as well and it turned out really great so we thought, let’s put Live in here. We’d have such a great show
For the first time in our career we’re not tied to a long [contract] so we had the freedom to pick and choose with who we wanted to work with in every category, which was really fantastic. I’m actually glad it didn’t happen before this because the combination of the advances of technology for the DVD with hi-def and all that stuff-ten years ago it wouldn’t have been as cool. Also the band, I think, is better than ever so it just ended up timing perfectly somehow.
On Live at the Paradiso you’re giving it your all and it’s wonderful to watch. I’ve been lucky enough to see you guys live a couple times and I know that that’s how you are at every show. So how do you keep the performing fresh?
Um, you know, I don’t know. I think that once the PA starts kicking and we get up there and its Chad Gracey’s drums and the guitars are loud and there’s a microphone there–something just kind of comes over [us]. You know we just start going for it. I think we’re just having so much fun that we just get caught up in it every night.
You know it’s an incredible opportunity to be able to [perform], first of all, and then to be able to do it for a living and having the [audience’s] gratitude flowing through you:To me if you’re not getting off on that you have a serious problem. You need serious therapy. (Laughs)
In the DVD, it was interesting to see the crowd and their response to your songs. During “Lightening Crashes” there was a cut to a woman and she was teary-eyed. It must be amazing to move people to such emotion with your music.
It feels great. It’s hard to describe really how it feels because it’s such an incredible gratification and a validation of so many things that we’ve been passionate about and decided to do over the years-like not going to college and deciding to follow our dream as a rock band in America. And the fact that if we hadn’t made that decision then that woman wouldn’t have been standing there getting what she’s getting from [our music]. It’s overwhelming really when I think about it because we’ve been doing this for so long and it’s really incredible the trajectory that the band has had and the relationship that has grown with thousands and thousands of people all over the world.
At the end of the disc it was cool to see you guys watching yourselves on stage. You probably don’t get to do that much-see yourself on film directly after a performance.
I remember when I met Michael Stipe a long time ago for the first time. He said it’s a shame that you’ll never get to watch your own band. I never thought about it. I thought yeah, that sucks to not be able to actually experience that perspective. So that’s about as close as you can get, you know, when you film yourself in hi-def and you record it like that–you go in and you become the audience. That’s about as good as it gets as far as changing your perspective. It was pretty cool. I mean especially fresh off the stage to go and [watch the performance] and feel part of it for just that little bit.
I hope you guys thought, man we’re doing a great job, because that’s what it was.
Yeah. No I definitely felt like sweet, it looks the way it felt on stage. Sometimes you feel like you did really well and then you find out that your shoes were untied or you had a big booger in your nose, or something in your teeth. None of that was going on. It was great to have that feeling when we were walking into the truck thinking, okay we got it. We knew we’d done a really exceptional show and we were just praying that it was captured the way we felt it was.
And it wasn’t pieced together. It was just run through of the show?
Yeah, I mean we were actually so proud of that. Of course there’s [some] editing, but it’s really just a linear performance:.A lot of live concerts are-at least the vocal-re-shot because of the bleed; we didn’t do any over dubbing. We didn’t do any fixes. So the way that you hear it is exactly the way it went down. That was another thing we were pretty proud of. We wanted to make sure that it was really live, you know. That was important.
To change directions here, the song “Wings” where the lyric says “the weight you carry on your shoulders / could be the wings that fly you home.” I love that line. There are a lot of lines like that in your work, little mantras in your songs. At least they become mantras to me and I imagine other people.
Where do you get your mantras from, or lyrics that bring you back to center?
I mean I guess music has always been that for me, too. I’ve found lyrics in songs that always center me. A big band for me throughout my year-and that has not [lessened] as I’ve gotten older-is U2. I have so many lyrics of Bono’s that reverberate within my consciousness, the gray areas that bring me to that place.:Those are the types of artists that have inspired me and I’ve always wanted to step up to bat:when [music is] done with that kind of spirit it really can soothe people.:One of the lyrics from Bono that always sticks with me is “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Just the name of the song, that sort of oneness and there isn’t any division in yourself and your just at peace and fired up at the same time. I appreciate the compliment.
I think that you, like Bono, have the ability to capture in your songs the beauty the cruelty the struggle the magnificence of life concisely. You have a gift of being able to boil things down to a beautiful little expression that the rest of us can take home and say that’s exactly what I was thinking.
It’s actually harder than it seems. I try to raise the bar to that place where there’s as little fat on there as possible so that it’s just the distilled idea. We have this song called “Forever”:which I feel was one of those [songs]. We finished it in the studio and I finally finished the lyric and listened back and thought oh some of those moments you were talking about, there are a couple in there and I was really happy about that.
You know, it’s the part of the process for me that is so rewarding but also so difficult sometimes, to get it to that place where you’re speaking directly to people without too much circumstantial stuff in it.
On “Forever” I really like the lyric “the darker the night / the brighter the dawn.” And in conjunction with the lyrics, the music that you guys put with it is so appropriate. I know that’s a funny thing to say, because obviously any sounds could go with that lyric, but it’s driven home more because of the music accompanying it.
Wow, thank you. You know it’s interesting because everybody in the band does their thing and brings, as they say, their A game to the idea. I think that when you combine all the elements together that’s what really makes Live unique. The fact that Chad Gracey, you know is a self-taught drummer who clues into what I’m feeling and what I’m saying so remarkably. The chemistry of the band gravitates toward the idea and really puts it over the top. That’s what’s so fun about going into the studio with these guys. I may have this little song on acoustic guitar, but when everybody puts their thing to it goes to a whole other planet.
One thing that’s made you popular, at least in my opinion, and is responsible for your longevity is that you write such a variety of songs-there’s soft songs and rocking stuff and then some pop-y stuff, I would consider “Forever” on the more poppy side of songs for you guys but then the chorus has twists in it. A lot of pop songs, I think these days you can pretty much guess what the next note is going to be. But that’s not the case with your work. Like “Forever,” I’m thinking it’s going to go in one direction but then it goes somewhere completely different. That’s clever, that’s cool.
That’s good. You know I feel the same way. I feel that’s where you really work. We try to go anywhere in the songs and I try when I’m writing them to push past where I’m expecting it to go, to push into a different dimension of myself that I haven’t been before with these particular chords or idea. I’m glad to hear you say that. Thank you.
So that is something you do consciously.
Well, there’s just expected places to go and I think I’ve written some things in the past where I gone more to those places. And those are the songs that five or ten years later I think, “I could’ve done something more there.” The older I get I try to remember those lessons; this is where this could go, but let’s do something different. So it is part of the process. I wouldn’t call it conscious in the sense that I’m really sitting down and thinking about it. It’s part of a flow but then suddenly in the background I think, okay, let’s go somewhere that we don’t go all the time. The nice thing is that everybody in the band approaches their parts that way too. Chad Gracey gets really focused on the drums with not doing the same thing that every rock drummer would do there. So hopefully, like you said, [the song] has elements of something you recognize but hopefully it pushes things to a new place.
Let’s talk about Obama. Wasn’t his election the most amazing thing?
Incredible. Incredible. It’s dreamy.
How’d you hear about Obama winning?
I was in Europe for election day. Live was doing this thing called Night of the Proms. I Fed-Exed my ballot:.We spent the night watching [the count] on TV. They were celebrating it so much in Europe, we were able to go to a big party in Amsterdam that ran all night. It was really incredible. So we felt great. It wasn’t like being in Philadelphia or L.A., I’m sure, but there was a lot of attention on it worldwide:I feel awesome that I was able to be a part of it, a part of the campaign and part of the “Yes We Can” video and the rallies.
I think the country’s been pretty down for a while but Barack Obama has reignited some hope and a feeling of getting back into life and working together.
I hear ya, yeah.
What coincides so well with that renewed sense of hope is your music; your music is life-affirming as well. I’m curious to see if there will be a larger resurgence of popularity of your music.
It’s interesting because you’re right, there’s a spirit in the air now that Live feels kind of like. “Forever” is like that. I can’t really say that I write songs specifically about [hope], but [the country’s mood] definitely seeps into my consciousness like anybody else. When we finished [recording “Forever”] the election was a month away and it just felt like that expectancy, that joy, that tension had seeped into the song. There was an interplay with the feelings we were all going through at every level. I’ve been blessed to be doing this for so long that there was a similar thing with “Lightening Crashes” and “Overcome.” I’ve been in these moments before with songs and times that make it really fun to be an artist because you can see yourself reflected back to yourself via your music and what’s going on in the world. It’s really fun.
Seems to me you guys are just doing your thing, writing the music you want to write and how the world or society pop’s into as it is just how it does.
Exactly. It’s kind of hard to be really ironic right now. It’s almost like it’s gone out of style finally. The cynics and that sort of smirk on what seems like the face of everything-especially in the past eight years-it’s kind of starting to lessen and just overall people aren’t so afraid to be earnestly happy about Obama and talking in idealistic terms again, and being okay with it. Not only just being okay with it but being really fired up and passionate about it. For us to have “Forever” coming out on the radio right now it’s pretty fun to see how the timing for that song and the feelings kind of coalesced.
Your song “The River” (from Songs from Black Mountain) reminds me of a rock and roll spiritual. What was the inspiration for that?
With that one it was less about directly being inspired by something. The whole record was about really an organic feeling . I was listening to Bob Marley a lot, I was listening to “No Woman No Cry” and feeling in a natural space. I live here in wonderful, beautiful Ojai with my girls and my wife and it was more an effect of the environment than “oh I want to write a song about this or that.” The [line in the song] “Let my loving ease your pain,” and the sensuality of it was more just me coming to a place in my life that was “here I am in this beautiful natural environment, how does that feel? What’s that sound like on a record.” And the whole record really sort of goes there. If anything it goes there, maybe for me, too much and gets kind of soft and when I listen to that record now I wish I would have put a couple of rockers on there. What’s cool about being an artist that keeps going is now it really sort of pinpoints this stuff. Not “Forever” as much as “Purifier,” which is really heavy. And so we’re kind of like okay, last time we were really acoustic-y and kind of light with the production, and now this time we want to rock. It’s fun to ebb and flow that way.
Is there someone you’d like to collaborate with musically?
Oh man. I mentioned U2. I love Peter Gabriel and I’ve come so close to working with him a few times. We were on a movie soundtrack together but we didn’t actually write together. I just sang with Sinead O’Connor:she sang “Overcome” with me in Europe during Night of the Proms and we became good buddies because we were doing this thing for five weeks together:.you can check it out on YouTube:so we thought about working together sometime next year:.I’m such a huge fan of hers.
I love the collaboration you did with Tricky. Anything more going on with him?
Dude, you know what I haven’t talked to Tricky for a long time. In fact I heard he was living in Los Angeles and I ran into him at a restaurant and we said hi, but that was before my last baby was born, so that was like four years ago:He is an incredibly creative guy:it’s really cool working with him because you don’t know what to expect and then all of a sudden you’re doing some incredible piece of music that started from the simplest beginnings. It’s a totally different approach than I take. You know, I sit down with an acoustic guitar and put together a song. He allows the song to really emerge from these other angles that I’m not practiced in. So for me it’s really exciting to do that. He’ll start with grooves and machines I don’t typically write with. That was cool.
It must be fun to collaborate with people you can play off of. I suppose there are some you might not jive with.
I actually only open to the people I could really get into and learn something from.:That being said I’m always open to surprises. It’s an interesting consideration every time an opportunity comes up. Sometimes I’m like no and other times–like with Sinead–it’s obvious.
Do you get asked to collaborate much?
From time to time:I typically like to focus on my songs in a way that really would be hard to include people in because it’s such an intimate process for me. I like to look at it more when it’s like a movie soundtrack where there isn’t the typical sort of pressure on it to be doing your own thing, when it’s an experiment from the beginning.
What soundtracks have you done besides The Fast and the Furious?
Then we did the Mummy soundtrack and worked with Glen Ballard on the Mummy Returns:and we just had a song in the movie Zach and Miri Make a Porno. We have a song called “Hold Me Up.”
And that was written for the movie?
That was actually a Live song that we took off Throwing Copper because there wasn’t enough space. The director had heard it years ago and remembered it.
How did you guys decide what songs to put on your DVD?
It was tough. I was proud of myself because I made myself make it a little shorter than probably people expected. I wanted to make sure that it didn’t play too long:for the people who would be finding out about Live for the first time, I wanted to make sure that there was a flow to the songs, a climax, and an ending that I felt wasn’t too long. We did play over 20 songs and we couldn’t have put that many on it anyway so we whittled it down. It took some back and forth but I have feel that we got it to a place that touches on every record. We had so many songs that we weren’t able to put on there that we will at some point make available on our web site for visual downloads and that sort of thing. So they’ll be out there eventually.
The DVD follows a good arc of a concert.
That’s what I wanted. I wanted it to play just right, like a movie. Our hardcore fans are going to see this and I wanted to make sure they get a good experience.
Where are you going to record your next album? Will it be in Santa Barbara?
I wish. I love Santa Barbara Sound Design. And I love Santa Barbara. I was there three times last week. I had dinner at Carlito’s on State Street the other night. It was the best Mexican food I’ve ever had in my life. How did I not know about this place? I was at the Nutcracker down the street at the Granada:I would love to make my next record in town, but I’m not sure I can sell the band on that one because half of them are in Pennsylvania. We might have to go East as part of our give and take. But I have the better weather to offer. (Laughs)
When are you going to start recording?
We’re already working on songs, but probably some time early next year . Get the songs recorded and get the ball rolling. “Forever” and “Purifier” are really the direction we’re headed in; that’s kind of like what to expect.
Those songs are so different from each other.
Yeah, I would say it’s probably going to be about five “Forevers” and about five or so “Purifiers”. (Laughs)
Are the songs for the album already written?
I have some written and now that we’ve done that recording session we’ve got our heads around the process of making it and how we want to approach songs like Forever and how we want to approach the more of the sort of band jams like Purifier:For fans that’s definitely sort of the weight marker for the next record.
Will this be the first record you’re doing on your own?
We’re on Vanguard right now for this DVD and CD and we’re loving those guys. They are really passionate, really incredible, [we’re] big fans. And it’s been a really great run so far, so of course we would be happy to work with them again. We are just going to see where it all falls.
It’s not like the old days where people had a five-album contract?
Ours was seven:Now we’re sort of doing record to record, which is great because with this DVD we were able to make deals all over the world for the first time with whomever we felt was really passionate, so it was cool.
Were all the choices overwhelming?
It got a little hairy but at the same time it was really exciting.:It’s a good problem to have that we had a lot of choices. It’s really fun for us being that we were with one company for so long.
Which songs challenge you vocally?
Actually “Forever.” I’ve been doing that one acoustically for promotion and I’m like wow, that one is high. I’m pushing it. It’s probably the highest I’ve ever sung:my range has gotten sort of better over the years, it’s gotten broader and I’ve gotten better at:lasting longer, not beating myself up on stage in the first half hour:Before we’d go out and be too dang excited too quick and just give it all. I remember Mick Jagger saying that it took him forever to learn [that]-because they’d gig for like three-hour–and he said “I have to stop giving it all in the first few song.” I had to figure out how to pace that. And I get sort of amped up and visceral, that physical energy:
Are you trained in vocals?
Just a little bit. When I was a kid my aunt coached me a little bit for choir and what she taught me actually stuck with me. She basically taught me to sing from my diaphragm and not from my throat. And lo and behold I’ve never had to take any prednisone or anything like that.
What do people take that for?
Prednisone? Singers are known for-especially touring singers-are known for having to take mild steroids to keep the inflammation down in their throats. I haven’t ever had to do that:but it’s really common.
Because they’re just thrashing their vocal chords?
They’re thrashing them and the irritation and inflammation, you can’t get rid of it in time to do the next show: I’ve been lucky just because I had a little bit of training in the beginning and was able to avoid it.
What the heck is “Gas Head Goes West” about?
Oh man. (Laughs)
I love that song. I have no idea what it means, but I love it.
I had one of those word boxes-I read that David Bowie actually uses it from time to time-where you put words on a metal surface like a refrigerator and you can make random sentences. I was kind of doing one of those with a tablet, coming up with new phrases. So I don’t really know exactly what it’s about anymore than anybody else does. That’s a lame explanation but it had something to do with moving-for me the whole move west is what it was about indirectly. It was around the time when I was deciding to leave Pennsylvania and come out to California and what it represented to me was this freedom from where I grew up, to leaving the nest, if you would. There were a lot of songs around that time-especially on Distance to Here-that really were influenced by my move to California, which, I’m happy to say, is now 11 years and going strong and I’m not going back:So really that song and that whole movement was about leaving and starting anew.
Are you the gas head?
I can’t confirm or deny that (laughs). You can just speculate. It could be Chad Gracey because he lives out here, too.
See Live at Anaheim’s House of Blues (1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim) on Sunday, May 10. Visit friendsoflive.com.