Tortured Soul: File Under Jazz Rock
An exclusive Mundovibe interview with Tortured Soul
Interview by J.C. Tripp
Rose and violet lights fall on three musicians decked out sleekly in skinny ties, pressed slacks, and starched white shirts. The mass of bodies gathered before them pulsates with a unified enthusiasm. Sweet soulful vocals rise from the man in the middle, an effect rendered all the more captivating by the fact that he is concurrently beating out an unrelenting backbeat on the drums. Flanking him on either side are a bassist who jumps up and down to the rhythm as he generates the throbbing low-end, and a keyboardist whose cool composure belies the fire in his fingers. This is Tortured Soul.
Born of the simple yet adventurous belief that modern dance music can be performed completely live, Brooklyn’s Tortured Soul packs dance floors with their unique live performances, while their recorded oeuvre pushes the genre boundaries of soul, dance, and pop. Born from the rhythm section of jazz-funk band Topaz, Tortured Soul began touring in 2003, and have become one of the premier live dance acts of this generation. While touring every continent, they have played venues as diverse as the Montreal Jazz Festival, Zouk Singapore, Bonnaroo in Tennessee, Fabric in London, and The Capetown International Jazz Festival in South Africa. They have shared the stage with world renowned DJ’s like Carl Cox, Miguel Migs, Jazzanova, and Louie Vega. They have also performed with many legendary live acts such as Chaka Kahn, The Wailers, The Brand New Heavies, and Pharcyde.
Tortured Soul has blazed an amazingly uncommon trail through the world of modern music. Following the early success of their now-classic dance singles “I Might Do Something Wrong,” “Fall In Love” and “How’s Your Life” in 2001 and 2002, Tortured Soul formed officially as a live band and booked their first nationwide tour in 2003, often playing in club settings that had never before seen a live act perform dance music so seamlessly. With the devotion of club-goers and DJs cemented as their foundation. Today, after 5 years of touring and a reputation for a live show nothing short of legendary, they are perhaps the only band in the world that can rock the main room at Fabric (London) at peak hour, as well as a 15,000+ festival crowd at the Montreal International Jazz Festival.
Combining elements of old soul and funk with a modern dancefloor sensibility, Tortured Soul’s style is both an echo of the past and a challenge to the future. This blend of sounds has won them praise from palettes as diverse as Lenny Kravitz and Barry Manilow, and made them a fave pick of DJ’s across many genres. Their tracks have received remix treatment from such luminaries as Osunlade, DJ Spinna, Alix Alvarez, Quentin Harris and Dimitri from Paris among others, and have appeared on over 25 compilations by the most prominent dance labels, from Hed Kandi to Defected – a testament to the impact they’ve had on current dance music.
2006 saw the release of their highly lauded first full-length album “Introducing Tortured Soul,” (Purpose Records / R2 Records) which collected their early 12” singles with some new studio gems, and fans around the world have been waiting with baited breath for the sophomore effort ever since. In early 2009 Tortured Soul released their new album “Did You Miss Me” on the band’s own newly formed TSTC Records (Dome UK/Europe, Columbia Japan). Previewed for fans with the 3-song/1-remix “In Transit EP” in Spring ’08, “Did You Miss Me” picks right up where “Introducing” left off. As it winds its way through infectious disco grooves, heartfelt raw soul, and lyrical themes that range from melancholic love, infidelity, and party-going mirth, the album coheres as the group’s most accessibly diverse effort to date.
With the launch of TSTC Records, the new album “Did You Miss Me”, and worldwide touring to follow, 2009 is turning out to be a huge year for Tortured Soul. Standing on the vast musical foundation that they themselves have laid, Tortured Soul looks eagerly to the future — and in the words of Gilles Peterson, “the future of house music” is Tortured Soul.
Tortured Soul are comprised of three musical super-talents, with lengthy backgrounds in performing and producing music. Ethan White (keyboards & background vocals) began playing piano at age 7, studied jazz piano with Donald Friedman and landed a residency at the famous venue Birdland-opening for countless musical legends that would play there. This period of the late 1990’s was an incredible time of creativity and collaboration for the jazz scene in New York, and Ethan eventually became part of Topaz-a 6 piece acid jazz group that toured the country for several years. J. Christian Urich (Lead Vocals & Drums) was surrounded by music and theater as his parents were professional actors and singers. At age 6 he began playing violin and piano, at age 12 he sang with the New York City Opera and The Metropolitan Opera, and at age 13 he began to play the drums. In 1993 wrote and produced “Don’t Throw My Love Around” for his project Cooly’s Hot Box that was signed by Pete Tong and released on Polygram Records. Since then he has written, produced, and collaborated on roughly 100 dance and R&B tracks. JKriv (Bass & Background Vocals) is a bassist, producer and songwriter with a roster of musical achievements as diverse as his own musical tastes. His love of music began as a child standing on a coffee table singing for his family, later became a means of wooing his female high-school classmates, and eventually was honed in the Oberlin Conservatory’s Jazz Performance program, where he studied and performed with numerous jazz masters including Clark Terry, Joe Henderson, Cecil Taylor and Freddie Hubbard. In addition to the band’s tireless worldwide touring schedule and stellar release history, Jason has also spearheaded two side production projects “The Moves” and “bgb,” releasing singles on numerous dance labels including OM Records, Dessous Recordings and Central Park Recordings.
Clearly Tortured Soul love creating music. Three guys following their bliss: nothing tortured about that.
Mundovibe caught up with two or three members via conference call just as the band was headed to play Japan
Mundovibe: So, I guess you are taking some time to chill out now that the new album is out?
Christian Urich: We’re not chilling too much as this time because we’re about to go to Japan for a couple of days and we’re going to do the Sapporo City Jazz Festival and after that we do a late night show. Then we swing back here pretty quickly again. And then we’re off for a couple of weeks, but we’ve got a lot of things we’re gearing up for in the fall so we’re busy.
Ethan White: We’ve pretty much been everywhere at this point. We’ve been to every continent and every region. It’s around and around.
MV: So, you’ve been able to create an international following by touring a lot?
CU: It’s funny, when I talk to people a lot of people aren’t really familiar with the business of touring but there’s sort of an intermediate level of world touring you can do. Our music is embraced by a lot of DJs an dance-oriented clubs and cultures around the world. So, we’re not travelling around the world and playing stadiums like a lot of people envision. You have to be a major popstar to tour worldwide. We’re able to go and play for many hundreds and in some cases thousands of people in places all over the world because it’s embraced everyplace. Anyplace there’s a collective of people: cities. Any place there’s large amounts of people gathering we seem to find a spot to play.
EW: As far as our past history goes, before we even started touring we had some really successful singles in dance music that sort of propelled us into the touring world. It enabled us to start touring right away. But I think the two things that really fed each other – because the live act itself is novel, first of all. It’s novel. In the scene, there still to this day isn’t really any live bands playing. But at the same time, the live show is strong and it translates for people, even people who aren’t into club music. I don’t think they show up and get the same feeling they would get if they went to see a DJ and still dig the show. So, we’ve been able to grow our crowd to being bigger than just this underground dance scene. With these two things feeding off each other we’ve been able to bounce back and forth and create a scene for ourselves, basically.
MV: Your name, Tortured Soul, has a few meanings and is a clever play on words. It seems quite approriate considering the nature of your music, which works on several levels.
CU: The first single ‘I Might Do Something Wrong’ was a song about the angst and concern that while you’re separated from the person you’re with, you’re going to end up fooling around. Throughout the music there’s a running theme of relationships and issues with the relationships and things that are sort of unresolveable. And to go back to the first song, there’s a line in the song, I was referring to myself as a tortured soul, so that just exists as a concept in the music that there’s certain irreconcilable things and issues in relationships that you have to proceed with. And of course there’s also that play on soul music being a type of music and that we’re going to whip it into shape in the way that we want the music to be. So, a combination of both.
EW: It’s fun when we’re trying to explain what the band’s name actually means to people when we’re overseas, they don’t know what the phrase “tortured soul” means and they’re asking us about torture and why we put tortured in the title.
MV: What is the driving motivation and theme behind your music?
CU: I think that good music is kind of timeless and we’re striving really hard to call on the influences and the things that we love like soul music and groove-oriented music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. That’s still the kind of stuff that I really enjoy listening to. And it’s kind of recycled and kind of reinvented. And, that’s one of the things about live music too – when you go and see it live, it’s kind of a reflection of being alive. It’s like somebody standing there in front of a live thing. Even though we’re calling on our influences from the past, if we sit and play in front of you right now, that’s right now. You know what I mean and that noise, I mean our music (laughs) is coming your way.
MV: You are an anomaly, being a dance band that performs live. How do people react to that?
EW: We all like club music and electronic music and that’s cool and some of the tracks we make have that sound to them, they’re a little more electronic. But I think that we’re always going to have a warm spot in our heart for music that’s actually live and trying to just keep it going. You know what, it’s funny, I think we end up benefiting from that debate because we’re playing in from of a lot of people that have hardly ever seen live music or when they have seen live music it’s low energy or it’s a DJ driven thing where it’s not really even that live. And when they actually see real people playing instruments and seeing that – even electronic music has grown out of something that was live, they start making all of these connections and I think it ends up benefiting us as far as the excitement level that gets generated by actually seeing the music happen live as opposed to watching somebody hit play on a machine.
CU: Also, sometimes it sort of feels like the DJs also embrace us and support us in many ways, but in another way it helps legitimize what they’re doing also. Like if there’s anybody that says ‘well, this isn’t live’ they can say ‘well, look at Tortured Soul. They’ve incorporated something similar to what we do’. And we respect the DJs, so a DJ can say ‘well, alright talk to Tortured Soul and tell them that it’s not live music and see what they say.’ We’re kind of in the same corner: we’ll stand up for somebody doing a DJ set and say ‘ this is cool, there’s value in it. You shouldn’t say this doesn’t have the same value as a live show because there’s a lot of levels of communicating through music that can happen.
MV: How do the three of your write your songs? Is there a lot of jamming involved in the process; how does it work?
CU: The songs come about in a lot of different ways – it’s a daily process. I sit down and try to write every day and sometimes something will come out that I think is really great and almost finished. And then another time it’ll be a piece of an idea and the three of us will get together and has something out. Thre’s not necessarlily a typical process, I’d say all three of us work every day on music and just bring various different things to the table that are completed to different levels and if something isn’t finished then we try to democratically decide what works and what doesn’t. If it isn’t really knocking us over then we’ll be like ‘alright, we need to keep hashing this out, there’s something missing. It’s just a process of sitting down and taking time to do it every day and seeing what comes up. It’s like writing a diary of something you know?
EW: We’re actually planning on a little Tortured Soul retreat, which is something we used to get together in the early days when we had more time. We used to just jam on ideas, it was sort of when we were trying to create the sound for the group. So, we’re going to get together for a few days, maybe even get out of town and do the same thing again. I think with our schedules and what not, our writing process changed a little bit over the years. It should be fun, not worry about recording or anything just do some experimenting.
MV: Do you work out the kinks of your songs live before you record them?
EW: We don’t generally play stuff on shows that isn’t released but we will try grooves we’ll have moments in the set where we’ll just improvise or we’ll have an instrumental thing worked out. And sometimes those pieces grow into songs later. But we find that if we play music that the audience doesn’t know, it ends up being a little bit of a lull on the set. So, we kind of keep the unreleased stuff to ourselves until it’s out there.
CU: This is just one of the Catch-22s. People want to hear new music but what they really want to hear is new music that they know. You have to kind of leak the music somehow so they know it. Basically you have to release and have it been just released a couple of months ago and then go play the new stuff. People don’t really want to hear too much new stuff.
EW: We had a lot of pressure to play new music on our sets a year or two ago so we actually started doing it, we started playing stuff we had written or were recording. And we found if people couldn’t play along with it they got bored – as if they were waiting for the hit. We kind of nixed that, so know it’s nice that the albums out we can play the new music and people sing a long and it’s fun.
MV: There was quite a gap between your full-length releases. Will it be another few years before your next?
EW: I think it’s going to be faster this time. Time will tell but I don’t see it being as long this time. Last time it was like four years between the two albums.
CU: The thing that really delayed it, one of the major factors was that we were touring like madmen. We were doing 50% of the year on the road. So, when you do that you’ll be one the road for a week, you’ll come home for a week. When you get home from a tour, especially driving tours or tours where you’re going cross seas, at home you’re just really exhausted and you just out of the headframe of writing and recording. So, by the time you’re ready to really get back into it it’s time to rehearse and get back on the road again. We had other issues too but one of the major ones was that the touring schedule just wasn’t allowing us to get into the thick of recording another album. So, we’re thinking about how to remedy that for the next album, maybe having the recording process faster even with the touring.
EW: Just as a side note, being an independent group in addition to it being difficult to being able to settle back in and focus on writing and recording, through the course of our career we’ve done a lot of the managerial stuff and promotional stuff ourselves. On top of trying to create new music, we’re constantly dealing with various business things just to get onto the next tour. It’s a full time job on top of a full time job.
MV: Do most people “get” your music and its house and dance music connections or does it even matter?
CU: We’ve had good and bad shows: people usually get it. It’s party music, it’s fun, it’s real people hitting instruments and there’s songs. There’s something there for everybody, we play a lot of different styles of crowds and it usually goes over.
EW: We were in Boseman, Montana a few years ago and we did a show and it seemd mostly for college kids but a fratboy type of crowd so we weren’t sure how we would go over. But it went over really well and sold some CDs and people were psyched about the group. This guy came up to me and he was like ‘I don’t understand what this music is, what do you call this?’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you call it?’ ‘Well, it’s kind oflike jazz rock’. And I was like ‘Well, then it’s jazz rock then’. If you have no idea what house music is or dance music, in the end it’s jazz rock. But he liked the music, he bought the CD and for him it was jazz rock.
CU: When you actually start playing instruments and it’s not a DJ thing, people get it. They don’t have to know about house music is – it’s live music. We’ve played these huge jazz festivals like Montreal Jazz Festival and and Java Jazz Festival. We’ve played reggae festivals with the Wailers, we played in a country bar in Wyoming once. I mean, people don’t need to know about house music to get it when it’s a band. And then for those that do know, it’s like ‘cool, these guys are playing what DJs play but it’s live’.