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Concert Preview & Interview: Collective Soul

Grant Walters Grant Walters Concert Preview & Interview: Collective SoulPhoto courtesy Lee Clower.
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On the cusp of releasing their tenth studio album, "Blood," the Georgia alt-rockers are in Columbus with the Gin Blossoms on Saturday night

Every so often, our family would road trip to escape the wide open spaces of Winnipeg for…the wide open spaces of Minnesota.

Shortly after you cross the U.S.-Canada border at Pembina, North Dakota, you could pick up a signal for Magic 96, the FM radio station that served up top 40 tunes to the bustling Greater Grand Forks region. At that point, you had a solid three hours to go until you hit Fargo – but at least you had some decent tunes playing while you counted potato and sugar beet farms along the interstate.

Those stations were a goldmine for Canadian kids like me, who sat listening with intensity to the endless stream of songs by American bands before they hit the airwaves at home – if they hit at all.

One of the tracks I remember clearly tugging at my ear was Collective Soul’s 1993 debut single, “Shine,” with its thick, fizzy guitar riff and lead vocalist E Roland’s unmistakable rasp. It was all the motivation I needed to buy the Georgia band’s first album, Hints Allegations and Things Left Unsaid, when we’d coerce our parents to make the inevitable suburban mall stop.

“Shine,” and its successor, “Breathe,” helped to vault the album to platinum status. Two years later, their eponymous sophomore effort arrived, producing three more major radio hits with “December,” “The World I Know,” and “Where the River Flows.” Collective Soul spent 76 weeks on the Billboard 200 album chart, and has sold over three million copies to date. Seven additional studio albums followed – the most recent was 2015’s See What You Started by Continuing.

Roland and younger brother Dean (rhythm guitar), Will Turpin (bass), Jesse Triplett (lead guitar), and Johnny Rabb (drums), have kept Collective Soul in motion as a consistently successful touring entity. This summer, they’re co-headlining a tour with fellow alt-rockers, the Gin Blossoms.

“It’s just a great fit. They’re great guys,” Rabb says of their tour partners. “Robin [Wilson]’s funny, the guys are funny. And I’m not the one that decides who tours with who, but I remember at a Florida festival saying to their guitar player, ‘Man, it was so fun playing with you! Wouldn’t it be great to do more?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I’d love to do more!’ And I mean, sure enough, we’re here this year.

So, it’s a night of really good music and good energy. Fans can come and see probably almost three hours of [it].”

Collective Soul is also set to release their 10th album, Blood, on June 21. The set’s first single, “Right As Rain,” dropped in April. Their road show with the Blossoms, the Now’s The Time Tour, will stop in Columbus Saturday night.

Johnny Rabb and I sat down recently to discuss Blood, their live performances, and the band’s unrelenting strength a quarter-century into their careers.

You’re an incredibly accomplished drummer with credentials in equipment innovation and instruction that extend so far beyond your work with Collective Soul. What do you remember as the moment at which you were romanced by percussion?

“When I was very little, and I know it sounds kind of crazy because I was really young, probably at the age of three…I was born in Virginia, and my parents would take me to Christmas marching parades. And the drums would go by, and I’d say ‘What is that?!’ And I really started getting intrigued at that age – age 3. I got my first drum set then.

I definitely didn’t know what I was doing – don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a prodigy-style where it was, like, ‘Oh, wow! He’s playing a beat!’ I did have some sort of musical rhythm, I suppose, but I wasn’t coordinated at that point. That’s when I started getting involved, and then I got into lessons by about age 8, or so. I was self-taught up ‘til then. But, that was the initial enjoyment was as a kid.”

And I’m sure there were one or two influential records to which you aspired as you learned the craft.

“Sure. I remember a camping trip, maybe when I was age 7 or 8 or something like that, and Exit…Stage Left by Rush was playing. And, so, Neil Peart was on that, and I remember thinking, ‘Okay, there are three guys in this band…so, is that the bass player playing the cowbell part, and the other one’s…there were so many drums going on, I couldn’t imagine a drum solo that intense. So, I was kind of blown away by that. Neil was one of the first inspirations as a rock-fusion guy. And then Steve Smith – not really from his Journey days, but more for his fusion stuff. I became good friends with Steve, and he’s still a huge inspiration.

And, you know, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do drumming for drummers, whether that’s workshops, or camps, or festivals. For 20 plus years, I’ve been doing the worldwide clinic circuit, and now with Collective Soul, I’ve been able to play drums for the reasons I started, which is to play songs.”

What are your most significant contributions to the creative process as you work toward the final recordings?

“It’s a team effort when it comes down to production in the studio. E comes to us…and he’s a guy who’s just extremely talented. And I can barely even tell him that without him being, like, ‘Oh, be quiet!’ [laughs] He’s thankful for it, but he’s modest about it. He comes with the songs and we all put our element in there. He gives us the freedom…and don’t get me wrong, we get guidance, and we give each other guidance, on maybe some part ideas. But, it’s a team effort. There are times where I’ll be, like, ‘Oh! What about this?!’ and it might end up being that part. Or, he might say ‘You know, I don’t so much like that you’re going to the ride cymbal. Let’s go to toms there.’

The biggest thing is that you have to be able to bend. I’ve seen people in the studio at a younger age where they freak. [laughs] They freak out. Somebody goes, ‘Hey, man – that wasn’t the take I was looking for. Let’s try again.’ ‘Well, I just did that! I tried!’ That is a no-win situation. You have to allow someone to say, ‘C’mon, man, you can do better than that!’ You can’t get freaked out. So, that’s just been my big learning thing as a young studio player. And, now, it’s not personal. We’re just trying to get the best part for the song worked out. And, I’m very happy with this next batch of recordings for this new album, Blood, coming out. It’s going to be awesome.”

Your publicist shared an advance of the new album with me, and it’s a really strong, balanced record. The diversity of songs, the vocals, the instrumentation, and the production – it’s everything I would want or expect in a Collective Soul record.

“Well, thank you very much. We’re looking forward to hitting the road and playing some songs off of Blood. But, also, the hits that everyone’s going to be expecting. You know, I’m really proud of that record, and there are so many emotional ties to it. The biggest thing I’ve noticed with these guys is that [the band] is truly a second family. Of course, I’m dreading leaving my family here – I really am. But, these are great guys, and we get to be in front of our fans and we get to perform. The band is really in a great spot right now.”

The press I’ve seen so far for the album alludes to the fact that this is an intensely personal effort for all of you. With music being the obvious common denominator, in what other ways do you have a bond as a band?

“We love our families. E’s very giving when it comes to his family and our external families. So, that title, Blood, to me, means that: whether you’re blood-related, or you’re blood brothers like we are, if you will. He’s been amazing to my family, my dad. We sometimes go on trips where…like, a big fishing trip where we’re really able to just hang and do our thing and bond that way. We laugh. We’re a band that hangs out with each other even if we’re not on stage. And I love it, because I do see sometimes where once a band’s off stage, they don’t talk to each other. That I couldn’t imagine. Sure, we give each other space, but we care about our families, and we all know each other’s folks.

It’s a great thing. And, it’s just the way these guys will go out of their way for that. Not to get too deep, but this album means a lot for me because while on tour, I lost my mom last October. We had some personal losses, and this album means a lot because of that. We helped each other get through that, and they helped me get through the loss of my mom. That’s proof to me.”

Collective Soul has persisted for a long time in a changing industry. What do you attribute to your ongoing success across more than twenty-five years?

“I think it’s a couple of things: it’s the show. They’re good live shows, and we always try to deliver a solid performance. I always make the comment after every show to Will, ‘man, I’m gonna nail that even harder tomorrow.’ And I’m really serious about trying to make that show…if I have a mental mistake, the crowd may not notice hardly anything – no offense to the crowd. But, I notice it, and so I’ll take that back. And, of course, the guys are, like, ‘dude, I didn’t even notice,’ or ‘don’t worry about it.’ But I do worry about it, because I pride myself on it. There are a lot of drummers out there, and I’m glad I’m able to be in this position with these guys and feel part of the band.

I think the longevity is the songs, and the accessibility to the bands, whether it’s us or the Gin Blossoms. We rely on live performance and touring these days because it’s a different industry in the music business with streaming. And quite honestly, record sales are not what they used to be when it was – and I say ‘MTV’ as a blanket statement – but now it’s YouTube, Instagram.

I still miss the days when I was growing up in Sacramento and going to Tower Records and getting vinyl or cassettes – or later, CDs – right? My parents would take me there and they’d say, ‘you can get three records.’ ‘Oh, my God!’ You’d cherish it. You’d cherish what the artwork looks like, you’d cherish what the disc print looks like. I miss those days. So, these days, to me, it’s the touring and making sure we put on a great live show. And the fans that were with Collective Soul from the beginning are still here – and we get new ones every show, which is great, too.”

Yes. That’s exactly how I felt when I heard “Shine” for the first time in 1993. I had to have the album in my hand, and being able to study the cover art and the lyrics was really important to my connection to a record. 

“Absolutely, 100 percent legit – when you bought that, it then becomes something. It’s not just something you hear on the radio. You’re looking at it – ‘What does the band look like? What does this artwork mean? What are the lyrics? Oh!’

It’s a little different now, and we embrace it. The fans are now all over social media and streaming, and that’s another reason the band’s able to keep its longevity – we’re changing with the times. We’re not just going ‘ahh, we refuse!’ We’re doing everything we can to be current, valid, and stay up-to-date.”

Collective Soul takes the stage with the Gin Blossoms on Saturday, June 15, at Express LIVE!, 405 Neil Avenue in the Arena District. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. General admission tickets (the show is outdoors) are $29.50, plus taxes and applicable fees, and are available via Ticketmaster.

Learn more about Collective Soul by visiting their official website, or follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

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