By Joshua Maloni
Everyone knows the saying, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” In the case of ’90s hitmakers +LIVE+, a seven-year breakup actually made the four Pennsylvania rockers better at what they do – onstage and in the studio.
+LIVE+ shot to superstardom following the 1994 release of “Throwing Copper.” The alt-rock album spawned four smash singles, including “Selling the Drama” and “All Over You,” plus two decade-defining hits in “I Alone” and “Lightning Crashes.”
Follow-up albums “Secret Samadhi” (1997) and “The Distance to Here” (1999) also went Platinum, with the former offering “Turn My Head” and “Lakini’s Juice,” and the latter producing “Dolphin’s Cry” and “Run to the Water.”
As the decade came to a close, +LIVE+ had sold more than 20 million albums. Additional hits would come in the form of “Heaven,” on “Birds of Pray” (2003), and “The River,” off “Songs from Black Mountain” (2006). But that wouldn’t be enough to keep +LIVE+ together,
In 2009, Ed Kowalczyk (vocals, guitar), Chad Taylor (guitar, backing vocals), Patrick Dahlheimer (bass) and Chad Gracey (drums, percussion) broke up. Kowalczyk pursued a solo career, while the other three would first start a new group, Gracious Few, and then temporarily form an alternate version of +LIVE+ – complete with a different frontman.
The original foursome would go through a messy fight – and duke it out in court – before reconciling. Kowalczyk, who had moved to the West Coast, relocated closer to his roots. Soon after, he and Taylor got together for a beer. Gradually, hard feelings melted away – and the promise of both a renewed friendship and a rejuvenated band brought forth a happy reunion.
In October 2018, +LIVE+ released a five-song EP, “Local 717,” the band’s first collection of new songs in 12 years. The extended-play, whose title pays homage to Pennsylvania, features the heavy-revving, fist-pumping single “Love Lounge,” and the crunchy-guitar, tambourine-twirling “Be a Giver, Man.”
Ahead of a Feb. 9 concert at Fallsview Casino Resort’s Avalon Ballroom, Kowalczyk chatted with NFP about bringing +LIVE+ back to life.
Q: In light of all the things that you’ve been asked in recent years about the band and the breakup and the reunion, how does it feel, now, to be talking about new music?
Ed Kowalczyk: It’s really amazing. You know, I think we were all – well, first of all, we were all really surprised we got back together. We keep surprising ourselves with this, not just the getting back together in and of itself, but also about how much fun we’re having. And then, where we were able to kind of get the creative process back to a level where we felt like, “OK, now we have new music, too, that’s really worthy of our older music, and is super fun to play in concert.”
We’re still all just kind of pinching ourselves that everything is happening at such a high level. I think, getting back together, we were all concerned of like, you know, are we just gonna get together and play the old stuff, and then that would be cool. But then we thought we’re not really a band then; we’re not a band unless we’re really creating, too.
And we have this incredible studio in our hometown, and we just holed up in there for late the year before last, and really started to kick in. And we got songs like “Be a Giver, Man” and “Love Lounge” and “Brother.” We said, “Man, we have at least an EP here – let’s just get it out, and get it to the fans.”
Q: “Local 717,” it’s a little bit, I would say, poppier – not in terms of pop music, but it’s a little bit maybe brighter, and a little bit cheerier than some of your back catalog. I’m wondering, were you guys surprised that those were the songs that came out – and how have fans reacted to them? Have fans been a little bit surprised? They’re great songs, but certainly they’re different songs.
Ed Kowalczyk: Yeah, there’s definitely like a different – there’s an edge to them, and an intensity. I think they’re some of the fastest songs we’ve ever recorded. I think “Love Lounge” is definitely the fastest. And so there’s an edge, but there’s – I like the word “brightness.” There’s a brightness and a kind of optimism to a couple of songs that I think is really cool, that, lyrically and melodically, how that’s merged with this intense music that’s underneath it. That’s definitely, I think, somewhat new territory for the band.
We have a guitar player named Zak Loy, who actually was in my solo band, whom I’ve been playing with for years. He’s touring with +LIVE+ now, and actually wrote the riff for a couple of songs on the EP. So, I think that also changed, or added a new color – a new depth – to those songs, just having him involved.
Chad Taylor, our guitar player, produced it. He’s become like a really, really good producer over the years, which is his passion.
We were all just kind of fulfilling these new/old roles, you know? Of course, I’m always been the singer, and I write some of the melodies and lyrics in a lot of the music; and with Chad now being producer; and then we have Zak; and also we have two drummers now, which is kind of a super band on stage. We have Robin Diaz playing drums, as well.
So, you have the core of the old band that everybody is used to, but then these added sort of explosive elements that is really super exciting for us, because, you know, not for nothing, but we’ve been doing it the same way for a really long time. So anytime we add some extra juice like that, it’s super fun for us.
Q: I want to pick up on a couple of things that you just said – about “new juice” and about returning to your old roles. I mean, in as much as you did return to your old roles, when you look at the product that you created and what you’re doing on stage now, do you think the time you guys spent apart – not having each other to rely on for those years – do you think that that, in some ways, made you better at your craft?
Ed Kowalczyk: Oh, it absolutely did; yeah. It made us better. I think it added a level of confidence.
There’s also the sort of gratitude that we feel onstage with each other now that I know we wouldn’t have that extra level of feeling without having gone through the breakup. And that has its own sort of energy and fuel. Lots of smiles up there. But lots of intense playing, too.
We’re having the time of our lives, but we’re also just as visceral onstage and just as excited about the music as we’ve ever been.
The fans have picked up on that. I mean, they’re super vocal online about how much they’re enjoying the shows, and this sort of new/old version of the band.
Q: You mentioned something interesting in your interviews about how you have a new generation of fans. You described “the cool uncle” bringing teenagers out to the shows.
Ed Kowalczyk: (Laughs)
Q: You guys were one of the first bands that I ever interviewed. You were one of the first bands that I saw – you played at my college in 2000, actually. I remember you did “Lakini’s Juice and “The Dolphins Cry” back to back and it was just awesome. When I think about songs like “Lightning Crashes” and “I Alone,” that uncle is going to have a certain remembrance like I do. He’s going to have sort of a certain expectation, and he’s going to say to those teenagers, “This is what they’re capable of doing. This is what I remember them doing.”
So, what for you is the process of getting back into those songs? Because those are big songs. Is it a mindset? Is it just about “This is the music, and this is where we have to be, and this is what my voice has to do?” How do you re-channel those songs?
Ed Kowalczyk: You know, I think that a lot of those songs were really – well, they’re obviously written in a period of time where there was a lot of context for that – for us as a band, what we were listening to; our contemporaries. And so, in some ways, you know, I don’t think anything is created in a vacuum. It’s all created in this larger, of course, context of what’s going on around us – around the artists, around the newfound commercial pressures that we had after the huge success of “Throwing Copper,” and wanting to do that not necessarily again, repeating ourselves, but wanting to always be in that same dynamic – and loving that dynamic. I mean, it’s what we naturally do; it’s the kind of music I want to listen to. So, it’s also the kind of music I want to emulate. But all those things together.
I think what we have now, the situation within the band is where we’re totally free of so much of that. We’ve established the band. We have this amazing catalog that we can dip into and play.
And so, the question of how to write from here is a whole different thing now. It has a whole different emotional drive to it that is, I think, a product of where we are now as a band. And, you know, what we’ve been through, and where we find ourselves with this sort of freedom from a lot of the pressures we had.
Who knows what the future holds? But also, too, with what we’re listening to, I mentioned that what I’m listening to now is completely different than what I was listening to in the ’90s for inspiration. I’m more, like, real deep into the blues and a different shade of music altogether and different things.
So we’ll see. But it’s super interesting. I’ve been thinking about it, meditating on it, for a while since we’ve gotten back together: What does +LIVE+ sound like in 2019? How does it compare to the old stuff? Does it need to need all that? It’s a mystery to solve! (Laughs)
Q: You’ve spoken recently about how you’ve evolved on stage, as far as how you communicate to the audience. For my money, you’ve always been a great frontman. But I don’t know that you grew up thinking, “I’m going to be a frontman, and I’m going to do x, y and z.” You grow up thinking, “I want to sing,” or “I want to play instruments.” “I want to be in a band.” At what point do you start to think about what it takes to be a frontman, and how do you get to be what we see from you on stage?
In talking to you now, you sound like a super-nice guy; a laid back, chill guy. But it’s epic when we see you on stage.
Ed Kowalczyk: Yeah, mental.
Well, I think, obviously we were thrown into a lot of that very quickly, early on in the band’s career. I mean, I look back at some of the early live footage of us, and I played guitar on every single song. And as the records got more popular and the band started to play bigger rooms, you know, I got rid of the guitar for half the show and started to run around.
I also felt like I needed to. I felt like these songs where getting so important to people, and this was happening so quickly, that I needed to put the guitar down and run around and get in everybody’s face; and you know, really emote these songs in a different way and show it. And also have what I’m doing, in terms of moving around the stage, match the energy of the music – the new energy of the music. Because it was not just the songs, but it was also the way people were receiving them was just so powerful.
I just couldn’t stand with a guitar behind the mic all night anymore. I had to become bigger than that in some ways. And that also, playing the bigger stages, I think we feel like, “OK, I gotta cover this ground. I want to get out there.”
It was more of an evolution for me. And I feel like, now, I’m back to playing a lot more guitar, actually, now in concert. I think that comes from the solo years that I had to play guitar every night, you know, by myself, sometimes acoustically, and all that.
But yeah, it’s been a process. I think that, you know, no matter what’s going on during any given day on tour, once the intro hits, you know, we’re, we’re 17 again in our minds. We’re just going out there to prove it – that we’re really good. And we want to give it all and leave it up there, you know, just leave it all on the stage.
Q: We’ve chatted about new music. We’ve chatted about your extensive catalog – you’ve got a lot of great hits songs. I think it’s awesome that you guys are still recording new music. I think that that’s something more bands should do. But, you know, when we talk about a tour in 2019, when we sort of evaluate all of these things, how do you put together a setlist each night? How do you decide what’s going to be the best representation of you guys on any given night at this point?
Ed Kowalczyk: Well, there’s always the list of songs that I could call “The songs we get in trouble for not playing.” And we’ve always said we want to play the songs – and I’m glad we do, because the fans absolutely want to hear them. And we’ve taken that page out of the book of The Rolling Stones, one of our favorite bands, who’ve never not played their hits. It’s part of the thing for us – and I enjoy it. And we still do.
This year, we’re going to be celebrating the 25th anniversary of “Throwing Copper.” So I think, just by default, there’ll be more. If we don’t play the entire record, we’ll probably play most of the record back to back. We’ll put more of those album tracks from that album in the set. We already play a four or five. So for us, it’ll just be a matter of putting songs like “T.B.D.” and “Waitress” and stuff like that back in the set.
And then we always try to get a few – at least one or two – new songs in and just let people know what we’re up to. And then other than that, really just try to just grab a little something from each album, just to show, you know, from “Pains Lies On the Riverside” in 1992 all the way to “Love Lounge” now. And try to have people leave going, like, “OK, I got a taste of at least most of the albums, if not all of them. And they did it in a way that was really emotional, and had its peaks and valleys” – that we feel concerts should have. I mean, that’s the ones that I want to see – the sets that really break down acoustically and flow back up again; and real playing; real performing; and looking at it as a whole journey rather than just a group of songs.
+LIVE+ is online at http://freaks4live.com. For tickets to the Fallsview show, or for more information, visit https://www.fallsviewcasinoresort.com/entertainment.