“Let’s just get everybody together and dance,” advises the funk/soul/rock/blues maverick. “The answer to life is on the dance floor.” Amen to that, Brother Joe.
BY ERIC SWEDLUND
Black Joe Lewis says the lean, raw and rowdier Electric Slave is the first album that actually captures his band’s fiery live show. The funk and blues elements that had the band drawing comparisons to the soul revival of Daptone Records bands since Lewis’ 2009 Lost Highway debut Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is! remain, but more as accents, highlighting a muscular and urgent rock style.
“I feel like we’ve always sounded like this live,” says Lewis, the 31-year-old Austin, Texas guitarist, singer, songwriter and bandleader. “The first few records didn’t really reference what we sound like, there was too much production and people didn’t understand the kind of music we’re trying to play.”
What Black Joe Lewis – his band dropped the jokey Honeybears moniker for this latest record – sounds like is the buzzsaw blues-punk of “Skulldiggin,” the Fishbone-funky rave-up “Come To My Party” and the gritty R&B groove of “Mammas Queen.” The ferocity that characterizes Electric Slave, released Aug. 27 by Vagrant (a label still associated in many people’s minds with punk bands, appropriately enough), shouldn’t surprise anyone who has seen the band perform. It’s just that the energetic abandon Lewis and his band bring to the stage took some time to get right in the studio.
“Overall, what I feel like what we wanted to do is come out and make a record that sounds like we do,” Lewis says. “That’s how I started off. I never went into the studio until we did our first album. That’s where I cut my teeth and learned, on stage.
“I used to hate going into the studio. It’s just the tediousness of going back and having to do stuff over and over and having somebody telling you what your guitar should sound like. It was always kind of a battle between me and the producer. In the end I was never really happy with the conclusion and what it sounded like.” (Spoon’s Jim Eno produced Tell ‘Em… and 2011’s Scandalous, also issued by Lost Highway.)
After Scandalous, Lewis integrated some new band members and set to tinkering, getting the sound just as he liked it, which in essence meant a long rehearsal period before ever recording anything for Electric Slave.
“I came up what these songs a couple years ago and we had a shake up in the band. A couple guys left because they didn’t like where we were going. We weren’t ever able to go in and record because we were battling over what to do with the band,” he says. “We had to find some new guys and get tightened up again, so we’ve been playing these songs live, but we finally got our shit together and went into record this past winter.”
The band recruited Grammy winner Stuart Sikes (who has worked with The White Stripes, Loretta Lynn, Modest Mouse, Cat Power) and finished recording at Church House Studios in Austin before finding a record label for Electric Slave. John Congleton recorded and produced three of the songs in Dallas.
“I think that Stuart understood what we were going for a little bit better and it helps choosing some one to work with who’s up your alley musically. Stuart has a different style, but it wasn’t so much of a fight,” Lewis says. “Recording this record was a pretty good experience and I’m starting to grow into the studio more.”
Lewis says that choice allowed the band to make the record they wanted to, even if it meant that some labels would pass on releasing Electric Slave. The right fit came with Vagrant Records.
“We kind of knew that nobody would pick us up without having a finished record, so why wait? We went in and had that total freedom of less cooks in the kitchen. Sometimes you get picked up by people and they’re not completely into it. After a lot of labels passed on the record and they picked it up, so it makes me feel pretty good about what they want to do with us. They’re into it and they get it.”
The title Electric Slave is a critique of what has become an apparent inability for people to get through life without constantly being on their electronic devices.
“You do a show and everybody is watching the show through their cell phone,” Lewis says. “Nobody really talks on the phone, it’s all text messages. Everything is really impersonal. You never have to deal with anybody face to face anymore. It’s almost like Brave New World.”
For all the convenience technology provides, it’s actually cutting people off from what matters in life, he adds. “Everybody’s kept and taken care of and really soft and out of touch. Nobody really knows where their meat comes from. When I was a kid, you couldn’t drive through a neighborhood without coming across a pickup football game or kids out playing. Now you don’t see any kids out on their bikes or anything at all. We’re afraid as a society now. Technology has poisoned people’s mind and kept them out of touch. I don’t expect my record to change anybody’s life. It’d be cool if it did, but it’s more me complaining.”
Lewis turns those critiques into a punk-soul shout on “Young Girls,” but Electric Slave isn’t complete without offering up its own antidote as well. The grooving “Come To My Party” implores people to do just that, with Lewis himself offering to pull the furniture out of the living room and spin all his great records. “The answer to life is on the dance floor,” he sings.
“Don’t always take life so seriously,” Lewis concludes. “Everybody’s cliqued up in the corner with their friends now, but let’s just get everybody together and dance.”
The band’s U.S. tour kicked off this past weekend in Nashville. Tour dates: http://www.blackjoelewis.com/