Last week I had the good fortune of being able to do an interview with Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno via telephone. Our discussion is reprinted below, with my questions in black, his responses in red. I’d like to specifically thank Kevin Calabro for getting this arranged. I’m a pretty tremendous fan of this guy so it was a special treat to ask him about all things musical!
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I want to talk about; musicianship, specifically about improvisation to start off with. Over the course of the last, idunno, seven years or so, I’ve caught many of your performances. Out of my favorite musicians who form the contemporary funk scene, I think you in particular seem like your approach to soloing has consistently and considerably been evolving. Every time I see you, I feel like you’ve gotten more and more in touch with whatever it is that sends the listener “over the edge” during a solo, so to speak. Can you talk about how your improvisation has changed over the years?
I guess it’s about having more tools to expand. I listen to a lot of different stuff, a lot of singers, I listen to a lot of different types of music, I try to add to my toolbox I guess you would say. And I try not to think about it while I’m actually performing. I’d say most of the stuff that I play, I didn’t sit necessarily down and learn note for note off of something, but I’ve probably absorbed it from somewhere. As I evolve as a musician I get better at hearing things and translating them into my own language. Also just being around great musicians, and seeing their approach to things—I’ve been lucky to be around a lot of great musicians and see them in action. Every time I play with somebody great I feel like I catch a little bit of what they’re doing and try to hold on to it.
Can you speak a little bit about what you do to shape your solos? Is it through dynamics, and the density of notes, or are there other things you’re concentrating on? How do you guide the intensity level of a solo?
I mean that totally depends on the moment. That’s really a hard thing to explain. It has a lot to do with who I’m playing with, and people listening to the vibe of the moment—not to sound too cosmic—but it is kind of a cosmic thing to a certain degree. I’m very much affected by my environment. If the band is playing really loud, and the people in the audience are loud, talking or raging or whatever they’re doing, then I’ll just start from a higher point and go from there. There’s not maybe as much to go. Whereas if the band has much more of a dynamic sense, they’ll know certain times when I want to start really soft and slow and minimal and take my time building it.
But I do feel that I’m usually anxious to build it in some way or form. Whereas some guys if they’re not feeling it they won’t do it at all. Which I’m starting to do more of. I’m starting to be a little more picky, and certain times if I’m not feeling like being completely aggressive, I’ll just stop before I get there. Although I’d say 90% of the time I get fairly aggressive at some point in a solo.
But again, it depends on what’s happening underneath and what the groove is. If someone’s pushing me to take it there then I will.
What is one thing that you’re working on right now that you want to improve upon in your playing?
Seeing people like Scofield—I actually just watched this video of me playing in 2001 with Mark Whitfield and it was really interesting to watch what I was playing, and then what he was playing there. He was just killing this bebop stuff. I’ve never been a jazz, jazz player, but I feel like there’s certain elements of that I really dig. The way he was moving around the chord progressions was really interesting to me. For a long time I’ve been more into playing more like rock and roll and blues. Weaving between that—bebop and Stevie Ray Vaughn-like type of blues. Developing more of a combination of those things, being able to blend them together without being too obvious about it.
Kind of a balance between the soulful and the cerebral then?
Yeah, yeah, exactly, without overthinking it. That part of me has evolved, but there’s definitely a lot of room for improvement and finding new ways to do it.
What were the most valuable things you did to get to the level you’re on today? Like practicing certain phrases in all 12 keys or transcribing solos that you really dug? Or was it simply playing as much as possible with the best musicians you could find?
I would say that most of it is playing with the best people and playing as many shows as I can. Definitely sitting through and thinking about chords and combinations of notes. Being able to play the pentatonic in every key, in every position, is really important. And just to know where you are at all times and what’s possible. The way I think is less in terms of modes and scales, and more in terms of pentatonics as the home base and then all of the different ways to go off—there’s only 12 notes, really 11. You can simplify. I feel like a lot of people overcomplicate things, when really it’s all about hearing how each note feels against a particular chord.
I guide myself by using pentatonic. Honestly a lot of the time what I’m playing is pentatonic. What I’ve worked on is knowing which notes within that will feel a certain way. I know where the pentatonics are relative to whatever chord that’s going on at any time; that’s what you gotta do. From there you play with tensions. And see how they feel against what you’re doing, and hope that other people hear it and respond.
Do you have some favorite ways of doing that, playing with tensions?
I do it differently all the time. When I practice, which honestly isn’t enough—Most of the time I’m playing I’m either rehearsing something or writing something—but when I do practice, I try different tensions and see. There’s no real format to it. Sometimes I like to take a chord and play triads against that chord, up and down the neck. That’s an exercise I like.
Take the chords of a Lettuce song like “Breakout”, and play a triad at any position that works over those chords and never stopping with 8th notes or 16th notes—not stopping. Another good exercise, if you have someone who can play chords with you, is to have them change those chords, and you try not to stop. That’s a good exercise for your ear, to play 16th note arpeggios, never stopping and keep moving with different chords. It makes your ear work.
That was one thing I noticed listening to that video where I was ten years ago: I was playing a lot more notes than I do now. At the time I thought I was gonna cry, because Mark Whitfield had played the best solo. Then I watched myself and thought, oh wow, I’m playing a lot of good stuff, but I’m not listening the way I listen now. You know, I was just playing as much stuff as I could, probably because one of the greatest guitar players in the world had just played and I had to play next. So part of me was anxious play a lot.
I was honestly playing more proficiently than I do now, which is a little scary, but I listen a lot more now, and I’m a lot more choosy with my notes. I think that’s probably age. You watch BB King now and he plays like three notes, but they’re all very tasteful.
I think it’s meditation. Some people go to church, and some people pray, and some people… play music. I think it’s a vibration thing. You connect with a certain vibration. Some people are more instantly in tune with that than others. When you vibrato, whether you’re singing or playing a trumpet or a saxophone, you connect with certain sound waves or vibrations that are around you—it’s powerful! People feel it. It’s definitely spiritual, but it’s somewhat scientific as well. There’s vibrations surrounding us at all times.
What does it mean to “have soul”? It’s more than just playing with emotion—it’s also about connecting with your audience as well, right? What grants that label: soulful?
I think that everyone’s soulful. Some people have more ability to communicate that soul. Or a way to kind of ride that. A lot of times it’s coming through whichever person. And they just have this skill or… the channel—that they can tune into that thing. Everyone can feel that. I don’t think anyone can deny that when Stevie Ray Vaughn, or Jimi Hendrix played, they were channeling something bigger than themselves. Some people are more in tune to it.
I was watching John Scofield play, and his drummer Sandy Powell. And all weekend he had been watching all these drummers rip, playing all these notes. He got up there, and he was playing the most simple. Groove. Each thing he was played had such power to it. It wasn’t power like he was hitting hard—he felt every little thing he was doing. I think that’s partly him doing it, and I think it was him connecting, in a certain way. Like you said before it’s somewhat spiritual. Some people just have it. An innate ability.
What’s the best way for younger players, coming up, to get in touch with that?
A lot of it is just listening to what’s out there. That’s the thing about right now, you can go on YouTube and watch so much amazing stuff. That’s part of it. Part of it is playing. Singing what you play. That’s what soulful is to me—you sing what you play. I don’t mean physically singing it, not making notes with your voice, but rather than playing arpeggios and scales… that’s important, but when it comes down to it, that’s never made me a better player. It’s given me more technical proficiency, which allows me to have more vocabulary when I’m speaking. It’s really about playing as much as possible, with people.
Or whatever your thing is. If you’re a person who plays by yourself, go play by yourself every day. If your thing is playing with a band, go play with your band every day. Or play with different people every day. My thing, I like writing, performing, composing, and producing with people. I can play by myself but that’s not my thing. So what I’ve been able to do is play with so many different people that now when I play with someone, I’m ready. I’m used to this, I’m used to feeding off of other people or supporting them when I need to or vice versa.
I’d like to riff on the topic of ‘jams’ for a little bit. Both this year and last year I saw you sitting in at the late nite treehouse pick-up session at Bear Creek. I personally find that really inspiring; to see these extremely successful musicians still passionate about jamming; or more specifically, passionate about the magic of what happens when a hot jam slides “into alignment” if you feel what I’m saying—I mean that’s what got all of us into improvisational music in the first place! Right?! Can you talk a little bit about what motivates you to keep on jamming?
That’s moment by moment. If there’s something going on right then that I feel like, “oh yeah, I can do something with this, I can really add to this right here!” I always want to do it. I don’t care if it’s people I know or not! And then there’s times when I feel like I’m gonna add anything. The jam this year, there was so much going on, that there was only a couple moments when I really wanted to play. Not putting down what was going on, it’s just there was so much going on. That it was like there was no open spaces. I like open spaces, that’s my thing, man. If I hear a groove that’s got a lot of open space in it, I’m gonna jump in there.
So yeah! If you lose that—if you lose that then you’re kind of screwed! You gotta always wanna play, you gotta always want to play! Music is all about playing. It’s all about jams. For what we do, it’s all about that spontaneous moment. Even when we have songs—when Soulive performs we have tons of songs, and sure you like playing the songs—the fun part is when you find something new that’s never happened before. So when you’re in a room with guys playing that’s all there is—finding something brand new. And I’ll say whenever Lettuce performs, it’s all about finding those moments that are brand new. Whenever we show up to jam sessions and guys want to play songs off our record, I’m always like no way, man, that’s why we did that. We did that at the concert, now let’s just play. Let’s find something real.
You can’t really force a hot jam. By that I mean, you can’t sit down your favorite musicians and say “right, we’re going to have a jam here, and it’s going to be the sexiest, phattest jam any of us have ever had.” That doesn’t work. What is it that makes a session come together?
It’s gotta just happen. There’s so many elements. The comfort level, the respect for one another. It’s different every time I suppose, what makes it happen. Whatever makes up that moment. It definitely has something to do with who’s playing, their level, and their ability to listen. I think a lot of it is your ability to listen to what’s going on. At the level of the people who were at the Bear Creek festival it was pretty easy, because everyone’s on that level. All those guys have jammed together so many times, or if not together with so many other great people. Put those guys in a room—it’s gonna be great.
Switching gears: recently you’ve taken some forays in to the world of DJing; what prompted this?
Really it was the discovery of this program Ableton Live. I’ve been kinda DJing for a while, but more just like hanging around doing stuff. I’ve been producing beats and making hip hop for a long time, so I always had a turntable and a sampler and all that type of stuff. But then when I got into Ableton I was like ‘oh wow’, I do a lot of my own remixes and stuff, I need somebody to hear this! I’m not gonna put it out, because it’s someone else’s music essentially; I’m just taking the vocals and remixing it over different beats. So then I was like, oh I’ll start playing it out. Eventually I actually put a mixtape out. Which was a combination of some of my favorite music, all across the map: hip hop, rock, funk. People started hearing me do it and they were like, oh you should do that! I started doing some shows, opening for Soulive, then people heard the mixtape and started booking me for festivals and stuff. So it’s something I’m just totally doing it for fun, I’m not like extra serious about it, but it’s fun, ya know? I’m having a good time.
What records would you say really influenced the way you want to play guitar? What did you hear made you say, I wanna sound like that!
The first thing ever was Led Zepplin. Led Zepplin, Jimi Hendrix, then eventually Stevie Ray Vaughn. Led Zepplin, Jimi Hendrix was what I grew up upon, really inspired me to play guitar. The first thing I ever learned was Zepplin. Over the Hills and Far Away, I think that was the first thing I ever learned. From there, that was it.
Who out there is doing it right for you? Not people that you’re working with, but people that are inspiring you?
As guitar players, definitely John Scofield, and Derek Trucks, there’s a guy named Gary Clark Junior who I love. He’s amazing. Definitely people are going to be hearing about him, for sure. There’s a group out of New York called the London Souls, amazing band. I’m always looking for new stuff.
I mostly listen to songwriters. I do a lot of songwriting for other people and stuff. When I’m not on tour, I’m generally in that mode.
How did you guys settle upon the name Royal Family for your collective of musicians?
I don’t really know! When I was putting together a band with Nigel, which ended up being Chapter 2, we were going to call that Royal Family. As I started thinking about it I was like, oh, that’d be better for the collective, for the whole crew. We have so many musicians and bands in our crew, we needed an umbrella, so people knew where to find out what’s going on.
I don’t remember exactly how I came up with that name, but it was when I was here—I’m in Florida right now. This is where I was when I thought of it. I used to stay at a different apartment and I was riding my bike past there with my girlfriend yesterday and I was like, oh that’s right, that’s where I was when I came up with the idea! I don’t know where exactly it came from, to be honest. It was like, Royal Family, that’s it!
You guys have got your own festival now, the Royal Family Affair. That’s pretty rad. What do you hope that fest will grow into, or be known for in future years?
Part of it is to make it a family vibe, people sitting in with each other. In the same way that Bear Creek is. I want it to be very unique from other festivals in that there will be a lot of collaboration going on. It’s also got an educational element to it, there’s going to be a lot of workshops, where people talk about their craft and their music. It’ll be like the fans’ portal into the world of these musicians to a degree. It’ll be more intimate than going to a big Bonaroo or something like that. We don’t want it to get that big, we just want it to be a real music-lovers’ festival, for the real music-heads.
It bums me out that I was not there to witness those workshops, and I’m certain there are many others who feel the same. Are there any plans to document these workshops and make them available either on DVD or online for those who couldn’t make the journey?
We documented these last year and we’re going to do it again. We’re already putting the ideas together for next year. I’m really looking forward to where it goes from here. I’ve been watching different edits of it, and hopefully we’ll have soon. In the next few months we’re going to be putting out pieces of it as promotional material for the next year’s festival. We’ll be dropping each segment throughout the next coming months.
You play in billions and billions of different groups; what’s one recent gig that stood out in your mind as particularly enjoyable, for you personally?
I really enjoyed Bear Creek. The Lettuce set—I mean, The Chapter 2 set actually on Saturday was awesome because Lewis was there and I haven’t been able to play with him for a while. So that was really great. And that was kind of a reunion because Nigel’s been on tour with Warren Haynes and Lewis has been on the road with Marcus Miller, so the four of us with Adam Deitch came together, hadn’t seen each other in a long time, got together and just… right off the top it felt amazing.
That version of “Get Back” was just awesome. That finale with the half time swing; did you choreograph that in advance, or did that just kind of happen?
Yeah! That’s happened before, but we didn’t talk about it that day. I remember getting to that moment—oh I remember we used to do this! I think we had done it at gigs in New York or something.
Last question: You’re a driven man. What is it, when you wake up in the morning, that makes you keep saying to yourself: I wanna do this again, I wanna get up there tonight and I wanna make that funky shit happen! What is it about this music that keeps you always wanting more?
At this point, I don’t know anything else!
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To watch Sir Eric Krasno in action, taking a solo with Lettuce at the Bear Creek music festival, check out the footage I captured in the previous post.
To read more about Bear Creek 2011, or read about FUNK music in general, check out the funk tag.