Photo: Gustav Olivares
Thee Sacred Souls' Self-Titled Debut Is A Sweet Soul Love Story
California trio Thee Sacred Souls bear it all on their self-titled debut LP, out Aug. 26. A "Frankenstein of love stories," Thee Sacred Souls culls universal stories for a beautiful, accessible introduction to sweet soul revival.
A series of 30-second demos posted to Instagram changed Thee Sacred Souls' lives. Then in their early 20s, the San Diego-based trio uploaded three clips of stripped-down, mid-tempo soul — partially-engineered clips reflecting their burgeoning creative relationship and shared love of early-to-mid 1960s records – and left the rest to the universe.
Their passion, strength of songwriting and their singer's Marvin-meets-Curtis falsetto meant the band’s demos ended up in the hands of Daptone Records head Gabe Roth. Not too long after, Thee Sacred Souls drove north to record at Roth's — one of the architects of the contemporary soul revival — Riverside studio. They developed on their demos and, from that session, "Can I Call You Rose" became the band's first single as well as one of five 45s on Daptone's new imprint, Penrose Records, in 2020.
Released at the top of 2020 right into the pandemic, "Rose" quickly became popular among soul aficionados and made Thee Sacred Souls a leading light in the burgeoning sweet soul scene. Alongside contemporaries like Durand Jones and the Indications and labelmates the Altons, Thee Sacred Souls blurred Chicano soul, California's "Westside Sound" and the popular tracks one might hear coming from the radio of a lowrider as it cruised down a boulevard.
In the 1960s, such songs lacked the polish of Motown soul, but often employed equally engaging harmonies and earnest messages of love. Those rougher, more raw songs endure among soul aficionados and, when reimagined by the Souls, made their work strike a nerve during the unpredictable early days of the pandemic.
"In times of despair, people always kind of turned to entertainment for solace," theorizes singer Josh Lane. "With so much going on, I think having a song that was so heartfelt and about the fanciful idea of love like that, COVID definitely inflated the energy of the song."
Fast forward two years and three 7-inch singles later, and the Souls are bearing it all on their self-titled debut LP, out Aug. 26 Penrose. Although thematically similar – the album and the band's singles are almost exclusively love songs — Thee Sacred Souls is a "Frankenstein of love stories" — the band’s words — pulled together for a devastatingly beautiful, accessible record.
Thee Sacred Souls universal messaging also underscores the thoughtful development of a group that's learned together, finding their groove while blooming, quite like a rose.
GRAMMY.com sat down with Lane, drummer Alex Garcia and bassist Sal Samano on a brutally warm afternoon ahead of their SummerStage performance in New York. It was the band's second time performing in town in less than a month — at their sold-out previous show at Brooklyn Made, the audience seemed to hang onto every lyric.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Tell me a bit about the origin of Thee Sacred Souls.
LANE: I was following Alex’s project and… . we would just kind of go back and forth on Instagram. One day, one of us said we should jam. So we went to his garage studio and he showed me a bunch of his work and we jammed out for a minute. I didn't know that he and Sal had met once before and kind of started the project that we are now — writing some original instrumentals and doing a lot of old soul covers.
After we jammed out for like an hour or so, he was like, "I got some demos I've been working on with this guy if you want to listen." I liked them all, but one of them I was instantly vibing with, so we started writing right there. We wrote the song "Rose" in one sitting, really.
SAMANO: Me and Alex were playing in separate bands and we were playing a DIY show. We started talking about what we grew up listening to and what we wanted to make. Pretty much just decided right there that we wanted to try doing some soul.
Were you guys hip to any of the other soul revival stuff that was happening at the time, particularly around Daptone?
LANE: I didn't grow up on soul; our parents were really Christian and so I grew up on gospel music. My grandma listened to some soul. When I was in college, I started listening to soul — Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Al Green — pretty much all the soul artists that everybody kind of grows up knowing in America. They all came from the church. So I resonated with that.
But my main influence at the time was Stevie Wonder. I had all his albums on my cheap MP3 player. And so I would listen to that on my way to college to community college, just singing all his songs.
SAMANO: I was a little bit, but not as much as Alex. Alex knew a lot more about what Daptone was doing. I was fairly new to learning about all the newer groups.
GARCIA: To me [Daptone’s] sound is still different from the rare soul sounds. The Daptone sound is their own thing; they don't sound like any other bands. I like their ethos about the way they make music and Gabe’s ideology with studio production. Just that they’re like a real family as far as record labels go. So, all that stuff turned me on to them.
I started to dig deeper into finding their influences and I really liked instrumentals mainly because that's where I come from.
The Souls are one of the early groups on Daptone's Penrose imprint; how did you come into that world?
GARCIA: We had put our demo out, just like a short clip on Instagram, and it kind of took off. People started talking about us and sending it to their friends. This one dude named Diego, he's in a band called With Strangers… he knows Gabe, and he's like, "Yo, I want to send this to Gabe Roth," and [Gabe] came out to our gig in Fullerton.
It's exceedingly rare that a band that just has a demo would get label interest — especially for one that's as notoriously particular as Daptone or Gabe. What about those demos caught his ear?
GARCIA: Like 30 seconds of a demo. It was "Rose" and "Weak For Your Love" and maybe "Will I See You Again" too.
SAMANO: Maybe he heard through our music what we want to sound like or what we listened to. So I think that Gabe being who he is, knowing what he knows, I'm sure he was able to pick up on that just [by] listening to us. I mean, we weren't killing it up there; we didn't sound amazing. So I think that he probably saw us and was like, maybe they have potential.
GARCIA: The producer's mind sees the diamond in the rough for sure. That's, like, one of their gifts. I'm not even like a flaunty person, but I think [the demos] sounded good.
LANE: We wrote good songs, and the engineering wasn't bad either. I think people like Gabe want to see people who are self-sufficient enough to have ideas and cut demos on their own so that he can work faster and get right to the heart of the idea. I think he heard all that.
What were you guys listening to during those early days of the band?
SAMANO: Old records, obviously. all kinds of s—, right? But me and Alex listened to a lot of rare soul records, kind of obscure records.
GARCIA: Like the Royal Jesters.
SAMANO: Yeah. Back then, it was more of the West Side Sound, which was a lot of Chicano soul, soul from San Antonio and Albuquerque.
Are you guys record collectors as well?
GARCIA: Yeah. But I mean, when we first started, we were just trying to get our collection up, then digging together. We’re at Soul Shack — this one record shop that Sal used to work at — they’d let us in the back room before they were open.
LANE: I was super new to even the concept of collecting. I was an LP collector of current stuff. And then I would always look to get different compilations of like Aretha or Marvin Gaye. So while they were building their collections, and already those guys I was kind of in a class of sorts. Alex knew some of the people that I liked, and he saw a nice Al Green cut and was like "you want this one." And it's one of my favorite records, "Wish You Were Here."
A lot of the times when we would write songs, they would just have things in their mind that other 45ss reminded them of, and it was a new way of songwriting for me — creating something brand new out of thin air based off of a passion and influence.
This album comes out two and a half years after your first single. How did you create this record? Did you go into Penrose and do it all two years ago or was it a long process?
GARCIA: In 2020, it was hard to even get into the studio. I don't remember how many sessions we had [that year].
LANE: The two singles happened pretty fast. That was like one session, a couple of days, in and out.
GARCIA: All four of those [first Penrose] songs were done before the pandemic. And then we were supposed to go back in right to start recording more. Also, the [West Coast Penrose Showcase] tour was supposed to be happening.
I feel like [lockdown] also gave the songs more of an opportunity to sit out there, for people to get into it, and listen to the songs over and over again.
LANE: You sit and talk to people for an hour after a show and so many people said, like, "This song got me through so much during COVID." A lot of couples would come up holding hands being like, "These were our songs that we'd slow dance to in the living room when we couldn't go nowhere." So, I started to see the value of that silver lining of COVID.
Do you think that's one of the reasons why your first few singles, particularly "Can I Call You Rose?," hit so hard?
LANE: In times of despair, people always kind of turned to entertainment for solace. Like back in the '20s and '30s. You wouldn't be caught dead not trying to make it to a dancehall to check out your favorite jazz band or whatever because times are so tough. Even if it's your last dollar you're going to use it to go see music.
With the 2008 bubble or whatever that s— was, my family would go to the movies every weekend. We didn't have the money for it, but they were trying to get our mind off of the pain. And COVID being in a lockdown situation… psychologically, there's a lot of warfare to be with your own thoughts without your friends.
With so much going on, I think having a song that was so heartfelt and about the fanciful idea of love like that, COVID definitely inflated the energy of the song.
SAMANO: Record record collectors love collecting records. They bought like every single color [vinyl] just to lay them out and look at them. We're just like, alright! [Chuckles]
You know he's gonna go and put those on Discogs later! For this record, were you taking songs that you had written during the pandemic and brought them into the studio?
LANE: The sessions were kind of different. Some of them were like a week long; some of them were like, come down for two days. At some point, Gabe realized that it might be better for us to like, do three, four day sessions, go home, sit on that energy, write more and come back.
SAMANO: Toward the end it was like long sessions – like just book a week, maybe have a week off and then book another week. We were going pretty hard.
GARCIA: Till Three mornings, sometimes, driving home afterwards. Sometimes just like staying in the studio and waking up starting in the morning.
Are there any songs that you're particularly proud of from all that effort? Or ones that were really really hard?
GARCIA: My favorite song's probably "Love Comes Easy," which is the last song on the record. It's got the most Chicano soul sound. I track organ on most of the record…but that was pretty hard for me because I'm not I'm not a keyboard player.
SAMANO: Probably "Future Love." I remember I had a pretty hard time on bass on that song. I didn't even know that we got the take at the end of that session. Then, I played drums on it, which I don't usually do. The song reminds me of a Whatnauts track — their earlier stuff.
It's interesting that you guys are all playing instruments that you don't play normally on the record. Was that your desire or was Gabe being like, "try this thing?"
GARCIA: If I'm tracking a demo, I'll track bass and keys and whatnot. But I wouldn't want to play that in the studio. But Gabe was really pushing for me to play organ.
LANE: If you see life as lessons, it really is a master class as well as working on your trade. I played some glockenspiel, some vibraphone.
My point though, is that I would go home leaving the studio and being like, Man, I really got to start woodshedding just for the future, because it's fun to have that energy of like who's doing what, and to be at that caliber where you can. Someone might be technically better at something, but if you could all get to the baseline level of being a good musician at different instruments, maybe you want this other person's color on this instrument, even if that's [another person's] sword.
I think my hardest one was "For Now" because Alex came up with a sick riff — I think the coolest riff on the record to me. It's such a pretty riff that's also sad. So, it instantly brought up sad feelings for me. I didn't finish my last verse till we were in the studio… I pulled from all the different sad emotional situations I've had in my relationships. I pulled from every relationship and made it one for the song, and it was hard.
This album is a portrait of all stages of love — longing, that feeling when you're super deep in, and then love that's lost. What connects all of these different stories? Are you guys writing about somebody in particular?
LANE: I think about this concept a lot actually. Even growing up, I didn't even think of the concept of not writing love songs. I remember early on Alex being like your love is cool and everything but we don't need every song to say "loving" or be about love.
But love has so many faces. Life is love. Whether it's envy — that’s like a tainted kind of infected version of love — or heartbreak, it's the inverse of it's all the same feeling just given different meanings. And so I pulled from the imagination. If it happened to me, I pulled from old relationships, but very obscure, like fragments — none of the songs are about one person.
"For Now" is about the breaking up of a love [where] one person is feeling it intuitively, the other person knowing it's going to happen and they're going to be the one to do it, but they don't know how to do it. I've been that guy and I've been the guy that had to happen to me from a lover.
So it wasn't, like, Taylor Swift-style with "this song's about this person." It's like fragments of all these loves and heartbreaks and things, and storytelling and cinematic nature. It's like it's a Frankenstein of love stories."
We exist in this time of such turmoil on so many different levels. Do you ever feel the drive to make music that's a bit more political or that says something about this particular time?
LANE: So, I'm not going to speak for everybody, but it's always in the forefront of my mind. I kind of see music for music's sake, and the beauty of it. But also as a society member and a firm believer in the beauty of humanity… I have a really strong idea of heartfelt brotherhood, [a] love that goes past romantic ideas. Which I think is what we kind of leaned on for this album.
I think the reason people look for old school love music or soul music is because it just felt deeper and more fulfilling and had more to it. And instead of being political this round, it's like how about we just give people something that makes them think about love deeper? And maybe kind of cleanse them that way?
[With] "Give Us Justice"...I've already dealt with insecurities about being Black in America, and not seeing myself as valued or valuable. And then seeing all this murder happen. And then all this uproar.
That was a moment where there was no ifs, ands or buts — it's not necessarily being political. It's speaking of pain, so that other people have something to hold on to.
I'm fascinated by scenes and subcultures, and there's certainly a whole sweet soul scene that's that next generation from the Daptones and the Colemines of the world. Share your perspective on what's going on right now.
SAMANO: It's cool to see everybody that's kind of on the younger side tapping back into what they remember growing up. It just starts this cycle of younger bands looking up to newer bands that are looking up to older bands. [I think everybody] is going to start to [incorporate] different things into their sound.
LANE: I think there is a scene, but I think we've lived kind of in and out of it. Not to say that we don't find the people in the scene to be friends, and we hang out from time to time, but… it's more like labels that are kind of cultivating new scenes, kind of making new universes and it's still in the baby stages.
GARCIA: I feel like Daptone’s probably the closest that you'll get to what Motown had — just tons of different sounds and styles within soul, played by the same group.
What within this world of soul are you guys particularly excited about?
SAMANO: I'm excited to always hear anything that Brainstory’s got coming out. I was saying how everybody has different interpretations of soul; they definitely got some soul like infused with psychedelic and funk and jazz.
GARCIA: Bobby Oroza too. Also Max Traeger and Paul Sha La Da – their new project Las Los.
LANE: I'm personally just excited for the whole scene, because once a scene is established, it has no choice but to kind of evolve over time. And so I just love to see the different mergers like our friends Brainstory with this infusion of 70s/60s soul and psych. Holy Hive, which kind of infuses soul with folk and indie. I'm excited for our bandmate [backup singer] Jensine.
And I'm excited for us, honestly. We're brand new. Our relationship as writers is growing and changing. I don't even know what to expect for album two or three. The sky's the limit, and it's cool to see where our hive mind comes up with the direction for those projects.
What's next for you guys? Are you already working on album two or three?
GARCIA: I've been dabbling, but it's just kind of hard to find time right now. Because it's getting busier so we're gonna have to adapt to a new way of writing.
LANE: I think we've all low-key been dabbling in our own little garages and rooms. Just a couple of days ago, Alex was already kind of starting to team lead some direction with it when it comes to like, Hey, we should set aside certain days out of the week to actually sit and have sessions.
We all got ladies — shout out to the ladies — and we got to balance the time with our people and our creative interests. It's gonna be a tough one.
I don't know if you guys all know this, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on each of your ladies’ favorite songs.
LANE: That might be, like, a text message later — I don’t wanna get in trouble. [Laughs]
SAMANO: She’ll walk around just singing every single song. She gets all mad; she's like, “Your songs are always stuck in my head!”
GARCIA: For my girlfriend Emily, it's more like let's just get the record out, because she's been designing for us since day one. We designed the cover together and it was a long process. She has a different perspective on our band because she's working directly with us and Daptone.
LANE: I'm not gonna try to discredit my love story because it's new, but she's a music head. When I was listening to basic-ass music in my younger adult time, she was like one of those obscure '60s music collectors and listeners. So, she's always sending me songs that remind her about our love and stuff.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Douglas Mason / Contributor via Getty Images
Watch Backstage Interviews At Newport Folk 2023: Turnpike Troubadours, Nickel Creek, M. Ward, Thee Sacred Souls & More
Another Newport Folk is in the books; its 2023 iteration was one of the great ones — featuring Aimee Mann, Lana Del Rey, Jason Isbell and more. Watch backstage interviews with some of its radiant artists below.
Another summer, another Newport Folk. The storied bastion of American roots music flourished once again, with three days of plucks, strums, harmonies and good cheer.
Lana Del Rey enjoyed her Newport debut, James Taylor made a surprise appearance (calling it "emergency folk music") and the Black Opry made waves — and GRAMMY.com was on the grounds for all of the excitement.
Backstage, a number of artists chatted about their experiences onstage, their love of the American roots community and more.
Watch all of the interviews below — and we'll see you at Newport Folk 2024!
Gregory Alan Isakov
Indigo de Souza
Thee Sacred Souls
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].