Interview: The Soil & The Sun

Photo by Chris Cox

Starting with two members, the Grand Rapids based orchestral rock band The Soil & The Sun developed into a seven-piece ensemble over the years, merging years of friendship and musical companionship into their distinguished capacious and rich sound. For their latest record Meridian, released last August, they stepped out of their usual set-up and went to work in a studio with a professional producer. We got in touch with Alex McGrath to chat about the new record, their hometown and their life on the road.

Before we get to talk about your music, can you tell us a bit about how your hometown environment and the fact that most of you went to college together affected your harmony and your musical preferences? 

I grew up in a small town in Illinois named Ottawa – where the music scene was more of an idea than actual reality… Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to grow up in a city with a more flourishing music community, but right now I see a lot of positives about growing up in Ottawa.  We went out to a show just because it was a show.  I don’t really remember anybody actually liking each other’s bands all that much, but we all still came out.  I mean, it was live music!  We were so young and pure, somehow able to soak in the inherent value of the “show”.  Sorry, I’m getting nostalgic.  Anyway, every other band in Ottawa was a hard core band, so the individualist in me was drawn to anything that felt opposite.  College was a really exciting time, finding a lot of people who were into the same things as myself.  That’s where Jacki, Ben, and Joanna came in.  We played a lot of music in college, but listening to music together is what really formed the bonds, I think.  Music was sort of the centerpiece of most relationships back then.

Your new album Meridian was quite the leap forward in your musical journey, receiving a lot of positive feedback, and being chosen by WYCE for album of the year. How do you see the album’s outcome so far, and did it fulfill your expectations?

Yeah, that was really kind of WYCE to do that.  They do amazing work– So supportive of the local music community.  As far as I know, we feel pretty great about the outcome of the album.  We really just want people to hear it and connect with it in a meaningful way.  When someone tells us that our music is important to him or her on a real personal level, it reminds us of why we make music.  That’s when we know we’ve accomplished some kind of goal.  The rest of the stuff about how an album does is kind of vague and intangible (and not as important to me).   Getting an award is nice, though.

This release showed some major changes in your style and sound, especially the switch from home to studio recording. What were the motivations behind these changes, and how was the recording experience for you, working alongside Rick Fritz?

The opportunity was too good to be true, and it came at the perfect time.  We’re very grateful to Audiotree for giving us that option, and it just seemed like the logical next step to make.  Being in a studio was exciting and inspiring and challenging and overwhelming.  We really didn’t know what to expect or how to navigate that realm, so Rick was indispensable.  He was our guide.  He’s super great to work with.  He’s a good producer, because he just kind of directs the creative process without interfering.  Sensitive stuff.

Photo by Laura E. Partain
Photo by Laura E. Partain

I heard that some of the tracks in the latest album stemmed from old ideas that you built upon. Can tell us more about the concepts and inspirations behind those tracks, and how do you manage to integrate everyone into the composing process, especially with a large group like yours?

Well, writing lyrics can be a strenuous process for me sometimes, but the music flows much more naturally.  The result is a lot of unfinished songs and ideas.  That’s probably normal.  Anyway, a couple of the songs from Meridian are ideas that started years ago and just happened to resurface recently.  It’s kind of interesting, personally, to take an old idea that might have a lot of emotions attached to it and update it and expound on it and make it fit into a new space.

We have a lot of band members, so time is an important factor in the composition process.  We’re better when we let ideas sink in for a while.  Try not to rush it.  Repetition is also something that comes to mind.  Sometimes we’ll play with an idea over and over again for months before things start to click.  Sometimes they click right away, though.

Jeff Kraus’s artwork for Meridian is among the things that gapped my attention in this release. Chaotic yet somehow calming! What is the story behind this work?

Jeff is a good friend of ours, and we all love his work.  When we were brainstorming album art ideas, he immediately came to mind.  He was into the collaboration, so we sent him the unfinished tracks to paint to.  It ended up as two 4’x6’ paintings, one for the outside (darker) of the album, one for the inside (lighter).  It’s supposed to be symbolic.  Jeff paints intuitively, so it was a good thing for us to work with him.  We needed to remove ourselves from that process a little bit.

You recently hit the road again for an extensive spring tour through the States and Canada. How did the tour turn out? And is there any special venue or town you were particularly excited to go back to?

We just finished the tour, and we had a blast, for sure.  We weren’t really quite sure what to expect, as it was our first time being a support band on a big tour package.  It was a learning curve, and we had to adjust a little bit from the way we were used to touring.  I think the experience will prove to be really good for us as a band.  We’re tighter than ever.  Also, everyone on the tour was really great. S/O to From Indian Lakes and Lemolo.

We always love being back in Chicago – it’s like a friends and family reunion.  Nashville is always fun, and being anywhere out west is like a dream.  We were very happy to get back out that way so soon.  As far as venues go, I’ll just mention one: Jammin’ Java in Vienna, VA because their greenroom has a “whiskey switch”.  It doesn’t have to be strictly for whiskey, though.  They have hot dogs, too.

Your life on the road isn’t the typical Rock’n Roll band, as you all go way back since school, with a lot of personal ties, and with Ben’s wife and daughter usually joining you on the road. How is the journey like moving in such a familial atmosphere and how does it affect your performances?

I think the familial approach we’ve taken to touring just helps us keep it real.  Not that we have much reason to be not real… but you know, you can’t get too caught up in yourself when you have to consider the wellbeing of eight other people.  Our performances definitely benefit from our closeness.  We try to deal with any weirdness or tension ASAP, so hopefully it doesn’t show up on stage.

So what are your plans now? Should we expect any new releases or projects soon?

I’m not sure when to expect a new release, but I can tell you that we’re working on new songs and are in the process of recording them.  That will be a big priority this summer.  We have a couple of short runs planned as well, but we’re hoping to be mostly in Grand Rapids for the season.  There are a few video ideas… art projects… personal interests.  We hope to be productive in this time off from playing shows.


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