In a musical climate where bands permeate cyberspace faster than their increasingly fragmented genre descriptions can keep up, it’s common for struggling artists to feel like they’re shouting into the wind—just one voice in a crowd of millions clamoring to be heard. Up-and-coming bands can feel tremendous pressure to differentiate themselves from the masses by pursuing something that’s never been done before.
Tash Neal is unconvinced. The lead vocalist and guitarist for the Brooklyn-based power trio The London Souls—who sport a musical style that’s varied and eclectic yet distinctly rooted in classic rock—is less concerned with the idea of breaking “new ground” than with the idea of evoking a specific feeling.
“A lot of people nowadays are called innovators when they’re doing something that’s been done 20 years ago,” he says. “It’s just that people pick and choose what’s popular sort of arbitrarily. It’s kind of tough because sometimes people try to be innovative for innovation’s sake.”
Neal admits he has little patience for this contrived sort of innovation. The question that drives his and The London Souls’ songwriting philosophy is a simple one: What’s going to make someone want to listen to this song again?
“I’m staring at my Christmas tree right now, and if I wanted to, I could make a record out of [playing] Christmas tree ornaments,” he says with a laugh. “Maybe I’d be breaking territory, but it might be stupid or silly and nobody will want to listen to it. … Yes, everybody likes art, everybody likes groundbreaking. However, we all know that most people like things they can sing along to. Most people like things that they can listen to. It’s up to the artist to decide if they want people to like the music or if they just want to [be] the contrarian trying to break ground when nobody really wants to come to your shows and listen to your music.”
Together with bassist Kiyoshi Matsuyama and drummer Chris St. Hilaire, Neal loaded The London Souls’ self-titled debut last July with singable, memorable melodies; rich vocal harmonies from all three members; raw, muscular arrangements; and a healthy sense of space and subtlety. As a guitarist, Neal fits into the group’s framework by providing fluid solos and blistering riffs that drive the majority of the songs, but he recognizes the value of understatement and understands that knowing what not to play is just as crucial as knowing what to play.
“Maybe [the three of us] grew up listening to different stuff as kids, but what brings us together is that love of whatever that feeling is when something is truly beautiful or truly rock ’n’ roll or truly dangerous—that comes across,” Neal says. “Whatever that vibe is that comes across that exudes the spirit of rock ’n’ roll—and you know it when you hear it—that’s what I really like. We all like that. We all agree on that.”
Indeed, for an album so pure in its rock ’n’ roll sensibilities, The London Souls contains a surprisingly wide variety of moods and textures: It’s got barn-burners like the Black Sabbath-esque rumble of “The Sound,” funk songs like the falsetto-filled “She’s In Control,” cooler, quieter grooves like “Easier Said Than Done” and even a reggae number in “Someday.” This sense of diversity is something Neal, for his part, attributes to listening to groups like Led Zeppelin, Santana, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Beatles, The Who and Cream.
“My favorite rock ’n’ roll bands do have a lot of variety in their songs, so you can go from a really hard-driving rock tune and then do something a little quieter, acoustic or switch up a groove so you’re not doing the same thing,” he says. “I like the freedom that the term ‘rock ’n’ roll’ brings because then you can listen to [our] album and see that not every song is the same.”
But Neal is well aware of the flipside to his point of view—namely that in the modern music world, such unabashedly purist rock ’n’ roll is often treated as a constrictive idiom rather than a liberating one.
“I don’t know if it’s possible to innovate nowadays,” he explains. “Which is why I think it’s unfortunate that if you are inspired by things of the past that are not in, say, the mainstream at the time, that can become its own box unnecessarily, even if you’re writing new songs or are just unfortunately playing instruments that people in the past played. It’s easy to put rock ’n’ roll in a box nowadays, since rock ’n’ roll is practically nonexistent.”
Neal makes a solid point: With the abundance of synth-based styles in popular music today, the meat-and-potatoes tradition of guitar, bass and drums has somewhat fallen by the wayside.
“A lot of the modern groups sound like the ’80s to me, but they’re not compared to the ’80s—it’s just accepted as modern,” he claims. “If you’re going to start a rock band and you’re not doing something completely postmodern or something based in the ’80s, it’s going to be compared to classic rock bands.”
Still, The London Souls try never to force a single element of their style or approach. Rather, their songwriting process is an organic one through and through, centered on a desire to sound as authentic as possible.
“For us, it’s not even a conscious thing,” Neal says. “We just take it song by song, which is what I like about the band. There was never any discussion about what kind of sound we wanted. The instrumentation, sonically, is going to be consistent regardless—it’s still going to be the three of us playing the instruments we play. So if we can make the songs different, I feel like that gives the listener more substance to deal with. But the songs we write are the songs we write, and to me [they’re] modern because they don’t exist until you write them.”