by: Thomas D. Mooney
We caught up with Donovan Keith, lead vocalist for Austin’s Soul Track Mind a few week back to talk about the band’s progression, songwriting, and their latest album, 2014’s Unbreakable.
Unbreakable finds the Austin outfit breaking and expanding their ground and sound. Specially, they’ve built on their r&b and soul foundation with a sharp rock edge and attitude. In many ways, Soul Track Mind has refined themselves into a clean, chic, and sleek rock band that banks on smart pop sensibilities without ever relying solely on them.
Coming in at eight tracks and 32 minutes, Unbreakable is a short, but powerful burst of energetic ear candy. Rather than having one or two tracks of filler, Unbreakable leaves you wanting more when it comes to an end.
Soul Track Mind will be performing tonight (Thursday, April 30) at The Blue Light. Local alt-country favorites The Goners will be opening. Watch/Listen to the music video for “Ode to Youth” below.
New Slang: The last record, Unbreakable, was released last year. Going in, what were some of the things you guys discussed that you wanted to try differently or to expand on?
Donovan Keith: There were a couple of things. One, in previous attempts, we were never able to capture the live energy and sound in a studio recording. That was something we were able to do this time around. At the same time, we wanted to be a little more progressive with the songs and separate ourselves from being called a throwback soul band. We wanted our sound to be a little bit more modern in pop, r&b, and rock.
NS: Yeah. I know what you’re talking about with that.
DK: Yeah. People tend to think that if a band has horns, they’re trying to play an old sound.
NS: Exactly. It’s easier to get lumped into a throwback soul or a be called a retro band. In a way, people will sometimes just think of a band as some kind of novelty act or something. It’s hard to break that thought process. So it’s easy to say that you’re wanting to capture a more modern sound, but what it is specifically that you do to actually follow through on it?
DK: I think it’s partly a continual level of growth from us as individuals as far as songwriting and from a musicianship standpoint. The biggest difference was the production from CJ Erickson, who helped produce the record. He’s worked with U2, Matchbox 20, and all these other bands. He has an ear for fuller arrangements. He knows how to get a thicker wall of sound from the production side. So what we did was basically bring him our songs, which were already a lot more developed than previous material, and I’d say a little more sophisticated–not that we do anything that’s all that elaborate. But when you have chords to a song that tend to cover up a song and little things that people tend not to notice, but in the long run, make a huge difference in the recording. They make sure they don’t sound too simple or too thin. The way we used the arrangements, that’s what gave the album its’ own unique sound.
I think that was always the problem. Previously, we had a more progressive sound, but every studio we stepped into, thought “Oh, they’re a horn band so they’re going to want something simple or old style.” And then you didn’t have a producer who understood how modern music was produced.
NS: You brought it up earlier, the live sound and energy that you guys create. You obviously want to be able to capture some of that while still having a studio album that sounds like a studio product. That’s kind of a fine line to walk. How do you try and get the energy level up when you’re in the studio when there’s not this crowd in front of you that you can feed off? You get what I’m saying?
DK: Sure. On our previous two albums, all the band did was record just the way we played live. The only difference is, when you record those things with just the one guitar line, just the simple drum line, then the recording tends to come out sounding thin or simple. Depending on the right band, if you’re an acoustic or a small folk band, then that’s what you’re looking for and that’s cool. But for us, when we’re playing live, our sound is running through all these amps, compressors, and all this stuff so our live sound is so much bigger and thicker in front of an audience. But when you take those same instruments and put them through direct lines and a digital medium, the overall product becomes very thin. So you need things like double tracking and things that we wouldn’t necessarily play live, but help gives it a thickness. That really does give off its’ own specific energy. We’re able to feed off some of that.
NS: As far as songwriting goes, for you, how do you know when something you’re working on is ready to go over to the band and make it an actual song and not just an idea? Obviously, it’s different song to song, but generally.
DK: Sometimes, we’ll start with a very simple melody or chorus. This is one of the more difficult things I’ve had to deal with as a songwriter since I don’t come from a musical education background. It’s taken some time for me to get proficient enough to be able to write songs and then be able to communicate what I’m wanting or thinking to the band. A lot of times, someone will come to be with a chord progression and say, “Hey, you can write a song to this.” But because there’s no melody that jumps out and all I really hear is that chord progression, there’s no feeling for me. So basically what I do is try and come up with a melody first and build the song around that.
It happens a lot of different ways. Sometimes I’ll have lyrics that have not melody and then have to apply a melody to them later. But, there’s no real set time when I bring it to the band. On the previous album, there was a song that was almost entirely written before I brought it to the band. All they did was put their particular spin on the song. Then there are other ones, where we had to record two songs by the weekend and each of them only has one verse. We have to build it up there in the studio.
NS: Yeah. There’s a little bit of pressure in that. Do you enjoy that rush? There’s something you can feed off.
DK: Yeah. I tend to drive off that, but not a lot of musicians like that [laughs]. They like to have their time and their space. I don’t mind coming up with songs like that on the fly. If you’re a musician on the project, if you’re a side player who’s coming in, you’re only given a few hours to come up with something really catchy and that will work. But really, those are just complimentary pieces. It’s the song itself–the lyrics, the melody, the bass and guitar melody–if those hooks are there and the song is genuine and honest and speaks to a specific emotion, then the other things aren’t that important. They’re luxury items.