A Year After Near-Tragedy, The London Souls Are Riding High

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A Year After Near-Tragedy, The London Souls Are Riding High

The London Souls are becoming a garage-band success story. Well, minus the garage. Guitarist/vocalist Tash Neal and drummer/vocalist Chris St. Hilaire first got together in New York as teenagers, bonding over their love of loud, aggressive 60s and 70s rock.  But in New York, says Neal, “You can’t go to anybody’s basement and jam.”

So the two took to rehearsing and writing in tiny studio apartments. Fast forward a few years, and they found themselves in London’s famous Abbey Road Studios recording their debut disc. Two years of touring and writing followed, and in January they released their sophomore effort, Here Come the Girls.  And starting this summer, they’re going on tour with The Black Crowes and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Clearly, not a bad trajectory.

We caught up with them earlier this month before their headlining set at Washington, D.C.’s Rock and Roll Hotel as they bonded with Neal’s brother (also their manager) and cousins over sips of red wine and brown liquor. Bassist Stu Mahan, who fits the archetype of the towering-yet-quiet low-end guy, sat on a couch reading Keith Richards’ autobiography, “Life.”

Herewith, four things you may not know about the fast-emerging power trio:

 

According to medical opinion, they shouldn’t even be on the road right now…

In late May of last year, Neal was the victim of a hit-and-run taxi accident in New York, which required brain surgery and time in the intensive care unit. In September, he had a second surgery to install a plate in his head. The band played a show a month and five days later.

“I feel like I’m playing better than ever,” he says. “I can still write songs. I don’t have any deficits, as the doctors say. I can remember most things.” And the one-year anniversary of the injury is notable, he says, because according to his initial diagnosis “after a year maybe I’d be walking. And we’ve been out [touring] consistently since January. By late February, I was playing better. We’ve only gotten tighter.”

Their influences go well beyond Cream, Hendrix and Zeppelin…

To hear guitarist/vocalist Tash Neal strike a few chords on his Gibson ES-335 is to know that this band takes its cue from the heyday of acid rock and British blues (never mind when they dip into their catalog of covers, which includes The Beatles‘ “Do It in the Road,” Derek and the Dominos’ “Got to Get Better in a Little While” and AC/DC’s “Long Way to the Top”).

“We were similarly inspired,” says St. Hilaire. But to dismiss them as a throwback band is to miss the point. The band colors its blues-rock canvas with all manner of other influences and experiences. “Chris was in a reggae band, I played in a bluegrass band in D.C.,” explains Neal. “It kind of spans everything. We listen to Brazilian music, jazz. We were listening to [New Orleans artist] Huey “Piano” Smith on the way here .… We’re drawn to the spirit of rock and roll. Thelonious Monk — that’s some rock and roll shit.”

 

 

They’re from Brooklyn, but they’re not “of” Brooklyn…

“We were never in that scene,” says Neal. “Everybody was staring at their shoes. No one was like ’rock and roll is great.’ We didn’t fit in. We still don’t fit in.”

Moreover, adds St. Hilaire, “Unless you become tight with a venue, they’re going to put you on a Wednesday night with four other bands, lump you with some random shit.” Of course, being under the legal drinking age doesn’t help either. When he and Neal first got together in Manhattan, he said, “We were too young to play bars, so we’d play high school shows.” The two eventually graduated that scene, though, working up to a residency at the famed Mercury Lounge in Manhattan’s Bowery neighborhood.

john-varvatos-bowery-live-london-souls-1-tSometimes less is more…

“We’ve been playing together for so long, it’s a chemistry,” says Neal of his musical kinship with St. Hilaire, who contributes plenty of backup (and occasional lead) vocals from behind the kit. Indeed, after the departure of bassist Kiyoshi Matsuyama following their 2011 self-titled debut, the two soldiered on during several shows as a two-piece, before adding Mahan. The band avoids extraneous instrumentation and effects to create their sound, relying mostly on the simplicity of a guitar directly into amp. “We let the songs speak for themselves,” says St. Hilaire. “We make sure the melodies and the changes are good enough [and then you just need] three different voices to say everything you need to say .… But you can’t slack off. There can’t be a weak link.”

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