THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT the experience of hearing a live House band. The warmth, the impromptu acts of virtuosity and the electricity of the crowd can move your soul more than any prerecorded track ever could.
House music, although sometimes soulful, is often criticized as being overtly mechanical or lacking in real musicianship. That is why Tortured Soul is a beautiful and welcome relief.
Tortured Soul was unofficially formed in 2001 by three guys from Brooklyn, New York. John-Christian Urich is the drummer and lead vocalist, JKriv the bassist, and Ethan White keyboardist for this incredibly talented and soulful band blazing a path to stardom. Their album Introducing Tortured Soul, originally released in 2004, is being re-released on R2 Records from London. The album is a wonderful collection of jazzy, funky and romantic dance tunes that is engaging both on and off the dance floor. Urich’s vocals are warm and embracing, and it’s a wonder to actually hear songs as opposed to over-programmed track listings.
Songs on Introducing Tortured Soul include “Fall In Love” (co-produced with DJ Spinna), “How’s Your Life” along with their most popular song, “I Might Do Something Wrong” (remixed by Osunlade). From Gilles Peterson to Lenny Kravitz to Barry Manilow (who says “Tortured Soul is breaking some rules and keeping me as a musician interested”), the group is turning heads from all branches of the musical spectrum.
All three members of the group are highly-skilled musicians with other credits to their name. Urich is well known in the world of House and R&B as the leader of the band Cooly’s Hot Box, as well as releases under the name Cowboy Johnny Christ. JKriv has production work under the names The Moves and bgb, while White also does production work under the name EasyTracks.
Recently Tortured Soul returned to Chicago to play at Smart Bar. Although they have been to this city many times before, it was the first time I had the pleasure to see them perform live. With their signature white shirts and ties, the show was nothing short of amazing. Prior to the show I got the chance to sit with these three very funny and charming men at the lobby of the Hard Rock Hotel and find out more about their music.
Can you tell us more about your background?
ETHAN WHITE: We met playing in another band in New York. It was a kinda funky, acid jazz instrumental thing. We toured for about two and a half years playing. It was called Topaz. We played as the rhythm section of that group.
And then when did you officially become Tortured Soul?
JKRIV: The first official Tortured Soul thing was with the release of “I Might Do Something Wrong” which was really just Christian’s thing at the time, it was like a solo project for him. We were still performing with the other group. But around that time, the three of us started putting together the concept of what has become the band Tortured Soul. And sort of jumping off the success of that single, we then started to collaborate on some other stuff… like another jam that eventually became “How’s Your Life”. These were the singles that started coming out under the Tortured Soul name and then we began to really tour with it as a live act in 2003.
Where did you guys attend school?
JOHN-CHRISTIAN URICH: I went to State University of New York at Purchase. I majored in Percussion and switched over to Composition, with a focus on studio composition. Ethan went to NYU, was a piano major. Jason had a double major at Oberlin in English and Music.
Did you have any vocal training?
CHRISTIAN: I guess, yeah. My mom’s a singer and I grew up with singing. I used to sing at the City Opera and the Met when I was younger. I didn’t sort of see myself as a singer until I started doing college stuff and became interested in learning songs.
And who came up with the name Tortured Soul?
CHRISTIAN: In interviews we have that’s something we struggle with, to kind of define it exactly. It was originally about that first song (“I Might Do Something Wrong”), sort of like the push and pull of trying to decide what to do within a relationship. But I think the meaning has extended to a lot of the content in the songs. And also it’s something that everybody can kind of relate to and that all three of us feel in many ways, that frustration of not getting what you want and trying to figure out how to do it and not always coming out that way.
It seems that everything I’ve read about you guys, there hasn’t been one single negative thing said about you. Have you had any kind of struggles at all?
ETHAN: You’re not planning on being the first person are you?
Not at all!
JKRIV: We haven’t had too much trouble. You know I think in general, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. The cool thing about it is that although we have performed largely in the House music scene, we’ve also played in some other places, you know big festivals. Just yesterday we played at Milwaukee Summerfest (our 3rd year doing it). We’ve played many other large festivals… Bonaroo a couple of weeks ago, we played at the Montreal Jazz Festival, we’ve played at festivals around Europe. We have some more big ones coming up. So we’ve played at many places that aren’t specifically House or dance music oriented at all, and we’ve still gotten a great response. I think the reason is that on a certain level, it’s live music, it’s energetic, it’s song-oriented stuff. Aside from playing live, I think that that’s one thing that sets us apart from House music in that a lot of our music doesn’t begin as a track which then gets sculpted. It begins a song.
How does the songwriting process work for you guys?
CHRISTIAN: It depends, it can start with a thought, it can start with the lyrics, it can start with the riff, it can start with a lot of different things.
JKRIV: Most of the songs have begun as a song that Christian wrote. The process is hard to sort of pin down. Like in the song “How’s Your Life” – it began as a group jam that we then built that into a whole song. A lot of the music that gets written and recorded we then rework into a live arrangement that’s sort of like a remix.
Do you ever redo other songs? Cover songs?
JKRIV: We’ve toyed around with that idea a couple of times. But I think for now we’re still just focusing on putting on our own stuff.
CHRISTIAN: It feels a little cheesy…
ETHAN: We’ve considered it but now we’re at a point where it could be cool. When we were first starting out I think we really wanted to establish our music.
CHRISTIAN: I guess it would depend on the venue we were at as well. If we were playing for a heavy House crowd, then there might be something cool about it and more appropriate. If we’re playing in a festival where 70 percent of the people have never seen us, I think there’s an integrity to just doing your own music.
ETHAN: At Bonaroo you could have counted the Househeads on both hands.
Where are some of the places you’ve played at here in Chicago?
JKRIV: We’ve played Smart Bar a few times, Metro, The District, the Hothouse…
I can’t imagine you guys playing at Smart Bar, such a small venue.
ETHAN: It’s kinda fun because you end up with people all around you. We all spent many years playing in similar clubs in New York City. We’re used to that.
So are you all Househeads?
CHRISTIAN: I guess it depends what that means. We’re music heads. I think we’re preferential to good music. We find that there’s a lot of House music that we like a lot… Basically there are a lot of people out there that are like, “I just want to hear House.”
JKRIV: We listen to a wide variety of music. When we travel in a car, which does happen from time to time – although we fly more and more these days, we still find ourselves in a car for many hours. I would say we listen to House music 10, 15 percent of the time. We really change it up. There isn’t like one genre… It could be anywhere from piano sonatas to House music to Led Zeppelin.
Do you all 3 have the same taste?
ETHAN: Close enough that we don’t fight! But distant enough that we all have different music on in our selections.
In terms of House what DJs or producers do you like to listen to?
JKRIV: Right now I like Frank Roger, I like stuff Alix Alvarez is doing and I like some other quirkier German stuff. Some of the techier kinda stuff.
ETHAN: I really like your Ten City boys, Osunlade, some Rasoul mixes I’ll put on and rock out to.
CHRISTIAN: I like soulful House in general. I can give a little shoutout to the DJ who’s playing with us tonight, we have a number of different mixes by DJ Whyteout.
How did you guys meet him?
ETHAN: We first met him at The District. We played the night I believe that Mr. A.L.I. normally plays but for some reason they weren’t doing it and it was us.
JKRIV: We met Whyteout that night. It was a really funny night because at the last minute they booked an afterparty for Ginuwine… and so it was velvet ropes and all of a sudden the cover went from $5 to $20. And all these people that wanted to get in couldn’t get in. They weren’t even letting in people on our list!
ETHAN: This was before we had a booking agent. We invited a booking agent to come down and check us out and they wouldn’t let him in! This was like two years ago.
What do you think of the whole New York vs. Chicago thing?
JKRIV: We don’t even think about that. I will say that as far as House music goes, the scene in Chicago is a lot stronger. In New York there’s a lot of good music and a lot of great DJs, but the scenes are really sort of compartmentalized and spread out. And it’s like that with everything in New York.
ETHAN: In New York you could have a House show and get all sorts. Like last week I went to the Body and Soul party at P.S. 1 and it was packed full of people. Whereas I feel that Chicago it’s more like a close-knit kind of scene. In New York, there are a lot of people listen to House music but they’re not necessarily Househeads.
What about hip-hop? Do you guys listen to it?
JKRIV: I have not been feeling hip-hop for a while. I haven’t been into hip-hop since 1995. I liked it a lot before then!
CHRISTIAN: I used to love it. I used to be in a hip-hop band. I played the drums and I did a couple of verses but there was a lead rapper. But I would say maybe even earlier than Jason stopped liking it, you know like the early ’90s I stopped listening to it.
So I’m sure everybody always asks you how do you play the drums and sing at the same time…
CHRISTIAN: From having practiced rap. [laughs] Years of playing and singing and combining the two…
When you guys record, do you try to do a perfect take or do you fix it with a computer?
JKRIV: Well the current record is a mix, but most of the songs are not live drums, they’re sequenced. There’s other live elements in there, live keys and live bass. We’re actually having this conversation a lot right now because we’re about to embark on the next record which is gonna be a little different from the previous one in that we really want it to focus on what we do live. I think it all really depends on the production style and what the song calls for. We definitely want the root of our music in the next record to be the three of us playing live, we want that to be the feel. As far as release date we couldn’t really say right now. We’re about to finish up the run of gigs we have through the summer and early fall, and then we’re going to take a solid four or five months off to get the album together.
You all have your own solo stuff too.
CHRISTIAN: We all have various things that we’re doing. Cooly’s Hot Box was a project of mine, still is. I’ve got another moniker I’m doing stuff under called Cowboy Johnny Christ. I just sang on Spinna’s record, his intergalactic soul thing. And I’m doing some work with N’Dea Davenport.
ETHAN: I’ve been doing some stuff under the name Easy Tracks and I have some collaborations. Actually one of the guys I’m collaborating with is part of 3 Degrees, this guy Ed Dunn from New York. We have a track with Trish Angus who was just on Spinna’s new album. And we have something we’re working on with Stephanie Cooke.
JKRIV: I have a project called The Moves. We had a couple of releases on Central Park Recordings, which was the original label that Tortured Soul was on. Our current label is R2 out of London.
I have another little project called bgb, which is sort of electro-disco stuff. It was on Dessous Recordings out of Germany.
I always ask this question with people I interview… With the whole House vs. hip-hop thing, do you think House will ever get the same notoriety that hip-hop has?
CHRISTIAN: I don’t know if it will here, but in London it’s a much different thing. House music is more like pop music. It’s more embraced by a much bigger group of people and it’s a lot bigger than it is here. It’s not so much a niche thing. I think it’s very undervalued here.
Europe in general too…
CHRISTIAN: Yeah, dance music is more of a mainstay and a common word.
JKRIV: Here’s the question, do you think most Househeads would want House music to be as big as hip-hop? I think a lot of people like the fact that it’s underground. They don’t want to be a part of the mainstream necessarily. The more mainstream type of House music in Europe is no better than the mainstream hip-hop.
ETHAN: It’s not good.
Do you guys ever think about breaking up?
ETHAN: Definitely not. Not so far… Great idea, thanks 5 Magazine!
[laughs] I guess I meant more of having hard times…
JKRIV: Like anything, we have obstacles we have to overcome.
ETHAN: I’ve probably spent more time with these two guys than my family members. We’ve been together (if you include the band before this)… six to seven years. We’ve done over 300 gigs as Tortured Soul.
JKRIV: If you added them all together we’ve probably done 500 gigs.
ETHAN: We may be dysfunctional, but we are functional. We’re more functional than my family!