Life in the Slow Lane

Among a small subset of local music fans, 1991 may be remembered less as the year alternative rock exploded than as the year Souled American fizzled. Formed in 1987 and signed the following year, the Chicago group had honed a singular take on roots rock over the course of three albums on Rough Trade and dented the national consciousness by touring with fellow uncategorizables Camper Van Beethoven. But by ’91 Rough Trade’s U.S. branch went belly-up, and when drummer Jamey Barnard left to devote more time to his family, no effort was made to replace him.

Most fans assumed the band would throw in the towel–a natural assumption based on what countless bands had done under similar circumstances. But Souled American took another path altogether. Rather than start all over on the soul-sapping club circuit, guitarists Chris Grigoroff and Scott Tuma and bassist Joe Adducci retreated from the scene to concentrate on refining their craft at their own pace. Though they still live in Chicago, they haven’t performed here in two years, and even local stores don’t stock the three albums, including the new Notes Campfire, they’ve since put out on European labels.

But in music as in evolutionary biology, a little bit of isolation can induce some pretty interesting mutations. On the three original Souled American albums, Fe, Flubber, and Around the Horn, Barnard’s drumming was a thick but graceful gumbo of New Orleans rhythms into which rustic but decidedly coloristic guitars were stirred. Adducci’s fat, clanking, reggae-style bass usually took the lead, while he and Grigoroff sang with a strange blend of midwestern drawl and southern twang. Their eclecticism was never blatant–they just had a natural ability to incorporate whatever musical ideas best suited a given song, and their open-minded rootsiness presaged the explorations of Richard Buckner (a rabid Souled American fan who’s recently expressed interest in working with them) and Will Oldham.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course. Back in their day, Souled American were written off by many folks as Deadheads; I dismissed them early on as unspectacular country rockers. “We were more upbeat then, using lots of polyrhythms,” says Grigoroff. “We were attractive to an audience that didn’t have to dig too deep. But as soon as we started slowing the music down…” He and Adducci, who after these ten years tend to finish each other’s sentences and understand each other’s most minute nonverbal gestures, conclude the explanation with a burst of laughter.

What they mean is that with Barnard out the trio traded hot sauce for molasses, thereby alienating a chunk of its fan base. In 1992, Rough Trade (still viable in the UK) released Sonny, an album of covers that proved Souled American’s roots went deeper than they’d previously let on. Yet the funereal treatments of hillbilly traditionals and tunes by Merle Travis and the Louvin Brothers transformed each one into something that could only be called a Souled American song: in listening to Sonny alongside the old albums, it becomes clear that an element of trance has always undergirded Souled American’s music. Without Barnard’s jaunty rhythms to break things up, it came to the fore. Likewise, the originals on Frozen (1994) and Notes Campfire feature emotionally dense, beautiful vocals over suffocatingly intense drones–not the easiest listening in the world, but certainly powerful and distinctive. Both albums are on the German indie Moll, which has virtually no distribution in the U.S. (though they can be ordered from the band at PO Box 146477, Chicago 60614).

Grigoroff and Adducci, who plan to start on Souled American’s seventh album this fall (possibly without Tuma), are less frustrated by their descent into obscurity than you’d expect. “The whole goal is to simply connect your spirit to the music,” says Adducci with complete earnestness. “If you don’t fit in, it’s just something you’re going to have to live with.” Adds Grigoroff, “When Rough Trade signed us, we figured we should push it while someone wanted to work with us. We got three albums out real quick. We were always pretty aware of where we might fit in, but we never fooled ourselves into thinking we could attract a large audience.”

Maybe not, but Souled American has managed to catch the fancy of New York guerrilla music writer Camden Joy, who recently coordinated a project called Fifty Posters About Souled American. He and a group of more- and less-established critics aimed to “contribute to a greater appreciation of the seldom-seen, seldom-heard” group by plastering Manhattan with highly personal raves and ruminations on it; some of them have found their way to Wicker Park as well.

“Souled American is slow but not lazy,” reads one I thought was particularly apt. “The slowness of Souled American is the slowness of death, and death is not lazy. Death takes care of business. When the guy who plays acoustic guitar sings about ‘no love on my street’ it’s terrifying. I was having soup with a friend and almost swallowed my spoon….We had to keep nodding about how good the song was, then go back to our separate city blocks, and see if there was any love. Maybe we both found a little bit that day, I don’t know. But Souled American made us look.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Chris Grigoroff and Joe Adducci photo by Brad Miller.