Photos and Interview by RA Beattie | Breedlove Stringed Instruments
It's a cold, damp fall night in Portland. Despite tough weather, a steadily growing queue of anxious concertgoers coils down the sidewalk outside the Roseland Theater. A couple standing at the front of the line are inquisitive when I approach the doors with my recording gear and cameras. I explain that I'm going to take their spot in line. I'm here to interview Ed Roland, the lead singer of Collective Soul. The couple throw me a high five and explain how excited they are for the show. The vibe is solid. The fans are ready to rock.
I weave my way down the maze-like backstage hallways of the Roseland. Some say the theater is haunted, and as the dimly lit walls ripple with shadows and the calls of stage crews echo, it's easy to see how this place could play tricks on the mind. I reach a steep staircase leading to the green room. It's the usual pre-show chaos, busy with pre-show prep. In the midst of the coming and going of production crews and various musicians, Collective Soul's leading man, Ed Roland, is kind enough to sit down for a quick interview.
Beattie: If you would, tell me how long you have been playing music?
Ed Roland: Since I was eight years old. I started playing the clarinet. The gateway to rock and roll. I actually told my parents, we were doing band at school, and I said I wanted to play the coronet, and they thought I said the clarinet and came home with a clarinet and I was like … Oh my god. But it was cool. By the time I got to high school, you know, it was me with a bunch of chicks which worked in my favor. So … I'm cool with it. I love the clarinet. But it wasn't the first choice.
Beattie: When did you transition? What was your next instrument?
Ed Roland: Guitar at fourteen. I was really caught up in sports. I wanted to be a baseball player and basketball and all that. I came from a small town in the south so sports was a big … You know, that was more important than music. And at 14 I decided I wanted to write songs. A buddy of mine had a guitar he let me borrow and he gave me a book of, I think it was an Elvis book that just showed the chords. He was like, “All right, just go learn to finger the chords.” Three months I just kept doing it, kept doing it and finally it just happened. Literally, I just always wanted to be a song writer. That was it.
I appreciate … Terry Hamilton's the one that gave me the guitar. It was really cool.
Beattie: You remember what kind of guitar it was?
Ed Roland: Nah. I mean, just generic, cheap. You're talking late 70s so I'm sure something from Penny's Sears or Kmart. You know, that's just … But it was a good learning because it wasn't a nice guitar. The action was probably about [makes two inch gap signal with hands] … Got those calluses going and, once again, I think it was good because you had to stick with it. You know some guitar, people … They get the nicest guitars to start learning, they really don't know that you've got to dig in there a little bit. I think it was the right guitar for me to learn on.
Beattie: That's killer. When did you join your first band or form your first band?
Ed Roland: My dad was a minister so the first band was a church band. It was called Wind of Praise. I guess I was about 15. I'd been playing for a year and was just all about the guitar. I mean, I'd come home from school and I would practice till … Back then Johnny Carson was on. I can remember having a little TV and I'd watch Johnny and just keep practicing. After the first three months I got pretty good quickly which was fun.
After that, there really wasn't a music scene in Stockbridge, Georgia in 1981. I went to school in Boston at Berklee just to … That was eye-opening. Then you saw real players and I was like, “Whoa, Whoa let me think about this for second. Do I really want to be a great guitarist or do I want to try to be a songwriter?” I choose songwriting because I just saw some of the greatest guitarists ever. It was just mind-blowing to be 18 and all of a sudden like, “Oh man.”
Beattie: Yeah. I was going to ask, going from being raised in Georgia and making that transition to the east coast to go to school … That's a huge step. You were super-passionate about music in high school?
Ed Roland: I was. At fourteen, literally, the first time I could … Once again, I just wanted to write songs. The first record I ever bought was Elton John's greatest hits. I would just play the record over and over and I saw where he wrote. I grew up in the church so I didn't know much about like … Of course I knew Elvis and artists like that but they didn't really write their songs. When I saw that Elton and Bernie wrote their own songs I was like, “I just want to write songs.”
The transition from going to a small town in Georgia to Boston was more of a social effect more than musical. Musical also but, the small town boy all of a sudden in a big city was a big life lesson for me and a good one. One that was necessary and needed.
Beattie: Okay. Did you come out a Boston Red Sox fan?
Ed Roland: I was always a Red Sox fan because the Braves came from Boston. Boston Braves. I always had a fascination with Boston. I always had a fascination with the music. Once I started listening to music I … There was Aerosmith, Boston. I knew one of the guys from Steely Dan went to Berklee and then, of course, my favorite of all is The Cars. Boston, I always had this fascination with Boston.
At this point in the interview, a few of the crew come crashing down the steep stairs leading into the green room. Ed jokes with them:
Ed Roland: You can come down. You just don't have to sound like King Kong. Hey Johnny!
Ed Roland: What's your second job, robbing homes?
Johnny: Yeah, I'm all … [Johnny jumps around like he’s slipping on ice covered stairs.]
Ed Roland: I'm trying to do an interview. I'm trying to be cool over here. In between like … [raises hands and smiles]
Beattie: I've been talking to folks that have pursued their passions and are able to do what they love. I think what's interesting is that everybody has this turning point when they realize this is something that's going work out. This is something I can do. Did you have that kind of moment? This realization when … I could do this, follow my passion for a living?
Ed Roland: At fourteen. But there was a point where I knew I was getting good as a songwriter. That was a click because it took me so long to overcome my … Instead of writing bad Cars' songs …
I was so heavily influenced by the New Wave and stuff like that that I finally just … It took about three, four, five years before I started finding my own, you know, comfort level of how I wanted to write and also how I wanted to sound.
I sound like I sound. I don't know if you've heard our music, it's a little different of a voice and it took a little … It scared people at first. Hell, it scared me. It still does some nights. That comfort level where you go, “Okay, this is what God gave me. I am as God made me. Let's go.”
I think you have to get comfortable with your voice. Then you've got to kind of find your own internal voice, how you want to write. Take the influences but not just be the b-side of The Cars or Elton or anything like that. Kind of use that influence and try to chart your own way.
Beattie: You've been playing music for a long time. How have things changed in the last 20 years?
Ed Roland: Oh God.
Beattie: What's the biggest change.
Ed Roland: I just think the perception. No more record sales or recording sales. It's exciting because there's so many different avenues now and so many people can stream and hear your songs but, at the same time, it's gotten a little unfair on the artist side. It's something that, if you think about it, streaming offers nothing to pay an artist. I hope it doesn't discourage some great artist out there that are finding their way.
I go back to if U2 were around now, they would have never made it to Unforgettable Fire or Joshua Tree. They just wouldn't have been allowed. There's no development to me.
It's just sad how music's devalued in society. Nobody has a problem going out and buying a five dollar cup of coffee that they'll piss out in the next couple of hours but they feel that they are owed and should own music free and can't even pay 99 cents or a dollar 29 for a song that will last a lifetime.
It's disturbing but at the same time technology also allows a lot of excitement because you can reach more people. I still think we're in that stage where everybody's trying to figure it out. I do fight for the young artists. You need to get paid. It'd be tough being a new band starting right now. It really would.
Beattie: How long did you work on this new album?
Ed Roland: Three months maybe. Off and on. We had shows during it. We'd figure out a song, go play it live. Kind of did pre-production that way so when we came back in it was, kind of, much easier and simpler to lay the song down. Then I think we added two songs this year. Once again, we learned them, went and played it live, people kind of dug it and we're like, “all right, let's add this on the record.”
The record had been done for over a year before it came out. We were kind of sitting on it for a while trying to figure out how are we going to get it out.
Beattie: Where did you guys record it?
Ed Roland: I have a studio in my home. It's not a home-studio it's a real studio. It's a home disguised as a studio. I mean a studio disguised as a home. Backwards on that one.
Beattie: Can that be counterproductive sometimes?
Ed Roland: Yes. Easily. Because, when you hear the family … Sometimes you hear pitter patter upstairs and you're like, “Oh, I need to go be a dad.” The wife comes home from work and doesn't quite understand that you are working. Just because you're not in an office building. “What are y'all doing down there?”
It can but, I don't know, next time we're going to … I enjoy, for some reason, recording in a house. Jessie and I are in another band, Sweet Tea Project, and we just rented a house so it was studio there was no distractions and it's kind of fun to explore homes and just the vibe of that. I think the next C-Soul, we're going to do that way. Rent a house somewhere in Charleston or something and record in a home. Which is what we did with Sweet Tea.
Beattie: What do you love about the new album?
Ed Roland: The energy. It feels like once again we just kind of got our second wind and started going at it. Jessie and Johnny and the band kind of helped. They came in and kicked us in the ass a little bit and gave us something … Kind of fired us up again. I like being in a rock and roll band. I like being … We're non-apologetic about it. I think that's cool in today's world. Everybody goes “Rock's dead.” No it's not I'm fucking breathing, it's okay.
Beattie: We're kind of noticing trends where kids aren't playing music as much. There's less engagement it seems like on some level with playing guitar and playing music. Have you got any advice for …
Ed Roland: You know, we talk about that. I think we're seeing a little change. I have a 17 year old that is playing guitar and I've watched in his school. There are more bands in his school. I think there's a change … I was talking to somebody else the other night about it. Even these young kids that are opening King Washington and they're sharing the stage with, these are young kids. I think there's something bubbling under there. I think people are wanting and kids want something that's real. I think that just comes from a … I think the parents, people of my generation … You go so long where you go, “Okay, that's cool, that's cool.” Because there's always different swings of style of music and things like that.
But I think we've gone long enough without putting soul back in there and the realness into it and I think we're teaching our children that. I really do and I think they're getting it. Once they get it, you know from the vinyl, from like going to see live bands which is very important to me … Live music is first and foremost.
That's one reason I think you see a lot of these acts come from churches because it's non-judgmental first off but they still thrive on live music. I think there's going to be upswing I really do. I don't mean that as some hopeful hippy over here. I really … I'm seeing that trend, I really am.
Beattie: That's good. That's what we need.
Ed Roland: Yes we do. Real guitars, real instruments, real voices. Sing it. Play it. You're just capturing a moment.