Going the Distance
On the day that Hurricane Floyd threatens to all but shut down New York City, Pennsylvania’s favorite sons, the hard rock band Live, have blown into town as well. Live are in Manhattan to play a semi-private gig (part of an Album Network showcase) and to complete a hectically-paced day of pre-release press for their fourth record, The Distance to Here . But the streets are nearly deserted, public transportation is on the verge of a dead-halt, interviews meant to take place at the band’s hotel, uptown on Central Park West, must be canceled, and it seems likely the show might be in jeopardy as well. What is it about Live and acts of God that seem to go together? Edward Kowalcyzk, Live’s charismatic singer/songwriter, made a five minute phone call to me later that day to apologize for having to reschedule our interview, and I jokingly asked him that question. “I wish I knew,” he said, “so I could make the hurricane stop and people could get to our show.” The funny thing is, when Kowalcyzk speaks of stopping a hurricane, it gives one pause to consider if he might be able to do it.
A “self-proclaimed spiritualist,” Kowalcyzk cares not to take on the guise of New Age Pop Guru. That aside, his allegiance to a spiritual path that permeates the lyrics of Live’s wildly popular songs — from “Pain Lies on the Riverside” to “All Over You” to the newest single, “The Dolphin’s Cry” — is so enmeshed with his being, it is, in fact, written on his body. I was fortunate to meet Ed Kowalcyzk that night at Irving Plaza, and, when I noticed some writing tattooed on the back of his neck, I asked him what the writing was, and what it meant. “It’s Sanskrit for the incarnation of the heart,” he told me. “Actually, it’s the mantra for a teacher that I follow.” Other than this confession, Kowalcyzk, 28, politely declines to reveal the specifics of his personal practices. “I’m a firm believer that all paths lead to the truth, in its various forms,” he said, and really, what else is there to say? Looking at the crowd of enraptured faces as Live perform that night, it’s evident that when Ed Kowalcyzk sings about love and truth and having the courage to live your dream, people get it. Nothing else matters
A week after Live (which also includes Patrick Dahlheimer on bass, Chad Taylor on guitar, and Chad Gracey on drums) rocked New York City in the midst of a hurricane, Ed Kowalcyzk spoke candidly with me from his home in Los Angeles about what Live has accomplished musically on The Distance to Here . At the same time, he put the group’s career in perspective regarding their over-the-top success with the multi-platinum selling Throwing Copper , and reflected on the somewhat less than stellar reception given to 1997’s intensely personal Secret Samadhi . Because everything happens for a reason.
How were you first attracted to a spiritual path, and how did you begin to incorporate that into the music of Live?
Around the age of 18 or so, I started getting into all kinds of Eastern thought and spiritual teachings. I’ve really tried, in my lyrics over the years and especially on The Distance to Here , to keep that universal quality of my true feelings about these things on the forefront of what we’re doing.
Some people, if they aren’t fully spiritually aware, might hear some of your songs and think “Oh, Live are a Christian band.”
Oh, it’s weird, yeah. Actually, in our very first single that we put out (“Operation Spirit”) from Mental Jewelry , we’re pretty much full on questioning Christianity altogether. But because we said the word “Jesus,” it was immediately misunderstood as a fact that we were Christians, which was completely off the mark.
Do you find it difficult to talk about your own personal beliefs sometimes, especially to the media?
I’ve always had a pretty much open book policy about talking about these things, with my fans especially. I’m one of these guys who’s been going on this journey, or search, for a long, long time, and what I learned over the past couple of years is that there are things that I want to keep personal. Not because I don’t want people to know, but it’s a lesson that I learned, actually from the last record, because I was really open and up front. I want people to know, first and foremost, that the Live lyric is my own voice and is me. I think it’s so important at this moment in history that people begin to see the similarities between things rather than the differences, which have caused us so much trouble. That was a big goal: to make [the lyrics] universal and to have the whole world be able to hear these songs and find something in there for themselves, rather than having to look at the lyric through some other image in the picture, which is whatever I’m practicing at the time.
Would you say that you’re more interested in sharing the fundamental result of your experience rather than proselytizing?
Exactly. It’s been a process for me to realize over the years that what I’m most interested in as a lyricist is communicating fundamental emotion and humanity through my lyric. On The Distance to Here , I was really focused on wanting my lyrics to communicate as much of my message — which I feel is ultimately helpful and universal and uplifting — in a way that people from Sri Lanka, Australia, Chicago, Germany, can all get something from it. In a way, it was much more difficult for me to write the lyrics on this record because of that goal. There’s a part of me that’s been formed by a lot of other things, so dramatically that I worked real hard to keep the lyric really gritty and earthy and relatable to lots of people.
What your thoughts are on why, theoretically, Secret Samadhi failed to “go all the way” for you guys, and also what did the band gain from doing that record?
The use of the word “Samadhi” (a state of meditation), was something that was so personal — the word — to me, but it did in some sense distance [us] from a large portion of the population, that doesn’t necessarily know what that word means. The record was never designed, conceptually or in any facet, to be a Throwing Copper Part Two, which is what people wanted. It was really a record that we needed to make as a band at the time; that we felt we needed to do to grow as artists. I, personally, was kind of hiding for awhile from the “Man with the Message” persona that I had come into with Mental Jewelry and Throwing Copper . So, I think it was a growth record. It was a band searching to find a level of comfort in itself. In some ways now, in hindsight, maybe [it was] even a reaction to the disorienting process of fame and the pressures that came out of Throwing Copper .
How do you see The Distance to Here as compared to your previous records?
The Distance to Here is such an accomplishment for Live. It seems that we’ve been able to find a place in ourselves that is comfortable being Live and there’s a tremendous energy. At the same time, [there is] a tremendous peace and strength in the band right now. I think that the urgency of our earlier records is back, but with better songs. I think the better songs part comes from the fact that we did allow ourselves to experiment and grow on Secret Samadhi and to really push ourselves with songs like “Lakini’s Juice.” You have songs on The Distance to Here like “Where Fishes Go” and “Voodoo Lady” and “The Distance” which are really new for Live; totally different approaches to arrangement and style.
Continuing along with that, there are a lot of images of water on the record. What does that signify to you?
I think — with hindsight being 20/20 — I was going to such an elemental place emotionally that those metaphors — sun, water, desert, meltdown — just seemed to fit what I was feeling. Water in particular, for me, is such an amazing metaphor. It’s an amazing thing in itself, but also what it can symbolize, and what it does symbolize, is a limitless-ness. At the same time, there’s the power of purification. In “Where Fishes Go” [it represents] the darkness of the un-evolution of the sea and the fact that mankind has come out of the sea and evolved. Also, in “Feel the Quiet River Rage” which is much more about water as a metaphor for spirit — the spirit of creativity — it just seemed to be the multi-use symbol for all kinds of feelings that I was having. It seems to have worked well.
There are some new ideas and directions Live goes in with the instrumentation on the record as well. “Meltdown,” for example, has some killer Hendrix-style guitar work that I’ve never heard you guys pull off before.
Chad Taylor did some amazing work on this album. Both Chad and I, my brother, Adam, and a guy named Chris Thorn, who used to be in Blind Melon, we really collaborated on achieving the guitar depth that’s on the record. Chris Thorn played some amazing slide guitar on songs like “Face and Ghosts” and “Dance with You.” Adam actually helped me and played a lot of my rhythm guitar parts while I was focusing on the singing. And then Chad Taylor, of course you know, does the lead solo in “Meltdown” and also “Walk in the Dream.” We also collaborated on the song “Where Fishes Go,” which I think is an amazing guitar landscape: definitely some of the best work Chad’s ever done.
“Voodoo Lady” has a nice vibe to it. What inspired that song?
“Voodoo Lady” is really a dream lyric. It’s something that was totally inspired by a dream. Now that the record is on the “Analyst’s Chair” (laughs), I can say that lyric in particular, reminds me of some of the things Freud is famous for saying, like “We are everybody in our dreams,” that we are actually all the characters no matter who or what they are. It’s just our super-conscious mind playing a trick and trying to teach us a valuable lesson. I definitely feel that’s the case with “Voodoo Lady.” I realized that, when that song was being written, at least lyrically on my end, I was in a place where I was being totally over self-conscious about the record. [I was] concentrating on every single note in the song to such a degree that I was strangling myself. Chad sent me that really slinky guitar riff that starts it out and I just immediately, you know, [wrote the lyrics] “Light up a cigarette and calm the fuck down” (laughs). It just came out and I have the feeling that it had a lot to do with the fact that I needed to come down to earth again.
“Dance With You” is a pretty cool song, how was that written?
It was inspired by a trip that I took [with my wife] to Fiji, sort of a retreat/respite/adventure after Secret Samadhi . [It’s] just about an evening on the beach there. I think a lot of the romance on this record, which pokes it’s head on that song and the verses of “The Dolphin’s Cry” and also “Run to the Water,” would most obviously have to do with the fact that I’ve been married almost two years. That is totally new territory for Live, [although] we’ve touched on that a little bit here and there. People think “I, Alone” is a love song, [but] it really wasn’t. I think “Dance With You” would be our first, official…I hate the word “love” song, but let’s say an “Eros direction” song. That sort of love and intimacy, that’s definitely the first one. I wanted that song to end the record, because I think it ends with the essence of what my message is — and the message for Live — which is the line “I see a world where people live and die with grace/I see a sky full of the stars that change our minds.” I’m essentially an optimist. I’m a person that would choose hope in the face of all the calamity in the world and all the darkness or the pre-millennium tension. It really is, in a lot of ways, the closest I’ve come in my own songwriting, to a song like “Imagine.” If that is [the song] that people remember me for, or remember the record for, I’ll be very happy with that because I think it’s essentially a very beautiful song.
Backpedaling a bit, I mean, you wrote the song, but wouldn’t you guess that lots of fans would perceive “All Over You” as a love song, even though the lyrics are kind of harsh in parts?
Yeah, you know, I think a lot of songs in Live’s repertoire people have said, “Is this a love song? Is that a love song?” [Other songs] were approaching it, but I don’t think they ever fully developed into what they have become on The Distance to Here . If you consider that Live has had love songs, I think they are on this record. [Regarding] “All Over You” and “I, Alone,” the lyrics were more abstract and they were encompassing a much larger message. I’d never really fully allowed myself at those times to develop them as “love” songs. On this record, I definitely allowed myself to go to ground on that.
The cover art is really very elaborate, with the series of concentric mandalas and the Koi fish. How did you come up with that design?
I came up with the idea of a mandala for the cover a long time ago — probably a year or more — in the midst of making this record. I just felt like I wanted people to be drawn-in to the cover. The easiest way to do that was to make it circular and intense — to draw you in that way. That was the basic idea. Then I got into working with this designer named Stephen and he came back at me one day with this idea and another one, which was starker and much more austere. Well, we immediately gravitated towards the wilder floral, with the Koi fish, and were just totally blown away with it. The basic idea for a mandala and being lost in it with all kinds of crazy imagery was initially our idea and he just took it to a whole new level and totally blew us away.
The title The Distance to Here is a metaphor for…what?
When I wrote down The Distance to Here , it was quite off-the-cuff. I saw it and recognized something about it that I liked, which was that it had a Zen koan kind of thing…a “How far is the distance to here?” “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” kind of thing. In its own paradoxical way, [it] seemed to represent what I feel is the essence of the creative moment. You travel, you gain all these experiences and grow. But the best thing, and the only moment that we truly have, is the present. All the best songs, all the best moments of clarity, everything comes in the depth of our relationship with the present moment. As a songwriter, that was completely driven home to me with this record. I had to really surrender a lot into that process to make this record, so it seemed to be the perfect title. Also, on a much more surface sense, it represents what Live has been through over the last ten years. That this record does feel like we’ve come full circle in a way. Titles can be really weird (laughs), as I have experimented with and failed miserably at. So, I’m totally cool with the title.
A couple of years ago, right in the midst of Throwing Copper mania, Live were on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and the headline was something like “Live are the Biggest Band in the World!” Now, thinking back to when you guys are going through all that and you are so popular and everything is reaching critical mass, what was that like for you?
It’s funny, because I have that picture hanging downstairs in my studio in the hallway. If you look at the picture of us from that cover of Rolling Stone — I know in particular, the look on my face is sort of like I just was hit by a freight train. It’s happy, but it’s a little bit disoriented as well. I think disoriented would be a good adjective for Live in that six months of absolute insanity during Throwing Copper . It was sweet as anything, and we had just an amazing time playing to all the people that we played for and, obviously, having the record do so well. But it was also [during] six months into it and, I would say, the six to eight months to a year after, coming off the road, that was just the most amazingly, at times tumultuous sort of reorganizing of our goals and what kind of band we were going to be.
That’s why I think that Secret Samadhi was really a record that, the essence even of the title, is secret. Like we went to this secret place and made this weird little album that we really wanted to make and didn’t really care about commercial things all that much — we never did anyway. It feels like [with] The Distance to Here that we’re emerging out of a soup of learning, a soup of growth, and we’ve finally been able to assimilate all that experience in our lives, which was intense. I mean it’s an intense growth curve that you go through when your life changes that much. What I want people to know, first and foremost, is that 99% of it was absolutely awesome, totally a dream come true. But that one percent of just “What’s going on?” (laughs) was definitely a powerful force. It took awhile for us to come through it and I think we have.