Interview

Josh Hoyer Hands Us His Heart

If James Brown and Otis Redding had a love child, it would be Josh Hoyer. The Lincoln, Nebraska, soul shouter, and his band of merry soulsters, Soul Colossal, deliver a sound so big, so funky, so wring-the-sweat-out-of-you energetic that it reaches through the speakers and shakes you until you start moving to its groove. Hoyer's purring growl wends its way into your heart and soul; it's equal parts Brown, Redding, Al Green, and Marvin Gaye, with a touch of Van Morrison's scat singing, mesmerizing in its powerful ability to turn words and phrases in and around themselves. Raw, gritty, fiery — fist-in-glove beautiful — Hoyer's lyrics zero in on political deception, love gone wrong and love made right, the hope of unity in spite of the discord all around us, and the struggle we all face of living moment-to-moment, especially in the hardest of times.

On Cooked Raw, Hoyer assembles some of the finest soul musicians around to give us an album that would have been at home at Stax or Muscle Shoals in the late 1960s. Drummer Memphis Shepherd and bassist Josh Barger provide the funky, thumping rhythms under and around which guitarist Benjamin Kushner, trombonist Marcus Lewis, saxophonist Mike Dee, and Hoyer weave raucous lead breaks and hard-hitting horns.

"Make Time for Love," for example, recalls Sly and the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music," and Hoyer punctuates the song with his scat vocals. The song starts with a cool Memphis guitar lick, adds some horns, and then Hoyer comes in on the piano to stir the mix, as the singer pleads with his woman to "make some time for love." Apparently they've neglected it in their hectic lives. ("Too much rushin' … too much of you walkin' in when I'm walkin' out.")

"Living by the Minute" recalls Stevie Wonder's "Living in the City," but Hoyer's song opens with a blues wail that sets the tone for the funked up ballad about the difficulties of trying to make life and love work when you're just getting by, even though just getting by contains within it a seed of hope that you'll eventually "climb to the top of the mount."

"Blood and Bone," meanwhile, features an Average White Band-like funk groove, punctuated by forceful horns and Hoyer's best soul shouts. It's a propulsive tune that makes palpable the rhythms of the street, underscoring the unity of community — "the people got soul," he sings — even a physical unity that can also play itself out in discord.

Hoyer told me that his goal each night is to "get everyone dancing and maybe just for an evening forget about their troubles." Every time he plays a show he tells the audience, "Here's my heart; take it."

On his new album, Hoyer gives us his heart, and by the time we've finished dancing to these songs, we've been embraced by his soul, and he's helped us forget out troubles. We're also sweating so much that we feel cooked raw, just like the emotions he spills out of the grooves on the record.

I caught up with Hoyer by phone recently and talked to him about his new album and his music.

Henry Carrigan: What's the story behind this album?

Josh Hoyer: I've recorded two albums. Ken Coomer called me and said he loved our sound and wanted to make a record with this band. I thought, "Man, I can't turn this down this chance to work with such a world-class producer, but we had already booked time at Welcome to 1979 studio in Nashville. I knew they had this great equipment and that we should take advantage of it and record an album there that would capture the energy of our live performances. We found that our first two records didn't capture the energy and magic of our live shows. Playing live is where we thrive the most, and at Welcome to 1979 we recorded live, mixed live, and cut direct to vinyl. The first couple of times we were playing through the songs we hadn't found our groove, but by the third take, we hit our stride and played each side of the album straight through to the disc. There's nothing on this album but the raw sound of Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal as you'd hear it if you saw us live.

How did you select the songs for the album?

I wanted to put our funky and aggressive tunes on it; wanted to have a nice funky, in-your-face sound. I wanted our sound to be real on the record. This process sort of set us up for the next album as well.

When did you start playing and singing?

My folks put me in a talent show when I was four; they had me sing John Cougar Mellencamp's "Hurt So Bad". (Laughs) Apparently, I would sing around the house all the time. My first instrument was the sax, in fifth grade, but I didn't stay with it. I tried piano and got bored with lessons, so I gave those up. Around 2000, I picked up piano again. I was playing with some guys, and I wanted to express myself. I wanted play what I wanted to hear. I was into jazz and jam bands at the time. I play my own way; a friend of mine says I play chicken scratch style. (Laughs) Music is always what's made sense to me. I never felt at home with anything else than this.

Who are your three greatest musical influences?

James Brown: He's just the king of nasty. He knows how to put the pieces together, and he was able to guide his players into putting down the groove; he was a great bandleader, you know.  I have such great players in my band, and I can just say "play what you feel," and it comes out great. James Brown; he's the king of funk. Curtis Mayfield.

Early or late Mayfield?

Well, a little of both. The late Mayfield has this great social message. But through all of his music, he's built on love, and he expresses that love. If you're down and facing some odds, you can put on his records; his music has such a spontaneity to it, blending funk, R&B, and soul, and a sweetness that embraces you when it comes through the speakers and brings you to tears.

Anyone else?

Otis Redding, man. Such pure, raw emotion, and a lot of fire. I learned from him that you leave it all on the bandstand.

Tell me about your approach to songwriting.

Every song is different. Sometimes it starts with the hook; sometimes it starts with a groove or a beat. I'm just real patient with a song. If you are, then the song kind of writes itself. I'll sit on a song for two years if I don't feel like it's right; then I might come back to it, and I write it. You have to write from your life.

What are the elements of a great song?

The performance of a song is so often what makes it great. There has to be a level of conviction to what you're singing. If you've heard the same phrase 100 times, and the singer's not singing it with conviction, it's not going to cut it. That’s why sometimes you can hear someone do a cover song that's 10 times better than the original; it has authenticity. As a musician, if you're playing the same song for five years and it still feel fresh, then it's a great song.

How have you evolved as a musician?

I think I'm learning how to use the orchestration of a big band better. There are so many colors; I'm learning how to use these textures. I'm also learning how to trust my fellow musicians more.

What's next for you?

Finish out the scheduled tours for the rest of this year. Our new studio album, Running from Love, produced by Ken Coomer, comes in spring 2016. When this tour is over, though, I want to hug my kids like crazy, and be with my wife. I'm also looking forward to connecting with more people next year. Man, I want to be a part of the voice of reason in my music. I feel like our music fits well in this moment. We're seeing a kind of resurgence of music that has more meaning and that has a popular audience — look at what Jason Isbell's doing — and I'm really looking forward to getting our music out to more people.