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PopEntertainment.com > Feature Interviews - Music > Feature Interviews A to E > Blessid Union of Souls

 

Blessid Union of Souls

Still Believe In Love

by Jay S. Jacobs

 
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: January 4, 2009. 

In the mid-to-late 90s, Blessid Union of Souls shot out of the Cincinnati music scene to be one of the hottest rock bands in the nation.  Despite their highfalutin’ name the group was neither a soul band nor a religious one (the misspelling was intended to assure the correct pronunciation) – though they touched on both in their inspired gumbo of rock beats and genre-hopping sounds

The band was originally formed by a young African-American singer/songwriter named Eliot Sloan and a guitarist named Jeff Pence.  The two hooked up because both played in popular local cover bands, eventually getting friends and bandmates keyboardist C.P. Roth (who had previously played with Ozzy Osborne) and drummer Eddie Hedges to join on as the original lineup of the band

Though the idea of the overnight success is a cliché that never quite takes into mind all the work that it took to get where they were – the band itself was huge before its first album even hit the stores.  That’s because of the plaintive ballad “I Believe,” which became a local smash in Ohio before spreading world-wide and becoming on of the biggest hits of the year.

Despite bouncing back and forth between record labels – mostly due to label failures – Blessid Union kept climbing the charts for the rest of the decade, spawning hit singles like “Let Me Be the One,” “I Wanna Be There,” “Light in Your Eyes” and the name-dropping fave “Hey Leonardo! (She Likes Me For Me).”

However, after a 2001 greatest hits collection, the band faded from view, not releasing another album until the 2006 indie Perception.  Though they toured regularly, much of this low profile had to do with band member turnover.  In 1996, they added bassist Tony Clark.  Roth and Hedges left the band in 2002, to be replaced by longtime band sidemen Bryan Billhimer and Shaun Schaefer.  Then in the past few years, relations with fellow founding member/guitarist Jeff Pence soured and Pence also walked away from the band, though he has been trying to pass himself off as an alternate version of the group.

Therefore, it is a mostly new version of Blessid Union of Souls which recorded the new independently-released CD Close to the Edge.  Despite the different lineup, the finished product shows the same polished musicianship and mastery of rock beats and styles of the band’s classic platters.  This includes the folk-rock fun of “Could Have Been with You,” the sweet ballad “Healing,” the crunching rocker “A Thousand and One,” the country-tinged “If You Were Mine” and the show-stopper “I Still Believe in Love.”

Lead singer Eliot Sloan was nice enough to call us from his studio to discuss the band’s history and the new CD. 

How did you get involved in music? 

My mom had me in piano lessons since I was six years old.  It’s a good thing… It’s funny; she had me, my brother and two of my sisters every Saturday morning going over to Mr. McRae’s house and taking piano lessons.  I don’t even remember how it came about, it was just like one day she was like, “You’re taking piano lessons.”  It was like, uh, okay.  It wasn’t like “Do you want to take piano?”  It was “You are taking piano lessons.”  There was always a piano in the house.  It was like, sure, why not?  As years went by, one by one all my brothers and sisters, once they got to a certain age, my mother allowed them to go, “Okay, do you still want to take them or do you not want to take them?”  A couple of them hung around a little longer than others, but pretty much when everybody got like fourteen or fifteen, they just started dropping out.  I just stuck with it.  I was like, this is cool.  I don’t mind this.  I was kind of getting the hang of things.  But I never learned how to read music.  I knew what the notes were, but never knew how to sight read.  I would have my instructor play the song a couple of times and then I would play it back.  He was like, “That’s good and everything, but I’m trying to teach you notes.”  (laughs)  It ended up working out.  I stuck with it and when I got out of high school I got in my first band.  I was in a band in high school, but we didn’t really play much.  We tried out for a talent show that the school wouldn’t let us play at.  Funny, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Cincinnati, but there’s a school called The School of Creative Performing Arts – which probably most cities have.  I was like, all right, I’ll try that.  I’ll try to go to school there.  I didn’t even pass the audition.  They didn’t even accept me.  I think I was really nervous at the audition.  But it didn’t discourage me man.  When I got out of high school I got in this one band, we started playing around a lot… 

Was that the band you were in with Eddie Hedges before Blessid Union? 

Yeah.  The Movies. 

How did Blessid Union of Souls come about? 

Well, Eddie introduced me to Jeff [Pence], who had another cover band called Slam.  We used to play five-six nights a week, five sets a night, up and down the east coast.  We had a great time, man.  Jeff just said one day, “Hey, man, do you want to go into the studio and try to write some songs?  Try to record?”  I said sure.  Why not?

I read that the band’s name is a reference to the TV series M*A*S*H.  Is that true? 

Yeah, I got it off an episode of M*A*S*H.  I sure did.  I grew up watching it and then I stopped watching it for a while.  I remember seeing this one episode where Frank Burns was trying to make time with Hot Lips Houlihan.  He wanted to sleep in her tent that night, but he couldn’t because there was this lady Colonel who was at the 4077.  The only place that she could stay was in Margaret’s tent, because somebody was in the VIP tent for whatever reason.  And he’s like, “Margaret, is this the only place that she can stay?”  She goes, “It’s the only place in officer’s country.”  He goes, “But Margaret, I need our togetherness.  I need the blessed union of our souls.”  I was like: that’s pretty cool.  I don’t know why I remembered that, because it was like two years later before we actually formed the band.  It’s crazy.  I just remembered that.

In 1995, Home became a smash hit and “I Believe” was a top ten hit.  Even before the Home album came out, it was a big regional hit and spread around the country.  How surreal was it to suddenly be all over radio and television? 

Very.  Very.  Very surreal.  Especially because, knowing me and I’m just some kid from Pleasant Ridge who took piano lessons at six.  It was always a dream – man, one day it would be cool to hear one of our songs on the radio.  Every band thinks of that, you know what I mean?  To hear it on the radio once or twice.  (chuckles)  But as a result it ended up being the fourth most played song of that year, which was crazy.  Crazy, man. 

One thing I love about the band is that you mix in lots of styles – you have rock, soul, pop, folk, even a touch of country.  Are you looking to experiment with styles when you write a song or is it something that just comes naturally to you as a singer/songwriter? 

Well a little bit of both.  Everybody was coming from different backgrounds.  We were taking what everybody brought to the table and tried to make it sound like us.  Without moving it too much, let it be what it’s going to be.  Then put the production behind it that we were doing and see if it fit.  Some songs fit, some songs didn’t.  Some songs were too country, or too rock.  We had to reel them in a little bit, whatever.  But pretty much that’s all we did – especially those first couple of records, man. 

In “I Believe” you do a line about hoping your girlfriend’s father will see you as a person, not just as a black man.  There are certainly African-American rockers, like yourself, Lenny Kravitz, Living Colour, Hootie, Splender – but it seems most go into R&B/Hip Hop.  Have you found that kind of acceptance in the rock music scene in general?  

Yeah, I mean you know… somewhat.  Maybe I’m just blind, man; I honestly don’t think about it that much.  Sometimes I do, but it’s like we wrote the song and I sing the song.  Here we are.  You know what I mean?  It is what it is. 

Good, I’m glad to hear it hasn’t been a problem for you… 

I don’t think so.  I don’t think it really has been.  I’m not trying to be anybody I’m not.  I like R&B, but I never saw myself as an R&B singer.  Growing up, it seemed like every R&B song was all about making love to some chick.  I wanted to write a little deeper than that.  (sings) “‘I wanna make love to you, baby!”  It’s just like every song.  (laughs)  Don’t get me wrong, I love R&B.  There is a lot of great R&B stuff.  It’s not all like that.  But, you know, I grew up listening to Led Zepplin, man.  And Queen.  Pink Floyd.  Elton John.  For some reason, most of the artists I listened to were white.  It’s just what I liked.  I think it was because of my brother, my cousins.  They were all into Black Sabbath.  Blue Oyster Cult.  Stuff like that.  That’s just what I listened to.  What I like.  I remember the first rap song I ever heard was what a lot of people consider the first rap song ever – “Rapper’s Delight” [by The Sugarhill Gang].  I despised it.  I’d actually get angry when I’d hear that.  (laughs)  This is crap!  I have much more respect for rap music now, because it’s a way of life now.  It’s not just a music or a genre. 

You just mentioned wanting to write about more serious subjects.  I know the band is not a religious band per se, but I did notice that on Close to the Edge, a few of the songs discussed God and praying.  Do you see this album as a spiritual album? 

Yes.  Well, not only this one, even the first one.  On the first line of our whole career is “Walk blindly to the light, reach out for his hand.”  A lot of our songs have spiritual undertones, which I love.  I love singing about God.  I believe in God.  I have no qualms about standing up for what I believe in, whatever the consequences are.  So, yeah, I love writing about that.  Our old producer [Emosia], who co-wrote a lot of the songs felt the same way.  Not trying to pour it on people, but that’s just what came out.  That’s the thing about this band – we’ve always just wrote what came out.  We didn’t listen to the radio and go “Let’s write a song like that!  Let’s write a song like this.”  We just went in, we wrote and whatever came out came out.  That’s what came out. 

“I Still Believe in Love” is a really beautiful song.  Were you trying to revisit some of the ideas of the old single “I Believe” looking at them from where you are in life now? 

I guess.  Not intentionally.  That melody was in my head for like two years before I finally decided to write it.  I guess because part of me was thinking – man I don’t want people to believe I’m rewriting “I Believe,” but I couldn’t call it anything else, you know what I mean?  (laughs)  I was just like… I’m going to quit fighting it.  Just write the song and let it be what it is.  I think that’s a great anthem.  That’s one of my favorite songs, right there. 

Why did you decide to release Close To the Edge as an indie? 

The situation was where we’d been through a bunch of labels – like six or seven record labels.  I don’t know, we’d love to be on a major label that believed in us again, you know what I’m saying?  Every band wants to be on a major label behind it.  It’s just not the reality anymore.  So, instead of waiting around for that, we’ve got to try to create something ourselves. 

I believe “Could’ve Been with You” is the single from the album.  It’s a really terrific song that I think could get some airplay if it gets noticed.  How are you working to get it in front of people than in the old days with the studio machine behind you? 

We ended up releasing that song to radio.  We got some decent airplay through an independent radio promotion company we went through.  At the same time, we kind of went through some of the same problems of not having a ton of money and a ton of promotion behind it.  I’m a realist.  I believe that the song stands up on its own, but, you know, promotion costs money.  (laughs)  There wasn’t a whole lot of money behind that single, so it didn’t get the airplay that we all wanted it to get.  It’s just the reality of things, man.  It kind of sucks, but… 

Today, there are so many other outlets for music beyond just the radio – the internet, television, ads and the movies.  Do you think this opens things up for an artist to get more notice? 

It does, absolutely it does.  But even online, they have to know it is there.  So we spend a lot of time on MySpace and the internet and trying to get to as many people as we possibly can.  That’s why we love to play live, too.  That’s one of the things we’ve always loved to do.  If that’s the way that we have to get it to people, then that’s what we’re doing. 

I really like you older single “Hey Leonardo!”  Was it fun writing a song with all those topical references?  Now when you do it live: do you update the references or stay with the original ones? 

(laughs)  No, you know why?  We did a live version of that and it turned out great.  It was crazy, because at the breakdown towards the end we’re talking about – like when I sing about Pavarotti, the audience, to hear 30,000 people sing that along with you is like… you know, I’m probably not going to end up, you know, part of me thinks it might be a little corny to try and change the names.  I never even really thought about it.  We always just sing the song as is, because that’s what people expect.   But, I don’t know, maybe every now and then we’ll switch around – throw a couple of new names in there or something. 

After years of recording, you had several years where you did not record.  Why did you take so long and what was it like getting back in the studio? 

Well, going through different management companies and record labels, it kind of took a while to put together another record and at least get to the point where we felt like we had a good group of people to help promote it.  I’ve never really been out of the studio.  I’m always recording.  In fact, I’m doing a session right now downstairs in my studio.  I’m always writing and I’m always recording.  We’ve got two new band members, from a couple of guys that left like in ’02.  So, it was new and exciting to do a new record with those guys.  So, it never really gets old. 

When I first started researching for this interview, I googled the band’s name and one of the first things that came up was a band homepage, and yet I was thinking that doesn’t look like them.  It turns out that your co-founder Jeff Pence's homepage. Is he no longer with the band and touring under the name as well? 

Yeah.  I’ll tell you what; delete that from your favorites, okay?  The guy left the band on very bad terms… on his terms.  I could go into detail, man.  He said some really awful things about us.  He left the band on his own accord.  He didn’t participate in our last record Perceptions, or Close to the Edge.  To me, I equate it to building a house together, then he leaves and he’s throwing stones at it.  It’s not cool.  It’s totally not cool what he’s trying to do.  Nobody’s taking him seriously at all.  It’s kind of a joke. 

I did notice, when I first looked at it – before I realized what the deal was – beyond the fact that I didn’t recognize anyone in the pictures, it said stuff like “Hire Blessid Union of Souls” and I’m thinking, that doesn’t sound right for a band’s website…. 

Yeah.  Hire them.  Exactly.  Something that a real band wouldn’t put on there.  A real band wouldn’t go “Hi, I’m Eliot Sloan, the President of Blessid Union of Souls.”  (laughs)  Are you kidding me?  Whatever, man.  It’s a joke.  It’s a bad joke.  He’s a punchline.  We’ve just moved on without him.  Nobody fired him from the band.  He didn’t even tell anybody he quit.  He just didn’t show up to a gig and he hasn’t showed up in the last two years. 

You just mentioned the album Perception.  I haven’t seen it, but I hear that several of the songs on there reappear on the current CD.  Why did you want to revisit these songs? 

Yes.  We just didn’t want some of those songs to go to waste.  “I Still Believe in Love” and “Could Have Been with You” were on that record.  I was like, man, these songs never got the release to have a shot at radio.  So we did four new songs.  We did a new mix of “Could Have Been with You” that sounds a lot better than the original version.  Only a handful of people even knew about it, so we were just like, “Let’s keep some of these songs and record four or five new songs on the record.”  We told everybody.  We didn’t try to hide the fact that some of these songs were already released.  We immediately let everybody know some of the songs are from Perception and there are some new ones.  A few real hardcore fans knew that it was from Perception.  But for the most part, most everybody else thought it was brand new. 

Obviously “Back from the Dead” is not about the band and the music industry specifically, but did the idea of returning to the recording scene influence it? 

Well, honestly it didn’t really have anything to do with that at all.  It’s a song about recovery.  It’s actually a song about my bass player [Tony Clark] recovering from alcoholism.  That’s pretty much where that song came from.  We were sitting in a hotel one night – up to three/four/five in the morning – just talking about his struggles with it, which I knew about, because I’ve been in a band with him the past thirteen years.  The only reason I even talk about it is because he told me it’s cool to go ahead and tell people what the song is really about.  Other than that I would have kept it really private.  But it’s something he struggled with.  The song is about any and everybody that has struggled with any kind of addiction.  There’s hope.  The band and our songs – our main theme has been hope. 

Yes, that’s something I always liked about your band.  So often rock bands have a tendency to wallow in the dark side of things…  Why does that interest you as a songwriter? 

You know what, that’s just something that comes out of me, man.  That’s just me.  With the state of the world today, man, I think that’s one thing that we need.  (chuckles)  Hope.  It really is.  Look around.  I’m sure you hear stuff every single day.  A lot of people feel like things are hopeless.  A song like “Back from the Dead” just lets you know – hey, whatever it is you’re going through, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  For me personally, I believe in God and I believe that God is the way to better things in life.  To better yourself as a person.  As far as Tony’s concerned, him getting into recovery and he plays in this band in church.  Specifically, that’s what helped bring him quote-unquote “back from the dead.” 

In the end, how would you like for people to see your music? 

Hopeful.  Positive.  For people to hear our music and go, “Wow, there is optimism.”  One of the best complements that we get through email and fan letters and stuff like that is how our music has been an anthem to a lot of the things that people go through.  When people listen to our music I want our music to remind them of a time of their life – like “Oh, wow, I remember when I was going through this.  This was the music that helped me get through.”  I know when I listen to music that I grew up with, that’s what I think of.  Oh, wow, man, I remember those days.  That’s another thing a lot of people tell us.  They remember what they were going through.  They remember where they were at when they first heard “I Believe” and “Let Me Be the One” and “Light in Your Eyes.”  “I Wanna Be There.”  All the singles that we had out before.  I just want people to look back and go, “Wow, they put out some good music.”  Nothing more and nothing less.  “They put out some good music.  Good positive music.”  I don’t know, without even really getting into the music business, trying to have any kind of legacy or whatever – if I’m going to have one, I want it to be a positive one. 

Are there any misconceptions you would like to clear up? 

Misconceptions?  (laughs)  Well early on, I don’t know why, people were comparing us to Hootie and the Blowfish.  I guess because the lead singer was black, I don’t know….  But, there were some similarities in the fact that some of their songs and our songs – but we have so many songs that have strings and big stuff like that, so I don’t know.  And I love those guys, you know?  I’d love to do a big tour with them.  Other than that, no.  Not really, not really.  A couple of articles had us compared to other bands – like vocal groups or whatever.  I guess because when “I Believe” came out that was all they had to go on. 

They think because it’s a ballad, that’s all you do… 

Yeah, exactly.  That was the good and bad thing about coming out with a song like that, you know?  I don’t know, maybe that’s what they expect every single time we put out a single, but the band kind of rocks out on stage.  I think a lot of times we surprise a lot of people on stage.  That’s always what we’ve loved to do.  Live on stage, turning the guitars up, but when it’s time for the ballads, we treat them with the same respect as we do with the other songs.

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Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: January 4, 2009. 

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Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: January 4, 2009.