Live's Ed Kowalczyk Talks Upcoming Tour: 'We Have a Much More Open Mind About How to Be a Band Now'

Eric Forberger


Singer reunited with band in 2016 after seven-year split

During the ’90s, York, Pa.’s Live was an undisputed leader of alternative rock radio. The quartet scored eight top 10 hits on Billboard’s Alternative Songs and Mainstream Rock Songs charts during that decade. The ever-present airtime of four such tracks -- “Selling the Drama,” “I Alone,” “Lightning Crashes” and “All Over You” -- fueled the sales juggernaut of Live’s 1994 album Throwing Copper, which the RIAA has certified eight-times platinum. In all, the band has sold 10.6 million albums in the United States since 1991, according to Nielsen Music.

While Live has remained active (releasing its eighth studio album, The Turn, in 2014), it experienced major upheaval when a 2009 hiatus turned into a split between singer Ed Kowalczyk and guitarist Chad Taylor, bassist Patrick Dahlhemier and drummer Chad Gracey. According to Rolling Stone, the trio filed a 2010 breach-of-contract suit against Kowalczyk regarding a publishing deal he had entered. The threesome sued him again in 2012 for trademark infringement due to billing himself as “Ed Kowalczyk of Live” when he performed solo dates, and he countersued. Live continued with former Unified Theory singer Chris Shinn (he handled vocals on The Turn), but eventually resolved its differences with Kowalczyk, who returned in 2016 and did a surprise New Year’s Eve show in York.

Live is solidifying the reunion with a festival tour that begins May 19 at Rock on the Range in Columbus, Ohio. It’s also joining the bills like MMR*B*Q (May 20; Camden, N.J.), Pinkpop Festival (June 5; Landgraaf, the Netherlands) and Lollapalooza (Aug. 5, Chicago). Speaking by phone with Billboard, Kowalczyk says more dates are to be announced. “At the end of the day, we’ll do somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 festival performances in the States this year,” he predicts, with an eye toward Live doing a headlining run in 2018.

“We all have a much more open mind and heart about how to be a band now, personally artistically, psychologically -- all those things that we learned, I think, we all benefit a lot as we move into it,” says Kowalczyk of the current chemistry among the original foursome. He also discussed new music that Live is putting together, the emotional resonance he still experiences when performing material like “Lightning Crashes” and how more solo dates are possible in his future.

The Rock on the Range festival is marketed as a metal/hard-rock fest. Soundgarden, The Offspring, Primus and Chevelle are on deck for this year, but it was a little surprising to see Live on a lineup that leans metal.

Depending on when you found out about the band or what we were promoting at the time, you might get a song that was heavy, like “I Alone,” or even “Dolphin’s Cry,” which was a little heavier. But then there were songs like “Overcome,” “Lightning Crashes” and “Heaven,” which is a completely different radio format, but also a really popular song. I think it’s a testament to the band in how diverse the appeal has been, a lot of the songs in the range of the places they’ve been played and people that we’ve touched. It’s great, because we can formulate a set with “I Alone,” “Lakini’s Juice,” a bunch of songs from Throwing Copper and maybe heavier new songs, and jump on a stage like Rock on the Range and it makes sense. At the same time, when we play in Holland, we may play “Overcome” and “They Stood Up for Love” and these songs that are much more low key and midtempo, almost ballad-like. We could do half the show of that, and those would be popular songs in that market.

Throwing Copper turned 23 this month, and Mental Jewelry is turning 26 in December. Might the band do a suite from those albums?

What we’re planning to do as the earliest albums start to come into these 20-year anniversaries is we are looking to figure out ways to celebrate those things without obscuring too much of the excitement about where we’re at now and the fact that we had this break and we’re back and we’re making new music. I don’t know if we’ll get to a full celebration tour of any particular album from the ’90s at this point, but we are aware of the occasions, and they’re important and they’re definitely important to the fans. We’re talking about doing a special vinyl release for Mental Jewelry and maybe pull a few songs from the show from that album that we haven’t done before or haven’t done for a really long time. So we’re aware of it, but I don’t think we’re going to be, “OK, this whole year is going to be about Mental Jewelry and Secret Samadhi.”

When you’re performing material from those two albums, do the music and lyrics resonate with you the same way as when you wrote them, or do some of the songs hit you in a different way now?

You know, they do, surprisingly. I hear this from fans, too, which really makes me feel good, is that just the way that I approached the lyrics in “Lightning Crashes,” leaves it sort of open-ended. It’s a feel-good song, it’s an open-ended song about the circle of life. It’s a sort of montage of meanings throughout the whole song that I really never put a period on. I never really got too specific about what I thought it was about. I left it really open. What it’s been able to do — and a lot my lyrics, I would say most of them, in that sense, were written with that approach, which you can never imagine at 22 you’re going to be talking about these songs in 20 years — that people have said, “Wow, songs like ‘Lightning Crashes’ actually mean more to me now. It’s not something I had to throw away because I go, “Oh, I’m not that person anymore that I was in the ’90s.” It’s been the opposite that these songs and the lyrics have really aged well in that sense of they’re still finding an incredible impact with the fans.

What do you think it is about “Lightning Crashes” that connected so well with such a large audience? There were several hits on Throwing Copper, but was the one that tipped things for the band.

It’s a strange song in terms of a single. I was told by the record company that it would never be a single, even though I said I really liked the song. When I heard the final mixes, “I have a feeling this is the one that people will really find out about the band if it can ever be released.” The record company said, “No way. It’s five-and-half minutes long. It takes a minute to get to the chorus. There aren’t even any drums in it for two minutes. Are you nuts?” But I always felt there was a contemplative feeling to the song. It doesn’t really compromise in that sense in terms of the way that we arranged it. It starts out really intimate and goes into this big band thing at the end … The fact that modern rock radio at the time was more eclectic, more willing to take a chance on a five-and-half-minute song from a band from York, Pennsylvania, is just pretty cool.

What was the moment when you realized that Throwing Copper had really broken the band wide open? It went eight times platinum.

I think just the entire year of 1995. We had literally started playing clubs like the TLA in Philly on the first tour for that album and finished the tour at the old Spectrum arena in Philadelphia. It was literally a year between those shows, so what a year. You go from a small-town band to these amazing, huge venues and also along the way figuring out how to play those venues, how to take this music and make it work in those big spaces. We had a lot to learn. It was a really exciting time, though.

Live has been active for more than 30 years at this point. A press release mentioned that this is the first time in the band’s career that you don’t have a record company pushing you for product. Are you free agents?

Oh, yes. At this point, we are just working on the music with really no pressure for a release. That was by design as we started to get those wheels turning. The last thing we wanted to do was put any kind of pressure on ourselves. Not to say there won’t be a record company involved at some point or some kind of licensing situation when we do have new music. As of now, we’re sort of taking it as it goes, which is really refreshing.

What led to the band taking a hiatus that turned into a split?

Up until 2009, we had been a band professionally for a solid 20 years. Before that, having grown up together and having started the band 10 years prior to that, we had come to the point where I think we were all feeling like, “Time to do something different,” and I was definitely feeling that way as a writer. As a performer, I wanted to try doing acoustic shows, going out, reconnecting with that. So there was an agreement in the beginning to have it be a multiyear, like a two-year hiatus. Of course, as history unfolded, it became more of a longer hiatus. (Laughs.) We had a breakup for about seven years.

We started talking about getting the band back together a year-and-a-half ago as things settled down in the sense of time had begun to kind of heal it and at least to allow the good times and the good years to re-emerge. It’s like, “Hey, man, we’ve got something really special here.” And we missed each other. We just missed the process that we all did it together, and I think that in some strange way we’re more excited because of the things that have happened we have a spark and an excitement and a freshness now that we might not have had had it been just a normal break for a couple years. The fact that it was a lot longer than anybody planned, it sucked while it was happening and it was challenging, but as it all came around, it’s pretty crazy that we all feel the extra level of excitement that we wouldn’t have.

Although you have reunited with the band, do you think you might revisit playing solo?

I think so. We all figured out during the break that the guys did a band called The Gracious Few. They had a side thing going there for a while. I had the acoustic side if what I had developed into this amazing experience of varying lineups and going all over the world and not being stuck in playing certain of venues but playing all types of venues from listening rooms to Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, incredible places where orchestras played. I was really having a blast of doing that, because it was just so spontaneous and different compared to the venues and more typical places I was used to performing, especially with Live. We all learned through the break, “Wow, that’s really important. We need to do that again.” [But] as of now, we’re hyper-focused on [Live].

What would you say the new music that the band is working on sounds like?

We haven’t reinvented the wheel, that’s for sure. I think we got back together and we thought, “When the four of us play, it could be any song or any idea; it just sounds like us.” I think we forgot that in a way over the break, and it was great to feel that again — not just what we can do in terms of talent, but also the little things we’re not great at, all kind make it Live. It makes it our really unique thing, our unique stamp. We’ve just been having fun with that again and not overthinking it. I think the M.O. that we took early on is just to have fun. But we’re also experimenting. Live has always created the music in two ways. I would bring fully fleshed-out songs like “Lightning Crashes” or “I Alone,” sit on a guitar, “Hey, check out this song. Let’s arrange it as a band.” Then we also had the jam band [where] everyone throws into the pot of ideas, songs like “Lakini’s Juice” were written in that way. So we’re doing more of that as a band, simply because that feels right and we’re really enjoying that again.