The often spiritual, always intelligent music of Live would seem to be the antithesis of Limp Bizkit’s frat-boy-gone-bad aggression, but Live front man Ed Kowalcyzk remembers the night he had an epiphany.
“We were in some college town last Spring, and we were just giving it pure hell in a bar after the show,” Kowalcyzk says. “We were drenched in sweat dancing with people who had been at the show and Limp Bizkit came on [the jukebox] for like three songs, and I finally sort of got it. I got how much fun it was, and the energy of it. I basically said to myself, ‘I want to come to this party.’ There’s this element of Live that I think no one has ever heard before, a sense of humor, a sort of intensity that I know hasn’t necessarily been totally captured on record.”
So it should come as no surprise that Live’s new album “V” (due Sept. 18 via Radioactive/MCA), is the group’s most musically aggressive in its 15-year history. While Live’s music and lyrics have always had a full-throttled intensity, “V” has a raw, driving spirit that the band’s previous recordings have lacked.
“They’ve become more rock,” says MCA Records president Jay Boberg. “The album’s a little younger in its sound. The band members are still in their late 20s; they’ve been around so long that people don’t realize they’re younger than [some of the members of] Limp Bizkit or No Doubt. Internally, we’re tired of hearing that they’re kind of a dinosaur rock band. We’re like, ‘No, they’re not.'”
The album’s loose-limbed feel is due in part to the band’s decision to enjoy the fame it has achieved rather than to view it as a burden. “[It’s about] being the center of a party every night and sort of embracing that for the first time in that way,” Kowalcyzk says. “Basically, we’re just going for it on- and offstage.”
The songs for “V” flowed from Kowalcyzk at an alarming pace while on tour to support Live’s 1999 release, “The Distance to Here.” “I’d written on the road before but never to that that degree,” he says. “I was on such a roll writing ‘The Distance to Here,’ I remember when we started the promotion process, I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to stop writing.’ I just said, ‘Screw it, I’m going to keep going.’ This was written in tour buses, bathrooms, dressing rooms, everywhere.”
While Kowalcyzk has always been the band’s primary writer, the group’s other members — guitarist Chad Taylor, bassist Patrick Dahlheimer, and drummer Chad Gracey — usually received credit for penning some music. This time, Kowalczyk wrote solo, with the exception of “Forever May Not Be Enough,” written by Kowalcyzk and Glen Ballard for the movie “The Mummy Returns.”
“They saw that I was not stopping for anything or anybody with the writing process,” Kowalczyk says. “They just gave me the green light and said, ‘You’re nailing these. Let’s go.’ There wasn’t really any drama at all.”
His prolificacy amazed even the label. “It wasn’t like he demoed 20 songs and sent them in,” says MCA A&R consultant Phil Schuster, who brought the band to the attention of Radioactive founder Gary Kurfirst more than a decade ago. “It was more that Ed wrote in such a manner that the songs were just pouring out of him. We spent a lot of time making records in the past. There was nothing wrong with that, but you can definitely hear the sharper edges here.”
The body of the album was recorded in three weeks at the Los Angeles home of “V” co-producer Alain Johannes (Eleven, Chris Cornell). The band and its touring keyboardist Michael Railo also co-produced.
Of first single “Simple Creed,” Kowalcyzk says, “There’s definitely a subtle message about gun violence and a subtle rant about really gratuitous violent lyrics. I was in a bad crowd when I was between 13 and 15; I did more drugs and more wild shit than I did when I was a rock star. So I know where kids take the darker side of pop culture. ‘Simple Creed’ is almost paradoxical: It’s probably our most aggressive song ever, but it’s got this message — it’s all about demonstrating that you can be a bad-ass and inform the world with a positive message and nobody’s going to say you’re wimping out. It doesn’t have to be Up With People.”
The song includes a rap by Tricky, whom Kowalcyzk met through their shared management company. Kowalcyzk returns the favor by singing on “Evolution Revolution Love,” the first single on Tricky’s new Hollywood Records album, “Blowback.”
As self-effacing as the members of Live can seem offstage, the band, which has sold 17 million albums worldwide, according to MCA, has no desire to be anything other than one of the biggest bands ever. In the song “People Like You,” Kowalcyzk sings of a dream where he’s onstage with rock icons Springsteen, Bono, Queen, Elton John, and Michael Stipe. Live is also name-checked in the song’s list of rock heroes.
“Yeah, I’m putting us right there, goddammit,” says Kowalcyzk with a slightly embarrassed laugh. “I’m not holding back now. Hell, I’m ready to take over, even if it is just a dream forever. I think the song captures the essence of Live. When you start a band and you’re 14 years old, like we were, there ain’t nothing but a dream because you aren’t selling any records, you’re making no money. The song is a message to ourselves.”
Live’s dream began its ascent when its members came together as teenagers in York, Pa. Kowalcyzk and Taylor met in kindergarten; they met their bandmates in grade school. First appearing as Public Affection, the group released its 1989 debut, “The Death of a Dictionary,” on its own label, Action Front Records. Much of Live’s time was spent showcasing — and being rejected — for labels along the East Coast.
“When we showcased for Gary and Radioactive in 1989 or 1990 at CBGB, we couldn’t get arrested. We were going to go back to work washing dishes,” Kowalcyzk recalls. “Gary came backstage in this flannel shirt and he was like, ‘You want to go make a record?’ and we were like, ‘Yes! Are you kidding?'”
The band, which changed its name to Live after signing with Radioactive/MCA, released its first album, “Mental Jewelry,” for the label in 1992. Yet it wasn’t until 1994’s “Throwing Copper” that it found mass appeal. That album, which hit No. 1 on The Billboard 200 exactly a year after its release, has sold more than 5.5 million copies in the U.S., according to SoundScan, and spawned some of the group’s best-known songs, including “I Alone,” “Lightning Crashes,” and “Selling the Drama.”
The next album, 1997’s mystical “Secret Samadhi,” debuted at No.1 on The Billboard 200, but its messages were perhaps too elliptical for much of Live’s audience and the band got tagged as “monkish meditators,” Kowalcyzk says. The title has sold 1.5 million copies in the U.S., according to SoundScan. In 1999, Live returned with a less obtuse album, “The Distance to Here,” which was followed by 14 months of touring, including a co-headlining outing with Counting Crows last fall. Distance has sold 1 million units in the U.S.
While the band’s lineup has remained constant, much has changed for Live since that last album. Although “V” bears the Radioactive logo, the MCA joint venture now exists in name only. Label founder Kurfirst is now the group’s manager. That change came following the 1999 deaths of Jonas Livingston, who had overseen the band’s creative direction at MCA, and of co-manager (with Dave Sestak) Peter Freedman.
“We lost these two incredible beings in the space of a month and a half,” Kowalczyk says, shaking his head in disbelief. “I was so grateful to be able to get onstage and pour that emotion into songs that really captures it, like ‘Lightning Crashes.’ It gave all these songs a kick in the ass.”
On the new album, Kowalcyzk says “Overcome,” an elegant ballad about surrendering, was inspired by the losses.
Promotion for “V” began this summer with Live playing a handful of radio shows in preparation for the delivery of “Simple Creed” to radio July 23. The song’s videoclip is included on the album, an enhanced CD. Original orders will also include a remixed version of album track “Deep Enough,” which appears in the movie “The Fast & the Furious.” A video for “Forever May Not Be Long Enough” will be featured on the DVD Video for “The Mummy Returns,” slated for an Oct. 2 release.
Noted for its strong live shows, the group kicks off a European tour in October. It will tour the States starting in November.
“These guys were the real deal before the era of radio being about songs instead of about bands,” says promoter Seth Hurwitz, who owns Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club. Live played a surprise show at the venue May 27, following its appearance at modern rock outlet WHFS’ annual summer concert, the HFStival. “But what’s more interesting is that their crowd is as young as it’s ever been. They play the older stuff, and these kids know it.”
While the market is more receptive to rock acts than it was when Live’s last album came out, the band is not a shoo-in at retail, says John Artale, buyer for Carnegie, Pa.-based National Record Mart. “Live isn’t trendy like Staind, so they can’t expect instant sales. Like every rock act, they have to re-establish themselves with every record.”
The band is happy to oblige, Kowalcyzk says. More than 10 years after Live made its major-label debut, the business may have changed, but Kowalcyzk insists that in many ways the song remains the same.
“People are in pain and they feel good when they listen to our music,” he says. “They associate that goodness with something that we must have that they don’t have. But what you’re feeling is your true self in our music. It’s not something we have that you don’t have, it’s something we share.”