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Enjoy the Balance: Collective Soul's Will Turpin Shines on 'Serengeti Drivers'

Tuesday, 05 June 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

Every now and then an album arrives from out of nowhere and instantly brightens up your day. Like rays of sunshine breaking through the clouds, ‘Serengeti Drivers’ – the debut solo album from Collective Soul bassist Will Turpin – is quite simply an unexpected treat. Bursting to the brim with a melodious mix of pop, rock, Americana, funk, soul and AOR, it’s the kind of record summer was invented for.

British music lovers, and even fans of the band on these shores, may be unaware just how big Collective Soul were in the ‘90s. As the missing link between the grunge era and mainstream alt-rock bands who followed, the Atlanta outfit were a hit-making machine across the pond. All four of their albums released during the decade went platinum (sometimes multiple times), while they were also radio darlings.

A founding member of the band, and now a 25 year veteran alongside Ed and Dean Roland, Turpin is a multi-talented instrumentalist, singer and songwriter who can switch between piano, drums, percussion and guitar. Yet for all that ability his only previous solo release was 2011’s highly enjoyable ‘The Lighthouse’ EP. The time was clearly right for more.

Recorded at his father’s ‘Real 2 Reel’ studios, where he grew up and Collective Soul have cut many an album, Turpin has finally produced a worthy follow up. We spoke to the man himself about creating ‘Serengeti Drivers’, the band he assembled to make it, as well as how it differs from Collective Soul’s output and what the future has in store for both groups.

It’s been seven years since you released ‘The Lighthouse’ EP. After that very promising effort, why’s it taken so long to release ‘Serengeti Drivers’?

Well, Collective Soul doesn’t really stop touring and then it takes a while to get the songs together. We had some stuff we were dealing with along the way too. My wife went through breast cancer surgery, there’s been about eight or nine surgeries now poor girl, but she’s cancer free and she’s good. It’s just one of those things where these songs are something I have to do and have to get out. I feel like it’s worthy but, at the same time, it definitely takes a second seat, so to speak, to my day job with Collective Soul.

For fans of that day job who may not be familiar with you as a solo artist, how would you describe the sound and style of this album?

My influences are broad and all over the place but I feel there’s a flow and a current that goes through the record. There’s a lot of genres displayed on ‘Serengeti Drivers’, so that’s definitely part of my makeup. I would describe it as good listening music. It’s anything from funky soul to Americana style songs to…I think you can hear the Beatles influence in there as well. On One and Done there’s a far eastern sound that’s straight out of some ‘Sgt Pepper’ stuff. Jackson Browne was kind of an influence on Demons, that sort of Americana-style songwriter.

Were there any particular musical touchstones you referenced when creating the overall feel of the record?

I like to reference songs but I’ve been around the studio my whole life so also like to find the right musicians and go for it in the studio without even trying to reference something from the past. Let it just come out naturally. Originally I didn’t think about it as an entire piece. I was just getting the songs that I thought were my strongest and then honed in on these 11.

I try to open my ears and use my ears as the most powerful weapon. Instead of reverse engineering it and saying ‘I could play this or sound like this, build it like this…’ I really just let the frequencies and vibe soak in and try to do what’s right for each song. That’s the most important thing and I feel if I approach it from that honest angle that’s all I can do. That’s all I should do.

Although I hear touches of Collective Soul, it sounds like you’re indulging a different side of your creativity here.

A lot of these songs are based around a Rhodes riff or piano riff. There’s some piano tracks I’ve played over the years with Collective Soul, but we seldom build a track around a piano riff so that’s definitely different. I don’t get to sing and work on the vocals as much with Collective Soul. I sing some harmonies, all the harmonies really, but in the studio Ed’s certainly the lead singer and the main inspiration for most of the songs.

With Ed writing the lion’s share of Collective Soul material, are you a frustrated songwriter who needed a vehicle to explore that side of yourself?

It’s wild, as a writer, ideas pop in your head and you don’t really know where they came from and you’re like ‘that’s cool.’ I can’t put my finger on the whole creative thing. I’d write a book about it and try to make everybody else great songwriters if I could. It’s a magical thing songwriting and creating. Also, when it hits people’s ears and affects people it can make them feel different. It can make you laugh, music can make you cry. The listener’s perspective is one of the last real magics in the world we can’t really explain.

It’s definitely cool, though, to be able to explore creatively outside of my identity in Collective Soul. When I bring myself back into the Collective Soul realm I feel recharged and ready to do that again because, honestly, we just finished some songs and that creative feeling you get, it’s still completely there when we get back together.  Ed has a side project and Dean has a side project as well. Our thought is, if we can explore and create outside of Collective Soul it’s going to make Collective Soul stronger. So we never thought about it as one or the other.

In terms of those songs you’ve just finished, it’s been rumoured Collective Soul plan to release a double album next year. Is that the case?

Yeah, we’ve finished over 20 tunes. I kind of want to do like a part one/part two, but eventually it would be out on a double record. I feel happy to say that 24 years later it’s solid material. It’s just like Collective Soul’s always been, very eclectic, all over the place. There’s some Beatles stuff with some ELO Jeff Lynne strings and guitars, and there’s some rock riffs, heavy Collective Soul things.

Are they any musical avenues you got to explore on ‘Serengeti Drivers’ that you haven’t had the chance to pursue with Collective Soul?

With Collective Soul I get to be the bass player in a rock band. With this I sit down behind the piano or Rhodes and don’t constantly try to make a song. I wrote On and On acoustically and Those Days started out on an acoustic guitar, but almost all of them started out on either a grand piano in my living room or a Rhodes.  

I just try to grab the vibe in the air and, when it’s right, some songs end up being a bit of a therapy session for me, some are just the way I was feeling that day. Like Demons. That’s an uplifting, driving type song and encapsulates my viewpoint as far as having a balance in life. Everybody’s got a demon on one shoulder and an angel on the other. I’m not trying to kick off the demon or the angel, I’m trying to just hang out with both of them, enjoy the balance and the necessary good and evil in life.  

I believe there’s an interesting story about the album title?

Yeah, it was a dream sequence I was having and didn’t understand. I would be walking in the desert all alone and I’d see friends driving by and having a really good time. I’d wave to them, they’d wave to me and nobody ever had the thought to stop and pick me up. That’s the whole take away I got when I woke up. Later, as I started asking musicians to record and be part of my solo record, I stumbled upon ‘Serengeti Drivers’. There’s probably some kind of analysis out there for it.

What’s the creative relationship like between you and your guitarist/co-writer Jason Fowler, who also worked on ‘The Lighthouse EP’ and is part of your live band?

When I have an idea I think is cool, if I think it still needs a little something, Jason’s really good at sending me in a direction I would have never thought of. It’s all me lyrically when we’re co-writing but I just need him for that one little sparkle and when he gives it to me I’m like OK, got it.’ We don’t sit down together and try to write a song. It’s an idea I have and then I try to get a twist or an angle from Jason.

You’ve got Mark Wilson playing bass on the record. What can you tell me about him?

He’s amazing. I’ve known Mark since he was a kid and if I use the word virtuoso that’s not overestimating. If you’re gonna hire a bassist, you hire somebody way better than you.

Belong is one of my favourites because I love the groove you guys slip into. How did that develop?

That started with Mark and Scott Davidson on drums. Jason came up with that guitar line out of thin air and I wasn’t even playing with them at that point, I was in another room. Again, kind of like a lightning bolt moment. I heard the verse in my head, walked in and sat behind the keyboard and told them ‘start it boys, keep playing it and then follow me.’ We played the whole verse and right into that chorus the first time. I had most of that melody and the chords. They just dropped right down to me.

Would you like this band, which has been christened Will Turpin + The Way, to develop into a more serious proposition or is it something you’ll keep casual?

I think this is going to be the start of a good windfall of stuff. I’ve got four or five more tunes, I want to get right back in the studio and maybe release them next year.  So if I release more and record a little more the band will have enough opportunities to stay together and grow. I’m not trying to start a solo career. I’m more focused on Collective Soul’s career than I ever have been. CS is about to hit 25 years and we’re coming into a great moment too. But I definitely want the band and my solo stuff to be a little more ‘on the ready’, so to speak, and a little more substantial as far as what I can and can’t do with the side project.

Finally, ‘Serengeti Drivers’ is an album that really deserves to be heard.  How are you planning to get as many people to do that as possible and, hopefully, find an audience for it beyond hard core Collective Soul Fans?

It’s on my label [Gooey] so its indie. I got more meetings today with people who are gonna help me get it out there. I appreciate you saying that because I’m hearing that over and over, that people respect it and think it should be heard. I’m going to do my diligent best as the label owner, but it’s really tough in today’s world.

'Serengeti Drivers' is out on June 8.

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