Before DJs evolved into global superstars, musicians carried the baton. The Brooklyn-based dance trio Tortured Soul isn't trying to intently rewrite the logic of today's EDM with the sweat of their own musicianship, but they are living proof that the very same music can be freed from the DJ booth. Influenced by the classic song craft of Prince, Heatwave and Kool & the Gang, the members of Tortured Soul are three distinctive guys with three different backgrounds, united under a groove-centered rhythm. The band's front man and principal songwriter, John-Christian Urich, can be seen simultaneously drumming and singing with effortless mastery, while the rest of the collective, made up of keyboardist Isamu MacGregor and bassist Jordan Scannella, virtuosically generate the pulsating accompaniment. I was able to chat with the band's front man and principal songwriter, John-Christian Urich via phone from Los Angeles about the groups’ history, their creative process and his love for Chicago.
BW: give me a little background about how you all got together and the evolution of you as a group?
Christian: I had a group called Cooley’s Hotbox for about 10 years; producing, writing and such. I started to get burnt out doing everything and I joined a band called Topaz, which was an instrumental funk band. I was playing drums. I was cruising along doing that for a few years; not worrying about producing and writing. I was just playing. That’s when I met Jason and Ethan, the original bass player and keyboard player. I played with them for a few years in Topaz. After a couple of years, the control freak in me took over and I wanted to get back into doing my own projects. In Cooley’s Hotbox, I was writing for another vocalist, Angela Johnson. I had songs that I felt were better for male vocals and I wanted to sing them myself. It was time for me to do more of a solo project.
That’s when I wrote “I might do something wrong”. A few months after that, Jason and Ethan left Topaz and since we had such great chemistry, I wanted them to come join me. That turned my solo project into a band. They had the same sensibility as me and joined the project and infused so much more than I can do myself. I’ve always been the primary writer and producer but it went to another level having two other incredible musicians and producers in their own right involved in the project.
Note: Original members, Jason Kriveloff departed the group to focus on his new record label in 2010. In March 2015, keyboard player, Ethan White passed away.
BW: Where do you pull inspiration from? What’s the writing process like?
Christian: It consists of being alone in a small room with a keyboard, humming melodies and playing a few chords; finding bits and pieces that I like along with nice progressions. I may have a strong feeling or idea about a subject. I may change it to apply to a concept. Sometimes it may not even make sense but I go with it. I remember when I was in South Africa; I was telling people how “Enjoy It Now” was a combination of my grandmother’s passing and a night at the club. I was fusing my sadness at her passing away and the visions of the things I’ve seen in the club scene. I had a vision of it being disco-y, even slightly Abba’ish. I kept wondering how I’m going to pull this off. It had this Sister Sledge kinda thing that I would glorify and fantasize about. Disco Balls and such…it was so me! You know?
BW: I do. It can start off one way and become something completely different. Sometimes you write it and just have to allow it to grow the way it’s going to grow and hope it works!
Christian: Exactly and if it doesn’t work, you scrap it or keep working on it. You may still scrap it after it’s all said and done or even keep it. I have finished things but it’s not representative of what I want it to be. It’s not ready yet.
BW: We can be perfectionists and our worst critics sometimes but I totally understand how artists have these catalogs of music that hasn’t been released yet. You are always trying to add something to it or even remove something before we release it to the world. I totally get why artists like Prince and Michael Jackson had these huge catalogs of unreleased music. I hate that people raided it because the artists didn’t want them put out…
Christian: RIGHT!!! Prince, as prolific as he was, didn’t put that stuff out for a reason! It could have been personal reasons that music didn’t come out. I hate that. If he wanted to release it, he would have.
BW: You are known for your live performances that are always high energy. How do you approach your live shows? Do you tend to go with the flow more or is your show planned more rigidly?
Christian: It’s not calculated per say. We plan it a bit and we know we have a job to do but since its music, you have freedom to stretch a bit. The musicians are professionals who are so good. They spend hours going over songs and rehearsing. We express what we are feeling through our music. We’ve spent a lot of time working on our crafts and we have a certain comfort level that allows us to be more spontaneous as we perform because we feed off of one another so well. Our shows can change depending on…we like to experiment.
BW: DJs often talk about “reading a room”, knowing your crowd and audience and how important it is when choosing songs and such. Is it similar for you guys as a band? Does the energy of the patrons influence your performance?
Christian: Absolutely. I usually write the set 30 minutes before we play. Depending on the crowd, I’ll skip a song because it doesn’t feel right and we’ll replace it with something else that fits better with the audience. You can’t force it on people like that. You can a little bit but at some point you have to adjust and go with the flow.
BW: Do you have a favorite song you love to perform?
Christian: “Enjoy It Now” is always fun and I love performing “Falling in Love”. I’ve played it 100s of times and they never fail. They always mean something. There are some others too! Honestly, there are so many to choose from.
BW: You guys have quite a discography of great music! What do you love about playing here in Chicago?
Christian: I love it here. I grew up in NYC and live in LA now but in a perfect world, I would totally move to Chicago. I’ve had so many great gigs here; I am drawn to that as an artist. I tend to be drawn to places I have had great experiences in. I love Chicago. I feel conformable here and I feel like the people I come in contact with are so welcoming, the audiences are always wonderful and I’ve made great friends here. There’s such an appreciation of house music. It’s the foundation of house music but there is also a deep appreciation of soul music, disco and things that are dear to me. It’s all there in Chicago except one thing…
BW: What’s that?
Christian: It’s not next to an ocean! [LAUGHTER] I HAVE A CONNECTION TO The OCEAN!
BW: So the lakefront isn’t enough? [LAUGHTER}
Christian: A great lake is nice but since I grew up in NYC, I have this magnetic connection to the ocean. If I’m not next to the ocean I start to feel like a barometric change…it’s weird. See now I’m sounding like a hippie! [LAUGHTER] But seriously, the cold doesn’t bother me either… there’s nothing about Chicago that would prohibit me from living here. I genuinely love it. I love Chicago.
BW: How were you introduced to house music?
Christian: I grew up in New York and my first introduction to house music would probably be through disco really. I had a Donna Summer album and loved “On the Radio”. I would listen to stuff on WKTU which played a lot of. I heard Ten City and that would be my first taste of house music. Does that go back far enough? Do I have enough cred? [Laughter]
BW: Trust me! My introduction was later!!!! Your sound isn’t all house, it’s not all jazz, and it’s not just soul. It’s a beautiful mix of different sounds and genres. Who were some of your musical influences?
Christian: It’s quite a bit. I love Donna Summer, Bee Gees, Chic, Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder. Lots of soul, funk, disco and R&B music.
BW: City Winery is a tad more intimate than some of the other venues you’ve played in Chicago.
Christian: You know for years I vowed I’d never play in a sit down venue. We want people to dance. But we had a fun time at City Winery in Atlanta. It’s not just a space where people just sit down but it gives people a chance to really listen and check it out on a different level and dance. I’m looking forward to playing there!
BW: How has your sound evolved over the years, if any?
Christian: Honestly, I feel like I’m pickier during production about it being exactly right but then I’ll take a step back and allow the imperfections to show. It’s a combination of growth and maturity as an artist. For better or for worse, I’m willing to step away and allow people to redo parts or things. Sometimes I get annoyed but then it will sound better so…
BW: That’s hard to do for a “Type A” personality; relinquishing control and embracing certain imperfections.
Christian: Oh yeah…ABSOLUTELY.
BW: You have a diehard following and you gain new followers with each new release. How do you balance keeping them happy and engaged?
Christian: It’s not hard honestly. There are 5-6 songs that are classics that our diehards want to hear all the time. I’m happy to mix those in our shows. I love playing them and it allows newer fans to go back and check out the old stuff. When you are an independent artist, there’s so many that don’t know the old songs and to them it’s brand new. That’s what makes it so cool.
BW: How would you describe your group’s chemistry?
Christian: I have to say how much I love working with these guys. Their contributions to the group are invaluable. We wouldn’t be who we are without their incredible contribution. They are amazing musicians.
BW: I completely agree. It is evident and we can see it in your performances. I’m looking forward to seeing you guys at City Winery!
Christian: I’m looking forward to Chicago and meeting you in person!
You can check out Tortured Soul at City Winery February 8th.
Until next time, See you on a dance floor!