If you’re at all immersed in the indie music scene, you’ve heard them. There’s no mistaking their sound.
The Suffers’ single “Make Some Room” socked me right in the feels on a sunny day in late 2015. Reminiscent of Sly and the Family Stone (if Sly and the Family Stone cross-contaminated with The Wailers), the 10-person band’s premier album released in February to accolades. Between lead singer Kam Franklin’s silky, warm voice and the perfect medley of instruments, The Suffers offer that intangible something to listeners that’s been missing from mainstream music for a few decades.
Bassist Adam Castaneda says the band evolved into that sound over a few years, while The Suffers added bandmates and cultivated what they’ve deemed “Gulf Coast soul.”
And now, they’re on tour, with a stop at Long’s Park in Lancaster in July.
Blayne Waterloo: I can only imagine how hectic things are right now while you’re getting ready to go on tour, especially with the size of your band. Do you have a bus big enough for all that?
Adam Castaneda: We tour in a 15-passenger van, and we have a trailer. So, yeah, it’s tight. You get to know your neighbor, get to know your bandmate very well. You learn to sleep sitting up.
BW: What do you do to pass the time?
AC: We develop very strange little games that we play. There’s a lot of listening to music, a lot of listening to podcasts.
BW: What are you listening to at the moment?
AC: So, since it came out, I’ve been pretty much obsessed with Sturgill Simpson’s new record. Really like that record a lot. Lately, I’ve gotten into Kurt Vile. I came into him later… I’m not even sure how I missed him, but I saw a video of him on YouTube, and I was like, “Oh my god, this guy is awesome.”
BW: You said you guys play games – can you give an example?
AC: One that we do – so, when someone has to take a phone call, we turn down the radio in the car. And we play this game where we try convince the people at the front of the van that somebody in the back is getting a phone call. So, we’ll just go, “Hello?” as if you just answered a phone call. And then they turn it down, and there’s nothing. It’s really dumb, and it’s probably only funny to people inside the van.
BW: What about podcasts?
AC: I love Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. I just found “Walking the Floor.” The guitarist for Foo Fighters does that one, and he’s really interested in country music. Another one I just found is called “You Must Remember This,” and it’s half history, half gossip. But it’s about old Hollywood.
BW: It’s almost magical when you find a podcast you can listen to on end and it keeps your attention. You almost feel well rounded after listening to some of them.
AC: I feel that way about Marc Maron’s a lot, because he has a lot of guests that I’m not familiar with, but when he gets into it, it’s like, “Wow, that’s a really interesting person.” There’s always something in it that I find fascinating. It’s always someone who is passionate about what they’re doing in some way. In our music and stuff, we try to be passionate, we are passionate. So to hear someone that’s also passionate in a different way, or about something completely different is really kind of inspiring.
BW: It is! And you founded this band back in 2011, did you imagine it would take off as fast as it did? That’s pretty inspiring itself.
AC: That definitely wasn’t the intent.
BW: Really? So, did you just want to be a jam band and stay local?
AC: Sort of. Everybody in the band has been playing since they were kids, since they were in high school. And we were all in different bands, but I’m not sure any of us ever thought we’d make it as artists, you know? We all had day jobs, and we weren’t necessarily trying to leave our day jobs, but we liked playing music. So, we were all just going in and out of bands, and playing as much as we could. We’d take our vacation time and go tour, because that was what we liked to do. It was never necessarily a career goal.
When me and Patrick Kelly, our keyboard player, started this band, it was a continuation of that. At the time, I was in three other bands. I was in a reggae band, I was in a hip-hop band and I was in a country band. And people from all of those bands ended up in The Suffers. It was just a continuation of trying to make good music and doing what made us happy. And eventually, it became something more than that. We started writing our own songs – because at first we played just covers. All our other bands, those touring schedules would get kind of hectic and this was our escape from that. That one gig or two gigs a month turned into every weekend, and our bosses getting mad about how much vacation we were taking. Eventually, it turned into, “We can’t have a normal day job and do this anymore.”
BW: How do you decide when it’s time to quit your day job and take this on full time?
AC: This was one of those cash-in-your-vacation-days-and-hop-on-a-plane things; we played CMJ in New York two years ago. I mean, we played something ridiculous, like nine shows in five days or something. But it was what we loved to do, and our last show there, we were playing the Rockwood in Manhattan, and we got word that someone from David Letterman’s show was there. And there’s always somebody who knows somebody there, so we didn’t put too much stock in it. We played a good show and everything, and at the end of it we went back to our day jobs. And then a couple weeks later they called us up and said, “Hey, we want you to be on the show.”
So, we talked as a band and we said, of course we were going to do the show, but you can’t just go on Letterman without putting out a record, without being on tour. It would be a wasted opportunity. This was the slow pitch coming straight down the line. You have to take a swing. So, we talked about it, and we decided that if we were going to quit our jobs and do this, it had to be all of us, all 10 of us. It couldn’t be half-and-half, and if one person didn’t want to do it, we wouldn’t do it. We all took that leap in late February of 2015.
BW: Was there ever a point when you thought about quitting the band?
AC: Not for me, and I don’t think for anyone else in the band. There’s definitely frustrations, and when you make that kind of leap from the security of a 401k, and health insurance and a salary and things like that, there’s an adjustment. There were definitely moments of, “What have I done? Oh my god. I’ve ruined my life. I need to go back.” That kind of stuff. But it’s fleeting, because then you realize that’s silly. That’s just fear. That’s not trying to achieve your goals, that’s just running.
BW: Well, I can’t tell you how glad I am that you didn’t back down. So, were there any bass players that made you want to be a bassist?
AC: There were a few. When I was a kid, my father was really into Queen, and John Deacon was their bass player. And he was always the quiet one. I mean, you had Freddie Mercury out there being Freddie Mercury, and you had all this other stuff, like the big drums with the gong, and [Deacon] was always the quiet guy in the back. And I was like, “Wow, that guy’s really neat. He’s like the calm in the storm.”
And then as I got older, I got into punk rock a lot, and I really liked Operation Ivy, and Rancid – their bass player was Matt Freeman. And he was really melodic and he was really active, and it was kind of like, wow, that’s kind of the opposite side of the coin from John Deacon, where he was kind of in the background, holding it down. This guy’s out front, and you know he’s there and you know exactly what his parts are. And then, Paul McCartney, of course. As I’ve gotten older, I like guys who can kind of sit back and support a band.
BW: How would you describe yourself? Are you the calm in the storm, or are you energetic and all over the place?
AC: I like to walk a middle path in that. I see the benefit of John Deacon, and I see the benefit of more active players that get out front … But there’s a middle ground that I try to achieve, and maybe use a little bit of both.
BW: I read somewhere that you described your band as “Gulf Coast soul.” What all went into that? Is that kind of the evolution of your sound?
AC: As we started touring and stuff, and we started doing more press, we realized – as much as we didn’t like it, maybe – we had to label ourselves something. But we knew we didn’t really fit into the established categories.
We came up with Gulf Coast soul because it talks specifically about the music that comes from Houston, and we draw a lot of our influence from the city of Houston, where we’re all from. And in Houston, it’s a very strange mix, because you’re very close to Mexico, you’re in Texas – so, of course, you’re in the South, and you’re in where people traditionally think country music comes from – you’re very close to Louisiana, and you have a Cajun style. And then you also have, by being a port city, you have all these different beautiful styles that come through.
A lot of people don’t realize this, but Houston is the most diverse city in the U.S. You have so many different cultures here. On top of that, you know, in the ‘90s and 2000s we had a huge swell of hip-hop artists that came from here. That’s all part of the city. You can go to a barbecue here where they’re playing Tejano music, and then, out of nowhere, hip-hop music. It’s not strange.
BW: What kind of advice can you give to local bands and artists who see you emerging, and want to be on that same path?
AC: You know, when we were doing this, we never tried to make something that was successful. We tried to make good music, and we stuck to that. We’re all a little bit older – I’m 32, and I think that’s around the average of the band, so when we were in our early 20s and in our teens making music, we didn’t find any success. We just continued trying to make the best music we could. And eventually someone saw us in a crowd. And I think that’s good.
Some people have the tendency to give up, especially if they haven’t found some measure of success. I think you have to determine what you call success. And if your success is making good art, then make good art.
The Suffers play in Long’s Park for the Summer Music Series on July 10.