Royal Southern Brotherhood: Fire In The Blood

Royal Southern Brotherhood
(Image credit: Ruf Records)

The Brotherhood are back in the motherland. It is, to quote the old Tony Joe White favourite, a rainy night in Georgia, and to quote guitarist Mike Zito, “kinda cold and crappy”. Even so, the weather can’t dampen the prospect of the warm heroes’ welcome awaiting them at the show tonight. “This band goes down real well in the South,” beams Mike. “But then, we’re fortunate these days. We’re doing pretty well all over.”

There’s a special bond between The Blues and the Royal Southern Brotherhood. Two years ago, the first issue of this magazine tiptoed gingerly onto British newsstands. Interviewed in those first pages were five Southern musicians, whose tentative alliance had just produced a self-titled debut album. Both enterprises might easily have tanked, sending teetering piles of unsold magazines for pulping and the RSB’s constituent parts scurrying back to their day jobs. But here we are in 2014. Things couldn’t have gone better.

There’s always room for improvement, though. Today, The Blues is interviewing two markedly different characters, in the form of thoughtful former hellraiser Mike and the shamanic, charismatic vocalist/percussionist Cyril Neville. Yet the two disparate Brothers agree on one thing: that second album HeartSoulBlood is a step up from their self-titled debut.

“If we’re doing our job right, I always prefer the new album to the last one,” says Mike. “I don’t dislike the first record. I just think this one is a better representation. I like that it’s a little more bluesy, more rock‘n’roll, more funky, y’know? It’s loose, and loose is best. Like the Rolling Stones. They’re the kings of loose.”

“Both albums have their own identity,” picks up Cyril. “The first one did what it was supposed to: it put us on the map. But so many experiences have gone into this band collectively since then, and that’s more evident on this one. It all comes together. I mean, you could say we’re all top chefs, but when we get together, there’s never too many cooks in the kitchen.”

It wouldn’t be a RSB interview without Cyril’s trademark culinary references (the 65-year-old has long described the band’s eclectic musical brew as a ‘gumbo’), and to run with the metaphor, the kitchen of choice for HeartSoulBlood was Louisiana’s Dockside Studios. In recent months, The Blues has heard a lot about this boondocks recording location – it’s where Laurence Jones was terrorised by river rats back in Issue 12 – and the Brothers, too, are keen to credit the studio that has catalysed both their albums to date.

“The atmosphere has got a lot to do with it,” says Cyril. “You got a cross-section of artists that have cut there, from B.B. King to Dr John. And there’s something about that location, sitting right on the Vermillion Bayou. I spent a lot of my time just watching the river flowing, just absorbing that swampy, bayou atmosphere. It’s so laid-back, it puts you in a special space. It’s actually kinda spiritual. But I don’t stand close enough to the river that I can’t run. You never know when one of those crocodiles might pop up!”

“It’s very country, very swampy, a lot of bugs,” says Mike, “and you need a car to get away, so when you’re there, you’re there. No distractions. No bullshit. In Hollywood or New York, when you can walk outside a studio and find something else to do, it’s very difficult to get a record done. There’s only one thing to do at Dockside, and that’s make music.”

One week. That’s all it took to knock out 2012’s Royal Southern Brotherhood, and returning to Dockside last December, the enduring lineup of Mike, Cyril, Devon Allman (guitar/vocals), Charlie Wooton (bass) and Yonrico Scott (drums) matched that whip-cracking pace on HeartSoulBlood. “It’s all about the prep work,” says Mike. “No matter how good you are, if you’re gonna knock out a record in a week, you need to show up at the studio with your songs, your story and your ideas ready to go.

“The personalities of the individuals have a bigger role in the sound this time around,” he adds. “Maybe at the beginning, certain members had more dominance. Now there’s more room for manoeuvre. We’re all taking turns to lead. It depends on the situation. Is it musical, logistical, spiritual? Different people take the lead, at different times, for different reasons. The cream rises to the top, so to speak.”

How high is the standard in the studio?

“I know that for me, it needs to be a certain level of good. I don’t like to do anything half-assed. We don’t want to put out crap. I know what ‘the best’ sounds like, and I may never reach it, but I’m definitely striving for it, and judging myself against the bands that I consider to be great.”

Certainly, their musical telepathy is up there. Put that down to the cohesive effect, says Cyril, of touring for two years across 20-plus countries: “You can feel the rhythm section more now. Yonrico is putting his foot in everything. There’s more interaction, and the fact that we travelled a lot last year has added something to our groove and tightness. I remember, at one point, we did 10 or 12 one-nighters in a row. So we’ve learned each other’s styles and reactions. It’s like a team of A1 players. To use a basketball analogy, anybody you throw the ball to is a three-point shooter. It’s easy to bounce ideas off each other.”

By extension, the new songs were often co-written by the group, either emerging through soundcheck jams or with one member originating an idea and the others fixing the holes. “Groove On, basically, is a love song,” notes Cyril. “We’d been out for a while and everybody was a little sad and lonely and thinking about their loved ones. Devon overheard something Charlie said, and from that, he wrote the lyric. Then Charlie helped with the music. That’s a good example of how each one of us puts into the others’ songs. It’s a bunch of masterchefs getting together and making this great musical gumbo, and the travelling that we do together is another seasoning.”

“I wrote the song Ritual,” adds Mike, “and Cyril wrote a verse. That one is fun and it has a lot of sexual innuendo. Y’know, everybody in this band is older and there are several married guys. Sometimes, it’s harder to put sex in the music. When you’re younger and single, you’re rocking and singing songs about chicks. As you get older, people think the sexuality isn’t there any more, but it is. I mean, Cyril might be the elder statesman in the band, y’know, but he’s still very bawdy, lyrically, on songs like Sweet Jelly Donut.

“When you’re married,” Mike continues of Ritual, “people think that you only get it once a week or whatever, and it’s done the same way every time. I think that’s really funny, because it’s not like that at all. I’m constantly on the first date with my wife. I have to win her over every time if I’m gonna get lucky tonight. People think of it as a ritual, but it’s certainly not like that. So the line, ‘Bring out the whip, bring out the snake’ is like, here we go, get out all your gadgets and toys, let’s do this thing. I was picturing this big mountain, with all the wives on top in bed and this big line of hundreds of husbands dancing as they climbed up the side of it to have sex. Almost like a cartoon.”

Elsewhere, Cyril’s treacle-tempo Callous is less frivolous, tracing the US civil rights movement and tipping a hat to the social activist Dick Gregory. “I think he’s one of the greatest Americans who ever lived,” says Cyril, “and several times in my life, I’ve written songs because of him and something that he’s done or he’s said. The first song I ever wrote with Mike was Pearl River, and that was inspired by Dick Gregory. I was a boy scout and we camped out along the shores of Pearl River, and I noticed how dark the water was. I asked my parents about it, and I was told that the reason that water was so dark was because of how many black people had been thrown in it.

“So on this album, Callous was inspired by Dick Gregory’s book, Callus On My Soul. The first verse is about little girls growing up in a church in Alabama. The second verse is about Martin Luther King. The third verse is about [murdered civil rights activist] Medgar Evers and what happened to him. Hopefully, by putting it in a song, it might touch someone the way that book touched me. We don’t just write songs that you can jump up and down to. Some of them are like that. But we write songs that have substance, too. You can dance to them and think to them at the same time.”

The eclectic themes are matched by the free-roaming music. There’s a satisfying slug of blues on this album, but once again, hacks trying to squeeze the Royal Southern Brotherhood into a pigeonhole will be thwarted by curveballs, from the rug-cutting funk of Groove On, through the slow-dance soul of Shoulda Known, to the gospel-tinged, arms-around-the-world finale, Love And Peace.

It’s exciting for listeners, we suggest, but this sort of genre-hopping must make RSB a bugger for Ruf Records to market. “Maybe, career-wise, it would be a lot easier if this band was just one thing,” concedes Mike. “But it would also be so limiting. I love blues, and there’s definitely blues on the record, but it’s done a different way. A song like World Blues is more modern-blues, not as traditional. But at this point now, there’s nothing traditional about this band. This band doesn’t make sense. This band has its own personality and style. Cyril still uses that word gumbo. He loves that. We’re all bringing different elements.”

“We’re not trying to go by anybody’s code-book,” notes Cyril. “No rules in this band. The rulebook got thrown away a long ago. We play music, and that’s what you get on this record. The shows we’re playing have so many different elements that it’s appealing for anybody, from people who like soft, slow music to people who like tear-the-roof-off-the-mother-type music. We’re always in a creative mood when we go onstage, open for the spirit to move in any direction it wants to. All that stuff about categories and labels… for serious musicians, that don’t really matter. Good music is just good music. What’s stirring up your soul can stir up other souls – as long as it’s true.”

So is that what you’re driving at with the album title: that music needs to draw on the fundamentals of being human to be worthwhile? “Devon came up with the title,” says Mike. “It’s a lyric in Groove On, and I guess it sums up the whole feel of the band and the album, and the idea that we’re trying to put our heart, soul and blood into the music. Those are the three most important things to me. I want to hear that music is raw, real and heartfelt. I mean, no one is opposed to commercial success in this band. But there has to be something else behind the music other than money.”

What happens when those three vital factors are missing? “Well, then you get bullshit, don’t you?” Mike fires back. “Y’know, you get pop music. Not that there’s not good pop music. But when the only reason you’re writing music is that people will like it, and you’re not emotionally involved, it means that I’m not gonna be emotionally involved when I hear it. There’s always been crap music out there in the mainstream. It’s not just today. It’s always been like that. But for the real music-lover, that’s not always where we go looking.”

“I read something by David Grohl [sic] from the Foo Fighters that said it all,” notes Cyril. “He was talking about these Idol shows on TV, and how people can be crushed by them, as opposed to getting some raggedy old instrument, getting in the garage and start playing some loud, shitty music, just to play music. Then, one day, it might wind up becoming the greatest band in the world. It can happen.”

Spend a little time among the Brotherhood and there’s a sentiment that real music is a flickering candle that each new generation has a duty to cup, carry and pass on. On this new album, it’s a notion underlined by the raunchy Rock And Roll, whose anecdotal lyric traces the genre’s emergence from its blues and R ‘n’ B roots, namechecking pioneers from Little Richard to Elvis. Stick around for the song’s closing seconds, and you’ll hear Cyril note in a drawled aside that “we do it like they did it back in the day”. He smiles, glad that we noticed: “Years ago, I wrote that song for the Neville Brothers, and unfortunately it didn’t wind up on a record. But luckily, now I get to do it with my Royal Southern Brothers.

“That song is a true story,” he explains. “I was a lucky kid, because I heard all those stories straight from the horse’s mouth. Art Neville, my brother, was the first voice I ever heard coming out of that magic box called the radio. His band, The Hawkettes, was like an institution; it had all these great musicians coming in and out of it. So it was from him that I heard all these stories about those guys. I got an education from someone who was there. That’s what that song is dedicated to. Because those stories should never die.”

No fear of that. The originators may be dead. The old guard may be fading. The TV talent shows and their ghoulish offspring can do their worst. But with Royal Southern Brotherhood around, the bloodline of real music will flow on. “All of that stuff about being a supergroup,” concludes Cyril, “we never thought that. But it’s always felt to us that this is a special band with a special mission, and that is to keep the good stuff alive. This record is world blues. We got something on there that can touch everybody. That was always our intention.”


Mike and Cyril on the magic of the US South…

_ _

Mike: “There’s something in the air. Anywhere in the South of the United States, there are some really great spots for living. It’s got great music and great food, and the people, I would say, are more down-to-earth. Music is much more part of the fabric of life. Music is bred-in. Because historically, people in the South are poor, and poor people would learn to play music on their front porch or in their living room or whatever, because that’s their entertainment. They may not do music professionally, but everybody in the South plays an instrument. They’ve grown up with that culture.”

Cyril: “A lot of these new songs were recorded on our phones and iPads at soundcheck. Somebody will just start off playing a riff – and that’s how it’s done in New Orleans. To a lot of people, New Orleans is the party capital of the world. People come from all over to do things there that you can’t do anywhere else. New Orleans got a reputation for it. You come to see and do and taste things that you can’t see and do and taste anywhere else on the planet. Some place else may claim they make a better gumbo… but I don’t think so! This band started in New Orleans. The first rehearsal sessions to find out if we could write songs together happened in New Orleans. First gig we played was at the Rock ‘N’ Bowl. This year, we finally got a chance to play the Jazz Fest. And the funk is gonna be flyin’…”

HeartSoulBlood is out now on Ruf Records.

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.