Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Kyle Daniel, guitarist and lead singer of Nashville’s The Last Straw, about how recent lineup changes have re-energized the band and what he does to get an audience’s attention.
CP: How has the summer been treating you, so far?
KD: It's been great. We've been writing a lot of new material. We got in the studio and just released three brand new tracks on our website. We just got a bunch of new merch, summer merch. We've got some festivals coming up that we've been gearing up for. We've been playing and rehearsing in the studio. We're doing it all. Our hands have been in a lot of pots here. We're looking forward to finishing the summer strong and releasing this EP in the fall. It's been quite well.
CP: What festivals do you have coming up?
KD: We're doing two dates at FloydFest in Floyd, Virg. We're doing Head Jams, here locally in Adams, Tenn. We just did the Kentucky Bike Fest. I'm looking forward to both those big festivals.
CP: It seems like you guys will have some time off in August. What will you be doing during the off time, if it is off time?
KD: Well, it's not really off time. We have the date on Aug. 3 at Rhythm & Brews. The following night, we're in Atlanta. We'll be opening for Tyler Bryant, who is on tour with Jeff Beck right now, which is awesome. We're very excited about that show.
Then, the next week, we're playing in Memphis. The following week, we're in Nashville. We have a photo shoot that week for some different things. Then, oddly enough, I have a wedding.
It doesn't look as full as the other dates, but that's when we'll be going in the studio. We'll be going in the studio … the second week of August. We'll be pretty much locked in the studio.
CP: How are things shaping up for “This Is?”
KD: Man, it has been the best - hands down, the best -- recording experience we've had up tot his point. We're recording at Loud Studios on Music Row. Johnny Z and Jake Burns are both producing this album.
Of the three songs we have up now, I wrote “Tupelo” by myself, but the other songs are the first all-band-oriented Last Straw songs. We've had a little lineup change, and it has perpetuated the band in a completely different fashion. We're being more creative and working as a band together.
We've been together five years, and usually, I would write the material and we would come in and play it. It got to the point where we decided we needed to be writing material as a unit - lyrics, music and melody - and try to make these songs the best we possibly can.
We've got enough material to record an album, but we're going to go in and do four more songs in hopes of a seven-song EP release in the fall. Those songs are a totally different direction for Last Straw. If you listen to tracks off “Brought to Life” versus the material on “This Is,” it sounds like a completely different band. Even if you go on our website and check out the new music, the top three are from “This Is,” and underneath those are some songs we recorded four months ago, but it sounds like years of difference. The maturity of the group overall over the last four months has been impressive to me.
We don't have to show off all our guitar licks and impress people; the simplicity and maturity of what we're doing speaks for itself. No more flair is needed because these are such good songs. We're really looking forward to finishing this up.
CP: When would you like to see it out?
KD: We're hoping to release it in September or October. There may be some hangs up we run into here and there, but hopefully, we'll have them pressed up and ready to sell in September.
CP: Your latest lineup addition was Jason Graumlich. When did he join the band?
KD: Jason came in about four months ago.
CP: Do you see that as a turning point?
KD: Yeah. That was a turning point. Actually, he may have come in just three months ago. He's not very old in the band at all, but [his joining] spawned this new beast. As you read in our bio, it says this is “TLS 2.0,” and that's kind of what it is.
He's a leader. He's played in a lot of different groups in and around Nashville. He was in Foggy Bottom and Old Union and Less Honkies, More Tonkies. He's been around, and he's a seasoned vet.
He came in, and we'd been a stagnant spot, musically. We were really, to be honest, kind of uninspired. You do it for so long and bust your ass on the road and tour and spend money, and when nothing exciting is happening, you lose inspiration to go out there and keep doing it. I think him joining the band re-inspired everyone to get back out there and do what we do best - play live music.
CP: Will “This Is” be your second or third release?
KD: It will be our second released studio album.
CP: I know that The Last Straw started in 2007. What were the circumstances?
KD: It started at MTSU. I'm originally from Bowling Green, Ky. I came down when I was 19 and went to school for music business at MTSU. I placed in the finals at the International Blues Challenge when I was 18, and I've been playing guitar and fronting bands since I was 16 doing the young guitar blues slinger thing.
I came down to MTSU, and being that it's such a large music school, there are musicians everywhere. With a little networking, I met (drummer) Pearce (Harrison) in one of our classes. I met Marc (Williams), our current bass player, through his girlfriend, who was a fan of the band and a friend of all of us. Jason was highly recommended through our agent who has worked with him on a couple of different projects.
The original origin would be from MTSU, going to school together. You get together and jam with some dudes one night and realize that, “Uh, we might have something here. Let's explore it.” We've changed members to the point that I'm the only remaining member of The Last Straw that formed in 2007. We've come a long way from 2007, that's for damn sure.
CP: Listening to some of your tracks online, I hear some Black Crowes and Allman Brothers, but also a lot of soul. Who were some of your collective influences?
KD: Obviously, we do get The Black Crowes. We're all fans of the Black Crowes. They're an influence that, collectively, we share. It's kind of all over the board, and that's the beauty of The Last Straw. We all have different influences and are collectively able to put it together. That's what makes The Last Straw what it is.
Pearce is a 311 fan. I am a huge Allman Brothers fan. Jason, the guitarist, is a huge Rolling Stones fan. Mark is early '90s, alt-rock golden years guy. We share collective influences like My Morning Jacket, Foo Fighters and The Black Keys as well as newer stuff, like Grace Potter. We try and bring a fresh new sound to soulful rock'n'roll.
CP: There's also a hint of country, kind of a West Texas country/rock sound. Is there any country in the mix?
KD: Well, yeah. I would say, yes, just because we don't want to niche ourselves in one market. For the longest time, before Jason got in the group, they were calling us “progressive southern rock,” kind of a Yes-meets-The-Allman-Brothers kind of thing. We thought, “Yeah, that's cool, but we're rock'n'roll. Let's go that route.”
Being in Nashville and surrounded by some of the best country musicians in the world, it's bound to rub off a little bit. I think there's a touch of that in there. And being from the South, it's hard to take an accent and disguise it, especially singing and stuff like that. There are inflections that may sound more country than most. It's not a huge influence of ours, but it's definitely present.
CP: You mentioned that the band now is almost a completely different beast, thanks to the new lineup. Do you feel like you're past the point of lineup shifts? Do things feel solid now?
KD: Yeah, we're at that point. The lineup now is stronger than it has ever been. That goes hand in hand with the maturity of us as individual players, learning how to not play so many drum fills or guitar licks, knowing when to lay in a groove and when to shut up.
I feel like, yeah, we're in a spot right now where this is, hands down, the hottest lineup we've had to date - songs, players and all around.
It's really a blessing. You do something for so long and feel like you're going through the motions, and then something hits, and it's like, “This is why I'm doing this.” What hit was Jason joining the band. He brought this new energy, new vibe and new creative influences to get us out of that southern niche market and let us be American rock'n'roll.
CP: Did you instantly realize that Jason was going to be a game changer for the band?
KD: No, it wasn't. Mark instantly realized he was a game-changer. There are so many players in Nashville, and we were in a position where we could be picky. We needed someone to dedicate their life to what we do. That's hard to find in Nashville because there are so many working players and so many good players. We were looking for a specific kind of person, and we had a couple of different options.
Initially, it was one of those things where it was like, “Let's try the other guys out and be sure. Let's see what we've got.” Then, we brought him back in, and the first thing I noticed the most about him is that he rolls in and he's playing the exact same guitar amp. I thought, “OK, he's obviously a tone player. He values his sound.” He started playing and knew every song. He came to the table prepared to the max.
By the time he came to the second rehearsal, he had already written brand new parts, and he had variated our songs and taken them, texturally, to a completely different level. That was when I knew Jason was our dude.
CP: You mentioned earlier that the band is most at home on stage, and in your bio, your live shows are referred to as “explosive.” What do you do on stage to warrant that description?
KD: It's strictly music, man. I've been blessed with the ability to share my soul with the world. I think that that's something that not a lot of people can do. We're seeing a rise of it again in the music industry with people like Grace Potter, The Black Crowes and even My Morning Jacket. Talk about soul? Jim James has some serious soul.
You're seeing the re-emergence of soulful rock'n'roll, where it's not just fluffy, stagnant, compressed, monotonous music. Someone can be an absolutely smoking guitar player and play with zero soul. I think that's what separates us.
The dynamic of our show - in all senses of the word - is what sets us apart. We're up and down taking you on a roller coaster. We try and drive for the listener. Bands always think of set lists and how to mesh songs together and do all that stuff, but I feel like we really try and concentrate on our live show to the fullest extent.
Musically, we try and make it as explosive as possible - soulful, tasty, find our spot and not overplay. That's what gets us off live, the soul stuff.
CP: A lot of the responsibility for making that connection with an audience seems like it must rest on your shoulders, as the front man. What do you do to get the audience's attention and hold it?
KD: It's a difficult task. You play some places and right out of the gate, you can have an astronomical response. You can play to 50 people and it sounds like 500 because you're response right out of the gate is, “What just happened to me?” Other times, you feel like you might as well be background music or elevator music.
It's hard to captivate an audience, but I feel like, as the front man, energy is one of the big things I use. I don't want to be outlandish about it, but I want to grab people's attention with the amount of energy I use, vocally, and primal guitar playing.
Having that presence live, I think people really get taken off guard sometimes when they look at me and then hear me sing. Just talking to me, my voice is different than when I sing. A lot of times, I hear, “I can't believe that voice comes out of you.” It's deeper than me. It's deeper than all of us. That's how I try to put us to the forefront and make people pay attention to us: energy.
CP: Have you played Chattanooga before? When?
KD: The last time we played was Rhythm & Brews. It's been six months. We've played The Low Down a couple of times with Milele Roots. We've played shows with Up With the Joneses before. It's been a minute, though, so we're trying to build in that network in Chattanooga.