The Illusion of Soulstice
by Sean Meddel
Photos by Ching and Lynn, of Phreak Productions
"There is more to electronic music than beats and samples." - Andy Caldwell / Soulstice
Ain't that the truth. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. I still remember seeing Soulstice for the very first time at this cozy little club called Goddess in Miami. The place featured décor inspired by the decadence of the Orient opium gardens, and the fans were up-close and personal to the very lively band. I had not heard about or of the album at the time. It was Om Record night with such roster big names as Mark Farina and Ming & FS.
Soulstice stole the show that night.
Since then, the group has held sold out dates for the Sounds of Om Tour around the country. That was April 2001. With the release of Mixed Illusions, a compilation featuring remixes of all the various Soulstice hits, Atlanta was fortunate enough to have them come through a few more times including the recent stop at Eleven50.
For those still in the dark, Soulstice is made up primarily of four people--Gina Rene, Gabriel Rene, Andy Caldwell and Mei-Lwun Yee. Andy and Gabriel handle the majority of the production, while Mei-Lwun Yee writes the songs. Gina, of course, provides the Sade-calibre vocals, and the end result is the Soulstice-sound. It's a difficult thing to describe the four-piece, because they are a fusion of many styles. Their multifaceted sound is evident to even the casual listener of their album-the aforementioned vocals reminiscent of Sade, hip-hop, reggae, house and break beats. They put it all together and smooth it over.
And according to Gina, their next album is going to be "...more crazy openness and [even] less homogenous sounds." Oh my...
The name itself is part of that philosophy, that belief. According to Andy Caldwell, it's a "clever play on name. [They] wanted to change the name, after the initial suggestion of Solstice by Gina and Gabriel. We come from that background of warmth and resonance." And indeed, Soulstice not only cover the range of soulful, human emotion, but also mark a change of seasons and styles in dance music.
Lunar Magazine catches up with the lovely Gina Rene and (DJ) Andy Caldwell the day after the show. It was a sunny, balmy day as we all chatted on the Starbucks' patio. We started talking about the night before and about the set.
Lunar: Explain to our readers why there are just the two of you on this night, and how does Gina decide when and what to sing?
Gina Rene: Actually, I didn't know myself either, because I didn't know what he was going to play. A few of the songs were planned, and the rest were like, whatever feels good.
Andy Caldwell: That's one of the perks of this style [of music], we don't have to have a set format. And the way we did it, for this [Remix] tour is too split up. Gina was pretty much gone every weekend, and one of the three of us would go with her.
Gina Rene: Either Andy or Gabe or Mei-Lwun.
Andy Caldwell: And this is the last leg of the tour. We've been on the road four months... since October.
Gina Rene: This is our first Soulstice only tour. This is the first time we got to go out as ourselves, without Mark Farina or anyone else from Om [previously it was the Sounds of Om Tour where another DJ would accompany Soulstice from the Om roster] and actually see what our fan base was. Even though we weren't touring with the whole band, it's been a great experience because each night is different-what Andy plays is different from what Mei-Lwun and what Gabrielle plays. And it's really cool that it works like that.
Lunar: Now that Illusions have been out a year and you guys have had a lot of dates on the road, what are some of the things that you've learned (or were surprised to learn)?
Andy Caldwell: We've been through several different record deals. We first got signed in 1997 to Om Records. Then about 9 months later, we got signed to DreamWorks.
Gina Rene: Nelly Furtado is on DreamWorks. [Apparently, Gina digs Nelly]
Andy Caldwell: Yeah, they're a major label. And then a few years later we got out of the deal because it wasn't working well, and we went back to Om again. About that time is when we put out Illusions. So although we've only put one full-length album and a remix album, it feels like we've put out two or three. We've had a lot of experiences.
Lunar: Because the myth is once you're signed, things will be good.
Andy Caldwell: Things are much better with Om than with DreamWorks.
Gina Rene: DreamWorks is a major label, and Om is an independent label, and they heard our music from the start and they liked what we do. And that's something that's really cool. Because as Soulstice, we make a lot of different styles of music, and it's good to have the releases marketed to different segments. [Om had marketed the singles/vinyls, quite specifically, to the dnb, triphop, 2-step, on a genre-specific basis. As opposed to pushing all of Soulstice onto all audiences at once.]
Lunar: And how is this tour different?
Andy Caldwell: The format is different, for one. For the Sounds of Om, we had 7 players. And we were doing songs from our album, almost exactly as it was recorded.
Gina Rene: And most of the songs were down to mid tempo.
Andy Caldwell: We did a couple of remixes of our song up-tempo. And the reason we did that is because we were playing with Mark Farina, and we knew we were going to be in a club environment. So we took the drummer Kevin Carnes and we played him all the beats and stuff. And we used this little drum-triggering thing where he would play on the drum kits, but it would also trigger samples. And then the bass player would have effects, and the guitar player had their effect. The goal was to make it sound like the album.
Lunar: And how are you leveraging your time with Om on this final tour?
Andy Caldwell: What we are hoping for at this point, is to take everything we've done with Om Record and kick it up a few notches. We are actually looking to go back to a major [label] right now with our next record, maybe like Virgin.
Gina Rene: We are shopping, but we want somebody who knows about this kind of music-deejaying and the [dance music] culture, and how it's not about popping pills; that's not our goal. But we are making what we are making. Our new album is different in a sense than our last one because on our last album, I feel like we excluded some tracks because "oh this one is too artsy" or "this is too different." It's almost like we homogenize the sound, and it's not a bad thing, but all the songs do kind of blend together.
Lunar: Illusions was what, 5-years in the making... so what's the status of the current album?
Andy Caldwell: We had the album ready to go when we signed with DreamWorks. They wanted us to go back and work on a couple of more songs, which turned into a couple of more songs, and a couple of more songs. Basically, they were getting us to write something that they (feel like they could) sell...
Gina Rene: We weren't ready yet, we weren't ready for it...
Andy Caldwell: We definitely were not ready for the mainstream. For [selling as] R&B, the music is a lot more [mainstream] than what we were doing. They signed it in the wake of the whole trip-hop getting popular.
Lunar: So what is your take on the "popularity" of your music and of dance music in general?
Andy Caldwell: My own philosophy about dance music is that it just [is] growing at such a phenomenal rate. You're hearing it everywhere you go nowadays. I do see it parallel the hip hop movement, and where it creates its own gigantic, self-support industry. And it won't be a sub-culture, and it won't take a couple of major labels to make it happen. It's happening on its own, like grass-roots.
Lunar: According to the press kit, you guys also traveled abroad with the rest of the Om roster...
Gina Rene: Nope, we were supposed to have a European leg, but then September happened.
Andy Caldwell: We had Mexico City, and then this festival... off of that we were going to Europe in November, but the whole thing had fallen through by then. I did some DJ work in Japan though.
Lunar: I was going to ask you to compare and contrast your travel abroad. How about just the different U.S. cities then?
Andy Caldwell: Music in SF is pretty good. My experience is that London is definitely the hub of dance music. But it's a different sound more energetic and fast-paced, pumping. Then there is like trip-hop, which is still a bit sub-culture. Commercial dance music is huge over there. Not like here... I remember the first time I heard house music at retail shops in Newberry Street in Boston, and they were playing "Deeper Love... deeper love." [Andy sings] That was 1992.
Gina Rene: No way! It's cool that it's not happening all fast.
Andy Caldwell: [But as far as Atlanta goes] We just love it here!
Gina Rene: People are so cool here; they are totally open!
Andy Caldwell: Our experience here ranks it right up there with the best of them. We play all over the country, and Atlanta/eleven50 is by far the best in terms of in appreciation of the music, crowd response, and the way they take care of you.
Lunar: Your homebase is still SF right? Where else is the lounge culture thriving enough to host Soulstice?
Andy Caldwell: On this tour, we've done Atlanta three times, and pretty much every large city in the U.S. [It] totally varies each city, and it has a lot to do with the promoters themselves.
Gina Rene: I'm trying to think of where we've been to. Atlanta is the only place we've returned to. [more to herself] I don't know if I'd rank Seattle with Atlanta, but here and Washington DC have been my best experiences, crowd, interaction with DJ, etc.
[As a side bar, I ask them about taking Soulstice mainstream, since the tour itself was for maximum exposure. Out west, they get a lot of airplay on stations such as KCRW, but what about all those other cities they've toured?]
Gina Rene: It's not a must-happen kind of thing. That'd be cool, because already the response we get from so many different types of people who listens to a lot of different type of music is so positive, and people have opened up. I remember doing this one show, and it was mostly rock-people in SF. We were playing downstairs in this room, and most of the people upstairs playing were, like, rocking and reggae. I remember these two skater kids came up, and we were playing this really fast number like a fusion of some rock and hip-hop kind of beat. These two kids were like, "Wow, we never heard anything like this; we usually just listen to rock, but we really liked your set." That gave me the realization that our music has enough appeal as any, as many different kind[s] of listeners. And so it would be if really good we could get more airplay.
[On the previous night, there were definitely people who had never heard Soultice, but heard of them. And they stayed until the lights came on.]
Lunar: The comparison has been made between Gina and Sade. What are some of your non-musical, but personal contributions?
Andy Caldwell: I grew up, for the first 5-6 years of my life, in Mexico and moved to CA later. That had a really big effect on me on how I look at my own life, the way I live, and how I pursue my dreams and my ambitions. I'm a pretty humble person, and I really didn't have a lot growing up with a lot of very poverished people will show you a side of life that's very country. I think that translates to me just wanting to do the music because I love it: not because of the money, for the pure love of what I'm doing and appreciation of other people's work. To try to better the art. So everything I put into Soulstice is like that, from the heart, and I want it to be the best possible translation of our effort.
Lunar: And you, Gina?
Gina Rene: The first thing I can think of ...[Gina pauses]. Basically all my life, well not all my life, but once I hit my teens, I started doing a lot of soul-searching, and I'm relieved that I got really into the religion I was brought up in, which happens to be Catholicism. I was always searching for truth, it seems. And over time now, that search... I'm just really into raw truth, spiritually. How am I going make sense to you? It's not that simple. Truth-seeker. So the kind of music I listen to and the kind of movies I watch, it all reflects that. And it's something that I feel like I can get a natural high off of. Anything that's so deep and true I like to bring that into my music. Now it's not that it always has to have so much meaning into it, but that's something I really gain something from, connecting to truth.
Lunar: Thanks for that! In your press kit, there is a quote about Gina commenting on beats (in regards to the Soulstice creative process). Typically when you are "making" a track, are there hard dividing lines in the studio effort?
Andy Caldwell: All of us have our specialties. Gina's main thing is writing. [She] comes up with these classic melodies, and it just sounds like, wow...it sounds beautiful.
[Meeting interrupted by star-gazers. The camera attracts onlookers all day.]
Mei-Lwun really come[s] through with amazing, lyrical songwriting abilities; [he] takes our music, lyrically, to a new level. And Gabe has the biggest ears in the world. And he can hear something in anything. He can hear someone fiddling around with a melody or something. He'll go and "recreate" it again... and "snap, snap," he's in the moment, totally flowing. And I'm really good with all the linear kind of stuff. Just making sure everything sounds really, really good together.
Gina Rene: You've been really good at string arrangement[although] it's not like you'll play violins or anything. Each person has their own creativity and input, and it's so unique. Yet over time, we each have grown and extend over from where we used to be. Like I used to only just come up with melodies and some lyrics...and now, I actually feel like I can suggest a type of beat for them to use. And they can do lyrics and melody.
Lunar: What catches your ears? What haven't you done?
Gina Rene: I've been listening to, I'm totally jazzed about this Salt Williams CD, Poet MC. Very different from your average Hip-Hoppers. He's got this cool music behind it. I don't know. I listen to a lot of different stuff. Classical music. In fact, between the guys, Gabe has been trying to make some kind of weird, classical, piano-string arrangement with this hard, hard, hard beat.
Lunar: Does the advancement in technology excite you?
Andy Caldwell: Digital technologies have gotten so good. Clean. You can do so much with it. I got into producing about 8-9 years ago. I remember I bought my first sampler, and I paid like $1200 for it. And it was the least expensive one I could afford. It had just pretty basic capabilities. Now, there are so many things you can do with just a laptop. It has really opened the door to a lot of creative type of people who like to express themselves a little bit with music. And then there's stuff like Avalon, all outboard processing gear, that's just really amazing. Technology is really exciting to me. That's part of the attraction of EM to me, fiddling with all the gadgets.
Lunar: What about the people and artists you work with?
Andy Caldwell: We are not in the studio with them. Miguel Migs is a friend of ours, and he hangs out sometimes.
Gina Rene: He's from Santa Cruz too...
Andy Caldwell: I'd love to work with Mark Iverson. I'd love [to] meet DJ Spinna, the Fila Brazilla guys.
[Phone interruption. I'm over my time limit by a lot, but the two were very gracious and continued to entertain my inqueries.]
Lunar: Last question... when it all works, fine. But on the bad days, what do you guys do to get away from each other?
Gina Rene: Things are really good. You guys had friction the other day [Andy nods]. But we communicate really well at this point. It's been since 1996 that we've all [been] together, and there was a time when me and Gabe just UGH. Seriously, sometimes. But now we've figured it out, we're just straight-up honest with each other, and it goes away. We're frustrated, we cuss, and it's over.
Andy Caldwell: We are like a big family. And there are a lot of things, it's not just mixing the album. There are a lot of things... we all take turns and we all hang out together. We've grown up together. We are friends.
Lunar: So what do you do for fun?
Andy Caldwell: I cannot remember the last time I had fun. I go to a movie.
Lunar: With lots of disguises.
Gina Rene: You're never famous in your hometown.
Andy Caldwell: I love to golf, so every time I get a chance, I want to be golfing.
Gina Rene: I was just thinking about that on the plane... I need to do some other things...
Lunar: You mean you don't sing 20-hours every day?
Gina Rene: I have a little girl, a 3yr old daughter. Her name is Violet. So I look forward to talking to her, and I was just making a list of all the fun things we can do together, because we just get so stuck in a rut sometimes. SF is so iffy, most of the time it's overcast and you don't want to go outside. And when it is sunny, somehow I end up in my room cleaning it. So I'm going to make a list of cool things to do with Violet, and have some fun...
Andy Caldwell: The thing about that weather [in SF] is, for me, it's motivating. Especially if it's a crummy day, there's nothing else to do, might as well go to the studio. But if it's nice out, I have harder time to stay in...need to go to the beach. The weather being the way it is, is very good for production.
At this point the interview concludes as Andy is mistaken for Tom Cruise and the patio turns a bit chaotic. Honest. Thanks to Gina, Andy and Gunner from Om Records. And a special thanks go out to Ching and Lynn of Phreak Production, who came to the rescue (equipment failure) by sharing their video and distilled images with Lunar Magazine (you rock!)
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