Gulf Coast Soul on the Pacific Rim
Houston supergroup the Suffers opens for Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Mavis Staples on Santa Monica Pier
By Bliss Bowen
“DO WHAT U LOVE. LOVE WHAT U DO. BE NICE AS HECK.”
That recent post on the Suffers’ Facebook page could double as the Houston ensemble’s credo. Onstage and in interviews, their music and conversation ripple with positive spirit.
“It’s something that naturally comes from us,” says vivacious frontwoman Kam Franklin. “We’re very happy doing what it is we’re doing. We get made fun of a lot because people find our big smiles and just overall positive attitude onstage a little not genuine sometimes. But at the same time we don’t care.
We’re so happy to be doing what we love, that the fact that we get to do it full time brings a smile to our faces in a way that I don’t think ever existed before.
“I think positivity is contagious — kind of like a really good laugh is. [Laughs.] People having the time of their lives can’t help but spread that.”
It wasn’t too long ago that the Gulf Coast soul band’s 10 members were hustling for gigs while holding down day jobs. Bassist Adam Castaneda founded the Suffers five years ago as a cover band, with the intent of learning a load of material they could perform at weddings and other paying gigs. At the time, not unlike his friends and future collaborators, he was playing in several bands — country, hip-hop and reggae — and the Suffers started out jamming on a lot of reggae. They evolved into a funkier, more soulfully eclectic outfit regarded as a supergroup in Houston’s diverse music community.
Besides Castaneda and Franklin, the band also includes guitarist Kevin Bernier, trumpeter Jon Durbin, vocalist/keyboardist Pat Kelly, percussionist Jose “Chapy” Luna, trombonist Michael Razo, saxophonist Cory Wilson, guitarist/vocalist Alex Zamora and drummer/vocalist Nick Zamora.
They share equally in writing, publishing and the band’s business — which has been steady enough that, in January 2015, they all quit their day jobs to dedicate themselves full-time to the Suffers. That marked the beginning of a banner year in which they released a four-track EP (“Make Some Room”), performed on “Late Night with David Letterman,” racked up enthusiastic reviews along the national festival circuit, and won 11 Houston Press Music Awards, including Best Live Act, Best Soul/Funk/R&B Act, Best Song and Musician of the Year.
In February they put out a self-titled full-length album — their first. They’re promoting it with a tour that brings them to the Santa Monica Pier next Thursday, when they’ll open for gospel/soul legend and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Mavis Staples.
“We played a festival with her in 2012,” recalls Franklin, who started singing in church at age 5 before moving on to rock and soul. “I didn’t get to see her because at the time I was sitting in with a country artist, but the guys in the band got to meet her and were super ecstatic. She’s definitely one of my musical heroes. I’m really excited to be in her presence and hear that deep alto and just hang out.”
When not touring, the Suffers have been working on their next album, which Franklin says will feature music that’s already been road-tested.
“I want to make music that people actually want to hear. I don’t want to make music that makes people go back to the bar,” she says. “We’ve been doing our best to enjoy it all and play the best music we can play. While we know there’s a lot of pressure that comes with the sophomore record, we’re very excited to show a new side of ourselves. When a lot of the songs on the first record came out, they had kind of been sat on for a long time. ‘Stay’ I wrote when I was 17; I’m 29 now. So now we’re able to show not only the evolution of us and our music, but we have a lot of songs that have evolved.”
Along with deep soul and funk grooves, fans can expect a continued emphasis on storytelling. It’s something that defines their sweet “Make Some Room” video — the concept for which was developed by Houston production company Monster Closet — as well as “Midtown,” which depicts a confidence-sucking encounter with an ex-lover who has moved on. Early Suffers videos were basically promotional teasers that showed them in performance; these visually communicate clear, specific stories. Instead of Franklin’s bold, earthy vocals being augmented by special effects or flashy editing cuts, they’re set amidst recognizable scenes — kitchens, bars, backyard parties with old folks and puppies — whose human scale serves the songs and highlights the intense emotion in her singing.
“One thing that really bothers me, as music evolves more and more and more, is that a lot of things we consider classic have kind of lost their appeal,” Franklin says. “A lot of times videos today have no type of story to them; it’s just singing, here’s some animation or whatever — and that’s cool; I’m not knocking that. But at the same time, I love those old music videos, especially from the ’90s, that would tell a story. ‘Make Some Room’ was our first big single, so we wanted to kick it up a notch and take it back to the art of storytelling.”
The democratic process by which they make such choices is a benefit of being independent. Unless and until a major label offers them something beyond what they and their business team can accomplish — and offers it on band-friendly terms — the Suffers plan to continue creating music independently, regardless of genre or marketing concerns, and connecting with audiences responsive to their free spirit.
“Even though we could be writing bad songs and making more popular music instead of the music we’re doing right now, we’re doing what we want and we’re doing it our way, and having such a good time doing it,” Franklin observes. “Any band coming after us that’s been told they can’t do it like this will know it might not be easy, but it will be possible.”
The Suffers open for Mavis Staples at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 18, at Santa Monica Pier as part of the Twilight Concert Series. Free. Call (310) 458-8901 or visit thesuffers.com