The last time I spent a few hours with Alan Evans, he was back in his native Buffalo to say goodbye and celebrate the life of his father, the athlete, former UB football star and educator Willie Evans.
“Music was so prevalent in our house, that it felt completely normal to us to be totally immersed in it,” Evans told me that day in January 2017, as his siblings gathered around him in the living room of the family’s Buffalo home. “Dad was 100 percent supportive of what we were doing.”
In the time since, Evans has in a sense recreated the musical milieu he grew up within in Buffalo in Deerfield, Mass, where he’s lived for the past several years. Evans now runs Iron Wax Studios, a recording facility located near his home, and he recently completed work on a new collection with his Alan Evans Trio (AE3) as well as his first proper solo album, “Nothing to Say,” for which he acted as principal instrumentalist, writer, arranger, producer, and singer.
He’s also running his own record label, Vintage League Music. It’s unclear if the man ever actually sleeps.
“Nothing to Say” hit the streets (and the ether) last week, and in a real sense, it represents the full flowering of the multi-idiomatic musical manifesto Evans has been crafting since he graduated from City Honors in 1994 and commenced a musical journey that would carry him across the globe several times over.
“It’s definitely my first real solo album, my first major release where I did everything myself,” Evans told me this week, while taking a break from several ongoing production gigs and preparing to welcome his mother Bobbie and sister Rachel to town for his son’s high school graduation. “A lot of thought and work went into it. It’s funny, the vibe is unique, because I started working on the songs for it several years ago and I ended up staying true to what I was doing in the beginning. You said it’s vintage and modern at the same time, and I like that. That’s good, because I don’t wanna do something that’s already been done. So it’s not retro, really. It’s just an honest reflection of who I am and everything that I’m into.”
I asked Evans about his writing methods, and how being the main man throughout the project affected the way he wrote and recorded.
“You know, back in the day, when I was still a music-obsessed kid, I’d listen to record when I had to learn something. I’d hear something and figure it out, and it would always be different than it actually was on the record. People would be like ‘Al, man, that’s not the drum part on that tune, you’d better go back and listen again,’ and I’d be like, ‘Well, my brain was hearing something else.’ Eventually, I learned to trust it. I got to a point where I just trust my instinct, I trust my inner voice. When you become comfortable with what comes out of you, that’s huge, that’s an epiphany. I used to wanna be Jimi Hendrix and Curtis Mayfield, but I realized finally that they already exist, and they already did it, you know? I’m just doing my thing. I just put in the work and I always chase what I hear in my head.”
Chasing what he hears in his head has led Evans to some interesting and creatively fertile places. That creative wanderlust also demanded that he step out of his comfort zone and learn new instruments and new skills as a producer.
“Multi-tasking is now part of the job,” he said. “Learning different instruments is a great education in listening, in seeing the whole picture, and in learning how to get out of your own way. I started recording music when I was still a teenager in Buffalo. Then Soulive happened and I’m super psyched it did, but in a way, you almost become pigeon-holed, like, ‘Oh, that’s the drummer from Soulive. Well, yeah, that’s part of who I am. But I’m other things, too. I’ve always been doing what I’m doing now, but it’s now more of a focus. Suddenly, you look up one day and say, ‘Wow, I’m in the studio more and more and out on the road less.’
“It just happened organically. Soulive happened to slow down after 20 years of constant motion and work. That’s life, and it’s not a bad thing. Eric (Krasno, Soulive guitarist) and Neal (Alan's brother) are the same way that I am. We’ve always done other stuff, so when we come back together, we have new experiences to talk about and make music about.”
With the release of “Nothing to Say,” the new AE3 album poised to follow, tour dates with the trio in Japan, Soulive’s annual Bowlive Festival at the renowned bowling/live music venue Brooklyn Bowl running for six nights beginning July 11, several production commitments for other artists booked at Iron Wax Studios, and a series of dates with the Joe Marcinek Band over the summer, I wondered if Evans would be able to find the time to come home to Buffalo.
“'Buffalo' is the name of the first song on the album, so you know I’ll be there, or I’d be in trouble,” Evans laughed. “I think about Buffalo all the time. Every song on this record is a different story in my life, and that one is pretty Hendrix and Buddy Miles-influenced, which is appropriate because I spent so much time listening to that music and loving it when I was still living in Buffalo. That song is me looking back on living in Buffalo and wanting so much to get out there and do it, you know? I love Buffalo, but I was ready to go, man. That song is like the circle of life, looking back on the person I was in that place and at that time, and viewing it through the lens of the person I am today.”
I asked Evans if he recalled telling me, in the days leading up to his father’s funeral, that the elder Evans had repeated one mantra often enough that it stuck in his head: “Whatever you do, you must strive to be the absolute best at it.” Is this in some ways an explanation for Evans’ need to push himself, creatively and personally, to be forever seeking new and fresh sounds?
“My dad is always in my head, any time I attempt anything, musically or just in life in general,” he said. “To me, if you’re not striving to be the best, it’s a waste of time, you know? It’s not competition with anyone else, it’s an inner competition. It can drive me crazy – it definitely drives my wife crazy (laughs). I can be a perfectionist in a way, but I haven’t always been this way. My father would get on me all the time when I was a kid. I guess at some point I just kinda woke up.
“After Moon Boot Lover (seminal Buffalo funk powerhouse featuring Alan and Neal) broke up, around ’97, I stopped playing altogether and was just busing tables at Gabriel’s Gate. I’d been gigging for a long time then already, and I guess I was feeling a little burned out. I was working there one day and my friend was like, 'Man, what are you doing?’ It hit me then – I’m a musician. That’s who I am. The beautiful thing is, that gave me a real appreciation for what I feel I’m here to do.
“From that point forward, everything got serious. I still had fun, but I went out to San Diego and played with Greyboy Allstars, and it was amazing, but after a while, I was like, ‘I don’t wanna be a sideman forever, I need to do my own thing.’ And we launched Soulive then. That was a big thing for me, a motivation: I was straight up determined to not work in a restaurant again. I just haven’t looked back since. That’s now how I approach life in general, and I guess I really did learn that from my dad.
“We’re not here forever. I want every second to count."
Alan Evans’ “Nothing to Say” is out now and can be found on multiple streaming platforms and through VintageLeagueMusic.com. He’ll be in Buffalo as part of the Joe Marcinek Allstar Jam at Buffalo Iron Works (49 Illinois St.) on July 31. Soulive’s Bowlive at Brooklyn Bowl starts July 11.