CHARLESTON roots and soul band Gaslight Street has been the main musical venture for bandleader Campbell Brown for many years, cranking out a number of albums and dozens of songs in the process.
Along the way, the band weathered some internal storms and faced a significant challenge in 2015 with guitarist Dan Wright departed for other endeavors.
While some bands might call it quits at a moment like that, Gaslight Street pushed ahead – reshuffling and carrying on as a three-piece almost out of necessity. Since then, they’ve leaned more heavily into their soul and R&B influences, as evidenced by their latest effort You Already Know. Ahead of their show at Congress Street Social Club on Fri., Dec. 7, we talked to Brown about the evolution of the band, and why it’s important to pursue music for the right reasons.
You guys have been doing this for a long time. I’d say you’re one of the longer running bands in Charleston?
CB: Yeah! I mean, me and Whitt [Algar] and Stratton [Moore] started doing the trio in 2015. Before that, we'd definitely had a couple different members. I feel like it's been a rejuvenation since we've started the trio.
I was going to ask about that. A lot of bands might hang it up when they're faced with a member leaving – did it feel like a new band?
CB: Oh, absolutely.
What made you want to keep going?
CB: Well, we had a tour lined up through March of 2015 and our guitar player had to leave – he couldn't do the tours and he decided to take a step back. We were kind of at a crossroads. Whitt was playing upright bass at the time, and he suggested switching back to keys. He said, "I used to play in my brother's band back in college and I played all the basslines on the Hammond." It's a lot to take on, but he nailed it. It was really seamless.
He's an unbelievable musician.
CB: Unreal. I remember when he first did it, I was floored. It made me pick up a lot of stuff on guitar – Dan was taking most of the leads, and I was just concentrating on rhythm and singing. That was challenging for me, but really it freed me up tremendously.
Do you think it expanded your idea of what the band could do, even though you were paring down in terms of membership?
CB: It did. It's weird, because it really did give us a lot of opportunities for where the direction of the songs would go. This last album we did, we recorded it as a trio and put all the basic tracks down live. Then we brought in a horn section, and then Kaitlin and Lorra from [the band] Sunflowers & Sin came in to do harmonies. That was really cool because we realized we could bring in sections – not necessarily special guests or players but sections – to fill out the songs.
From my ear it seems like you're also leaning into the soul influences even more since the trio happened. Was that intentional?
CB: Not really. I'd never write a song intentionally one way or the other, but it seemed to gravitate towards that. Whitt's influence is definitely on the soul end of the spectrum and mine is, too. We were both kind of leaning towards that influence that we both grew up on. I think it just naturally happened.
Let's talk about that. How long have you been playing and what were some of those early influences on you as a writer and player?
CB: I started playing when I was 19. I'm 42 now, which is kind of crazy [laughs]. I listened to a lot of Motown and soul from the Marvin Gaye era to The Temptations, then into Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. When I started playing I was listening to more of the blues guys like Albert King and Freddie King – all the Kings [laughs].
Allman Brothers obviously crept in there, and it’s just been kind of a growing process. Right now Lake Street Dive, they’re incredible live and just to listen to. Whitt is pretty much the same. He and I always talk about what we used to listen to. He used to listen to a lot of Tool, which is interesting. He’s had a ton of different influences from a young age.
Stratton kind of leans more towards the funk style of things. Obviously the backbeat of all of our songs is upbeat and kind of funk driven. He listens to the James Brown drummers a bunch.
Having been doing this for so long now, what’s the secret in terms of staying the course and keeping things moving? It’s so easy for some bands to just give it a shot for a couple of years and then hang it up when things don’t meet their expectations in terms of “success.”
CB: For me personally, it's about keeping a good balance. Keeping a good perspective as well. It's just a blessing that we're all able to do what we're doing for so long. Whenever I get bogged down I just kind of think about the history of everything. Also, almost three years ago I quit drinking. I know that was key for me, as far as the late nights and traveling.
I was going through a divorce at the time, and I knew it was going to get kind of crazy. So I just stayed with it.
You mentioned something that I want to elaborate on – keeping perspective. How important is it to be doing this for the right reasons?
CB: I know that you're thinking, "Filling out coliseums or bust," when you first start. But that's not realistic. If that happens, great. But you still have to take that for what it is, stay focused and keep both feet on the ground so you're not riding too high or too low.
Is the perspective you have and the gratitude you feel about being able to play music the thing that keeps the band evolving?
CB: I think so, just because we've been through so much. We're a family, and I can't imagine not playing with these guys. We all play in different projects and sit in with different bands, but I can't imagine not having this as part of my life.