OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, Passafire has steadily become merely the latest example of an original, rock-oriented band that has made significant waves outside of our immediate area.
Like Kylesa, Baroness, Perpetual Groove and —to a somewhat lesser extent— the Eric Culberson Blues Band, GAM and Circle Takes The Square, Passafire has woodshedded here in a locale that routinely provides plenty of inspiration for musicians, if not always the right kind of venues in which they could properly capitalize on said inspiration.
Initially producing, recording and manufacturing their own albums (which they sold online and at their live shows), they also successfully licensed several of their tunes to filmmakers who used them in the soundtracks of youth-oriented extreme sports DVDs. These days, however, they can more often than not be found on the road, criss-crossing North America either as headliners in small and medium-sized clubs, or as a supporting act at large clubs and theaters.
They recently signed to LAW Records, which specializes in the type of dance-friendly, groove-heavy reggae-based alt.rock Passafire delivers, and soon the buzzworthy quartet will head into the studio to track their third album — this time with a respected (if as yet unnamed) producer collaborating alongside the group.
This Wednesday, the band plays a rare, free hometown show in City Market at Wild Wings. I caught up with keyboardist Adam Willis for a lengthy game of catch-up, and our full interview is below.
You told me recently that for this group, “staying busy is a must.” For folks who may not understand what the lifestyle of a rising, ambitious young rock band is like in 2008, explain what you mean when you say you have to stay busy. How often are you rehearsing, gigging, recording, and just planning the group’s future?
Adam Willis: When I say staying busy is a must, it’s important to keep in mind that doing shows just to do shows is not necessarily what I mean. It’s most important to make sure that you have a real plan and that everything you do is well thought out. Touring smartly, rehearsing efficiently and prioritizing your time are key. It’s very important to stay busy and never slow down. Momentum is key in this business because we live in an age of immediate satisfaction. People want the new thing right now, and you have to provide them with something at all times to keep their attention on your band and your music.Passafire is a 24/7 kind of thing for all of us. We realized a long time ago the type of commitment we would have to make to find success. There are no days off. If we are not on tour, I am on the phone with our agency or our managers planning the next step, writing up time lines, being creative with our promotions. We usually rehearse every day — especially now as we are looking to put out a new album in the spring. So far, we’ve done about 140 shows this year. Most of our lives are spent on the road and when we’re not traveling we’re working with our team to make sure the business end is taken care of.
You guys did a show with Van Halen, how did that come about?
Adam Willis: It was huge. We heard David Lee Roth was a reggae fan and when our agent pitched the idea to them Roth really liked the record and put us on.
How did the show itself go?
Adam Willis: We flew out to Reno for the date and were amazed by the scope of it all. We went on in front of about 5,000 people. We were a bit worried about crowd reaction but when we went on everyone went nuts! The whole set the crowd was way into it and was crazy. We stepped off stage feeling great and confident.
Did you get to meet any of the members of Van Halen?
Adam Willis: We really didn’t spend time with them, but they acknowledged us and their entire camp was great and extremely polite. It was a great experience.
What sort of folks do you now have in your corner as far as a label and management company go? So far, do the benefits of being involved with entities like that outweigh the cost of using their services?
Adam Willis: We are currently booked by Monterrey International and managed by three guys in L.A. who handle all of our press, day to day business stuff, and song placement. The benefits are limitless as you are working with people who have established relationships in the business. They have the knowledge and experience, and most importantly, they have the time and the eagerness to pitch the band every chance they get. We did ALL of that ourselves for over three years, and let me tell you as the one representing the band it was A LOT of work. Yes, you pay them. They make money off of you, but they work for you and believe in you and have the means to improve their bands’ scenarios.
If you don’t mind me asking, in a situation like the Van Halen opening slot, did your band receive (or even expect) any kind of actual payment for that show, or is it a case of a great opportunity to be seen by tons of diehard rock fans, and so that is payment in and of itself?
Adam Willis: To be honest with you, we would have done the show for free (laughs) but our agent would never have that! We did get paid quite a bit to do that show, and of course the exposure was huge. That can be payment in itself. This might come off as arrogant, but we really don’t do free shows except for a charity purpose. This is my job. I work all the time. I don’t work for free and we honestly have too many mouths to feed at this point to do free shows. And Van Halen as an organization understands that, which is why they did pay us what they did. People also tend to forget that although the show starts at nine at night or whatever, we are there at four in the afternoon loading, sound-checking, etc..., and don’t leave until two in the morning.
I see you guys have another big tour coming up.
Adam Willis: We’re basically doing two nationals back to back. We went from Savannah to Ca., and soon we’re going back again. This last one was the first official LAW Records tour, and we were really stoked. It was us, Pepper and our label mates The Supervillains.
You told me a few months back, before you left on that cross-country tour, that you expected the turnout to be huge, and for most of the dates to sell out. Was that the case? Did the tour turn out to be a successful and fun as you had predicted, or in the end, was it more of a grind than you’d planned for?
Adam Willis: This last tour was huge not only for Passafire but for LAW Records as a whole. Many of the dates did sell out and if they didn’t, they were near capacity. We realized on this tour that we have a real crew of people working together for a common goal. Our label is pushing hard for the successes of these bands and that makes us feel great. It’s always a grind, but the fun outweighs any hardships you might feel while touring. We are all best friends and have a lot of fun together and because of that it never is that bad. I do miss my bed, and being gone for two months and coming home again and trying to integrate into the real world again is tough. We live at night, we are social creatures and our careers depend on it, so it’s normal for the first day back no one leaves their house. Sometimes you need to pump the breaks. Again, more than anything we saw the potential for this label and the bands on it. There’s a lot ahead of us and we’re just happy to be doing this for a living.
What size venues were you performing in?
Adam Willis: The venues ranged from 700 to 3,000 seaters. We played some legendary rooms, like Irving Plaza (Fillmore East) in NYC, Stubb’s in Austin, and the Metro in Chicago, among many others. They were BIG shows. It’s great to be there because you know these venues are professional and everything will run smoothly.
From your experiences so far, going out in support of more seasoned acts with established national fan-bases, what are the most important things Passafire has learned about being the sort of opening act who gets asked back on future tours?
Adam Willis: This is a question we get asked all the time. Number one, play good music! It sounds silly but this is the basis for your career. Number two, and almost as important, is to be friendly and easy to work with. This is something a ton of bands for some reason or another cannot do. When we first started playing with big bands we did whatever they told us to do. We never complained. We worked hard, got our gear on and off stage in record time, stayed out of their way, didn’t drink their beer, and were generally courteous all-around to everyone involved. It’s a very simple formula: You are there to get the crowd hyped up for the headliner. If you stay out of everyone’s way, make sure you know the ropes and use common sense. They will likely invite you back. Of course, the more and more you do this and work with these people the more you can ask for and the more leverage you have. Don’t be too big for your britches just yet!
So what is the next step for Passafire?
Adam Willis: We have another national tour in January, and then we immediately hit the studio to cut our third full-length album. Whew! No stopping anytime soon.We feel that is the only way to succeed these days, maintain your presence and chisel away at the markets you have built.
What are some of the best markets for the band, and why do you think the group has taken off in those areas? Is it radio play, word of mouth, internet buzz, or something else?
Adam Willis: We have some really strong markets these days: Baltimore, Florida as a whole, NYC, Salt Lake City, L.A., Seattle and Portland, for instance. Those are just some of the places we do really well. I think our popularity in those places is because of several factors. Word of mouth on the band is huge. Our online marketing and our “street teamers” are awesome. We don’t really get very much mainstream radio play, but we are heard on Sirius and some of the other satellite radio outlets. I would say the biggest promotional tools for us are MySpace and Facebook. The band is accessible there: people write us and we write them back. They are close to the band. This has blossomed into “family style” shows and events where everyone is comfortable and enjoying themselves. Now, granted, we are talking hundreds and sometimes thousands of people, but you know what I mean. We are reachable by our fans and they love that. We write everyone back. This has been the key factor in building and maintaining our fanbase.
Now that you’ve signed with LAW Records, will the process of making this next record differ in any noticeable way from the last ones you’ve done completely on your own?
Adam Willis: Yes and no. We have creative control over everything we do so that part stayed the same. But LAW does want each album to be progressively bigger and better. So now we are looking at better studios, different recording scenarios and a producer. In that way, the record will be different. At the end of the day the core will stay the same. We’ll keep writing music we like and that our fans like and we’ll have the final say in how our records sound — point blank. LAW definitely trusts us enough to make the right decisions in the studio.
Who are you guys looking at for possible producers, and how will that person ultimately be chosen?
Adam Willis: We are talking about it but have not made any final decisions yet. We’re really excited to possibly be working out in Tx. with Paul Leary, guitarist and producer for the Butthole Surfers — but we haven’t hashed all the details out yet. We mainly just want to work with someone who understands our sound and likes our music. Getting a big-name producer is great, but if they know nothing of our genre, our history and our story, then what’s the point? Are they going to demand that we “move the chorus” and “shorten the bridge” and so on? Because if so, I don’t want to work with them. We spent hours and hours and hours on our songs and for the most part feel they are where they need to be. We are certainly open to suggestion but we won’t be forced to do anything because the way we have written and performed these songs has gotten us here so far.------------------------------ Here's a clip of Passafire from Feb. of 2008, playing a live-in-the-studio radio session in Maryland: ------------------------------
You’ve mostly built this band outside of Savannah, and although you play here in town occasionally, I think a lot of folks don’t view you as a “big” local act, because you set your sights on the road as soon as you were able to put on consistently strong live shows. Is there any pressure being exerted on the band (either by the members themselves or by outside advisors) to move to a larger market where the group could perhaps grow their adopted hometown into a real bread-and-butter financial cushion through local gigs?
Adam Willis: We have talked about it but everyone sort of agrees that leaving Savannah right now would not be wise. The cost of living here is low and we are never home anyhow. We have built enough markets regionally to have a cushion when we need it. And people not viewing us a “big” national band here is just fine. We need that at home! I would hate to not still be able to walk into AMR Music and chat it up with my friends there (or something along those lines). We like the fact that when we come home we can blend right back in, if that’s what you’re asking. I think the pressure to move comes more from a couple of factors: People miss their families. They want to live in the city or be by the beach. These kind of personal preferences sometimes put pressure on the band to move, but as a whole we’ve already made so many sacrifices for the group that staying in Savannah is a great option. And truthfully, deep down we all love it here. I think on a personal note I would have a hard time leaving Savannah anytime soon.
What can folks expect from this pre-Thanksgiving show at Wild Wings?
Adam Willis: You can expect a ton of brand new material. You can also expect the same high energy Passafire show that we always deliver. New songs, old friends and a crazy good time!
Okay, here’s the Lightning Round: What’s the most embarrassing thing any member of the band wound up doing on the last tour?
Adam Willis: Hmmm, we have some good ones, but let’s just say one of the members had a little too much to drink in Corpus Christi, Tx. and ate it hard on the pavement. He wound up with a pretty bad face wound. That’s about the worst it got. We can handle our booze!
What are three albums that can usually be found in rotation for group listening on the road?
Adam Willis: Good question. Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Vampire Weekend’s Self Titled, and Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt.
What’s one chain restaurant you’d be happy to never eat at again in your life after stopping there so many times on tour?
Adam Willis: The worst is definitely McDonald’s — which we don’t really ever eat anymore. I would say Subway, because yeah, it’s healthier, but I have literally eaten every sub on the menu a thousand times. That gets old quick!
What’s one chain restaurant that the band will usually opt for on the road?
Adam Willis: Subway. It’s the healthiest option.
How big is your road crew these days (or do you even have one)?
Adam Willis: We have the band, plus a tour manager and a merchandise guy that travels with us, so six people total. We will be picking up a front of house guy (sound-man) soon as well. It just keeps growing!
Have you met any musical heroes so far in your travels that turned out to be disappointing in some way or simply not at all like you’d expected?
Adam Willis: We have a few times, and it is a strange feeling to see your heroes in a truer light, but again we are just people with flaws and when you understand that it makes it easier. I have a few but it would be in bad taste to tell don’t you think! (laughs)
If there was to be a specialty alcoholic drink named The Passafire, what would it contain?
Adam Willis: It would most certainly be a whiskey or a bourbon. We are some whiskey-drinking fools.
True or false: All REAL reggae bands have at least one member who’s stoned ALL the time?
Adam Willis: True. Guess who! (laughs)
When: Wed., 10 pm
Where: Wild Wings
Cost: Free (21+ only)