Charleston's Sol Driven Train has always made music designed to be the easygoing life of the party, but they've never aimed as squarely at the dance-floor as they do on their latest, the appropriately titled DANCE!, which dropped last week on the group's own label.
"The title is pretty straightforward," says guitarist and singer Joel Timmons, one of the founding members of the band. "We selected songs from our catalog that we felt people could dance to and worked well live, rather than just putting out the last 10 songs we wrote. You should play it at high-volume with the furniture pushed back and a beer in hand."
While the genre-skipping approach the band employed in the past is still evident, Sol Driven Train has largely sidelined their more Americana and folk-leaning impulses this time around. "The tempo and rhythmic ideas were just as important in these songs as any kind of lyrical content or theme or anything like that," says Timmons. "We were exploring New Orleans second-line grooves, disco grooves, reggae, and calypso rhythms. 'Everest' has a kind of Peter Gabriel world-beat thing going on."
The album somewhat crystallizes the appeal of Sol Driven Train. Since its inception in 2000, the jam band-friendly six-piece has built its reputation on horn-heavy grooves and eclectic-yet-straightforward songwriting. Opener "Crazy Dancer" is a warm ode to those unafraid to hit the dancefloor, and it rides a slinky Paul Simon rhythm and buoyant horns into a lightly funky chant-along chorus. And "Big Easy Walk" takes the group's love affair with the Crescent City into overdrive, name-checking Dr. John and Louis Armstrong as the band liberally riffs on those influences. Elsewhere, as on the syncopated funk of "Greyhound Station" — which Timmons wrote on a sailboat during an around-the-world tour over a decade ago — and "Hot Pies," the group simply excels at finding a deep pocket that feels like a cozy hammock.
"It's sort of a natural progression for the band," Timmons says. "There's not necessarily a linear movement from one place to another. It's kind of like whatever sort of creative influence we allow to enter in, that is what's gonna come out. Whatever different kind of stuff we want to try and play, we do it."
What keeps the band centered, though, is their commitment to lots of Beach Boys-esque vocals and a desire to fuse disparate threads together. Timmons points to The Band as a prime example of their ethos. "What they were able to do with big horn sounds and harmonies, but also have great songwriting too, is what we're aspiring to."
It's easy to read Sol Driven Train as a more fun, lighthearted counterpoint to the wind-spun elegance of that seminal outfit, even if they can often lean a bit too heavily on the goofier side of things lyrically, a common flaw of many jam bands. But the range of what Sol Driven Train can do often befuddles listeners, leading to somewhat reductive categories like "jam band" that mischaracterizes much of the music they create.
"In a lot of ways, now a jam band has come to mean any sort of band that experiments stylistically within a set or show as a general rule, even if there are minimal amounts of what you would actually call jamming," points out multi-instrumentalist and singer Ward Buckheister. "I think when that was first becoming a term we shied away from it because we didn't jam necessarily, or maybe we just weren't that good at it. Now it's just this non-Americana Americana term, kind of like 'indie' now, where it's more of a sound qualification."
Admittedly, that kind of makes them OK with the tag now. "Whether it helps us or hurts us? I don't know," laughs Buckheister. "Who does know at this point?"
Timmons, though, is quick to interject that the association does have one big advantage.
"The jam scene is a community of people who appreciate live music, and that's what sustains us — the people who come out on a Wednesday night or a Thursday night," Timmons points out. "If we have to jam a little bit to keep them interested, that's cool. That keeps it fresh for us, too."
Fresh from their fifth Caribbean tour, Sol Driven Train performed at South by Southwest for the first time last week in multiple showcases. Fifteen years and 12 self-released albums in, they claim to be in a pretty great place right now. "We sound as good as we ever had, comradery is good, and morale is high," concludes Timmons. "We're looking forward to rockin' for a lot of people this year."