Tash Neal had his priorities straight. First thing he did when he awoke after brain surgery was reach for a guitar.
"I wanted to make sure I could play," says the London Souls guitarist as the band travels from Charlotte to Atlanta for their next show. "I didn't play a lot but I played D, A, and G chords, and it felt right, and I thought, 'Good.'"
Neal and drummer Chris St. Hilaire had just finished recording their second album of chunky hard rock and soul when Neal nearly became a fatality. Two years ago in May, he was waylaid by a hit-and-run driver while seated in a cab in New York's Greenwich Village.
Neal was in intensive care and required emergency brain surgery. For a while during his recovery he had to wear a helmet because they'd removed part of his skull. Neal was told it might be a year before he could walk again, let alone play music, but that only drove him to dedicate his all to rehab.
"I was really frustrated that I couldn't play. I was very frustrated so a lot of my energy was focused on being able to do that," he says. "It's difficult, but as long as you have something to look forward to, to work towards, that helps."
Five months later — after having a metal plate put in his head during a second surgery — Neal was playing again. By the beginning of last year, London Souls were out on the road touring. Indeed, Neal's already hailing cabs again.
"I actually went right back afterwards," he chuckles when the subject's broached. "Some people said, 'Oh you must be scared about that,' but no. I don't know why, but I wasn't. I just thought, 'Fuck it."'
After spending much of last year touring and getting his chops back, it's finally about time to release their long-awaited album, now titled Here Come the Girls. It was co-produced by the Souls with Soulive guitarist/producer Eric Krasno (50 Cent, Norah Jones) in Brooklyn's The Bunker Studios and finished in just over two weeks in early 2012.
Neal promises that it will be out in a few months, after a false start last year where it was reported to be forthcoming. He hems and haws when pressed on whether it would come out on a label or self-release, and what the delay might be. "What we know is we want to put it out," he says.
Though Neal admits the album has continuity with 2011's debut, it also showcases a lot of growth.
"There's more of a focus on the songwriting and getting better at that," he says. "Is the song good enough? It doesn't matter what kind of song it is a lot of different times. There's a lot of different [music] on the record, which is exciting for people to hear."
Last year they released a couple of singles that may offer a sneak peak of the album. "City of Light" is a rather glammy blooze rocker that recalls Gomez, while "Honey" is grimy, gospel-tinged delta blues. They're both soulful cuts but not quite as funky as their debut record.
Neal bristles when questioned about the source of his soul and classic rock fascinations, which he puts down to simply recognizing a groove, an admittedly faltering art.
"I'll tell you what it is — it's just that we have rhythm. I think people just categorize that shit as classic rock and '70s stuff because they had rhythm," he says. "Lots of people are on the 1 and 2 or the 1-2-3-4, but we like a little 2 and 4. We like to keep it heavy and people are like, 'That's like this one other time when people had rhythm.' It's just that people stopped having it. It's true. Look at music for the last 20 years."
Neal got to know St. Hilaire through mutual friends as New York City teens. They shared a similar outlook on music and appreciation for bands such as Led Zeppelin and Cream. After several years in other acts, they premiered the London Souls as a quartet in 2008, but soon found themselves as a trio.
An early EP caught the ear of producer Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon, The Jayhawks) who invited them to London to record at Abbey Road Studios. Johns set out to capture them live and a little raw. After the album's release, bassist Kiyoshi Matsuyama departed, and for a while the Souls forged on as a duo. They recorded Here Come the Girls with Neal and St. Hilaire trading bass chores across the album's 16 tracks.
"Duo or trio? We're not wedded to anything. It depends on the situation," he says. "We've done both, and they're both equally great in their own way."
In the end though, they decided to return to a three-piece. They added bassist Stu Mahan after recording the album, a couple months prior to Neal's accident. Mahan had played with St. Hilaire before, and they were interested in doing some shows upon finishing up in the studio.
"Immediately when we started playing it was like 'Great!,' and then we hit the road right away," he recalls. "But it's not only musical. It was about how everybody knows about each other and knows where they are going and gets along with each other. It was really a perfect fit."
The trio has continued writing when not on the road and has a wealth of new songs to unveil — as soon as they can take care of existing business.
"We're already working the next one because the last one's in the can," he says. "We're probably going to try to get as much music out to the people, as fast as possible."