No one really knew which record store bin to put Collective Soul in when the Atlanta band broke onto the scene — they were labeled everything from “bubblegum grunge” to southern blues-rock to neo-’60s rock. Their breakout occurred in 1993 with the sudden success of “Shine,” a fuzzy, quasi-spiritual anthem that pinged from college radio airwaves to the top of the mainstream rock chart. They weren’t even a band at the time; that first album, “Hints, Allegations and Things Left Unsaid” was just a collection of demos performed by bandleader Ed Roland, who was 31 and about to hang up his dreams of chart glory.
With rock heaven’s light suddenly shining down, the band — which comprised guitarists Ross Childress and Dean Roland (Ed’s brother), Will Turpin (bass) and Shane Evans (percussion) — signed with Atlantic and went on a national arena tour, opening for Aerosmith. Roland wrote the band’s “true debut,” the self-titled album with a blue cover, while they were on the road. “Collective Soul” came out on March 14, 1995, and yielded two hit singles (“December,” “The World I Know”) and the best album sales of their career.
With a deluxe anniversary edition of the album out, along with first-time vinyl issues of it and “Hints,” Roland spoke to Variety from his home in Atlanta — 30 miles north of the Stockbridge house he grew up in, where his father was a Baptist minister, and reflected on the heady waters that fed “Collective Soul,” recording a new album in quarantine, and the lifelong influence of his Georgia neighbor, Elton John.
Can you imagine traveling back in time and telling your younger self you’d be promoting the 25th anniversary of your debut during a pandemic?
Ed Roland: I mean, it may sound egotistical — it’s not, but it’s confidence — yeah I do. Along with many other recordings to go along with it. It was a dream, and then when it happened it felt like, “Okay, here we go. Let’s roll.” Actually, the guys were just here. We Zoomed each other about a month ago — my brother lives in San Diego, our drummer lives in Indy, guitarist in Nashville — and we were just missing each other. You think about it: we haven’t had a summer off, if you want to talk about as a band, for 26 years. We decided to get together, and we literally spent the last nine days together just recording another record.
That you’re able to do that in the midst of this crazy time is something.
Yeah, you have to be very careful. I mean, we made a conscious effort. Everybody’s been very careful, and everybody’s isolated. Our drummer and bass player both had the virus — Johnny [Rabb], our drummer, had the symptoms. Will, our bass player, and his children did not, but they had the virus. So I kind of felt good about that. My brother — he’s a new dad, has a 1-year-old daughter, and they’ve been isolated in a high rise in San Diego. So everybody felt comfortable
But I imagine, in your dreams, you would have been out there playing shows to celebrate the anniversary, and not Zooming with people.
One hundred percent. We have an album that was supposed to come out in June. We don’t know when we’re going to tour. That’s where the exhaustion comes in. I think the anticipation just makes you exhausted. When’s this going to end? When can we go back to real life? But we try to make the best of it.
The album “Hints Allegations and Things Left Unsaid” was released in 1994 and “Collective Soul” a year later. You’ve said the latter feels like the band’s true debut. How so?
It is our debut as a band. The reason is, the first one was a batch of demos I made in the basement over a five-year period, that I just put together trying to get a publishing deal. So nobody played on that record. I played everything except maybe two or three parts. It just wasn’t a band. “Shine” became a hit before we got signed, and then we thought, “Okay, this is cool. We’ll go make a record.” And they’re like, “Oh no, this is already hitting.” So every day off we had [on tour], which were not many, I found a studio and we went in and recorded this record. Our preproduction was soundchecks. At every show, we were at clubs all across America — in front of Aerosmith, in Woodstock — I would write a song, and we literally learned what we were going to be as a band in those eight months before this record came out.
Did the presence and contribution of your bandmates change the way you wrote the songs?
It really did. You’ve got to remember that I was a New Wave dude, and then a rock dude. I wanted to incorporate, like, Greg Hawkes, the keyboardist from The Cars, riffs like that into guitar. And I can still remember it like yesterday; I would write a song in the back of the bus, go to soundcheck and go, “Alright, check this out, and play this riff like this,” and then they started sprinkling their ideas on it, and it just made it easier to develop a song. We didn’t have many days off, but every day was a work day for us — not only playing, but trying to discover what we wanted to sound like as a band.
Were you out to prove anything? Where there haters or critics that you were responding to with this album?
Yeah, there were haters. I let go of that early on. I mean, that was [laughs] pretty obvious from the beginning, because we really didn’t fit any mold when this record came out. We weren’t grunge, we weren’t really pop — we were a little heavier. Lyrically, there’s spirituality sprinkled in, just because of how I was raised — not because of what I believe in. The only book I read until I was 18 was the Bible. My dad being a minister. We were just basically poor Southern boys [laughs]. You did the best you could do, with the vocabulary that you had learned over the years. So we didn’t fit the cool mode at all, and we never cared. …. We didn’t want to follow any trend, or pretend like we were something we weren’t. I mean, there were no tattoos or piercings in the band when we first started [laughs] — coming out during the so-called grunge era. We were southside Atlanta boys, which didn’t really fit the Seattle vibe.
Were you wrestling with any faith stuff at the time? What was that part of your life like when you were writing these songs?
I mean, maybe “Shine.” My dad brought it up one time — he said I wrote a prayer. I said, “Dad, I believe in the separation of church and rock ’n roll.” But if I go back and be honest with myself, I mean, the time I wrote it I was a struggling musician. I didn’t have a home, car… I had girlfriends, because that’s basically how unsuccessful musicians live — they have shelter [laughs]. I look back, and I don’t think I struggled with it, but “Shine” is just one long question. You know, “Give me something.” Whether it is to have a band… You know, two weeks before we got signed, I had already signed up to play guitar on a cruise ship as a gig.
Was the line “I don’t believe in preachers” (from “Untitled”) a dig at your dad?
Not at all. I just wanted everybody to believe in themselves. … My first memories with me and my pops is, he took me to see a Johnny Cash show, to see Liberace, The Kinks, Elton John, the Eagles. My father had a beautiful voice, and was actually supposed to sing opera in Italy. And then, him and God had a talk, and he figured something out how he wanted to do his life. … I remember I could hear him talking to mom, they were gonna have some record burning night somewhere in the south. And he said, “I can’t do it.” Dude, I was only like 15 at the time, but I’d already told them I was gonna be a songwriter. I didn’t know I’d be in a band, but he knew my love of music, and he respected it. He goes, “I will not be a part of that.” And I remember thinking: that’s cool. That’s a good sign of support of what I wanted to do in life.
When you put the album on now, do you hear 1995 at all?
I do. I You can hear the influences. I can hear the whole, I used to say “pop grunge” or whatever, but just staying melodic. Soundgarden had “Black Hole Sun,” which has kind of a Beatles influence. I was starting to figure that out a little bit. Before that, I wrote three to five-chord songs so [I was] expressing a little more, expanding on chord progression.
Why did you leave the song “Untitled” untitled?
Because I just ran out of words, dude. There’s one song I wrote [“Collection of Goods”] — I had to get the lyrics to the record label to print, and I literally was on the phone with our A&R person and I said, “Give me second.” And I literally got a rhyming dictionary out and just wrote these words within 10 minutes. I was just looking up three-syllable words that rhyme.
I’ve always appreciated the orchestral elements and string arrangements on your songs, going back to the purely instrumental “Prima Donna.” On this album, there are some lovely chamber string arrangements on “The World I Know” and “December.” What were your influences in that regard?
Paul Buckmaster, who did all the early Elton John records — because Elton’s my hero. And then, of course, George Martin with the Beatles. So I kind of followed that. Budget-wise, we couldn’t have an orchestra like Paul did. But I studied how George did it, which was just to double an orchestra up, and it seemed to work good. And that’s something that we all agreed on. We all have different tastes in music, but the one thing we all agree on is the Beatles. … We love orchestration. I love Jeff Lynne, ELO. These are people that were very big influences, not only on me, but the band. And they were very comfortable letting me go in that direction.
What’s a favorite Elton John song for you, in terms of string arrangements?
Oh god, that’s a tough one. I mean, there’s simple ones like “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word. I love “Tonight,” which is on the “Blue Moves” record, which gets overlooked. There’s just too many. Paul was a crazy genius on strings. This week, because we recorded at my house and the guys stayed here at the house, every morning I’d get John Williams soundtracks and put it on for their wake-up call, and have strings — because it makes them feel empowered. We love strings.
Thoughts on “Rocketman” the movie?
I liked it. You know, being such an Elton fanatic, the first time I saw it I was like, well that song wasn’t written there. I was being a critic. And the second time I watched it, I enjoyed it. I got what they were doing. It’s more like a Broadway play — which I love. I think people should know Elton’s an honest artist. And if you ever get to meet him, he’s honest as the day is long, and he’s a good dude. I wish they would have continued more into how he’s giving back to communities, and how he’s such a loving, caring man. But, entertainment-wise, I enjoyed it.
Is there a song on this record you never get tired of playing live?
All of them. I never get tired of playing live, and each night they have their own energy from the audience, from the band. I wish we played more from that record, but we just finished our 12th album. I’ve gotta be honest with you, “World I Know” is the one that I still can remember writing, being in New York — and playing live, it still gets me. Really does. Some nights it really gets me more than others.
There’s so much big sincerity in that song, which sets this album apart from the grunge scene.
Well, thank you. We try to do that on all of them, but I think that one came across. And just a funny story: I was so insecure with it, two days before we were supposed to leave the studio, the band had gone, and I was so upset with the lyrics and upset with my melody that I went back and rewrote it and re-sang a different melody — over the same bed of tracks — and different lyrics. I wish I could find the tape. I’ll never forget; the engineer, Greg Archilla, was like, “What in the hell are you thinking? There was nothing wrong.” Literally, it was going to be a different song. It’s the craziest thing. Just a moment of insecurity.