Is it the man behind the music, or the music behind the man?
Perhaps that isn’t the age old question, but as I talked to Alex Gregory of Columbus blues rockers Outlaw Soul, we couldn’t help but get sidetracked talking about high school, Motown, and music as a whole. It was also nice to chat about future shows, as opposed to wondering when the lockdown would end.
This was the first time I had gotten out of the house for an interview in over a year, but from the moment we started chatting, it felt like no time had passed at all. The more Gregory and I talked, the more I realized that the way he sees music is a little different from the average mind. From his intriguing influences to his love for Alanis Morissette, we covered a wealth of topics and gave a vast array of takes.
Here is our conversation.
Let’s take it from the top – tell me about how Outlaw Soul came to be?
Outlaw Soul is the most enduring iteration of bands my brother-in-law (bassist Kevin Donahoe) and I put together. I graduated from college up in Michigan, and I realized I didn’t have a plan going forward. My sister lived in Columbus and put me up until I found a job, and the moment I got here I knew I wanted to start a band with Kevin. We had jammed before and always hit it off well. Of course, we had a lot of really, really bad band names before we landed on Outlaw Soul.
Well, you can’t tell me that without going into more detail!
Oh boy. Well, to this day my favorite band name was Runaway Dumpster. I will always love that one! We had The Fraggle Rockers, the Rust Belt Rumble Family Band, the Dastardlies, that’s a good one… but the band that started it all was the Vibe Raters! Two words, as opposed to… you know. We really thought that one was clever, being in high school and all.
(both laugh) Didn’t we all?
Yeah! So anyways, our first try at playing together we went by Brothers In Law, another great name. It didn’t last too long, but we had a couple really cool shows. We ended up opening for Gary Clark Jr. at Woodlands Tavern, and halfway through our set Eric Clapton walked in! I think he was there to see Gary, though.
He was probably there to see Gary… but you never know?
I mean, why not? He’s the whole package. Great blues guitarist, fantastic voice, really what rock’n’roll needs right now. We didn’t want to bother Eric, of course, but we got to hang out with Gary and his band after the show and just kind of shot the shit for a while.
It’s not every day you get to live a tale like that. What happened next?
Well, we were just too disorganized for our own good. For a while we went our separate ways playing music, but eventually I decided I wanted to do a power trio with Kevin. We’ve had a few couple drummers, but most recently we recruited a drummer from my church named Kiffy Kokal. How’s that for a rockin’ name?!
As far as the idea behind the name Outlaw Soul, we were really just thinking about our collective interests, which ranged from outlaw country to old soul music. There’s a lot in between there as well.
That’s a surprisingly varied mix of influences.
It really works out for us. Kevin and I ended up writing a contract for the band, to keep ourselves honest and grounded, and we both agreed to some terms. We wanted to have a band where guest musicians could sit in, have a good time, and be paid professionally. Virtually every show we’ve played has had guest musicians sit in. We pull in our favorite people from around town to play with us.
That seems like a fantastic way to make connections across the landscape!
It’s worked out well for us so far. I’ve played a few solo gigs this year, and now we’re trying to plan shows to play post-pandemic.
Speaking of the pandemic, how have you kept yourself busy from a musical standpoint?
Well, I mean I have two little kids now, but I’ve had plenty of time to play guitar during the pandemic. But I also had a long spell of not writing music or anything. My heyday of writing music was in high school and college, and it was writing about all the things that were problems in my life!
(laughs) I can definitely relate to that!
I was raised on a lot of blues music, and a lot of that is about the hardships you face in life. But I feel like I’ve solved a lot of those teenage problems now, so the trick was that I wanted to write songs about things that are going well for me. Like I recently wrote a love song about my wife, Alicia. I’m trying to write more material, but I’ve always played a mix of covers and originals.
It’s good to keep things varied like that. What would you say are your biggest influences?
Ooh, that might be a few different conversations. I see that as a three parter: guitars, vocals, and writing influences.
Let’s start at the top with guitarists.
Well, the person that made me want to play guitar was David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. Wish You Were Here was my favorite song. Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits, I just loved what he would do with his melodic riffs.
Man, I’m glad you said Mark Knopfler. Sultans of Swing is one of my all-time favorite guitar ditties.
Yeah, that’s one! Literally two minutes ago, one of the waitresses here was walking by singing one of his riffs – I think that’s cool as hell! If you can play a guitar riff that someone is going to want to sing, you’ve transcended music!
A huge one for me is The Allman Brothers Band. Warren Haynes might be my all-time favourite musician for all the ground he’s covered; Derek Trucks is fantastic; Duane Allman, people argue he’s one of the top five guitarists of all-time. But out of all of them, Dickey Betts probably influences me more than anyone.
What draws me to Dickey is that his guitar solos seem intrinsic to the songs that he writes. Jessica, Blue Sky, and any number of their songs where you hear these great melodic solos… he has a knack just for lining up the rhythm of his riffs to work perfectly with the bass and drums.
Man, do you ever wonder what goes through someone’s head when they write stuff like that? A lot of times when I hear the Allman Brothers, I just wonder if they were free-wheeling things, or if they had some sort of formula they were following.
I’ll tell you what – for me? There’s usually a specific riff I want to hit, and I write around it. Eventually I’ll find it and circle back to the riff, but a lot of good solos come from simple riffs. There’s no real right or wrong, but that usually works well for me.
I can definitely feel that. Honestly, I feel like one of the big things that is missing in music in 2021 is the errors. When you listen to the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, you really hear the nuances! Now it’s all steamed out and digitized, edited for perfection. If you really dig into early Beatles recordings, there are so many flaws in the music – but that’s what makes it great! It’s not this perfect piece of white paper… there’s feeling in there!
See, the feeling of a record is HUGE for me! One of the things that Pink Floyd did that impressed me was write an entire concept album that was just one song. Dark Side of the Moon is one piece of the music, and they probably recorded it in as few takes as possible. It was like they wrote an orchestral piece and divided it up. They had some small misses here and there, and the recording quality isn’t necessarily amazing, but that’s good because you get an organic feel to it.
It really is crazy what artists can do to as far as recording goes these days as opposed to 30, 20, or even a decade ago.
Speaking of recordings, one of the bands that I loved because they were counter-cultural when they started was The Black Keys. They would hang a mic in the basement and they would record a song like that! Whether you like or hate what they’ve become, Dan Auerbach really has a knack for getting what he wants out of a song.
At the end of the day, as a guitarist I feel like you can really hang your hat on that, too.
There are other types of ways to accomplish it, though. One of my first influences was Jack Johnson playing acoustic guitar. He really had a great acoustic sound on his first two albums.
It seems really cheesy now, but I really loved Brushfire Fairytales. Bubble Toes, Sexy Plexi… it just felt like everything he did on that record felt really easy. Nowadays you get laughed out of the building for even mentioning his name, but…
That was a great album! Great songwriting and acoustic guitar work. He practically talks through the album sometimes. When you break down the fundamentals of what he’s doing, it’s not that he’s uber-talented as a singer, he just does a great job putting it together. There are a lot of examples out there of famous musicians who were average singers, but they knew exactly what they needed to do.
Good point. Let’s talk about the singers. You and I both love to sing in bands, but it seems like we might have a lot of different influences.
Vocalists, man… my favorite vocalists were Motown singers. The Temptations, The Four Tops, Otis Redding! Otis Redding is my boy.
I love me some Otis Redding too, and I just think the story of (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay is so wild. The fact that he never actually finished the song, and that iconic whistling at the end was just a place-holder for a verse he hadn’t written yet.
He’s a good whistler too!
(laughs) As it happens, it was also the first ever posthumous number one hit! Imagine if he had actually written the last verse? Of course if he hadn’t died so young, I don’t think that song would’ve been as big as it was.
No, I don’t think so, but that goes to what we were talking about! Imperfection is what made some of those old songs great! Anyways, I love those old soul singers, and in learning to sing I had to do two things. I had to learn how to sing vibrato, honing in on Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong – guys with clear and heavy-handed vibrato. There was a subtlety to it, because you can’t just hit vibrato hard every time. I learned the vibrato, but I also wanted to learn that rock growl, like Warren Haynes. I wanted a voice that could topple mountains.
Don’t we all? There’s something to be said about a powerful voice.
(laughs) Well, I also really loved how Motown singers like Otis, Aretha Franklin and David Ruffin – how they could hit these runs of notes that just blew you away. I’d listen to them so I could figure out how they could clearly hit those notes in succession. Our current lead singer, his name is Tim Gartner, and he just doesn’t hit wrong notes. And his pitch is incredible! I’ve never heard anyone sing like him. His range is higher than my highest range, and lower than my growl.
That’s one of the nice things about Outlaw Soul. Tim can just BELT it out, Kiffy is a trained singer and my brother-in-law sang choir in college, so we all can do harmonies. But now that we’ve added a dedicated lead singer, I can focus more on my guitar and hone in on making it right.
Okay, right, back to Outlaw Soul. We covered the first two, how about your songwriting influences?
Well, I know I keep circling back, but The Allman Brothers are a big one for me, and Mark Knopfler again.
I always felt like Knopfler had a really unique voice too! Not many people before or after him sounded like he did when he talk-sang his way through songs. Walk of Life is another one of those great tales he told.
He was a consummate story-teller, and I love a good story song! Johnny Cash is one of my favorite story-tellers! We love to cover One Piece at a Time, have you heard it?
Heard it?! It’s arguably my favorite of Johnny’s less serious songs!
Brilliant song. Brilliant story-teller. Johnny Cash was one of the all-time greats. “The transmission was a ’53 and the motor turned out to be a ’73
And when we tried to put in the bolts, all the holes were gone!”
Well it’s a ’49, ’50, ’51, ’52… ah, the truly lost art of story-telling in popular music. It seems like back then, it was almost like you had to do story-telling, social commentary or love songs!
I try to work in elements of good story-telling when I write songs. But with all of those influences, it ends up being a mixed batch. Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s a real swing and a miss. But you’ve written songs, you know how it goes. Out of every 10 songs you write, you probably keep one! I can’t even tell you how many songs I’ve lost to trash bins over time.
It feels like we’re back on the topic of writing in high school again…
You look back on what you wrote and you’re like, this doesn’t even rhyme! What was I thinking?! Throw it away!
Here’s a fun story. After we bought our house, I unpacked a lot of boxes that I probably hadn’t looked at it over 15 years. A few of them had notebooks full of lyrics from high school that I really thought were great at the time… oh boy.
They were relevant to you! It’s not necessarily bad. If you were to play those songs now, there would probably be a good amount of people who it would resonate with. But for us in our thirties, it’s just not there anymore! Like, how can I sing about someone who cheated on me when I’m married to a wonderful woman? I feel like that part of my life is under-represented in my songwriting.
No doubt. There are almost too many artists now just singing about failed relationships and flings and stuff, and it’s incredibly popular because it’s so relatable in 2021. The Taylor Swift’s and Kelly Clarkson’s of the world have made a lifetime achievement of writing breakup songs.
Realistically though, how many people in the world are married? You never hear songs about what it’s like to maintain that relationship once you get there.
I think it’s because it doesn’t resonate with teenage girls, which has always been the biggest pop selling market. That’s why your blues don’t have such a huge hold on the market. Also, I don’t think you can write a dance anthem about picking up pizza on the way home for the wife and kids.
Fortunately, you can still make a living off of that type music. Look at folks like Joe Bonamassa and Tedeschi Trucks; they sell out everywhere they go. You might not ever hear them on the radio, but they make a good living on the road making solid music.
Speaking of which, do you think you guys will be able to start playing shows soon now that restrictions are starting to lift around the state?
Our goal is to be playing out this summer. Now that things are opening back up, we want to get back out and show what we’ve got as a four piece. I feel really confident that people are going to like what we bring to the table.
I know you mentioned playing covers, what might an average set for Outlaw Soul look like, outside of the originals?
I love to play ZZ Top. The three of them have larger than life personalities, they play spinning guitars that are covered in fur, and they have wild videos where they’re all having a great time! They’re so fun, how can you not love them?? But along with that, they have six or seven songs that everyone knows. Another older band we love is CCR…
Yes! Cosmo’s Factory is one of my all-time, Top 10 favorite records! Willy and the Poor Boys, Green River…
…they’re just another one of those bands that was just CRANKING out hits! The fact that they have so many recognizable songs from such a short period is amazing. But yeah, we’ve tried to add some songs that are good sing-a-longs for the crowds, like Sweet Emotion by Aerosmith, Gimme Shelter by the Stones, and Magic Carpet Ride by Steppenwolf. But we also wanted to be off the wall so we do Runaround Sue by Dion, Cortez the Killer by Neil Young, Land of 1000 Dances by Wilson Pickett… it’s a lot of fun!
I guess the question then would be whether you know how to do the Mashed Potato and the Alligator?
(laughs) I was also recently thinking about how I grew up listening to ’90s music. From ’93-’99, it felt like there was a revival of ’60s songwriting… you had The Wallflowers, Gin Blossoms, Fastball, Third Eye Blind, etc. Well, you know how music is cyclical? Maybe it’s time for that type of music to make a comeback. Maybe we should start doing some of those, like Jumper, One Headlight, or something.
There’s also a lot of one-hit wonders to choose from. And there’s a LOT of guilty pleasure music that came out of the ’90s for me.
You wanna talk about guilty pleasures though? Alanis Morissette was my JAM! She wrote some absolute BANGERS back then!
(at this point, I cringed and laughed while Alex tried to explain himself)
I don’t think I realized how much I liked her until I heard a couple other bands cover her, and I then realized how great of a songwriter she was! Maybe we could do Uninvited now that we have a singer with that kind of range.
In fairness, I was obsessed with Avril Lavigne in high school…
Who didn’t love Avril Lavigne?!
…and Jagged Little Pill did sell like, 30 million copies.
See, that’s the thing. Alanis knew what she was writing about. She captured an emotion, a feeling that almost anyone can relate to on that record. And Flea played bass on You Oughta Know!
I guess if you’re going to go with things that you could get a hard time for, you might as well do Pearl Jam or The Smashing Pumpkins.
Pearl Jam really isn’t my thing. I never really got into them, but I can respect what they did. What I love about Eddie Vedder is that nobody else sings like that.
Well yeah, nobody else can get away with it!
Well, he did it, and people bought into it! I’m not hating on them, but you’ll always know when a Pearl Jam song comes on the radio. You can’t say that about every singer, including some of the great ones. When Michael Buble comes on the muzak, it could be several other people. It doesn’t mean he’s bad, just not that unique.
I used to be a music snob, and recently I’ve realized that good music is everywhere, and elitism is really stupid, even when it comes to Eddie Vedder. (laughs)
Okay, okay. We’ve flown completely off the rails here, and we’re only two beers deep apiece. Maybe we should get back to the original topic. Tell me what people NEED to know about Outlaw Soul.
I think we have a really unique ability to pull together what you want out of a band. What you always get is really solid vocals. I’m an above-average singer myself, but Tim takes it to a new level. We’ve also got trained singers at every position, so no matter what you’re going to get that. But you also get instrumentalists that can play with anyone around town.
I applaud you for your confidence and bravado!
I’m telling you, Kiffy Kokal is one of the best drummers I’ve seen in the state of Ohio, and I’ve been playing for a long time. Kevin’s been playing bass as long as I’ve known him, since I was basically a kid. He carries the rhythm, he syncs up with whoever is drumming, and he really drives the songs. And as a guitarist, having such a great rhythm section helps me focus on my riffs.
From what I’ve heard on your live recordings, your riffs already have a great deal of polish on them. Are you planning on making an actual record or anything?
No plans to record as of yet. We do have a handful of shows coming up – August 6th at District 13 in Sunbury, an then on the 28th we’re playing a backyard festival we do every year called Donaroo, that’s over in Westerville.
Alright man, I think I’ve taken up enough of your time. I appreciate you chatting with me about all of this.
Personally, I love hearing the stories about different bands and how they came to be, so this was a lot of fun! I’m happy to talk shop any time.
That makes two of us! I could do this all night!
Fortunately we did cap our chat after a few hours… the bartender was giving us the look at that point. For not being able to meet up with musicians in person for over a year, it felt fantastic just to be able to connect again.