When your band’s name is Collective Soul, image is nothing—literally. It’s something of an amusing embarrassment that Ed Roland, the frontman of Atlanta’s best-selling active rock band, might be loading up on groceries at a nearby supermarket as I write this and not only would no one bother him, no one would likely recognize him. Charmingly naïve about his non-identity, Roland presumes the lack of signature requests is nothing more than an example of Atlantans’ inherent graciousness. “They don’t [bother us] much in Atlanta, and I think part of the reason is that it is home and people know we live here,” explains Roland. “It’s not a city where people gawk. That’s why Elton [John] moved here.”
It’s curious that Roland should still hold such a high opinion of Atlanta—a city that has never been especially hospitable to the band he and his brother started in 1989. Aside from a few select champions early on—and by champions, I mean venues like The Cavern, which would call up the band, maybe, when they had a cancellation—Collective Soul have found themselves largely neglected by the city they call home. Roland claims that the scant local appearances were a conscious decision on his part. Certainly, it’s no secret that Collective Soul, in its infancy, was largely a studio project, partly because the brothers Roland had trouble securing a stable lineup, but also because Ed never much believed in cultivating a local audience. “I wanted to focus on getting music into the right hands in NY or LA,” he says unapologetically. “I thought you had to spark interest with the songs. Otherwise, no one was going to be flying down to Atlanta to see your show.”
Regardless of whether Collective Soul were initially pariahs by choice or by necessity, the situation has not much improved in subsequent years. The press has kept a cool distance and the Black Crowes have emerged, in hindsight, as Atlanta’s favorite sons. Perhaps it was the go-it-alone attitude and early disconnect from Atlanta that soured many locals on the band, or maybe it was the group’s perpetual facelessness. However, it seems, at least where the press is concerned, the nagging issue has always been the band’s religious overtones. From the moment their first single—which featured the line “heaven, let your shine down”—started making waves on commercial radio, Collective Soul was branded as a Christian rock band.
Understandably, the tag rankles. “I don’t agree with it at all,” says Roland, flatly “I remember around the time [“Shine” came out] getting into an argument with a writer who said, ‘You’re a Christian band.’ I said, ‘No, we’re not.’ ‘Well, you have the word heaven in your song.’ And I said, ‘Well, so does Led Zeppelin. I don’t remember anyone saying they were a Christian band.’” Roland seems especially upset by the Christian label not because it necessarily clashes with his personal beliefs, but because such a tag suggests that the band is united by a particular brand of faith. “We’re five individual guys with five individual beliefs. No one person in the band can speak on behalf of the band. We all believe in a higher being, but we’re not out to profess what it is.”
While he may bristle at the Christian tag, Roland doesn’t deny the spiritual nature of the band’s lyrics. “Our father was a minister, and he still is. He’s a southern Baptist minister and those are my family’s roots. It’s how I grew up—the way I was taught and how I learned to speak, if that makes sense.” Hence, the scattered religious references across their albums, from prophecies to salvation.
Perhaps on no album are the references more overt than on Precious Declaration, which also balances their trademark spiritual preoccupations with the most progressively-inclined music of their career. Tracks like “Crowded Head”, dabbling in latter-era Beatles psychedelia, are far removed from the grunge-lite of their first album. The album may stand as their crowning artistic achievement, but Roland has few fond memories of the sessions that birthed it. “It was a difficult period because we were in a lawsuit with our ex-manager. We had sold all these records and had no money. We literally had to move back into our parents’ basements. We got enough money to rent this house on a cow farm. We took the kitchen table out, set the drums up there and ran wires upstairs. It was kind of like a rock ‘n’ roll frat house.”
While the band has seen their fair share of hits since then, especially from Dosage, which included radio fodder like “Heavy” and “Run”, Collective Soul has gone increasingly pop with diminishing results. The nadir was 2000’s Blender—a blatant, cloying stab at Bon Jovi synthesizer rock. The cover, with five individual headshots of the band members, seemed to announce the band’s intention in no uncertain terms. Roland, however, laughs at the suggestion, even though he concedes that the music may have been a bit misguided. “The cover was an inside joke. The record company was like, ‘You guys are good looking. You need to get on the front cover.’ And of course, that’s just not us. But they were really adamant about doing it. So finally we were like, ‘Alright, we’ll put our faces on the cover.’ So we thought we’d be real cute with this and do it like a boy band. The problem was who was going to get that but us? That was how dumb we were.”
Most people probably presumed the band was finished following the lukewarm reception of Blender. The contract with Atlantic was up, a greatest hits collection was released, and longtime rhythm guitarist Ross Childress departed. Although Collective Soul did take an extended hiatus, the band was far from over. The group merely retooled for their sixth studio effort, adding guitarist Joel Kosche and starting its own imprint, El Music Group (distributed through Warner). The resulting album, Youth, was released on November 16. Some will be tempted to read the album title as a signal of retreat to their earlier, more commercially successful sound. Yet Roland dismisses any such notion. Production-wise, he sees Youth as an extension of the journey the Collective Soul began on Dosage. Rather than referencing a specific sound or era, the title is meant, according to Roland, to capture the essential spirit of being in a rock ‘n’ roll band. “It’s just a return to having fun again. For seven years, we did six albums and toured everywhere. It’s a return to why we got into music in the first place: to have fun and enjoy each other’s company.”
Fifteen years on, there’s still some fun left for Atlanta’s most famous non-famous band. Keep an eye out in your local dairy section.