Should the majority be content to let him pass them by, Tash Neal may be another unsung guitar hero. Yet there’s so much in his work that justifiably calls out for our ears. Possessing all of the qualities that belong to the giants of rock music (and you can insert the name of any luminary here), Neal’s genial charm has angled him into the bluster of his rock n’ soul in such a manner that allows him to deliver with explosive force sans the obnoxious cockiness that plagues the less discerning player. That he is possessed with a voice like molten lava certainly helps.
Perhaps best known for his work in the London Souls alongside drummer Chris St. Hilaire, Neal cut his teeth as a songwriter recording three albums with the band (including an early first album that was not released). Heavily inspired by the classic rock bands of the ‘60s like the Moody Blues, Love, and Small Faces, the London Souls captured the imaginations of critics and audiences alike with heavy doses of shuddering soul music to go with their bruising acid blues-rock.
Their self-titled album was released in 2011; it features a set of buzzing stone-cold grooves where guitars are wielded like deadly weapons. A softer touch was applied to the follow-up Here Come the Girls in 2015, with a sheen of hippie-chic to coat the towering rumbles of ‘60s rock ‘n ‘roll.
Before the London Souls could further climb the ascent of their anticipating success, a devastating head injury nearly prompted Neal’s exit from this world. Shortly after the recording of the band’s second album, he was hit by a car one evening heading home, leaving him comatose in the hospital. Neal would eventually wake up and tend to the necessary treatments for his recovery. Instead of resigning himself to the rather dire circumstances, however, the singer picked up the guitar and slowly put together what is now his full-length 2021 solo debut, Charge It to the Game.
Still trading on the classic rock that inspired the London Souls, Neal’s debut expands the perimeters to incorporate healthy lashings of soul and funk. The 11 tracks on the album explore the emotional gamut of his years since the accident and, despite the harrowing ordeal, the results are not at all gloomy. Crunchy guitars sidle next to wholesome grooves that hat-tip influences like Sly and the Family Stone and War. Neal’s take on classic soul is unabashedly modern, however, and he writes songs that contemplate the beating heart of a culture in the throes of both optimistic love and fatalist anxieties.
Songs like the single “Boomerang” (a number full of pumped funk and oceanic soul) reflect on the troubles of his life-threatening accident while also reveling in the fresh joys of a new start. Sweeter profusions such as “Like a Glove” nurse the more melodic qualities of Neal’s work, and he does a lovely Brill Building turn on the go-go shuffles of “My One Mistake”. In between, there is the off-beat reggae-rock bounce of “Catching Up” and the moodily raucous jams of “Just a Little Bit” and “Click it Up” to nicely round things out.
Pandemic impediments aside, Neal is handling his solo outing admirably with a couple of handsomely shot music videos to accompany the album’s singles and a series of personal live videos he calls “Quick Quarantine Qoncert” on his Facebook fan page to engage directly with his audiences. Neal talks with PopMatters about embarking on a solo career, working out the funk and soul influences in his fiery rock music, and moving beyond the trauma of his life-altering accident.
Tell us about your work with the London Souls and leaving the band to work on your solo material.
The London Souls started because I had these rock ‘n’ roll songs that were piling up and was fortunate enough to have really good friends who happened to be incredibly talented. We started playing live and growing, then recorded our first album at Abbey Road.
We did our second album, Here Come the Girls, and toured relentlessly for a good while. I certainly didn’t leave the band to “go solo” or anything. I think because of the nature of the songs and how personal they were and specific to my life experience, it made sense that this material would be the debut solo project.
There’s a clear distinction between the London Souls albums and your solo work on Charge it to the Game; London Souls pulled from a lot of ’60 blues-rock, like Small Faces. Your solo debut has stronger soul and funk influences. Please tell us about the influences that find their way onto tracks like “Something Ain’t Right”, “Boomerang”, “My One Mistake” and “Bye Bye Bones”.
When writing “Something Ain’t Right”, which was inspired by watching police killing Black people on television, the riff and vibe fell right out, and I just knew what the groove would be. The soul and funk music I grew up listening to was so embedded in me that I think those influences come out in how I play these types of riffs. And you can for sure feel the Motown vibe in “My One Mistake”, but the influences never determine the songwriting.
The songs, as songs, are the top priority. But these songs felt completely different than what I think most folks would think a soul record would sound like.
The one thing I notice on this album is the heavier bottom-end sound; on The London Souls, you worked more in the high-end trebles. Charge It to the Game feels more like a bass buffer, which makes sense since much of the album is structured around the rhythm section. Did you play any bass on the album? Were the arrangements primarily led with or dependent on the bass element on this album?
While I play bass, guitar, piano, and drums, I mainly write songs on the guitar. I think because it’s my longest friendship, so to speak. But I definitely played some bass on the album, which made sense as the songs were so personal and pretty thoroughly conceived.
Once the song is written and feels like a good song on one instrument, then I figure out the specifics of the other instruments. The song always comes first in terms of priority. I would be nervous about the quality of the song if it were dependent on it just being written for a particular instrument.
Most of the album is sung in falsetto; so, I’m curious about the tracks that feature mainly your tenor (the title-song, “All I See is Blood”, and “Just a Little Bit”). I’m used to hearing you sing falsetto on much of your work, so it’s a nice surprise to hear you hit in the lower ranges. How do you develop and explore your vocal range as you write and record music?
This album is way different for me vocally. In terms of my approach, it always depends on the vibe of the song itself and what feels right. I’m always hopeful that I’m growing as a songwriter and doing different things than before, and that growth ultimately leads to trying more new and different vocal approaches.
I never sang anything like “Boomerang” before. It’s a completely different kind of delivery for me. But that’s how the song naturally came out.
There’s a strong cinematic vibe to the music and lyrics in your work – from the London Souls days to this new solo album. It reminds me of a lot of those Mod ’60s films, like Quadrophenia and The Girl on a Motorcycle. Had those movies been made today, you could have soundtracked them. How much of an influence would you say film/cinema is on your music? Do you have any particular favourites?
I really appreciate that. It’s funny, when I’m trying to write a song, I’m not really thinking visually but just trying to feel a feeling, and hoping music comes out of me to express that. I’ve never watched a movie and been like “I’m gonna write a song that encapsulates that film.”
This album does feel the most visual out of all of them, so far. I think that’s because my life at that time — with the accident and all going on — was inherently cinematic, which comes out in the songs. Thankfully, I got to do a little scoring work during the pandemic, and I’m interested in doing more scoring work in the future. One of my favorite film/music vibes is The Matrix.
A big part of getting an artist’s work out to the public is the visual representation, whether that’s with music videos or playing live. Sound and visuals go hand-in-hand. However, it’s not easy to do that in today’s pandemic climate. What challenges are you facing in terms of visually representing yourself in your music? And in what interesting/unique ways do you think you might overcome that?
Certainly the pandemic has changed how everyone does everything. Thankfully, we were able to shoot the video for “Boomerang”, which I’m super, super excited about, and proud of. Because of Covid, how it was made was completely different. So, we got creative and made something that we thought represented the song the best way possible, while not putting myself or other people in pandemic danger. I’m always down to overcome a challenge.
You were involved in a horrific accident some years back, in which you were struck by a speeding motorist. The accident left you with a brain injury. You were then put into a medically-induced coma and underwent surgery. There was, for a time, some uncertainty whether you would play or write music again. You’ve since made a full recovery. But has the accident changed the way you write music today? In what ways has that experience impacted or changed the nature of the way you write music?
The accident truly changed everything for me. When they tried to wake me the first time from the coma, I was paralyzed on one side, so it was an extremely close call for me and my music. When I got my hands on the guitar again after a period, there seemed to be fire lit in me.
I always played every show like it was my last, but nothing changes that approach like actually almost dying. I was, of course, scared, having a brain injury. What would creativity would look like?
I realized I was writing my first song about the accident when the song “Boomerang” came out of me a few months after the ordeal. I was beyond grateful that I was still able to not only physically play but also spiritually create. So, I move forward with music forever in that gratitude.