Kalu and the Electric Joint Re-emerge with ‘Garden Of Eden’
By Jeff McCord
“Everyone went through it. You could sit next to anyone on a train in any country and be like, ‘Well, how was the pandemic?’”
Jonathan “JT” Holt asks the question. He’s the multi-instrumentalist and producer with Austin’s Kalu James. We’re sitting around talking after their live session here. Kalu, who’s a gale force of a frontman on stage, is thoughtful and soft-spoken. His musical partner JT is more wiry and intense.
Their band, Kalu and the Electric Joint plays a high-voltage brand of psychedelic soul. And they’re about to emerge from a long slumber. The new album Garden Of Eden drops on April 28th, and to celebrate, they have a show – a big show – scheduled at the Paramount Theater on May 4th.
The Electric Joint’s debut album was released nearly six years ago. And a lot has happened since.
Following a full two years of hard touring, Dallas producer Jason Burt (who has worked with Leon Bridges and John Mayer) expressed interest in working with the band. He invited them up to play a surprise pop-up show, and to come to the studio to record new material.
There were two problems.
As far as new material went… there really wasn’t any.
“I stay writing,” says Kalu. “JT does as well. When it comes to lyrics and melodies, they always are a form of poetry or prose to me. And going into the studio, these songs were not there.”
So what did they do?
“We trust in the process,” Kalu explains. “This record absolutely blew wide open what songwriting means to me or how it can be transferred.”
And songs weren’t the only thing they were missing. At the tour’s conclusion, the Electric Joint’s rhythm section had quit.
“We had gotten a call on a Friday or Saturday,” recalls JT. “It was Jason. And he was saying, ‘Yo, can you guys be here on Monday for a surprise show?’ We were going through personnel changes, and there’s despair to that because how it’s been is now no longer how it is. You just move forward. But the first couple of steps out of a situation like that can be baby steps, and the situation and everything just kind of like fell in like Lego pieces. We realized that we could spend more time on our ideas for the drum beat versus crafting the songs basically in my garage. We didn’t explore that too much because we had such great rhythm sections. So it was an accidental foray into thinking in that world, you know? But the songs really opened up as a result of that.”
JT, again: “I think the synthetic infusion was kind of accepted into our situation at that point. Even going back to like Sly Stone’s Fresh record, you know, you can hear these drum machines happening inside of that, and then, take that into Phil Collins or, Peter Gabriel, all these great hits, they have this thing happening. It’s a different way of thinking for us. And obviously, we want to do all that live. So how do you orchestrate that happening without playing to loops, which we didn’t want to do? We wanted to play the music.”
But first, they had to write the songs and get them recorded. They finished up in late 2019.
So back to JT’s original question. “How was the pandemic?”
“We started recording the Garden of Eden in 2019 with Jason Burt out here in South Austin, and we were planning to release this in 2020,” explains Kalu. ”And then the pandemic happened. From that, we basically looked at it as an opportunity to go back and look at the songs again.”
JT continues. “It started being remixed and rethought and like, ‘Wow, this is like a little bit bigger. And that 808 deserves a little more top end.” And so, these things were happening, but like ultimately what became the biggest trip -and Kalu would probably not tell you this- is the relevance of these songs to the pandemic.”
Songs written pre-pandemic now seemed eerily resonant.
“There was a lot of, holy shit. I’d never intended that,” confesses Kalu. “There’s a lot of goosebump moments, Black Lives Matter going, George Floyd. There are all these things happening and I’m looking at songs like “Mirror”, songs like “Blue Child”, which comes out in the record, which goes ‘Blue Child/Let’s have a conversation/Blue Child/We’ve got to change direction’ These are not things that I am writing to what’s happening. These are things that are happening that are reflected in what was written before. And I don’t know how you take credit for that.”
In the two years of horror the world faced together, Kalu and the Electric Joint made several fateful decisions. The first was to hold on to the album, and instead, release a few singles over time. And the second was to keep working.
“There’s this thing that happens where you write songs,” Kalu explains. “It takes so long to release the songs. Or you write songs, and the songs that you’re playing feel quite old because of how long it took. There was a conversation between JT and myself about a lot of venues that are going to close down. There are a lot of artists that potentially may not come out of this as a band. There’s going to be a lot of competition, so we better stay rehearsing. So we took advantage of that and really kept at it at a time when there was nothing coming in money-wise or anything like that. We engaged the band and kept rehearsing.”
And now, after all the time, the moment has finally arrived. Garden Of Eden will be released April 28 on Spaceflight Records, and the band is taking the stage of the historic Paramount Theater on May 4 (on a bill that also includes Kam Franklin of The Suffers).
Kalu is visibly excited. “Just to be accepted is an honor and a privilege. And at the same time, we put the pressure we put on ourselves as artists. We’re in a theater, you know, and the theater is 115 years old. What do you do with this? We are taking advantage of every single thing that a theater has to offer to present this vision. And part of writing these songs is merging, you know, media elements into our sets.”
So Kalu James, a Nigerian immigrant who came to Austin years ago with little more than the dreams in his head, will have his night.
“We can’t wait,” says Kalu, “to get to the moment where this whole new array of songs, which is different from time and done, is presented to people. And, you know, here we are. So I am beyond excited to be able to get this out in the world because the message itself is beyond me. It’s out there. And that’s the way I’ve always looked at music. It’s something that should be shared. There’s healing in that.”
FOLLOW KALU & THE ELECTRIC JOINT
Artist: Kalu & The Electric Joint
Garden of Eden
Album: Garden of Eden (April 28 on Spaceflight Records)
Musicians: Kalu James – vocals; Johann Valles – bass; JT Holt – guitar, lap steel; Pearl Z – keys; Johnny Radelat – drums
Credits: Producer: Deidre Gott; Production Assistant: Confucius Jones; Audio Engineer: Jake Perlman; Rene Chavez; Audio Mix: Rene Chavez; Cameras; Michael Minasi; Edit: Michael Minasi Host: Laurie Gallardo