Catalonia has never had a reputation for being a centre for soul and rhythm & blues, but The Excitements have become one of Catalonia’s foremost outfits playing these musical styles. The septet, which last year released their first album with French singer of Somali origin, Kissia San, will perform on November 5 at Sala Apolo in Barcelona.
It will soon be a year since you released Keepin’ On, your first album with Kissia San as lead singer. Is losing a lead singer, compared with say a saxophonist or a drummer, a traumatic experience for a music group?
Yes, that’s what it was like for The Excitements and I can imagine it’s like that for everyone. The lead singer is the person who gets noticed the most. In fact, there are even media outlets that are more reluctant to give you interviews like this unless you bring the lead singer along.
You are from Barcelona but the singer is from Paris.
Exactly. She speaks a little Spanish, but we usually communicate in English. During the lockdown, she decided to learn Catalan and asked me to send her an online course, but I really should make more of an effort with my French, as France has always been a country where we play a lot.
Has the addition of Kissia led to changes in the band?
Yes, in fact we already wanted to make changes that the profile of the previous singer [Koko-Jean Davis] prevented us from making. Basically, we looked for someone who would fit in with what we wanted, which was a singer with more weight, who was more of a singer. Changes like this are usually delicate, and it’s normal for people to come to see us at concerts who are dubious about the changes we’ve made. Yet there are also those who tell us, without disparaging the previous singer, that they have already forgotten about her.
Did you have more options on the table?
Yes, we tried out five or six people. Singers from here, from Madrid, from abroad... Two even came expressly from London, which given what happened later with Covid and Brexit, would have been a problem if we had chosen them. In all cases they were artistically very valid, but they couldn’t commit to The Excitements 100%, which is a drawback. There are groups that, depending on schedules, do concerts with three musicians or with six, who share the band with a thousand other projects and who change one of the musicians if they can’t do the gig. For us, however, these things are impossible to do.
What new paths have you set out to explore?
We didn’t want to get stuck in the classic thing that we’ve made our own, and we wanted to evolve into something a little more soulful, with more weight. What we’ve been doing until now has been very uptempo, but over the years we’ve realised that it’s not necessary. We had a lot of discussions about whether it was really necessary to play so fast, which is not the same as playing strongly. We changed producers [the new album was produced by Neil Sugarman and Marc Tena], and they insisted on the idea that what was needed above all was to sound compact. If you listen to many classic albums, you’ll see that the musicians don’t play so fast but still have extraordinary strength. If you want to play strongly, you have to play strongly, not just faster.
Did the pandemic jeopardise a project like yours?
The situation was very messed up. Some members, like Dani, had to leave, which for me was the most painful departure in all these years, because he was there from day one and set up The Excitements with me. The rest, including some who teach and others, like me, who got one of these self-employed grants, were more or less able to hold on, but the whole thing was difficult. We cancelled quite a few concerts, like those in a European tour that we had to push back.
I remember hearing the historic Catalan concert promoter, Gay Mercader, once say that the big names in soul have never worked out well in southern Europe. Smokey Robinson or Gladys Knight, for example, never stop over here when they tour. And when Al Green performed for the first time in Barcelona a few years ago, ticket sales were extraordinarily poor.
It could be. It depends on the moment, I guess. Irma Thomas sold out a few years ago and Martha Reeves too. Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley also pulled in quite a few people, but it’s true that for there to be a scene between the groups here, we’d all have to be interconnected and get drunk together. And it’s not like that.
How do you see things compared to when you started 12 years ago?
There is a section of the public that’s grown up, which is a fact. Although every place you go is different. In France, for example, concerts are still attended by a lot of young people. But youngsters are generally interested in other stuff. It’s the way it is and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s normal!
In one interview I read, you said you have nothing against trap.
Of course not! I have nothing against any type of music. Some you like more, some you like less, but everyone should do what they want. I don’t like reggaeton or electronic music. And trap... well, not much either, but it does have one thing, which is that it annoys old people, which is what it’s supposed to do. I have friends who will say that trap is rubbish, but I point out to them that they’re using the exact same words as the people who complained about punk. They say it’s not the same thing, but of course it’s the same! It’s all about rubbing old people up the wrong way. The thing is that we’re now the old people!
The Excitements have never strayed from the classic line. Have you ever felt tempted to play with electronics or urban rhythms or something?
No, no... If in addition to having an insecure job, we also had to do things we don’t like doing... Also, when you try to please so many different audiences, you end up pleasing no one. I remember when, poor guys, they made Sergio and Estíbaliz sound more like rockers... It was grotesque.
Were any of your forebears musical?
My grandfather’s sister was a piano teacher. My poor father was no musician but he did spend a season producing Gay & Company concerts in Madrid, at a time when we lived there, when I was very young. Genesis and Jethro Tull concerts... all those types. He was also Pau Riba’s manager for a fortnight, or something like that. As a child I remember seeing him around the house, with one nail painted with a Bic pen, and thinking: “What a strange man...”
James Brown fined his musicians when they missed a note. Is this sort of discipline necessary to make a soul band sound flawless?
For starters, we’re not James Brown’s band! But, yes, for a time we had to issue fines, but not for playing wrong notes but for being late to rehearsal, which ended up being a problem that upset us all. As for notes, I’m not worried about a musician messing up. I’m much more concerned when there’s no attitude. I see many bands with a certain reputation, and I won’t name names, who play perfectly but when they’re in front of you on stage you feel that nothing special is happening. The fault, I think, is the type of education given in many music schools and conservatories. I remember having a guitarist who often told us that at the conservatory they teach you a lot about playing but not so much about being a musician.
There is an anecdote about when Tete Montoliu was played a record in which the musicians did everything perfectly, and when asked for his opinion he said: “Yes, it sounds good. It sounds so good that I don’t like it at all!”
Of course. Even Beethoven spoke about playing with attitude, it’s not just a Stooges thing. A mistake is tolerable, but a lack of attitude is not.