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, Raphael Saadiq moves away from a Motown sound to pay homage to broad influences ranging from Sly Stone to Johnny Cashby Jack Britton Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer Raphael Saadiq is living a pretty good life right now.On a cold Thursday night in January, we find Saadiq and his quintet (guitar, bass, drums, two singers) sitting on stools under a dimly lit crystal chandelier in a spacious suite on the 16th floor of San Francisco’s classy Clift Hotel, breezily running through a few tunes from his new album, , which was shot on a set made to look like a swinging bachelor’s penthouse apartment, that’s what this room looks like.
After all, he first tackled Motown-style songwriting with “The Tonys” (as he calls them), and his first solo album was called Engineer Charles Brungardt and Raphael Saadiq at Ocean Way Recording in Hollywood.And by the time Saadiq casually kicks into the album’s first tune—“Heart Attack,” which he admits is a nod to one of his idols, Sly Stone—the crowd of about 75 local writers, music biz types, and a few friends from his days across the bay in Oakland, is well-lubricated and in a good mood. Handsome, relaxed, dressed head to toe in black (including his trademark black-framed glasses), and cradling a Telecaster on his lap, Saadiq tells stories about his new songs and even takes questions from the audience. ; the short-lived R&B supergroup Lucy Pearl (Saadiq, En Vogue’s Dawn Morrison, and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad); and his solo albums.The handful of tunes he performs run the gamut from the rockabilly shuffle “Daydreams” (inspired by Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, he says) to traditional soul-flavored tunes more reminiscent of his hugely popular 2008 album That disc, with its uncanny extrapolations on the traditional mid-’60s Motown sound, created quite a sensation and brought Saadiq a whole new audience—mostly young, mostly white folks who frankly were unaware of his long and illustrious history dating back to the smash late ’80s, early ’90s Oakland soul and new jack swing group Tony! No doubt many of the audiences who saw him play huge festivals such as Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, and Bumbershoot (he’s playing Coachella and South By Southwest this year) thought he was a new artist who’d just stepped off a bus from Detroit in 1965.But another bond they share is their love of collecting gear and musical instruments, and a fascination with historic recording techniques. We spent on that stuff, and not just trying to make it sound ‘old,’ but to put our stamp on it. It’s not like I’m always looking for things, either, but I can’t close my ears to any music.“I was always into collecting gear on e Bay, even back in San Francisco,” Brungardt comments, “so we started buying things like [Telefunken] V72 preamps and old Ampex tape machines—we’d take the preamps out of those and rack them up. Chuck really goes to the wall for me when I’m dreaming all this stuff up. Any guitar, any drums, any rhythm section— I’ve always been open to those things, trying to understand what makes them work in a song.”Brungardt reveals that the move away from the Motown sound “was kind of an accident.So I was trying to push Raphael to be a little more gritty with guitars and use a little more distortion.” that feature Saadiq playing nearly all of the instruments.
“I feel pretty comfortable playing whatever’s in front on me,” he comments, “though live, I guess I’m most comfortable playing bass [his main instrument for many years] or guitar.Another thing we like to do is re-amp guitar parts.He’ll go through one of those Avalon DIs, and we’ll take that signal and re-amp it through a ’67 Twin, or on some songs we’ve used an older Vox AC-30.—would be to offer audiences more of the same sound they love.But on , Saadiq has moved away from the hard-core Motown sound and embraced a whole new set of influences, like the ones mentioned above, and also the more expansive orchestral sound of post-Detroit Motown recordings and the great Philadelphia soul records of the ’70s.“I use it as a mono overhead, I use it on guitar; if we did a bass amp, I’d use a 47 as well,” he says.