On the surface, this is an interesting band as they bring a fresh dynamic to the world of rock music. Not necessarily the first band to confront the concept of mixing up soul, funk and blues with a rocky edge, they nevertheless have found their respective mojo and pull off these diverse varieties of music with aplomb. They have released a seven track extended player called Army of the Underdog and if you’re curious to know how they sound, check out the official video for the title track:
The band are made up of producer and rhythm guitarist Kieran Sullivan, bassist Steve Bonacio, Dave Diamond on drums and guitarist James Lewis, with the power-house lead vocalist Jessie Wagner known for her consistently strong performances with Chic and more prominently as a member of Kid Rock’s band these days. In possession of a hook-laden song with crossover potential in to the mainstream like Shake My Head (SMH), or the soulful stomping rocker in the shape of the title track, it won’t be a mystery why this band is heading for greater heights with Army of the Underdog.
“We put out an E.P. and it was self-titled and it was just like the first five songs of Handle It, then we turned it into a full album” explains front-woman Wagner. “It was us learning each other and finding what we liked musically that each of us could contribute and that was kind of like us – like okay this is where we’re going. By the time we’d finished Handle It that was like our final song we’d written and the final song on that album, we were like – ooh, I kind of like where this is going, with that particular song. We were like maybe we should do more songs kind of in this vein, and that album is us helping to define who we are and what we like and what we want to combine for our next project.”
If you go trawling your favorite retailer, they may have a downloadable copy of Handle It which features amongst some very cool tracks, a cover version of the Heart classic Magic Man. “I’m a huge Heart fan, and we just kind of liked playing around with it. Originally it was going to be a little funkier, a little bit more like what we’re doing on this album, but the producer we were working with was like – no, try it more like this. I love how it came out; I still think it’s a pretty cool rocking version. It’s funny, ‘cos my friends that don’t know Heart are like – I heard your song on the radio, but no, I wish, but no.”
The upbeat and friendly vibes are so natural as Wagner continues to share her thoughts on their music. “We got a fairly decent response, but I think we’re on track now, better than where we were. We have a more defined sound as far as what we want to put in to the music.” With a smile and a warmth of character, Wagner adds “We didn’t even have the full band together, or the configuration I should say that we have now. With James coming in to the picture, I think he’s helping us keep that cool kind of blended rock-soul thing that we’re trying to put out there.”
“We’ve been playing around with those earlier tunes for a while. I met Kieran I guess back in 2005, 2006 and that’s when we first started writing together. We’re the original Envy people I guess you could say.” With a charming laugh, Wagner composes herself to continue the back-story to Envy. “Envy the song I had written with someone else, Jerry Barnes who is the bass player for Chic, and he was trying to pitch an idea for the Fantastic Four film that came out a few years ago. So Envy in my mind I was thinking of doing a song from the villains perspective and you can tell as the villain in the Fantastic Four is very envious of the stretchy guy, I can’t think of his name now, so it’s from his perspective. I was ‘god, this is cool.’ It’s like this dark, heavy rock tune and I wanted to do rock music and I brought this song to Kieron, ‘cos Fantastic Four I don’t know if they got a chance to hear it or they passed on it or whatever, but I still had this song and that’s kind of where, it’s the genesis of the Handle It album from years and years ago. Kieran was like – ‘you know what let’s call ourselves Envy after this song.’”
While enjoying the sound and the creative process of Envy, Wagner is also busy constantly with other ventures including a high-profile time backing Kid Rock on tour and singing on his last three studio albums. When quizzed about what it is like touring with Kid Rock, the talented singer shares, “It’s a lot more mellow than when I first started. When I first started everyone was nuts! But that’s in a good way.” After a brief comparison to how she traveled whilst singing in Chic, Wagner goes further about life on the road with Kid Rock. “This is my first time living on a tour bus, and living with 11 other people on a tour bus. You’ve got personalities, you’ve got smells, you’ve got all kinds of stuff coming out you know, but it was cool ‘cos I left one family who I still genuinely love greatly with Chic, and I joined this other family of knuckleheads ‘cos it’s rock music and everybody’s a little more aggressive and out there and fun, but it’s still the love is there. Even now, there’s so much love between everybody in the band.”
Whilst clarifying that Wagner had sung on three Kid Rock albums, the lung-busting vocalist then mentions; “Four now! He’s working on his latest one and I just got back yesterday from Detroit adding some background to my 4th studio album with him. Yes, it’s been quite an adventure with him and again I’m ever so grateful to have been a part of that and he allowed me to come along this journey and meet his wonderful band.”
“Because people look at me and you know I’m a tall thin black girl who has this kind of soulful voice, they’re immediately – Ooh Beyoncé! Which is great, I love Beyoncé. If you’re going to be compared to somebody, that’s the one because her voice is ridiculously wonderful. But that’s not necessarily the kind of music I want to do. Industry folks they’re like – well I think you should be doing this and this or this. I probably could. I like singing standards and people are like maybe you should do a classic American songbook type album, and maybe I will do when I’m older. You dance the way you dance on stage, you should be doing pop. Well I’m like there are elements of pop in what I do.”
Wagner continues her flow of thought behind what the title of the new E.P. means to her. “So the Army of the Underdog is kind of my story, especially the second verse when people are telling me that I shouldn’t really be doing this rock thing and I’m like, why not?! I can rock and I can mix in a little bit of soul when I feel like it. So I do feel like an underdog because people aren’t necessarily willing to take a chance on what I’m trying to put out there and I’m hoping that with this maybe they’ll see me and hear my sound a little bit differently and think maybe it is possible.”
“Or if not then maybe I can just do it myself and maybe just fighting for it and working hard for it and struggling for it, people will follow me because they’re struggling for their own dreams or they’re struggling to establish themselves doing something that people are telling them they can’t but they feel like they can. So the song is an empowerment to if you believe in this and you really want to go for it, even though the struggle may be difficult and you may not win out in the end, but you’re willing to join this army and fight for it; then join us! Be a part of the Envy nation ‘cos we’re here with the underdogs saying – you can! That’s what the album is saying, you can!”
With that enthusiastic and positive overture of attitude and philosophy shining brightly on this new collection of songs called Army of the Underdog, and with such strong material already rising to the surface from the creative collaboration within the band, it will be interesting to see how far the versatility explored on this release will go when the band exercise their creative juices in the future. For now though, take a moment out to soak up the rays of sunshine which permeate tracks like Backseat Girl, OH and Take Me Over and join the army of the underdog.
Marquee Photo: John McGall