Reason for the Season

Backstage with Soulstice, skittering on the edge of breakbeat, old-school soul, and jazz.

Soulstice is smart. I don’t mean the way its members dress (nattily) or perform (skillfully), nor even their sense of humor (earthy). There is artistic as well as cranial wattage behind the band’s sharp downtempo, jazzy excursions. Imagine the production patterns of Everything But the Girl merged with Etta James’ “ovaries-sy” soul and you get an idea of Soulstice’s full-length album Illusion, which hit stores last week on SF’s Om Records (following Soulstice’s sporadic appearances on Om Lounge Series compilations 2 and 4). The title track skitters on the edge of breakbeat, tempered by a loping jazz bassline; it’s about reconciling negativity amid the confusion that happens during the business of living. Alternately, “Not Alone” addresses the transcending of vanity to achieve heartfelt optimism. “Changes” shimmers with funk-infused jump-up vibes and a glazing of jazz tonality swooshing to a close, with a hidden track surfacing minutes later. Patience with the CD player reaps rewards in the form of a sinuous head-bobber by way of Hawaii, ambitiously showcasing vocalist/lyricist Gina Rene’s mellifluous pipes and heady ideas.

Band members Gabriel Rene (aka Pimp Rekker) and Andy Caldwell dropped the 1994 breakbeat hit “Superfunkidiculous” on their own BCE Records. The quartet–producers/keyboardists Caldwell and Rene, Rene’s sister Gina as chanteuse, and turntablist Mei Lwun Yee–has developed over the years since 1995 through 111 Minna Street Gallery’s famed freestyle sessions.

“Andy went to school to learn how to produce and engineer,” Gina Rene explains as she wrangles with the phone and her two-year-old daughter squeals in the background. “Gabe took some classes, but didn’t go to school particularly for that. We all know a little [music] theory. Mei Lwun was the first person in the group to be really involved with the dance scene–he was DJing in high school–so he’s not part of the new revolution of wanting to be a DJ. I took a little bit of jazz theory in high school–also vocal lessons. In terms of writing out music, I don’t know how to do that. I just do what I feel.”

One thing she feels strongly about is organized religion.

“My brother and I grew up involved in Christianity. I’m working through a lot of stuff,” she elaborates. “That’s what I write about: how hard it is letting go of all the things you thought were true. I don’t believe what I used to believe, because to me, it was living in fear. I’ve just opened my mind so much.”

It has not been easy. After a serioius reassessment of her faith, she started working on “a more beautiful way of looking at life: more loving. It’s only been about five years, but I try. It’s not so much that you don’t take action, but you put it out there and let it go. For me, God became so much bigger once I let go.”

The singer’s more mundane influences include “Maxwell, Björk, Stevie Wonder–and I like hip-hop in general. Good hip-hop,” she adds with a chuckle. “And Ella Fitzgerald had an impact on me when I was seventeen.” But music runs in the family, she confesses.

“My dad’s an old-school musician and my grandpa wrote a lot of songs; he was involved in the jazz scene back in the ’30s. He wrote this song with his brother that’s known as Louis Armstrong’s theme song.” Indeed, Gina and Gabe’s grandfather was Leon Rene, composer of “When It’s Sleepytime Down South” and “That’s My Home,” and writer/producer of Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin” on Class Records, which Leon owned. Its A&R executive was his son Rafael “Googie” Rene.

Soulstice has gradually lost its sample-happiness and grown into a seven-piece band by adding three live musicians to the “four core,” Gina says. “Back in the beginning, we used to sample like crazy, but the stuff we chose wasn’t that obvious. You know how a lot of the hip-hop sampling in the ’80s was really obvious? We had this one Curtis Mayfield sample that was a little risky. With the last song on the album, ‘Changes,’ which is an instrumental, we used to have a whole part of the bassline as a sample, but we didn’t want to risk it. So we just played the parts ourselves.”

Despite high-profile gigs at the North Beach Jazz Festival and minor coups like having one of Sade’s producers/songwriters sitting in on trumpet in Miami (“his brother met my brother,” Gina says), the band’s still finding its niche.

“Our music is pretty mellow,” Gina notes. “Sure, there’s some uptempo stuff, but not trance or rave.” Because the band still is not that well-known, it has been working with Bay Area DJ/producer Mark Farina (he of the Mushroom Jazz and San Francisco Sessions series) to break into the club scene.

“But we’re not a ‘house’ band,” Gina declares. “We’ll go out and play uptempo–a lot of people wanna be rocked by it. We’re also cool with having a sit-down crowd.”

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