Kam Franklin interview by Lance Scott Walker | Photography by Daniel Jackson
The musical boundaries that have been stretched, broken and blended by the Houston soul group The Suffers are tremendous on their own, but the reach of the music they have created since their inception in 2011 is truly unprecedented for an artist from The Bayou City. That isn’t just because they have made television appearances on David Letterman and The Daily Show, or because they just taped a live set for PBS, or because of their upcoming slot at the Afropunk festival in Paris. It’s unprecedented because they did all of those things as independent artists, releasing their records themselves and keeping their organization inhouse. I spoke with vocalist Kam Franklin while she was in the tour van with her nine band members on their way from Georgia to Tennessee – just another leg on the long journey the group has taken together.
Looking at your schedule, you’re doing some festivals and you’re doing a PBS taping tomorrow – is that easier than a string of consecutive dates?
For me, it’s all the same, except that when it’s all spread out, you kind of just go in and do the job and you’re not really affected by the flow as much when you’re doing dates like this because it’s a set schedule. You’re driving all day long and then, “Okay, here’s your schedule.” Get in, soundcheck, play the show, load up, get in the van, go to whatever random city you’re staying in that night.
It’s a different energy, though, right, when you’re playing a festival and you’ve got people there who’ve never seen you and have maybe never heard of you. Does it draw something different out of you when you’re playing to a crowd like that?
Oh, yeah. We always kind of start with the same songs – not always, but we do it that way to kind of gauge the audience we’re playing for. I like to know who’s seen us before and who hasn’t seen us before. If it’s a bunch of people who haven’t seen us, I kind of like to add a little bit of shock value to the stage, kind of calling them out and keeping them on their toes the whole time. I think they come in with the expectation of, “Oh, they’re a soul band, so they’re gonna be sweet and there’s gonna be brass and maybe the singer’s going to be a little crafty.” But I’ve learned that when I call them out, they’re a little bit more attentive and respectful because no one wants to get embarassed. So I kind of give them an opportunity to stay engaged with what it is that we’re doing. If it’s a crowd of return attendees, then it’s kind of like seeing old friends and family, especially when we’ve been on the road for a while. I depend on the return audience members to kind of give us that comfort that we’re not getting by not being at home, and so I’ll still engage with them as much as I would a new audience, but it’s a more familiar engagement, like, “Okay, you know what we do and you know why you’re here, so let’s have a good time. Let’s make the most of this 45 minutes or 90 minutes we have together and have a good time.”
There’s also that strange familiarity of going to visit a city again that maybe you’d never been to before you played there and then all of the sudden your music feels at home there.
Definitely. Some cities definitely have that more than others, and sometimes it’s actually quite surprising, the cities that feel that way. I mean, our first tour, we got that from going to Boise, Idaho, a state I’d never been to, a city I’d never really spent too much time thinking about, but they welcomed us with open arms and were so excited to see a soul band in their city. [laughs]
You’re working on a new album now. Are you going to stay independent?
Right now, labels are sniffing around, but it’s not the first time it’s happened. I think a lot of the labels that have approached us are curious but not ready to jump onboard just yet. But we’re not gonna let it slow down any of our process by trying to impress or work around anybody that’s not ready to work with us. I think to be successful is to not wait for somebody to get comfortable with us. I think if we would have waited, we wouldn’t have really gotten anywhere, so it’s been a lot more exciting to just do what we wanted and then wait for everybody else to catch up.
And the right ones, once the smoke clears, they’ll still be chasing you, and it’ll make sense and you’ll know them by then.
Yeah! I always tell people that ask why we’ve done things the way we’ve done it or why we continue to do things the way we do as far as the people that we work with – for example, our booking agency is a really small company, and people always ask, “Why didn’t you guys switch over to a more major booking agency?” And for us, we’d rather be with a company that sees our relationship as a marriage rather than an optional thing that they can just walk away from. This isn’t a small thing for us. This is a pretty serious relationship. We’ve quit our lives to do this, so we don’t wanna fuck with anybody that’s afraid.
And you grow together with your booking agency. They grow because you grow.
Exactly, and it’s been such a wonderful union, just seeing all of us evolve from the small scene that everybody thought would just kind of go away after a few months. To be taken seriously not only by major booking companies and venues but the fans alike, and it’s been really, really great to see the efforts of our hard work paying off.
Are all of you finding a good balance between being able to hold everything down at home and being out on the road? Have you made the jump where you’re doing it full time?
We started doing it full time in January 2015. We quit our jobs the same month, and we’ve been doing it full time ever since. But as far as maintaining the home/work balance, that’s something we’ve actually been striving for this year. We didn’t do it last year, and we learned that if you don’t maintain that time at home, it not only fucks things up at home, but it starts to mess with you personally as well, and so we’ve kind of come to an agreement where we’ll tour this amount but then we have to be home this amount. We have to be home for these holidays, or these dates, so and so’s getting married, that means everybody has to be home. Last year we were on the road for two and a half months during the summer, and when we came home, it was like we were different people when we came back. No one really knew how to adjust right away because we’d been in a van for so long and hadn’t seen our things in so long that it was like, “Wait, we just missed an entire season.” Like we weren’t home for a Houston summer, which is kind of great because of the heat and whatnot, but we came back and it was like, “Whoa.” I feel a little bit more of a balance as far as this last tour has gone. It was probably one of the most intense tours that we’ve done because we weren’t in a tour bus and we didn’t have all of the extra help on the road with us, but because it was planned so well and was really on point as far as the organization was concerned, it put us in a place where we had an understanding that there are smart ways to tour, and there are stupid ways to tour – how can we grow and continue to get better? That’s the goal right now, to not repeat our past mistakes. Not be on tour too long. I think it’s only going to get better as we are able to educate ourselves more.
It only makes you stronger when you do go out, right?
Exactly. It feels good to come home. I feel like at the end of every tour, when we walk into the bars in Houston and people recognize us and are happy to see us, it’s kind of like, “We did it again – another tour that people thought we couldn’t do, and now we’ll sleep.” It feels good to be out representing a city that everybody loves to underestimate when it comes to its music.
The city is very proud of you.
Well, we’re proud of Houston.