Featured Interview – JP Soars

jp soars photo 1Stylish guitarist/vocalist JP Soars exploded onto the scene about a decade ago after walking away with top honors in the 2009 International Blues Challenge and has been enjoying the limelight ever since, but few folks recognize him as a former member of one of the biggest bands ever in the field of death metal – it’s a secret he hid from even those closest to him in the blues community as he worked his way to the top.

A gentle, soft-spoken man with a slight, but distinctive, smoky drawl, Blues Blast caught up with him one recent afternoon when was revisiting his musical roots by listening to six-string pioneer T-Bone Walker’s classic recordings on the Imperial label. But the sounds filling JP’s ears as a child definitely were different.

Born John Paul Soars in California, he spent his early years in Cedarville, Ark., a small town of 1,300-plus residents about 30 minutes east of the Oklahoma border high in the Ozarks. “My mom’s side of the family was from Arkansas,” he says, “and my dad grew up in California. In 1972, they took a trip east to visit my mom’s grandpa, and my dad fell in love with it – the country and the hills. They rented a place for $25 a month with no runnin’ water and no electricity. That was the first place we lived in. My parents were hippies and stuff.”

JP’s father, John Martin Soars, played acoustic guitar and harmonica. He was into Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Beatles and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, one of the most popular bands of the era.

“My uncle, who was visiting, went up and saw them in Fayetteville and bought the record with ‘If You Wanna Get To Heaven (You Gotta Raise A Little Hell)’ on it,” Soars recalls. My folks just fell in love with it. I was about three years old at the time, and they played it all the time I was growin’ up.”

His interest in the guitar came early – thanks to house parties that stretched late into the night.

“My dad’s buddies would come over and be sittin’ around, jamming,” he says. “I used to sit there…mesmerized. They’d be laughing and carrying on, just havin’ a blast. I’ve always associated that with peaceful, happy times in the household.”

John Martin started teaching JP chords when he was about 11. “And whatever he showed me, I could play it. I learned a lot of the basic stuff – cowboy chords, if you wanna call ‘em that.”

He enjoyed the different sounds that filled the air, but his musical tastes changed dramatically when he heard hard rockers Metallica. “A buddy of mine gave me one of their cassette tapes – Master Of Puppets, which, at the time, was a groundbreaking record,” he says. “There was nothin’ in the world that sounded like that.

“I remember thinkin’: ‘Holy sh-t! This is cool. I wanna make my guitar sound like that!”

Founded in Los Angeles by Danish-born drummer Lars Ulrich and featuring guitarists Dave Mustaine and James Hetfield, Metallica dominated JP’s early teens — as did Ozzy Osbourne and other heavy metal gods.

At 16, Soars and his family moved from his tiny hamlet to West Palm Beach and the booming metropolis that stretched to the Keys in southeast Florida. It was an area where hard rock and big hair dominated the night scene, so much so, in fact, that the band Malevolent Creation, one of the founding fathers of death metal, decided to pull up stakes in Buffalo, N.Y., about the same time and moved to West Palm, too.

jp soars photo 2The new surroundings were a real culture shock for JP, who had spent kindergarten through ten grade surrounded by the same 35 classmates year after year. As he entered 11th grade at Forest Hill High School, he was in a student population almost double He now found himself in a high school whose student population was almost double the size of the town from which he’d moved.

As Soars added an electric guitar to his arsenal and his love for heavy metal and his desire for rock stardom continued to grow, his musical tastes began to branch out dramatically about two years later.

He won a guitar – a Gibson SG — in a raffle along with two tickets to see B.B. King in concert. “Part of the deal was that my dad and I would get to meet him backstage and get him to sign the guitar,” JP remembers. “I was into Jimi Hendrix and ZZ Top at the time – stuff that my uncles were into. The blues is definitely in there, and it’s in some of the Beatles’ stuff, too. They were bluesy, but nothin’ like this!

“This was my introduction to the real blues.

“We sat front row center stage, and I was mesmerized. Holy cow! This was just amazing. It was very powerful. He had the full band with the horn section and everything. Just his stage presence and persona, the feel I got from it…I didn’t know a lot of his songs…I barely knew ‘The Thrill Is Gone’…but it just blew me away – the emotion and soulfulness of it.

“His singing, the power of his voice and the stories he told were definitely life-changing. Then when we met him backstage, the thing I remember most was how he made me feel when he sat down to talk to me – how humble and down-to-earth he was.

“I remember when we handed him the guitar to sign it, he was like: ‘This is an awful pretty guitar. You sure you want me to sign this?’

“I always carry that with me,” JP says. “This guy was a living legend, and he talked to me like he’d known me for years. It made me feel comfortable.”

Soars practiced for months with high school friends for a metal gig at an Italian festival, but didn’t join a real band until after graduation. Basically self-taught, he now loved the blues but intrinsically knew he didn’t know how to play it.

From seeing B.B., however, he realized that the blues truly was timeless. As time passed, he started attending blues jams and he began picking up pointers. Whenever he heard a guitarist who captured his ears and attention, he was curious enough to ask questions and started picking up tips.

“Slowly but surely, I finally got up enough courage to sit in,” he says.

Although a neophyte bluesman, Soars already was starting to make a name for himself in metal – something he made sure not to mention to the blues crowd. He was in several local outfits in the years that followed — Burner, Mask Of Innocence, Wynjara and Human Plague – before an eight-year run with the thrash metal band Raped Ape, which had a large fan following throughout the Southeast.

Rape Ape was playing the same local circuit as Malevolent Creation, which also had a huge international following, and several of that band’s members were JP’s friends. They were looking for a new guitarist in 1996 about the same time Soars’ band disbanded.

JP volunteered for the opening and quickly was offered and accepted the gig. Together they produced the album In Cold Blood. The band was booked for a European tour the following year, when Soars was forced to make a judgment call and walk away because he didn’t want to lose the day job he held with Motorola.

jp soars photo 3But metal remained in his blood. Soon after, he formed Devine Empire, hard rockers who had their own major following and four eventual CDs to their credit.

All the while, unbeknownst to his metal bandmates, he was working on his blues chops and getting more and more involved on the side.

“A lot of times, people will ask me: ‘When did you make the switch?’” Soars says. But there was never any defining time when I said to myself: ‘I’m gonna stop playin’ this style of music and start playin’ that one.’”

As he states today, in his mind, there are only two kinds of music – good and bad – and his goal as a musician has always been to play in style that’s capable of entertaining a teenager or a grandmother at the same time. And he realized something else even more profound, too: “Even back then, I knew that I’m not gonna be playin’ this metal stuff forever. I knew that most popular music as we know it was derived from this (the blues). That was the way to go”

It was a simple choice for him to make, but took him the better part of a decade before making the final decision. He eased into it by spending his free time away from metal playing alongside South Florida harmonica legend Billy Burns, a very young Joel DaSilva and his band, The Sideburns or another local favorite, The Shadowcasters, whenever he was available.

“I learned a ton of stuff playing with those guys. But I’d play with them for months – until I had their approval for what I was doing — before I let on that I was doin’ anything else,” he says. “I didn’t want ‘em thinkin’ that I was some metalhead dude tryin’ to play blues.

“Then I’d be: ‘Oh, by the way, check out this metal band that I’m in… Here’s this album…’

“They’d go: ‘What the hell…! How do you go from this to that?’”

Soars did encounter some issues juggling the best of both worlds.

After spending three or four weeks on the road with the metal band, it was a real shock to his system to pick up a blues gig and entertaining a room of well-behaved middle-agers instead of a concert hall full of young, screaming, energetic diehard fans. And it also took a couple of blues gigs to ratchet back his vocals after spending weeks singing at the top of his lungs for the rockers.

JP decided to walk away from metal in 2005 after returning to the U.S. after touring Europe with Empire. It was an easy choice to make.

“We came home and I told the bass player: ‘I don’t wanna do this anymore,’” he recalls. “One of the things for me was that I kept seeing myself getting older and the crowd getting younger. I didn’t want to be 55 or 60 years old and still doing it.”

There was another reason, too. It didn’t set well with JP that Empire would go overseas and tour with four or five other bands. They’d be restricted to a 45-minute set each night and make room for someone else.

“I’d be sayin’ to myself: ‘This is fun. I’m enjoyin’ myself, gettin’ to see the world and experiencin’ different cultures. But how cool would it be to be out here, travelin’ the world and playin’ blues?’” he says. “I always thought I’d have a much better time playin’ this kind of music. I enjoyed it more. It was more fulfilling. It expressed more emotions.

“With the death metal stuff, it’s basically one emotion: It’s fast, pissed off, angry. Sure, it’s an emotion, which is great. We all have that at some point or another. But with the blues, you can express everything. It’s got so much of a wider array of feelings. And then there are the dynamics. When you get quiet, that’s more powerful that when you’re super loud.”

In the months that followed, Soars started a blues band, a three-piece that initially included Chris Peet on drums and Gary Remington on bass. As they made their mark, they also doubled as the backing band for recent arrival Terry Hanck. A perennial Blues Music Award nominee and the current reigning sax player of the year, he’d recently relocated from the San Francisco Bay area.

jp soars photo 5JP credits Terry with teaching him the basics about leading a blues band. “Watching him as a front man, I learned how to run the show,” Soars says. “And he turned me on to a lot of great music that I might have heard of but never really heard yet. Like Guitar Slim and Fats Domino. I’d go and download their whole catalog and put it into my iTunes.”

When schedules permit – Hanck splits his time between East and West Coast and JP is often busy with his own projects, their relationship that continues today.

Soars made his first trip to the International Blues Challenge in 2007, backing Fort Lauderdale-based David Shelley. Like JP, Shelley was a California native. A blues-rocker and actor who was a grandson of one of the founders of Capitol Records, he released two critically acclaimed albums of his own before losing a lengthy battle with cancer a few years ago.

They lost out to the eventual winner, Sean Carney. But for Soars, it was another life-changing experience.

“We made it to the finals and played at the Rum Boogie Café, which is one of the coolest clubs on Beale Street,” he remembers. “It was a pivotal moment – that and getting to see and meet all of the musicians. And it was my first time to Memphis, so I got to visit the Stax Museum and Sun Studios.”

Soars returned the following year, but the feeling was much different.

“I went with my own band,” he says. “It was a four-piece at the time with a keyboard player. We didn’t win. We didn’t even make it into the finals. We were playing at B.B. King’s and I tried catering to what everybody was telling me: ‘Oh, they’re lookin’ for this, they’re lookin’ for that. You gotta dress like this, you gotta play like that. Don’t play too loud because the judges will deduct points.

“I went out there playin’ like a caged rat.”

The Kansas City-based powerhouse Trampled Under Foot dominated. But Soars was still undeterred. Returning in 2009, he stripped the band down to its essence as a trio and “went with the mindset that I’m not listenin’ to any body. I’m just gonna play what feels good and play songs that get a good reaction when we’re home.”

The rest, as they say, is history. JP and the Red Hots – the name was suggested in class by a friend in eighth grade when Soars was daydreaming about music stardom — captured top honors and have been wowing audiences ever since.

“That opened up a ton of doors,” he says. “Now, instead of being a local Florida band, we were traveling the country – soon the world.”

Since 2011, Soars has also been making occasional festival appearances as a member of Southern Hospitality, a supergroup that also includes Memphis-based Victor Wainwright and North Florida-based guitarist/songwriter Damon Fowler. That group started by accident one night when the Red Hots gigging at a club in Delray Beach, Fla., and both Wainwright – a two-time Blues Music Association Pinetop Perkins Award winner as keyboard player of the year — and Fowler were in the crowd. Soars invited them up to jam during his last set.

“We played for a while, and it was magical,” Victor told this writer a few years ago. “The next thing you know, somebody suggested we form a group. We were kinda laughing about that at the end of the night. I said all right, but it was just talk. After all, were already really, really busy with our own bands.”

A few weeks later, however, a representative of the Heritage Music Blues Festival in Wheeling, W.Va., placed a desperate call to Fowler’s booking agency, seeking a replacement for the legendary David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who was in failing health, in his mid-90s and unable to appear.

jp soars photo 4The trio took the gig at Fowler’s suggestion. The night before the show, all three were scattered across the country and playing with their own groups. They all arrived in Wheeling around 5 a.m. and took the stage without sleep or any rehearsals. Much like that night in Florida, their set consisted of jams from their three individual repertoires.

The reception they received was overwhelming, and they’ve subsequently released one album, Easy Livin’ on the Blind Pig imprint, which placed in the Top Ten in the 2013 Billboard blues charts. Now festival favorites, they continue to work together about a half-dozen special events a year.

“We do it so little that, when we do get together, it’s all fresh and special,” JP says. “Everyone’s having a blast. Those guys are such talented musicians, it’s really fun.”

But Soars isn’t all death metal and blues. There’s another side to him, too – one that will come as a surprise to anyone who hasn’t heard it: He’s a huge fan of jazzman Django Reinhardt, one of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century despite sustaining injuries in a fire that left him partially paralyzed and without the use of the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand.

Born in Belgium and a member of the Romani people, the migratory clan better known as Gypsies, Reinhardt founded the legendary Hot Club Of France along with violin virtuoso Stephane Grappelli. His unit was one of the first in the world to feature the guitar as a lead instrument as it played bepop, traditional Romani music and what came to be known as gypsy jazz.

If you’re lucky, you’ll catch JP and the Red Hots on a night when they open with a set of their own music and follow it with a full set of Django-inspired jazz. And you’ll be amazed at how much technique Soars – a virtually self-taught guitarist — has developed in that area after years of practice.

“I learned about Django initially when I was working at Motorola,” Soars says. “I met this dude Pierre there. He was from France and had just gotten to the States three or four months before. He’d studied at a conservatory over there, so he knew a lot of theory. I learned a lot from him chord-wise and music-wise.

“After Pierre turned me on to Django, I immediately went out and bought all of his stuff. Pierre knew some of that style and taught me a little.”

He learned a great deal more from Argentinian Gonzalo Bergara, who was still a teenager when he was based in South Florida. Now in his late 30s and recognized as a virtuoso guitarist and gypsy jazz composer, Bergara was influenced deeply by Reinhardt, formed a band and welcomed Soars as his rhythm player.

“About a year later, he moved out to California,” JP recalls. “By then, I knew all these songs – the rhythm, at least, which is one of the hardest things to cop because, in true Django style, there’s no drum; the rhythm and bass guitar are the drums, playing counterpoint to the lead. There’s a certain way you have to use your right hand. I studied that and worked on it for months – four or five hours a day sittin’ with a metronome.”

He also worked on his technique while working at a small music store in Boca Raton after Bergara’s departure. One of Soars’ co-workers was another young, talented guitar player, Steve Laudicina. An eventual long-time Red Hot, he now tours nationally with harmonica player Rockin’ Jake and his new band, Toro Jones, a rising star on the surf pop/rockabilly circuit.

During the time, JP started teaching Laudicina the rhythm patterns in an effort to begin teaching himself Django melodies and solos. “We’d sit it the store all day long and play,” he says.

jp soars photo 6Eventually, they put together a working band built like Reinhardt’s Hot Club – complete with a violinist.

“I focused on that for two or three years,” Soars says. “But after 2008, after goin’ up to the IBCs and winning a year later, it shifted to the Red Hots. After the opportunity I was presented in the blues, I knew that I had to focus 120 per cent to parlay it into a career that would bring me work outside of Florida.

“Now, I try to incorporate everything into what we’re doin’…whatever feels good at the time. I have this theory that if it feels good to me when I’m playin’, it’s gonna translate to the audience. They’re gonna feel it, too. It’s all connected.”

And it works.

His band is currently home in South Florida after spending most of the summer on the road, promoting their sixth album, Southbound I-95, a disc that took more than two years to create. “With the touring schedule we have, we don’t usually have the luxury of taking two or three weeks off to go into the studio and record,” JP says. “We do it when we can. And I also like to take the time to work everything out and get it as good as we possibly can.”

That CD features guest appearances from Jimmy Thackery and Albert Castiglia on guitars, Sax Gordon on horn and Jason Newsted of Metallica on bass with Lee Oskar of WAR/The Lowriders on harmonica.

“I never thought in a million years that I’d get Jason to play on a blues album,” JP chuckles. And the band just recorded a video for the title track, which is viewable on their website (address below).

Thanks to the tourist season in Florida and venues spread out from Key West to Jacksonville and Pensacola, they’re booked steady locally for the next few months and tour nationally again until spring. And when they do, they’ll be celebrating the release of another CD that’s sure to break new ground from what’s come before.

This past January, when Soars and Peet traveled to Houma, La., where they recorded at Tab Benoit’s studio. Benoit produced the Southern Hospitality disc and handles drum duties here with Chris, JP’s regular percussionist, making use of the prodigious talents he has on bass, too. The album should drop shortly after the first of the year on Tab’s Whiskey Bayou label.

It will include eight new songs, all penned in the studio, as well as four covers, one of which – a new take on the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ “If You Wanna Get To Heaven” — is a flashback to JP’s youth. “When I called my parents and told ‘em,” he says, “they were just in heaven. They were trippin’ out!”

He remains eternally thankful for the support he’s received through the years. “Thanks so much for allowing me to do this and to do what I love,” he says. “If it wasn’t for folks coming to gigs and buying CDs and appreciating this stuff, I wouldn’t be doing something that’s always been my dream and to put smiles on people’s faces while doing it.”

For more information about Soars and the Red Hots and to check out his schedule, view his new video or pick up his CDs, visitwww.jpsoars.com.

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