Getting rowdy with Raphael Saadiq

Raphael Saadiq calls it "8 o'clock," even when it happens at 10 or 11: that moment every night when he steps onstage and savors the electricity of a room full of people gathered to hear him play.

"It's a real high for me," says the Oakland native, who's been an important figure on the R&B scene since forming Tony! Toni! Toné! with an older brother in 1987. "The first time my dad saw us he asked my brother if I was on drugs. I was like, 'Why would you say that?' And he said, 'You're this completely different person up there — then you come off stage and you're just chill,'" Saadiq said, laughing. "It's the adrenaline rush you only get from being in front of an audience. It's addictive."

Saadiq chases that high with a junkie's determination on "Stone Rollin'," a new album released Tuesday by Columbia Records. The follow-up to 2008's Grammy-nominated "The Way I See It," the 10-track set signals a change in approach for a craftsman whose attention to sonic detail has led to a healthy sideline writing and producing for A-list stars including John Legend and Whitney Houston.

Where Saadiq's previous efforts luxuriated in the layering and the fine-tuning made possible by modern recording gear, "Stone Rollin'" presents a rawer, rowdier soul-rock sound modeled after his energetic stage show.

"This is one of the fastest records I've made," Saadiq said on a recent morning at his North Hollywood studio complex. (He opened the place about a decade ago, after moving south to L.A. to be closer to the music industry. "I was coming down here all the time staying in hotels, having pianos in the room," he recalled. "It was crazy. Plus, living here, I can walk into 7-Eleven and meet Mary J. Blige.") The building is a sprawling 22,000-square-foot space hidden behind a fence on a nondescript side street; inside, photos of Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown line the dimly lighted hallways. "I just knew I wanted it to be louder," he added about "Stone Rollin'," standing in the room where he and his band tracked much of the music live. "I wanted it to be more exciting."

"Raphael was definitely trying to make the new one grittier than 'The Way I See It,'" said guitarist Rob Bacon, who's played with Saadiq since the latter's 2002 solo debut, "Instant Vintage." "I have relative pitch, as opposed to perfect pitch, so there'd be times when I'd spend 15 or 20 minutes tuning my instrument. Then he'd come in and pick up his guitar and just start playing it however it was left the day before. On one of the tracks I had to play over all this stuff that was out of tune. Raphael was like, 'That's what makes it funky!'"

Saadiq attributes that newly scrappy mind-set to the nearly two years of touring he did in support of "The Way I See It," work that included gigs at the Hollywood Bowl and at Tennessee's Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, as well as stints opening for Seal and the Dave Matthews Band. At one point he received an offer for an extended engagement in Japan, playing two shows a night.

"The money was just OK, so I was like, 'I don't know — I could probably stay home and find something better,'" Saadiq recalled. "But then Rob reminded me, 'You know, all those cats you love, that's exactly what they did. Little Richard? He played 10 shows a day at the Apollo.' I said, 'OK, let's go.'"

Despite his investment in the soul-music canon — not to mention the crisp, '60s-inspired visual flair he displayed when he backed Mick Jagger this year in a Grammy Awards tribute to the late Solomon Burke — Saadiq is sensitive about his music being labeled a throwback. "If you think 'The Way I See It' sounds like Motown, you don't know music," he said, perhaps a tad unreasonably.

Still, he does admit that some older values resonate with him more than current ones do. "Back in the day people made music to go on tour," he said. "They didn't make music to make a video." He also laments the dwindling emphasis placed on instrumental ability in the age of Pro Tools. "You can go on 'Saturday Night Live' now and not even play live," he says, shaking his head.

That interest in the handmade has broadened Saadiq's audience beyond the R&B core that's followed him since Tony! Toni! Toné! In March he headlined an NPR showcase at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, sharing a bill with the young indie-rock band Smith Westerns. And in addition to guest spots by Larry Dunn of Earth, Wind & Fire, and steel guitarist Robert Randolph, "Stone Rollin'" contains a vocal appearance by Yukimi Nagano of the experimental Swedish outfit Little Dragon.

"He's playing a hybrid form that's rooted in these familiar elements from classic soul but recontextualized with a modern sound," said Chris Douridas of Santa Monica's influential public-radio station KCRW-FM. "And the test of that comes out on the radio when you're programming music. A song like 'Good Man' [from 'Stone Rollin"], you can put something iconic like Ray Charles on one side, then go from 'Good Man' to Grizzly Bear," Douridas says, referring to the arty Brooklyn band. "There's a natural affinity there."

Milo Pacheco, vice president of marketing at Columbia Records, said the label is actively targeting what he called "that metropolitan hipster world" with its online efforts. Columbia has also sought to spark interest in the singer among Hollywood music supervisors, as well as youth-friendly brands such as Red Bull and JetBlue, both of which have taken part in Saadiq promotions.

Asked if the huge success this year of another soul-related Columbia release, Adele's "21," has impacted the label's campaign for "Stone Rollin'," Pacheco said, "It's encouraging to see that music can still become such a phenomenon based on the quality of the songwriting." But the executive admitted he's taken more from the example set by Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons: acts that have reaped significant commercial rewards without the benefit of built-in radio play.

"Our ultimate goal is that this becomes the word-of-mouth album of the year," Pacheco said. "We want people from different audiences to say, 'Hey, have you heard that record?'"

An industry veteran with his share of professional disappointments, Saadiq betrays some skepticism about the effectiveness of building buzz from the top down. "When the labels were doing good, they weren't doing that good for me," he said with a laugh. But he shares Columbia's commitment to cultivating a fan base as varied as the ones his heroes used to play to.

"Music should get you in any room, whether it's a juke joint or a political meeting or a party of ballplayers," he said. "You don't wanna be the guy where it's like, 'Oh, we wanna invite you, but you can't play your songs.' My mission has always been to do something that suits everybody."

calendar@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°