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Heavy Soul

No Lie--Seattle Has Midwifed One of the Better New Soul Bands Around in Maktub

By Michael Alan Goldberg | Posted 5/7/2003

As Chris Rock put it, "You know the world is going crazy when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy, the tallest guy in the NBA is Chinese, the Swiss hold the America's Cup, France is accusing the U.S. of arrogance, [and] Germany doesn't want to go to war." And something must be similarly askew when Maktub, one of the best, most innovative soul bands in the country, isn't from an urban hub like Philadelphia, Detroit, or Atlanta, but that lily-white, indie-punk outpost of Seattle.

Just as it defies geographical assumptions, the quintet is blasting a hole in what many expect, or settle for, when it comes to modern soul music. On its latest disc, Khronos, Maktub (pronounced MOCK-tube) meshes its smooth vintage grooves with hard-rock bombast, hazy psychedelia, and ambient dance-pop, sometimes on the same track. Charismatic singer Reggie Watts' expressive, passionate voice undeniably resembles Al Green's at times, especially when it slides into a sweet, stirring falsetto. But he can also belt out a rich, muscular croon or frenzied yowl that invites comparisons to Chris Cornell and Sevendust's Lajon Witherspoon.

The rest of the band--guitarist Thaddeus Turner, keyboardist Daniel Spils, bassist Kevin Goldman, and drummer Davis Martin--is equally mutable. The album's opener, "You Can't Hide," builds its sun-splashed, Stax-like vibe on Spils' warm Hammond B3 and Fender Rhodes, Turner's clean, bluesy picking, and the rhythm section's easygoing touch. But on "Give Me Some Time," the organs turn growly, the drums skittery and insistent, and Turner lets loose with a monster metal crunch before slithering back into the murky mix. "See Clearly" brings disco-house textures and beats to the fore, while an eight-minute cover of Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter" lays the narcotic atmosphere on thick, with trippy echoing and rotating effects repeatedly fractured by the faithfully rendered volcanic riff. Put together, it's a far cry from the typical Stevie Wonder-Marvin Gaye template to which innumerable contemporary soul acts aspire.

The more you think about it, though, the more fitting it seems that a band from Seattle would challenge the status quo. Of course it's gonna rock a little, in the finest Pacific Northwest tradition. But the members of Maktub also learned a lesson or two from the grunge years, a musical phenomenon that mirrors today's so-called neo-soul movement. The parallels are clear: A unique and vibrant underground scene develops, eventually rises to the mainstream consciousness, is neatly labeled and exploited by others for commercial gain, then becomes a parody of itself as legions of Johnny-come-latelies swoop in for the easy buck, soon becoming obscure footnotes or walking punch lines. Swap pre-ripped flannel shirts, overblown nihilism, and Candlebox for floppy boho hats, faux-sincerity, and Remy Shand, and it's the same story all over again.

Having formed in 1996--a year or so after D'Angelo's Brown Sugar put the first drops of fuel in the neo-soul gas tank--Maktub has had ample time and opportunity to hop on neo-soul's bandwagon and cash in. But all too cognizant of how that plot usually ends, and determined not to compromise its particular vision of soul, the quintet has followed a more naturally evolving path

"We've always stayed with what we are, even if that's sometimes hard for people to figure out," laughs Watts. "It's pretty hard to characterize ourselves, but we usually end up going with the term 'heavy soul.' We're not some retro band, we're not a funk band, we're not an R&B band, and we're not a rock band per se. We experiment with everything, and nothing is off-limits.

"The thing is, you can't be too concerned about, 'Am I fitting in with what's going on?' 'Am I hip enough?' 'The powers that be, are they gonna let it happen?'" he continues. "You just have to be true to what you do, and if people like it, they like it.

Seattle has unquestionably taken to them--no small feat for a band that's not grinding out grimy garage punk in the local bars. To be fair, the city's got a more diverse music scene than it's given credit for, with well-established electronic and hip-hop scenes to go along with all the rock. But Maktub towers above them all: Seattle Weekly readers voted it Best Local Band last year (beating Pearl Jam); both Khronos (originally released in 2002) and Subtle Ways, its 1999 debut, have garnered solid sales and rabidly enthusiastic reviews. And Maktub has earned a devoted and ever-growing fan base across the Pacific Northwest.

Now comes the most demanding part yet--translating all of that regional success to the national stage. The group's fortunes have been boosted by a recent signing to New York's über-hip Velour Recordings, which rereleased Khronos last month across the North America and is supporting Maktub's current (and first cross-country) tour.

"I definitely get excited to play in front of people I've never played for before," Watts says. "I kinda like being involved in a band that people don't know anything about, so when we get onstage, it's like, let's just rock as hard as we can and fill the place up with as much energy as possible.

"It's so much more nerve-wracking to play shows at home," he continues. "People in Seattle know what to expect, so you always wanna make them feel like they're getting something that's better than the last time. Whereas being out on the road, people haven't heard these songs at all, haven't seen what we look like or anything, so it's a clean slate. And if we play at the level we do in Seattle on the road, then it should come across like we're already there as opposed to trying to get somewhere."

As the guys in Maktub are keenly aware, establishing a reputation as an electrifying live act is important, but just one piece of the puzzle. They're hoping that radio and MTV eventually embrace their singular style. And if it happens, they'll know they did it on their own terms. Thankfully, Watts isn't inclined to spew the old line, "If no one listens to our stuff, that's OK because we did it for ourselves, and everything else is just icing on the cake."

"Hell no," he laughs. "We want the maximum amount of people to hear what we're doing. But I guess it depends on what you're in it for. Some people wanna be famous, other people like the community of it. For me, I always want to be indulging whatever ideas I have, putting out music, connecting with people, and making them feel good. That's what it's all about."

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