Fresh Soil


October 19, 2001



"I 'm the man, I'm the king, I'm the one," Ryan McCombs sings in the opening bars of "Halo," the angst-filled "active-rock" that's introducing Chicago's Soil to the world. And you can't blame him for boasting a bit. Four years after the quintet formed as a stoner-rock combo in the northwest suburbs, coming together from the ashes of a couple of more extreme metal bands, Soil became the first rock group to sign with Clive Davis' new J Records label. Now, it's getting the full-throttle corporate-rock push, complete with an arena tour opening for Ozzy Osbourne and significant airplay for "Halo."

Unfortunately, the band has gained a sort of generic slickness and lost most of the distinctive stoner-rock appeal that characterized 1998's "El Chupacabra!" E.P. and 1999's "Throttle Junkies" album, both recorded by Chicagoan Steve Albini and released on the independent MIA Records label. Bassist Tim King laughs a little nervously when I offer that opinion. "Being on a major label, they weren't too pro on the Albini sound," he admits. So, how did Soil get to this point?

"After 'Throttle Junkies,' MIA went out of business," Kings says. "We decided to just hit the 'refresh' button. We wrote a bunch of new songs and hooked up with producer Johnny K., who had just finished the Disturbed record, and he really helped us work with song structures." After a three-song demo was plugged on the Demo Diaries Web site, a corporate-metal station in Orlando started spinning the musical therapy session of "Halo" (sample lyric: "Everyday, every way I smell of suicide/Bitter sins how they grow within"). The major labels soon came a-courtin'.

"We had a label come out every week to see us rehearse and offer a contract," King says, "And J Records just stood out among everybody. We got to sit down with Clive Davis and hear him tell us, 'You're gonna be my only rock band for now. You're going to be a priority, and I want to break this band.' How do you say no to that?' "

It would be easy enough if you read up on Davis' history. His commercial achievements have been mixed with considerable controversies, and his biggest talent has always been hype--witness J's biggest success to date, Alicia Keyes.

"The man has sold a lot of records and gotten a lot of respect," King counters. "With J having an artist that's been the No. 1 seller in Billboard for three or four weeks, that only helps us. Alicia Keyes only brings more attention to the label and more attention to us for being Clive's first rock signing."

Davis clearly decided that his new label had to have a token nu-metal band, and he seized upon Soil, even though there's more old metal than new rap-rock in its mix.

"We come from heavy backgrounds, and when we started Soil, we were really big fans of Black Sabbath, C.O.C., Kyuss and bands like that," King says. "We basically took that 'Throttle Junkies' sound and our old metal backgrounds and morphed it into what Soil is now. It's kind of weird, because we're getting lumped into the category of your Linkin Parks, Disturbed, Godsmack, the whole nu-metal genre. But we do have a lot deeper influences than that."

Indeed they do, but Soil has buried those on its J debut "Scars" in favor of a more aggressive and tuneless sound and self-obsessed lyrics overflowing with misery and woe. In other words: Goodbye, Kyuss. Hello, Disturbed, Part Deux.

Will success spoil Soil? "Scars" would seem to indicate an unhappy affirmative. But maybe it's not too late for King, McCombs, guitarists Shaun Glass and Adam Zadel, and drummer Tom Schofield to redress the balance. At least we can hope.

The group celebrates the release of "Scars" with a sold-out show at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Metro. It will open the Merry Mayhem tour with Ozzy, Mudvayne, and Rob Zombie at the Allstate Arena on Dec. 6.

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As a founding member of Jane's Addiction and a veteran of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, guitarist Dave Navarro helped craft a sound that was one of the biggest inspirations for the alternative-rock explosion of the '90s. But lately, he's been legendary for a different reason, serving as the latest poster boy for wretched rock-star excess. This perception has been around for some time, but it peaked several months ago when Spin ran a sensational excerpt of Don't Try This At Home, a diary/photo book about a year in Navarro's life, co-written by the master of the tawdry, Neal Strauss, who previously chronicled Marilyn Manson and Motley Crue.

Shortly after the Spin article, publication of the book was halted until next March, apparently so large and potentially libelous tracts could be revised or replaced. The 34-year-old Navarro didn't want to talk about that, or about the second Jane's reunion, when I spoke to him in late August. He was more anxious to promote his first solo album, "Trust No One," a somewhat disappointing singer-songwriter affair.

When I told Navarro that a publicist (not his current PR person, Bobbi Gale, whose professionalism is unparalleled) had pitched me on interviewing him because, "He'll talk about all the sex and drug stuff that was in that Spin article," he seemed genuinely surprised and saddened. It was at that point that a record-company functionary tapped into the phone line and tried to end the interview, but Navarro insisted on addressing the issue of hyping his hedonism.

"I appreciate you telling me that," he said. "That's horrible, and I would be appalled, too. That sounds to me like it would be a publicity tactic to get you interested in talking to me. Maybe the thought process behind that was, 'Well, he's not interesting enough to talk about his music, so let's throw a piece of steak to the wolves,' so to speak.

"That's terrible. The only thing I have to say about drugs is that I don't recommend them. They've never really done anything positive for me. I do think that there is perhaps an inaccurate perception out there of what I stand for or what I care about or what's important to me. A lot of that is of my own [fault], and I'm responsible for that."

Is re-editing the book an attempt to correct all that? I asked. "No," Navarro said. "I can't really comment about that, but I will tell you that the only thing I want to do is to make sure that if there's anything I talk about, it's myself only. That's all that I care about with the book. What's unfortunate about that excerpt is that it did pull pretty hard-core material. It was hard-core, hard-core, hard-core, which isn't really how the book goes for me, and isn't really the story I want to tell. I think that with a little bit of fine-tuning, it can be the story I want to tell, which is a positive and uplifting one."

Maybe so. But I can't help noting that the stand-out track on "Trust No One" is a cover of the Velvet Underground's "Heroin." Jane's Addiction performs at the Allstate Arena at 7 p.m. Sunday along with Live and the Stereo MC's. Tickets are $48.50 through Ticketmaster, (312) 559-1212.