Like their pro-athlete counterparts, many rock acts seem more focused on money than on anything else. Too many bands clone whatever is selling, whether it’s alternative rock or - the latest craze - techno music. But ever since the band Live started as teenage friends in a garage in York, Pa., it has followed a more personal vision. The group shuns passing trends in favor of a spiritual quest that continues with a bold new disc released this month.
The album, “Secret Samadhi,” follows up the band’s 6-million-selling “Throwing Copper” CD. The new record’s title is a spiritual reference (samadhi is a state of deep concentration in Hinduism) and so is the title of the new single, “Lakini’s Juice.” Lakini is a Hindu goddess of destruction.
“In a lot of ways, ‘Secret Samadhi’ is a darker album than anything we’ve written,” singer Ed Kowalczyk says. “But I also think it has as much hope and inspiration in it as anything we’ve done.
“We’re into a life of discovery, with an openness to everything. That’s exactly what turns some people off about Live, but it’s also what turns other people on. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Kowalczyk.
“We’re not virtuosos. And technical knowledge goes right out the window with us,” adds Live bassist Patrick Dahlheimer. “But there’s a chemistry that has remained from the early days. There’s a friendship and an understanding that we’re all in this together. And with the new album, I really think we’ve stumbled onto our own style.”
Live’s new album extends the band’s high-octane, guitar-based sound (evident in earlier hits “Selling the Drama” and “I Alone”). But it also shows a deeper sense of dynamics - listen to the harsh, metallic guitar hook intertwined with pretty strings on “Lakini’s Juice.” Such dynamics are topped throughout by no-holds-barred lyrics that refer to writer Henry Miller as well as to the nonconformists of “Heropsychodreamer,” “Freaks” (with Jennifer Childs of Elysian Fields on sweet harmony vocals), and “Insomnia & the Hole in the Universe.”
The album has many playful allusions. “Rattlesnake” has the verse: “In another place, another time, I’d be driving trucks, my dear.” But, overall, there’s a serious sense of yearning in songs like “Ghost” and “Unsheathed” that few modern rock records can match.
“There’s a taboo against anything serious or that takes life seriously,” Kowalczyk says. “And that’s not just in pop history, that’s in the world itself. There’s the idea that somehow all this came from nothing and we’re going to sail into the millennium and, if we keep buying our computers and our stereos, we’re going to be OK.
“But I think there’s an underbelly of people, especially our age right now, who are fed up with that and don’t see our generation going down that road into some post-‘80s materialism,” Kowalczyk says.
The band members, who also include drummer Chad Gracey and guitarist Chad Taylor, are in their late 20s and grew up taking cues from fellow idealists U2 and R.E.M.
“Being born in 1971, we grew up watching the hippies get old and washed up,” Kowalczyk says. “And here we are in our 20s at the verge of the millennium shifting, and we’re just waiting to see what happens to us when we hit 30 and 40. Are we going to just go down the road - or are we going to really push something artistically and creatively over the edge again?”
Live does just that on “Secret Samadhi,” an album filled with tension-and-release rock and impressionistic lyrics that don’t always make sense, yet get under your skin. And when they do make sense, they resonate deeply. For instance, in the Neil Young-like psychedelic rock track “Graze,” Kowalczyk sings, “The artist does figure eights, but will he stand the test of time - or will he rot like the mission that tried too hard?”
“‘Secret Samadhi’ is more of an emotional lyrical attack than it is anything else,” Kowalczyk says. “I went for a kind of behind-the-brain approach to lyrics. I wasn’t very concerned with them making sense. …It’s emotion, not intellect, that’s being challenged here.”
Part of the album was written around the group’s home base in York, but several songs were penned during a three-week stay in Jamaica. The single “Lakini’s Juice” came out of the “intense vibe” of nighttime around Jamaica’s Montego Bay, bassist Dahlheimer says.
“We’re probably worse at our instruments than we were five years ago,” Kowalczyk adds. “But it doesn’t really matter. It’s all about the emotional connection between the four of us, and that’s what has grown and matured.”
The spiritual quest at the center of the album is nothing new for Live, though some critics in Europe, where the album was just released, have disagreed.
“I got a few cracks from people in Europe who said, ‘Here goes Live into their foray into spirituality for this record.’ But I had to snap these people’s rubber bands and remind them that our first record was called ‘Mental Jewelry’ and I talked about my teacher at the time, Krishnamurti, during interviews. This has been something that Live has been about since the beginning.”
Kowalczyk’s spiritual search has intensified since becoming a devotee a few months ago of California guru Adi Da Samraj, a 57-year-old Long Island native who used to be called Da Free John in the ‘70s. Kowalczyk performed nine Live songs on acoustic guitar for Samraj during a retreat in December.
“He totally digs the music,” says Kowalczyk, describing Samraj as a more worldly guru, not a “living-on-the-mountainside-inside-a-cave- letting-bugs-eat-his-flesh kind of guy.”
Though Kowalczyk knows some gurus can be manipulative and feed off devotees’ insecurities, he was impressed by Samraj’s comment that, “Whatever you do, don’t turn this into some immature cult. Make this a real spiritual practice.”
Kowalczyk, the only devotee in the band and writer of all the group’s lyrics, meditates twice daily and performs yoga, but he’s not about to use the stage as a pulpit.
“We’ve never been a band that’s proselytized for any specific group of people or religion or anything,” he says. “It’s always been about a totally open-eyed investigation of it all. There’s no preaching involved. I didn’t get to where I am, to wherever that is, to the feet of my guru, by anybody telling me to do it. Or what to think or do. I don’t appreciate it from other people, and I would not do it to anyone else.”