Knoxville's Gran Torino just might have tapped into the future of R&B—after seven years spent mining the gold of its past. The nine-piece soul-rock ensemble will release their new album The One and Only on Sept. 24, their first for Chapel Hill's Redeye Records label, and their third overall.
"This CD will be the biggest curveball we've thrown," says singer Chris Ford, seated next to drummer Whit Pfohl at a local coffee house on a Saturday afternoon. "There's a lot of rock and blues [on the record], but also some of the most R&B stuff we've ever done. There are lots of elements of new R&B—D'Angelo kind of stuff—lots of production and big roomy sounds. There's some stuff you could sell to contemporary urban radio."
Which isn't to say the band has cast aside those elements which have defined it, lo these past seven years. The '70s funk savvy, the downtown rhythms and uptown brass, the shrewd appropriations from bell-bottom rockers and soul synthesists from Carlos Santana to Parliament—the retro flourishes still run riot through Gran Torino's loose-bootied yet tightly-wound sound.
But if the first three finished tracks off The One and Only are any indication, the group has finally crafted a sound that's truly Torino, brashly and smoothly melding retro roots with hip-hop sensibilities and Ford's cocky soul-rap flow.
Gran Torino's story is atypical in many respects, not the least of which is its expansive membership. Equipped with four horn players and a percussionist in addition to the standard issue drums-and-strings lineup, the ensemble was an almost instant local success when it hit Knoxville club stages in 1995.
After a few months and many SRO crowds, the group of mostly-UT students decided to quit school and day jobs and hit the road as a full-time touring act. The ensuing years have been a rush of recording and touring, with the Torinos playing as many as 260 shows in a year during that period.
"We've done a lot of touring in the Southeast, and we're like traveling salesmen now," says Ford, shorn of the shaggy locks and mutton chops he sported in years past. "We know these clubs and these promoters inside and out, and we've got 25 or 30 cities now where we can go in any time and kick ass, draw a few hundred or a thousand people. We have a great relationship with the fans in those places."
"It's almost taken some of the fun out of traveling," adds Pfohl. "It was great when we were young, going to all these new places. You know you're getting used to it when you stop using the map."
Between jaunts, the band managed to record two self-produced full-length CDs—entitled, cleverly enough, Gran Torino One and Gran Torino Two—selling close to 60,000 combined copies on the strength of its relentless touring and enthusiastic college-circuit fan base.
Those records were distributed by North Carolina's Redeye, and when the distributing company decided to form its own label in 2001, Gran Torino was among the first bands it called. "They were big fans of the band," Ford explains. "The president always came to our shows whenever we were in town."
Ford figures the record deal came at just the right time. Though Two was a successful effort by any measure, and the band's popularity has never flagged, the singer and his mates have misgivings about their second release, concerns that they may have compromised too often, or tried too hard.
"We were trying to get some radio-friendly stuff, appeal to some labels," Ford explains. "We tried to program beats and make music like pop stars. We made that record for a lot of the wrong reasons. On the new record, we went for a raw, organic sound, wide open. We let the chips fall where they may; we weren't afraid to sound like the Stones sometimes."
But the band's evolution might well have something to do with interpersonal growth. No longer footloose college kids, the members have homes, wives and long-term girlfriends; co-drummer Dave Heyer has a year-old son, Jack. As Ford puts it, "There's something to come back home to."
And Ford believes that both the band's musical chemistry and its longevity are linked to the maturity those kinds of life changes inevitably bring. It's worth telling that only one member has departed since Torino's '95 inception, truly an anomaly for a nine-member outfit in the chaotic world of full-time rock 'n' roll.
"We stick together; we're very much a family," Ford admits. "Our wives and girlfriends hang out. That's definitely part of our success. We've moved on to the next level of challenges—how to live a real life doing what we do, and not just 'Where do we get the next beer?'"