Back in the Nineties, Live frontman Ed Kowalczyk was a bald, often bare-chested heir apparent to Bono, commanding arena-sized sing-alongs to hit after hit from the band's eight-million-selling smash, Throwing Copper.
"Lightning Crashes," "Selling the Drama," "I Alone": nearly 20 years later, the set list still promises these and other fan favorites, like "Heaven" and "The Dolphin's Cry." But it's a different sized crowd: Kowalczyk's recent Manhattan concert took place at the 161-capacity Joe's Pub. And his shirt stayed on.
Onstage, things are different too. True to the title of his current back-to-basics trek – the "I Alone Acoustic Tour," which is now midway through its North American leg – Kowalczyk is the sole performer. Conspicuously absent are the singer's former bandmates, the trio of friends with whom he formed Live to play in a middle-school talent show. After a quarter of a century with the group, Kowalczyk and Live parted ways when the singer was slapped with a 2010 breach-of-contract lawsuit by Patrick Dahlheimer (bass) and the Chads, Chad Gracey (drums) and Chad Taylor (guitar), who were seeking money from a publishing deal that Kowalczyk had entered into several years earlier. Then, in 2012, Live – technically, Action Front Limited, the company that holds the band's trademarks – hit the singer with an infringement suit. Kowalczyk counter-sued.
While the others took to social media and sent an email blast to Live fan club members to tell their side of the story (among the grievances: Taylor alleged that Kowalczyk demanded a $100,000 "lead singer bonus" to appear at a 2009 festival), Kowalczyk has remained silent.
Until now. With both suits settled and a second solo album, The Flood and the Mercy (Harbour Records Inc./Universal), featuring the single "Seven," just released, Kowalczyk recently opened up to Rolling Stone about the plan for a two-year hiatus from Live that led to the permanent split, his feelings about his former bandmates and how he managed to channel his anger and frustration into his music. "It was the hardest thing I've ever dealt with," he says, "but it was the greatest gift I was given."
You weren't kidding when you named this the I Alone Tour. At Joe's Pub, there wasn't even a roadie to hand you a guitar. What's it like out there on your own?
I am having the time of my life, and that's hard for people to understand. They think, "Gosh, you guys were selling so many records and so many tickets. You were all over the radio. Now you're playing these acoustic shows, and it's more humble environs." And I go, "Yeah, but in many ways, I'm more fulfilled and having a better time now than I ever did."
In which ways?
There's so much more life lived behind the songs. The fans have grown with the music, and they're still finding inspiration in it. It feels like everything has come full-circle. In these intimate environments, people get to really tune into the core of what the songs are about. Even though the music starts this way, with just me and a guitar, I've never presented it this way onstage before.
You've been saying that this tour and this album represent a new start for you, but it's your second solo record. Did it just take you a while to get to where you wanted to go?
With the first album [2010's Alive], I maybe bright-sided it just a little too much. In some ways [The Flood and the Mercy] is a more honest record than the first one. It's unmapped terrain for me, heading out into the unknown after 20 or more years of knowing the territory so well – almost too well. So The Flood and the Mercy came from that: There's this tumult and this huge energy of the water that can be destructive, but it can also be kind of a rebirth, because you wipe the slate clean. And then you get the mercy, this new experience and new joy.
But before the joy, there was the pain of parting ways with your longtime friends in a very acrimonious way. You've never really talked about it publicly before. Why?
I avoided it, not because I didn't want to talk about it, but because I felt like it was such a distraction. This was supposed to be a new, bright moment in my career, and I wanted people to focus on that.
You guys were like a band of brothers – the pride of York, Pennsylvania. When did all the trouble start?
After 20-something years, it was time for a rest, and we all agreed to it. We agreed on a two-year hiatus in 2009: we'd wind Live down, the whole machine, and everybody would go do their thing. We played the last show that summer in Long Island, then there was this nightmare of legal stuff that started pretty much immediately. For me, it absolutely was a natural progression [that I would want to pursue solo projects], but there was this unforeseen, incredible fallout that those guys generated against me that was really shocking.
What was the gist of that first lawsuit?
They sued me [over] this years-old publishing agreement that we had totally agreed to already. All of a sudden there was this loophole or this problem with it. I'd always been the writer, always wrote the lyrics, melodies and most of the music in Live, and I wanted to have my own publishing company and not a joint one. I wanted to move on and start another aspect of my recording career with the solo records, and they totally agreed to it back in 2006. So they dredged this thing up and said they were misled, which is totally untrue. It was practically out of the statutes of limitations, from what I was told. And it was just totally malicious. They just threw it at me to knock me down around the release of [Alive], which increased the shock and awe of it. I'd never been sued before in my life.
At this point you were still a member of Live – you'd planned to reunite with the band after doing the solo record. Why would they want to threaten the future of the band?
I think it was just anger that I was going to go and do something without them. It's really hard for me to say what their motivations were, or are. I have been completely dumbfounded by their activities and actions over the last four years. I was just trying to move forward and find that energy, that passion again. At the same time that all of this was happening, I was having some of the best shows of my career. One of the first things I did was sing with the Metropole Orchestra in Holland. I was reconnecting with the fans in this amazing, new, intimate and powerful way. I was writing great music. So, for me, it was just weird. I was having this incredible renaissance of joy in what I was doing, but at the same time, there was the contrast of literal legal siege being brought to my doorstep. They had this malicious program of dropping these legal bombs on me when my [first solo] record came out, on my birthday, on Christmas Eve. Every day I had to compartmentalize the fact that these guys who called themselves my friends for most of my life weren't.
The second lawsuit was over trademark infringement: they didn't want you to say that you were "of" the band Live. [Kowalczyk is now referred to as "formerly of Live."]
It's been a problem coming as a solo artist after being known as [the singer with] Live for so long, and having to inform the public and, at the same time, abide by these agreements that I've made. It just seems silly to me, and unnecessary.
At what point did you realize that you were going to have to leave the band?
[After the first lawsuit], when things had risen to such a stupid level. It's kind of hard, if not impossible, to come back from a breach of trust that a lawsuit represents.
Did you find it hard to concentrate on writing new music with all of this going on?
In some weird, crazy way that life works, I feel that there's a depth with The Flood and the Mercy that wouldn't be there [if not for the strife]. It's really lemonade from lemons. I just kept trying to use it as grist for the mill. And it made the record and made my shows better. I just used the gifts that I had been given to provide this catharsis for myself, to get through things and to see the bright side, and, at the same time, not deny the fact that I was going through some really shitty stuff.
You played York last week. How'd it go?
Honestly, it felt like a real big hug. The fans are proud of me, they're proud of my accomplishments. I think they're proud, too, of how I handled what turned into a breakup. I did not disparage anybody online. I kept it really quiet. In fact, I didn't talk about it until now, really, in any real way. And I think they appreciated that. Because those guys were being horrible online, just vitriolic and really nasty – really insulting, really dark commentary about me and my record, and making fun of it. I didn't care, but I really wanted to save the fans from that kind of shit, and I tried by taking – I guess they call it the high road. I think the fans appreciate that they could come to my site and get new releases and that they weren't going to get a bunch of tit-for-tat. There's the aspect of being sued for the first time, then there's the aspect of me, being the lyricist and melodist and songwriter in Live, being the communicator of the spirit of it from my heart to so many people for so many years. To have somebody use that credibility that had been developed for so long, over so much touring, to have them air this dirty laundry – and have it be false – really was the hardest thing for me to deal with. Because they were trying to rupture . . . They didn't succeed because, clearly, it's stronger than ever, my relationship with my fans. But what I felt most insulted and hurt by was the fact that the fans didn't deserve that. Here was this relationship that I had built that they were trying, really, to damage and to disrupt. And that really hurt. That was the hardest thing to take.
Live has a new singer [Chris Shinn, formerly of Unified Theory].
And they're not being real clear about who's in it anymore. They obfuscate that it's not the real band. They don't say that it's not the original [lineup]. They just kind of go out and surprise people, and it's really sort of lame.
You worked with Peter Buck on quite a few tracks on The Flood and the Mercy. R.E.M. handled their split in a very different way. Did you two compare experiences?
One of the things that I really appreciate about R.E.M. now, more than ever, is how Peter described to me how those guys decided to take a break – or end it or whatever it's going to be, we'll see – and how congenial, how brotherly and how respectful of each other those guys were, in contrast to my situation. It made me that much more of a fan.