It’s only been a few months since I first sat down with Lance Herbstrong in the artist lounge at Austin’s Euphoria Festival. That day I chatted with Kamal Soliman and Bill Sarver, the creative minds behind Herbstrong’s three album releases. I got a glimpse into the inner workings of the group, how it was conceived and aspirations for the remainder of 2016. Obsessed with the band’s unique presentation towards performing tracks that span a spectrum of genres, I made a pitch to further know the group from within and follow their creative process in both the live and off stage setting. Receptive to my idea, Kamal and Bill offered me the opportunity to shadow the band as they performed four sets at Electric Forest festival in late June. The weekend in Rothbury, Michigan transpired to be one of the most exhilarating weekends of my life as I soaked in the planet’s coolest forest and got lost in the magic of Lance Herbstrong’s multiple shows. It was truly the most optimal setting to get immersed in the Lance Herbstrong universe.
The driving creative forces behind Lance Herbstrong consist of frontman Kamal Soliman on MCing, percussion and mixing, Bill Sarver on mixing, and Peter DiStefano on lead guitar. At Forest, the band brought in regulars Ricky Gonzalez on drums, Josh Abdi on percussion, and first time guest Paul Buchholz on bass guitar. Compared to any other musician in the band, and likely any artist who performed at Electric Forest, Kamal was grinding the hardest. Aside from playing four unique sets with Herbstrong, he worked nonstop as production manager for the Hanger Stage, one of the most extravagant and talked-about areas of the Forest. “It’s been very challenging to switch gears and go into artist mode and then put the radio on and go back to production managing. I give it 110% on stage and afterwards I still put in a 10 hour day.“ His work ethic is clearly echoed in the Lance Herbstrong project as he strives for perfection in everything the band presents. Herbstrong has had a storied history with Forest, first playing three years ago. “This is a unique festival where people can come here and not even see music,” recalled Kamal. “There used to be a venue here called Wagon Wheel. We showed up late as fuck, it was Friday 4th of July weekend and at one point about halfway through we were the only music playing at the festival and the place just fucking exploded.” “We finished up at 6am and then said we needed some meth for breakfast and that inspired the name of our second album ‘Meth Breakfast,'” Bill chimed in.
The band thrives in the festival setting, whether it be at Electric Forest, Lollapalooza or SXSW, because “people will randomly be drawn into our sets and will choose to miss other shows just to catch ours in the moment,” Josh explains. “What’s most special about us is that we don’t tour, we don’t try to make money solely through our music. We are more of a festival band. Kamal helps to get us booked with his industry connections and Pete because of the rockstar that he is and we just do this because of our genuine love for music.” That genuine love for music and devotion to the craft is what brought the players together from all musical backgrounds. According to Ricky, “I didn’t even get chosen to be in this, the universe brought us together.” Although some members of the band did not initially know each other well before getting on stage, they were always in sync on the stage. “Our very first big show was Lollapalooza, no one had met each other before we played together and we still put on an incredible show.”
What drew me into the band’s live performance is their mastery in sonic novelty. Improvisation is a consistent quality to Herbstrong’s live presentation. The music flows best when the group avoids a rigid set structure. “We really have the first couple tracks set up and then go with it on the fly,” explains Kamal.”I’m typically playing improv. Every show is different, I just know what keys to play in. I like to play like Jerry Garcia and just improv,” added Peter. And of course, every great band needs an even greater drummer who can direct the tempo and flow for all the players. “Ricky is a special type of drummer cause he can play behind the beat. Usually drummers are leading the beat but with us Ricky has to follow the produced beat.“
It’s not only the song structures that are improvised, but the live dynamic as well, which is filled with surprise artist sit-ins. A couple years ago, Brad Wilk from Rage Against the Machine sat in on drums and Zack from Rebelution played trumpet. Even Lance Armstrong himself sat in on drums to pay homage to the band’s namesake; an epic moment that was fortunately caught on tape:
Herbstrong is no stranger to having strangers sit-in on performances. Bill recalls one of his favorite memories from a guest sit-in. “I love surprises when we’re playing. I remember one show when we’re playing and I look back and there’s this homeless guy who’s playing with us. He just snuck himself in…I like to turn around and see the most fucked up thing in my life.” “That was at SXSW, there was a one armed homeless dude who snuck in and started playing with us,” Kamal added.
Even though wild, unexpected antics may occur on stage, the band is consistently fluid and tight-sounding, rarely missing a beat and always keeping the audience on their toes. The band’s genuine love for the craft sways them from pervasive negative distractions that are all too common in the party culture. According to Kamal, “We always want the party, we want to incite the party, but at the end of the day we don’t want it to be a sonic trainwreck. It’s all about music quality and we believe we’re putting out a great product.” Kamal perfectly sums up the most appealing aspect of the band: “We’re all over the place, we’re playing everyone’s favorite songs and we’re an awesome show. When you hear something you know it conjures up a prior memory of hearing it at some point in your life and you hear it played out in a whole new way. There’s a hundred shitty remixes for every good one. I know when Lance Herbstrong puts out a song, it’s fucking great. I met so many people who were blown away by that Pretty Lights X Jimi Hendrix mashup, or Pink Floyd ‘Echoes’ remix.”
This is what initially drew me into Lance Herbstrong’s sound and aesthetic; they take risks with their music, both in production and performance, and place their sonic quality on a higher pedestal each time. This group continues to make tidal waves throughout the music community as they curate a unique slant towards experiencing live music. Look out for their upcoming “Bullet The Blue Sky” music video, as well as a forthcoming full album release that promises to immerse your senses in a sonic journey through the ages.