Initially pegged as yet another in a long line of alterna-rock acts to co-opt reggae and ska riddims, the band quickly moved beyond that rather simplistic approach, and has continued to grow and evolve at roughly the same rate as their fanbase.
Proving once more that truly promising Savannah bands of virtually any genre must hit the road in search of fame and fortune (rather than being able to grow a truly massive following in their own hometown), the group has achieved no small amount of success as a completely independent touring attraction. In fact, virtually every aspect of their business is handled in-house.
The quartet is self-managed, and to date all of their booking and recording has been handled by the bandmembers themselves and a few close friends. Of late they’ve begun to headline some of the more prestigious rooms in the Southeast (such as Jacksonville, Fla.’s 700-seat Freebird Live and Myrtle Beach’s 2,000-plus House of Blues) and up the East Coast.
In a testament to the serious manner in which they handle their affairs, the band recently wrapped their longest outing to date (35 shows), playing to some of the biggest crowds they’ve yet seen for their increasingly diverse style of groove-oriented soul music. I caught up with keyboardist Adam Willis by phone the night after their final show for a candid chat about the future of the band, and the difficulties of trying to grow a following in Savannah.
Tell me about the tour you just finished.
Adam Willis: It started April 6. Last night was the final show in Salisbury, Md. It was mad, man! Completely packed. It stretched from Central Fla. up to Northern Vt. and pretty much everywhere in between.
How many people were there last night?
Adam Willis: Just under 700. We all agree this tour’s been an excellent experience. Turnouts were good everywhere, and we’ve got a lot more stuff lined up. We’re gonna be featured on a Warped Tour CD sampler put out by Law Records. That’s one label that’s looking at us right now.
How did that come about?
Adam Willis: One of the bigger acts in our genre of reggae-rock is a band called Pepper, and that label was started by them. We played a big gig with them for 99X radio in Atlanta at the Hi-Fi Buys Amphitheatre, and we all got along really well. That’s great because those guys just got off a major tour with 311. Ideally, after we make our next CD, we’ll get on some sort of national tour with a more established group. Nothing’s cast in stone yet, but we finally have some serious people that are definitely interested.
What are the band’s immediate goals?
Adam Willis: Keep on doing what we’ve been doing: gigging our asses off! Promoting these shows and our band, selling records as best we can by ourselves online. We’ve been approached by some booking agencies, but we wanna do the right thing, and not just go with whomever. We’ve done really well with just me doing the booking, but things have picked up a lot, and fairly soon I know I’ll have to step down. We’ll need to hire some real professionals to manage us and book tours. It’s an awful lot of work! (Laughs)
How many actual CDs have you sold?
Adam Willis: As far as hard copies, we’ve probably sold 800, but this record’s been out for less than a year. I think most of our sales come from iTunes.
So you sell more downloads than discs?
Adam Willis: I think we all expected downloads would be the majority of our sales. I love and appreciate people who want the whole, physical album. We put a lot of pride in our packaging and I think it’s really classy looking. But realistically, I don’t buy albums anymore either. I know that sounds terrible because I am a musician, but I haven’t bought a CD in years. I get most everything via downloads. Most of us in the band do. At the end of the day, we’re just pleased our music is in the listener’s hands through whatever route they wanna take. If they like it, buy it and come to the shows, that’s all that matters.
Did Passafire go on the road as soon as you felt ready to compete with the big guys?
Adam Willis: Absolutely. We consider ourselves a business as much as a band. We’re incorporated and work very hard to keep this a career. We all agreed any band that plays the same basic style of music as we do can’t be successful without heavy touring. Our goal is to be signed to William Morris or The Agency Group — companies who represent serious live music acts. The only way to do that is to get 600 or 700 people to come out constantly in your region. But you’ve gotta suck it up and pay your dues. When we first started playing these markets, there were like 10 people there! Does that feel good? No. But you do it anyway. We’re finally seeing fans we had no idea existed, and in large numbers.
It seems the band is trying to shift into a more eclectic and progressive rock bag.
Adam Willis: Yes. It takes a while for a band to really click. You realize what you’re playing isn’t a typical reggae sound. It’s a Passafire sound! We feel we have to make something that will leave a mark, so when people hear it, they’ll know it’s us. People initially compared us to Sublime or Slightly Stoopid. We don’t wanna sound like them. We wanna be Passafire.
What will this Savannah show be like?
Adam Willis: A combination of both older stuff and material that’ll be on the next album. We’re always writing new stuff and take a lot of pride in perfecting it before we play it in public. We don’t come out there with a half-assed product. (Laughs)
I’ve heard you mention in other interviews that the lack of a serious, legit all-ages venue in Savannah has hindered the growth of our music scene and in some ways, your band.
Adam Willis: I worry a bit when I’ve read some interviews I’ve given, because I felt maybe it came off like we were in some way dissing Savannah a bit, which is not the case! We came up in that town and we represent it hard on the road. But at the same time, I’m being honest. 75% of the places we play are at least 18 and up, and many are all-ages. These aren’t theatres, and they’re not really bars. But they do serve alcohol. We play all the time with bands that came up in other cities that had a solid venue that’s at least 18 and up. It’s such a different experience for them! First of all, a real venue like that draws big regional or national bands. And the best local bands get to support them. That’s how you learn what it’s like to be on a real stage with a real monitor guy and a real soundman. You learn how clubs deal with the money. It’s not just about putting a lot of people in the room. It’s about helping artists understand what the real world of touring is like. The average person would have no way of learning that. There’s no place like that in Savannah, and I feel when we started out, we were way behind the other acts out there because we never had that experience. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Young people don’t have much to do that really appeals to them. It would be better to have them in a club than just out on the streets. Some places we play, we talk to kids who are 16 or 17, and they’re already so hip to what’s going on. They’re not out getting drunk or doing drugs. They’re hanging with other fans and going to shows. They’re getting into music.
There don’t seem to be that many reggae bands in this part of the country. Why not?
Adam Willis: Before we started touring we all thought there weren’t that many reggae bands around here either. It turns out there are, just not a lot of really good ones! (Laughs) But it seems that most of the good ones don’t tour as much as they probably could. They’re like hometown heroes.
When you’re out on the road, what’s the one thing you miss most about home?
Adam Willis: Spending time with my girlfriend. But I’d also say the relaxed pace of Savannah. Touring is like a series of victories mixed with a series of upsets. I love doing this and wouldn’t trade it for the world, but after 6 weeks out, I don’t wanna think about it for a few days! (Laughs) I don’t wanna maneuver a trailer full of gear in Manhattan, or make sure the band’s name got spelled right in the local paper. Those things add up and you just get tired of it all. The funniest part is after you’re home for a week, you can’t wait to get back on the road! It’s a weird life. (Laughs)
Passafire (with opening act Street Circus Symphony) plays the Wild Wing Café in City Market Saturday at 10 pm. Music samples at: www.myspace.com/passafire.