When the Houston Press spoke with Huey Lewis over the phone recently, he hit us with a daunting figure about his band's latest album, 2010 R&B covers project Soulsville.
"We have sold [fewer] total copies of Soulsville than what we used to sell daily of Sports at its most successful," Lewis said. "It's not about selling records anymore, obviously."
Huey Lewis & the News have settled into an older, but no less popular, groove in 2011. Soulsville may have topped out at No. 121 on the Billboard 200, but debuted in the Top 20 on both the R&B and independent-album charts.
Besides, these days record sales don't matter to the band as much as honing their craft for their fans and themselves, something younger bands may forget about on their way up the ladder. At the News' previous Houston stop, September 2010 at the Arena Theatre, they played almost all of Soulsville in the home of the revolving stage, along with their famous pop-radio behemoths.
Lewis says to expect the same thing this time around. "We still play hits, they are gonna hear six big Top 10 hits," he allows. "We haven't heard any static on the social-media end. We don't get much of that. I'm not a social-network guy, but some of the guys in the band are. I guess we get a limited amount of hate."
Soulsville lets the News cut into the soil beneath the band and trace their roots. It digs deeply into the Stax label's roster of artists, whose sound helped shape Lewis and the rest of the News as they cut their teeth in their first bands. Most of them competed with one another in the San Francisco Bay Area of the late '60s and early '70s.
Lewis says the News' early sound was a reaction to the hippie-psych sounds going on around them. He stands by his view that the trippier stuff was contrived.
"This sound is a natural fit for us," he says. "The ties that bind us. We all grew up together in competing bands since high school, in opposite bands, playing this R&B stuff. It was our reaction to the psychedelic stuff that was sweeping our community.
"We didn't like the psychedelic stuff, we liked the soul," Lewis continues. "It wasn't funky, and it's gotta be funky for me. It's happy music. It's made from people who don't have anything. The morose psych stuff was made by rich white kids."
By the band's standards, their Soulsville version of the Staples Singers' "Respect Yourself" is especially grimy. Other cuts by Johnnie Taylor, Solomon Burke and Isaac Hayes's title track find the News getting to the bedrock of what led them to their signature sound.
This ain't the old News at work. Of course, an album of soul covers could be viewed as opportunistic in a landscape filled with younger artists like Black Joe Lewis and Fitz & The Tantrums, who are becoming highly successful playing a revamped, hipster-friendly version of that classic beat.
"We aren't doing 'faux' soul," vows Lewis, sounding just a little incredulous. "They do the technical stuff, that 'stylus on the record' crap, recording with analog [equipment] because they think they should. We use ProTools, but only to edit. We are trying to capture the spirit, and not the just the exact sound of the music."
"It's way better than the paint-by-numbers stuff," he adds.
As Sports, the band's most successful and recognizable album, approaches its 30th anniversary in 2013, Lewis has started to look back on the album's birthing period a bit more. You don't have to drag nuggets about Sports out of him, either. When talking about Soulsville, he uses the multiplatinum album's electronic sheen as an example of what the band is not doing now.
"Sports was not recorded live," he says. "We assembled those records; we didn't play it at all. It was put together by kicks, snares and sequencers — all machines. Being a bar band, like we had been [for] most of the '70s, was the farthest thing from it. No playing at all. One instrument at a time. You can hear that Linn drum, that 'doo-doo-doo' techno edge on 'The Heart of Rock and Roll.'
"Peter Wolf, not the J. Geils Band Peter Wolf but the Austrian producer, was next door at the studio working on a Jefferson Starship album, and he came over and helped," Lewis continues. "My idea to program drums, that techno edge, was the way to add a pop flavor to these R&B songs we had. This wasn't like Journey and all that shit."
Here Lewis makes a loud Steve Perry-style wail.
"The band was super upset with me because they wanted to play on it," he says. "I kept saying, 'It's just the record, we're trying to get [a] hit here' to them."
Soulsville is the complete antithesis of Sports, and it's what is keeping the band alive in 2011. Today they don't have to rely on hits if they don't want to.
"We threw the machines in the Dumpster, because we are good enough now," Lewis says. "We don't need to sell albums for people to show up. We have to be true to ourselves. This is a creative thing for us. These are all creative challenges now."
The Press asked Lewis if the News is gearing up to make another theme album concentrating on another genre. After all, Sports closes with a cover of Hank Williams Sr.'s "Honky Tonk Blues," and the band doesn't screw it up.
"It was freezing cold in Memphis when we were recording Soulsville, so the guys were joking around saying we should make a record about Phoenix," laughs Lewis. "It won't be soul music next. Modern country is now ProTooled to death, and my record would just be too country for country radio."
Lewis is joking, but he's also correct. The market has changed a lot since Sports, Fore! and Picture This were busting up the charts.
"Listen, we're playing the performing arts centers now," Lewis says. "We used to be a beer-and-hot dog band. Now we're hanging with the wine-and-cheese set."