The misconceptions began in 1991, when the band made its debut with Mental Jewelry, a vibrant but immature offering layered thick with social commentary yet also packed with personal yearning. The music was good enough to attract listeners, while the lyrics were well-written enough to engage serious fans. Poppish rock with meaningful words? No one knew what the hell to make of this outfit.
Live has since been described as everything from spiritual to intellectual to progressive to contemplative. Yet to slap any one, or all, of these labels on the band denies it its visceral quality. And its spontaneity.
"I think that Live is a band that really only takes itself seriously for 60 minutes out of every show day," says guitarist Chad Taylor. "We know that there's a level of expectation for our shows, and we basically come to deliver the goods. Every show is different. They each follow their own path. But we take following that path very seriously. Sometimes that means that the show's gonna be humorous, and we're not afraid to let it go that way."
To hear Taylor tell it, the band has been hampered by the "brainy" or "thoughtful" labels, stinging brandings that have been aggravated by the fact that singer Ed Kowalczyk "writes intelligent, articulate lyrics." The band is really about, "in its most pure form, sex," says Taylor. "It's very primal that way. And I don't mean gratuitous boy-girl sex. I'm saying there's an intimate, very physical thing that happens."
Like the band's previous albums, Live's most recent release, The Distance to Here, allows for various interpretations; some folks have even described the group as closet Christian. "Yeah," says Taylor with a laugh. "The odd thing about that is, I don't think that we have any Christians in our band. A lot of our songs are spiritual songs. And when something is spiritual, I think a lot of times it somehow becomes denoted as religious. I always saw Live as having great connections to the Doors. A band that was always about the journey, and not really about the destination or the beginning."
Like the Doors, Live depends on its four individual but interlocking parts. Kowalczyk, Taylor, drummer Chad Gracey and bassist Patrick Dahleimer all write their own material. The first stage of collaboration, according to Taylor, is to "take everything to Ed, and he starts working on the lyric melody and building it up from there." That done, the band fleshes things out together.
"Where we're at now," Taylor says, "16 or 17 months into the touring cycle for The Distance to Here, is so far removed from the individual creative starting point that it's nearly impossible to remember that phase. We play a song called "Where Fishes Go,' and we're doing the set list one night, and I started thinking about it, and I couldn't remember who wrote that song. But it was one of the songs I had written."
Every song eventually begins to sound like Live. It's more than evolution, according to Taylor, more than a song taking on a life of its own through repeated performance. What happens is a figurative transfer of ownership, in which the song becomes the "property" of the entire band rather than the work of an individual component. "At one time, "Lightning Crashes' was a song Ed wrote in his mom's bedroom with an acoustic guitar," says Taylor. "Now, it's something that's attached to each one of us. And once that ownership is there, you can't ever escape it. It'd be really hard for Live to go on stage and not play "Lightning Crashes.' "
The members of Live still possess a youthful exuberance for what they do. Whether that's because they're still in their twenties (younger on average than new bands such as, say, Blink-182) or because they've known each other since kindergarten, this exuberance colors everything they do. "I think there are a lot of young bands out there that still want to push the envelope," says Taylor optimistically. "Unfortunately we're in a situation where there's only so much time on the airwaves. And if it's going to be eaten up by teenage pop bands, so be it. I'm totally content with that. I told the guys the other day that I could see Live turning into Fugazi [the anti-corporate punk band]. Which is the band I think we have the most in common with as far as onstage energy. Especially with the way their crowd is so passionate about their songs."
But there's an awful lot of testosterone at a Fugazi gig; none of that high-pitched, distinctly young, distinctly female wailing like what you get at a Live performance. "I think that," says Taylor, "is how you sell 20 million records."