Photo by Daniel Jackson, courtesy of The Suffers
There’s a burgeoning sound emanating from Houston that is hard to ignore. It’s not the swollen, baroque tenor that is the rap scene that deals with plenty of codeine culture, riding music, and country rap tunes. Rather, it’s the fluttering big voice of Kam Franklin and The Suffers, a ten-piece band that for the past four years has carved out a pretty noticeable niche in Houston and beyond. In the past year alone, Franklin and the band, which includes bassist Adam Castaneda, vocalist/keyboardist Pat Kelly, trumpet player Jon Durbin, trombonist Michael Razo, guitarist Kevin Bernier, percussionist Jose "Chapy" Luna, drummer/vocalist Nick Zamora, jazz saxophonist Cory Wilson, and guitarist/vocalist Alex Zamora have performed all over North America, becoming known not just for their raucous blend of funk and soul but by being one of the great things about the Bayou City.
The Suffers are releasing their self-titled debut album on February 12, and Noisey is premiering the lead single from the album, “Better.” The group tones down from the rousing highs of this year’s breakout singles “Gwan” and “Make Some Room” to smoldering notes of wanting a stronger, more fulfilling relationship. Franklin’s voice, just as powerful as that of Alabama Shakes’ frontwoman Brittany Howard almost invokes memories of Sam Cooke’s “Change Is Gonna Come” on “Better.” Over a gospel piano melody, Franklin opens, “Does it ever get any better? Or does it all stay the same” before letting her voice drop on the chorus, “Could you show me something better? Cause I could use some love today.”
I reached out to Franklin to learn a little more about the track, the album, and being one of the last acts to perform on The Late Show With David Letterman.
Noisey: What was it like performing on one of the last episodes of The Late Show With David Letterman?
Kam Franklin: The entire experience was remarkable. The staff was amazing, and that moment is something that will stay with us forever. We don't remember all the details about the day because it happened so fast, but whenever we need to be reminded of one of the best days of our life so far, we watch it on YouTube. How many people can say that David Letterman kissed them after their set?! Months later, I'm still in shock.
On "Better," there's some definite Sam Cooke "Change Is Gonna Come Vibes" from the organ and your subject matter. What made you want to move in that direction as compared to "Gwan" and "Make Some Room"?
When we first started writing it, we were thinking something more in line with traditional southern gospel music. I grew up singing gospel music as a kid, and it's just always been part of who I am. Even when I fronted punk and ska groups, the gospel vocal couldn't be masked. While we as a band love Sam Cooke, he was the furthest thing our minds here. Though, I do see how the comparison could easily be drawn. We both grew up singing in gospel groups, we are both extremely emotional singers, but I must say, this song isn't about religion, it's simply about making the decision to be a better person.
You're road warriors and festival darlings. Can you recall the first performance you guys had where you felt like things were moving towards something bigger?
March 21, 2015 in Houston, TX. We played the 8th Wonder Brewery second anniversary party in front of a couple thousand folks that were covered in mud and/or soaking wet. It had been raining all day, but these folks got wet and came to an outdoor show to support us. We are from a city where unless you were a rapper or Beyoncé, folks actively tell you that you'll never be successful unless you move to LA, New York, Nashville, or Austin. That show let me know that we didn't need anybody but our city.
Does it feel weird to be the most buzzed-about band, regardless of genre, in Houston?
No, it feels great because the city of Houston is being mentioned. We are honored to be associated with the city, and we intend to represent it in the best way possible everywhere we go. The city of Houston is filled with amazing musicians that deserve recognition, but no matter how much they work, some of them will never get the shine they deserve. The Suffers started as a fun hobby. It was supposed to just be a weekend distraction from our day jobs. We had no idea that we'd ever accomplish a fraction of the things we have so far. This is fucking incredible.
How long did it take for you to record the album?
The album was recorded over four years at various places, but the vast majority was recorded in winter 2013 in Houston, Texas at Wire Road Studios and February 2014 at Church House Studios in Austin, Texas. The big single we will be releasing in January, “Peanuts,” was recorded by Converse Rubber Tracks during SXSW this past March. We like to play songs live before going into the studio to record, but we think it's worth the extra effort. We want to make sure we are recording the best version of that song we can do in that moment.
As often as you’re on the road, you basically get to be food critics. What’s the best food and experience you've had on the road?
We have eaten some pretty incredible food over the last year. Ben's Chili Bowl in DC and Saw's BBQ in Birmingham are the first that come to mind, but the best food we've had, hands down, would be the home-cooked Easter breakfast our hosts in Jackson, Michigan for us. We love all things food, but there's just something about home-cooked meals that nourishes the soul.
Brandon Caldwell is a writer living in Houston. Follow him on Twitter.