It’s been a 16-year ride for Sol Driven Train, and guitarist/vocalist Joel Timmons is thankful but not altogether surprised about the Charleston band’s staying power. “It has always felt like the sum is greater than the parts,” he says. “Like a magical chemistry happening, and a feeling that we’re pursuing, more so than a sound. It’s authentic.”
The vibe is as soulful and varied as the band’s balmy home city; appropriately, their trademark song, “Watermelon,” is a serenade to summer. “We always were sort of aware that we were spreading ourselves thin, genre-wise, that it was a marketing challenge to pitch this band that sometimes sounds country and sometimes sounds reggae. But that was just part of the deal with us, and we didn’t ever really try to confine our influences,” Timmons explains. “All that stuff is coming out of a genuine interest and love in those kinds of music. We’re just trying to find the things that really turn us on. We might be listening to Prince, or we might be listening to Gillian Welch, and all that’s kind of in there.”
The group’s history traces back to a sea-worn band house on Folly Beach, and even earlier. Timmons, saxophonist/vocalist Russell Clarke, and trombonist/guitarist/vocalist Ward Buckheister first played together in middle-school band in Mount Pleasant. “It’s pretty much like a family at this point,” Timmons contends. “We’ve watched each other grow up.”
Timmons recalls teaching himself to play his mother’s nylon-string guitar, and becoming interested in West African hand drumming as a boy on Sullivan’s Island. He expresses love for iconic songwriters such as Van Morrison, James Taylor, John Prine, and Paul Simon. “But I also love bands like Wilco, Phish, and Talking Heads, that have real exciting live shows,” he adds.
After getting to know each other musically at jam sessions at parties, the friends decided to form Sol Driven Train. The first three years, they would get together on weekends to play a dance at Clemson, or a show in Brevard or Charleston. Then Timmons took a trip to India, where he became sick and nearly died. “I got super ill, and it was in the recovery period of that I decided we had something special here that we could do for a career. When faced with mortality, it was just clearly what turns my spirit on and what I wanted to pursue.”
Since deciding to go full-time as a band in 2005, Sol Driven Train has released eight albums. Tracks for their last two discs were recorded around the same time at Charleston Sound. They divided the material into the two records, whose titles sum up their respective feel: Dance (2015) is funky and horn driven, while Sunday (2016) gives way to acoustic soul.
The band doesn’t waste studio time. “We like to do it all live,” Timmons explains. “If things need to be touched up — like if I didn’t hit a vocal quite right, or if the sax was out of tune and we need to fix something, we can go back and do it … but we’ve spent most of our time playing with an audience. Sometimes when you get into the studio, it’s a different, more analytical kind of headspace, and I don’t think that necessarily translates into the best performance. So we’re always trying to capture that vibe of playing off of each other, listening and just having fun, not trying to do it perfect.”
The sextet, which also features Matt Thompson on bass and vocal, Wes Powers on drums, and Ross Bogan on keyboards and vocals, will be “scaling back” to around 100 shows this year, Timmons reports. “In different times in the band there’s been a push and pull, where the freewheeling single guys are happy to go out and tour for a month, and for the guys with wives or girlfriends and families back home, that pressure to check back in and be home is harder. But I feel like everybody’s kind of at similar places right now, and the band is in a really good balance of common goals, and also just opening up more time in our lives to pursue those relationships and other interests.”
One favorite local stage remains on Sol Driven Train’s schedule. “For years we’ve been coming up to the Purple Onion,” Timmons says. “That was one of the first venues that I started reaching out to when we were beginning to tour and hit Western North Carolina a lot, and that’s just a classic spot. It’s definitely smaller than most of the rooms that we play these days, but there’s just a real nice intimacy to it that we love. They do that Sunday concert series all summer long, and it’s really fun.
“We’re having fun when we’re playing, enjoying each other’s company and the sound that we’re making, and enjoying the spontaneity and the communication that’s happening onstage and passed to the audience. That’s attractive to people, and that’s kept us in it too.
“As long as that fun is still there, it’s worth doing.”
Sol Driven Train performs at the Purple Onion (16 Main Street in Saluda) on Sunday, June 5, at 7 pm. Tickets are $25 ($20/advance). 828-749-1179. For more information, visit purpleonionsaluda.com