Savants of Soul
By Lindsey Breneman
Gainesville has been an incubator for great artists for decades. For the past eight years, one band has been a staple of the city’s music scene - The Savants of Soul. John Gray Shermyen, the bass player, was one of the founding members of the group. About a decade ago, he; Alex Klausner, the drummer; and Wilson Stern, the band’s original guitarist, started listening to mountains of old Motown records. Shermyen, a lifelong soul fan, gave Klausner, a novice to the genre, “Live at The Harlem Square Club” - Sam Cooke’s album - for Christmas. Shermyen said the album is rougher than most, with an almost punk rock energy to it. Listening to it, the two were inspired. “It gave us this idea that we could probably do this,” Shermyen said. “We could play this kind of music in a way that was more like they played it in the 60’s and less like the way it is played now.”
According to the bassist, the original idea was to start an indie punk band that just had a lot of like blues soul influence with three friends, Shermyen, Klausner, and Stern. Before long, they decided to bring on their charismatic friend, Justin McKenzie to be the lead vocals and front man. Next, a keyboardist entered the mix. Then, they just continued to add more and more talented musicians. “So, after a while we just said ‘Screw it - let’s actually try to make real soul music.’” Shermyen said.
As a nine-piece-soul-band, The Savants of Soul transports audiences to another millennia. “I always listened to a lot of soul music. I didn’t play it but it’s something that I grew up with forever,” said John Gray Shermyen. “So, when Alex, Justin and I started the band it was a bit of a homecoming and a realization of a dream. Over time the band has evolved tremendously. We started much more in a sort of like poppy, energetic Motown vibe. I’d say we moved into a space now, which we’re a lot more comfortable in. It is a little bit rougher - a southern soul type of vibe. We definitely bring a lot of blues and punk in as well,” Shermyen said.
Part of the band’s evolution comes from its location. Will Campbell, the band’s guitarist, said the diversity of the Gainesville music scene creates a unique environment wherein all different genres and acts can get their start and thrive in. “There’s just so many different kinds of bands and music coming out of here. I feel like one way or another subconsciously it kind of filters through,” Campbell said. “For many musicians, there’s this sense where you commit to your genre or your kind of music, but other kinds of music and styles are always seeping through.” The scene itself changes constantly. “There’s been ups and downs in the Gainesville music scene as various venues open or close and big bands that anchor parts of the scene grow and die.” Shermyen said. “It’s a living organism.” He added, however, that there is one constant - the scene’s incredibly nurturing nature. Shermyen said the people of Gainesville truly love and embrace their local artists.
Zach Emerson, the keyboardist, said he’s played in plenty of cities across Florida, and thinks that Gainesville is one-of-a-kind. “We may not get all the biggest names to come through Gainesville,” Emerson said. “But all the local musicians can hold their own in a way that you don’t see in other places.” The diversity of the scene has allowed the soul band to thrive. Shermyen said today there is no place that has a true soul scene, but since Gainesville is not genre specific, The Savants of Soul can truly explore the genre they love.
The group is currently in a writing craze. They work in their band room - a converted garage that is separate from Shermyen’s house. It is made of solid concrete, so the bassist said he has yet to receive any complaints from neighbors.
They are also embarking on streaming performances on Twitch to bring live shows to a national, and potentially international, audience on a more regular basis. Although the band is incredibly grateful to their current label, Swamp Records, they are ready to move on. Swamp Records brought the band on as its first artist and has been tremendously supportive throughout their journey, said Shermyen. Now though, they need resources only a larger label would be able to provide.
After a dry spell of production, fans can finally look forward to a new single, Dead Man Running, and music video releasing this month. “We made a big jump in our recording where we decided that we were going to record all of our releases on tape, like they did back in the day,” said Shermyen. “It's scarier to do it that way: You don't really have anything to hide behind. But I think the end result is just so much warmer and more organic. It feels to me more like the band that I know and the band that I think we are on stage when we play live. It's a better representation of who we are.”