Common Kings is a reggae band from Orange County, California that is currently on tour with Matisyahu. By phone, Uncle Lui discussed debuting at number one on the Billboard Reggae Charts, watching Matisyahu perform, and what it takes to have a successful live show.
AXS: Your most recent album Lost in Paradise debuted at number one on the Billboard Reggae Charts. What was your reaction to that?
Uncle Lui: Our collective reaction was pretty much a bunch of screaming and jumping around. When we started taking it in, it was pretty surreal. We're so used to watching other people debut at that spot: Damian Marley, all the Marleys. To see our name and our first album do that, it was pretty humbling. It was a really cool feeling.
AXS: What has that meant to you as a band?
UL: It means that we're doing something right. All the hard work, the tears, the grinding, the late nights, it's paying off.
AXS: Your live show really helps draw people in.
UL: Being independent and not having major-label dollars behind any of our releases, the only thing we can rely on to pique peoples' interest is our live show. Whatever artist we're able to open for or tour that we're able to go on and blessed to be a part of, that's our opportunity to pique peoples' interest.
AXS: If you had to give advice to up-and-coming bands about live shows and touring, what would you tell them?
UL: First and foremost is to be humble and not take yourself too seriously and to work your a** off. I should say first and foremost, you need to love it. If you love it, then you have to have a humble heart and a grind-it-out mentality. Understand what your weaknesses are, what your strengths are. Surround yourself with people that complement those strengths and weaknesses. We have an amazing manager who's been with us since the beginning. We have a very talented management team, a good team behind us that sees the vision and helps us achieve it. They keep us on track and grounded.
AXS: That love really comes through in a live performance. It's easy to tell the bands that love what they're doing and the bands that think they could be doing something else.
UL: No kidding. With some people we ask, "Do you love what you're doing?" You forget that the people who come to see you are not all music heads. Not everybody is going to understand all the crazy licks you're doing, but they will understand you jumping around, smiling, dancing, and having an amazing time. They'll understand that. Entertaining people is something a lot of up-and-coming artists tend to miss when they go about their live shows. Fans need to attach the emotion of playing with facial expressions and movements. Watching you has to transcend how you perform in a recording.
AXS: What have you learned from touring with artists like Matisyahu?
UL: He takes people on a journey. There are certain aspects of his live show that pull you in. He brings his audience along with him. It's not just a dog and pony show. He tries to pull people in. It's a huge learning experience at an artist level. He embodies his music in a cool way.
AXS: How has the band evolved over time?
UL: We've become more mature about our craft and goals. We've settled into the fact that this is real and we're selling out venues with 2,500 or 3,500 seats. For most artists that come into it, they say I'm an artist and I'm not going to make any apologies for that. For us, we tested the waters and didn't want to ruffle feathers. It wasn't until a couple weeks ago that our manager said, "You guys are successful. You guys are rock stars. You need to carry yourself a different way. We kind of carry ourselves like workers for hire. We help everybody out. We're not going to lose any part of that. That's who we are. In a sense, we have to take a step back and realize that we're making music that changes peoples' lives. Every show, people tell us that our music has brought them through some of the hardest times. Now we're starting to look back on the tough times we had and the music that brought us through that. We're doing that.
AXS: What does that mean to you when fans tell you that your music has brought them through hard times?
UL: It's surreal - like we're having an out-of-body experience. That's where we've grown as artists. We're starting to appreciate being in the moment with these fans. We make music that makes us feel good. It must mean a whole lot to other people. It's pretty inspiring. It motivates us to keep going and pushing and to give the best we can possibly give.
AXS: You mentioned helping everyone out. That's kind of how you build a scene locally.
UL: We were on a Justin Timberlake tour. We're so used to loading our stuff, setting up our stuff. When you're on a tour supporting that kind of artist, they wait around for the help. They don't set up our stuff. That's foreign to us. We're on top of each other to get our stuff done. Management was tripping out that we were on this major tour loading our own gear, packing our own gear, setting our own stuff up. We still do that. That's just par for the course and we don't think about it. We had to put ourselves in their shoes. They're not used to seeing that.
AXS: There's something to be said for maintaining that DIY work ethic.
UL: We're the only ones responsible for our success. We take a no-excuses approach to how far we go. The buck stops with us.
AXS: What would you be doing if you weren't making music?
UL: We were in corporate America, working nine to five. We all had desk jobs and did music on the side. Not making music is not possible. We'd always find a way to make music. If we weren't making music full-time, we'd be working in corporate America. We've been doing music for longer than we've been Common Kings, but it was a weekend thing. Now we're just getting paid for it.