Hometown zeroes?

Why Collective Soul doesn't get more Atlanta love

It's something of an amusing embarrassment that Ed Roland, frontman of one of our city's best-selling active rock bands, Collective Soul, might be loading up on groceries at a nearby Kroger as I write this, and no one would likely recognize him. Charmingly naive about his non-identity, Roland, whose band released its sixth album, Youth, two weeks ago, presumes the lack of autograph requests is nothing more than an example of Atlantans' inherent graciousness. "They don't [bother us] much in Atlanta, and I think part of the reason is that it is home and people know we live here," explains Roland. "It's not a city where people gawk."

It's curious that Roland should still hold such a high opinion of Atlanta, which has never been especially hospitable to the band he and his brother started in 1989. Aside from a few select champions early on — small venues like the Cavern that would call the band when they had a cancellation — Collective Soul has been largely neglected by the city it calls home.

Roland claims that the scant local appearances were a conscious decision on his part. It's no secret that Collective Soul, in its infancy, was largely a studio project, partly because the brothers Roland had trouble securing a stable lineup. But it was also because Ed never much believed in cultivating a local audience. "I wanted to focus on getting music into the right hands in New York or L.A.," he says unapologetically. "I thought you had to spark interest with the songs. Otherwise, no one was going to be flying down to Atlanta to see your show."

Regardless of whether Collective Soul was initially a pariah by choice or by necessity, the situation has not improved in subsequent years. This is just one of the many bits of controversy that have become attached to the band. Another nagging issue: the group's religious overtones. From the moment its first single, "Shine" — which featured the line, "heaven let your shine down" — started making waves on commercial radio, Collective Soul was branded a Christian rock band.

Understandably, the tag rankles. "I don't agree with it all," says Roland, flatly. "I remember getting into an argument with a writer who said we were a Christian band because we had the word 'heaven' in our song. And I said, 'Well, so does Led Zeppelin. I don't remember anyone saying they were a Christian band.'"

Roland readily acknowledges the spiritual nature of the band's lyrics, but claims they are the natural byproduct of growing up the son of a Southern Baptist minister. "I'm for the separation of church and rock 'n' roll," he says.

While the spiritual thrust of the lyrics has remained relatively constant, the band's sound has morphed with time. Beginning with 1999's Dosage, Collective Soul has gone increasingly pop with diminishing results. The nadir was 2000's Blender, a blatant, cloying stab at Bon Jovi synthesizer rock.

Many people assumed the band was finished after Blender. The group's contract with Atlantic Records was up, a greatest hits collection was released, and longtime rhythm guitarist Ross Childress departed. But rather than disband, Collective Soul simply took an extended hiatus to retool for its sixth studio effort.

The band added guitarist Joel Kosche and started its own imprint, El Music Group (distributed through Warner). Some will read Youth, the title of the new album, as a signal that the guys have returned to their earlier, more commercially successful sound. But Roland dismisses such a notion. Rather than referencing a specific sound or era, the title is intended to capture the essential spirit of being in a rock band. "For seven years, we did six albums and toured everywhere," he says. "This is a return to why we got into music in the first place: to have fun and enjoy each other's company."