Portlanders should count themselves lucky to live in the same place at the same time as Ural Thomas, whose trademark candor, wit, and youthful optimism have exposed a new generation to soul music.
In the 1960s, Thomas’ ascent in the music industry was steady: He sang and wrote for albums put out by record labels like Uni, Revue, and King. He did shows with Otis Redding and Mick Jagger. It’s even said that James Brown once came to New York’s Apollo Theater to watch him perform. But after a series of deals went south, Thomas returned to his home in Portland’s Albina neighborhood, and for decades he focused on raising a family and making music on his own terms. In 2013, Thomas and local drummer/producer Scott Magee formed the Pain, and over the past few years the band has established a fresh approach to Thomas’ body of work that hearkens back to his origin as a soul singer.
This month, with the help of local label Tender Loving Empire, Ural Thomas and the Pain will release The Right Time—a record that sounds like it’d be equally at home on a jukebox or a Spotify playlist. While much of the track list draws from decades-old material, its accessibility to modern audiences is palpable. The Mercury spoke with Thomas and Magee about the process of writing and recording the album.
MERCURY: In 2016, you released Ural Thomas & the Pain on Mississippi Records. What’s changed for the band since then?
URAL THOMAS: I think we’ve become closer. We really appreciate each other more.
SCOTT MAGEE: Yeah, we’re a family now.
The family is growing, too—you’ve brought in a string quartet and back-up singers on top of an eight-piece stage lineup. Is it true that you recorded in an attic in Southeast?
SM: Absolutely! It’s part of the magic.
A number of songs on the album were originally featured on the Can You Dig It... Live! LP from 1968. Ural, your backing band back then was a group of teenagers called the Gangsters. How is it different rearranging these songs half a century later with the Pain?
UT: When the kids were with me, I gave them the freedom to do what they wanted. They put their best foot forward and moved on. It was kind of like nut-cracking—you crack the nut open and that’s it. The Pain and especially Scotty have put in extra time listening to the songs and trying new things. When we got to crack the nut open this time, we roasted those nuts. And then we said, “Hey man, this is good. Maybe somebody will come along and like what we’re doing.”
SM: In the studio, we thought we knew how we wanted to play our songs because they’d been honed onstage. But we had to reinvent our approach. And it really had nothing to do with Ural’s vocal delivery; it had to do with how the Pain sounded laying down the beat. We try to hold ourselves to a certain standard, and everyone in the band is weighing in. So if we heard something good in the playback, we’d get excited about it. It was hard because there was no one there providing the groove or the answer. We had to put ourselves through the meat grinder.
When producing for the band, I’ve heard you talk about seeking out the sweet spot between the Motown and Stax Records sound.
SM: The sweet spot, I think, is finding the groove that makes Ural sound great. As with any of those old labels, the band just formed around the singer. For us, it’s a simple groove that catches your ear and builds with dynamics in the arrangements. As for the sophisticated sound of Motown or the more greasy sound of Stax, I’d say we probably err on the greasier side. But since Ural is a melodic singer, we’re not afraid to make our music sound pretty.
UT: The wonderful part about it was that everyone was willing to give up their precious time to work it out. It wasn’t about getting rich overnight. This was something we all wanted to do together.
SM: All bands want to sound good. The tough thing is admitting you don’t sound as good as you think you were gonna. What do you do about that? You try stuff out. We had multiple takes of all these different ideas.
How do you keep morale high when the band is vetting takes like that?
SM: Well, it doesn’t hurt to have a well-stocked bar (laughs).
Ural, the way you touch people when performing, I’m convinced you could have your own cult if you wanted. Let’s pretend that Ural Thomas, the Bhagwan of Soul, was in effect. What would that be like?
UT: Oh, we’d just have cheese and crackers. And everybody would be happy ’cause once in a while we’d sneak ’em a slice of baloney.