Song Writing

Kinski

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How does one describe Kinski? Let's start with simple and go from there. If Black Sabbath and Sonic Youth were to conceive, they might give birth to baby Kinski. But, like I said, we're over-simplifying. Formed in Seattle in 1998, Kinski has evolved over time to defy such elementary categorizations. They started as sort of a spacey instrumental-oriented band, then ventured toward a more extended-piece/alt-tuning Sonic Youth direction, then pulled out the Harleys and rode into Groundhogs-inspired biker territory. On their last two albums, 2015's 7 (or 8) and 2013's Cosy Moments, Kinski has added yet another element to the mix: shorter songs coupled with more pop-oriented structures.

Kinski plays loud, but there is good loud and suck loud. Some bands turn up the distortion and volume to hide their lack of chops. By contrast, Kinski sounds better turned up to 11, using volume as an instrument, as part of the soundscape and dynamic they are trying to create. Loudness and the band's various stylings aside, there is one thing Kinski does not allow for: boredom... especially live. Even the song titles are fascinating. Examples: "Argentina Turner," "Punching Goodbye Out Front," "Skim Milf," and "The Wives of Artie Shaw."

I interviewed guitarist and songwriter Chris Martin for Songfacts about 7 (or 8), released by Kill Rock Stars on June 2.
Stephen Tow (Songfacts): So let's contrast two of the songs off the new record: "Powder" and "Drink Up and Be Somebody." "Powder" has a little more of an artsy kind of a feel, and "Drink Up and Be Somebody" just hits you over the head and kicks your ass a little bit. Tell me a little bit about how those two songs came together.

Chris Martin: The "Drink Up" song came really quick. That's kind of just a riff song, it's just one of those things that you just sit down with the guitar and sometimes things come and sometimes they don't. That one came together really fast. A lot of those riffy songs come and go. We're good at doing those, and so we get kind of bored with it — we don't want to have too many.

Whereas the "Powder" song, I like that song a lot - we worked quite a long time on that. It was kind of a bunch of pieces. That song has a little more finesse, and a little more dynamics. So that's always something that we want to have with the records, too, so that they're not all the driving thing. Obviously, the last couple records have been a little bit more in a pop song structure-way, which has been really fun and we're just pushing ourselves to try some different things.

In April, I ventured from the East Coast to Seattle to spend a long weekend experiencing live music and meeting up with friends. The morning of my flight, I did an interview with Jacqui McShee of the Pentangle, who chatted with me from her home in London. A few hours later, I headed up to teach a couple of American history classes at Delaware Valley University, where I have been an adjunct professor since 1999. After class, I drove to the airport, flew across the country, and checked in at a B&B in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood around 9 p.m. Pacific. As circumstance would have it, Kinski was playing that evening at a small bar called the Victory Lounge... about a mile walk from the Inn.

So, after checking in, I dropped off my bag and headed down to the bar... and watched one of my favorite bands play live from about five feet away. After the performance, I briefly chatted with a gentleman standing next to me, both of us acknowledging Kinski's incredible talent and power. I detected an English accent. "Where are you from?" I inquired. "London," he said. And so - in a way - my day began and ended in London.
Songfacts: When I interviewed you about Cosy Moments, one of the things that you had been mentioning was trying to sort of marry that pop songwriter sort of thing and the longer instrumental pieces. Is that still a journey you're on?

Chris: I see these two records as sort of a piece. I think Cosy Moments was just starting to do that [go in a more pop direction]. I think this record is more successful at following through of what we were trying to do with Cosy Moments. We just started writing a few songs for the next record. I'm not sure which direction that's gonna be, but I think we're kind of cleaning the slate and we'll go a different direction for the next one, too.

Songfacts: One of my favorite titles: "I Fell Like a Fucking Flower." Where did that title come from?

Chris: We were at SXSW two years ago, I guess when Cosy Moments came out, and my girlfriend Karri went with us and we played a few shows. And the last night we played a show with Hawkwind actually at a kind of a roadhouse bar that was sort of out of the main drag of Austin, but it was a roadhouse bar that had a mechanical bull and arm wrestling tables and stuff. It was just all of us having a few beers and Karri and Lucy [Kinski bass player Lucy Atkinson] arm wrestled and Lucy just destroyed Karri and Karri just pointed that out to me [I fell like a fucking flower] and I thought it was funny so I just wrote it down.

Songfacts: I think my favorite track on the record is the last one, which is 12-minutes long. Another great title: "Bulletin of the International String Figure Association." Tell me a little bit about how you put that thing together.

Chris: We needed a piece because we had agreed to do this EP [with fellow Seattle band Sandrider] and we needed some more material and that was just sort of some fragments that I had brought in. And at the same time, with the studio where we rehearsed, they had just gotten a Fender Rhodes [keyboard], which we never used before. And Matthew [Reid-Schwartz - guitar/keyboards/flute] is a pretty good keyboardist, so he started playing that. And that just sort of fell together.

That was a song we knew the least going in to record because it was pretty new. And we just had the pieces and barely had the structure together. And so when we recorded, it was really fun because it was really fresh and raw and had that kind of energy. I like that piece a lot. It turned out so good we wanted to keep it for 7 (or 8). I like the songs that are on that split [Sandrider] EP, too, but it just seemed to really close our record out nicely. Yeah, that's my favorite song on the record, too.

Songfacts: When you write songs, Chris, do you ever mess around and make a mistake and go, "Yeah. That actually could be a song."?

Chris: Almost every song comes like that. That was a lesson I learned at film school, in an art class. I remember this one art teacher. I kind of made a mistake in a piece and just totally focused on the mistake and he loved that. And that was a lesson I really learned.

That's kind of good with improvising, too. If you're improvising and you make a mistake, you do it again, because it sounds like you wanted to do it and you knew what you were doing. I definitely do that with writing, too. I normally just strum stuff and just see what happens. So, yeah. I think mistakes are a great way to create.

Songfacts: You're really loud. I think there's good loud and there's bad loud. You are loud, but there's a purpose.

Chris: Volume's always been a big part of it, especially when we're doing weirder tunings. You get those overtones, and same strings tuned to the same note and so when it's loud, it just totally creates a different sound and a different sensation - especially live.

Songfacts: I know you have used a lot of alternate tunings in the past. Do you do that a lot throughout this record?

Chris: The first song ["Detroit Trickle Down"] is in C and G and some songs are regular tuning and then there's some stuff in DADGAD. I guess there's like three different tunings on the record.

Songfacts: For the last piece...

Chris: That's in DADGAD, too. It's like a drop D and you change a couple of the strings.

Songfacts: I know you've got some local shows going on the next couple of months but any plans on touring nationally or Europe or anything?

Chris: We're hoping to go to the East Coast in October and then hopefully next spring, Europe.

Songfacts: You said you're working on new material already?

Chris: Yeah, we've got like three or four new pieces kind of brewing. Probably a third of a record going right now.

Songfacts: Any kind of theme or direction with that or is it still too early?

Chris: It's still too early to tell. I feel like we've gone a lot of different directions. I don't know. It's kind of fun because we know we can do some different things. I do love that.

We were mentioning the last song on the record - the long piece. But those, you can't make yourself write that. It just kind of happens. We'll just have to see where it goes.

July 10, 2015. Kinski's 7 (or 8) is available for sale/download at killrockstars.com. More information about the band can be obtained at Kinski.net.

Stephen Tow, a professor of history at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, specializes in American popular music and culture. He is the author of The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge. He also contributes to national music blogs, when he finds cool bands to write about.
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