My interview with Beverly McClellan, a Season 1 finalist for “The Voice,” is up at Yahoo!TV. Ms. Beverly is quite a character, and was bursting with great quotes — as I was transcribing the interview, I noticed I spent more time laughing than asking questions. Please check out the interview here, as well as one I did with semi-finalist Casey Weston.
If I seem to be stalking former contestants for the show, there’s a reason: I am covering “The Voice” for Yahoo!TV and wholeheartedly admit to being a huge fan of the show, which is much more surprising if you know I am a music snob and normally loathe music contests — I personally hold “American Idol” and Simon Cowell responsible for a great deal of the downfall of good music in general.
This is going to sound crazy, but “The Voice” is one of the things that have recently made me really re-discover my love of music, after serious burnout covering the music industry for several years. I highly recommend you check out the archives of Season 1 before season 2 launches after the Super Bowl. Click here for the Season 1 archives at NBC.com.
If you think the life of a rock star is glamorous, you’re likely thinking of luxurious tour buses, five star hotels and all the booze and groupies you can consume. While it may be like that at the top, the reality for most bands is entirely different. Think crowded vans, sleeping on floors, and hoping you sell enough merchandise to make it to the next stop and have enough left over to eat or buy a drink or two.
Now imagine living like that for the better part of four years, like the Koffin Kats, a psychobilly/punk trio hailing from Detroit, and perhaps the hardest working band on the planet. For Vic Victor, Eric, “E-Ball” Walls, and new guitarist, “EZ” Ian Jarrell, home is the road, and a small revamped wheelchair bus, now equipped with Ikea bunk beds.
Right now you may be asking yourself, what, exactly, is psychobilly?
Psychobilly, the cheeky bastard child of rockabilly and punk, has long been an underground phenomena known to only a few, and considered fringe even by rock music standards – it’s the outsider amongst outsiders, and has never considered itself as having a snowball’s chance in hell of widespread popularity. Which has always suited this scene just fine – it’s more of a tight-knit family atmosphere where there are no backstage passes. Bands hang with fans as equals and the green room is nothing more than gear storage.
But things seem to be changing amongst the psychobilly set. Rob Zombie tapped the Nekromantix to open for him on his most recent tour, and featured some psychobilly music in Halloween 2; Tim Armstrong of Rancid not only signs psychobilly bands to his label, but did some guest vocals on band mate Matt Freeman’s psychobilly side project, The Devils Brigade. And rumor has it that James Hetfield himself recently told a radio interviewer that if he did a side project, it would likely be psychobilly. And the Kats will be opening for southern rockers Nashville Pussy in June on several dates in the confederate states.
Are we seeing the signs that hell is about to officially freeze over for the psychos?
For bands long associated with the genre, like the Kats, it’s clearly a step in the right direction, although don‘t expect it to start turning up in car commercials anytime soon.
“It’s not for everyone,” says Victor, vocalist and bassist of the band. “There are elements of it that are just too extreme for the general public’s taste of music. Psychobilly will always be around and it is more widespread then it used to be. But it will always be small compared to your pop and hip hop markets.”
Drummer Walls maintains the band really isn’t psychobilly, despite the upright bass associated with it and rockabilly.
“I never thought of the Koffin Kats as a psychobilly band,” he says. “Me and Vic grew up on punk rock and I can’t help but see it in our music. I think the sound is always evolving usually due to what we are exposed to on tour.“
“I’ve always considered this band open to whatever style I want to play and never wanted Koffin Kats to be considered a one genre band,” says Victor. “I just write what comes to me. Whether its punk, psycho, or whatever the hell some of the stuff we put out can be considered.”
But inevitably, when you mix the upright bass and punk, the psycho kids will latch on…and hang on. Having said that, despite the scene’s relatively small (but fiercely loyal) fan base, the Koffin Kats have built up a following that extends beyond “psychobilly” through a string of hard-hitting releases, a relentless touring schedule, and a three ring circus of non stop shenanigans throughout their set. Do not expect idle chatter when they are on stage – expect plenty of blood, sweat and beers.
Note, when I say blood, I mean it. And not the fake variety.
Victor has been known to bash his head into his bass or PBR cans or other assorted objects to the point of making himself bleed. There is no other speed but full throttle with this band (or many other bands in the genre). If you are going to do it, then do it all the way. Whether they are playing for one fan or a thousand – the set’s intensity is always the same.
Although the Kats rarely play for only a handful of fans these days – they have toured almost nonstop for the last four years, only taking some slightly longer breaks of a few weeks at a time in the last year, mostly to try to accommodate original guitarist and co-founder Tommy Koffin’s growing needs to be closer to home. Despite the increased downtime, Victor knew the inevitable was coming.
“Our tour schedule wasn’t going to get any lighter. Tommy wanted to be home more and I said that wasn’t going to work. He’s one of my best friends and he knew that this band was not going to slow down for anything,” says Victor.
So after their 2009 tour ended, Koffin made the official announcement he was leaving the band, and of course, the show went on.
The Koffin Kats tapped Ends in Tragedy guitarist Jarrell to fill the void, and as he put it, “Tommy left me some huge smelly shoes to fill.” He debuted with the band after a couple of weeks of basement rehearsals at Walls’ house, as Jarrell is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Despite the pressure of replacing a founding member and pulling together the new lineup quickly, Victor wasn’t particularly phased. “We’re not the first band to have had new members. I had no worries. Ian was Tommy’s suggestion and he could not have been more right.”
Walls agrees. “It was a weird feeling at first but I think the band has done good things with Ian. He’s a great guitar player and I’m happy to have him in.”
Of course, being the new kid on the block and low man on the totem pole can be a bit like pledging a fraternity. The band seemed to take a perverse pleasure in tormenting Jarrell on his first tour with their own form of hazing – underwear removal via wedgie. But, true to his “EZ” moniker, Jarrell took it all in stride.
“I lost at least four pairs last tour including my Homer Simpson boxers which I still need to kick someone in the nuts for tearing,” he laughs. And he was happy to get a chance to give them a little hell back – when asked if the joining the band had met his expectations, he responded, “I would say that all my expectations turned out to be true… lots of sack taps, odors and having to keep Vic from peeing on things unknowingly.”
The Kats just released a split cd with 12 Step Rebels, which was their first recording with Jarrell on guitar. Both he and Victor brought songs to the studio and worked on them together. Did Jarrell feel pressure to try to mimic Koffin’s style?
“Tommy is such a definable musician I couldn’t bite on him if I tried. The new stuff is going to be an evolution but the Kats have always done that from each album to the next and I think everyone is going to like it.”
“Ian has his own sound most definitely but I don’t think its so drastically different that its gonna make us sound like a different band,” adds Victor. “He’s a solid player and actually contributed to a lot of the new material. Some of our new songs were actually old songs of his.”
The Koffin Kats keep rolling on, touring in their new mini bus (an upgrade from sleeping on floors as they have done the last three years.) They put in long hours, embracing the DIY work ethic, and often coming home broke to work their day jobs – cook, postal worker, carpet cleaner. Victor has said that literally signing autographs one day – and cleaning toilets the next – keeps him grounded. And despite the toll on personal lives, he still loves the road and is happy with what the band has achieved.
“I had no idea we would be as far as we are now. In the grand scheme of the music business we’re still minor leagues. This band could stop tomorrow and I’d be proud of what we have accomplished and have a lifetime of stories. Having a semi successful band and keeping it together is like trying to win the lottery. Somehow things lined up and it all came together. This was the goal back then and hopefully we can continue for more years to come.”
As far as the glamorous side of rock and roll, it pretty much begins, and ends, with the time on stage. The rest is getting from point A to B.
“A typical day is usually getting up at a certain time to make sure we make the drive to the next city,” says Walls. “Then maybe finding a Wal-Mart or a post office. Play show, then repeat.”
Having said that, Walls still says that being on the road is his favorite thing about being in the band – when he‘s not on the road, he feels like he‘s missing something.
“Every tour gets better,” adds Victor. “I see new faces at the shows and we get to travel the world these days. I have no problem being a DIY band. I never started this band thinking someone was gonna ever write me a big check and make me famous. I still don’t expect it to happen.”
Yet, they aren’t one of those bands who tell anyone who listen how they don’t care if they find mainstream success, or even play it off as being something to avoid.
“I’ve never tried to keep this band on a underground or mainstream level,” says Walls. “I always just try to do what I think is best for us at the moment. Its hard to tell what will happen with the music or if we will be accepted in the future. I just keep doing what we know how.”
Which is touring, recording, and kicking ass on stage. Then hanging with fans without playing into the whole “rock star” ego trip. The plans for 2011 are pretty much the same plans they had this year, and the year before, and the year before that…
“Tour the world. Or at least any place that will have us,” says Victor. “We’re planning another full length release for the fall of ’11.”
The Koffin Kats are currently on tour across the US, and will be opening for Nashville Pussy for several dates in June. For more info, www.koffinkatsrock.com.
While Three Bad Jacks are usually classified as “rockabilly,” the band takes it cues from a variety of influences from Elvis Presley, Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone. The result is a mix of rockabilly, punk and good old rock and roll … live and raw. And defiant of categorization.
Expect plenty of fireworks and showmanship as well — the band has become known for their fiery performances. Figuratively and literally.
Aptly named frontman Elvis Suissa took a few moments to talk about the band’s past and future, and what you can expect if you catch their show Friday night in Denver at Benders, or at another stop on the road.
After all, for this veteran of the stage and small clubs, the road is his middle name.
DP: The band has gone through some lineup changes over the years, so tell us about the current lineup:
ES: They are great players and they get things done, no complaining all the time. If you are not in a band with people on the same wavelength it is hard. I like the fact that they speak about how to improve on their music skills as opposed to how girls think they are music gods. You know, Spinal Tap (crap) — it drives me crazy.
DP: What do you love most about the guys in the band right now?
ES: They are hardworking and easy to get along with. Some people need an entourage to follow them, they don’t. I am not into artificial people who need validation.
DP: How are things going on this current tour?
ES: This is a great tour. I think it just keeps getting better. All the shows have been very well attended and it is really great playing with guys who can make it sound like it should. It was always aggravating playing in a band with a member who would rather play video games or do drugs. It takes the fun out of playing music. I have had some great people come through the band that simply could not tour anymore and I sure miss them. But I am talking about the douche bags that would screw the fans over, things like sleeping with fans’ girlfriends, stealing, missing plane flights … I am not joking. This band is not about that — our fans are like family.
DP: Do you have any crazy tricks up your sleeves for the show? Do you still do the “bass on fire” trick?
ES: We set the whole stage on fire — drums, bass, guitar … we have been destroying everything in sight. We duct tape out gear constantly. My new Fender guitar looks like it has been under a muffler for 10 years.
DP: With primetime shows promoting pop junk food like American Idol, how do you think rockabilly bands can survive and thrive in the current musical climate?
ES: I pay karaoke singers no mind. American Idol is a [expletive] joke and the people judging are [expletive] clueless … they do not live on the road and wake up dreaming of music. They are Mickey Mouse Club rejects. This is the most I have ever thought about this subject. I do not think American Idol listeners listening to bad Aretha Franklin versions of overdone songs would like us. I remember someone offered us a $100 tip to play Mustang Sally. Well you can guess I did not — I do not do this for money. I have passed up record deals for this reason. I want to stay away from any kind of dog and pony show.
DP: What would you tell bands is the most important thing they must know or do to survive in the music business?
ES: Play with band members that are not problematic and that are like-minded. If your idea for a band is learning your craft and being good at what you do, look for those kind of people. If you like over-the-top tattoos and making sure everyone sees them on your promo picture and stupid nicknames and bios that make you seem like you are Johnny Cash but draw three people in your backyard — live the dream! I have learned about personality clashes, they do not mix.
DP: What makes you keep coming back for more tours?
ES: I just love playing music — it has been my only dream. I live rock and roll. It is my life.
DP: Where so you see yourself and the band five years from now?
DP: And when are you coming out with a new album?
ES: By the end of the year. We are working with a great engineer who recorded people and bands like Frank Sinatra, Black Flag, Blasters, Blondie, and a bunch of other great artists. It is exciting to be around a person like that. Very inspiring. I have been waiting for this my whole life.
DP: Is there anything you’d do differently if you had it to do all over again?
ES: Seriously, I take full responsibility in thinking I could make some past members more interested in being a better musician. I wasted a lot of time with people. Almost like a relationship — if a girl is sleeping with all your friends it is time to cut her loose. I should have done certain things faster instead of prolonging the inevitable. But I am happy now!
When people think of female bands, especially the rare metal bands, they often want to stereotype them as wild women or chain smoking, hard drinking divas. With literally half her life spent in the world of rock and roll, Morgan Lander of Kittie grew up on a stage, and hasn’t let fame and the pitfalls of excess sway her from her path. Or turn her into a prima donna. She’s soft-spoken and down to earth, with a “one of the guys” sensibility and an appreciation for how blessed she has been to have found success so early, no matter how trying life can be squeezed into a van with her comrades for miles on end.
But you won’t hear her whining about how rough life is on the road. I knew Kittie were going to be my kind of band when I saw the van and trailer they were unloading before the show – no fancy tour buses here. The Canadian quartet was roughing it to save money for bigger tours and support gigs for the rest of 2010, an that thriftiness paid off – they are currently on the Thrash and Burn tour and will be doing some dates with Devildriver later in August and September.
DP: It always amazes me how these bands with the big tour buses are bitching about how hard life is on the road. It’s like honey, you’ve got it made!
ML: We’ve had tour buses for years and years but you know like the years that gas was so ridiculously high, we did a month in a Dodge Durango. We slept sitting up.
DP: People think rock is so glamorous, but except for that time on the stage, the rest of it…when people see how hard it is at this level, I think it makes them appreciate how much the bands are doing it for the love of it.
ML: It’s definitely a lack of sleep and a lot of head work, but it’s worth that one hour on stage. You definitely wouldn’t do it if it you didn’t love it.
DP: So what is life really like out on the road? Everyone wants to know what it’s like to be a “rock star.”
ML: To me I think a lot of it is an illusion, quite honestly. People see you up on the stage and you’re in your stage outfit, full makeup and that sort of thing and we travel around seven of us in that van. And it is a lot of fun because there are a lot of perks like after shows, you know you usually get to meet a lot of cool people, all the bands usually hang out together, drinking and having fun, that sort of thing, but you’re also sleeping in a van, sometimes three or four hours of sleep at night which is a regular occurrence on this tour, so there’s definitely a lot of tradeoffs. It is a lot of fun but honestly when you are touring with a bunch of people together you get really close and form your own little microcosm, and it’s very hard to relate to the outside world. So it is a lot of fun, but there are a lot of sacrifices and hard work. For me it definitely keeps me grounded.
DP: It’s like that part in Almost Famous where they’re all in the bus…that bonding, and when they go to the hotel and they haven’t seen each other for months, but it’s like they were never apart…
DP: Has this tour been a little different from tours in the past?
ML: It hasn’t been all that different. I mean no matter where we go we always have a good time… it’s different in that we’ve never toured with God Forbid before but we’ve known the guys for long time but we never had a chance to do the tour thing together, so it’s really cool, we all get along. So yeah, it’s not really all that much different. Everybody’s happy, its a good little community we’ve got going on - good vibes.
DP: I read you were trying to do a little bit different sound on “In the Black.”
ML: We always try to do a different sound with all the albums for the evolution of the band, so obviously for us this is the next step. I think a lot of the changes came from being sort of unhappy with “Funeral for Yesterday”…it didn’t translate quite the way we would have wanted it to, so we sort of set out with “In the Black” to do everything differently – basically the exact opposite of what we did with “Funeral for Yesterday.” In writing we wanted to make it a lot heavier, a lot faster , a lot more rock…more of a raw metal sound. We wanted the production to be a little bit more on the unpolished side. I mean it’s still a very “thick” album, but where there’s 10-15 layers of harmonies on “Funeral for Yesterday”, there’s only one or two on “In The Black.” You know, based on your past experiences, you ant to learn from those and change things up a little bit.
DP: I do think sometimes fans want you to keep doing the same things over and over, and they don’t understand that you have to grow and evolve or get stale.
ML: Yeah, especially when the passion is gone, that’s when the music falls into a lull. You don’t want that to happen. So with the evolutionary thing with this album, a lot of people wanted us to just do what we had done with our first album, our most popular album to date, but we wrote some of those songs when we were 12-14 years old. We had no concept of music even. We were just kids in the basement having fun and it kind of went crazy and blew up in our face. We had no expectations at all…we had no idea that things were going to be that crazy. And now I’m 28 years old and 14 years down the road …
DP: You’re probably a little bit different now than you were at 12 or 14…
ML: Yeah, just a little!
DP: I hate to use labels, but would you say this album is more screamo? I mean people in the metal community seem to be going more and more extreme, but at a certain point you can’t go any farther.
ML: There’s only so many beats per minute you can do before it sounds like noise.
DP: Is there something as a group or individually you think your fans would find surprising…something they don’t know already?
ML: I think speaking with a lot of bands that have opened up for us, a lot of people are surprised to find out how nice and down to earth we are. I think our name and the reputation our name carries – this all female band – they might be bitches or have attitudes or because they have been doing this for so long they might be jaded and honestly we are just out to have so much fun and we want to make it work no matter what.
DP: I think most people are surprised when they meet musicians and find out there are pretty much…like everyone else.
ML: (laughs) Well, maybe some of the big stars might be a little different.
DP: I’m trying to avoid the female thing but I do have to ask, do you get male groupies?
ML: That’s a tough one because the stereotypical females and you can usually pick them out from miles away…there’s not really a male equivalent to that, not really that obvious guy that’s hanging around. I’m sure some have crushes and would like to do groupie sort of things…
DP: They’re guys…it’s the testosterone…
ML: Right! But no, we’re good girls!
DP: Is there one thing you still want to accomplish as a band?
ML: Just to continue to make music, I guess our expectations and goals are very humble. Continue to make music and tour and, I mean, I know how the industry is. I’m not expecting a platinum album. That would be nice, and I would never write that off because, hey, you never know. But we’re pretty realistic. As long as we can continue to do what we do and make a bit of money and not have to work a 9-5 job, we’re happy. We’re normal people, having a good time and living our dreams and its our fans who have made it possible. We’re very grateful to them and go out of our way to sign autographs and spend time with them when we can.
It’s fair to say, Lander is hardly the green-eyed, “mean girl” monster some might expect from the tough, metal image. And hardly the all-too-common story of early success sending the young on a downward spiral into adulthood. Lander and Kittie seem to be smart, savvy and downright nice.
They may have drawn their namesake from the felines, but their name is Kittie, not catty.
Live 'N' Uncensored (formerly Mayhem Media) is the brainchild of photographer Diana Price, and this blog covers music in all its forms. You'll find many genres of here, as well as a mix of local bands and national acts.
Price is an award winning photographer known for her work shooting psychobilly bands, and a photographer for ZUMA Press. To see more of her work, visit www.dianaprice.com.