Lead singer/guitarist Steve Salad stares into the crowd. His posture is stick straight and his eyes are transfixed, the expression on his face someplace between fear and confusion—the question is, whether he’s up there to inspire those feelings in us, or instead finds himself overwhelmed by them. Michael Azerrad, his visual foil, sits eagerly at the drums, popping from behind them like a Jack-in-the-Box and playing with as much animation and surprise. This makes keyboardist Tom Siler the steadfast anchor: he hunkers down, hiding under copious amounts of hair sprouting from both his head and chin, an ardent workhorse more than a demonstrative performer. That is until, from nowhere, he stands up. For several bars, his instrument is anything but where his fingers belong—instead, it’s a Tonka toy, a footrest, a place to sit a spell. Yes, he’s playing the keyboard with his ass. Rather well, I might add.
This is far from a typical rock show—driven home when a thrilled fan howls out not an obscenity-riddled approval but instead a moderate, almost comical “you guys are good!” Yes, they are, but good is a cautious descriptor for a sensation that is far more perplexing to articulate. Indeed, when they rock out (which they do), there’s something tempered and almost polite about it; when a spectators are taken with them (which they are), it’s with a sort of suspended belief, akin to marveling at a magic trick while still trying to crack how the slight of hand was executed. It’s that somewhat uneasy yet intoxicating mix that courses through everything the King of France do, making them curiosities both musically and personally.
Obviously, the band have figured this out and capitalized on it—or, less opportunistically, they’re just quirky guys who refuse to put any idiosyncrasies in check. “We’re funny looking,” Salad declares to me before the show, which instead of protesting, his bandmates affirm with smiles. While looks are always determined subjectively, what’s certain is that King of France are not cut of the same cloth as the majority of bands that garner exposure on their home turf, New York City. A far cry from post-collegiate postpunk poachers with guitar riffs as jagged as their high-maintenance hairdos, King of France are immediately identifiable as mature and laid back, 100% unconcerned with trend chasing.
Call it comfort in their own skin, which transforms musically into a sound few people are able to pinpoint. “From fans to people in the industry, [we’re told] ‘one thing about you I can definitely say is that you’re unique,’” explains Azerrad. “And that is great. I hope we’re good, too, but being unique just kicks ass.” They are melodic but also aggressive, like a music box wound up tight and chiming at maximum speed. Salad’s voice is a cartoonish squawk that, for all its eccentricity, never forsakes being tuneful. He flings out guitar parts that twirl and jerk, which cat-and-mouse flirtatiously with Azerrad’s capable drum patter. Siler fills out the soundscape with intricate yet hum-worthy keyboard lines that do the work of ten men. Or, at least, two. Azerrad explains: “It’s not really lean and mean because I think it sounds pretty huge for three people. A lot of that has to do with Tom’s left hand.” The opportunity is just to rich for Salad to let that one go. He laughs to himself, and then, to quiet the South Park fan in all of us, says “Tom’s left hand meaning playing bass on the keyboard.”
Azerrad, taking the cue: “Not anything else.”
Siler, punchline: “No, that’s the right hand.”
Their synergy is obviously fraternal as well as musical; this is a band that gels with an almost eerie telepathy and sharp comedic timing. Despite their working together formally for a relatively short time (Salad and Azerrad played together briefly in an outfit called Thin Lizard Dawn; King of France as it is now composed has only been around since 2002), the strong kinship they possess has a will of its own, which shows in their songwriting. “We surprise each other a lot, we also trust each other,” Salad says. When they can do that fully, adds Salad, “this additional tentacle comes out, which is kind of the fourth member of the band.”
Having recently opened for Guster, King of France is currently playing occasional live dates in New York as they prep for the possibility of a spring regional tour or another stint on the road as an opening act. They’re also shopping for a deal to release the follow up to Salad Days (a proto-King of France album featuring recordings by Salad which was released on Egret Records in 2003).
With the new album hopefully available by fall, “we intend to get pretty huge, so you might want to start booking your follow up interviews,” Azerrad jokes to me. (The drummer has already enjoyed some fame of his own, as a music critic and author of Our Band Could Be Your Life, a modern classic on ‘80s indie rock.) Laden in the quip is a consciousness that their style might not be for everyone, but their expanding fan base is proof that something about them is beginning to catch on. Though regardless of whether they truly achieve widespread rule, these Kings creatively are governed by their creativity—wherever it may lead them. “I think the idea is to progress and change, go in whatever direction our muse takes us,” says Azerrad.
Pass off to Salad: “We have a lot of crazy ideas.”