With an increasingly layered and intricate sound, New York's French Kicks take some time to get used to.
Let’s talk about the convergence of NCAA football and indie-rock. Specifically, let’s take it to the cornfields. Football Saturdays are big parties in the college town of Iowa City -- Hawkeye country. In turn Sunday nights present a challenge for touring indie bands, especially the night after the annual Iowa vs. Iowa State football game; an event that oozes reckless inebriation across town, from undergrad frat rats to arty Writers’ Workshoppers to that old guy at the bar considering the failed promise of ethanol. Nonetheless, the French Kicks said what the hell and charged $8 for tickets on a broke and hung-over Sunday night in the middle of the United States.
Sure, mid-level indie bands can pack clubs in places like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago because of the several thousand music fans in those cities with disposable income. But Iowa City and other smallish American towns are a little different: People make less money and thus have to be picky about which bands they choose to see. Bands still building their names may find themselves onstage staring down a collection of 20 people, half of them from the opening bands. The show becomes a challenge. If the people come out to see your band on Sunday, then, chances are, you’re more than just a hype-machine infection: Your music is actually hitting the mark.
When the French Kicks plug in at Iowa City’s prime rock spot, the Picador, the crowd is enthused. Compelling and tight, the band lays into a well-paced and selectively explosive set. Fans are chanting NCAA-style when the show is over. An encore ensues. All the while, the club’s booker stands behind the bar serving customers and smiling; he’s got his hands on a good Sunday night in Iowa City. Every manager should send their band through this town as a litmus test.
“The loftiest ambition has been to make a living with this,” Nick Stumpf tells me before the show.
Stumpf is the singer and keyboardist of the French Kicks. He’s eating a bowl of Italian noodles and guitarist-singer Josh Wise is working on a salad. We’re in a comfy yet ragged Irish dive in downtown Iowa City. Stumpf asks for a glass of “the house red” and the bartender brings him a small bottle of wine with a twist-off top, the kind you get on a Southwest Airlines flight. For a rocker on the road, Stumpf, with his black button-down shirt, keeps it classy. Wise, wearing wild facial hair and a worn-in T-shirt, is more laid-back. (Yet he’s the one that went to Princeton.) Together, they form the songwriting core of the New York five-piece which also features Lawrence Stumpf on bass, Aaron Thurston on drums, and Kush El Amin on keys, guitar, and percussion.
Since the release of their debut record, One Time Bells (2002), the French Kicks have been diligent about touring and cutting new records on a two-year cycle. The tour behind their latest release, Two Thousand is going well, with solid audience turnouts from the Rust Belt to the West Coast. Stumpf says it’s taken them seven or eight years to get to where they are.
Wise adds, “While we can sustain ourselves by touring and being tight with money, we occasionally have to fill in the blanks.”
If concert attendance has been an exponential upside of the band’s career, then they can blame the critics for getting them down. The past five years have seen some lukewarm reviews of French Kicks albums. Some critics cast them as sub-par siblings to other New York bands, while others accuse of them being a fashionable band without much substance behind the look. Wise and Stumpf are confused by these assessments, but they don’t seem upset about it. Sipping their wine and smiling, they discuss the topic with easy voices.
“I think we’re frustrating to journalists because we’re not a part of and don’t fit into what happened in New York in the last five years. One review talked about us with Vespa scooters and a certain kind of clothing. I had no idea what the person was talking about. Any attempt to place us geographically is difficult," Wise says. "I think that turns people off."
“There’s the things you get graded on that we’ve never cared about at all," Stumpf adds, "like clothes or where you fit in the cultural mix. You know, 'Is it irresponsible to use certain synth sounds?' For us it’s stupid to not use a synth sound because we think people will be talking about it or to use it because we think it’ll be the next big thing.”
When we first heard about the French Kicks they were served up on a platter with other New York contemporaries, primarily the Strokes, Interpol, and the Walkmen. Unlike Omaha or Silverlake, the “New York Sound” of the early 2000s was not so much an actual scene of allied bands as it was a genre construct of journalists attempting to draw connections for their readers. While members of the Faint have thrown back beers with Bright Eyes for years, the Strokes and Interpol aren’t necessarily getting tight at the same Brooklyn bars. It’s true, the French Kicks do live in New York, but that’s because they like big city life. The only appropriate New York connection for the French Kicks lies in the Walkmen. But even that relationship didn’t start in New York.
Most members from both bands grew up in Washington, D.C., went to nearby high schools, played in similar music scenes, and ended up in New York around the same time. Naturally, the two bands share some musical tastes. Thus the similarity in the signature styles of both the French Kicks and Walkmen -- propulsive and arty drumming, crooned vocal, and ultra-vintage guitars with plenty of reverb. If you want to put that in a box, then call it the born-in-DC-living-in-New York sound.
These days, the French Kicks provide quieter, more nuanced arrangements in contrast to the Walkmen’s frequent raw and abrasive sounds. “I think our records take some time for you to grow into,” says Stumpf. “People who are into our band make it a private thing. It’s kind of made for listening to by yourself while you’re about the house. We’re not easy to grasp on first listen.”
The band’s latest, Two Thousand, comes off like the late-30s soundtrack for today’s twenty-something hipsters. Stumpf and Wise avoid discussing any influences, but it’s safe to assume they’ve given Brian Eno’s rock production some consideration. Two Thousand stresses innovative textures. Hidden hooks and harmonies, poly-rhythms and electronics, and synthesizers and pianos settle into the nooks of each song, never getting in each other’s way. The words, like the feelings we fail to express in close relationships, can be elusive, and they often sink into the mix with the rest of the instruments. This creates a Sigur Ros effect: Emotions are expressed, but you’re not quite sure what Stumpf is saying. At select points phrases emerge from the mix -- "you could take it too far; you’re out before you know", "there will be no mean time", "well I’m finally alone for awhile" -- but if you really want to find out what’s on Stumpf’s mind shoot him an e-mail at [email protected]
Wise says, “We’ve got fans on this tour who are in their 40s and lots of couples too.” This makes sense: When you’re young, you want to drink 40s and then go to some party. When those club-hooked, Rapture-dancing urbanites start putting down those mortgages, will they be looking for home music -- songs to inhabit new sound spaces and with buried parts that demand repeat listens? Not to suggest that people necessarily get soft as they get older or that the French Kicks, while quieter than the ear-numbing Walkmen, sound like a bunch of crickets on heroin. But maturing ears seek out different sounds, and when they do, the French Kicks back-catalogue will be there, waiting for them.
Eight years deep into this indie-rock world, with young and old fans still catching on to their sound and being able to pay rent, at least most of the time, the French Kicks could be a model for other bands on the rise. The implied mission statement: Ignore the press. Do you what you love. If you know you’re good then you’re good, and maybe, eventually, other people will agree.
Wise reminisces, “I bumped into someone at a show in North Carolina who wrote a really negative review two albums ago, but she paid money to come see us. Not to press the issue but I told her, 'We got panned in your magazine and you did it.' Over time she said she just became intrigued by our music. You internalize it. You spend time with it. It’s personal.”