Kyle Craft Is Bringing Gonzo Journalism to Rock and Roll
Kyle Craft talks about Dylan, Bowie, his new album and why Sub Pop is more like a family than a business.
Full Circle Nightmare
2 Feb 2018
Singer/songwriter Kyle Craft turned 29 this month, but the music he makes feels right at home among '60s folk and '70s glam.
While it may be a cliché to refer to Craft as an "old soul", he's perfectly happy being compared to older, classic acts. "I love Dylan, the Stones, Neil Young," the Louisiana native says from his home in his adopted town of Portland, Oregon. "All those guys are my tried and true. Every time I start to like something else, I always end up saying, 'Well, I like this, but it's not 'Like a Rolling Stone' or 'After the Gold Rush' or Sticky Fingers. So I always end up moving back to that music no matter how far away I get from it."
The retro stylings Craft grew up loving have their glam/folk fingerprints all over his 2016 debut album, Dolls of Highland, and are perhaps even more present on his upcoming follow-up release, Full Circle Nightmare, which comes out 2 February on Sub Pop Records. The new album, produced by fellow Portland resident Chris Funk of the Decemberists, benefits from a full-band sound and Craft's constantly maturing songwriting, which he began to hone as a small town kid in Louisiana.
It was during those formative Louisiana years that Craft, having just seen the David Bowie film Labyrinth, walked into a store to pick up the film's soundtrack but instead left with a Bowie compilation CD. "I would be playing with my Star Wars figurines on the porch and had this little portable CD player," Craft recalls. "I'd be playing with these toys to 'Life on Mars' and 'Ziggy Stardust.' I think it was just the magnetism of David Bowie that got me."
This early obsession eventually led to a teenage Craft teaching himself the guitar - "I experimented very briefly with lessons," he says. "It was not my thing" - as well as songwriting and brief stints in bands. "The songs I wrote back then were insanely horrible," he says, "But I've always enjoyed the writing part more than anything else."
Moving to Austin, Texas, he formed a band with his best friend and girlfriend, winding their way up the Pacific Northwest for gigs. When they made their way to Seattle, the two other band members attempted to convince Craft to drop off a demo CD at the offices of the legendary Sub Pop Records. For Craft, such a move was a hard sell. "I looked at Sub Pop's demo policy, which was like, 'Send your shit here, we probably won't listen to it, and if we do, we probably won't like it,' or something like that," he says. "I didn't want to walk in there and get ripped apart by these people." Eventually, he relented. "We snuck into the office, and I gave the receptionist the demo we had. I was really nervous, so I just said something quick like, 'here's our album, we're a band from Louisiana, 'bye!'"
It proved to be a successful gambit, as Sub Pop contacted Craft about a month later. He didn't learn the complete story until about a year after that. "I was talking to one of the head A&R; guys who told me what happened. When we handed the woman the demo and split so quickly and haphazardly, she thought it was so bizarre and weird that a band would do that. So she stuck the disc into her computer and listened to it immediately, and liked it." The woman liked it so much, in fact, that she put a sticky note on the disc and placed it on top of a heap of to-be-listened-to discs.
To create what would be his debut album, Craft used his laptop and played almost all the instruments himself, with the exception of a couple of small parts he couldn't quite master on his own, such as the drums for "Future Midcity Massacre" ("I am horrible at those boom-chicka country beats," he confesses). Those initial sessions took place in a house in Shreveport, Louisiana that he shared with six or seven other people. His friend Landon Miller let him record in the laundry room there, but "eventually everyone got pretty perturbed with me being there because I wasn't paying rent and I was the guy banging on the drums all day and screaming whenever I'd fuck up."
Craft sent the rough mixes to Sub Pop, and Brandon Summer and Benjamin Weikel from label mates the Helio Sequence worked their magic. "They're wizards in the studio," Craft says. "They somehow managed to take these tracks that I recorded on my laptop and made them sound good."
Dolls of Highland was released in April 2016. "I was bracing myself for the worst," Craft says about the initial reviews, which turned out to be overwhelmingly positive. "I was grateful and stoked all around. I wasn't expecting that at all." Critics and fans seemed eager to latch on to Craft's unique melding of intricate, Dylanesque wordplay and old-school glam, mixed with a healthy dose of '70s power pop. Bob Dylan is one of Craft's biggest influences – particularly the era between Bringing It All Back Home and Blood on the Tracks. "I would say that Dylan is a huge influence on me in every way, but more in terms of songwriting than vocally," he says. " I love the wordplay and the poetry. I've always liked the idea of trying to tap into the type of ghost that Dylan tapped into on Blonde on Blonde."
Craft credits Sub Pop for helping him nurture his creative instincts. "I love every single person that works there," he says. "It feels more like family now than a business partnership. I don't have a frame of reference as to how other labels work, but I can say that the way they treat me and give me the freedoms that they do, I can't imagine it being any better. They've been in my corner from day one."
After spending a good deal of 2016 and 2017 touring the country (with Fruit Bats, Drive-By Truckers and Sub Pop's Mass Gothic), Kyle embarked on a mini-project late last year that began with one random burst of inspiration. "I went in one day to our little home studio in Portland to record a Jenny Lewis song that I really liked ("Acid Tongue")," Craft recalls. "So I went in and recorded that in a day. The next day I woke up and thought, 'I want to record this Patti Smith song that I'm super into at the moment,' so I recorded that in a day as well." More and more songs originally recorded by female artists began to take shape (with the help of pianist Kevin Clark), turning into a project he called Girl Crazy. "It was all for fun; there was no motive behind any of it. We weren't even thinking at the time that the songs were ever going to come out, we were just messing around. But I sent them over to Sub Pop, and they said, 'this is awesome, we can totally do this.'" Girl Crazy was released in the form of ten two-track singles.
The off-the-cuff, just-for-fun method of Girl Crazy is in stark contrast to the upcoming Full Circle Nightmare, which benefits from a full band and more of a focused approach than Dolls of Highland. "Lyrically, it's a little less scatterbrained," Craft says of the new album. "I think there's a focal point to the lyricism." He also adds that it has more of a raw sound, describing it as "straightforward, Stones-y rock and roll," due in large part to the fact that he was going through a pretty big obsession with the Rolling Stones' seminal Exile on Main Street album during the recording sessions.
Perhaps even more so than Dolls of Highland, Full Circle Nightmare has the retro-analog feel of an album that could have been released in 1972, sandwiched between Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Harry Nilsson's Nilsson Schmilsson. But Craft insists that it's not intentional. "I don't think I'm striving for that, it's just what I like," he says. "That's what ends up seeping out on the tape." He credits Chris Funk's production with helping to nail down that timeless sound he was searching for. "He was super sweet and really easy to work with on that front," Craft says of Funk. "It would be really different if I went into a place with another producer who was trying to get a different sound."
He also describes Full Circle Nightmare as purely autobiographical, which seems a bit shocking when you consider the onslaught of heartbreak and in-your-face cinematic imagery that's chronicled in the lyrics. "These weird, serendipitous kind of things just kind of scattered across the last five years of my life," he says. "I can't lie to myself and pretend that I don't have sort of a gonzo journalism approach when it comes to songwriting. I try to say 'yes' a lot and I try to not get into the rhythm of always doing the same thing."
Although he has a fondness for the music of an earlier era, Craft appreciates a lot of current artists - Angel Olsen and his friends the Texas Gentlemen are two particular favorites. Still, he thinks that there is a lot of room for improvement in today's songwriting.
"I always think about what Allen Ginsberg said when he first heard (Dylan's) 'A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall,'" Craft says. "He said he knew the torch had been passed from the beat generation to the new songwriters. I hate the idea of conforming to shitty lyricism that happens nowadays. It's not everyone, but there is definitely a lower bar for what is considered good lyricism now. "
Following the release of Full Circle Nightmare, Craft will hit the road with several U.S. dates in March and hopes to tour Europe eventually. While he's always appreciative of good crowds who love the music, in the end it's about doing what he wants to do.
"I think that's the biggest lesson Dylan ever taught me," he says. "Don't give a shit – just do you. In the face of people booing, don't give a shit. Seek validation through yourself, not through other people."