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Pretty Much a Rock Band: An Interview with Kinski

Photo: David Belisle

Kinski guitarist Chris Martin says he'll never be nervous again after the summer's last-minute, arena-sized tour with Tool. His Seattle four-piece may be the only band ever to open for Tool and record a split with Acid Mothers Temple.

You want loud? Go to a Kinski show. The Seattle band's live performance relies heavily on feedback, processing strummed, bowed, and pedaled guitar sounds into monstrous volumes. It's overwhelming in the same way Sonic Youth or Mogwai can be, stomach-churning in its intensity and yet oddly, sublimely calming.

Like Bardo Pond, Major Stars, and sometime collaborators Acid Mothers Temple, Seattle's Kinski has long worked the boundaries between experimental psych and straight-up rock. With their latest album, Down Below It's Chaos, however, guitarist Chris Martin says, " I don't think this record is particularly super-experimental," he adds, "We've done experimental things in the past, but now I feel like we're pretty much a rock band."

Kinski began about a decade ago in Seattle around the core of Martin, bass player Lucy Atkinson, and drummer Dave Weeks (who left the band in 2002). They recorded two self-released albums, Space Launch for Frenchie and Be Gentle with the Warm Turtle before signing with Sub Pop in 2001. They have since released three albums with the indie giant, as well as a handful of singles and EPs. They have also collaborated on non-Sub Pop recordings with like-minded psych artists including Acid Mothers Temple, Paik, and Surface of Eceon.

All through the band's existence, Kinski has moved up and down the continuum between conventional rock and trippier, more difficult forms. Like Sonic Youth, to whom they are often compared, they flirt with alternate tunings and non-traditional chord structures. And like Mogwai, their tour partners from a few years back, they can navigate both delicate melodies and deafening climaxes.

Even now, on the heels of their most accessible, rock-oriented album ever, Martin says that they've been recording new material with avant-garde violinst Evyind Kang. "He did an amazing overdub on a song of ours. It didn't make the record because it didn't fit," says Martin. "But he laid like six cellos and six violin tracks and it's amazing."

Chaos, turmoil, and vocals

Recording Down Below It's Chaos was a very different experience, says Martin, from the previous album, Alpine Static. "Alpine Static was probably the most focused record we've ever done," says Martin. "We knew that we wanted a real live sound. We knew the songs that we wanted to do, and even the order." Down Below, by contrast, was far less premeditated. Although the band had been playing the songs live for some time -- and opener "Crybaby Blowout" was even a holdout from Alpine Static -- the band wasn't sure that they added up to a cohesive record. Atkinson, in particular, felt that the material was too diverse for a single album.

Meanwhile, Martin and Atkinson, a longtime couple, were having personal difficulties and split up just before recording. Randall Dunn, who produced both Down Below It's Chaos and Alpine Static urged them to start work on the album anyway. "He said, 'Let's just do it, and you guys can work through your problems and we'll just all be busy at the same time,'" Martin recalls. "So he kind of pushed us to go into the studio and get started and see what happened. It actually turned out well, but this was definitely the record where we had the least idea of what we were going to do and even ... we weren't even sure if we were ready to do a full record."

Dunn did what he could to keep the sessions low-key, using a studio in his own home's basement, rather that the large professional space that produced Alpine Static. The resulting sound is very clean, but also noticeably warm and inviting. Intentionally, so, says Martin. "Randall said right at the beginning, 'Let's do a record where the drums sound like an early ZZ Top record, small and tight. Just sort of that early 1970s warm vibe," he recalls.

Yet though it may not show up to casual listeners, the combination of musical and personal uncertainty took a toll. "It put tons of turmoil into the record," says Martin. "We separated and then we were in the studio for two months together. It was insane, super intense. Our personal lives and the whole band's were thrown into turmoil, but things are settling back down now."

As always, Kinski worked and reworked its songs in the studio, using long collaborative jams to flesh out ideas they'd tried in a live setting. "The songs were way more stripped down before we went into the studio, so we messed around with the arrangements," says Martin, adding that that meant they had to rethink their live show, too. "We had to relearn the songs after the record was recorded, to learn what we had done in the studio. But I think the way that we're playing them live is close to the recorded version."

One big change was the addition of vocals. Martin sings on a good portion of the new songs, something he hasn't done consistently since the band's first album. "It took me a while, because I hadn't sung live in so long," says Martin. "But on this tour, I felt like I was finally getting it back together a little bit."

The tour with Tool

All these changes had to come very quickly, because the band's next tour started almost immediately. In fact, they were in their final day of mixing Down Below It's Chaos when their booker called. How would Kinski like to open for Tool? Oh, and by the way, the first show was in three days.

Tool had postponed an earlier tour because their drummer was injured. By the time his hand had healed, the original opening act couldn't play with them anymore. Tool's bass player, Justin Chancellor, who was a fan, floated Kinski's name.

Kinski, whose members still have full-time jobs, had to scramble to take the opportunity. "The whole band wasn't actually able to do the whole tour. So we had musician friends flying in and out to do certain shows," says Martin. "It was insane. Don McGreedy (of Earth) had never played bass with us, not even rehearsals, so he played in front of 8000 people for the first time."

Yet after some initial angst, Martin says, the shows went well. "In a way, when the lights are down and you go on stage, you can't see anything out there. All you can see is your other bandmates. So it was actually kind of cool. If you kind of close your eyes, you could have almost felt like you were in a rehearsal," he remembers.

It was a trial by fire, in some ways, and yet Martin says he feels the band has benefited from it. "Probably because of the Tool thing, I don't think we could ever be nervous again," he says. "We're playing the best we've ever played. I know bands always say they're playing the best at the time, but I think we definitely are."

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