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Cosying up to Seattle's Kinski

2 April 2013

Staples of the down-but-not-out Seattle scene, Kinski has spent the past decade-plus perfecting its formidably heavy strain of new-school psychedelia. Dyed-in-the-wool music appreciators, the foursome’s robust riffs and rhythms connect the dots between post-rock, space-rock, Krautrock and straight-up rock influences with unusual clarity.

Kinski’s catalog is action-packed, from the brazen single-chord repetition on “Hot Stenographer” (off 2005’s Alpine Static), to the vibratoed-out crescendo of the explosive “Semaphore” (from 2003’s Airs Above Your Station) and noisy oscillations on classically-tinged tour-de-force “Fell Asleep On Your Lawn” (off a 2003 split with Japan’s Acid Mothers Temple).

Albeit under-recognized by its home city, the band is an underground favorite, having shared bills with The Fall and Mission of Burma among others. Its colossal sound translates to larger rooms, as well — six years ago, Tool handpicked Kinski to open a U.S. tour.

Bassist Lucy Atkinson, singer-guitarist Chris Martin, guitarist Matthew Reid-Schwartz and drummer Barrett Wilke stepped back after 2007’s Down Below It’s Chaos, but listening to their new Kill Rock Stars LP Cosy Moments, in stores today (scroll for artwork), it’s as if they’d never left.

Equal parts trance-inducing psych (“Long Term Exit Strategy,” “A Little Ticker Tape Never Hurt Anybody”) and stop-on-a-dime punk (singles “Last Day On Earth” and “Conflict Free Diamonds”), the expertly-sequenced album is at once far-out and earthbound, and entirely worth the wait.

On a sunny mid-March afternoon, Martin braved a cold to meet for coffee in Seattle’s Wallingford district, where we discussed the new record, where Kinski’s been, and where it’s going.

CHARLIE ZAILLIAN: Cosy Moments is Kinski’s first LP in six years. Why the delay?

CHRIS MARTIN: Well, we had some personal problems in the band, but we never really stopped… we just weren’t hitting it as hard as far as playing shows. I wanted to go in a different direction with the music, but I wasn’t sure what it was going to be… so we just kept writing. We toured with Acid Mothers Temple and tried out a bunch of new material. That wasn’t working, so we threw it all out and kept cycling through until we got to the stuff that we liked, which is what the new record is. It took a lot longer than it should have… it felt like it went on and on. We won’t wait another six years again… we’re actually already two-thirds done with the next one.

CZ: Down Below It’s Chaos emphasized vocals, Cosy even more so.

CM: Yeah, the guitar explorations, the whole post-rock thing… I’d done that for quite awhile, and got bored writing 10-to-12-minute pieces. We always had hooks in our songs, but the older records were a little self-indulgent, so I wanted to make everything tighter. For about two years, I played guitar with Unnatural Helpers. My best friend Dean [Whitmore] is the leader of that band, and his whole thing is just verse, chorus, done.

CZ: “Last Day on Earth” and “Skim Milf” are some of your shortest songs yet.

CM: Lucy pushed to have those on there. They’re fun to play.

CZ: “A Little Ticker Tape Never Hurt Anybody” has sort of a raga vibe.

CM: That one actually started as kind of a tribute to The Clean, one of my all-time favorites. I came up with that little riff and was like “oh, this sounds kind of Clean-ish.” Then [producer] Randall [Dunn] stretched it out more and opened it up with weird sonic stuff.

CZ: Listening to your lyrics, there’s sort of a sense of “where is this all going?” “Throw it Up,” in particular, seems to reflect feeling trapped in the same routine. Is that song about Seattle specifically? City life in general?

CM: There’s lines in it that are about Seattle, but, well… I grew up in Littleton, Colorado, outside Denver. I went to Columbine High School, went to college in Bozeman, Montana, and wanted to catch that sort of feeling when you’re bored out of your mind, driving the drag strip of Main Street or whatever… then, being older and still having the same kinds of frustrations on a Friday night, with nothing to do.

CZ: How long have you lived here?

CM: Since 1990… though I’ve always toyed with moving to Portland. Seattle’s easy, I guess. The ‘90s were kind of one-dimensional, but by the time Kinski started there were so many other types of bands people were excited about that were getting attention.

CZ: Was there a certain moment in Kinski’s history when the local scene seemed strongest?

CM: Around ’99, we put out our first record, Space Launch for Frenchie. [Radio station] KEXP played it, and [alt-weekly] The Stranger was also writing about us a lot, so we probably did the best in town those first four or five years.

CZ: Where else have you been well-received?

CM: The Philadelphia-New York-Boston corridor… also, Chicago and Cleveland. San Francisco’s always fun, but we’ve never done very well in Los Angeles, and San Diego’s horrible… every band seems to say that. France, Belgium and Holland have been good. We’ve been to Japan a bunch with Acid Mothers.

CZ: Does a sort-of loose-knit international space-rock community exist?

CM: Yeah… well, it did. It was based around the Terrastock festivals. There was this magazine, Ptolemaic Terrascope, started by Phil [McMullen] and Bevis Frond… kind of like The Big Takeover in a way, but about space-rock, psych-y folk stuff and ‘60s Nuggets-type reissues. They put on shows every couple years where they’d bring old-school people out of retirement, like Bridget St. John and Tom Rapp from Pearls Before Swine. Sonic Youth did one, and bands like us, Bardo Pond, Paik, Windy and Carl and Major Stars would also play. There’ve been seven, and we’ve played the last four.

CZ: Sounds awesome.

CM: Yeah, they were amazing. There’d only be like 700 or 800 people, but they were the most hardcore music fans I’d ever met in my life. It was a great way for bands to meet each other and become friends. The way they’d always done it was that someone in a town would say “hey, I want to do the festival here, I’ll find the space and get all the logistics together,” then the magazine would get involved. But it sort of stopped, and there hasn’t been a festival for five or six years, so that scene seems to have tapered a bit.

CZ: Maybe they should do a Kickstarter, like so many bands do nowadays.

CM: I think that’s gross. Bands have had to figure out how to get money to make a record forever, and it’s good to have that hurdle. The expense of putting out an LP makes you really focus on what you want it to be. It’s like writing a novel or something… you have to put a lot of thought and work in. We put out our first two records ourselves… we didn’t have press people or anything like that. Playing Terrastock and meeting Acid Mothers helped us get out a little more, but except for the last two Sub Pop records, we’ve paid for it all ourselves.

CZ: How did Kinski’s deal with Sub Pop first come about?

CM: The story I heard was… I used to sit down for a couple songs, just because I’d play them better, and when we were starting to get some attention in Seattle, [Sub Pop co-founder] Jonathan Poneman saw us and said “I hate when bands sit down.”

CZ: But he signed Fleet Foxes!

CM: Yeah, and Red Red Meat… they all sat down. I don’t know if that story’s true. Anyways, we put out a record for Sub Pop’s singles club. Later, they asked us [to sign], and we said yes.

CZ: You’re on Kill Rock Stars now, how’s that going?

CM: It’s good. The staff is small, but they’re all really cool people… very genuine.

CZ: Where do you and your bandmates work?

CM: I’m a board op at KIRO radio. Barrett’s a bartender, Lucy teaches kindergarten and first grade, and Matthew works at a preschool.

CZ: You opened for Tool. How’d that go down?

CM: It was a weird time, because it was when we were having the most personal problems within the band. We’d just finished Down Below, which was sort of stressful to make, and the last day of mixing we got a call that said “Tool wants to take you out for a month. It starts in three days.” We couldn’t say no, just because going out and playing to 18,000 people every night… that’s never going to happen again. But it was really hard to get that much time off last-minute. Lucy would play, fly home, teach, then fly back. It was insane, really. We didn’t have the full band every time… we played a couple shows in front of thousands of people with two friends who had never performed with us before… a total mind-fuck, basically. It was fun, though. We were picked because Justin [Chancellor], the bass player, and Adam [Jones], the guitarist, were fans. I don’t think [singer] Maynard [James Keenan] knew who we were. We didn’t hang out with them that much, but they treated us well. Their fans are insane about them. They’d get there at 8 p.m., and the whole venue would be full by the time we went on.

CZ: Did they enjoy it?

CM: Well, we weren’t on the ticket stub or anything, so people thought it was just going to be Tool. At the first show, someone yelled out “great, 45 minutes of bullshit.” Our friend who was filling in with us said, “no, we only got 30 minutes.” (laughs)

CZ: What other artists you’ve toured with inspire you?

CM: We’re huge Bardo Pond fans… they’ve always been inspiring. When we opened for The Fall, I avoided Mark E. Smith, but Matthew of course went up to say what a fan he was and Mark just shut him down. I was like, “why would you even talk to him?” (laughs) We became good friends with Comets on Fire. I think they’re on an indefinite hiatus now… though they all played on the new Six Organs of Admittance record, Ascent, which is really good. I have to mention Mission of Burma, too. When they asked us to do the West Coast, that was a thrill. They’re a big influence… the way they’ve always carried themselves business-wise, and presented themselves live.

CZ: What are Kinski’s plans now that the record’s out?

CM: Just the release shows. We’ll fly to the East Coast and do about ten dates, then, hopefully, a West Coast tour, and maybe Europe in the fall if we can get it together. We still play here and there, but I’m not really burning to do a five-week tour ever again… I just want to keep making records.