Kentucky Knife Fight has been making consistent splashes in the music world for the past few years, but it wasn't until the beginning of February that the band found itself on primetime news. Unfortunately, it wasn't about their sound--a cigarette-charred blend weaving punk and bluegrass together in a way that lets its seams be shown, but is so artfully composed in both guitar licks and lyrics that its ugliness is one of its most poignant delights--but about the theft of their beloved tour van.
The van was recovered, thankfully, though only after it had been deposited in a scrap heap and wrecked beyond recognition.
Perhaps the wrecked van can serve as a metaphor for much of Kentucky Knife Fight's musical content. The act of maliciousness resulting in a sporadic, violent conclusion is one of the topics to which vocalist Jason Holler frequently returns in his emotionally charged lyrics about unsavory people in seedy locations.
The Live Buzz recently had the opportunity to speak with Holler about Kentucky Knife Fight's performance at the Bishop tonight.
LB: How is the stolen van issue going?
Holler: It's still under investigation by the police. We're still in the dark about a few details in regard to that, but we actually purchased a van a few days ago. The show in Bloomington Indiana will be its maiden voyage.
Does it have a name?
No name yet. We may have a contest to see who can come up with the best name.
You've gotten a story out of it I'm sure.
Where does the name 'Kentucky Knife Fight' come from?
It's just one of those things. We were trying to figure out what our name would be and we had this long list of names. None of them really fit right. Kentucky Knife Fight was just something that came out of my mouth.
It has a kind of urban myth quality to it.
Yeah. We've had a lot of people come up with what a Kentucky Knife Fight is and some people come up with some pretty wildly inappropriate sexual euphemisms for what a Kentucky knife fight is. I'm not really sure what it is except for us.
Were you always interested in being a musician?
I was in a band in high school. I've always been interested in writing and art. I went to school for art. Got a degree in it.
Yeah. Everybody else in the band went to the same university. Everyone has varying degrees. Some people have master's degrees in music. Some people have history degrees. For me, when I started playing in this band, we formed it as a kind of way to blow off steam from the academic world we were living in. Little by little as we got closer to graduating we started realizing the band had become more important than just a way to blow off steam. It was something we kind of wanted to pursue and wanted to take a little more seriously.
Did you play an instrument when you were a kid?
Not really. My mother bought me a harmonica maybe on my 15th birthday. I decided to sit down and figure out to paly it. I listened to blues records and just kind of figured out to bend notes and play blues harmonica on my own. I don't play piano or guitar or anything like that. Nobody in my family really played any instruments. It just wasn't in the cards.
Was there a very happening music scene in Edwardsville where you attended college?
There's a band called So Many Dynamos who started a couple years before us and I think their career accelerated pretty quickly. They kind of became the touring band of Edwardsville. There was another band called Target Market. There were a lot of bands that started in Belleville that kind of created this alt-country genre. I think there have been a lot of people who kind of identified with that and what they did and wanted to continue in that tradition. None of us were from Edwardsville or St Louis area originally. It wasn't something we grew up with. I wasn't really aware of some kind of scene. I was just aware of different bands and people that were making music and having a good time. At the same time since were in Edwardsville we weren't attached to the St Louis music scene. Everybody was doing a certain thing in St Louis. We got glimpses of that but we weren't really feeding off of that. I don't really know if we started feeling that until we actually moved to St Louis city proper.
That was around 2005?
Some of us started moving in the city around 2006. I lived in south city St Louis since 2008. It was right around 2008 that we decided were going to start touring.
You guys formed in 2005. Were you just playing local venues at that time?
We were basically playing the metro east areas, the Illinois side of things. We started getting breaks and playing in small punk clubs in St Louis who were willing to put us on bills. Slowly started working our way up and making acquaintances and becoming really great friends with a lot of people and watching their bands grow. Now we're definitely plugged into the St Louis music scene. It's kind of hard to realize how you're apart of something when you're directly in the middle of it all. It's hard for me to grasp where we're at in the music scene and how people see us.
Around 2004 was just after the post-punk revival. Did you see much of that in St Louis?
When we started we were much more on the punk rock side of things. Because of our name we got lumped together with punk rock bands and rockabilly bands. Then we started getting lumped together with bands that were kind of twangy. Any kind of resurgence of post punk--we weren't really plugged into that.
Who were you listening to when you did "The Wolf Crept, and the Children Slept?"
It's pretty twangy. We were listening to the Murder City Devils who get lumped together with punk rock music but whom I wouldn't' exactly label a punk rock band. I think they're more in tune with earlier punk rock music--like Johnny Thunder And The Heartbreakers. At the same time we were listening to Uncle Tupelo and Wilco and Tom Waits.
When you started out was there a bluegrass or folk element to your sound or was it just punk?
When we decided to be a band we wanted to be a dark bluegrass band. But we had our own sensibilities. Once we hired an electric guitarist we realized we weren't going to be a bluegrass band or even a dark bluegrass band. We were writing dark rock music that had punk energy and instrumentation as far as banjo and harmonica that could be associated with bluegrass music or blues music. Even when we started we had an interest in Americana music. We never really sat in one world. We've played lots of different clubs for lots of different audiences. We played a hippie festival and I was kind of scared--we weren't a hippie band or even a jam band. But I think it went over well.
You do the majority of the songwriting.
We've had a couple songs where we collaborated with a couple different guys in the band but we haven't done that in awhile. I write a vocal melody which basically creates a song and everyone works off of what I have. Or if a guy in the group has an interesting guitar part I can adapt to what he's doing. Since the very beginning it's been kind of a democratic process as far as how to write songs.
Does literature play much of a role in your songwriting? There's a lot of poetic weight, particularly in "Hush Hush."
In the first two albums I had a lot of difficulty in learning how to write for a rock and roll band because I grew up in rural Illinois where all you hear on the radio is classic rock. The way you write in a rock and roll band is much different from what I do. It was very difficulty to reprogram myself. Literature and poetry and visual artists--ideas and concepts they're working with--have always been interesting for me. I think I'm finally finding a voice or a way to introduce those interests of mine into this band. Especially on "Hush Hush," I've been able to take the qualities of writers who have nothing to do with rock and roll and use them.
Could you name some of your direct literary influences?
I really like Raymond Carver. I like his no frills, barebones, non-heroic approach to writing about people. He gives you just enough to let your imagination take hold. He gives you just enough to make you wonder. I think art is all about wondering.
Also Charles Simic. I'm really fascinated with his surreal imagery. I try to give personalities to inanimate objects or ideas, like morning or night. Giving personalities to something like time. Also a lot of crime writing, like Tom Waits or Kathleen Brennan, Bruce Springsteen. I'm morbidly fascinated with some of the more dark, brutal aspects of people. When people can be really bad, monsters even. When I was a little kid I dived into that stuff. It made me a really morbid kid, which made me into a really morbid guy.
Is there a religious element as well? "Hush Hush" has Biblical lines and a flood motif.
I've never really been a religious person. I've never considered myself to be a spiritual person. I'm not totally sure what that even means. I've always been fascinated by what people choose to believe in and why they believe in it, and when they choose to believe in things. How there can be this duality in a single human being? How they can be a highly religious person but at the same time believe in something that's just so against their own ideologies that it makes no sense? We're very complicated creatures. Our hypocrisy can be really fascinating. These conflicted people creep into my writings.
You see that with your female character on Paper Flowers. She uses religion as a crutch. I'm wondering about that song--it kind of has a trickle down effect where we start from Part Three, to Two, to One. How did you conceive of that structure?
There've been other albums where people had a several part song on an album. Sometimes they move parts around. I like that. When I was writing and listening to the music that my guys were coming up with so much of what I envisaged was very cinematic. When we did Love the Lonely and shot the video for it, I conceived the whole treatment for the video and wrote the whole thing and cast the whole thing. As I was listening to the song it had this cinematic quality.
I see all the songs as movies. I visualize them as huge pictures for people to look at. It's not just words. I'm not going to say that Quentin Tarantino was an inspiration for the album, but I appreciate when someone like Tarantino messes with the linear structure of a story but putting the ending first. Why do we feel compelled to write in a certain way when we're making music? Why do we need for the first part to go first? I wanted to do something that broke out of that mold.
Is the album "Hush Hush" a fractured picture with one consecutive narrative?
100 percent. There are little hints in the album for the people in Paper Flowers One, Two, and Three. There are little remnants that filter over into other songs. One of the other songs in the album is basically the ending of that trilogy. You'll catch it as you listen to it.
Those kinds of characters, those images you have--filthy hotels and mentholated cigarettes--are those a specifically St Louis aesthetic that you're trying to capture?
From the album there's this push and this pull between urban and rural. It has to do with my own background growing up in rural Illinois. There are things that are very specific to where I grew up. Paper Flowers seems very rural to me, but there are things that are urban too, like Love the Lonely. Run-down motels--there are motels like that in St Louis that are very sketchy places to be. One of the one's I'm mentioning is an actual motel in western Illinois. It's called the Tick Tock Motel. I just think that name is really fascinating and seedy.
Where I grew up there was a very large drug culture. I had a hard time watching the first several episodes of Breaking Bad. The whole meth epidemic. Where I'm from everyone had family and friends who had done it. It's just apart of life there. When I was thinking about these characters on Bad Blood and some of the other songs I'm thinking about desperation, drug-induced desperation. I also like to keep things vague. You don't know how or why people got to the position they're in, but now they have to deal with it.
You share a kind of Americana style with Pokey LaFarge. Do you see any other correspondences between your music and LaFarge's?
Pokey has a deep fascination with American music--blues, jazz, Dixieland. He's much more interested in attending to it in a way that's pure and not really affiliated with the time's we're living in now. I think it's very nostalgic in a sense. I'm very sentimental and can be very nostalgic, but when I'm writing I'm not necessarily thinking about a greater scope of American history. I think a lot more in terms of insular worlds and environments--people who exist beyond this larger world idea.
Would you say that dark bluegrass is on the rise?
Several years ago the twangy, train-riding, whisky-swilling was on the rise but I think that's kind of fallen off the tracks. I never really wanted to be part of that group. It has a nice place in music history but it gets a little too cliche and too nostalgic.
Would you say that Kentucky Knife Fight is anti the good-old-boys image?
I think we're trying to lift ourselves out of that. In a way we're having to try a lot harder to show people that we're not the train-riding, moonshine-drinking band. We're a band with more depth than that. We definitely have our work cut out for us.
What have you learned in your 6 years of touring?
Communication is really key. I've been in a relationship for nine years with a few of these guys. This relationship has to be attended to. It has to be constantly looked after.
Do you have a favorite moment from your winter tour?
That ended up being the best tour we've ever done by a very wide margin. Moral was very high in our camp. Everybody was in very good spirits.
Post by Brandon Cook