Weird-rock band John Kenneth Wilkes are launching their new album at two shows this weekend. Elling Lien hung out with Alex Schwartz (AS) and Peter King (PK) to talk to them about it.
So who are you guys?
PK: We are from JKW. John Kenneth Wilkes. I am Peter King, bass player.
AS: I’m Alex Schwartz, vocalist.
How long has JKW been around?
AS: Since 1995, or 1994?
PK: I guess 1993 at the earliest. It was high school so…
Wasn’t “Nevermind” coming out around then?
PK: I believe the White album had just been released, inspiring us.
Are you guys older than the Stone Temple Pilots?
AS: I think it was indeed around the same time as Hootie’s first album.
PK: That’s the first Hootie comparison of the night.
AS: We might have formed as part of a response to Hootie. [laugh] Right around the time that Hootie and the Blowfish was sweeping the world.
You do know that they’re coming to town – on September 11th!
AS: I’m sure they will have as much a beneficial effect as those planes had on New York City. [laugh]
So my question was: has JKW stayed the same, style-wise, since you started?
PK: No. It started off as a blues-rock kind of band, which is what we were into at the time.
AS: We were very much trying to be young Roger Howses. But with poorly-tuned guitars. JJ Kale, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and those guys.
PK: And that’s where it started!
And what happened?
AS: We started writing material that was less blues and more punk rock. But there was a weird phase there where we were playing a kind of hybrid blues-punk music that was blues music, but with a punk sensibility about it.
PK: Yeah, it was a slow evolution, but it reflects what we’re all into and it’s just natural.
AS: With the blues stuff you can kind of see it connecting to the early-60’s rock and with that there’s surf, and from that you get closer to punk through surf.
PK: It’s kind of like a Time-Life series.
AS: When Brian joined he added a heavier drum sound, so he pulled the group in a more aggressive-sounding direction. And we carried on from there. We were friends with a lot of the punk and indie rock scene at the time, so we were influenced by that stuff.
So then what kind of music is on your new CD?
PK: I don’t know. It’s very hard for me to compare. For the people I talk to, when they listen to it, they’re the same way. They’re like “I don’t know what it is.” I’d like to say it’s a rock band, but I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s “progressive”. But that’s really just a blanket term that doesn’t really mean anything.
So you sound like Rush?
PK: Yeah, exactly like Rush. [laugh]
AS: I wish we sounded like Rush.
PK: I always hate sounding like “It sounds like nothing else!” Because then you sound like an idiot. So I don’t know. I hate trying to say what it sounds like, because no matter what you say, you’re going to sound arrogant and somebody’s going to say “You’re an idiot!” So…
How was it recorded?
PK: Over the last two years, Ritche has been recording, and that’s really one of his passions now, recording, and he’s recorded a lot of other bands, a lot of local bands. So just over time he’s been acquiring gear and experience. We put together a group called Ohio Scream and so, after a while of recording other bands, spending summers recording, we said “Well, it’d be fun to do our own.” It was recorded by ourselves. Mainly through Ritche Perez being the sound guy. Me, lugging wires and shit, and then the production itself was everybody just sitting around with Ritche’s gear and saying “Okay, can we do this? Can we do this? How does this sounds?” And the mastering was done by Ritche. I know he had some help from Ron Anonson, as kind of an advisor.
AS: But it’s been really a do-it-yourself thing.
I remember JKW was more of a funny group when you started… When did the shift from kind of goofy to serious happen?
PK: There’s no line in the sand, it just happened. It happened as fast as we were writing new songs, so there’s crossover in that we’ll have songs that are new, but we still play songs from 10 years ago.
AS: Yeah, yeah. The set that we play now has both elements in it, but some of the songs are a little bit more serious.
So the show really obviously spans across the life of the band?
PK: Yeah, we don’t play any standard blues-type songs any more, but Subhumanoid was the first song we wrote.
AS: And we still play that song.
PK: Yeah, it’s a kind of shuffly tune. You couldn’t say it was a blues song, but …
PK: …but we still play it to this day.
AS: And that’s a very tongue-in-cheek kind of tune.
PK: It still has that original, this-is-a-song-I-wrote-in-high school kind of tone to it.
AS: The transformation if you want to call it that, it’s not that weird, because the goofy stuff was always satirical, and the satire just got a little more serious. And the themes got more serious. There’s still a satirical element to a lot of the lyrics, and the humour is still there, it’s just not as up-front.
PK: I’m not fucking laughing.
AS: I mean, we’ve got some serious fucking songs! [laugh]
PK: We’re like REM. Or Bono. [In an irish accent:] I want to do something for the children. I want to talk about how Canada needs to save the world. …Paul Martin! [laugh] The AIDS, Paul Martin! What are you doin’ about the AIDS, Paul Martin?
AS: I keep telling you, I’m not Prime Minister any more! I can’t do anything!
PK: [irish accent:]Surely everyone knows Canada is the greatest nation in the world! You’re so powerful! So what are you doin’ about the AIDS, Paul Martin?
AS: Bono, I told you not to call me here any more.
…So you guys have turned serious, have you?
PK: I don’t know, it’s always just been fun, and that’s how we have treated the band too. It’s what brings us up and is part of our downfall as well, because we’ve never made any kind of effort, we’ve never tried to promote, we’ve never tried to tour, we never tried to be anything as a band.
AL: We’re more serious about our band now than we ever were.
PK: And we obviously know it’s coming to an end. You can only do it for so long. So this CD was a push to say “if nothing else we at least have a real CD out.” We’ve been playing for 13 years, we should at least have a real album out. We had something out years ago that we recorded by ourselves, shittily, and every copy was burned off at my house on a two-speed burner.
AS: That was the “We Are The Goatlords” album.
PK: If nothing else, we wanted to have a CD at least, so that’s as serious as we’ve gotten. We’ve never had any thoughts like “Oh, we’re gonna make it.” But I’m sure if a guy came to us and said “Here’s ten million dollars for a record deal,” I would go “You know what? I’ll do it.”
AS: There should have been that man. There should have. [laugh]
PK: We didn’t have any idea that we were going to be rock stars, ever. We’re all educated, we all have real jobs.
Why not? Why not be rock stars?
AS: It seems like a risky choice at best.
PK: Yeah, just think: the things you have to get to that point we’re not willing to do. I don’t want to get together a press kit, and have professional photos of myself taken, or talk to some asshole and tell him why our band is great and shit like that…
… Or have some guy what you guys sound like…
PK: If a band makes that commitment, then more power to you. But it’s not what we want to do.
AS: Realistically, the kind of music we’re playing, I don’t think it has that broad an appeal that we could turn it into a big sound kind of thing.
Who is your market?
AS: Who is our market?
PK: We have the same 30 people who have been going to all our shows and god love ‘em. We still see the same people after 10 years and…
AS: A dedicated cult following.
PK: If you play for long enough, people will come to see you just because “Oh, they’ve been around for 10 years!” And you’ll get 20 year old kids coming in just to see you because they think you’re some old relevant band, but we’re not.
AS: I don’t know how it happened, but we seem to have a bigger all-ages following than a bar following, which is weird because we don’t play many all-ages shows. But when we do play them…
PK: The kids are more into it because the kids are more willing to go see stuff. They won’t say “Oh, I’ve never heard of them I’m not going to that show.”
All-ages shows seem more about the music than bar shows…
AS: The kind of music we’re playing naturally appeals to the angsty teenage mentality than I think it does to the mid-twenties “I’ve got a nice apartment on Gower Street now” mentality.
PK: Monkstown Road, myself. [laugh]
AS: But it’s really nice to play an all-ages show and see that people know the words to the songs even though we’ve never actually played for them before. It’s really weird.
John Kenneth Wilkes will be hosting two CD release shows this weekend at The Basement:
FRIDAY w/ Local Tough, The Fall From Here. 11pm, $5-$10 w/ CD.
SATURDAY (All-ages show) w/ Swords + Such Nice Youth, $5-$10 w/ CD, 3pm, The Basement.
Their CD is available at Fred’s records, CD Plus, and Boogaloo.
You can visit their Myspace to hear a few cuts from the new album: http://www.myspace.com/johnkennethwilkes