Friday, August 23, 2019
A Sunday Conversation With Jeff Wilson From KOOK
When I was a kid, growing up in a house with Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, and Simon and Garfunkel, the first time I ever heard Kiss's "Detroit Rock City," it was a moment of musical epiphany. It was just so vicious, aggressive and mean. It changed the way I listened to music. I've had a few minor epiphany's since then, when you come across a band that just brings something new and revolutionary to your ears.
What have been your musical epiphany moments?
I don’t remember most of my childhood in great detail…but I do remember the record player that was in the formal living room in our house. It was mostly ignored, but I remember flipping through the records and putting on my favorites. We had a 12” single of Randy Newman’s Short People (probably problematic now), and I remember listening over and over again, mostly because it was funny, but I think something clicked.
After that I remember being stuck in the car on long road trips because my brother (who is 7 years older than me) was on a traveling soccer team. His friends would bring tapes…this was probably like 1978 to 1983, and if you were a soccer player in America you had a mullet and listened to rock and metal. I heard ACDC, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, UFO, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and probably a bunch of other stuff I’ll never remember…but the one that stuck was Rush.
When I was in 6th grade I rode my bike to the local mall to the Warehouse record store. We all bought tapes…my friends bought whatever pop was on the radio, but I remembered Rush from a car trip…flipped through the Rush cassette section, and grabbed 2112. We rode back to my friend’s house and everybody showed what they bought. When I pulled out my tape, they made fun of me…mercilessly. I went home and listened to it over and over until the tape broke.
I dug into the rest of Rush’s catalogue, and everything else I could find associated with them: King Crimson, Yes, Hawkwind, Camel. I also went down the classic rock rabbit hole, which led to blues, and then back out the other side to heavy metal again. High school was spent listening to Bay Area thrash (early Metallica got me through public transit bus rides home from school for the first couple of years).
And then somewhere around sophomore year of high school, it all changed again when my best friend discovered Primus, Mr Bungle, and the rest of the weird mixed-up bay area heavy music that was floating around the late 80s and early 90s. The common threat with all of them (Rush, Primus, Bungle) was the amazing bass playing, so I talked my mom into buying me a bass sophomore year and never looked back. I was in my first band maybe a year after I started playing (Purple Circus). I should send you link to the demo we recorded…
Talk to us about the song-writing process for you. What comes first, the idea? A riff? The lyrics? How does it all fall into place?
For KOOK, it’s an iterative process. Karl has an endless well of riffs and wild chord progressions. I tend to travel a lot for work, so Karl, Eric, and Troy will work through Karl’s riffs and have some basic song chunks down. Then when I’m around and we’re not getting sharp to play live, we dig into the song chunks they’ve been working on and arrange, add to, change, smash together, destroy, and otherwise refine them into songs. We very much like all the songs to take you on a ride…some longer (most), some shorter, but always a journey. We have riffs, progressions, and musical themes that so far echo across I and II (both complete) and III (in writing now), so we find ways to thread in the stuff from the past, but also create new songs and sounds. Troy hums melodies over the jams, and through repetition irons out the key melody lines and some of the lyrics. Once the arrangements are complete we go back through the vocals and finalize the actual lyrics…similar to the music, there are repeated themes and phrases that we want to make sure are there to connect everything together.
Who has influenced you the most?
The three most influential musicians for me are Les Claypool, Buzz Osborne, and Mike Patton. The way they’ve navigated an industry full of sharks to create an amazing body of work that touches the mainstream at points, but really seems mostly to satisfy their creative needs. That’s the ultimate life for a professional musician in my opinion. They can do whatever they want and have built the goodwill with their fans over the course of long career, so they know they will always have support.
Where do you look for continuing inspiration? New ideas, new motivation?
Life. The news, books, TV, movies, my family, nature, other bands, visual artists. I love how music really pulls together so many disciplines (technical prowess on an instrument, understanding of theory and songwriting, visual art, writing, film/video). I like the idea of telling dynamic stories, and the world is pretty full of interesting material right now…not hard to find inspiration regardless of your worldview. I mostly use music as a way to decompress and express my anger, fear, anxiety, joy, etc. If I’m feeling shitty, band practice is 100% guaranteed to fix it.
We're all a product of our environment. Tell us about the band's hometown and how that reflects in the music?
San Jose is a town with a long music history, especially when it comes to the heavy underground. I’ll try to keep it short here, because there’s probably a book’s worth of information about what started here (not counting Smashmouth). For us…it was all the bands that were packed into a rehearsal studio called the Rock Garden in downtown San Jose in the 80s/90s. There was a pretty thriving metal scene in the early/mid-80s…we were part of the Bay Area, and close enough to drive to the Sunset Strip for a showcase. The list of what would now be considered seminal stoner/doom bands that came out of that studio is pretty epic…Sleep’s Dragonaut video was filmed there, Des first auditioned for High on Fire there, Operator Generator, Dear Deceased, and a bunch more all practiced there.
The town itself is weird…since the 60s, technology has been the lifeblood of San Jose, and there has never been a big focus on the arts. This means great opportunity for disaffected young people to do what they do-make underground metal, punk, hip hop, whatever. We have a really great crust/grind scene here right now, with bands like Deathgrave and Coldclaw standing out. Problem is it’s so expensive to live here, that artists tend to leave. Go and interview 100 bands from Portland and Seattle and ask how many of their members are from San Jose (or the Bay Area in general)…it will be a bunch.
Where'd the band name come from?
Haha…this is the source of a continuing argument with a former band member…so I’ll leave this one out to save myself some headaches after publishing…lol.
You have one chance, what movie are you going to write the soundtrack for?
Weird question. I’ll say an adaptation of one of Philip K. Dick’s books…one that hasn’t been done yet, like Ubik, Flow my Tears the Policeman Said, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Dick created the template for telling a story that is about the intersection of personal and cosmic struggle…always full of outsiders experiencing the world in a different way than most people around them (AKA KOOKs). Dick had a very tenuous grasp on reality due to mental illness (and drugs probably), and tried over and over to write what that felt like. In a world now gone completely mad, his work makes more sense every year.
You now write for a music publication (The Ripple Effect?). You're going to write a 1,000 word essay on one song. Which would it be and why?
Oh man. Where to go with this one…1000 words is a decent amount, so I’d have to pick something where the music itself was worth discussing, but also the themes and story. For the last couple of years I’ve been pretty seriously obsessed with Zeal & Ardor. I’ll say “You Ain’t Comin’ Back” off their second album, because it’s a fascinating song that right on the edge of being something that you would hear on pop radio from one of the garbage “rock” bands that dominate the charts (like Imagine Dragons). It sounds like one of those songs right up until the point that it doesn’t. I think I could easily write 1,000 words on what separates it from pop rock candy, even though my mom could listen to it back-to-back with some of those artists and wouldn’t know the difference. Can’t wait for their next record.
Come on, share with us a couple of your great, Spinal Tap, rock and roll moments?
Haha. Playing underground shows and being on DIY tours doesn’t afford you the opportunity to have Spinal Tap moments…there are no limos or agents or in-store signings. Probably more like Airheads moments. Driving in a van for hours on end requires at least one of you to be a pretty decent comedian so we don’t get bored to death.
A couple of years ago we were touring up through the pacific northwest and had 2 funny run-ins. We had a black sprinter, and when we stopped to get gas, somebody got out of another car and came up to Troy and asked him if he was Judas Priest (he had a Priest t-shirt on). Not sure how to unpack that one. Also on that same tour we were in Kennewick Washington staying at the promoter’s house (shout out to Blaine!) with Salem’s Bend…at some point in the night we realized there was only one door in/out of the basement we were in, and it locked from the outside. Started telling ghost stories to each other, and ultimately Left Behind on II was loosely based on being murdered in Blaine’s basement in Kennewick. When we woke up the next morning there were a bunch of guys standing in front of the house across the street, and they asked if we were the FBI. Troy has dreadlocks down to his knees. Hahaha…one of them said something about how the Feds can disguise themselves.
Tell us about playing live and the live experience for you and for your fans?
I love playing live. We keep trying to build more and more into the live experience…visuals, lights (coming), interstitial music/narratives, wild uncomfortable energy, crazy outfits (mostly Troy), and all the passion that we pour into the music. We want it to evoke the recording, but also to be it’s own experience. My favorite albums growing up were all live albums (after 2112 I quickly bought All the World’s a Stage and Exit Stage Left, which I still listen to weekly).
What makes a great song?
For me? Lots of dynamics, good melody, unexpected twists and turns, great tones, great playing, and a sense of purpose…a feeling that even if I don’t know why parts of the song are they way they are, the writers know exactly why. I like a song that I can get lost in like “2112”, or Mastodon’s epic “The Last Baron”. There are also short/tight songs that I love…but they usually still have all the elements that move me.
Tell us about the first song you ever wrote?
Oh man. That’s a long time ago…it was when I was 16, so 30 years ago…one of the songs off the Purple Circus demo…not sure what we wrote first. It was like pissed off punk/hc with a bay area funk/weird vibe (slap and tap bass, goofy lyrics). There was one called Holy Guacamole that was about…surprise surprise…aliens. And there was one called Purple Circus that was about…again, a huge surprise, a freaky evil circus. We were pretty original.
What piece of your music are particularly proud of?
The cliché answer? The 4 finished songs from III that nobody has heard yet. From the KOOK catalogue? I think “Left Behind” is the one that really sticks with me. There are other songs on the record that are more progressive, more weird, harder to play, catchier, etc….but that one, even though we’ve been playing it for close to 3 years now feels like giving birth to a new living creature every single time we play it. It’s one song that I always get lost in while playing…never wonder if I remembered to take out the garbage or finish up something at work in the middle of playing it. So far all 4 of the new songs give me that same feeling.
Who today, writes great songs? Who just kicks your ass? Why?
One guy? Stephen Brodsky. Listen to Cave In. Then listen to Mutoid Man. Then listen to Old Man Gloom. And his work with Marissa Nadler. The man can literally write a compelling song in any style of rock and roll, from the chilliest and most somber, to hilariously complex, to gut-wrenching textured, and everything in between. We’ll all look back in 20 years and realize he was one of the real geniuses…at least the people who don’t already see him that way will.
Vinyl, CD, or digital? What's your format of choice?
All of them, and tapes too. I even go back to 8-track. Anything that grabs your fancy and gets you listening to music. I love physical media because I love seeing and touching the art…so vinyl has a leg up because the art is large. I think they can all sound good and bad in different listening situations, so I’m not a purist about one form over the other…I just like seeing people hold, and own, music.
Whiskey or beer? And defend your choice
Yes. I love them both. I have been brewing on and off since my mom bought me my first homebrew kit for my 18th birthday, and I’m a certified beer nerd (I really am, I am a certified beer server under the Cicerone program and am most of the way through the coursework for certified Cicerone…kind of like a sommelier for beer, but you also have to know how kegs and draft systems work, and you have to understand brewing chemistry too). But who can say no to Whiskey? Beer before 10:00pm, whiskey after.
We, at the Ripple Effect, are constantly looking for new music. What's your home town, and when we get there, what's the best record store to lose ourselves in?
We have a bunch…Streetlight Records, Rasputin music, Needle to the Groove, The Analog Room, On the Corner Music. I like to go to them pretty regularly (I’m there all the time hanging flyers, might as well poke through the stacks).
What's next for the band?
Finishing up the writing process for III and then recording, with an eye to putting it out late summer next year. We did some of the US stoner/doom festivals this year, but only got as far as Texas…would love to make it all the way to the east coast and then out to Europe. Reception for II was pretty positive…it’s a weird record that’s not really for everybody, but it was well enough received that I think there some festivals out there who want a piece of our weird vision. We’ll head back to the Pacific Northwest some time soon as well.
We’re going to start playing some of the new stuff live too…we’re playing a 3 day festival in Cupertino that I’m putting on from 9/6-9/8 called Bowling and Beers in Hell. It’s a mixed genre underground heavy music festival at a bowling alley. The venue is all ages, we’ll have some lanes rented out, some breweries pouring interesting beer, and 25 bands on two stages, including Holy Grove, Shotgun Sawyer, DONE (Andy Patterson from SubRosa’s new band), High Tone Son of a Bitch, Hippie Death Cult, Robots of the Ancient World, and a bunch more!
Any final comments or thoughts you'd like to share with our readers, the waveriders?
Just to thanks them for being an awesome community that shows up to support the heavy underground over and over. Very few bands in our scene are paying the bills 100% with music, so ever ounce of support helps. And if they’re in the bay area, come out to the fest in September! Tickets are at http://babih.eventbrite.com