No Kids: Interview
Pulling Weeds or Mowing Grass
As our web correspondence slowly progressed, I started to sense that Nick Krgovich of No Kids was slightly hostile to the idea of music criticism. In an age of blog-driven publicity, Nick voices the conflicted concerns of many artists – journalists are largely morons, hacks, and reductionists (I admit it).
Julia Chirka, Justin Kellam, and Nick -- three-fourths of the band P:ano -- are No Kids. Since the former's hiatus last fall, the trio has been busy recording its debut record Come Into My House, touring with Dirty Projectors, and taking the Canadian government's wildlife-beset currency. Musically No Kids revel in icy, closeted textures; a specific palate of sounds that pulled together makes Come Into My House a highly engaging study in what could be called patrician pop. The offbeat instrumentation and unexpected vocal turns of each song are like watching different scenes of the same coming-of-age teen flick. Nick has a very specific idea of which flick that is (see below), but regardless I still find Come Into My House to be one of the best records wake the neighbors at 4 AM.
I first became acquainted with your music through your collaboration with David Shrigley, both as No Kids and with Phil Elverum. How did that come about and what was that process like?
Phil and I have been friends for a while, and we were both invited to contribute songs to the Shrigley compilation. So, we kind of haphazardly decided to work on them together. One day I drove down to his place in Anacortes, and I remember showing up and neither of us feeling like recording at all. He kind of begrudgingly setup the reel-to-reel, and we were both like "okay, now what?" because we didn't have anything written or prepared or anything. I brought an apple pie, and we spent the better part of the afternoon hanging out, eating pie, and drinking coffee. But then we started flipping through the Worried Noodles lyric book, and once Phil started singing the lyrics to "Watcha Doin'" to the tune of "My Humps," you couldn't stop us. It ended up being a pretty special day.
So is that similar to the songwriting process for No Kids (minus the “My Humps”)?
With Come Into My House, I kind of settled on a thematic strain for the lyrics and an instrumental and sonic palate before I even wrote any of the songs. I tend to change my approach to songwriting fairly often, but with this record I made up, most of the lyrics and top-line melodies in my head – usually while I was at work or driving around or something. Then once the song was nearly complete, I'd sketch it out on a 4-track, normally using a harmonium or ukulele as accompaniment and a percussion arrangement built on a loop pedal. Most of the songs grew out of those demos. For some strange reason, I found myself rewriting songs numerous times, where the only commonality was the lyrics. Kind of like how I hear ABBA used to work. They'd try out their songs in as many different ways as possible until they discovered the "ultimate" way to approach it. I find that really inspiring in a weird way.
I understand you received a grant from the Canadian government that you used to work on the album? Government money going to the arts – especially to non-classical music – seems very out of the ordinary, I think, from an American perspective. What was that like?
Well, from an American perspective, it is no surprise that people seem pretty incredulous when they hear that the Canada Council funded a recording by a group like No Kids. But at the same time, the U.S. is near the bottom of the list of the civilized countries which spend government money on the arts. I believe Canada is somewhere in the middle in this respect. We just feel very lucky, as it allowed us the luxury of having the appropriate amount of studio time to realize the songs the best way that we knew how. We designated ourselves a "folk" act in our application, as they do make a point of not funding commercial "pop" releases. However, I don't feel like money is a means to an end when making something. The last P:ano record Ghost Pirates Without Heads was recorded and mixed in one day for $350 and I like it just as much as Come Into My House. It's just a different way of working.
It must have been nice to be able to afford to work on the album for longer though, especially since you said you changed so much of it along the way. Would it have come out different had you not had the grant? Or would you just have take more time to write it?
I think it's important when making something to try to work within your means. That way you're less likely to put yourself in a situation where everything becomes uphill. I'm sure the record would have turned out differently because we would have likely changed our entire approach, tried to accomplish and explore different aspects of the songs.
"I feel like there are people that are highly suspicious of our sincerity, and while that's unfortunate there's not much we can do about it."
Did you work other jobs while recording this album?
Yes, we all did. I work as a gardener/labourer, Justin's a carpenter and builds houses, and Julia's a manager at a coffee shop in town. I'd say about half of the songs on the record were written while I was either pulling weeds or mowing grass.
On first listen, your album came across to me as very R&B influenced. How do you think being white and on an indie label like Tomlab has affected your band or people's perception of it? What about being "indie" versus "major," the idea that no small act really has a chance to make it on a Clear Channel-type radio station despite how catchy a single or a sound might be?
It's kind of funny because none of those issues crossed my mind at all while we were working on the record, and I think that's mainly because I just don't naturally think about things in those terms. However, since the album's been released, we've all been forced to think about it a bit. First of all, I think the tag "indie R&B" is a total bum out – it's the last thing I would personally seek out or listen to. And I feel like No Kids unknowingly stepped into that trap because that's all the album will ever be to certain fonts of listeners. The reason there is a heavy top-40 or R&B influence on this record is because I find aspects of that genre to be endlessly fascinating, and it was something that I wanted to explore. We were trying to simulate aspects of top-40 dance pop and pit those against lyrics about dissatisfied people living in a highly romanticized New England town, and accomplish that primarily using orchestral instrumentation. I feel like there are people that are highly suspicious of our sincerity, and while that's unfortunate there's not much we can do about it. I can't help that I love "1 Thing" by Amerie as much as Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall and ended up trying to reconcile that on the record.
So that's something you've been coming across a lot?
I wouldn't necessarily say "a lot," but it is certainly something that has become apparent in one way or another. Although, seeing as it's something that's out of our control, and something that I know is right off the mark, it's hard to get too worked up about it.
What other musical strands were you trying to channel?
I was thinking a lot about the melodic sensibility that was re-occurrent in a lot of late '80s/early '90s dance pop – the kind of music I heard when I was growing up. Jade, SWV, even Mary J Blige and Sade. Cherrelle's record High Priority and Janet Jackson's Control were also really important. I was attempting to set that against Arthur Russell's ideal of a kind of buddhist pop, which is something I find endlessly mysterious. There's also nods to music that I thought would compliment the lyrical content of the record, like The Four Freshman and Doris Day and things like that. I bought a record by Salah Ragab and the Cairo Jazz Band and that was a starting point for how to approach "I Love the Weekend." It kind of varies from song to song; I was trying to acknowledge all the music and art and books and film that I was interested in exploring at the time and try to make it one unlikely thing. But all of that mainly comes down to Amerie, Judy at Carnegie Hall, Alex Katz paintings, "This Side of Paradise" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Douglas Sirk movies.
Do you find it annoying when journalists try to come up with easy, neat-sounding labels for artists, or define them by their influences?
Yes, of course. But I feel like that's generally the number one thing that music journalists do, so it's just totally expected. We've been getting compared to Hot Chip and Of Montreal and all of these bands that I've never ever listened to, and it seems like any sort of insight into what's actually going on in the record is so obviously gleaned from quickly reading the album's one sheet that it's kind of embarrassing. I mean, we've been getting all of these Brian Wilson comparisons too, and I just think "What on earth are people hearing in this???" I feel like this record has so much to do with so many things and they are hardly ever dealt with in any record review. In a way, it tempts me to think that we've failed in trying to get our ideas across, and perhaps we have, but it mostly makes me think that in general music writers would rather spend their 500 words showing how condescending and biting they can be as opposed to taking the time to actually hear what is happening in the music.
I mean, to an extent any kind of label is going reductive. What would you like the album to be seen as?
I would like Come Into My House to be seen as the musical equivalent of spending a Saturday afternoon at home, alone, watching the 4 o'clock movie of the day which will probably be either Mystic Pizza or St. Elmo's Fire, even though you missed the first 15 minutes.
What I was kind of getting at before is that I think the differentiation between popular music and "indie" music is a really problematic, especially when you look at the factors that determine which an artist is perceived as. It usually has little to do with the music.
Yes, this is true. It seems now more than ever in a lot of ways.
Specifically "The Beaches Are All Closed" has, among other things, many of the signifiers of a hip-hop/R&B song. Can you talk about that song a little or discuss the motivation behind it?
"Beaches" was the last song that was written and recorded for the album. To me, it works as this casual acknowledgment of all the things we learned throughout the course of making the record. I think it would have been nearly impossible for us to arrive at a song like "Beaches" without having recorded the 11 tracks that preceded it. I think my motivation behind this song was to stare at my R&B fascination head on, not kind of dance around it the way some of the other songs do. I wanted to try to make this song represent my ideal of what I wanted to do with this genre. I remember saying to our producer Colin, "I want to take every R&B inclination we've had in the past and times it by a billion for this track." When we finished mixing this song I remember Colin being like "If someone told me I recorded this song I wouldn't believe them." That was a big part of recording Come Into My House in general – going against what comes naturally.
Yeah, well it sounds great. It's okay to have some booty bass once and a while, right?
I've recently become obsessed with "Johnny & Mary" by Robert Palmer, which has this intermittent subsonic bass tone that busts in every once in a while. It's really something.
The album kind of runs the gamut from clean electronic sounds to a capella sounds to instruments like piano, strings, ukulele, and so on. Does each sound stem from the same place, or are you intentionally trying to paint a different picture with each song?
I find that the record is pretty consistent instrumentally; there are the odd anomalies here and there, like the lap steel in "Dancing in the Stacks," but I tried to build the songs around similar instrumentation. I felt that giving the songs a sonic and lyrical consistency would help unify the record, despite there being some pretty broad genre combinations throughout the album. I tend to build song arrangements around groupings of instruments that aren't traditionally used together and work with that. I suppose that's why songs like "Old Iron Gate" are built around a tin drum, synth sub bass jabs, auxiliary percussion, and bass clarinet.
"I'd say about half of the songs on the record were written while I was either pulling weeds or mowing grass. "
The album has a really strong sense of place. What do you imagine when you hear the record?
I imagine being out on the terrace of whatever estate was next to Grey Gardens in East Hampton, NY in the early '70s. It's complicated.
So would you call it a concept album?
No, I don't think of it as a concept album mainly because there is no story and there is no pronounced message or anything. I just think of it as being heavily themed. And to steal from my pal Owen's spot-on press release for the record, "Come into my House is an album set in the perpetual Autumn New England of Douglas Sirk's classic melodramas. The songs are populated by stuffy, lonely, Ivy League educated recluses with amazing wardrobes, languishing in empty beach houses while the leaves whip past enormous picture windows." I imagine the characters being composites of figures like Little Edie Beale from Grey Gardens, Amory Blaine from This Side of Paradise, the woman in Alex Katz' painting East Interior, 1979, Kyle MacLachlan's character Jeffrey in Blue Velvet. I could go on forever.
Do you have a favorite album that specifically has a strong association with a certain place?
Whenever I go down to Anacortes, I almost always play Julee Cruise's album Floating into the Night in the car. Anacortes to me pretty much is Twin Peaks in a lot of ways, and that Lynch/Badalamenti masterpiece gets me every time.
I just finished watching the series last week. So does it kind of freak you out to go down there? I half expect to see Bob in the corner of my room, and I'm nowhere near a forest.
I feel like the atmosphere of a small town in the Pacific Northwest is very accurately portrayed on Twin Peaks, but I don't think of Anacortes as being scary or sinister. It's a pretty terrific place. Everyone should go see for themselves this summer at What the Heck Fest.
Speaking of sinister, do you see "For Halloween" working its way into the canon of Halloween songs alongside Thriller, The Specials' Ghost Town, Fun Boy Three's The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum), Do They Know It's Halloween, etc. Halloween seems to be kind of a weird holiday that adopts whatever songs are within reach. Or maybe it's just me that plays songs with Halloween in the title around Halloween...
That never occurred to me! The idea of that actually happening is pretty delightful. I'd be stoked if any of our songs worked their way into the canon of anything really. But Halloween sounds like a sure bet in a way. I'm a big fan of that Shaggs song "It's Halloween" and Visage's "Only The Damned Don't Cry". Those are good Halloween-y ones.
It's a special group. I hosted the punk rock show on my college radio station and we did a Halloween special -- it's hard to come up with an hour of Halloween songs. It was pretty all over the place.
Yes, I bet.
Thanks again, I know this was a lot of questions. I just missed your performance in Brooklyn about a month ago because I got out of work too late; when are you coming back?
I'm not sure when we'll be back. Likely in the fall. I love NY, I'm getting really attached to that place... I've been there 4 times in the last 6 months, and it's been really wonderful every time.
Cool, I'll catch you next time you're back in town.
Thanks so much dude! We should swap Halloween themed mix tapes someday...