Interview with Kingsnake

Born from the ashes of the demise of the hard-rockin’ Philly band Sugar Daddie, Kingsnake formed in 2006. Since then they’ve been bowling over fans near and far with their infectious brand of bluesy, heavy rock and they don’t show any signs of letting up any time soon. I had a chance to sit down with the band and gain a little insight into the entity that is Kingsnake; here’s what they had to say:

So, for those readers not already familiar with Kingsnake, how about some names and duties in the band.

Bill – Bill Jenkins. Lead vocals and rhythm guitar.

Matt – Matt Farnan. Drums.

Brian – Brian Merritt. Lead Guitar.

Matt – Matt Kahn. Bass.

You released a new album over the summer (first full length). What kind of response have you gotten?

MF – The response has been great. We’ve had some really positive reviews in the music press at home, but also from as far away as Germany and Greece. The internet has been huge in giving us the opportunity to expose our music to places that it might not have otherwise reached.

BJ – Yeah, modern technology’s taking us to new heights. I gotta tell ya, being a musician these days you have to wear many hats. One of those hats may have to look good in Bangladesh, we’re blowing up there right now *laughs*. Really, you just do whatever it takes to get your music out, and the internet has been huge for us.

MF – Words of wisdom.

Is there any material you guys wanted on the album that didn’t make the cut? Reasons?

BM – Yeah, there was a weeding out process as far the songs go.

BJ – It was a really good time for us because we hadn’t recording anything in a couple of years. So we had such a massive amount of material and we were able to just pick the ones we liked the best.

MF – I know that at one point “Jokers and Jesters” wasn’t gonna be on the album.

BJ – And “Feel Like Dying” almost didn’t make the cut either…

MF – We had 15 or so songs to whittle it down from and the album changed a number of times before we settled on what tracks were going to be on there…

BM – “Bullets for Kisses” was replaced by “Jokers and Jesters”…

MK – We cut “Midnight Hustler” too…

MF – …Yeah, so we ended up just using the 8 songs we thought were best for the album.

As a band and also as individuals, what songs do you think are the best/strongest on Book of Promise?

BM – “Feel Like Dying” is one of my favorites.

BJ – I like “Lightbender”, the instrumental, and “Jokers and Jesters” which I think is one of the more underrated songs on the album. At first listen people may glance over it, but on repeated listens, deeper listens, you can hear a number of good elements in the song that go a lot of different places. It’s pretty cool.

MK – “Book of Promise” or “Great Complainer” are probably my favorites.

MF – I’m gonna have to say “Lightbender” and, if we’re picking two, I’d have to go with “Madame Greed”. For me, as a drummer, that song (“Madame Greed”) is just a fun song to play and hear. It’s got a great groove to it.

Where do the songwriting and lyrical credits lie? is it wholly a group effort?

MF – Bill does everything. He’s the best person in the band. *laughs*

BJ – And it’s a tough thing to do, being the best person in the band…

BM – If you look on the back of the record it’s just Bill’s name on there. *laughs*

MF – We’re changing the name of the band to Billsnake. *laughs*

BJ – I’m not gonna be happy ’til I do a whole tour on a bike by myself. Ya know, a motorcycle tour of the whole country. And the pressure of carrying these guys around is tough…

BM – The “Feel Like Driving” tour. *laughs*

BJ – …but I’d save a lot of money on hotels. And these guys can carry some mean gear, and Brian’s got the truck so… *laughs*

MF – Do you wanna move on to the next question? *laughs*

BJ – That’s all you need to know, so… But we’re like a rock ‘n’ roll deli – everyone has their job and everyone puts their own unique piece of meat and seasoning on the tune…

MK – A little Cajun sauce…

BJ – Usually I like to say I’m the bun *laughs*, MF adds the mayo and the mustard, Brian skillfully lays the meat in there, and MK is the cheese *laughs*

MF –  I think the fun thing, as much as we laugh about it, is most of the time when we write stuff it’s not about who has more of this or that. Bill writes a lot of the rhythm parts and the lyrics…

BJ –  MF writes a lot of lyrics but they’re all in Spanish *laughs*.

MF – …some songs are born out of drum beats. MK brings basslines that become song starters…

BM – Everybody puts their twist on the ideas…

MF -“Book of Promise” started out as a guitar solo that Brian was playing around with at one point. The songs really come from everybody.

BJ – Pretty much I would say that the best way to describe our songs is as a conversation between the four of us. Everyone has their input in different ways. Some of us are a little more chatty, some of us have a good head nod that validates a point, others just complete the thought.

BM – That works. Good answer Bill.

How would you compare your previous project (Sugar Daddie), which all four of you were involved in, to what you’re doing now with Kingsnake?

BJ – It seemed that it was necessary at the time. It was a necessary break from what we were doing. We had reached a turning point…

BM – We had hit a wall.

BJ – Yeah, we had hit a creative wall and, unfortunately, the name Sugar Daddie brought certain expectations from the people that listened to the music, and we felt pressured by those expectations. It affected the way we wrote material, we hit a block. By changing the name to Kingsnake we alleviated those pressures and expectations and it freed us up to write whatever we wanted, and it didn’t matter whether it sounded like a Sugar Daddie song or not.

BM – True. And it became a hell of a lot more fun. It was nice to be able to play the music we wanted to play without having to rehash some old stuff from ten years before.

BJ – And it maintained the integrity of Sugar Daddie for what it was. It closed off the chapter that was Sugar Daddie, and that body of work will last as it was. Sugar Daddie was what it was and Kingsnake is a completely different animal. Like Brian said, it put the fun and the spirit back into it. We had just gone through a stint where we had done two records on a label and another album for a different label, and were dealing with the outside pressures that go along with that. It’s nice to have the freedom now to record something for the sake of recording it and, if it sounds cool, putting it on a cd and doing what we want to with it, not what somebody else thinks we should do. That’s why I think Book of Promise sounds like such an honest record. We played what we felt at that moment, at that time. When we listened to the rough tracks we said “That’s it, it’s done”. Most of the songs were done in one take, it was all about the feel.

MF – That sums it up, basically, to me. I know when Kingsnake came about I kind of felt like I was changed. Sugar Daddie had a real systematic and formulaic sense about it…

BM – We had outgrown the music.

MF – …yeah, and when we started doing Kingsnake material it was a new freedom. It was like , “Yeah dude, instead of playing that part four times were gonna stretch out and play that part 16 times!” It was whole new way of approaching writing for us.

BJ – Now I’m playing rhythm guitar and singing, whereas before I was just doing vocals. Not even singing, I was screaming and growling vocals. So, as we got older, MF and I had a conversation about whether we wanted to play to a bunch of kids who would never get us, or do want to play bar shows where Dutch and Wizard get us and dig what we’re doing. I don’t know whether Dutch and Wizard really exist, but they’re my fictional motorcycle guys who are fans, you get the point. *laughs* They’re the old salts, the old souls. The last living examples of American freedom. *laughs*

Kingsnake’s music has a great heavy blues/rock feel to it. You can hear influences like Black Sabbath, a bit of Uriah Heep and Wishbone Ash, even a bit of Joe Walsh. Peppered with later 70’s/ early 80’s N.W.O.B.H.M., especially on “Book of Promise” with the “Maiden part”…

BJ – Yeah, we actually called it the “Maiden part”. There were no punches pulled on that one.

BM – Bill was running around waving a Union Jack flag *laughs*.

BJ – We were walking around talking with English accents *laughs*.

… you even retain a bit of the hardcore aesthetic (although that’s a bit more subdued on this album). What I’m getting at is that you have a seemingly pretty wide range of influences that push your sound. Can you speak about that a little?

BJ – It’s kind of like an arthritic mosh *laughs*

BM – It’s really a combination of what we’ve been listening to for years and what we currently listen to.

BJ – A lot of material came about from listening to a lot of Mountain…

BM – Thin Lizzy…

BJ – Captain Beyond was hugely influential, as well as a lot of the old blues performers’ material. The old blues guys have a lot of inspiration to offer, and I think that’s where a large part of that seventies rock sound came from. So, it’s not surprising that when we pull from old blues recordings we capture a lot of that 70’s sound. You know, the simplicity of the arrangement coupled with the complexity of the dynamic.

MF – As a drummer I definitely draw on Bill Ward’s (Black Sabbath) influence, along with Bonham (LedZep)… there’s never a time where I don’t incorporate their sound in one way or another, it’s a great fall-back for me…

BJ – Insert Tab B in Slot A *laughs*…

MF – …it’s easy math *laughs*. But there’s a lot of great rhythm bands out there… I’ll tell you who I just started listening to recently. A band from the 70’s called Horse…

BJ – They had good names back then…

MF – The 70’s had some good stuff man. Lemme tell you something – every comment on YouTube about those bands from back then, right, is like “Why aren’t there any bands doing this kind of stuff today?”, “What happened to music?”, etc.

BJ –  We can definitely say that music, for the most part, these days is in shambles. I mean, there’s some really good stuff coming out but you just don’t hear about a lot of it because so many bands don’t have the support that more mainstream acts get.

BM – You have to really search to find the good stuff.

BJ – Popular music today makes me want to gouge my eyes out. What was the original question? *laughs*

About your influences…

BJ – Dogfish Head Beer, Sierra Nevada’s good too…

MF – ZZ Top…

BJ – Anything rock ‘n’ roll, really, ya know?

MF – I can’t help but listen to old Van Halen.

So, what are your thoughts on the current state of underground/independent music? Categories, along with heavy music, that you still fall into? What is Kingsnake’s place there?

BJ – I can honestly say that our finger is no longer on the pulse.

BM – I don’t think we’ve ever really fit in anywhere…

BJ – We’ve been fortunate to work with the guys from Clutch and to play with them, and their niche has been good for us. Outside of that we play anywhere from a punk show, to a hardcore show, to a rockabilly show, and we’ve managed to make our place, which is nice. But, if a place is anywhere out there for us, it’s hard to say. We’ve found that we’ve fallen into a scene where we’ve shared the stage a number of times with American Speedway and Backwoods Payback, and although the three bands are different styles of underground, heavy music we find that we fit well on the same bill. Mainly I think it’s because we all share similar influences, but just express them in different ways. But, ya know, outside of those bills we can’t say that we’ve ever really felt like we fit other shows, although they’ve been successful ones with other bands.

MF – I think underground/independent music is, I don’t want to say popular, but I think a lot of people are there for it. The more you go and listen to certain bands the more often you run into some guy who says, “See, I told you they were great, you should check this other act out” or you’ll get a lot more receptiveness from that same guy taking a recommendation on a band from you. Word of mouth is still very important to the underground scenes. There seems to be more open mindedness, music wise, in underground music circles. That runs true from the smaller, DIY acts to the bigger underground acts that get some label support.

Right. Like you guys – no label, setting up your own gigs, mailing out copies of the album yourselves…

MF -But on the flipside, we retain total control of our music.

BM – The music’s there and there are people willing to seek it out.

BJ – It’s refreshing that it’s come back to this point, though. For awhile, the last ten plus years or so, the trend was that everything had to be categorized. “Oh, this is like southern-stoner meets 80’s screamcore power trio music” was the kind of b.s. you were hearing. You know, back in the day when we were coming up, you’d go to a show and every band sounded different. They all had their own thing going so the only category you could put ’em into was “underground”. Even bands that would be considered hardcore all sounded hugely different from each other. I think underground music these days, although people still try and fit everything into a specific genre label, is getting back to where things are just considered underground. I think it’s getting that widespread again.

BM – And the internet has been influential there again, because it puts the music back in the hands of the musicians.

BJ – And the listeners. The internet has gotten music back to where it should be – the musicians can release however they want to, and the listeners have the freedom to hear it how they want. You’re not even forced to buy a whole album, you can just pick and choose what songs you want without having to listen a whole body of work that a label deemed acceptable for you to hear. It’s a really unique and good time for music right now.

What does the future hold for Kingsnake?

BJ – Since we started doing Kingsnake I’ve wanted to do a live album. MF and I were kicking around the idea of maybe using some of our pre-production recordings that we did down at J.P. Gaster’s (Clutch, Bakerton Group, et al.), compiling them all and releasing ’em that way. Lately I’m thinking of just going ahead and recording all the tunes fresh and releasing a live album using that material. We’ve also talked with the guys from Backwoods Payback and American Speedway about getting down to Mike from A.S.’s studio with them and recording a full length compilation album with both of those bands. A live album is something I definitely want to do before I die.

If you’re releasing a live album, would you release it on vinyl? What format would you want to hear that in?

MF – Having an album of ours on vinyl would be tough. It’d be pretty cool.

BM – Well, with the songs in mp3 format we could just put ’em online that way, and not have to release on cd.

BJ – With the way we’ve approached this last album’s release, I would agree with Brian there. Put it up online, on iTunes like our album is now, and then release a physical version of the album on vinyl.

BM – I’ve heard vinyl’s making a comeback. I don’t know how much of a comeback, but it’d be cool to put out something on vinyl.

MK – I don’t even own a record  player these days, but I’d be into doing something on vinyl.

I’m just thinking that vinyl would lend itself to your live sound. You know, put something out on heavy duty 180gm stock.

MF – Definitely. Vinyl would be the way to go there.

BJ – We could put it out on vinyl and laser disc, just to freak people out. Who the hell’s got a laser disc player anymore?! *laughs*

BM – Release the making of on Beta-Max. *laughs*

BJ – Screw that, we’ll put it out on Super 8. Or a slide show, even. *laughs*

MF – Next question. *laughs*

This is the last one, and you’re still in the middle of answering it. I’m curious about the future for Kingsnake.

BM – We’ve got some local gigs coming up, but nothing really big.

MF – Well, we’ve got some new material we’re working on for recording. We’d like to get something into the fans’ hands sooner than later. We already touched on the idea of a live album, so… For the winter we’ll probably stay local, but we’d like to try and get some festival dates lined up for the Spring/Summer, so we’ll see. And we’re always planning a tour, we just never do it. *laughs*