The singing, producing and songwriting force known as How To Dress Well spoke with us about reacting to indie R&B trends and being surprised by his career. Tom Krell returns to Portland Oct. 18 at Mississippi Studios.
In the last year, The Kickback released two music videos that open with the Chicago rock band’s singer in a bathtub. It’s the real perturbed Billy Yost in one and a claymation version, drooping a putty grimace, in the other. Once out of the tub, both videos end up expressing a statement of camaraderie and catharsis when it comes to bandhood. You could be at home yelling at your TV, or you could plug in your amp with people who also like to talk through theirs.
“This band has always kind of been about dudes trying to reach for something and not being sure if they can,” Yost says of the quartet that currently comprises guitarist Jonny Ifergan, bassist Daniel Leu and drummer Ryan Farnham.
Those opening video frames are bouts of unguarded, everyday weirdness from a band that doesn’t subscribe much to spectacle. On the contrary, a Kickback live show often feels like a scrap to win people over with song craft, stage banter and lyrical hand-wringing. The phrase “nervy” comes up a lot with critics, but the songs aren’t stylistically jittery so much as their lean frames angle around and under giant hits and a horizon-wide tone. It’s a self-admonishing strain of thoughtfully written, professional, ‘00s-inspired rock, a la The Strokes and Spoon. That’s professional, as in, “OK I’ll leave the top button undone, but no others.”
And fittingly, The Kickback’s 2015 debut album was produced by Spoon drummer Jim Eno. Amid the show-stealing melodies, Sorry All Over The Place is a record of references: to Twin Peaks, Catch-22, David Foster Wallace, and HGH use in ‘80s wrestling. Those subjects render The Kickback more accessible or more obscure, depending on your taste and what turns of phrase you can make out from Yost’s back-of-the-throat yowling.
The Kickback plays Wednesday at Mississippi Studios in a co-headlining set with Avi Buffalo. Portland songwriter and (new-ish) Sub Pop signee Kyle Craft opens the show. (Tickets here.) Beforehand, we spoke to Yost about the wake of a debut album that took years to make, what it’s like to go through lineup changes when one departure is your brother, and if the band has figured out what mtvU is.
Eleven: So when your album came out last year, it had been a long time coming.
Billy Yost: We sat on it for close to two years. We’d been a little obstinate about it.
Eleven: So when it actually was released, was it the feeling you expected or was it different?
BY: I was just glad to have it done. Granted, you then have to go out and tour those songs for the next year which is what we’ve been doing. But we’ve been amassing so much new material that it felt like it was more a relief than anything. I found out I was getting divorced about three weeks before the record came out, so the last year has been a bit of a blur. I’m just ready for the next one now, and I don’t want it to be two more years.
Eleven: Are there plans to record currently?
BY: Yeah, I wrote about 25 songs in three months. At one point if we had four good songs a year, we were pretty thrilled about it. But something clicked and it’s been a floodgate situation and we started demoing really hard. I’m not sure if it’ll be an album or EP or singles, but there’s a lot of stuff right now.
Eleven: What was that 25-song burst?
BY: It’s all heartbreak bullshit but trying not to be too mundane about it. It won’t be a sad bedroom acoustic guitar record. But it’s the kind of thing that messes you up royally for a good period of time. It happened to coincide with a lot of good voice memos I left on my phone.
Eleven: Melody ideas?
BY: Yeah, I hope I can experience productivity like this that isn’t inspired by some god awful personal tragedy but it still tends to be working for me.
Eleven: When the album came out I was surprised by “Nately” and “Leo,” the two acoustic, warm, almost interlude tracks that are super crucial to the flow of the album. Did you guys intentionally cut those for the ebb and flow of the record?
BY: For “Nately,” I was just writing “Androgynous” by The Replacements over and over again, which was the first song I heard by them in high school. And it’s a weird way to get introduced to a band like The Replacements in the same way if [“Nately”] was the first song you heard by us, it’d be a strange way to be introduced to us. The song’s just about begging somebody to stick around. “Nately’s Whore” is a character in Catch-22, a prostitute this guy is falling in love with but he has to keep paying her to stick around until they kind of fall in love.
With “Leo,” I think there was a conscious effort to have the album ebb and flow, but those came about with me and my brother [drummer Danny Yost] learning how to record ourselves. It was a chance to learn to record something that wasn’t at a breakneck pace and breaking speakers.
Eleven: I imagine the record without those as being a lot of white knuckling and those songs are a chance to let go.
BY: Other people haven’t felt that way, like, “Oh these guys seem to have a lot of momentum but they enjoy throwing a stick in the bicycle wheel.” But I feel like our live sets are like that too. They could just hit you, but then there’s some awkward talking and we dig ourselves into a hole to try and climb out of it. I like that challenge.
Eleven: I was reading an interview where someone asked you what your favorite song on the record was, and you said “Sting’s Teacher Years.” That song’s been with you for a long time, and I’m curious why it still holds appeal for you. Does it express something about this life in music you’ve chosen that you can still stand by five years later?
BY: I would say that’s not my favorite song right now. I don’t remember answering that question. Whenever I come up with a melody or something I like, I do this really egotistical thing where I’m like, “Remember this moment because this is your fucking great song. This will be the best story ever because you’re in your underwear right now eating a dill pickle thinking you just came up with a melody that will make the children sing.” But I always forget. My memory is built to forget and keep moving forward. But I remember this one. We were just getting ready to move to Chicago and I was in my parents’ basement hanging out. That one will always mean something because it was written right on the cusp of leaving South Dakota.
Eleven: When you started that story I thought you were going to say you had a rolodex of origin memories for songs that never amounted to anything. But the opposite of that is true, so that’s good.
BY: [Laughs.] No, I try not to develop anything I don’t think will be a real song. I like to make 98 percent sure that if I’m going to bring it to the guys that it needs to be a song. But I’ve been laying off that a little lately with the amount of shit we’ve been writing.
Eleven: In 2014, when Danny left the band, did your relationship to The Kickback or the idea of being in a band have to change? Because since 2006 you had been brothers in a band.
BY: That’s still one of the worst things in my life easily … I was in love with the idea of being in a band with my brother. But the world didn’t crumble and I kept writing songs that sounded good with other people playing them. He’s one of the most brilliant musicians I’ll ever play with in my life, but he knew before I did that my songs needed to be songs more than they needed to be exercises for someone who was way too good to be playing my shit. The past few years I’ve really been able to see my songs breathe more as songs. This band has always kind of been about dudes trying to reach for something and not being sure if they can, but Danny was always so far ahead of everybody I’m sure for him it felt like a job. Still, he’s my best friend in the whole world and I’d lay down in traffic for him. I was just trying too hard to impress him for so long … throwing in weird changes and time signatures that I thought he’d find interesting … and now I can just focus on some goddam two-part harmony which is where my DNA lives.
Eleven: Let me then ask the lighter flip side of that question. What are your favorite attributes of Ryan [Farnham, drums] and Dan [Leu, bass] as players?
BY: Ryan sits back on everything just a tiny bit whereas Danny was always a fraction of a second ahead of everything, pulling the band. I would always hear in a nice way that we were a band that played with a stick up our ass collectively. Ryan has helped us sit back a tiny bit.
Dan’s also a better guitar player than Jonny or I, maybe combined. Everyone is thinking really musically and that’s really fun. Everyone’s a bit more relaxed and I’m still the strung-out, uptight guy, but I’ve found a crew of people who are a lot less that way.
Eleven: When the “Fanger” video came out, I think you posted something to the effect of: ‘It’s on mtvU. We’re not really sure what that is or means in 2016 …’ Have you found out?
BY: No, we’ve not heard from anyone who’s seen it. We were told it was getting 30 spins a week at one point. I can’t verify that. I think this is just how music is now. We just recorded a thing for United Airlines that’s going to play on planes when people are flying … but how do I know that?
Eleven: [Laughs] What would they do with it if not that?
BY: I have no idea. At the end of the recording, I was whispering into the mic about how people should get high with the oxygen masks, a la Fight Club. But the vehicles by which we judged being a badass rock band have changed so much in the last 10 years, it’s hard to know what makes you cool anymore.
Eleven: So maybe those benchmarks are much more subjective now. What are they for you? Like when Steven Hyden shouted out “White Lodge” on Grantland?
BY: Yeah, that was a life-affirmer I’ll never forget … yesterday we found out that “Fanger” is going to be used on the show Shameless. That’s a first for us. But yeah … we want to play late night TV. You remember when The Strokes were playing Conan like once a week? That’s probably not how it works anymore. But mostly, I’m still just working on the seven or eight songs that will be American classics and live in the heart of every man, whether he’s an academic or a construction worker, and will define time and place in the world, and then keep making records that aren’t as good, but are still reminiscent of those early hits.
Eleven: [Laughs.] Seems very attainable! Maybe one classic for every major airline would be good.
BY: [Laughs.] I’ll make sure Swedish Airways get the bread and butter. Not sure who on a flight would possibly hear us, but maybe one lonely soul out there, and that’s all we can hope for. »
– Chance Solem-Pfeifer