Turn the Other Cheek

Q&A with guitar virtuoso Kaki King

Katherine Elizabeth King
Katherine Elizabeth King

Kaki King, 29, from Atlanta, Georgia, and now Brooklyn, is one cool cucumber. Cue whistle of disbelief.

Live, her icy blue precision on guitar melts away conservative definitions of guitar hero. Every new witness a convert, all that charisma and virtuosity endearing audiences around the planet. Kaki King for Undersecretary of State.

Her latest, this spring's Dreaming of Revenge (Velour), follows three other increasingly expressive recordings: instrumentalists Everybody Love You (2003) and Sony one-off Legs to Make Us Longer (2004), and the subtly vocal Until We Felt Red (2006). Proceeding the Mountain Goats at Antone's tomorrow, Saturday - scheduled club time 9pm – the guitarist stages her prodigious gifts in a rare non-South by Southwest local performance. Speaking with King on the phone is both acoustic and electric.

Austin Chronicle: Where am I reaching you?

Kaki King: I’m in Portland, Oregon.

AC: Are you on tour?

KK: Uh-huh.

AC: Where do you live?

KK: I live in Brooklyn.

AC: Is Kaki a family name?

KK: It’s a nickname for Katherine.

AC: Last we heard from you here in Austin was this South by Southwest and you wrote the Chronicle a diary.

KK: That’s right, yeah.

AC: You wrote it early in the game. How was the conference for you?

KK: It was very, very busy, but very, very fun. It was the launch of the new tour, with the new band, for a new record.

AC: First time playing with a backing band?

KK: Nope. That started in 2006. It was more of a trio.

AC: Different thing for you, working with a band?

KK: Umm, yes. Obviously. It’s great. It’s also allowed me to step back. They’re playing the music I wrote. My role is still very active, but it’s kind of cool to just let all these sounds happen around me.

AC: What led you initially to start working with a band?

KK: I made a couple records that had a lot of instrumentation on them and wanted to be able to recreate that live.

AC: The new album, Dreaming of Revenge, features the line, “Life being what it is, we all dream of revenge.” Revenge is a universal theme. What brought it up for you?

KK: It’s a quote from Paul Gauguin, the painter, actually, that entire line. I think that while he might have meant it in a more serious context, I took it to be very tongue in cheek. You know, as in all these slights we experience each day, one cannot help – just being alive – you just must, at some point, dream revenge upon somebody. But I think it’s rather funny. It’s not supposed to be taken very seriously. I knew full well, titling the record that, that it would lead people to ask me this question, but it’s really much more tongue in cheek for me than it might appear at first.

AC: Was it a case that you heard the line and thought you could work off it or rather that the album was done and it needed a title?

KK: I had written that song. It was one of the earliest songs I had written for the record specifically, and I figured that book marking the title of the song, “Life Being What It Is,” and Dreaming of Revenge titling the record kind of complete that quote in its entirety.

AC: “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Yes, plotting your revenge should be methodically calculated, but it’s still touched off by passion. Any of that come into your thought process here?

KK: No, it didn’t, because like I said, I took the title to be definitely not as serious as other people would. Also, I’m not a vengeful person. I’m a turn-the-other-cheek. If I’m wronged, I don’t have any need to seek vengeance on anyone. I’m very good at walking away from situations and letting things go.

AC: The music business has a bad reputation. Have you had to turn the other cheek a lot?

KK: [Chuckles] Not myself in particular, no. But that’s because I have kind of a very unique place, where no one expects me to sell a million records, and no one expects me to blow up. People expect me to make really good, quality music, and as long as I can do that, then everyone I’ve pretty much ever worked with has remained happy.

AC: Your set at Stubb’s a couple years ago proved everything's working for you. One would expect that to make expectations higher.

KK: Well, you know, I guess that’s partially because I work with a team of people who pretty much trust me. They know I’ll make a good record, and put on a good show, and I’ll put together the right band, and if it’s not the right band I’ll figure out how to make it right. I fix my own problems. So as far as outside expectations, I don’t really listen to a lot of jibber jabber from people on the Internet or in the media going, “You should be doing this and that.” I know where my goals are and set them well and hopefully pull them off.

AC: What are you goals? Do you ever think what you could be doing in 20 years?

KK: I do. I do. I think hopefully, 20 years from now, I can be touring just a couple times of year and working on compositions for plays or ballets or film. I think it’s every musician’s ultimate dream to be a composer and a collaborator that’s in demand. But I don’t want to ever stand up and go, “Last tour ever!” because I really do truly love playing.

AC: What was like working with producer Malcolm Burn on this album?

KK: It was great. He was the guy that said, pretty adamantly, “Look, you’ve got this great record, but you’ve never done a record with strong, simple melodies.” It was a goal of his as well as mine to pull out of what I had already done, what I’d already composed, pull these melodies out of it, and record them. And that’s exactly what we did.

AC: What made you finally cut vocals on Until We Were Red and then obviously carrying over to Dreaming of Revenge, which is still very instrumental?

KK: Ummm, you know certain songs… On Until We Felt Red it was kind of like… A lot of the songs, when I sang them, it was like still treating the vocal as if it was an instrument, shoegazing, Cocteau Twins, Lush style ethereal. The songs kind of called for it, and it made sense. I think [Red's] “Yellowcake” was one of the first songs I’d written for that specific record, and I thought, “This is just a cool, sweet, pretty song about nuclear annihilation.” It was not a big, drawn out thought process. People that write about music love to compartmentalize: “You’re a thrash metal band.” “You don’t sing.” “You do.” It’s surprising the amount of questions I still get: “Oh my God, why did you go ahead and sing?” I’m a musician. I play drums. I play lap steel. No one questioned why I started playing lap steel and pedal steel. Why do they have to question that I’m opening my mouth all of a sudden?

AC: Then reverse it: were you surprised the first two albums were all instrumental?

KK: No, no. I totally intended them to be. Solo guitar is a very well-developed genre of music that I’d followed throughout the years. The unwritten rule of making a solo guitar record is you don’t use anything else; one guitar per song and you’re forced to be creative on that level in that sense. It’s a great challenge, but it’s also a great self-limiting system I suppose, and there have been some amazing solo guitar records out there. I think my first record was merely a compilation of all the solo guitar tunes I had written up to that point. Then the second one was a deliberate attempt at making another solo guitar album.

AC: What guitar albums would you recommend for folks?

KK: I would definitely check out Alex de Grassi’s Full Circle. Anything that Lenny Breau has ever done. John Fahey. Leo Kottke. And most of Chet Atkins. Chet Atkins is a huge influence of mine.

AC: Did you ever get to meet him?

KK: I never got to meet him no.

AC: “Open Mouth” on the new album, an instrumental, what’s it about?

KK: What’s it about?

AC: I assume just because there’s no lyrics to it doesn’t mean it’s not about something.

KK: What is an abstract piece of art about?

AC: [Laughs] Usually an artist felt something that prompted them to start the piece. I’m wondering then what the impetus was for “Open Mouth.”

KK: [Long pause] I don’t remember there being an impetus. I think it was just a song that I wrote.

AC: To me, that song's kind of like a dog barking at you and you’re wondering what’s it’s saying. There just seems to be an undercurrent to it.

KK: Mmmmm. I don’t think anything prompted that song. I think it was just part of going and writing a song, and recording it, and putting a beautiful pedal steel over it, and having a friend write a beautiful string arrangement.

AC: The string arrangement on it is great. It made me wonder what it'd be like if you made an album with the Kronos Quartet or Yo Yo Ma. Is that something you ever fantasize about?

KK: I actually have quite a bit, doing what people call chamber pop. Doing an album that incorporates a lot more strings. I sang on four songs on this new record and we had four string arrangements as well. No one ever asks about strings.

AC: Are you a good arranger of strings?

KK: Fair to poor really [laughs]. I don’t get a big ego about things where I have to do everything when I know I’m not in my best element. But I have before and will again. It takes a lot of work and practice.

AC: Speaking of the Kronos Quartet and string arrangements, what would be a dream collaboration musically for you? Who would you love to work with that you think would expand your horizons?

KK: I get asked this question a lot and don’t answer it, because a) it kind of jinxes the whole thing, and b) I’ve had a year of really wonderful collaborations. I don’t know. I used to think I knew who would be great to work with, but I actually don’t really know anymore. And this idea that two musicians who are really great, put them together and get twice as much music, that’s not necessarily the formula.

AC: Why do people ask you that question a lot?

KK: Well, I think they ask that question of solo, female, instrumentalists – “When are you going to work with someone!? [laughs] When is someone going to lift you out of the gutter and put you on their shoulder?”

AC: Have you started thinking about your next album?

KK: Not really. I mean, I’m still in the thick of touring. I’m moving into a new place when I get back from this tour. I really haven’t had an address for a year. There’s a lot of mental junk that needs to be swept away before I really think about what I want to do next.

AC: This swing through Austin with the Mountain Goats, is it the tail end of the tour?

KK: Umm, it’s towards the tail end of taking a break that’s for sure. I do know that early next year I’ll be going out again, to Europe and Australia, and probably doing something in the states. You know, it’s interesting, the whole process of touring has gotten in reverse. Records should now promote your tour.

AC: With the upheaval of the music industry, how do you see making albums today?

KK: It’s pretty weird. I don’t ever foresee a day when people don’t record music, because you can’t share something across great distances if you’re sitting on stages doing it live, unless it’s webcast everywhere. A recording studio takes performance art, such as music, and turns it into a fine art. We’re totally in the middle of a sea change about where the spoils go and where the money flows. When I grew up, it was [the case that] bands will never make it because production costs are so high. Now we’re in the day when Oasis releases their record on MySpace for free, for anyone to listen to, because they want people to see their show. In the span of a decade, things have completely switched around.

AC: You said you’re going to Australia. Have you been before?

KK: Yeah, many times.

AC: Where else have you been, Scandinavia, Asia?

KK: I’ve been to Japan quite a bit. I’ve been to Australia like four times in the span of a year. Europe is a place we’re starting to go a lot more.

AC: What’s one of your favorite places to play outside of the United States?

KK: I love playing London, but Holland, the Netherlands, is becoming this great stop.

AC: What has your experience been playing Austin over the years?

KK: Great, obviously, every time. It’s funny because so much of what we do in Austin is based around South by Southwest for me. So I’ve only done a couple of real shows on my own [there]. I think I only played Stubb’s one time. And then I know I’ve played the Cactus Café. I played at the festival a really long time ago. It’s odd because all my relatives are from Texas. I spent every summer in Houston and went to Austin a lot. But my playing experiences have been centered around South by Southwest, so it’ll be nice to come back and do a proper Kaki King show and then have the Moutain Goats play. I guess I’m still discovering what it’s like to play in Austin.

AC: You said you’d spent a lot of time in Houston.

KK: Yeah, yeah. My dad’s from Tyler – my dad, my grandfather, and my uncle. They’re all from Tyler. Yeah, I’m half Texan. My aunt and uncle live in Houston, so every summer I’d go hang out with them and we’d drive all over Texas. I know Texas really well.

AC: Did you like Houston as a youngster?

KK: As a youngster, yeah, because it’s relatively safe. You can just run around, beautiful trees. You get a little bit older and it’s not Austin.

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