King Cobb Steelie

Simply Rational

BY Michael BarclayPublished Nov 17, 2016

"You know," sighs Kevan Byrne of King Cobb Steelie, "I've shot my mouth off so many times about the industry in past interviews, that I'm so reluctant to do it now. I think we've been really, really lucky that we've managed to put out four records, and every one of them has been distributed widely and got some attention. That's really satisfying to me."

It should be. The dub-wise punk-electro-funk King Cobb Steelie project has made some of the most interesting Canadian pseudo-pop music of the past decade to actually get within reach of the mainstream; "Rational," from 1997's classic Junior Relaxer, even managed to be a minor MuchMusic hit; it included a chorus celebrating slain Nigerian author Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Mexican Zapatista movement.

Since their inception in Guelph, Ontario in 1992, the band has always been adamant about attempting to subvert the notions of capitalism and consumption, beginning with their apparently political decision to give away their first seven-inch single free. In 1994, they signed to EMI Canada, who gave them start-up money for their own Lunamoth label, which for a brief time put out records by the likes of Change of Heart, Hayden, Ui and the Wooden Stars.

Now King Cobb Steelie are ready to sell out. To a point. They've been through enough business drama in their day that now is the time to focus on the music, and the best way to get it through to audiences. To start with, their new album Mayday ? which begins the band's relationship with Rykodisc in North America and Cooking Vinyl in Europe ? finds the band simplifying a few things. No more nine-minute dub-fests ? there's hardly a track over five minutes. No more obtuse song titles such as "Pass the Golden Falcon," "Italian Ufology Today" or "Luckily I Keep My Feathers Numbered For Just Such An Emergency"; Mayday's titles include "Home," "The Stinger," and "The Situation." And oddly enough, an absence of political lyrics.

"No, there's none!" concurs Byrne. "It could be the old ‘Oh, I'm maturing as an artist' bullshit. For me it was just coincidental that when I went to write the lyrics, what was occupying my emotional energy at that time was not political, it was something else. And the titles were part of a concentrated effort to simplify things, to give songs a title that had some correlation with the lyrics. We had one called ‘My Sweet Ass,' but tragically we scrapped that one and changed it to ‘Half-Bit Converter.' We didn't have the savvy to pull it off!"

Those are aesthetic differences. Three years after their last album, Junior Relaxer, the music still sounds like electronic funk with indie rock roots, although the once-pervasive influences of Fugazi and dub are harder to find. "I think we're all a bit tired of the dub experience that was going around, like everyone had the dub bug," says Byrne. "With some of the [new] songs that we began to write initially, there was some effort to experiment with the format of pop songs. We did it on our first record, too. But it's a fluke that [the 45-minute Mayday] ended up being so short, and that the longest song is something like five minutes.

"It was a change for us to do things more concisely. We knew that people would say, ‘Three years and this is what you have to offer?' But overall it was better for us to put out something that we felt really good about even though it was short, rather than throw extra tracks on for the hell of it."

All this talk about pop compromises sounds alarming, but although Mayday may be King Cobb Steelie's most commercially-minded album, it's certainly not a sharp left turn from their previous work. If anything, it's better for having embraced the pop format instead of flirting with the kind of half-finished songs that plagued 1994's Bill Laswell-produced Project Twinkle. Junior Relaxer proved that the band could let loose and construct an excellent record that delivered pop goods while successfully mining dub, electronic, African, jazz, and experimental sources ? even though Byrne now thinks that record is the sound of the band "flailing around." Mayday sounds more belaboured, but also more focused, for better or worse. After a tumultuous departure from EMI, perhaps it's what the band had to do to get their feet back on the ground.

"We would not have been offered the deal with Cooking Vinyl or Ryko were it not for the pop songs," Byrne rationalises. "Those songs were ones that caught people's ear initially, and got a reaction. The instrumental tracks we were doing in the background, and we thought, once they hear the pop songs and ask for more material, we'll send them this stuff. It was great because they were delighted to have the other stuff too, but it was definitely the pop stuff that got them interested. Because they're record companies and they have to market you. That's difficult to do if everything is a bleak instrumental track.

"The relationship we have right now with Rykodisc is, I think, the best of both possible worlds. It's a good meeting place for art and commerce. And I'm going to start trotting out the clichés now, but I feel like we are afforded the latitude to meet our own creative desires without compromising to meet the commercial format. At the same time, they're in the business of marketing records, but the way they go about it, I feel a lot better about what Ryko and Cooking Vinyl do than, say, what EMI does."
On top of business affairs, KCS had some internal issues to deal with. Even before the release of Junior Relaxer, programmer Don Pyle ? the ex-Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet drummer who also produced KCS's debut ? announced his departure to focus on his own project, Greek Buck. Immediately after the album came out, founding member Al Okada left due to family commitments, while drummer Sam Cino departed to play with Kinnie Starr. Improv guitarist Eric Cheneaux (Phleg Camp, Michelle McAdorey) took Okada's place, but he too recently left the band. (He and McAdorey both make guest appearances on Mayday.) Okada now helms Microbunny, with Cino's replacement Nathan Lawr on drums and, until recently, Tamara Williamson ? who is now part of the KCS touring line-up on vocals and guitar, along with the returning Sam Cino. Got that?

All of this meant that Byrne, bassist Kevin Lynne, and percussionist Michael Armstrong decided to retreat inwards and find a new way to make music outside the revolving door. Consequently, before Junior Relaxer producer Guy Fixsen (Laika) was brought in for last minute tweaks, Mayday was written entirely on computers. "It was a complete change for us," says Byrne. "Not a single song was written with the three or four of us jamming, playing together in a room. Not a single song was written with the guitar or bass line first, or lyric or vocal. Everything was written with a loop or sample being the catalyst for the song.

"It was quite literally the three of us exchanging zip discs. It took us a long time to be able to do that intuitively and creatively. There were a lot of songs that had to be chucked out because we had not yet learned to write in a way that didn't sound sterile. It was a bit of a learning curve. When you first start programming, sequencing and sampling, it's pretty rudimentary. You think it sounds really sophisticated, and then six months later you realise that a chimp could have programmed what you just did! When you listen to records like Amon Tobin or Photek, your jaw drops, because the programming is so dense and complex."

King Cobb Steelie have been interested in more than bass-guitar-drums from day one. In fact, they were likely one of the first rock bands in Canada working with a turntable and sampler, as far back as their first gigs in 1992. "There's always been a little bit of sampling on every record, but in the past it's always been thrown on after the fact," Byrne explains. "From the beginning of the band we were determined to use the technology somehow, because so many of our favourite records were done using samplers. So when three people left right after Junior Relaxer, we took what was initially a problem and turned it into a fortuitous circumstance, and then it became a lot easier. We had to redefine what we were doing."

Mayday's strongest song ? and unbelievably, it's not even the first single in either North America or Europe ? is "Home," which wouldn't sound out of place alongside the Clash's "Magnificent Seven" or any other apocalyptic disco-punk song. "For a long time it had a real New Order vibe to it, too, circa the same era," Byrne laughs. "We had this goofy loop, a typical 120 bpm pounding bass drum, because people actually used to dance to that speed. I wrote the guitar to the loop and it had this indie rock sound to it, and it was a real nice juxtaposition with this disco loop. Then Kevin added a keyboard bass line, which is very Everything But the Girl. Everything hung together even though it seemed like they came from three different worlds. Then Eric came in and put this Gang of Four guitar down on top of it, this jagged, slashing guitar. I think it takes from the band's biggest influences, like Gang of Four and the Clash, and updates it a bit."

The reliance on new technology is fine for the studio, and now KCS must figure out how to make it translate live. This was a problem during a showcase at this year's NXNE festival in Toronto, where the pre-programmed tracks overwhelmed the live band in the mix, rendering drummer Sam Cino inaudible and a return guest appearance by Al Okada irrelevant. The one track they performed without the backing tracks, a Junior Relaxer instrumental, was the strongest song of their set. "That's not the presentation we want to have," Byrne admits. "We don't want to start every song with four bars of the loop and then the band kicks in. We're working out some sort of synthesis between what the record is and us as a live band, drawing on our experience as a live band who've played together for a long time."

Byrne and bassist Kevin Lynn are, in fact, the only two members remaining from the original line-up, although Armstrong played on the first record. "That only Kevin and I are left is not surprising in some ways," says Byrne. "But I don't know. To be honest, I never thought Kevin would make it this far." In fact, he almost didn't ? Lynn left for a brief period of time before Project Twinkle, and the band did a Canadian tour with King Apparatus bassist Mitch Girio filling in (who incidentally is also now in Okada's Microbunny).

"At the end of the day, it takes so much work to try and maintain a band, keep the dynamic stable, keep relationships cool and put out records," says Byrne, a bit wearily. "It cost so much money and so much time, that it doesn't surprise me when people leave. But I thought Kevin would be gone."
So what's kept it together? Dissatisfaction, according to Byrne. "The key has been that he and I always felt like we were not reaching the potential. Every record we make, we always feel like, ‘Yeah, we thought we were getting close, but now we realise that we were just scratching the surface.' It's a great motivator to continue to do it, that you feel like you can better yourself. And that's self-delusional, because you feel like you have to potential to make a record as great as [Massive Attack's] Mezzanine or something. You might look back and say, ‘You know what? Maybe I wasn't all that talented.' That's the great fear of all artists, that they never really did anything other than take up some space. But there's the drive to see if you can do it.

"I think there's something to be said for being able to deeply mine something that's particularly unique to who you are," he continues. "All you can hope for as an artist is to have a unique voice, to have something that nobody else can do that represents you as a human being, period. The fear, I would imagine, of any artist in any medium is that they realise that what they did was simply a fleeting bit of entertainment, and that they made no real contribution, that they were just one of zillions of other people just flailing around trying to do something. There are good records that come out every day, and I have a whole bunch of them myself. But whether those records are making any contribution or taking up space is debatable.
"You have to leave something behind that says, ‘I walked the earth,' you know? I mean, most people have kids. And I'm not having kids!" he laughs.

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