Drivin without a map
Pirate Fest headliner Kevn Kinney makes music on his own terms
by Bill DeYoung [email@example.com]
It’s strangely appropriate that Kevn Kinney’s band, Drivin N Cryin, was chosen to headline the Tybee Island Pirate Fest’s opening–night concert. Kinney, a Wisconsin native, has been at or near the center of Atlanta’s rock ‘n’ roll scene for nearly 30 years, and he’s never done things the easy way.
From Drivin N Cryin’s early global success as an “alt/rock” band — a slightly tougher cousin to R.E.M. — through a hard punk phase and series of acoustic solo, duo and band projects, Kinney has steadfastly refused to be pigeonholed or work on a timetable. He survived MTV, the rise and fall of Seattle grunge and at least two major label deals that went sour. In the music business, that makes him a maverick, a rebel.
Kinney and company aren’t the most famous act on the Pirate Fest bill. That distinction goes to second–night marquee name Eddie Money, whose ‘80s hits – from “Two Tickets to Paradise” to “Shakin’” – are still in regular, if slightly moldy, rotation on Classic Rock radio stations.
The Money Man was, and is, a powerhouse vocalist and a peerlessly crowd–pleasing entertainer.
The 2010 Pirate Fest has all the usual trimmings — a kids’ stage, a parade, a costume contest and lots of folks wearing eye patches and saying “Arrrrr” — and it’s doubtless going to be the weekend’s big draw.
Several fine local bands and artists are playing, too, including the Train Wrecks, Wormsloew, the Looters and Athens’ Dodd Ferrelle.
Right in the middle of all this buccanner bacchanalia comes Kevn Kinney, rock ‘n’ roll auteur.
Last year’s Whatever Happened to the Great American Bubble Factory? was the first Drivin N Cryin album since 1997. Why was there such a long break?
Kevn Kinney: Because I had a tumor on my vocal chords, which I didn’t realize I had. My voice got progressively gravelly–er. In 2003, 2004 I started singing like a blues singer. About three and a half years ago, my wife was like “Stop calling me on the phone, I can’t understand a thing you’re saying. Go to the fucking doctor. You’re killing me.” So I went to the doctor and he was like “Jesus! I’m surprised you’re not dead.”
After I got the tumor removed, I didn’t speak for a couple weeks. It turned out I had been using my larynx, not my vocal chords. So my vocal chords were very rested. I got my voice back, and I was singing the entire Drivin N Cryin catalog. It was stunning to me. It was like magic. So I made a spoken word record, a folk record and a poetry record. And then I said “OK, let’s make a Drivin N Cryin record.”
You often describe DNC as a power–pop band. That casts a pretty wide net. What does the term mean to you?
Kevn Kinney: The synthesis of the band was Nuggets, the psychedelic pop compilation that came out in the ‘70s. Stuff like “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night.” That’s where me and Tim Nielsen (bass, mandolin, vocals) met. I was a Ramones, Patti Smith, Nuggets fan, he was a Clash, Nuggets fans. His uncle was in the Trashmen; my first producer was in 1910 Fruitgum Company.
The Ramones are pretty poppy, for being punk rock. They’ve really got a lot of 1950s type melodies to a lot of their stuff. And Cheap Trick, I think, was really the blueprint for me. I thought “I’d like to have a band like Cheap Trick. They border on hard rock, but they’ve still got some power pop.” And then I wanted to make the words a little more meaningful, to me, in some ways. Not Bob Dylan, but if a Dylan–esque character was the lead singer of Cheap Trick.
Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight is a gorgeous, enveloping record, but you’re right, the lyrics are pretty stupid.
Kevn Kinney: They’re not earth–shattering. But the melodies are great, and if you’ve ever seen them live, it’s a great experience. They’re freaking loud.
I liked it as far as what I could play. You know, the music that I listen to is not what I play. I listen to speed metal, I listen to avant–garde, weird jazz. I find way left–of–the–dial college stations real comforting. I don’t listen to Skynyrd, really, any more, as an almost 50–year–old man I prefer stuff that’s a little more challenging.
But that’s not the gift that God gave me. I can’t pull it off. I would love to be in an avant–garde jazz band called Boop or something, but I don’t think people would buy it. I don’t think I would buy it. Maybe when I’m 70.
When you’re 70, you’re going to be doing “Fly Me Courageous” onstage somewhere ....
Kevn Kinney: You think so? I’ll probably be doing a deconstructed version of it. What I’d like to do is a Ventures version of it, where I don’t have to sing. I can just do the instrumental version with surf guitar. That’s probably what I’ll be doing.
You’ve always gone outside the Drivin N Cryin borders – such as they are – and kept up a solo career, playing with other musicians and recording acoustic music. Was that part of the plan?
Kevn Kinney: After Island picked up our first record, then Peter Buck wanted to produce Mystery Road. They said no, but then they accidentally began my solo career by suggesting he produce a solo record. Then I just kinda got used do doing whatever I wanted to: “You get DNC without the acoustic songs, and I get to do whatever I want to do.”
One feeds the other: The solo thing feeds the band, and the band feeds the other thing. I get sick of doing one, and then I get to rest and then do something else. I think the solo thing is harder and the rock band is easier. And I’ve got another record coming out in March with Anton Fier and this band I put together in New York.
Your acoustic stuff is separate and distinct from Drivin N Cryin. Is that your preferred method of writing and performing?
Kevn Kinney: Not this week. I came home from the road last week, and my wife says “Hi baby, how you doing?” And I said “I’m officially sick of myself.”
I go through periods where the folk thing is on the way back burner. I’m not doing any folk shows now, because I burned out on ‘em. I used them to feed my family for so long – I had two kids, they’re grown now, and I had alimony and all that stuff. I had to do a lot of folk shows to supplement my income. And I would up paying my dues in a way I never thought I would have to – a lot of weird bars, three sets a night, and a lot of sucking it up as people just talked while I played.
Which was really good training for me. But I’m so sick of it. I have no hunger for it right now.
You know, if you’re not selling it, they’re not buying it. And I wasn’t selling it. I can sell the rock ‘n’ roll thing. I’m really excited about Drivin N Cryin, and the stuff I’m doing with Anton.
That’s why Drivin N Cryin doesn’t use a set list. We used to, in our first couple years, and we’d get to a song that I just wasn’t in the mood for playing. But everybody else was ready to play it, and I’d play it, and it was a crappy version of that song.
That’s why now, when you see Drivin N Cryin, every song that you hear is a song that I’ve decided that I want to sing. That I can sell.