Kirk Huffman is quite a beast. After Gatsby's American Dream disbanded a few years ago, he kept right along with projects like Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground and Wild Orchid Children. Last year, Wild Orchid Children released their first full-length. It was raw, technical and abrasive - a complete opposite to the Kay Kay project. Huffman took some time to talk about the Wild Orchid Children and what it's really all about.
What came first for you, Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground or Wild Orchid Children? Just the idea of the two, whether one was an idea before the other was an actual conception?
Hmmm...I suppose technically the idea for Kay Kay came before Wild Orchid Children. Kyle and I were writing and demo-ing "Kay Kay tunes" on the last Gatsbys American Dream tour we ever did, never intending that Kay Kay would actually become a band, but because we just needed another creative outlet for tunes that were inspired by the late 60s/early 70s music that we were heavily listening to at that time. However, certain short riffs from the four tunes on the Wild Orchid Children LP and EP were little pieces I had originally conceived as something to potentially present as Gatsby songs before we decided to take a break. Realistically, both emerged at the same time. We tracked the Elephant EP the same month we released the Kay Kay: Live From The Pretty Parlor DVD and both were born from the same collective desire to get all of our musical-rocks-off by playing as much music as possible from as wide of a spectrum as we could imagine.
To you, what separates the two projects, not only musically, but also ideologically?
For me it's hard to think about what separates the two from an ideological standpoint. Both projects walk the same path and touch on the same concerns. Playing good, moving and affirming music while challenging ourselves to constantly grow as musicians and become better at our instruments is at the forefront of the thought process behind what we do. The music is always first. If anything differs, it's in the way of presentation and aesthetic. Even so, everyone in Kay Kay shares the same philosophy just like everyone in WIld Orchid Children does too, that both groups' sounds, which are polar-opposites of each other, can positively bring people together.
And obviously there is a major separation in the projects musically, but also thematically as well. Wild Orchid Children deals far more with the world's inherent doom, while Kay Kay manages to find solace and euphoria amongst it, but those are really the only differences. Again, it may sound cheesy, but to all Wild Orchid Children, it is no fucking joke when we say that we truly believe in the power of music. With all due respect to the hustle of musicians and artists nowadays in an increasingly more competitive market and medium, seemingly music is all too often pimped, regurgitated and made a commodity, devaluing the hugely inspirational tool that music is to us as human beings. I probably sound insanely hypocritical saying that, 'cause we'll at some point post a Facebook announcement about this interview and are no strangers the hustle of the music business, but fuck that, in all sincerity from an ideological standpoint it's far more important to us as a band that you're transcended by our music, records and performances than it is for you to physically own them. If we accomplish that first, then needing the record will be your deepest yearning.
The story line behind much of The Wild Orchid Children Are Alexander Supertramp is a tragic one, based on the murder of producer and your friend Tom Pfaeffle. Was it important to have "Black Shiny FBI Shoes" first in the track listing as homage to him?
I think our whole record, as well as the self-titled Kay Kay LP and Lizzie Huffman EP are all homages to him, as well as auditory testaments to his diligence and the mastering of his craft. As a band, we wanted the record to open with a 20 minute track because we felt it best represented what the Wild Orchid Children do and wanted that specific track to set the mood as an opener for us to be best perceived. Originally there weren't any lyrics at the end of "Black Shiny FBI Shoes". It was only a short while before re-entering the studio to finish the record that we learned Tom's killer, Kino Gomez, had fled after posting bail. "Where are you Kino Gomez?" was just an overwhelming question collectively running over and over and over through a lot of people's minds during the time we spent back at Tom's house and in the studio. It's a very personal moment on the record but repeating that sentiment felt very appropriate after 19 to 20 minutes of an improvised jam that Tom engineered and helped compose. He was absolutely essential in getting both Wild Orchid Children and Kay Kay off the ground. All we have of Tom is this music. We have to keep playing it even more so because there has been no justice served. Everything we do from here on out is, in some way, an homage to him.
What other themes are present on this full length?
The feeling of being disenfranchised, 24-hour news, anxiety and paranoia in the information age, the power of the human mind and body, robots/artificial intelligence, natural disasters and the loss of the earth's natural resources, the positivity of psychedelics on the collective human conscious, political rhetoric, space (both inner and universal), Dick Proenneke and archaic fulfillment in the 21st century, Mexican immigrants, war, love, freedom, freak power and the end of the world...just to name a few, none of which are highly elaborated on our record.
Your voice for this project is almost abrasive to the point that it off puts some listeners? To me, it was very reminiscent of - and immediately comparable to that of - Rage Against the Machine's vocalist Zach De La Roca. It seems like the vocal delivery is key in this project, so what was running through your head to make it sort of standout?
Well, the "abrasive" sentiment is just a matter of some folks right to their personal opinion, for me on a personal level, grown ass men who sing like 14 year olds soaked in a bucket of auto-tune is about as abrasive as showering with a ball of steel wool, but that's just me. I can certainly understand why my vocals might turn people off, but in a way that was our point going into the project. We were trying to create a musical allegory for the abrasive nature of life or what it feels like to glance across the cover of the newspaper every morning or what is being interpreted during opinionated newscasts; Think of the way the kids in the Charlie Brown cartoons interpret adult reprimands. The world is fucking nuts and in dealing with that subject matter lyrically, it seemed inappropriate and laughable to be "singing" the words in any conventional sense of the word. So in trying to figure out a way that I could present and relay that subject matter vocally, I drew heavily from the vocalists in Black Eyes, specifically from the tracks "Kings Dominion" and "Speaking in Tongues" on their s/t LP, as well as Steve Snere from These Arms Are Snakes and Aaron Weiss' vocal performances on both of those early mewithoutYou records.There's a demand and urgency in their deliveries reminiscent of The Last Poets or certain Allen Ginsberg quotes and both dudes’ vocals engage the same type of fever delivered in the greatest speeches of all time. Not to mention those two have a very shaman like quality to what they do on record and on stage - as though they completely conduct sermons in a live setting. Side note, I saw a These Arms are Snakes performance at SXSW '04 where I swear to you they spawned a freak flash wind/rain/thunder and lightning storm with the sound of their set-closer. Anyway, it was those vocalists I was trying to emulate more so than what it seems everyone draws the immediate comparison to, Rage Against the Machine. We love Brendan O'Brien and Rick Rubin's production work on the latter Rage Against the Machine records, but rarely will you find us listening to them. While in the studio, we definitely toyed with some vocal distortions on an SM58, similar to those on "Check Your Head" by The Beastie Boys, but while the vocal delivery is definitely key in the band, making sure what everyone else is contributing also stands out, makes us as a whole group stand out. Nobody plays guitar like Thomas, nobody has hands like Kyle's and no combination of dudes lock into a groove with one another more than Aaron, Andy, Ryan and Scott. If anything was running through my head as to what I wanted the vocals to sound like, it was just being concerned that the message sounded as if it was being amplified from a psychedelic megaphone from space.
There's a lot of Americana imagery surrounding Wild Orchid Children, and it seems right so with the throwback blues aggression that comes along with it. What of that is and has been intentional about the band since the beginning?
The American flag/landscapes imagery surrounding the band has always been prevalent and intentional since the beginning. From a musical standpoint it makes sense because a lot of what our music is derived from are just blues progressions, especially for Thomas. Everything he's doing is deeply rooted in his jazz training, and since both blues and jazz were born in the United States, it's a no-brainer. We get this question from literally every sound guy, "What do the flags mean? You guys tea-partiers?" and we always answer, "Well, what does it mean to you?" which is exactly what the purpose of the flags being up is, for you to think. Every one of us in the band has a different interpretation for themselves of what the flags means to them, but beyond the music and for me personally…I joined Gatsby when I was 19 and began touring on "Why We Fight" very shortly after the 9/11 tragedy in New York City and subsequently recorded "Ribbons and Sugar" in central Florida just as the invasion of Iraq was beginning. So beyond Seattle, WA, Portland, OR, Salt Lake City, UT and Disneyland, this was the first time I, as a very naive teenager, was getting to view my country as it was and interact with my "fellow Americans". 98% of the tours that we did were in the US and I've played a show in every lower 48th state, so it struck me first that this is such a fucking prime piece of highly diverse natural beauty and for anyone who hasn't taken the time to travel in an automobile along its highways is missing out on a very distinct American experience. Secondly, I have very vivid flashes of memory of my own personal interactions that introduced me to the bombarding feeling of paranoia that inhabited my view of the contemporary state of my own country. For instance, the time Gatsby got pulled over by the Louisiana State Patrol and how the officer was very, very kind in pointing out that the lighting attachment on the trailer had come undone and therefore we had no trailer lights. He helped us make sure everything was working, asked us "Y'all a rock band?", you know, the normal conversation, but then very casually referred to the poor black people who salvage the edible sections of untainted alligator road kill as "Coons". Or, in Ann Arbor, MI where I saw this homeless man covered in his own piss and feces just, no bullshit, missing the entire lower half of his face - there was just this concave. It made you physically ill, but in my head I just wanted to scream at anybody who would listen and ask why this man shouldn't have access to the medical means, no matter what the cost, in which to have some sort of fucking face. Moments like these occurred on the regular in every city we visited no matter how large or how small. At the same time, I also remember complete strangers generosity and hospitality. When Gatsbys got sponsored by Nike, Rudy was just giving his "limited edition indoor soccer shoes with art by 'Some-Rad-Japanese-Graphic-Designer'" to homeless people, it was fucking awesome. I continually felt and learned a lot from the general goodness of people in different parts of the country who all shared a similar demeanor that was intelligent and responsible, yet also very laissez-faire. I quickly learned all the extreme possibilities of good and bad in people. So, by the time Gatsbys took a hiatus after touring for five years straight, and as we started Wild Orchid Children, I was completely disenfranchised with being a passerby in the middle of ying and yang at all times. As a passerby I quickly realized I was very naive to all the good and bad that was possible in people. I've stopped keeping myself informed because it's a hazard to my cardiovascular health. And I've never voted for a presidential candidate because when it comes right down to it, there still isn't anyone who I believe truly represents me and the whole host of other people I know who fall into that similar category. On a personal level, I hold the flag as a sense of pride for my own American disenfranchisement.
People might take what we do with the American flags to be either very tongue-in-cheek or even disrespectful, but if that's what you think you've got it ass-backwards. From the band's point of view, first of all, we especially love repping that flag because we're a fucking rock n' roll band of nine-to-fivers and those working conditions contribute to inspiring our sense of pride in our art. Secondly and more importantly, it feels like the flag (and really any kind of American symbols of patriotism) has been associated with a very narrow and one-sided spin on what it means to be a patriot or has been used as a measurement to the validity of your concerns. Some Americans see it is as uncool or un-hip to be waving or wearing the flag, but with Wild Orchid Children, we just wanted to bring the best characteristics of the symbolization in the flag back down to street level and to the vast everyday people that inhibit this country from families to the freaks and the free. We hope to project this idea to those who feel a sense of being ineffective, subdued and without control of their surroundings. Politics has never brought about real change. People, music and soccer make change. It has always been intentional that when Wild Orchid Children wave our flags, it's in the spirit of abolishing all politics, all stupidity and celebrating human life, togetherness, tolerance and courtesy.
What about the throwback blues and rock and roll style of bands like Portugal. The Man and Kay Kay and of course Wild Orchid Children are you attracted to? It seems like there's this small group of bands and outlets that are really trying to harness a sort of Monteray Pop/Haight-Ashbury feel to music again. Your thoughts?
We're only attracted to Portugal. The Man cause they look incredibly sexy in their birthday suits fresh out of the shower. Yummy. Other than that though, we've been good friends with all of those dudes and have been playing shows with them since they first moved from Alaska and were doing the Anatomy of A Ghost thing. They've taken Kyle to Europe and on a few other tours to play keys and took out Wild Orchid Children on three tours and to SXSW before we were signed. At the same time, Jon was doing our EP artwork and t-shirt designs. Portugal has done a lot for us as a band. One of the best things I've ever had the opportunity to do was spend a month hunkered down with those guys producing Censored Colors with Phil Peterson from Kay Kay. So for us, it's more than their music, they are just very, very good people.
With the exception of Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsies, I don't think we're necessarily trying to harness a throwback Monterey Pop/Haight-Ashbury sound. Remember, The Mamas & The Papas, Ravi Shankar, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding played Monterey Pop; we don't really share too much in common sonically with any of those artists. A lot of the music that inspires us was primarily made either: not in this country, or after the bombing of Cambodia, COINTELPRO, the Sharon Tate murders and the Kent State shootings, when Monterey Pop was evolving into stadium rock. But in regards to the "summer of love" time period there's obviously a lot to celebrate and most people will commonly refer to this time when describing us, I believe, because it's the one instance in American history that music was fueling real change and humanitarianism. If there's anything we can harness it's that sentiment, best put by Hunter S. Thompson when he said, "There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning... it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.... that, I think, was the handle - that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil... our energy would simply prevail." Hopefully we can emanate that sentiment. If anything, we're trying to capture the spirit and compassion of those times more in line with the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic than with the Haight-Ashbury aesthetic.
While Wild Orchid Children, and god-willing, a future Kay Kay release would seem to take precedent on your priorities right now, can you give us any insight into what's going on with Gatsbys American Dream at the moment? If there is new music, how has reaching out and doing these other projects affected any of your, or other members' of Gatsbys, songwriting?
As of now, Gatsbys has recorded some new tunes and are playing a few shows and festivals. Other than that I can't divulge any information. To be honest the new Gatsby songs are awesome Gatsbys songs. I think there is a uniqueness in Bobby's writing that has made everything we've done "Gatsbys". You can put on one of the tracks from any of the records and immediately know it's us. The same is true with these new tracks, more of what you love about the band.