The Kicks’ Jordan Phillips and I talked recently about his band’s origin, Nashville, the politics of music, working with Vance Powell, and the possible connection between Tonight Changes Everything, The Kicks’ upcoming album and the Orwellian condition of the United States. Phillips also reveals that Nickelback might just be worse than Seether. Moreover, Phillips presents himself as a fervent and honest artist who is dedicated to his craft, but can still kick back and enjoy the majesty of music.
Burns: How did The Kicks begin? When did you guys say, ‘Hey, music is fun. Let’s be a band?’
Phillips: Well, I guess it kind of dates back. I mean, individually we all left our small towns. I grew up in the suburbs, man. Then Gabe (Anderson), our bass player, he grew up in a small town in Minnesota. Individually we all moved to Nashville. To pursue music, we knew we had to get out of wherever we were. We all went to college together and we all did music and played gigs. We were all good friends and decided to be a rock and roll band. Eventually we all moved into a house together. There were seven of us dudes living in one house. It was Lucas (Cummins), Adam (Stark), myself and Gabe among three other guys. We all thought, ‘What the hell are we doing? Why aren’t we in a band together? Let’s do this. Let’s commit to it.’ That’s honestly how it started. We just went out on the road, played a ton of shows, bought a trailer, and saved up enough money to buy a van.
Burns: You were really roughing it for a while. Going from van to show, van to show.
Phillips: Yeah, we played anything and everything. We played a ton of cover gigs. For us, we were always big fans of the Beatles. We grew up watching [Beatles] anthologies. When you start a band, you’re broke. We didn’t have any money. We were broke as a joke. We didn’t know how we were going to get to the next city let alone [find] any gas money. We just started playing cover gigs. We played college gigs, fraternity parties. If John Lennon went and did that, we’re not above it either.
Burns: So, I guess the Beatles are one of your greatest influences?
Phillips: Absolutely, they are…the formula, the arrangement, the harmonies. McCartney and Lennon were great melodists…among so many others. They are a huge influences on us.
Burns: I spent some time on your website and read some of the blog posts that Gabe writes up. He mentions hearing the hustle and bustle inside coffee shops; hearing people talking about the music industry and the agents. Is it difficult to maintain a certain level of creativity and have fun in an environment that is so businesslike?
Phillips: Absolutely. We live in a town where music is business and business is music. It’s a writing town. It’s a great temptation that millions of people have fallen to. I’ve worked really hard to not fall into that trap; to not write music to please. It’s such a careful balance. I want to create music that people can connect with. It’s easy to make music that goes over people’s heads; it’s really difficult to make music that millions of people can connect with. That being said, you can’t write music for the sole purpose of connecting with millions of people so you can make lots of money, sign a record deal, get publishing deal. Next thing you know, you have a big house, a couple dogs, a nice SUV, and a really hot wife or something. You have to write music that you connect with, that you’re passionate about. That’s the challenging thing. You can see what is working everywhere else, but the reality is what’s working in your buddy’s band isn’t going to work in your band, so don’t even try to do that shit. Create what is genuine, authentic, and real.
Burns: What was it like working with Vance Powell (Jack White, The Raconteurs) on your new album? How did you end up working with him?
Phillips: We met Vance four years ago when we did our first record The Rise of King Richie with Mitch Dane. Vance and Mitch co-own a studio together. We got in there and we knew who Vance was. One day Vance kinda walks in and says, ‘Sounds good! Sounds really good, guys. Why don’t you give this to me and I’ll mix this stuff.’ In our minds we’re going, ‘Holy crap.’ That’s for four years we’ve been around them. We’ve been around them for a long time. Vance is a purist, man. So is Mitch. It’s been an amazing place [Sputnik Sound] for us to create and record. Mitch did our first record ‘under one condition: it has to be tracked live. I just want to press record.’ Vance is much the same way. There aren’t a ton of guitars or tracks on our record. With Vance it’s about sonic space. Vance knows how to inject color and life and just pure energy into the [record.]
Burns: Tonight Changes Everything, I mean I listened to the whole thing. It sounds really great. It sounds really clean, but still bare-boned. You can tell it’s without a lot of studio trickery and I like that.
Phillips: It’s really both of them. It’s Vance and Mitch. Both of those guys are great.
Burns: I wanted to ask you about “1984” and “Black/Yellow/White/Gold,” probably my favorite tracks off the album…
Phillips: Right on.
Burns: I gotta ask, I mean obviously there’s a literary connection there with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Phillips: You know, [laughs] I’m getting this question a lot. To a degree, to a degree.
Burns: There’s that one line that says, ‘Heavy metal music and the mark of the beast/The popular opinion and the media feast.’ It’s an excellent line. I think you’re really taking a stab at the media and what it does to music; how it rips it apart like a feast on the table.
Phillips: Yeah, it is man. It is absolutely. For me, it was channeling a lot of energy, my feelings towards the state of the culture in which we live in—whether it be about rock and roll music or whether it be about a war in Afghanistan or the war in Iraq. It could be about pop culture or politics. You can look at it as, ‘There is a bunch of crap going on in this country and I don’t know how I feel about it.’ I don’t pretend to have the answers, but at the same time as an artist we have the opportunity to say something about it. There are definitely some undercurrents there man.”
Burns: It’s a large topic.
Phillips: It is, it is.
Burns: There’s a section on the blog about music and its ability to cross boundaries and reach out to everyone. Are Black, Yellow, White, and Gold a representation of those boundaries? Race? Economic status? There’s also that request from you guys to ‘shake off the illusion.’ Is that what the illusion might be?
Phillips: Yeah, I think so. For me, “Black/Yellow/White/Gold” really revolved around race and socioeconomic class systems around the world and my perspective as an American. I spent some time this past year in Guatemala doing some work. It really put a lot of things in perspective: where we’re at, where all of us are at. We’re lucky and fortunate to be Americans. I think there’s a lot of inspiration there. Out of that “Black/Yellow/White/Gold” really manifested itself.”
Burns: Just one more question about the album. There’s a song called “Hawkeye.” It’s about a very foxy, very sexy woman. Is it about a real woman? Perhaps from a show?
Phillips: It was. It definitely was about a woman. It was more or less [trying to] capture some feelings that we were all having. Women know how to give you that certain look. They don’t have to say anything. It’s about the juxtaposition of love and pain and not being able to get enough. Yeah.
Burns: The fall tour is coming up and it’s going to follow the release of your new album. Where are you guys headed?
Phillips: We’re headed all over. Before we really kick things off we’ll be out in LA in September. Then we’ll be in Nashville doing a big concert for a radio station called Lightning 100. It’s kind of our home station. We’ll be playing a lot in the southeast then we’ll make our way up to New York and the east coast and midwest. We’ll be a little bit of everywhere.
Burns: Are you playing with anyone, or are you going solo?
Phillips: We’ll be hopping on some different runs with some different bands, man. There are a few things that are in the works. Right now it looks like we’ll be playing with Black Cadillacs. They’re really great. We’ll wait and see what pans out.
Burns: Do you have any advice for upcoming bands in the Nashville area or nationwide?
Phillips: Advice…[pauses] Go to college! Get a job! [laughs] No, I’m just kidding. You know, don’t be afraid to work hard and don’t be afraid to work harder than anybody else. Make music that you’re passionate about. Work hard. Don’t stop. It’s a tough business. We’re certainly not entitled to any level of success so looking at any amount of success however tiny or however huge and epic it is is a privilege. The more we understand that it’s just a privilege to play the music you love, [that] is a recipe for happiness. Music that stands the test of time is music that has something to say.
Burns: Absolutely. Now, I have a few final questions I’m going to ask. It’s going to be a ‘Lightening Round.’ I’ll give you very little time to answer these. Ready?
Burns: If your band was an animal, what would it be?
Phillips: It would be a lion, but it would be a female lion.
Burns: Why would that be?
Phillips: Because they’re sassy.
Burns: They do all the hunting.
Phillips: A male lion would be too cliche, man.
Burns: Choose one. Records or CD’s?
Phillips: Oh, vinyl!
Burns: Who’s worse, Nickelback or Seether?
Phillips: Oh, God. C, both! [pauses] Nickelback.
Burns: Yes! What’s better, Sergeant Pepper or Abbey Road?
Phillips: Abbey Road.
Burns: iPod or Zune?
Phillips: iPod…or what? Ohhh… iPod.
Burns: It sounded like you didn’t know what Zune was. I would’ve been proud of you.
Phillips: [Laughs] I’m not super familiar with the Zune.
Burns: Now in 30 seconds, I want you to convince me to buy Tonight Changes Everything.
Phillips: [Loud laughter] Okay, are you going to keep the time? Are you timing me?
Phillips: I think you should buy Tonight Changes Everything because it’s good rock and roll music and if you don’t like rock and roll music don’t buy it. We love it. We worked hard. It’s a really great record. You just have to try it out for yourself.
Burns: Anything else you wanna add?
Phillips: It’s BADASS.
Burns/Phillips: There you go!
Burns: I’m convinced. I already have it, and I’m enjoying it.
Phillips: Good, good. Thank you.
Tonight Changes Everything drops September 25th. For more on The Kicks, check out their website at http://www.thekicksrock.com.
Written by: Steve Burns