St. Louisans have a number of hometown bands to be proud of. Kentucky Knife Fight has been at the forefront of the local scene for a number of years, but that hasn't kept them from several national tours and opening slots for Reverend Horton Heat, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, and Pokey LaFarge, among others. The band just finished an intense tour fresh off the heels of losing their beloved van to theft and destruction, but singer Jason Holler says that despite that worrisome start, it "can only be described as our best tour yet. No questions. It was amazing. I'm still slightly in shock. " Lyricism editor Andrew Doty talked with Holler recently about lyrics, music, poetry, and voice.
|Kentucky Knife Fight, photo credit Chris Bay|
Andrew: I'd like to start discussing your lyrics way back at the beginning of Kentucky Knife Fight, while you were beginning to cull a loyal following in Edwardsville, IL. If I remember correctly, you were a student at SIUE then taking writing classes when you penned "Got My Heaven," one of KKF's first encore-ready crowd-pleasers. Who influenced you lyrically then, and what sorts of writing have you found new admiration for over the years as you've honed your own penmanship?
Jason: Early on I was influenced by Spencer Moody from the Murder City Devils. There is a rawness and an explosiveness to his delivery, and a poetry in his words. The song "Broken Glass" in particular was a great influence on my early writing. Before then I struggled with writing for a rock n roll band. I found myself falling face first into cliche after cliche because I thought that was how I was supposed to write. I had to practically re-wire myself after 18 years of being inundated with classic rock radio in rural Illinois. How am I supposed to create thoughtful lyrics in a rock n roll band when all I can hear in my head is AC/DC and Ted Nugent? Spencer Moody helped me answer that.
Charles Simic is a poet that I enjoy. I'm attracted to his surreal imagery. The short stories and poetry of Raymond Carver influence me. Carver's straightforward, no frills, not-trying-to-be-clever approach is something I value. A friend lent me the book "Among the Monarchs" by Christine Garren, which I devoured. Garren gets dark. She seems to live there.
Andrew: Speaking of "Got My Heaven," I'm interested in the structure of that song. It uses brief, emphatic words and short, punctuated lines to discuss topics like Revelation, armageddon, the devil, heaven, and hell alongside a voice insisting about the inevitably dire results of life's labor, toils, and prayer. All these things are punctuated by the upbeat Uncle Chuck driving his turnip truck, pleased as punch, singing "got my heaven right here." How does the actual repetition in the song play into the meaning behind these words, and what sort of writerly joy do you take hearing crowds sing along so zealously with these lyrics?
Jason: Got My Heaven came along out of a respect for the writing partnership of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. I had already been listening to Waits for awhile, but in 2004 he released an album called "Real Gone" that would have a big impact on me. The album features (as do all of his albums) loose narratives about love, death, and crime. Three of my favorite topics. What I always admired about the writing on his albums are the character descriptions. On the song "Dead and Lovely" a male character is described as "not the kind of wheel you fall asleep at." Real Gone, as an album, helped write the song "Got My Heaven."
I can't remember at this point what came first, the words or the music of "Got My Heaven." Either way, it's made up of many one syllable words that compliment the chop of the banjo and guitar. In the first stanza a character named Chuck (who was a friend of my mother's at the time) is driving a literal turnip truck from here to the fictional Onomato Pier (a play on 'onomatopoeia'). The next stanza is the last character snapshot (Pastor John preached from...) from then on out it's all about larger ideas outside of one character's experience (lost is lost and you'll pay the cost for living in a world of fear). The repetition of the chorus has an hypnotizing effect. Its message of Heaven existing only in the here and now seems blasphemous, but religious friends of mine interpret it differently and enjoy it all the same. Our bass player, Jason Koenig, helped me write the fifth and sixth stanza. Neither one of us can remember whose line is whose anymore. The song will turn nine years old this year so things get a bit blurry. When audiences sing the words to any of our songs it's a surreal sensation. When I'm feeling brave I look out into the crowd and watch people sing all the words.
Andrew: I want to express my appreciation to you for hosting your lyrics on your website. That's a rare treat, to say the least. Many bands don't even go as far as including printed lyrics with their albums, let alone hosting them for the whole world to peruse. What made you decide to do that?
Jason: When I buy an album I look forward to the liner notes. I read the inside notes and lyrics while I listen. Now that things are going all the way digital there is less of that. Even though it's becoming less about tangible objects I appreciate it when someone displays lyrics on their site. I assumed there were other people like me out there who would enjoy reading our lyrics, which was why you can find them on our site.
Andrew: What song makes you think, "I should have been the one to write that"?
Jason: I experience that often. Most recently with the Jason Isbell song "Live Oak". He wrote an amazing album, but that song in particular stands out for me.
Andrew: What's the last album you listened to?
Jason: Rowland S. Howard's album "Pop Crimes."
Andrew: Anything you've been listening to obsessively recently? Something you just can't turn off?
Jason: Rowland S. Howard's song "Dead Radio." I'm not necessarily enamored with the writing, but the feel of it is incredible.
Andrew: Is there a message you want listeners to take from your lyrics, or do you just want to give them something to sing along with?
Jason: I just enjoying painting pictures with words. I'm not really into finishing the painting though. I like to leave the edges exposed. This leaves room for the listener to use their imagination.
Andrew: You, Tom Waits, and Spencer Moody all share two particular traits: gritty voices and gritty lyrics. Additionally, your lyrics spend a lot of time on drinking, romances, loneliness, and finding hope, meaning, or comfort in a despondent life. Do you think you'd be singing about different things if you had a different voice, and do you think your particular tone is an advantage of emphasis when singing about the darker sides of life?
Jason: That's a fantastic question. It's hard for me to say. If I was born with the pipes of Roy Orbison, would I sing about lighter subjects? I don't know. Roy could get dark. He sang about longing a lot. Roy had a pretty tough life though. I think it has more to do with what's inside you than whatever your voice sounds like. I don't know if my voice is an advantage when signing about darker subject matter. A gritty or wrecked voice by other artists sells certain songs to me. "Not Dark Yet," for instance. That song is an emotional experience. Mostly because of the warble in Dylan's old voice. If someone with the voice of a cherub sang it, would it have the same impact? I doubt it.
A million thanks to Jason Holler for this interview. Check out Kentucky Knife Fight (and read their lyrics) at kentuckyknifefight.net. If you're in St. Louis on Saturday, March 1, go see them at Off Broadway.
Andrew Doty is the sole editor and creator of Lyricism. He is a professional freelance editor and unprofessional musician currently calling St. Louis home base.