can all just get along: (l-r) Gavin Richard, Troy
Pohl, Bob Buckley, Nate Giordano, and Matthew Loiacono
of the Kamikaze Hearts.
internal strife that nearly broke them up, the Kamikaze
Hearts have a newly respectful working relationship, a
powerful new CD, and a label deal
Kamikaze Hearts are working the crowd—after a fashion.
It’s a Saturday night at Tess’ Lark Tavern, a not-infrequent
site for the band’s not-too-frequent hometown gigs, and
the crowd is bustling and social. Conversational pods
form, then break apart to re-form with different constituents,
as fans who haven’t seen each other since the last Hearts
show exchange greetings, and friends of friends are introduced
and absorbed into the bubbling mass.
The band’s mandolinist, Matt Loiacono, can be seen chatting
at a back table by the stage, his distinct nimbus of hair
noticeable above the group seated with him. Guitarist
Troy Pohl stands in the opposite corner near the merch
table, hands raised, palms up, in an exaggerated what-the-fuck
posture; the folks gathered closest to him are all looking
expectantly at a fixed point in the crowd, seeking the
punchline to his gesture. Guitarist Bob Buckley and bassist
Nate Giordano stand on the low stage, fidgeting with cables
and pedals, pausing occasionally to rise and respond to
a “hello” or a comment from the stage’s edge. It’s a friendly,
familiar environment—almost more guild meeting than gig.
But across the room near the waitress station, drummer
Gaven Richard is being introduced to a first-time attendee.
The woman enthuses about the band’s new record, Oneida
Road, and adds, “I’m really excited about this show.”
rolls his eyes, and dips shallowly at the knees as if
he were thinking about jumping for joy, then thinking
twice. “Oh, yeah. Me, too,” he says, voice dry as dirt.
He holds his hands at waist-height and flicks them upward
in a parody of celebration: “Woo-hoo.”
The woman looks suddenly abashed and unsure, but the initiates—and
Richard himself—laugh easily.
The Kamikaze Hearts are something of a paradoxical band:
It seems counterintuitive that one of the most neurotic,
twitchy and unrelentingly sarcastic quintets you could
ever meet have managed to build a respectable and even
dedicated following over nearly seven years. For that
matter, it seems counterintuitive that the Kamikaze Hearts
have lasted for nearly seven years.
people don’t want to be around us for more than an hour,”
says Loiacono. “We’re kind of scathing.”
This is not an overstatement.
The Hearts’ Appalachian-inflected acoustic rock has accrued
an impressive raft of down-homey adjectives and categorizations
in their many favorable reviews—“acoustified, “rootsy,”
“porch-sitting,” “campfire music”—but Grandma’s Featherbed
As befits a band whose collective means of expression
trends toward the arch and fitfully vicious, the Hearts’
history has its share of lineup changes and personality
clashes—some more public than others.
Pohl and Richard began playing together, informally, in
1999 when Pohl asked the drummer to back him up for some
solo shows and recording projects. Heartened by the results,
Pohl asked Richard if he was interested in forming a full-time
He was not.
Richard was at that time involved in another band and,
according to Pohl, was content to remain there for the
rest of his musical career. His recollection of Richard’s
refusal is monosyllabic. But Richard’s reluctance would
prove short-lived: “Yeah,” Richard says, “I got canned.”
The new duo played out a few times together (and once
or twice in an ad hoc group that included this writer),
before recruiting, first, a stand-up bassist and, shortly
thereafter, Loiacono. But, though it was this lineup that
won the Hearts their initial following, in nonmusical
ways it was a troublesome combination.
Buckley recalls being invited to see the Hearts by Giordano,
who ran sound for the band before joining up as a member.
Buckley, Giordano and Loiacono had all been classmates
in the College of St. Rose’s music and recording program
and had played together during that time; so Buckley was,
likely, predisposed to take the recommendation as a musically
informed one. But it didn’t prepare him for the onstage
spectacle. “They nearly came to blows,” Buckley says.
had two or three full-on, onstage fights that night,”
ended the night by yelling, ‘I hate Troy Pohl’ on mic,”
called Troy a dick onstage,” Richard says.
The reason for the public blow-out was a simple one, Pohl
says plainly: “We just hated each other as people.”
The bassist departed eventually, unsurprisingly (though
his departure for, specifically, a touring production
of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
was a little surprising); and a cellist came and went—door
slamming in her wake. The band soldiered on, dysfunctions
blazing, somehow capturing Buckley as a bassist when he
left his previous band, the Orange.
According to the Hearts, there was a grace period, a kind
of cease-fire for the new member, but ultimately the destructive
patterns of communication resurfaced. Discussing the ensuing
crisis, band members flip casually between self-aware
psychojargon and light mockery.
Richard says, “It was starting to be really toxic onstage.”
in e-mails,” Pohl prompts.
and I were fighting and Bob made the mistake of making
a suggestion, and I just fired off this e-mail ripping
into Bob’s suggestion in a nonproductive way.”
Pohl helpfully summarizes: “Basically saying, in more
words, ‘That’s retarded. You’re stupid. Any other bright
suggestions, moron?’ ”
can forward them to you,” Buckley offers.
For the record, the specific form that all this bitterness
took was an argument about whether or not the band’s EP
should be titled Foxhole Prayer or, the eventual
choice, the plural Foxhole Prayers.
Richard says, “Yeah, we almost broke up the band because
of an ‘s.’ ”
But the band didn’t break up. Instead, they made a concerted
effort to address the issues directly, by staging what
Loiacono calls two “interventions.” And, yes, in the more-or-less
common usage of the word.
all talked about our problems and our feelings . . .”
Richard begins, in a wry enough tone that Loiacono is
motivated to cut him off.
they worked,” he says.
The interventions worked in an immediate way: The band
settled on a name for their EP. They worked, too, in a
longer-range, deeper way. The Hearts say that now there’s
a greater band communication, not just emotionally but
musically. They report that the process of developing
and arranging the songs written by Pohl and Richard has
become more open and, at the same time, more integrated.
a little more honest,” Loiacono says.
say things a lot differently when criticizing someone’s
idea,” Pohl says, quickly adding, “or when telling them
I like something.”
better at articulating what you want to hear,” Buckley
tells Pohl. “Instead of just saying, ‘That’s not rocking
me’—which doesn’t tell me anything.”
Post-crisis, the band invited Giordano in as bassist and
moved Buckley into the role of guitarist-instrumentalist,
and with this lineup they recorded their latest full-length,
Oneida Road. Listening to the disc, it’s easy to
imagine that one is hearing, at a metaphorical level,
the sound of the Hearts’ evolution: Sonically, it’s more
powerful and unified than the band’s previous releases;
musically, it’s richer and more integrated. Though it
will still likely be heard as an entrant in the vaguely
defined Americana genre, there’s an ambition and complexity
that others of that ilk generally eschew. (Wilco’s late-career
work may come to mind; but the Hearts have better songs.)
Lyrically and emotionally, it’s simultaneously diverse
and focused: It’s the sound of disappointment and rage
mediated via an ironic self-consciousness and a well-developed
sense of the absurdity of grand emotion.
The kickoff track, “Top of Your Head”—a powerful, almost
orchestral, pop-rock song—sets the tone, balancing hope
and an unflinching diagnosis of present dissatisfaction:
“Our voices raised just a bit/We’re talking in the car/About
the good things we’ll have in the end/But today, you’re
weeping/Curled up in a ball/With just the top of your
head sticking out.”
The next track, “Defender,” is a bracing and somber dirge,
flavored with a Near Eastern exoticism. There are tales
of the shameful need of rescue, of the hateful pleasure
of being intimately possessed, of the bitter thrill of
nostalgia—all sharply, engrossingly realized and lavishly,
tastefully produced. Loiacono’s mandolin threads melodic
tension throughout the album, and the band’s multipart
harmonies sweetly ease the delivery of sing-along angst.
Road closes with “Guyana Central High School Class
of ’78,” the only fever-dream evocation of cult suicide
you will ever need: “Reverend Jim, he spoke at the commencement/He
was listing at the lectern in his robe and his sunglasses/He
looked out on the class/It seemed like he might be wrapping
up/So we all drank the dregs of our Dixie cups/And threw
them down on the sharpened summer grass.”
The record has received significant attention in the blogosphere
and on college radio (it peaked at No. 42 on the College
Music Journal charts); and, very recently, that attention
landed the Kamikaze Hearts on the dotted line.
buzz often leads to magazine buzz and radio buzz,” Loiacono
says. “But we didn’t realize it would lead to label buzz.”
The U.K. label One Little Indian has signed the Kamikaze
Hearts to a three-album deal. The label’s best-known artist
is Icelandic oddball Bjork; but they also handle the European
distribution and promotion for American acts such as the
Pernice Brothers and ex-Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli’s
latest project, the Twilight Singers. It will provide
a similar service for the Hearts, who retain the North
American rights to Oneida Road and the two upcoming,
more like a licensing deal,” explains Loiacono, “but they’re
throwing in some development money and thinking about
growth. Basically, they like the record and think they
can do something with it.”
The band are scrupulous to avoid any triumphalism, though.
No one’s packing up and moving to the big city, they say.
No one’s started shopping for minks or new grillz. It’s
a comparatively modest deal and, anyway, the Hearts just
don’t seem in it for that kind of glory.
most important thing,” Loiacono says, “is that we all
know we’ve got a lot of music left to make. We’re gonna
keep at it whether we’re signed, have our own label or
if there’s just somebody in Zimbabwe that likes it.”
Richard’s take is similar, if slightly more open-ended:
“I think we do have ambitions but they manifest themselves
in strange ways. There’s stuff that we’re pretty careful
about and stuff we put a lot of work into, but . . .”
But there are some things the Hearts do for reasons of
their own, reasons that have little to do with best practice.
So, for the foreseeable future, the Hearts will continue
to work in their time-tested fashion, one that weds extreme
musical conscience and craft with a public persona seemingly
focused on immediate amusement and lacking in impulse
The crowd at the Lark Tavern has settled somewhat. The
Kamikaze Hearts are well into their set, and the fans
have found seats and/or wallspace from which to holler
out approval and wisecracks. A couple of girls dance now
near the merch table. Favorite songs get blustery, beery
audience accompaniment, and the general tenor of the night
remains fond and festive.
They’ve played a couple of numbers from Oneida Road,
which have been well-received. But, then again, most of
these folks have known these “new” songs for a while.
Now, the band’s attention begins to wander.
While his bandmates pause briefly between songs, Buckley
belts out a half-serious version of Bruce Springsteen’s
“Glory Days.” In the audience, a longtime friend of the
band rolls his eyes and says, “Oh, no—here we go.”
Onstage, Richard picks up the beat and, soon, the whole
band has joined in. It will be the first of many sloppy,
and completely incongruous, covers. The Kamikaze Hearts
are clearly enjoying themselves.