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Glory Days

We can all just get along: (l-r) Gavin Richard, Troy Pohl, Bob Buckley, Nate Giordano, and Matthew Loiacono of the Kamikaze Hearts.

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

Overcoming internal strife that nearly broke them up, the Kamikaze Hearts have a newly respectful working relationship, a powerful new CD, and a label deal

By John Rodat

 

The 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.”

Richard 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.

“Most 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 this ain’t.

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 band.

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.

“We had two or three full-on, onstage fights that night,” says Richard.

“Matt ended the night by yelling, ‘I hate Troy Pohl’ on mic,” Pohl adds.

“I 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.”

“And in e-mails,” Pohl prompts.

“Troy 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?’ ”

“I 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.

“We all talked about our problems and our feelings . . .” Richard begins, in a wry enough tone that Loiacono is motivated to cut him off.

“But 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.

“We’re a little more honest,” Loiacono says.

“I say things a lot differently when criticizing someone’s idea,” Pohl says, quickly adding, “or when telling them I like something.”

“You’re 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.

Oneida 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.

“Blog 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, contracted works.

“It’s 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.

“The 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 control.

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.


ROUGH MIX

 



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