Band of the Day: Kurt Riley

One of the best parts of running this feature is seeing how different bands approach the same questions. We’ve got a rather interesting one on our hands today.

Simple things first – where are you guys from?

I’ve led a peripatetic existence thus far. Moved about 9 or 10 times by the middle of my adolescence, and I’ve almost doubled that since. My father was a member of the U.S. Army – drove tanks in the cavalry, and then became a JAG; he was honourably discharged after the Gulf War, and we continued to relocate in search of new employment opportunities. Making friends was difficult, but I was blessed to see so many different sights and sounds at such a young age. Plus, it made life on the road something which I’m quite comfortable with – prime preparation for this odd career of mine!

The fellas in the band – Rick Kline (bass/bass synth), Charlie Jones (synthesizer/keyboards), and Sesu Coleman (drums/percussion) – were all given the breath of life in New York state, where all 4 of us currently reside.

How did you meet?

This union only began in the fall of 2016, but the tale is much, much older. In fact, this story has been brewing for over fifteen years. As a teenager, I fell head over heels with music. Specifically, the galvanising music which emanated from the mid-20th Century renaissance. The powerful Delta genesis and its rich Chicago harvest – Robert Johnson, Muddy and the Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry…my bedrock foundation. Lived in Memphis, Tennessee for a time, and the rockabilly hit me as hard in 2005 as it would have in 1955; absolutely adore Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and their peers. Their brilliant children – British imports such as The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Kinks and The Who… not to mention my androgyne progenitors, Marc Bolan, David Bowie, and Queen. Heroes all. Ever-present in my pantheon.

Always fancied the darkness a bit, and so I fell swiftly for Siouxsie and the Banshees, Gary Numan, and Killing Joke. And many more infatuated me as the years went by and I branched out further across the musical family tree – Garbage, iamamiwhoami, The Kills, Franz Ferdinand…so many new heroes, keeping the torch alight amidst a crumbling music industry which has held mediocrity and banality aloft for all to adore.

So I set to work, over fifteen years ago now. Taught myself how to sing, how to write; learned how to play multiple instruments so that I could multitrack in my home studio and create my own fully-realised works. For a beautiful little season, I led my first band – The Steel Hearts. They were a proto-punk R&B group – think The Stooges meets Eddie Cochran. What a ball that was. I adored that band, but alas, it was not to be.

I was asked to leave high school after my junior year – bad combination of a rebellious little punk and a hyper-fundamentalist private school. Obtained a GED and started working odd jobs for years, with no direction.

In 2010, I released my debut album as a solo artist – Brighthead. Produced by Beyoncé and Run The Jewels collaborator BOOTS in a South Florida garage-cum-studio, it was a ball to make. But I did not understand the industry then as I do now. So it vanished without a trace.

After a few more aimless years – always recording, always writing – I decided to go straight and return to school. I’d never finished college. And the times were making life without a college degree quite impossible.

After a blazing two-year stint at a wonderful community college, I miraculously transferred to Cornell University in New York, for my baccalaureate work. Never would I have ever dreamt that a lower-middle-class kid like me would gain access to the Ivy League – but by some incredible twist of fate, I did. And my life changed forever.

Ironically – perversely – it was while at college that music returned to the fore, with a vengeance. To test the waters, I performed with an ad-hoc band of stellar associates at a concert on Cornell’s campus. I wanted to see if I still had the proverbial it, after five years away from the stage. And I had no reason to worry. The crowd adored it! And I knew I’d never leave her again.

So I set straight to work. Released my sophomore record, Kismet, in 2016. A concept album about an alien king who comes to Earth in search of his missing queen, Kismet was my most ambitious release at that point – a record with a real narrative running through it, characters and all. I even utilised the incredible resources Cornell afforded in order to complete it, recording after-hours in the music program’s practice rooms, shooting the music videos on beautiful locations across campus. It was DIY sci-fi opera.

After graduating from Cornell, I remained in Central New York, and met Rick Kline, our magnificent bassist. In all of my years, I’ve not had the distinct pleasure of playing with anyone like Rick; the breadth of his talent is equalled only by the size of his heart. He is a vivifying, encouraging force during the dark times, and when achievements are made and celebrations are thrown, he is the first one offering laughter, a warm hug, and a litany of puns. Rick is truly a gem in the rough.

Rick and I recorded my third record, Tabula Rasa, along with several other lovely musicians who have since parted for other destinations. And after a busy 2017, we began 2018 with two huge events – the release of my single “Love Is In My Heart”, and the addition of our synthesizer wizard, Charlie Jones.

In what I like to call my Spaceballs story, I met Charlie as he was my sister’s former roommate! During our very first jam session together, Charlie began warming up with his synthesizer and a looping pedal. And on his own – on his fucking own – he began playing the entire Stranger Things theme. I knew at that very moment that he was the man for the job! Plus, Charlie’s a Cronenberg fan, which gives him high marks in my book, and helps me forget that he prefers Star Wars to Star Trek. (It’s ok to be wrong, Charlie. I accept you.)

The miracles did not cease there, in 2018. We’d been going through a litany of drummers ever since our dear friend, Olivia Dawd, departed in 2017. (Olivia recorded Kismet and Tabula Rasa with me, and she is sorely missed – an amazing drummer, and a great friend from Cornell.) However, the gates of Heaven themselves opened up and bestowed a blessing beyond any I could have imagined.

In April 2018, the band and I were performing at a converted church. Gorgeous place. While doing my vocal warm-ups in the bathroom, I ran into Sesu Coleman. And with that, the Lord said it was good!

Sesu is a living legend. He performed at Cornell in the 1960s with the Mojos, a local R&B group who were extremely popular across campus. He remembers seeing The Rolling Stones play there, with the late Brian Jones, my first dandy hero. In the early 1970s, he formed The Magic Tramps, a proto-punk glam troupe fronted by Warhol Superstar Eric Emerson, and they were amongst the first groups to perform at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB-OMFUG. (They also shared the bill with The New York Dolls the evening the Mercer Arts Center collapsed in 1973.) And in the early 1980s, Sesu toured with Suicide founder Alan Vega, performing on his solo records Collision Drive and Saturn Strip, produced by Ric Ocasek of The Cars. And miracle upon miracles – this incredible man saw fit to join our group.

Since I was 14 years of age, I’ve been desperate to perform with a drummer who loves Bo Diddley and The Rolling Stones as much as I. It may have taken over a decade, but Christ, was it worth the wait. Sesu is not only my spiritual kin musically, but he is a lovely fellow, and such a wonderful fit for the group. With Sesu’s joining, the band became brothers. And we were primed for action.

And was 2018 ever full of action! We performed dozens of times across New York state; received coverage in a litany of newspapers, blogs (thank you), and TV & radio stations. We also released two singles – “Failure of Imagination” and “Be Cool”. And I’ve now adopted the practice of releasing singles rather than albums – it is timely, and it gives the songs the attention they deserve. And what a magnificent reception they’ve received; fans new and old have been so ridiculously kind.

You now catch us at a very interesting time. The tank is full, and the engine is primed – now give us the road.

How long have you been playing as a band?

Rick joined in the Fall of 2016, and Charlie joined us a year later. Sesu debuted with us in concert in June of 2018 – and honestly, we’ve made blazing progress for having been together for such a short time. Paradoxically, the speed at which we’ve moved forward is mirrored only by the long, lost years I spent in the wilderness before I met these fellows. Let that never be understated. They are simply incredible, and I owe them more than I could ever repay.

Before you get sick of being asked… where does the band name come from?

Oh, never fear! I mean, the group operates under my moniker – Kurt Riley – and what artist doesn’t love discussing themselves?! Kurt is my given name, but my family surname is decidedly unwieldy. So, in the interest of having an easily identifiable (and repeatable) name, I chose “Riley.” Not only does it recall the great anthem of rebellious exodus in a dystopian future – The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” – but it also hearkens back to that old saying, “living the life of Riley.” Which, to me, always sounded like quite a life to live.

What are your influences?

The aforementioned pantheon. My gods: Bolan, The Rolling Stones, Chess/Sun/Stax/Motown, Bryan Ferry & my beloved Roxy, Bowie, and the eternal Beatles. That being said, there are many esoteric heroes who I have not yet mentioned, and must: The Killers, Nat King Cole, Vangelis, Iggy Pop, Prince, Jeff Lynne, Daniel Johnston.

Describe your music. What makes you unique?

The music I compose is unique, for it stems from my peculiar situation; I was born too recently to exist in the time during which I should have. This is a heartbreak I live with daily, and I do not mean that lightly. It is a constant, unrelenting sadness that I exist in a time so coarse, so damned. That being said…it is this anachronistic bent which makes me such an outlier. And do not misconstrue that which I imply; I’m not one of these carbon-copy revivalists in their leather jackets and long dark hair, playing garage rock as if it’s 1969 and you’re going to be included in the Nuggets compilation one day. My intent is quite futurist in philosophy – to destroy the chains of the past, in order to save what I find so precious about it. To refit the Starship Rockandroll for its second five-year mission. I am an amalgam. A curiosity. And the only fellow you’ll hear on the radio who writes his own bloody songs!

Do you have any particular lyrical themes?

The worship of pure, unconditional love. A hope for the future. Child-like ebullience. Heartbreak. A longing for connection with other human beings. The zeitgeist.

What’s your live show like? How many shows have you played?

Across my entire career, I’ve played too many to count – but with the fellas, this final iteration, we’ve performed about three dozen times in the past eight months. And 2019 promises to be even busier.

Our show is theatrical, enthralling, and intimate – and that’s the funny thing. You really can be intimate with a room of people, all at once. One only needs to establish that connection.

Every new single or album I release has an accompanying visual look; I’ve had almost a dozen so far, when once incorporates the odd thing I throw together from my wardrobe! Makeup too – after all, the good Lord gave me this expansive canvas, so who am I to question the wisdom of the Alpha and Omega?!  Plus, the powder and paint hide my sins quite well. They can go straight to the painting in the attic.

What’s the wildest thing you’ve seen or done at a live show?

Well, for one, half of my clothing seems to vanish throughout the show; we’re still not sure what is causing this, but believe you me, we’ve got top minds looking into it. Top. Minds.

The wildest thing is yet to come, I believe. But we’ve had a ball with audiences thus far – when they sing along and dance, my heart grows three sizes. And after the reception we’ve gotten, I’m in need of a new rib cage.

What kit do you use / guitars do you play / etc.?

Being a poor boy, I’ve got to agree with the Jack White ethos. (Or, at least, the pre-royalty check Jack White!) I use cheap guitars and cheap amplifiers. The pedigree doesn’t matter so much to me; the ability to push the fucker does. I demand a great deal from myself, from my band – and the same goes for my gear. It needs to be able to withstand gale-force winds.

I keep them all, too. All of my guitars. They’re like a piece of clothing; Brian Jones and Marc Bolan taught me that the look of an instrument is equally as important as its sound. My God – that teardrop Vox, that stainless steel Veleno; they’re iconic. And I’ve got some very lovely guitars in my vault. You can still see the blood on a few of them.

What are your plans for 2019?

2019 begins a brand new phase for me. It closes the chapter which I began with Brighthead, nine years ago. This period, called Chrome Empire, will be new territory for me – sonically, visually, and conceptually. The sound would best be described as what The Rolling Stones would have sounded like if they got their start as a bar band down the street from Rick Deckard’s apartment, in Ridley Scott’s 2019 – the 2019 of 1982, that is.

Musically, I aim to merge what I love about the human side of music – the freewheeling abandon, the relentless energy, the delicate textures – with the machine. Futurist in scope, as attested to beforehand.

And the Chrome Empire period will be forward-thinking topically, as well. The singles released during this phase will address everything from artificial intelligence to megacities, from the expansion of the social credit system to sex with simulacra.

It is a vision of what is to come. And I shall pull no punches with my prognostications. Perhaps some of this divination, in a small way, will help us steer away from our black path. After all, isn’t that one of art’s incredible abilities? It permits us to step into a world, and then retreat to ours to contemplate.

It is my sincere hope that, with Chrome Empire, I can spread awareness about that which is to come. Perhaps it will help some of us survive it.

If you were second on a three-band bill, which band would you love to be supporting and which band would you choose to open for you? A chance to plug someone you’ve toured with, or a mate’s band we’ve not heard of before!

I’d open for Mr. Bryan Ferry. Naturally. Adore the man; Avalon is forever one of my desert island discs, a place where my soul rests, beyond judgement, in beautiful melancholy.

And I’d choose Anna Coogan to open for us. She’s an incredible composer, instrumentalist, and singer from Ithaca, New York. Anna really must be heard to be believed; she combines ambient soundscapes with operatic vocals and haunting lyrics. Check out her track “The Lonely Cry of Space and Time.” You will be thankful you did.

Kurt Riley: official | facebook | instagram | youtube | spotify

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