Show Report: Tanukichan/Kero Kero Bonito – Norman, OK 10/30/18

Being an adult in 2018 is hard. Every generation has had its own unique challenges, but the simple act of survival as a young(ish) person in today’s society feels worthy of recognition and praise. I’ve reached a few traditionally-recognized milestones in the past few years, (marriage, buying my first house, having a job I can refer to as a “career”) and each has felt like a real achievement that had to be fought for and earned with blood and sweat. In a post-avocado toast world where I have heard over and over that my peers and I are not putting in enough effort, it can be hard to keep my head up.

I’ve had three jobs in the last three years, which is hard for me to handle as change is one of my most crippling anxieties. In the early spring of 2017, I was working in the service industry. I had been at a coffee shop for about a year, with hours that felt assigned at random – sometimes working late, sometimes opening a store at 6 am, sometimes closing late and then opening at 6 am. It was starting to affect my health in a lot of ways, from wrecking my sleep cycle to depression, and I knew I was forced to make a change.

I started applying for positions that would actually use my college degree right around the same time I discovered KKB by stumbling onto them through YouTube. I was listening to some PC Music, maybe even some Kane West (Gus from KKB), after which YouTube autoplayed the video for “Trampoline.” I watched the video, then watched it again, watched it about 5 more times, showed it to everyone I knew, and then completely devoured everything that KKB had made up to that point. I became obsessed. Even though I was supposed to only play company-approved Pandora stations at the coffee shop, I subjected my customers and coworkers to Bonito Generation on repeat. I won a couple coworkers over to the KKB gang, but most of them were very annoyed that I was still playing “children’s music.” Customers who recognized the album would get free espresso shots! At this same time, I had started going to job interviews, and every time I was driving to or from one, I would be playing “Try Me” on repeat in my car, crying and singing along. The people I met at each interview were all very nice, and the interviews seemed to be going well enough, but I was struggling to believe that anybody at a “big boy job” would actually be willing to try me.

Since the beginning, I’ve connected to KKB on two levels – the production and the lyrics. The production on every. single. track. they put out is fantastic, but it’s Sarah Bonito’s straightforward lyrics dealing with modern life that have hit me in the gut so many times. She has a gift for being able to perfectly capture what it’s like to try to “adult” in the modern world, and it often feels like the way that the music is presented has her (and the group) standing up against life’s expectations and saying “we’re giving it a go here.” They are going to do their absolute best in this world, and if you’re willing to come along with them, they’ll help and encourage you to do your best, too. Bonito Generation‘s lyrics are primarily positive – they’re feel-good songs that helped me (and I think many others) through rough spots.

Then this spring, out of nowhere, “Only Acting” dropped – their first original track since the sugary-sweet “Forever Summer Holiday” the previous summer. This song was a gobsmacking departure. Again I found myself watching a KKB video over and over again, trying to decipher what I was seeing and hearing. The video shows Sarah in pain (and features some truly scary imagery, especially if you’re used to their previous output) and the lyrics feature a narrator being crushed by expectations and fitting into societal roles. There seems to be moments of optimism with each chorus (“carry on the show”), but after the choruses, the song rips itself apart, with the final time being enough to completely break the song. I started writing a long article about the song that I might come back to someday, but in short, I was shook. This band that seemed to be able to face life with a smile borne of confidence and determination was now letting us see that they are not, in fact, ok. I worried about them in the immediate time after that, and even through the release of the TOTEP EP. It felt like my friends were hurting.

The band teased a full second album for months until  Time ‘n’ Place finally dropped out of nowhere at midnight on October 1st. Again I obsessed over this new material, listening again and again and engaging in debate with friends as well as online about what it all meant. The actual music of the album is generally more upbeat – it returns somewhat to the traditional KKB sound while keeping the edge that TOTEP introduced. New member James Rowland’s guitar contributions are a fantastic addition to the group’s palette, and his absolute shredding in “Only Acting” finds more context when heard as part of the album, but we hear a lot of electronic flourishes and undertones that were missing from the previous EP that make one say, “ah yes, it’s KKB.” The sounds of the various songs on the album often feel like they clash with the lyrical content, which largely continues Sarah’s melancholy musings on societal pressures, death, and the passage of time. KKB seems to be trying to show us through the tensions found all the way throughout the album a bit about how happiness and sadness are both part of our daily existence, and that even in the middle of grief, you’re not alone. In the end, this album that seems at first blush to be completely different from the band’s first couple of offerings is actually very consistent. I would argue that, while I don’t think I have a favorite, this album is the strongest group of songs the band has put out as it really communicates the “human-ness”  that has always drawn me to them.

I almost didn’t go see KKB on their current tour. Their closest stop to me was a nearly 6-hour drive, and I’m now in the middle of my second year at my “big boy job” where it’s not easy to take even a couple of days off. Luckily, a couple of friends wanted to make the trek with me and my wife, so we decided to make a road trip out of it. I’ve been to a couple of concerts before where I felt a connection with the music that made a profound impact, but this was something else. KKB has been on my mind pretty consistently for a long time now; I’ve listened to and even studied their music, and now I was going to actually be able to see, hear, and even talk to these people who’ve affected me.

I was able to attend KKB’s show at the Opolis in Norman, OK last Tuesday, 10/30/18. The venue is self-described as a “micro-venue,” and even though the show was sold out, there was probably somewhere between 100-150 people in attendance. I can’t really think of a better venue to see a concert at – every spot in the place is going to feel intimate. Opening up the evening was shoegaze/dream-pop act Tanukichan, who I was actually already a fan of. If they were headlining a show in my area I would have gone to see them without hesitation. The crowd was initially pretty subdued as they started their set, (it didn’t seem like they had many fans before that evening) but after 2 or 3 songs everyone was really into it and cheering loudly after every fuzzed-out lullaby they played. While Tanukichan is largely a solo project, the traveling musicians she had with her are what made the set great. The bassist was completely out of control, flailing and shouting between songs in hilarious fashion, while never missing a beat once the band got going. His fuzz tone was also choice. They played a surprisingly full set for an opening act, and when they finished there were shouts for an encore, to which Ms. Tanuki replied, “Sorry, we don’t have any more songs!”

Tanukchan had only been off stage for about 10 minutes before the stars of the evening appeared to thunderous cheers and applause. Immediately, the energy in the room was just wild. Like at most shows I’ve attended, the space between people in the crowd had gone from quite comfortable during the opening set to being tighter than sardines in a can as we waited for KKB’s first song to start, and everyone was holding their breath. The band launched full-force into the opening track from Time ‘n’ Place, “Outside,” and the room was immediately hopping. For the first three tracks they played, “Outside,” “Lipslap,” (which was a wildly different, but AWESOME, version than what’s on Bonito Generation) and “Flamingo,” the crowd was doing what I would consider a pretty normal “crowd hop.” The crowd was bouncing a couple of inches off the ground, and I know I wasn’t the only one headbanging to Rowland’s guitar rendition of the main melody to “Flamingo.” Having taken a couple cracks at it on guitar myself, hearing someone who’s actually good play it as part of a full band with Sarah singing was a real highlight, and since the lyrics are well-known and easy to sing along to, the crowd became more engaged with the show and performers. However, nothing could have prepared me for the next track.

Being in the crowd during “Only Acting” was something I’ll never forget. As Sarah started singing the first verse, the crowd was still coming down from the “Flamingo” high, but heads were bobbing and practically everyone around me was singing along, word-for-word. The construction of this song is just phenomenal in how it moves from section to section naturally and distinctly, building up tension and then relieving it, all while keeping the energy up. As the first bridge came to a close and Rowland’s guitar wail ramped up, it was a cue to the audience, and the crowd absolutely erupted as the chorus hit. At this point in the set, I was crammed against a young man in a Red Ranger bodysuit who looked at me (I think) as the bridge ended, nodded, and then just opened up a pit of what I can only describe as the most wholesome moshing that has ever happened. This past spring my wife and I went to a Babymetal show expecting some light moshing, but instead we were punched and shoved to the ground as soon as their set started, and there was a large group of grimacing dudes who spent the rest of that show murdering each other and anyone unlucky enough to get near them. “Only Acting” could not have been more different. Every face in the crowd was beaming as they slammed and jumped into each other, singing along as loudly as they could. Sarah, too, was grinning as we all sang about the weight of expectations put on all of us by the modern world. The juxtaposition of the energy with the pure catharsis as all of those worries were shoved out of existence; I felt completely connected to the people around me and to the band for a few, amazing minutes.

While “Only Acting” was life-changing, I was being buffeted around too much to actually SEE the show, so I spent most of the rest of the set standing on a bench with my wife and friends – a great vantage point. The band played songs from their whole catalog, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one surprised and thrilled to hear “Sick Beat” from Intro Bonito. The band completely nailed it the entire set, with every song sounding tight and rehearsed but bombastic and full of life, able to breathe. Every member of the band seemed to be having a blast, with Sarah beaming down at us the whole time and Gus and Jamie treating us to improvised bass/keyboard riffs that sounded like the soundtrack to a Seinfeld game released for the NES.

After playing 19 (!) songs, the band left the stage as everyone gave the traditional “encore” chant. They were only gone for a couple of minute before returning to finish the night with a banging performance of “Trampoline.” I made my way off my perch and back into the pit where I found that same energy was still going – togetherness, positivity, moshing. At the end, I was physically and emotionally exhausted, and I wondered if I would ever see another show that affected me this way.

The venue cleared out quickly, and I was able to chat briefly with Tanukichan, who were all very kind and gracious. KKB were doing most of their own tear-down, but I was also able to speak with my three heroes for a few moments and have them sign my Bonito Generation record. Jamie was pumped post-show and seemed surprised to see the record (“This came through my front room!”), Gus was quiet but all smiles and thanked me for supporting them. Finally, I was able to talk to Sarah for a moment in between loads of gear she was packing up. I thanked her for making music that has helped me while I try to figure out how to be an adult, and she replied that she wasn’t sure how to adult either, but was glad to help.

KKB is a special band. They make music that won’t appeal to everyone, but is vitally important to some. They wear their influences on their sleeves, but have a humanity that can be deeply affecting. If you have a chance to do so, I would encourage anyone to go to one of their shows. You’ll find something like the opposite of the Mos Eisley cantina – not a wretched hive of scum and villainy, but a real, beautiful group of people celebrating life together.

Show Report: My Bloody Valentine – St. Paul, MN 7/25/18

My Bloody Valentine is an extremely important band to me. I first listened to Loveless back in college, and I hated it! I didn’t understand how this tangled, unintelligible tangle of pure noise could be considered one of the “great rock albums.” Fast-forward a few years to my time in Korea, and I found myself having a revelation as I was walking the streets and decided for whatever reason to listen to Loveless again and quickly realized that it wasn’t just noise. They were using fuzz, reverb, and volume as instruments. Every single note was important, sure, but equally important was the way each note was played and then how it was processed and re-processed and slammed into the next note, creating washes of sound that are right on the verge of spinning out of control but somehow, magically, make perfect sense. I talked my wife into listening to the album, and she hated it! Then I tried to explain that it doesn’t work like other music, you’ve got to let it wash over you. Next thing you know, both of us decided it’s our favorite album. Loveless got the both of us through some very hard, lonely times overseas, and it’s been an album we return to over and over again, in good times and bad (along with mbv, which nobody seems to talk about, criminally).

As I (re)discovered the band after the whole mbv cycle, I didn’t think there would ever be a chance to see them live. I’ve been lucky enough to go to a lot of shows and see many of my musical heroes (yo, Talking Heads, figure your crap out), including my beloved Slowdive last year, but seeing as it took 22 years to put out an album, chances seemed slim. When a short US tour was announced, I think I literally screamed, stood up, and ran in a tight circle around the room. This was it. After hearing all the stories of their shows from countless articles, books, and videos, I would have a chance to see them myself. I had heard hundreds of stories about the volume, the earplugs, Kevin’s fussiness over the sound, etc., and to quote Han Solo – 

The set started off awkwardly with a false start, followed by Kevin telling us they were having technical difficulties “as usual.” They then kicked off properly and it was complete, earth-shatteringly loud bliss. If you know a bit about this band, this is really the most MBV thing that could happen at the start of their set. Even as they played, Kevin was often walking around in an alcove of amps and gear he had made for himself, and while I never noticed a single note out of place, he would often, in the middle of a song, walk around and talk to techs (who scrambled around the sidelines) about who knows what all while still playing. There was such a staggering amount of gear on the stage that it’s no wonder that things go wonky sometimes.

The sound of the show is probably indescribable, but you know, I’ll do my best. The volume of an MBV show is a storied thing, but there is truly no way to prepare for this. I brought earplugs, and miraculously they seem to have saved my hearing, but I thought more than once that I would be fully deaf afterwards even with them in. This is a rock concert, a “show,” and it could be assumed that this group cranks it up because they can, it’s their thing, and they just want to be loud. I’m here to tell you that MBV needs to be this loud because that is how they do what they do. It won’t work at anything lower than primordial, all-encompassing, organ-rattling decibels. They have discovered an aural alchemy that requires a lot of heat to make the transmutation happen!

I spent a lot of the show with my eyes closed as there is something profoundly weird about looking out at these four (plus an accompanist) figures and knowing that somehow those very normal looking people are making this incredible sound happen. My brain was struggling to compromise the normalcy of how the band looks and the thoroughly unnatural qualities of the sound, so just closing my eyes let my brain rest from that and focus on the thicc riffs and hot, juicy tonez. At the end of each song I would look over at my wife to 1) make sure she still exists on the same dimensional plane, and 2) try to communicate through wide eyes, eyebrow wiggles, and hand gestures that I couldn’t believe what was happening. The sheer amount of sounds that Kevin and Belinda are able to make from their guitars does not make sense, and being able to do so much in a live setting deserves some sort of award.

I am not a drug boy. I am not nearly cool enough to have ever been offered drugs in my youth. However, the qualities of the sound MBV makes in concert with the volume caused me to experience some wild stuff. You can’t escape this sound. At most shows, it can be easy to be distracted by the screaming teens, the thousands of phones held high to capture pictures and video that nobody will ever want to actually see, and the beer spilling all over your Stan Smiths. That is not the case here. The room is music for two hours. You can’t hear anything else, nothing else exists. It’s completely engulfing. At no point was this more accentuated than during their 17th (!) track of the set, “Soon,” off of Loveless. After playing the majority of the track in as straightforward a manner as an MBV song goes, the final few bars were repeated over and over, stretched to about 5 or 6 minutes, as the psychedelic visuals that had been projected over the whole front of the theater whirled in bright yellows and oranges. Instead of being annoying, this is the closest to a trance-like state I’ve ever experienced as I thrilled at the resolving note of each bar and yearned for them to repeat it, which they obliged several times.

Photo by Anna Meldal

As far as the actual performance goes, most of the songs sound radically different from their recorded versions, but not at all in a bad way. You get to hear more of the actual songwriting in each one as the different sections are easier to differentiate; the sound in concert was not nearly as melted as they sound on record many times. The tracks off of Loveless did, of course, totally rip, and it was a blast to hear these classics, but my favorite songs of the evening (with the exception of the life-changing performance of “Soon”) were by far the tracks they played off of mbv. They sounded far more lush, warmer, like I was just being hugged with the sound. Driving home, my wife and I pondered if the songwriting that went into that album was maybe tooled around live performance more as she agreed that they were the best of the evening.

The heroes of the evening, da real MVPs, were Debbie (bass) and Colm (drums), who stayed completely locked-in the entire evening. Back in Korea when I was realizing that Loveless was an absolute unit, I was in awe of how the songs remained songs. Earlier this year at Record Store Day I picked up the Kevin Shields/Brian Eno collaborative EP, because of course I did. It’s about 20 minutes of staggeringly beautiful drones and washes, but, you know, that’s about it! But on Loveless, when the guitars are going completely mad, twirling and melting into each other, it’s Colm’s drums that hold everything together. Without his drums, the sounds would only be sound, not songs. At the show on Wednesday evening, while Belinda and Kevin drifted slowly at the sides of stage like astral bodies, Debbie and Colm stayed physically close and spent much of the set watching each other, grinning madly as they absolutely shredded for two straight hours. They have the important task of keeping the whole machine running, and they did so with style and aplomb. Not only that, but because of the mixing, you could really hear Debbie’s basslines throughout, and I have a whole new appreciation for her contribution to the band. When Debbie and Colm took center stage, put on guitars of their own, and all four members shredded through “Wonder 2,” I nearly died.

I eagerly await the new EPs that are supposedly going to come out soon as I don’t think this group can make anything other than masterpieces, but I think the greatest thing about this band still being together is that they’re obviously enjoying playing and writing together. Thank you, My Bloody Valentine, for coming to the States, and I hope to see you again soon.

I Only Said
When You Sleep
New You
New Song 1
You Never Should
Honey Power
New Song 2
Cigarette in Your Bed
Only Tomorrow
Only Shallow
What You Want
Nothing Much to Lose
Who Sees You
To Here Knows When
Wonder 2
Feed Me With Your Kiss
You Made Me Realise