Seattle's Kings Kaleidoscope broke out in a big way with their 2014 debut LP Becoming Who We Are, an album that put the band's plenitude of musicians to good use, creating worship on the scale of big collectives like Broken Social Scene that seeths with a mesmerizing tangle of horns, strings, and crisp, syncopated drums. They return this week with their sophomore effort, Beyond Control, which retains that controlled-chaos musical aesthetic while taking the songs in a slightly rawer and more personal direction, with perceptive nods to themes like the loss of both wonder and danger in the modern world. Spirit You All had a conversation via Skype with songwriter and frontman Chad Gardner about self-producing the new album, social media, Kanye West, and virtual reality:
Spirit You All: You've said in the past that you're a big Kanye West fan. How did you feel about Life of Pablo?
CG: I don't even necessarily appreciate Kanye for being a musician anymore. I'm not inspired by him lyrically at all, but just as a culture mover, he's like Muhammad Ali to me. I love that he is one of the biggest artists in the world, and he continuously messes with everybody and says, “I'm going to push on every expectation you have. Everything you expected of me, I'm going to do something different, and I'm going to do it really well.” So in that sense, I love it. I love the whole idea of a record that will never be done, I love the idea that he's going to be updating that record on streaming for the next 10 years or however many... that there will be another track added to it or he'll change the kick drum on something. There are so many of those concepts that are completely futuristic and next-level, and the way he collaborates with stuff... So there are things that I love about it and things that I'm not into. I guess that record kind of solidified to me that I'm not like, 'Oh man, I can't wait to listen to Kanye's next album', but more, wow, I really respect the fierceness and the boldness to do completely new ideas all the time and not worry about it.
Spirit You All: Becoming Who We Are was recorded on a MacBook using a lot of different microphones in a lot of different places, but I heard that you got a home studio for this one?
CG: Yeah, it's not much. I've just got a basement here with all our instruments and whatnot. And it's still my Macbook Pro. My whole thing is I really like to produce music and arrange music and so in the same way as our last record, I got to engineer most of this one and record it all here at home, which is great. With the the last one we had to travel around to various spaces, but this one we were able to dial it in more. So I think, sonically, it's a little more consistent and just a little bit more “pro” sounding, even though it's still a basement. [laughs]
Spirit You All: The first Kings Kaleidoscope album came out on a confusing hybrid of Tooth & Nail and Bad Christian - did you take the same approach this time with Beyond Control?
CG: Yeah, it's the same thing. Bad Christian is doing the whole vinyl side, and Tooth & Nail is kind of the main player doing all the digital and CDs. We really like working with both of them and we just figure, why not bring both teams to the table. It was a very interesting thing because with Tooth & Nail's schedule we were going to have to wait to release our record next January or February most likely, or it was this spring. And we realized that, like, three months ago. [laughs] So we were like, “Oh man, we don't want people to have to wait to get these new ideas that I've had sitting around.” I cranked it out. It was sort of like a challenge, where the label was like, “Well, if you can do it, we'll put it out in June, but it's literally going to be a rush.”
I turned the record in three weeks ago. Which is kinda normal if you're Kanye and you're just going to stream it, but to actually sell CDs and have a whole campaign, it's pretty much impossible. It's been kind of a mad dash, but I actually like working that way, that you've got three months so engineer and record and write. Finish writing all these songs. So three weeks ago I did all the lyrics to “Most Of It”. That was the last song, and we knew we wanted it to be the very simple concept of, “It's going to be okay". That's actually at the core of the gospel, that it's okay because God is sovereign, you're making the most of it till heaven. And we all have little kids now - I have a little boy who's almost one, and that song was for him. Like, how would you teach him a very simple lesson, that's not theologically exhausting? That he can actually understand?
Spirit You All: Following Becoming Who We Are, what was the goal for this album's sonic direction?
CG: I don't really think of it in terms of goals... Actually, I take that back. The only goals we had were, one: no loud builds. And we almost got away with it! There's one song - “Sabatoge” has one build. You know, they're really effective and they're immediately gratifying, and almost all bands do them, but that was my personal challenge: how can we build intensity without being loud and having all the instruments play at once? And I think a great example of that is on the final song, “Trackless Sea”. There's this bridge that bottoms out, and this big cello swell and you think something massive's gonna come in, but it just keeps rolling and it keeps going with this big cello and this weird percussion. And it actually creates so much more emotion than if we had had a big explosion. For me, it just rips my heart out with a feeling of longing. You want there to be more so bad, but the feeling of wanting more is a greater feeling than if you had just got it. So we tried to do that.
And then the other, smaller goal was, we've always done intricate, elaborate arrangements, and we had a goal of, how do we do intricate and elaborate, but quiet? We're always trying to push ourselves. So on our last record we had a song called "Defender", and that song was very intricate and elaborate and loud the whole time. This record, there's the song "Lost", which is intricate and elaborate, but quiet. Or the song "Trackless Sea" - same thing. There's a lot of mellotrons, there's a lot of vocal harmonies, but it's all quiet. So that was the other challenge we had. But as far as greater goals, I just kind of try to be really fearless and just create whatever really gets me hyped or whatever moves me. I mean, that sounds selfish, but I am making music, in a sense, for myself, and if I really love something then I don't really think about, "What are people going to think about this?"
Spirit You All: Being a ten-piece, do you guys always travel with the same group when you tour?
CG: No, it's completely variable. It's kind of always been that way. I think on the last record, that was something that was part of the marketing story: "They're this ten-piece band!" But in reality, you can't fly ten people to North Carolina to just play a show. It's so expensive. There are ten people who come in and out of the band, there are ten people who'd come here to the studio here at my house, and they're all the "core", but we play with all kinds of different lineups. We've played with as little as six people, our sweet spot for traveling is I think seven and eight. And when we get lucky, when we play somewhere in the Pacific Northwest or we get somebody who wants to fly all of us out to a show, we bring a full string trio and we can get up to ten people. But it's all the same folks. It's kind of a pain, actually, because I need to make a different rider for every show based on what instruments are going.
Spirit You All: About half the Kings Kaleidoscope fanbase is about to have a stroke because Beyond Control's second-to-last song, "A Prayer", has two f-words on it. Can you share the vision behind the song and the meaning?
CG: [laughs] Well, first I would say I think that for people who haven't actually listened to the record, or listened to that song, just listen to those last three songs in a row, and I think that it will be self-explanatory in terms of what is going on there. The short answer is, that song comes from the deepest part of my gut and my being, and the fear that I face throughout my life - I've had really severe anxiety disorder my whole life, and that's been a major part of my struggle and story. That song is about the fear of running from God or that God will turn his back on me and I will end up apart from him in hell. And the actual lyric is something that is from my journal - I don't know how everyone else has conversations with God, but I have very vulnerable conversations, and God already knows how afraid I am. I usually figure it's good for me to pour out my soul to him, and that's what that song is.
The choice to keep that original version, which is straight from off the top of my head, really, as well as the edited one... It took me a long time, and I really sought counsel and had a lot of conversations with pastor friends of mine and family. At the end of the day, that song is not going to impact somebody who has never felt that way anyways. So that song is there for people who have felt like me. And I know fear and Satan and death - the voice of all of that is not poetic, it's not thoughtful, it's not patient. It's aggressive and demanding and terrifying. And that's what came out of my heart because that's what I was hearing, and so that's what I chose to leave it in the song. It was to say, look, this is the reality of how we feel sometimes, and this is the reality of how God responds to that. And I just want people to know that that is life. It is freaking scary, and God talks to that and he speaks to us right where we are.
At the same time, I know other people have different convictions theologically on language - obviously I don't have that conviction, otherwise I wouldn't have released it. [laughs] But I really respect that, and I know some people want to just buy the CD and be able to play it in their car without their kids hearing it. Some people have told me, "I don't care if my kids listen to that song at all" - the unedited version. But because I respect people, I want to have a different version for them, and that song - it's not really about that word, it's about the meaning and the bigger context, and I think if anything I'm trying to be vulnerable and have different types of people be able to engage with that song in a powerful way.
So I came to my label and said, "Okay, I think that I want to release a version of a song with an f-bomb in it. I want to do it in the most respectful way possible." [laughs] They were like, "What in the world?" Because most artists are trying to do shock jock or something, but there's none of that vibe for me. I'd say, I'm not trying to change anyone's mind about it or convince anyone of anything. I'm just trying to be honest and vulnerable. I think that's important in art, and important as a Christian. If there's any place that I can share my story and my testimony for what it really is, it should be the church at large. And that's what I'm doing.
Spirit You All: What was the idea behind the interlude track "Friendship"? I think I hear someone in the background singing Soulja Boy and "Whip/Nae Nae".
CG: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. That was just something that happened. Blake is my really close buddy - he's the trombone player, and I think he's the longest-standing member of the band. ... Anyway he was going to do a solo for the end of "In This Ocean, Part 2". And I was like, "Alright, man. Here's what we're gonna do. I'm gonna put a mike on you and a mike on me, and we're just gonna go back and forth making up melodies." And we did that for a while, and it just got so funny that I basically looped a beat from that song and was like, "Okay, okay, okay, let's just do this for fun." That's just us having fun in the studio, and, you know, ultimately it will be the track that people skip a whole bunch, probably. But I think it's really important to include that stuff every once in a while, because it totally shows that we don't take ourselves too seriously, we like to have fun.
And I just loved calling it "Friendship" because that has been such a theme for me this past year. In the wake of releasing our first record - you know, that album is so storied with being birthed out of a lot of pain and personal struggle in my life. And I spent the last two years honestly just recovering from that. Still dealing with a lot of residual anxiety and, "Wow, how does my world even work now?" And a big part of that for me has just been in community and friendship, and people around me who make me laugh, continually tell me that it's gonna be okay, even when it doesn't feel like it. So even in a weird thematic way, I'm glad that it's on there. And people can kind of see who we are... we're pretty goofy. So it tells that story well.
Spirit You All: A lot of the album, especially "Enchanted", the first single, is about how technology today increasingly allows us to curate our own realities, living as what David Foster Wallace called "lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms". What was the experience in your own life that inspired that concept?
CG: Dude, that quote is insane. You gotta send me that, I'm gonna use that in all my other interviews. So yeah, the whole album was inspired first by a sermon that I heard at my church on a Sunday where the idea was brought up of choosing, in a sense, to live enchanted with the actual reality that we are in. Knowing that the world is a wild and dangerous place and our existence is completely beyond our control. You know, that scares the crap out of us all the time, and most of my energy goes to creating a perceived safety of some kind. Whether that's a safety with my identity by accomplishing things... Everything so much of the time for me is trying to control my world, to control what I know in order to control how I feel. And especially in the information age, with social media, I feel a huge strain on my being. There's so much pressure to maximize my life and to experience so many things. Yelp is a great example of that. I will never be satisfied getting a sandwich somewhere again, because I have to find the best sandwich shop. You know? So what is it about that? Because I need to maximize my experience. I need to have the best thing. And I'm not saying everything about that is bad - I love that it's pushing people to make good art, there's a lot of beauty that's being created. But at the same time, there's also a lot of unsatisfaction with life that's constantly stirred.
So basically the record goes between these two worlds - trying to buffer ourselves from pain and suffering and danger and the reality of the world, and we end up creating a very cold and isolated and lonely existence. And it's actually pretty miserable, and we might feel like we're safe because we've kind of cordoned things off the way that we understand them, but the reality is nothing's actually changed - we're just locked in our heads when we think we've sorted things out. And the flipside of that is choosing to live beyond perceived control, where life is enchanted and it actually is perilous and we're afraid to open ourselves up to God because he might actually break our hearts and he might not give us what we think we want. We might get hurt, but it is a beautiful adventure with him, and there is actually a deeper joy and a richness to be found there. Tolkien says it, when he talks about a world like that: "A place where joy and sorrow are sharp as swords." I want to live that way, not dulling myself to reality.
Spirit You All: Do you feel the tension of being in a band that you want to be successful, yet also being part of a modern music industry is so relentlessly social media-driven?
CG: Yeah, I think to some extent it comes in waves. So, you have to give people information, you have to get your music out there. And you always want to do it in a way that's exciting and beautiful, but at the same time... So this week, I called one of the guys at our label, and I said, "Okay, here's my idea. The day our record comes out - not like the Radiohead thing, but I'm actually going to delete all of our social media accounts. [laughs] It'll be like, the record's out, you can listen to it, but we won't hype it up or anything like that. It's just out, it's available. And we could actually do an experiment. Everyone always says grassroots marketing is the best - well, how many people would tell other people about the record without us doing it? It would still be on Twitter, just we wouldn't be doing it. I love that idea! And we would keep it off for like a year until we turn it all on again to announce the next thing.
So just toying with that notion... Even with Instagram, when we announced the record we posted nothing but blank, black pictures for a month, with just lyrics. And every day it was like we were interrupting people's feeds: "Okay, there's nothing to look at here that I can covet, it's just the thought from our lyrics. Just one thing to think about." I like messing with stuff like that, and I guess that means in the future we'll have to be creative with how we market and stuff like that.
Spirit You All: Along that same topic of escaping into fantasy worlds: 2016 is supposed to be the year when consumer virtual reality headsets start to really reshape society. Do you have any thoughts about that, and have you tried VR?
CG: I haven't, but I want to. Kings Kaleidoscope needs to make a video game, is what it sounds like. [laughs] We actually were trying to make an Apple TV app for a while to be interactive and stuff, but... No, that's a really good question. I hadn't really thought about that. I think... It's just like everything. I feel like all of that stuff can be so incredibly creative and amazing and beautiful and meaningful, but the other side is that it can be completely distracting and, you know, just dominate our time. So I just think that it depends on how people go about using it.
Spirit You All: Are there any spiritual practices or just basic way-of-life things that you've found are useful for living "beyond control", as it were? That might be as simple as switching off your phone at certain hours or fasting from the internet...
CG: Definitely for me, personally, it's deleting social media apps from my phone for periods of time. So this is almost always the thing for me: put Twitter on my phone, and then I check it all the time, and the more and more and more I do it, I'll go, "Oh my gosh!" And I literally just delete the app. And I go two weeks, and then I have to put it back on my phone to announce something for Kings. And then the same thing happens, and I delete it again. It's the same thing with Instagram - I deleted my Facebook a long time ago. I guess you could call that a spiritual practice. I don't know if I always fill my time with better things - like, maybe then I'll watch Netflix or something... But you know, being really aware of focus and time and distraction. I think being aware of that is important because at the end most of it is vanity and all of it is fleeting. So, it can be entertaining - there's nothing wrong with laughing and being entertained. If it fosters real relationship, that's awesome. But if it's just distracting, then it's kind of a waste.
Beyond Control is out now on Gospel Song Records and Tooth & Nail