Rock and roll road warriors the Koffin Kats are about to launch another European tour to support their new album, "Our Way and the Highway," their first release on Sailor's Grave Records.
Not only do they have a new label, but the Detroit-based band has gone through a bit of a makeover, as well, or perhaps what could be better described as an evolution into more of a genre-less, down and dirty rock and roll band. While not really anything premeditated, the natural progression was likely influenced by recording their first full length album with guitarist "EZ Ian" Jarrell.
"This is the first full length with Ian, and this is the first one that we've sat down as a three-piece and kinda said 'let's write an album,'" says vocalist and bassist Vic Victor. "We went down in the basement and came out with this one about three weeks later...that's how we write, that's always how we write whether with Tommy (Koffin, original guitarist) or whatever incarnation of the band."
Three weeks may not sound like a long time for the actual writing and recording, but living on the road squeezed into a former shuttle bus equipped with three Ikea bunk beds means a lot of time to prep and brainstorm for the trio, consisting of Victor, Jarrell and drummer Eric "E-ball" Walls.
"Some ideas were hashed out on the road between me and Ian going back and forth on guitars, with these little mini, battery-powered amps," says Victor. "It's one of those things where we say, 'Oh yeah, we're going to spend every spare minute working on it,' but really it was just a few days out of the whole tour that we sat down and had a few ideas and we bounced back and forth -- that's what made recording it so easy."
Not only is the band able to crank out a new album in that time frame, but it's a necessity for a group who spends so much time on the road, and has a very strict schedule to make it work. And with so little time between tours -- generally a few weeks -- their schedule is set far in advance and set in stone. But for this album, the Kats refined a process started with their last album, "Forever for Hire," to get the best results in the least amount of time.
New record, new approach
"We said, okay, at this time we want to go in and do pre-production and do demos so that way we can go over to Europe and let these demos soak into our heads and then come back and do the full recording. And that worked out," says Victor. "We learned the whole pre-production, demo process when we did 'Forever for Hire.' That showed us that you can write an album and not sit back later and say 'Oh, I should have done this differently' -- the early recordings I go back and listen to and think I probably would have wrote this or that a bit differently. That's maturity and progression as a band."
Victor has made a few new changes to his songwriting approach on a more personal level, as well.
"Over the years I've learned about paying more attention to actual songwriting. Not just getting a good hook then throwing a bunch of garbled lyrics on top of it. Now I actually focus on, say, what if this song was written in a different fashion, or what if it was played in a different style -- does it have that type of longevity? Not every song on the album is meant to switch over like that, but there's a couple of them that could be transitioned to another style of music."
Something seems to have gone right, as the band has already had a single, "Choke," previewed on the Guitar World magazine website and opened over the summer for southern rockers Nashville Pussy. But lest you think they have strayed too far from their psychobilly roots, Victor assures us it's still the Koffin Kats you know and love.
"We definitely brought in some different influences on this album, but you can tell it's still us. And you can still hear the old us."
The "old" Koffin Kats were the original lineup of Victor, Walls, and band namesake Koffin, but Walls left the band at one point, starting a revolving door of several different drummers -- the relentless touring all year round proved too much for most of them before Walls returned in 2006. And in the end, the touring finally wore down Koffin himself, who left in 2010.
The lineup has seen several changes, but the basic philosophy has remained the same, including get in and get out and it done when it comes to making new music.
Get in and get it done
"We treat recording as we treat writing songs -- if it takes us way too long to record or write a song, then there's something not right about with the song. When we write a song, we've literally written it in 15 minutes max. If we spend more time than that, then we're searching too hard."
"We don't spend time bickering over something either," adds Walls. But as Jarrell sits down with the rest of the band, Victor is quick to jump in and start in hassling him -- even after over a year with the Kats, the initiation phase appears to be unending.
"I really don't listen to Ian too much," Victor laughs. "The song that was 'too generic' for him became the one he sang on and the one that got a thousand plays in two days on Guitar World website so he can kiss my [expletive] for all I care. "
"I forgot about that," adds Walls, and they throw a few more verbal jabs at him as Jarrell just lets it roll off his back. Fortunately, he's good-natured enough to find it as amusing to him as it is to Victor and Walls. Hey, they gotta have something to do to amuse themselves with all those hours on the road.
Speaking of which, will there ever be a time when they can slow down a bit?
"The only time I foresee that happening is if we start doing large tours," says Victor. "Then you have to take time off. But that's so far out of the ballpark for us..."
"We have no control over that, " Walls adds, noting they have to start getting the crowds coming out to see them first. And "that" depends on managers and labels and making enough money to fund those big tours -- they aren't just loading up the shuttle bus and the trailer and hitting the highway for tours that size, hoping they make enough at one gig to buy gas to get to the next.
Far from mainstream
Which isn't to say having a new label and a publicist are a bad thing for a band with such a DIY history. Or that mainstream success wouldn't be sweet after paying their dues for so many years. But they aren't holding their breath on that one, or being able to slow down to one big tour a year.
"Realistically, I would [expletive] my pants if a band like us got accepted into such a mainstream where we could live like that," says Victor. "When we go home we live off of a few bucks we made off touring which is why we have to keep going back out so much. We aren't going home and kicking back and buying cars, but stocking up on canned food for the next tour. But it's great -- it's better than cleaning carpets and sorting mail (Victor's and Wall's former respective day jobs.) But yeah, you definitely have to live modestly and on a budget to live off of underground rock and roll."
Signing with Sailor's Grave has given the band the luxury of a some promotional funding and a publicist to help them invest in ways they get the most PR bang for their bucks. Of course, that's all money that has to be made (and paid) back, which made them consider continuing the DIY track they were on, but in the end they gave the traditional route another shot, even though it hasn't worked so well for them in the past.
Fortunately, Sailor's Grave has proven to be as dedicated to the band as they are themselves and renewed their faith in turning some business aspects over to outside parties, despite their reservations at giving up some of the control.
"You don't know if they're going to perform for you," says Walls. "We've had a lot of people work with us and it's all flowers and rainbows in the beginning, but then the performance comes out... and we're a band that I know will perform, and we will play every day and we will do stuff every day so we need people around us who will perform, too. We've been lucky to have James and Shane (with Libertalia Management) because they were willing to work with us day in and day out. "
The band has also picked up European representation with I Hate People Records. And with that, the only thing left was integrating the sound of their new guitarist into the mix and gelling as a group.
Finding the right mix
"We finally found the mix...the right mix sound-wise," says Victor. "We started working with Rene ( De La Muerte ) from The Brains and did this split record (with 12 Step Rebels) and he did a great job in the mix so we definitely wanted to use him for the full length album. I can finally say 'Here's how I've always wanted the previous recordings to sound.' But when you're working on a limited budget and time is an issue...and nothing against anyone who previously recorded us, but you have to kind of know what sound we're going for."
"You always have to squeeze that into your budget too," adds Walls. "That time to get that proper mix between all the forces playing when you sit down and record. Obviously if we had a year to record it we could get it perfect."
The trio had just played in Arizona where former guitarist Koffin had come out and played with Tucson friends The Demon City Wreckers, and done some "wrecking" off stage as well -- the notorious former wild child of the band indulged in some hard drinking and picking on Jarrell, as well.
"It was great seeing Tommy pick on Ian. It gave us a chance to step back and let someone else do it," says Walls.
If you're wondering where the rest of the tales of wild rock and roll bacchanalia are in all this business talk, there are certainly those moments, too -- they still have their wild side that comes out on numerous occasions.
"It depends on who's with us -- the three of us are gonna act pretty much the same all the time. We're always going to be, maybe, not the most mature guys," Walls laughs, "but you get the right collection of three or four key people around us..."
"When we go to a new city and we have a friend there, they're like, 'Dude, you're in town -- we have to party'...but that's what the friend we saw yesterday said," adds Jarrell.
Just to clarify, I asked them if they were really just nice boys corrupted by bad influences, to which they answered "Yes!" in unison. Yeah, right. But even if not bearing witness to past debauchery, it would be hard to be convinced by guys in a band where the front man has "Party Time" tattooed across his belly.
But then, as this is a family site, we'll leave all that for one of those so-called "unauthorized" rock star biographies when they make it big. (You guys don't really fall for that unauthorized bit do you?)
Giving the fans what they want
They may have a good time, but the Koffin Kats always take their music and their fans seriously and do whatever it takes to give them a full show. Some of their most dedicated and hardcore fans are on the Native American reservations out west, and they were playing a show on the Navajo reservation one night when the local police came out and literally pulled the plug mid-set.
"They pulled our plug and we told the kids if they came out the next day at noon we'd play for them," says Walls. "They were obviously pissed at the police, but we told them we had to leave at two but we'd be here at noon play for anyone who showed up. A good half of them came back. I mean, it was out in the sun and everything. We love those fans."
And the feeling is mutual. To catch the Koffin Kats near your town, check their website for current tour schedule and their new release, "Our Way and the Highway."