Interview: Kevn Kinney of Drivin N Cryin

Yesterday I published my feature based on an interview with Kevn Kinney. Today I present the entire interview. — bk

Bill Kopp: The new vinyl album Best of Songs compiles songs from the four EPs that Drivin N Cryin released between 2012 and 2014. How did you decide which tracks went on and which were left off?

Kevn Kinney: I tried to keep it kinda poppy. Because it’s supposed to be like a 1970s record – we designed it to look like a K-Tel record – I wanted to keep it upbeat and groovy. So I focused more on our power pop type stuff, like “Hot Wheels,” “Turn,” and “Strangers.”

I didn’t put “Sometimes the Rain (is Just the Rain)” on there for that reason. Once again, it’s an album. So we had to think of things in the same way that we did when we made our fist album [1986’s Scarred But Smarter]. We’d think, “well, that song is too long.” I love the [long] intro to “Sometimes the Rain” – I love how the lyrics and the music work together – and so I asked myself, “Do I want to put it on the album but without [the intro]?” Because the song is, like, seven minutes. And I realized, “I don’t want to put a seven-minute song on here.

So I looked at the times of the songs, and I thought about which ones we do live, like “Dirty,” “Ain’t Waitin’ on Tomorrow,” and “Roll Away the Song,” and that’s kind of how I decided.

BK: I think it’s a good call not to have edited a song down just to fit it on there…

KK: But it’s fun to listen to. The songs all go together. But I also wanted to try to include at least something from all four of the EPs, if I could.

BK: When I first learned about the EP series, I was reminded of Marshall Crenshaw‘s similar project that’s ongoing. When I asked him about it, he said that part of the thinking behind doing a series of short-form releases was to keep his name and music in the minds of listeners, as opposed to the normal couple-of-years between albums, which is a lifetime in pop culture. People can forget about a group in that time. Did you have a similar motivation for your Songs EPs, or was it something else?

KK: Yeah, that was part of the motivation, the idea of putting something out more often. But also, I love the 45rpm format. Maybe I’ll do a series of 45s in the future, one every two months or so.

But also the EP idea came about because I think that twelve songs is too many songs! Too many songs by one band for a person to listen to. When my friends give me their CDs, I only make it to the tenth song. I’m in the car, I hear the first five or six songs, and then I’m usually wherever I need to be, or I’m bored.

I made the Bubble Factory record [2009’s The Great American Bubble Factory]; that was meant to be a long playing, listen-to-all-the-songs album, because it was a “theme” record. But then I released EPs that each dealt with a different musical era. The first one is ‘kudzu rock’n’roll’ [Songs From the Laundromat] like R.E.M., Fetchin’ Bones and all of our heroes of that era. The punk rock one [Songs About Cars, Space, and The Ramones] is our hard rock side. And the psychedelic one [Songs From the Psychedelic Time Clock] is pretty obvious. I wanted to deconstruct the band through those EPs. Because if any band needs to be deconstructed, it’s Drivin N Cryin. We’re all over the map. And if I can do anything to confuse the audience even more, that’s what I want to do!

BK: You mentioned the thematic approach of those four EPs. I reviewed three of them, and I wrote that Songs From the Laundromat sounded to me like The Replacements crossed with Foghat or Grand Funk

KK: Yeah. There you go.

BK: The 1970s thing, but through a more modern, punky kind of sensibility…

KK: Right. And also, we really wanted to take advantage of this great kid who was playing with us. Sadler Vaden co-produced almost all of these EPs with me. He co-wrote and played guitar, and he played bass on some of the tracks. This guy is a genius. We had him in our band, and I knew that this kid was gonna be big. What was happening was like lightning striking. So I wanted to make as many records, as fast as I could, with the guy while he was with us. Because he’s just a pleasure. Now he’s with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, but this kid is gonna be a famous producer someday. You’re gonna hear about him for the rest of your career, his career. I just love the guy. He’s somebody who I wish I had to work with back when I was 19 or 20.

Paul Ebersold produced Three Doors Down; he’s an enjoyable guy to work with, so we thought, “Let’s go to Nashville. There are so many producers who were Drivin N Cryin fans when they were young. They do these million-selling albums, but then they say, “ I want to do something fun: I want to produce Drivin N Cryin.”

All of the famous songs you can think of – “Satisfaction,” “Louie, Louie,” even “Whole Lotta Love” – these songs weren’t recorded in three days. They were recorded in an hour.

BK: The first Beatles album was recorded in twelve hours…

KK: Right. So a lot of the [choice of producers] was them being a good personality, having a group of good musicians that I’m happy to work with, and having a good environment in which to do it.

We could do an EP in a week; it’s not a big commitment like recording an album. It’s like the difference between making a movie and making music video. In a movie, it takes months; there’s a story arc, there’s editing.

BK: And of course you know a bit about that, having had the 2014 Scarred But Smarter documentary made about you and the band. [link: my review of Scarred But Smarter]

You mentioned earlier that you believe twelve songs is too many. With iTunes and streaming and the like, people aren’t interested in albums, but instead in individual songs. If true, that’s sort of a return to the era of 45rpm singles. Do you think the era of the album – as a creative medium – is over?

KK: I don’t know if it’s over. I just don’t know if it’s necessary. If Lucinda Williams wants to put out 40 songs, twelve songs, or five songs, that’s cool with me. It’s gonna end up on my iTunes anyway. If I like it, I’m gonna put it on my playlist. I’m gonna construct my own thing.

And this little Best of Songs project is kind of a playlist. You can take all four of the EPs, download ’em on your computer, and you can make your own album. All those twenty-odd songs that are on the EPs, that’s the amount of material that a band would usually give to a record label’s A&R [Artists and Repertoire] person back in the 1970s and 80s.

BK: And then they’d pick…

KK: Right. They would pick the ten that they like. And they would have you re-record them in the order that they like, and all that. These would all be demos to them.

BK: And the others might end up as b-sides…

KK: Yeah. Or end up on another record, or they might never see the light of day.

BK: The various songs were recorded in Atlanta, Nashville, and at Ardent in Memphis. The band lineup was consistent across all the EPs. To what degree did the use of a particular studio affect the sound – or even the vibe – of the songs cut there?

KK: It doesn’t really matter that much. But – compared to home studios – what happens in studios where you’re spending $100 and hour is that you tend to work a little faster. When we were at Ardent, it was like, “You’ve got from 11 to 7. You can either make something happen, or you can’t. It’s up to you. But you’ve got 11 to 7. And the meter’s running.”

When you do that at a studio, they’ve got three engineers, they’ve got everything happening. If you need something done, it’s done now. We did “Turn” and “Roll Away the Song” [both on Best of Songs] at Ardent. Those just had a great vibe. I could play my acoustic guitar and sing, and they’d isolate the band; the band was in a different room. There’s more space, and you can do more to cut live. We did “Turn” live; we did it a bunch of times, and then everybody went and had dinner. When we came back, I was tired and kinda sleepy; I said, “I’m just gonna play my acoustic.” And that was the one. We weren’t pushing it.

BK: Did the loose concepts of the EPs give you the freedom to write music in styles not typically associated with you, and your band?

KK: No. I always do what I want to do, and then sort it out later.

BK: On some albums, the songwriting is credited to the group, not to you. On other albums, it’s credited individually. And on the EPs and the record, it’s back to group credit again. To me that makes sense, because although you write the lyrics, shared credit acknowledges the value that the other musicians bring to the music. Why does it seem to keep changing back and forth?

KK: It just depends on what song it was, and how it turned out. Eighty percent of everything is mine; basically, I write all the songs. That’s just a practical statement. But if, say, Sadler really helped put something together, then that’s groovy, y’know? I think he should be recognized. Even if it’s just for arrangement.

The band didn’t want credit on [unintelligible], which I thought was stupid. It’s a great fuckin’ song. So I said, fine, I’ll keep that one for myself.

BK: The EPs were released on New! Records, and the LP is on Cheetah Chrome‘s label Plowboy. Having had plenty of experience with the majors, do find that you have more creative control over your material now? What are the other benefits? Would you sign with a major if one came along today?

KK: Yeah, well, obviously. ‘Cause no one’s giving me a hundred thousand dollars. If they give you $100k, you gotta let them have their input. Which is not good; it’s not good. I think some of the [major label] Drivin N Cryin albums sound horrible. Like Whisper Tames the Lion [1988] and Fly Me Courageous [1991]. All of my acoustic records, I think they sound great. They were all babysat, they were all done really fast. I think Smoke [1993] is the best Drivin N Cryin record. Wrapped in Sky [1995], some of those records aren’t really even the band…it’s kinda weird. They were really heavy-handed producers – Anton Fier and Geoff Workman – with producers back then, it was like you were working with [Francis Ford] Coppola. They want this record to sound like they produced it. And that was kind of a drag. From the minute the producer sits down, you end up compromising. And then you just give up, eventually: “I don’t know; whatever. Maybe this one will be huge.”

You have to get lightning in a bottle, like R.E.M. Did. But even R.E.M. hates some of their early stuff. But I love it. And my fans love Mystery Road [1989]. They love Fly Me Courageous. So I get it. But I remember what the demos sounded like. These songs could all be re-recorded next week with Jack White, and they’d be totally different.

BK: Not counting the new LP – which is essentially a compilation – the last release from Drivin N Cryin was The Great American Bubble Factory back in 2009. Six years ago. What’s in the future for the band?

KK: This is our last project for awhile. We’re gonna tour on this record, and now we’ve got Warner Hodges from Jason and the Scorchers on guitar.

BK: Just a quick aside: notwithstanding the literal meaning of the lyric on “The Great American Bubble Factory,” the line that goes, “if you can make it here / why dontcha make it here?” Reminds me of the line from “New York, New York.” Coincidence or intentional?

KK: That was intentional. Totally intentional.

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