For a truly unique take on folk and country music, look no further than Kill County. The band recently brought their minimalist old-school roots sound on a mini-tour to Texas, playing a series of shows around the Austin area.
I sat down with the band’s vocalist/banjo player, known only as Ringo, vocalists/guitarist Josh James, and multi-talented instrumentalist Joe Salvati, before their show at Trophy’s, a well-regarded and charmingly “rough-around-the-edges” venue on the edge of Austin’s trendy South Congress neighborhood.
ON POVERTY AND PUNK
The group’s distinctive moniker, Kill County (originally “The Bastard Kid of Kill County”), was selected because it was ambiguous and intriguing yet invoked a certain imagery of the dark places from which they feel their music springs.
Ask Kill County about their influences and they are as likely to cite thematic influences as musical ones: good times and bad times (mostly, it seems, the latter), poverty, rural life, and tradition are all themes that don’t merely dominate in Kill County’s music, they shape it.
The group’s musical influence are numerous and diverse. Freakwater, a Chicago-based alt-country combo, influenced both Ringo and James with their dark, thematic sound. Likewise, Palace Brothers and Bonnie Prince Billy have influenced Kill County with their melancholy, acoustic sound and Do It Yourself approach to music.
In anchoring their country sound, they cite classic country artists like Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. Their folk and roots influences spring from sources as diverse as Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 “Nebraska” album, the dark lyrical stylings of Townes Van Zandt and the Appalachian-infused sounds of Smithsonian Folkways recordings, showcasing both the depth and depression that Kill County strives to capture in their songs.
No big surprises thus far. But when talking with Kill County about their influences and their own musical loves, one more surprising genre repeatedly comes up: punk. Ringo and Josh James both previously played in punk bands and they strive to bring some of the punk ethos and aesthetic to Kill County, feeling their music helps bridge the gap between roots/folk and punk.
Kill County has played with Uncle Monk, the mandolin-driven bluegrass project fronted by former Ramones drummer Tommy Ramone. Ringo and James recall a conversation with Ramone about the fluidity between punk and folk and how both genres can be different expressions of the same thing. Or as Kill County guitarist James puts it, “At a certain age, you stop getting angry at life and just get a little sadder. But you’re still drinking a lot, so transitioning from punk to country music feels very natural.”
Exploring this transition actually helped Kill County develop their sound. “In going from electric to acoustic,” James explains, “you have to learn how to fill out the sound.” He explains this isn’t just a question of playing louder but of “learning to create depth and breadth in your music.”
THE BAND FROM NOWHERE
Another intriguing aspect of Kill County is that they are from … well, they really aren’t from anywhere. The members of the band originally met in Lincoln, Nebraska, over a decade ago. Ringo and James are former roommates and, with Salvati, formerly played in Triggertown, a Lincoln-based fiddle driven outfit. Today, however, Ringo lives in Iowa and James resides in Austin, while Salvati is still in Lincoln. So, if Kill County can truly be said to have a home, it is a vast triangle between Lincoln, Austin, and Iowa –- a broad swath of Middle America that helps anchor both their sound and lyrics.
While such dispersal creates obvious logistical challenges for a band, Kill County takes it all in stride. Its members express great commitment to the band and to each other. While they don’t “practice” in the conventional sense, they exchange tapes of their individual performances so that each member gets a feel for the others’ playing. As James says, “[Being able to do this] testifies to the fact that we each understand each other naturally as musicians.” And, when they get together to play shows or to record, somehow it all comes together.
Another way in which Kill County has responded to their geographical dispersion is building flexibility into the band’s size and lineup. Kill County can perform as anything from a two person core of vocals, banjo, and guitar to a five-piece with vocals supported by an array of instrumentation.
Kill County has two albums currently available. State Line was their 2007 debut release. That was followed up with The Year of Getting By in August 2010 [read our recent review HERE]. The band brings the same emphasis on DIY and authenticity to the recording that is evident in their music. The Year of Getting By was recorded on a four-track analog machine at a friend’s house. Many of the songs on the album were recorded in just one take, with no post-production mixing.
James says this approach gave them exactly the recording they wanted, “It sounds real, not overproduced. You can hear every ‘pop’ in that room on the record. People have really responded to that; they know that they’re listening something real. We’re planning on doing our next album exactly the same way.”
Regarding their next album, there is no word on when it will be released, but Kill County has already recorded two tracks for it. While not getting away from their emphasis on the guitar/banjo combo, the band is looking forward to the next record as an opportunity to experiment and expand on the solid sound they have already built.
For a music writer, a live performance is an opportunity to see a band put what they say in an interview into practice. Kill County’s show at Trophy’s was a solid, beautiful demonstration of everything they had discussed during our interview.
The band opened with “Adeline,” a down-tempo track from their first album. One of the first things striking a listener about Kill County is the distinctive vocals: minor key, warbling voices that speak of Appalachia or traditional American folk music and are so strikingly different from the current country and alt-country sound. The band’s vocals were well accented by Salvati on dobro and a slow, deliberate strum from Josh James on guitar. Joining Kill County for their Trophy’s show was bassist Brian Bussard. Another Lincoln-to-Austin transplant, Bussard supplied a carefully measured and well-crafted bass line to anchor the band’s sound.
The second number was “The Train, the Drink, and the Dawn,” a song written about an old friend of the band. Several members point to the dark tone and powerful imagery of this song as encapsulating what Kill County is all about. While it is all that, and is rooted in the same powerful and stripped-down roots folk as the rest of their music, it also leans less on the acoustic and more on the electric as it delivers a strongly alt-country tinged vibe. Even so, it is a sullen, deep number which is never forceful or bombastic — but rich, powerful and ethereal.
They followed with “Down to Texas,” another of the band’s favorites and, again, driven by the vivid imagery of the lyrics as much as the music itself. The song’s title and theme seem to work themselves subtly in to the music, with a tempo and guitar lines that invoke a slowed-down Waylon or Willie. Again, Salvati backs the song with top-notch Dobro. “Down to Texas” highlights another joy of watching Kill County live, the vocal interplay between Ringo and James. Ringo’s vocals are accented with warm twang. James’s slightly lower register conceals a hint of growl.
Taking the audience, thematically, to the other end of the country, the band follows with “Straight Six Ford,” a song about James’s time living in Alaska. Packed with their usual potent lyrics, as the band thematically detaches itself from the heartland of country music, their sound follows. “Straight Six Ford” leans more heavily on traditional American folk than roots or country, especially in vocals and guitar.
“Southwind” is a duet between Ringo and James, and represents their minimalist strand of roots-folk at its most pure: two voices, one guitar, one banjo, a well-crafted song and beautiful music.
Sixth in the set, “Western Town” again features excellent vocal interplay between James and Ringo, as the two trade lead lines back and forth. They not only compliment each other in their singing style but also in their stage presence. James’s face is relaxed, even slack as he belts out his deep tones. Ringo, in contrast, is full of intensity as he sings, eyes closed and muscles tight. The spaces between their vocals are filled with Salvati’s potent lap steel. During this number, it becomes clear that the band has built a great rapport with the audience. The crowd is wrapped up in their performance and really seems to understand what Kill County is doing on stage.
With “Coffee Black,” Kill County changes things up a bit, promising the audience a “moderately up-tempo song.” Actually, that might be a bit of an understatement. Showcasing another dimension to their music, the band launches into a whirlwind of activity that oozes Appalachian mountain music in its chords, vocals, and tempos. If there was any doubt about Kill County’s ability to deliver a musically ambitious and technically intricate performance on fast songs as well as slow, it is dispelled by the furious but perfectly steady execution of “Coffee Black.”
“Time Passing,” offers another change of pace, at least at first. It opens with James delivering guitar lines that are softer-edged — almost soothing and, dare we say it, ambient. From there, it gradually moves towards the more expected masterfully dark folk and roots sound. This number also delivers some of the show’s most remarkable instrumentation with a sonorous foundation of bass notes delivered by Bussard and beautiful accents provided by Salvati’s dobro.
The band closed their set with “This Family,” another up-tempo number in the classic traditions of American folk music. It is an excellent climax to the set, providing all four musicians with ample opportunity to showcase their musical and/or instrumental talents blending everything together into a rich tapestry of lyrics, music, and technique.
IF YOU PLAY IT, WILL THEY COME?
Kill County is not for everyone, something of which the band itself is very aware. In an industry which often demands musicians “give them less, but it give it louder and faster,” Kill County delivers “more, but slower and carefully.” They are a band that is all about subtleties and rich layers of complexity hidden below the surface.
Kill County’s minimalist, understated sound is built from individual performances that are intricate and intense. Their haunting strains of country and traditional folk, often infused with an Appalachian flavor, contain a savvy alt-country and punk aesthetic. In weaving songs about the classic hardships of country music, Kill County injects shades of the rage that reflect the punk musicians they once were as well as a brooding melancholy that borders on the Gothic.
This is a band that may never find mass appeal (though I hope they do). But for musical connoisseurs with a good ear and a willingness to take the time to discover all the layers within a band’s sound, Kill County is a true pleasure that offers a unique blend of many much-loved strands of American music.