One way to get the attention of a live music fan is to call a band’s live show “explosive,” which is one of the words used to describe how The Kickback do things live. But before you go to their next concert, let’s hear directly from the band why their brand of live rock has been compared to incendiary sticks of dynamite and tension-filled ticking bombs connected to blocks of C4.
Lighting the wick of inspiration for The Kickback is a mix of influences ranging from Iggy Pop and the Walkmen to the Strokes and Radiohead. All of which are known for putting on their own explosive shows.
Based in Chicago and hailing from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the rock quartet has played over 150 shows in each of the last two years. And they credit the feelings and emotions they’ve felt on stage, and the interaction they’ve had with fans during concerts, as the source of creative power surging them forward to explore more expansive songwriting territory on their latest EP Great Self Love.
After listening to Great Self Love and watching videos of shows over the last couple years, I saw a transformation, both musically and physically, in the band’s approach to live performance, so I asked The Kickback’s front man Billy Yost (vocals/guitar/keys) to tell us a bit more how they’ve developed their live show and how performing live influenced the new recording.
Continuing our exploration in to the STLS Energy Transfer and The Little Things, you’ll discover the details behind Billy and the band’s constant quest to find the perfect emotional and physical balance during a live show, a balance he says will hopefully let fans can soak up the pleasure of slow-burning ballads and still experience the furious tension of trauma-inducing rock.
To get you ready for their show this Saturday at Reggie’s in Chicago, Billy also told me what was going through his mind as he watched a former music student bliss-out before him at the foot of the stage during a show, why he likes being in pain at the end of a set and why he’s willing to play Hank Williams covers just to play at one of his dream venues.
Interview with Billy Yost of The Kickback
Live Fix: You guys have played in a variety of venues with various sizes of crowds over the last two years. How have all those experiences influenced and inspired your recent EP Great Self Love.
Billy: Great Self Love was sort of a knee-jerk reaction to my getting tired of the way we had been doing things live for quite a while. We had sort of developed this reputation as a balls-to-the-wall rock and roll act and at the time, that’s not the kind of music I wanted to be making or the way I wanted people to think of us, which is useless in its own right because nobody has a more skewed version of a band than the people in it. Regardless, right after we moved to Chicago, I started writing these slower-paced, more patient songs that required us to do more than bash and freak out. After recording those songs, we realized it was going to be a bit of a test to see if we could still “bring it” live without being able to rely on me throwing things or Danny tipping his drums over. It’s been a very interesting challenge trying to channel the Hyde reaction into more Jekyll-y songs. My biggest hope still is that people leave feeling like they’ve been through something traumatic, one way or another.
As an artist, what “Little Things” do you look for during a show for real-time insight or inspiration?
There are a few things that stick in my mind in regard to live performances. At one of the shows we played back home this winter, I remember looking down (the stage was probably four feet off the ground) and this kid I had had as a student during my student teaching had one hand gripped tight around my mic stand and the other hand around the monitor and he was using it as an anchor to rock his body back and forth as hard as his body would let him. Seeing people in the middle of their own “concert routine” as a byproduct of something your music has provoked is the most rewarding thing anyone can ask for. There are parts in songs that people who are familiar with your music are waiting for, and to see that “payoff” is kind of the reason any of us do this.
Personally, the best moments for me or when I can turn around and exchange an emotion or idea with my Danny in the middle of a song. To look back and have your older brother holding down this thing you’ve made together is the most reassuring thing in the world for me. And any time any of us are bereft of energy or spirit, we just have to look over to Zach who is probably simultaneously playing damn-near flawless and debuting another addition to his litany of interpretive dance moves.
As a fan, what “Little Things” have you noticed during some of your favorite concerts?
It’s an odd thing, but it takes a lot for me to get excited to go out and see a band in concert. I spent healthy portions of days in high school and college studying live footage of Radiohead and The Strokes and other bands on my computer. I would spend hours trying to track down information on what effect Radioheads’ guitarist Jonny Greenwood was playing on what song and how he got an instrument to make a particular sound.
I’m a sort of self-styled voyeur of “Little Things”, maybe, but from a vantage point where I can see everything that is going on. In regard to concerts I have physically been to, the thing I find consistently rewarding is when a band is being honest about what they do. I will gladly buy into anything as long as it’s being sold genuinely.
What do you love the most about performing live? What elements of modern live performance would you could change if you could?
Playing a show for people who are even remotely interested in seeing you is the best feeling in the world. It has always felt like a bit of an exorcism for me or a chance to act out the generally anxious way I am. It’s a time for honesty and for hopefully getting everyone on the same wavelength, not morally or idealistically or whatever but on a more base, drum-pounding level.
Right now, I wish I could find a way to marry these conflicting emotions I have of wanting these pretty and intricate parts but also wanting to dive into a group of people or just, I don’t know, yell, maybe. Or music is sort of defined by ludicrous amounts of dialectical tension, I guess.
You guys started playing shows in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and then migrated to Chicago. What would you say is the biggest difference between a Chicago crowd and Sioux Falls crowd?
South Dakota fans will find something to dance about. It’s fantastic. At least the people who come to our shows. Seriously. Fantastic.
I don’t feel qualified in the slightest to speak in regard to Chicago crowds yet. We’ve met some swell folks. Just need to loosen up the knees.
Watching a video of your live show on 1/5/09 (above) and then a video from 12/31/09 (below), I noticed an evolution in the band’s stage presence, energy, etc. Can you talk about the back stories and some of the differences between those two shows?
The pretense under which both of those shows were performed could not have been much different. The show where we seem a bit more low-key was mostly because I had spent the day in bed sick as sin (at a nice couple’s house who had let us stay after our show in Kansas City) and was operating under the influence of several conflicting allergy and sinus medicines.
There’s another video clip of that show that shows me laying out the litany of stuff I bought at the Target pharmacy earlier that day. Mountains of decongestants. I also seem to remember Danny throwing a three-day pity party about something at the time, too, and I think that’s sort of evident. Nobody in the group is exceptionally great at the “grin and bear it” if something’s wrong. Oddly enough, I distinctly remember that that was the best-sounding show we had played in quite a while, which was weird under the circumstances. The sound onstage was fantastic and really helped as we had only been playing “Rough City” live for a couple of weeks when that footage was taken.
The New Year’s show was our first time playing back home in South Dakota in six months and was Tyler’s debutante ball, his first show with us in our home-ish town. Unfortunately, the show was running late and we only got a 35-minute set as the bar had to prep for the always necessary and aesthetically relevant New Year’s dance party so we had to push through things quickly. We had to cut a bunch of songs off the list and that frustration sort of led to things getting knocked over. That show was one of the most rewarding that I have ever played, though.
That was honestly the first Sioux Falls show we had played where I felt like we had built some sort of fanbase, or at least a group of friends that out-rival any bunch of folks I’ve ever met.
If you could take one element of your favorite concert you experienced as a fan and use it to inspire The Kickback’s live show, what concert and band would it be and why?
There’s a clip of Iggy Pop doing “The Passenger” in London, I think, that is probably the most enthralling piece of concert footage I have ever seen. He manages a gentlemanly baritone voice but still comes off as ferocious and an absurdly talented backing band that still sounds rough and loose. The song is the same four chords over and over again but new things seem to keep happening and my heart races through the entire thing.
Take us through the experience of the Kickback’s first live performance and tell us how your live show chemistry and interactions have changed or evolved since playing that first show?
The sound of the band, as well as the band itself, has changed dramatically since the first technical Kickback show. Our first gig was at Open Mike’s in Vermillion, South Dakota which is where I and the other two guys who made up the band at the time were going to college. We packed the place with friends who were just sort of interested in the novel idea of seeing people they know attempt to play music. We got through our set and were please as punch.
Those guys moved on and it wasn’t until my brother Danny joined, first on bass and then on drums, that we decided to start taking things a little more seriously. The first year or so of playing was pretty frantic and hard-rocking music. After a while I realized that I wasn’t making music that I had any interest in listening to, and we just sort of dropped half of our set and started writing music that was more conducive to things I wanted to focusing on musically.
What I miss about the about the old stuff is that it was relatively easy and always a high-energy affair and I could be running my head through a door or running into people in the crowd and we could still get through the song without any problems.
The more recent the music, the more I find myself having to be a bit more reserved to make sure harmonies are write and Tyler and I are making our parts match correctly, and I don’t enjoy some of the diligence that is required. I know it sounds cliche and campy, but I really prefer to be literally bleeding by the time we get done playing.
I like to physically be in pain at the end of a set because it makes me feel like I’ve done something that matters, not in the Bono “I just saved your life” sort of way, but that I’ve done something that took something out of me and it was worthwhile and personally meaningful.
We’re at a weird place now trying to find a happy medium. Our music has grown so much musically, having added additional instruments and multi-part harmonies, but I want to find a way where that can all be present and we can still move.
On your Facebook page you mentioned that playing “a gig on the Wall Drug property has always been a dream of mine.” What is it about the Wall Drug property that makes you want to play a show there?
I had a strange obsession with Wall Drug along with memorizing the Presidents of the United States and anything Muppet-related when I was a kid. I tried to get my folks to bring me to Wall Drug every year as a sort of vacation. All of the “touristy” and geographically interesting parts of the state are on the far west side, Danny and Zach and I were from the far right, so going to Wall Drug and the badlands counted as a legitimate vacation in my eyes. There’s something so fantastically innocent and wonderful about that place; it brings out the best in people. It’s campy and I know people who have worked there that absolutely hated it, but for me, it represents a place I can still go and feel the same age.
You buy fudge and walk around and look at overpriced biker jackets and Native American action figures and it just feels like a safe haven from “cool.” You’re usually the only idiot walking around in tight pants. It’s a an honest, silly place. I have no doubt that we would go over like a lead balloon, but I’d be willing to play Hank Williams covers all night if it means we could play next to a Jackalope.
You mentioned that the show at Reggie’s on Saturday will be the last live show before you start recording your next EP. Will you be doing anything unique or approaching the show differently with that in mind?
We will be playing the songs we’re going to record and it will be a few weeks before we play live again so I’m sure that will be on our minds, but the I think we’ll be approaching it with the same vigor we approach any show.
Thanks again to Billy and The Kickback for sharing their live concert back story.
The Kickback Tunes & Concert Info
MP3 track: “Indigenous Newspapermen Circa 1980”
Saturday, May 22nd
$ 5 cover
Doors at 8, shows starts at 9pm