"It's a mystery to me. I can't get it. I can't understand it."
Nate Jones' frustration is palpable. As a guitarist for Kentucky Knife Fight, he has played to packed crowds in St. Louis and healthy-sized audiences throughout the Midwest, but his band never quite broke through in the way its members hoped and thought it would. Accordingly, the group is ending its nine-year run with a final show at Off Broadway on November 22.
Jones and drummer James Baker share the idea that Kentucky Knife Fight's blending of blues licks, twangy Americana tones and garage-punk energy made it hard to boil down their sound to an easily marketable description.
"Most people, we try to tell them what we sound like, and it's usually like, we name-drop Tom Waits and Nick Cave as far as lyrical influences, and most people are already lost on that," Jones adds.
Kentucky Knife Fight's multifaceted sound developed naturally through the band's inception as a roots act. The group began in 2005 when vocalist Jason Holler and bassist Jason Koenig saw Carbondale, Illinois, bluegrass/folk act the Woodbox Gang at the Stagger Inn in Edwardsville, and the two were inspired to start a like-minded project. Baker and Jones quickly joined, as eventually did second guitarist Dave Wiatrolik (later replaced by Curtis Brewer), and the group stayed on the folk route for about a year until harder rock influences from acts such as the Hives and Murder City Devils began to creep into its sound. But the early Americana and folk leanings never quite disappeared; banjos and country-fried riffs would emerge through crashing drums and distorted guitars from time to time.
As complicated as this hybrid sounds, the band's music is immediately palatable in person. Brewer recalls a time when the group launched into its punkabilly tune "Bad Blood" and a New York audience unfamiliar with the band reacted by pogo dancing. Baker remembers being told frequently by fans that his band was their favorite. "It's never everybody in the room, but it's always some people in the room, and that to me is just an amazing feeling," he says. "I think it speaks to certain people."
When Kentucky Knife Fight played that New York concert, its members had whipped themselves into a polished live act through frequent touring. By 2009 the band averaged 60 to 100 shows a year. These tours were usually profitable, but not by enough to make it worthwhile to the band's members, especially when they had to split the take five or six ways (keyboardist Nate Jatcko couldn't make every date). Touring also kept them from seeing their wives, significant others and families. After the release of the final Kentucky Knife Fight album, Hush Hush, its members decided to call it quits.
"It's more of a shame to me, and an indignity to the music community at large in America, of the nation, that Jason Holler's lyrics will not be known," Jones laughs. But he is not being sarcastic.
Continue to page two. Video by Bill Streeter / Lo-Fi St. Louis
"That guy is a powerhouse of a songwriter," he continues. "He is an amazing lyricist, he's a really great, sincere writer, and the areas that he took our music to... he helped construct the mood for a lot of the songs."
Holler will continue writing, but his words will have to be read and not heard as he shuns the stage for poetry and prose.
"I'm removing myself from the performance aspect of it all," he says. "As much as I get a thrill from being onstage, I don't need it to survive artistically."
Jones, however, says he does. He is starting a new solo project and learning how to use a drum machine and loop station to create music in the singer/songwriter mold. Brewer and Jatcko will continue with their no-longer-a-side-project act Yankee Racers, an eclectic outfit that recently has been exploring heartfelt acoustic ballads. Brewer says Yankee Racers will hit the road "pretty much immediately," and that while he'll continue taking guitar gigs at restaurants and weddings, the band will be his new main priority.
"Any minute I spent on Yankee Racers, I felt guilty that I should be spending it on Knife Fight, so I'd go back to doing Knife Fight work," he says. "Now I'm going full force with Yankee Racers."
Baker, meanwhile, will continue both teaching and taking drum lessons, but he plans to step away from being in a band for now. Koenig says he has no concrete plans at the moment but is keeping his options open.
Before its members move on, though, Kentucky Knife Fight will be hunkering down to make sure the farewell Off Broadway concert sends off the band properly. The group will apply its road-honed chemistry to songs it hasn't played in a long time, with a few surprises in store. Jones and Brewer might also dissect parts of unfinished Kentucky Knife Fight songs for their respective projects. Even if they don't and the band is truly finished, Brewer is happy with what the group did accomplish.
"We got to do some pretty amazing things because we worked really hard," he says. "And I'm really proud of it."
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