What: Menomena w/ Kiev
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, inside the Samueli Theater
When: 8pm, May 24, 2011
Tickets: $20 and $40
A few days ago, I was able to congregate with the members of Kiev, including Robert Brinkerhoff (vocals, guitar), Brandon Corn (drums), Derek Poulsen (bass), Alex Wright (keys), and Andy Stavas (keys, saxophone), to discuss how much things have progressed since their last OC Weekly interview a few years ago. Not only did we converse about how the five members formed Kiev up to this point in time, but also their musical plans for the future, their take on the Orange County music community, and how the support of the OC Music Awards helped them connect with Menonmena for their upcoming show at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, inside the Samueli Theater this May 24th. On top of that their performance will involve new technology that produces 3-D images projected on stage, set to synchronize perfectly with the layered tones of their music as they play!
So how did you end up together in this final formation of members?
Robert Brinkerhoff: We all met in stages, a staggered introduction. We only met through music. None of us were childhood friends who got picked on and started a hardcore punk band because of it—none of that awesome classic kind of stuff. Brandon moved down from Washington for a change of pace. We heard rumors of a fresh new kid on the streets who plays the skins. We met through mutual friends, and eventually he came down. We had already auditioned a bunch of drummers, but Brandon was really good, and he was pretty weird. The band was just a name previous to meeting Brandon. But I think upon meeting Brandon, that was the first seed, the first connection of the creation of what Kiev is now. So we kept him around.
I think we played around for about a year before we met Derek, and we met Derek through mutual friends as well. The first time I remember meeting him in the flesh, he was running sound at Cal State Fullerton. We knew of each other, and I remember hearing more rumors, like, ‘Hey, my friend is dating this dude, and he’s really good at music.’ That’s when we started to experience a metamorphosis. I think it was in year increments, maybe a little less.
And then Andy, the sax and keyboard guy, moved here. Through the guy we rent our warehouse from, we heard, ‘Hey, I know this kid that moved out here, and he plays for a Gospel church in South Central.’ We thought that was way cool, ‘cause we had coincidentally been talking about wanting someone to play keys, and hoping they would have other skills-- like being able to play a brass instrument. When we met him, he was just this goofy kid fresh out of North Carolina, even though he’s originally from Nebraska. He was the total opposite from what you would imagine. He’s this healthy, blonde-haired, Viking looking guy who I kind of imagined being like a Phish fan or something. Imagining someone who plays in a Compton Gospel church, I pictured someone that was kind of groovy and cool. And then he was just this excited cheesy guy that was like, ‘Hi! I’m Andy!’ But the first time we played with him, Andy immediately accentuated this other side of us that had always been there; which was this side that was a bit more experimental, and had roots in Jazz. I think the very first time we played, he had walked in, he’d used the restroom while we were playing, and he immediately ran out, picked up a sax, and started jamming with us. We played for like an hour without stopping, thinking, ‘Man, that’s just so awesome.’ And he stuck around too.
About a year later, we heard more rumors—this is all about rumors— we heard rumors about this child prodigy pianist moving out. That’s what they said, that’s exactly what Andy said. Alex actually came here to the studio one time before he moved out, and he walked in and said, ‘This place is awesome.’ He laughs about the rumors, but he plays this song he wrote about his soccer team when he was nine years old, it sounds like Franz Liszt or something (laughs). At that point, our friend Grace who played keys decided she wanted to move to Oregon and study holistic medicine. She was a huge part of the band, but coincidentally, Alex was there, moving to California, telling us he was kind of good at piano. So we started playing with him, and he then accentuated this other side out of the band, which was this meticulous side, with attention to detail—he was a very disciplined dude. We rocked the boat on one hand with wacky Andy getting into jazz and free-jam, and then Alex came and re-centered the band with what he could bring to the table. It was actually really cool because I think for the first time, we felt like everything kind of fell into place. That wasn’t even that long ago, maybe over a year and a half ago. So it took a year for each band member to be found, and during all those years, we were pretty much only rehearsing. Incubating, for lack of a better word, in the warehouse. By the time Alex joined, we had a bunch of songs, but we’re still learning a lot about ourselves. We kind of figured out was what our strengths and ambitions were when he came. So we’ve continue chasing after that.
Now that you guys have your collection of songs, what have you been incubating to release next?
Brinkeroff: I think the most pertinent thing is the show at Samueli. It’s a pretty huge step for us. We’re going to be playing some brand new songs that we haven’t played, so that’s where our heads are at, because we still realize we are writing an album. But more immediately, we’re going to be sharing new music, and for the first time with visuals. As crazy as it is, we’re doing it in 3-D, mainly because people in my family, some filmmakers, and some animators we’re working with from our circle of friends have been playing around with 3-D stuff in their own work. They’re like, ‘Well, we have this gear, and I know you guys want to do projections. Why don’t we just take it a step further, get ridiculous with it, and make a 3-D show.’ As funny as that sounds, it’s actually something that’s been on our minds—not necessarily 3-D, but adding that next step with visuals. We actually had a personal goal, by this late Spring, we wanted to do a show in a warehouse, with visuals, and invite people into our workspace. We didn’t really think there was a venue that could we do it at. We can’t set up at Detroit Bar, can’t just book a show at House of Blues and have the control to oversee that and have a proper sound-check.
How did you get connected with Menomena, and the people at Samueli Theater for this event?
Brinkerhoff: It was actually Ashley from the Orange County Music Awards, and the ACE Agency Group. They hit us up to open the show for Menomena. They’ll be doing a series of shows. I’ve never seen the theater, but Derek, Brandon, and I, coincidentally, have done some music work in collaboration with visuals for the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. We were lucky to be able to work on an event in the past there. We were part of a group of musicians who supplied music to this experimental alias torque dance thing. So we had a relationship with the theater, and then we were coincidentally asked to open the show. They offered a sound-check, and we were panting like dogs, ‘cause we never get sound-checks, and sound is so important to us. And then they were like, ‘Yeah, and it’s at Segerstrom Center, in the Samueli Theater.’ So instead of doing visuals in our warehouse, we decided, let’s see if the theater would be cool with it, since they already know who we are. We asked them, and they thought it would be really cool.
How do you feel about a bigger show like this coming into our realm, and in an art theater, rather than a venue?
Brandon Corn: It’s a nicer place to experience music, as opposed to just seeing it in the same hole that we’re all used to. We all know how it sounds, we all know it’s going to be predictable.
Brinkerhoff: Not only will the theater sound nicer, but it will be a cooler environment. They are catering to another level of engagement. It’s nice being able to do something different than we’re used to. We’ve played in Orange County kind of recently at House of Blues, and before that, at the Orange County Music Awards series, but we really haven’t been playing around here that much. It’s just really refreshing thinking about, at least for us anyway, treating it with the high standard we’d like to hold ourselves to. Yeah, it’s a $20 show, but we’re putting in the effort to do something really special. Not just to make up for the dollar that comes out of the fan’s pockets, but just to incite the idea that, if you want to bring better and cooler shows to Orange County, then I think local bands, at least some of us, would love to step up and contribute back to that—so it’s not just us doing the same thing, playing the same bars. I think a lot of bands, including ours, have bigger aspirations. Might as well start doing stuff at home first.
The opportunity is there when Ashley Eckenweiler and Luke Allen provide new chances for local musicians to succeed, with things like the OC Music Awards.
Brinkerhoff: When I was just starting out, I was Luke’s first tenant in his studio rental space, Gemini Studios. He’s awesome, because he’s always been supporting it one way or another. And now it has been much more hands on with him and Ashley. It’s a way larger scale. Going to the Awards, as you’re taking it in, you realize, there’s no real reason for them to do this, other than that they’re supporting it, and they actually believe in the value of music and a music community. I guess we were all hoping that all the bands felt that way, ‘cause you can get really cheeky with it. I think of it as exposure, the chance to put everyone in the same room and introduce people to other people, as well as giving recognition to people that try really hard.
Corn: I think that’s the end goal behind it, is to honor specific people, but give exposure to everyone that participates. That sense of community is the most important thing that they have brought to the table.
Brinkerhoff: You make those connections with people you’ve been living next to the whole time. The music community hasn’t always been as vibrant and receptive to being more of a communal thing until lately.
Corn: It’s nice to know who your peers are. And also it will inspire friendly…I don’t want to say the word…competition, but in a positive way. Not head-to-head, but more of an inspiration. Another example for us is Railroad to Alaska. We had met them through that, playing the Best Live Band show.
Brinkerhoff: That show is designed, in a nice way, to be a competition. It was an introduction to a band that’s doing something totally different than us, but seems to be really like-minded in their integrity. It makes you feel better. There are not too many things to be comforted by when you’re a musician these days, so when you meet other people that are driven by the same things, and are as genuine and passionate about music, it makes you feel like, ‘Oh wait, maybe Orange County is not such a bad spot.’ There’s definitely a stigma with this area, about it having cliques, and being a little bit more competitive. When you actually get to meet, you realize that a lot of the people that we connect with are kind of longing for the same thing. They would rather have a community and support system. We have so much music here that we can actually have an awards show, so that says something.
That stigma is definitely around, and people have that frustration with Orange County, but Costa Mesa has a scene, Orange has a scene, Santa Ana has a scene. With that being said, why did you choose your home base to be in the City of Orange?
Brinkerhoff: You’re sitting inside of it right now. Wherever this building goes, we’ll go. If this thing picks up and lands in Albequerque, we’d be there. It was funny, I actually came here to go to film school at Chapman, and became really involved with the music, and that’s why I started living here. A while back our current manager was managing other bands, and renting out this rehearsal space. One of his bands he severed ties with, they moved out, and we were looking for a place to practice. Then we came here (to the studio), and thought it was pretty magical. The longer we’ve been here, the more that we’ve carved it out as our own home.
Corn: When it started, it was just us in that corner over there…
Brinkerhoff: …with a couple amps smashed in the corner. Then slowly, over the course of the years, we made it our home.
Corn: It’s a reflection of our growth too.
Brinkerhoff: I know I was raised here in Orange County, but I feel that we’re all a little nomadic in nature-- which is super ironic since we’ve never moved. I know we all have the urge to want to feel free and move around, but as long as this warehouse is here, I have a feeling we will be here. Hopefully we’ll feed our nomadic tendencies by touring elsewhere.
After playing a large show with Avi Buffalo at the Art Theatre of Long Beach, and with this upcoming collaboration with Menomena, do you feel the need to continue the trend with a tour, or will you choose to wait?
Corn: It’s hard, because you can book a tour on your own, but you’re almost guaranteed to lose money on the first couple dates. I think touring is definitely on the horizon, that’s for sure. But I think it’s also important to make sure that it’s done well and done right. When we were kids and we were going out and touring, to me it felt like a totally different thing because gas was so cheap…
Brinkerhoff: …and no Myspace, Facebook, Souncloud, or Bandcamp.
Corn: And we still had the huge map and the book of CD’s in the car. It costs a lot more nowadays to fill up the tank and things like that. So logistically, it’s more difficult to tour these days I think. With that being said, we want to, very much so.
How do you get connected with record companies when they seem to be in as much trouble as everyone else?
Brinkerhoff: You gotta get connected with the bands, and that’s why we’re grateful to get some of these bigger shows. Just to be able to brush shoulders with some bands that are touring acts. We spend a lot of time with Orange County and Los Angeles bands, but not really bands from out of town. We seem to be a little less focused on touring with what we have right now. Like all bands, we are going to be continuously developing the music. I think we’re really eager because we do have a new batch of songs, and we want to round out that batch and make it a true album. I’m not saying that we won’t tour. We’ll take any opportunity to travel if we can play for people, even if it’s just a few. But I think the priority would be to complete an album. It’s been lucky that we developed a relationship with an engineer that we really respect, and he works on all these records, some of them being some of my favorite from over the last 20 years. We just recorded with him last week, just to see what it was like. It seemed like a really cool fit, and there is a lot of potential there. It feels like the natural progression for us, since the band’s progression is a little bit ahead of the available recorded music. For us to put our newest stuff out as quickly as we can, intelligently, and as cool as we can onto some recorded medium so it matches what the band is doing will be best. I think at that point, that’s when you feel most ready to take a risk on a tour. It’s like, ‘Here, we’re most proud of this music,’ and it’s the music people haven’t heard yet. I know that’s always the case with bands, but I think it’s particularly true with us right now.
When did you record last, before this most recent session?
Brinkerhoff: Two years ago, almost. I think that it was such a gigantic task for us to graduate from where we were previous to those recordings. We grew to the point of where, we recorded those songs, and even more, we figured out how to play the music live. We try to incorporate a lot of technology. Apart from the technology, just the idea of playing such multi-layered music, and building it from nothing--in the hands of five people--has taken us a really long time. And we continue to learn a lot about what it is we like and what we don’t like about what we’ve already made. Two years sounds like an incredibly long time to have a gap, but people come up to us and ask how we make such layered music. It feels overwhelming when we make it, like, what did we get into? We had four days in the studio last week to record two songs. Most bands would be like, ‘Oh, we can record two songs in a half a day.’ Even the producer and engineer thought it would be fine. But as soon as we got going, he heard us play it live, and he was ready to jump on it. As soon as we started breaking down all the layers and told him what we wanted to do, he was like, ‘Shit, there’s so much to do.’ Fortunately he remained positive. A lot of people don’t realize that it’s really dense music, we really care about it, and we’ve spent a lot of time with it. Writing a six-minute song, for us, can sometimes feel like you’ve written a miniature symphony. You feel like a stressed out composer, thinking of all the different parts and counterparts and layers.
Being that you guys are so calculated in your composing, how does that tie in with the philosophy of your music?
Derek Poulsen: I think Brandon’s nature of knowing rhythms inside and out, and being able to break down rhythms to certain durations and subdivisions is pretty much the foundation of a tune. His abilities with drums and percussions are always a good place for starting.
Corn: That’s what gets us all moving too, the rhythm of it. It doesn’t necessarily start with me, but it definitely starts with a beat. Out of the batch of tunes that we’ve made, there were only a few that didn’t start with some sort of rhythm. For us, the placement of the rhythm, and the repetition of it in the writing process is part of it as well.
Brinkerhoff: I think we are very meticulous and disciplined people, but on the opposite side of the spectrum, we spend a lot of time as individuals and as a group, trying to be as meticulous, disciplined, and trained. We practice almost in preparation for these really organic moments when divine intervention comes through, so that we know how to interpret it quickly as it happens.
So you cover all the little details, practice all the rudiments, you know your scales and such, so that when the eventual moment of musical creation occurs, you’re all on the same page and ready?
Brinkerhoff: It’s just when the breeze comes through town. The thing I’m most grateful for about playing with these guys--‘cause currently I’m the only one who is not a trained musician-- is that when you have inspiration striking you, you have this tiny little pinhole to try and force out gallons of energy. You explode, and that’s when you turn into a prematurely grey, freaked out, shaky person. When the discipline is there more, the moment is able to be translated quickly. So when we have improv jams, it actually isn’t just us throwing paint at the walls for an abstract feel. It actually comes from an earned, educated place. It doesn’t make it any less improvised or genuine, it just that you learn you can speak without words. ‘Cause that’s exactly what music is, is a translation of all these thoughts, emotions, and feelings that don’t necessarily translate into words.
Explain a little more about what you have in mind for the 3-D visuals for the concert at Samueli Theater, and will the audience need 3-D glasses?
Brinkerhoff: Yeah they will need to wear the glasses, and the band will bring them. We have 400 pairs. We are going to bring in a huge screen, and it takes two projectors to do the kind of 3-D we’re planning. It’s not like we made a 3-D film and the music is a score to it. It’s basically visualized music, that is custom created media arranged in 3-D space to each one of our songs. Since we have computers incorporated into the band, we’re actually able to drive the projectors, keeping it in line with what images we want at certain points of the song. There’s been confusion about the idea like, ‘Oh you made a 3-D film,’ but we didn’t take 3-D camera, which consists of two lenses, and go film things. Instead, we have software and hardware connected to our musical software, that can remember and place 2-D images, or any sort of animation, in a 3-D space. So it’s multiple layers of things that can move and react to our music. We’re a little bummed on it though, ‘cause our backs are going to be to it during the show, and we won’t get to see it. We won’t be projecting it on ourselves, but we went through a bunch of different concepts before settling on anything. Secretly I fantasize about doing it at the Yost Theater, ‘cause I think there will be people who don’t know Menomena, or can’t afford a ticket, and I’d love for them to see it too. But it does take about 10 people to run the show, so we can’t really speak for the other five people that have to work on it. But they’re really excited about it too. We flirted with the idea of 3-D because of all the multi-layers in our music —that was the greatest way to actually visualize multiple layers of images as they react to the many layers of the music.
And ultimately, the whole point is to get lost in the music?
Brinkerhoff: Right. And some people are more visual than others. A lot of people talk about things they kind of feel like they ‘see’ or imagine when they listen to, not only our music, but other forms of music as well. Hopefully we’re able to help those who can’t see it as clear—cinestesia I believe it’s called—that’s when you see the color of music.