Kes Band – AKA KES
July 17, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: The Big Issue, # 304, May 2008.
Having learnt to embrace his own idiosyncrasies, the outsider-folk musician known as Kes has garnered strength, recognition…and a band.
It seems appropriate that we meet in a secluded place. A canopy of knotted vines and foliage filters brilliant early afternoon sunlight; a gentle breeze flits through the tall, unmown grass by the creek; the distant hum of traffic underscores voices and wind and birdsong. Karl E. Scullin – the man better known as Melbourne outsider-folk auteur Kes – is not one to seek the limelight.
“It’s almost as if I need to hide the meanings of my songs away,” he murmurs almost inaudibly, pushing a long lock of perfectly kempt hair from his face.
Sitting beside band-mate and friend Laura Jean in the quiet eastern corner of a scraggly creek-side reserve in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs, the 31-year-old is a picture of thoughtful diffidence, charmingly odd mannerisms and almost androgynous appearance.
“I tend fragment my lyrics as much as I can and cover them in metaphors,” he pauses. “It’s the only way I feel comfortable performing them. I’m not the kind of guy who can sing, ‘I love this girl, I love this girl’, you know. It just gets really irksome for me.”
It says a lot about Scullin’s peculiarly ornate and utterly authentic take on music. In an era that has seen ‘new-folk’ artists become heavily marketable, increasingly pliable music scene commodities, Scullin’s work – which this month manifests itself in the form of third long-player and first full-band album, the aptly titled Kes Band – has maintained a strikingly distinctive course.
Since releasing two skeletal early EPs around the turn of millennium, he has made a name by fusing meandering psychedelia-inflected musical passages with often-surrealist lyrical explorations. The thin, warbling idiosyncrasies of his voice have only added to his near-inscrutable guise.
Speaking to him in person reveals a little more. Belying his bashful countenance – his piercing blue eyes, rambling explanations and digressions into nervous, fleeting laughter – isn’t some novelty quirk, but rather, a rare sense of artistic drive and vision.
“It was a massive struggle for me to accept my own voice at the start,” explains Scullin, who grew up as part of an artistic family in Melbourne’s outer western suburbs. “I would have much rather sounded like a Michael Stipe or someone who had a kind of deeper, more full-sounding voice. But the bottom line, when it comes anyone who is trying to be creative in music, is the fact that they’re trying to overcome something.”
“I had to accept that I was going to have to do something with what I had,” he continues. “But now, because I’ve done that, I feel like I can just sort of cut loose. I’ve kind of given myself licence to just be myself.”
This boundless creative sensibility has pervaded Scullin’s entire musical cache. Having played bass as part of reputed, but now defunct Melbourne rock ensemble Bird Blobs, Scullin ambled into the public’s wider gaze with his 2005 debut as Kes; the spookily quixotic, nylon-strung minimalism of The Jelly’s in the Pot. With little more than asymmetrically plucked guitar and his hushed, off-kilter vocal, he crooned of “evil twins” who made him too nervous to finish his “din-dins.” It was brilliantly odd and oddly affecting oeuvre, only surpassed by the wandering, spectral band dynamics and experimentation of 2007’s epic, 16-song opus 2007 The Grey Goose Wing.
Recorded in analogue on 24-track reel-to-reel tape, the record brought together a swathe of vocal and music collaborators – including Laura Jean and Paddy Mann (of Grand Salvo) – to enliven the Kes sound. But as Scullin explains, the record was just a cumulative step toward Kes Band.
“I really feel like The Grey Goose Wing was kind of like a sketch-pad of just writing down ideas, whereas this album is really quite realised,” he says.
The self-titled Kes Band, which as the name suggests features a full, collaborative ensemble – made up of Laura Jean (bass, vocals, recorder), Julian Patterson (drums), Biddy O’Connor (viola, vocals) and Lehmann Smith (guitar, vocals, mandolin) – represents a huge progression for Kes. Glowing with warm, fully formed arrangements and melodies, it lends a concise, pop-flavoured edge to Kes’s sprawling take on folk.
“Musically, its just so satisfying project to be involved with,” offers Laura Jean. “It’s so complex and Karl writes so much that you’ve always go something to work on. I mean, we’re working on another second Kes Band album at the moment and we’ve got a double album’s worth of instrumental material already.”
Indeed, Kes Band’s pop-flecked aesthetic points to anything but a slowing of Scullin’s creative impulses. Far from it. “Everything’s cumulative, you know,” he offers. “The food you eat is cumulative to building your cells and I think that with song writing, it’s very much the same thing.”
“So you know, I’m up for some radical changes, really…I think that this album is really the pop album and I think we’ve had a good crack at it, but there are thousands of other things that can be tried. I think the instrumental album and the next Kes solo album will be a lot more out there.”
So what can we expect from this atypical musical auteur? “Well,” he sighs, staring off into the foliage-strewn middle-distance. “I would be perfectly happy to put out an album of just hysterical screaming if I thought it had some merit to it.”
“In fact,” interjects Laura Jean, lowering her voice to a near-whisper. “It’s actually been discussed.”
By Dan Rule
Kes Band is out now through Mistletone/Fuse
Go to http://www.mistletone.net for upcoming gigs