Here is a cat that you need in your world. As a person he is so in touch with what's going on in the world around him. That is just so refreshing to hear that we needed to find out more.
Now he is heading out on his new robotic glam phase with his new label New Vine Records.
We all need to know what makes this cat tick and what influences all the music and imagery he puts out there, so we go from the beginning of his journey and right up to present day and believe me he has even more stories to share, but first, we chat like long lost friends and as such we can all get in touch with.....
Kurt Riley the person. Kurt Riley the artist. Kurt Riley the STAR!
Hi Kurt, firstly many thanks for joining us here today. So you just a little while back released your newest single "FTK SHK", but before we get to that and all your extensive back catalogue, let's get to know "Kurt Riley". So when did music really get to you and what was your age and surroundings at that pivotal moment?
Kurt Riley ; My family was (and remains) quite religious, so hymns and spiritual songs were always in the ether when I was a child. Lots of AM gold on the car radio, too - Philadelphia soul, The Beach Boys.
Kurt Riley, The early years
But it was at fifteen years of age that music became my "raison d'etre".
That was when I first heard The Rolling Stones - and I was enchanted immediately. For my money, there's never been a more perfect group, and my affinity for their music has never waned, even with the passage of the years.
Well I can think of worse bands to be a reason for being. Yes The Stones, I like also. They were and still remain the essence of modern day Rock N Roll, I think most bands owe a debt of gratitude and for that alone all the more power to them. O.k so as we know with The Stones image was central from the get go, did you get into the image side of things at the same time as the music and was that just the Stones image or were there other instigators?
K . R ; Excellent question. The one-two punch of magnificent music and an archetypal image was massively influential; the manner in which the group adapted to each new era, both sonically and visually, was especially important to my formative brain.
The Stones dipped their hand into every genre from psychedelia to Punk, from Glam to New Wave. That ability to span styles-whilst still remaining rooted in the blues, rock n roll and R & B was a template for me.
Brian Jones was an especially large figure during my early years. The delicacy and power of his sartorial choices were surpassed only by his unbelievably diverse performances. My god -everything from sitar to dulcimer, with generous helpings of slide guitar and harmonica between, What a talented young man.
Brian Jones was more than a pop star, his style and aura was witnessed by many including the young Mr. Bolan and Mr. Bowie. A talented cat as you say yet, somehow troubled I think. Did that part of his being influence you? That is to say was seeing both sides of the "star" if you will, the dizzy heights but also the possibility of those crushing lows. Did the low side influence your style music and image wise?
K . R ; Undeniably. Jones showed me the family tree of great musical dandies - from Messrs. Bolan and Bowie, whom you spoke of, also Robert Johnson, who was renowned for his elegant suits and popularity amongst the fairer sex.
Brain Jones showed me both the power and the peril of fully relinquishing control over yourself, in service of the musical id. The discography is often legendary, but the living is bleak. I fight to strike that balance daily.
Keep up the fight, we need you here for the positive, talking of which a lot of your music is positive or is striving and seeking out the positive in this bleak background we all live in. So talking of your music when did you first think of turning your fandom around into something creative?
K . R ; My youth was spent receiving the greatest education - a self-directed one, outside of high school walls. I ravenously consumed every biography, every record, learning about the heroes I'd become enamoured with. Taught myself how to play multiple instruments, how to sing and how to compose. Almost instantaneously I realized that my heroes were much like myself, in so far as they were misfits who essentially invented themselves. So I set out to do the same.
Yes, misfits are we all and under this Rock n Roll banner we congregate and share our joys and our woes, welcome all the "artists"! Ok so you say you taught yourself how to play but was there one instrument in particular that you gravitated to and also from the get go you knew you would be the singer too?
K . R ; The first instrument I took up was the drums, but both the cost and the waning patience of my parents and neighbours put and end to that very quickly. (laughs) However, that percussive approach informed my later work - I next taught myself guitar, and was highly influenced by very percussive players. The first guitarist I emulated was Bo Diddley; he played his guitar quite like a drum, with the rhythm and chop.
My voice was a different animal altogether. But I could not have asked for better teachers, Otis Redding, Freddie Mercury, Muddy Waters, Bryan Ferry, Nat King Cole... the list is endless. Somewhere in there, I found my own tone, my own delivery.
Such a rich well to tap into and some big, big names in there also. So you got to grips with the instruments and then your voice, so when and what was the first performance you gave and what were the circumstances in which it unfolded?
K . R ; There was a long apprenticeship.
The teddy boy / rockabilly years
Left home at seventeen on a Greyhound bus for Memphis, where I spent a year immersed in blues and rockabilly. Subsequently I formed a Punk-R&B group called The Steel Hearts - think The White Stripes playing Larry Williams and we performed extensively in South Florida. That was one hell of an education, We played everywhere from arcades to colleges.
"Got on a Greyhound bus" is a familiar story, however let us focus on that for a moment. Left home young and got on a bus, what was your thinking behind it all? A sink or swim kind of a deal or was it a desperation to get out from where you were from to find some identity. Take us, if you will through your thought pattern up to the day you got on the bus.
K . R ; It was incredibly difficult.
My family is an absolute blessing from heaven. We've had our misgivings- they're incredibly conservative, and I, well, I dress in costume and wear make up in public (laughs).
At the time, our relationship was more strained than ever. We were entirely at odds. But it was still heart breaking; I saw my mother break down into my father's arms as the bus pulled away.
I really hurt them, the two people who loved me more than anyone ever has in my lifetime. I should have been more considerate, less antagonistic.
But that was the way it transpired. And we have reconciled wholly. We love one another dearly now.
Shaking the glam back into music The Steel Hearts live and a pouting Kurt
Back to performance - I've always been very aware that in the pop game, a body has a very limited lifespan. So I was making a concerted effort to get my foot in the door while my heart and face were still young (laughs). Neither are very youthful anymore, but the music is better than ever. And I'm glad I didn't encounter the type of success I imagined at that age; it would have consumed me, much as it did Mr. Jones. Time has wizened me. God, twenty -seven- that's barely a life!
That's great insight there for everyone, sorry if that was painful but I think it's important to let people know your journey, so thanks for that and it's great you get on better with your parents than ever now, for some people they never get that chance, but time is a great healer and people grow and change usually for the better I think. Also I think it was right that stardom didn't find you then, but it should fully embrace you now, because as you say the music and you have progressed. Before we leave The Steel Hearts did you record anything at the time or was it just foot to the floor playing live to get that "foot in the door"?
K . R ; Thank you for your kind words. There are a decent amount of recordings from The Steel Hearts - they live in my archives, and I turn to them when nostalgia for my wayward youth (or a glass of wine) puts me in the mood (laughs). One day I may release them- they're dam good.
Yes they sound very interesting, however we shall have to wait to hear them, did you play any big shows with name bands during that time?
K . R ; We were managed for a short time by Jay Gambit, who went on to form the grindcore group Crowhurst. It was an odd paring, to be sure, but he was quite an enthusiastic supporter, and became a good friend to The Steel Hearts.
"I ain't no square with my cork screw hair!"
Odd couples usual work though, yeah? So The Steel Hearts how did that all end and where did you go from there? Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted to do next?
K . R ; Oh yes - I've made many strange bedfellows in my career (laughs). But it makes for unique results.
The Steel Hearts ended amidst some severe internal issues, not least of which were my own doing. A lesson in leadership was learned, to be sure.
Subsequently, it was clear to me that the best way to realize my vision was to strike out on my own, as a solo artist. And in one permutation or another, that's essentially what I've done ever since.
Yes and what a strike out it has been so, the band ends and you start to think about what to do next, take us through the falling down of the band and then the regeneration of Kurt Riley, solo artist, scary times?
K . R ; Believe it or not, what was to come next was one of a few incredible strokes of luck I've been blessed with.
In 2009, I set out to make my first solo record "Brighthead". Through an acquaintance from high school, I connected with a fellow named Jordan Asher Cruz, and his father Steve. ( Jordan later went on to work with Beyonce, Run The Jewels, and FKA Twigs under the nom de guerre BOOTS.) They are both absolutely stellar musicians, producers and lifelong musicologists. We got on like a house on fire. Over the course of several months, we recorded "Brighthead" in the elder Cruz' home studio, fawning over our song writing / producing heroes like George Martin and Tony Visconti. It was a beautiful time.
You see, struggles can and do pay off. Ok let's get to the record "Brighthead". To me as the listener you had a very clear vision of a Glam Rock / Pop record, before we get into the tracks was that the plan from the start or did it all just fall into place?
K . R ; From the outset, "Brighthead" was planned as a statement of purpose. A declaration as a newly-minted solo artist. So I used the opportunity to showcase a bit of my breadth as a songwriter - there's Spanish guitar, a number with Middle Eastern tonality, another with a
choir and a Pixies-esque thing about the West's declining hegemony. And that's just four out of the twelve songs on the record. Not bad for a first try (laughs).
Yes totally hear ya with this record, lots and lots going on but all tinted with a healthy Glam Rock glow. Stellar work indeed, so let's get into some of the tracks on "Brighthead". "Miss Bent", great ambiguous title there, killer groove and drum sound and definitely a T.Rex vibe here, can you tell us the inspiration and story about this track?
K . R ; "Miss Bent" started with a fun little pun - Miss Bent = misspent, as in youth. Something with which I was intimately familiar (laughs).
Click image for "Miss Bent" video
My family enrolled me in a series of increasingly strict, increasingly religious private schools as a teenager, most likely to curb my rebellion. Unfortunately, I was a bit of a prat, so their efforts had the opposite effect.
I met many kids during this time who seemed like ideal students, but years afterwards, their lives went in many unplanned directions. So this release was my attempt to address that, to say that we still wanted to know you, even if you didn't graduate college or attain the ideal Christian home with two point five kids. There was still a chance for redemption, for a fulfilling life.
Nice! Next one I want to discuss would be "Free Your Mind", a great line that many more people should try and live a little more by, however, a nice "Fever" vibe with a truck load of swagger and also one of your best lines and I quote, "Don't want to live in an average world", great line, great song, thoughts?
K . R ; Thank you for saying so, Darren. "Free Your Mind, juvenile as it is in retrospect, it contains a pretty common aspiration - to retain the purity of one's soul amidst the forces which perpetually seek to rend it asunder. First school, then a job, then sometimes a marriage - all of which can chip a piece of you away, crafting an unwanted identity in your stead, if you let them. "Free Your Mind" was my pushback against those walls as they closed in, I'm still in the ring on that one. Round ten (laughs).
Haha yes I hear ya, gotta keep keeping on. Another one I adore from the record is "Memphis Blues". Again a killer groove and it reminds me of Marc Bolan jamming with early Queen, both heavy and catchy as hell with a healthy dose of that glam rock swagger, what's the story here?
Click image for "Memphis Blues" live video!
K . R ; Bolan and early Queen? Good lord. I need to be paying you for this (laughs). That is mighty high praise.
"Memphis Blues" was written while I was living in Florida after my Greyhound jaunt to Memphis, TN. I wrote it by the pool one sunny day, with a cigarette and an acoustic guitar. It was a bitter little kiss-off to some of the less pleasant folks I'd met in Bluff City (laughs). Initially, it was road-tested and recorded with The Steel Hearts, but the definitive version - for a while anyhow - was recorded solo for "Brighthead". My current group plays it in a much different way - we've slowed it down and given it a haunting synth atmosphere. Like James Cotton drenched in John Carpenter.
Credit where it is due Kurt. It reminded me of an early Queen B-side "See What A Fool I've Been", love that track. Freddie plays it almost "faux blues" with his almost comic delivery, but the music and the vocal tone is absolutely killer, just like "Memphis Blues", but your real vocal is the icing on the cake, you can really feel the vitriol. Also as an a-side I saw a live version of it and indeed the track now is very spacious and also your Fripp / Eno guitar part just adds a little something extra. Next "Into The Oven", great track and an almost flamenco treatment to it, story here?
K . R ; The Fripp / Eno compliment is one of the kindest I have ever received. Thank you so much.
"Brighthead" was my first release, so I was adamant about using that opportunity to flex my song writing muscles. "Into The Oven" was a flamenco / Spanish guitar pastiche of sorts, as you noted, God, that was great fun. BOOTS and I got to ham up our camp Spanish guitar skills, and I played castanets, just like Spector used to have on The Ronettes' records. Funny thing is...when you begin experimenting with all of these different styles, you find their roots in established popular music. You can hear a lot of traditional Latin tonality in the work of The Stones, for sure; Keith Richards has noted that the first number he learned on his grandfather's acoustic guitar was "Malaguena"
"Brighthead" under the spotlight
Yes, nothing new in the world, however to mix up lots of different styles into something new has always been the way forward. Now before we leave "Brighthead" and move onto your next release "Kismet", tell us about the last track on "Brighthead", "2005", did Rock and Roll really save your life?
K . R ; Without question. It is my raison d'etre. Before I found music, I was aimless in life. Had little direction, few aspirations. But when I first heard my heroes, I knew immediately what my path was. And I've been walking it ever since.
"Walking In The Shadow Of The Blues" hey? So 2011 saw the release of "Brighthead" and it wasn't until February 2016 your next release "Kismet" came along, so fill us in on what happened in those "between" years?
K . R ; Not many interviewers ask about that. Good Catch (laughs).
"Brighthead" was released with a lot of anticipation, but the venture fell apart, unfortunately. At the time, I was incredibly inexperienced with the *business" portion of the music business equation- and therefore, I had little understanding about getting the requisite PR coverage and live concert booking to get the word out about the record, So it died in obscurity.
I died a bit of a death, to be honest. The record took a year to produce, and was made with meticulous precision, with a crack production team. To see it vanish like that was crushing.
After a little while, I returned from Florida to Memphis. To be honest for a while I thought that the journey was over - there didn't seem to be any future ahead. Spent an eternity working in warehouses while attending community college; on an especially heartbreaking day, I was in a magazine store, and came upon an issue of Rolling Stone which featured one of my old collaborators.
That was heartbreaking. I felt like I'd failed so utterly, so spectacularly.
During this time, a very good friend of mine helped me stay afloat. Taylor Berryman, who runs a podcast in Nashville as The Poptimist, was the bassist in the "Brighthead" - era band, and he was on the phone with me day-in day-out from 2011 to 2013. It was thanks to his encouragement that I kept composing, kept recording. In fact, I recorded two full albums in my home studio during those years, which remain locked in my vault. After completing community college in Memphis, I had the good fortune to be granted admission to Cornell University, in New York, I was born into meagre circumstances - my family always struggled to pay the bills - so the notion I could attend an Ivy League institution was shocking, to say the least. But I took the offer, and it changed my life.
WOWIE! So back from the brink of oblivion you came and back into the centre of things in NYC! So after the lows what were your thoughts about NYC and again take us up to the day you got there, you have got us hooked (lined and sinkered, remember that line people) on your journey, so take us back to this time and all the feelings you had going there
K . R ; Well, NYC wasn't the destination, actually (laughs)! Cornell University is located in Central New York, amidst the beautiful Finger Lakes and wine country. Absolutely beautiful- you should see it right now. Autumnal gold, red and orange everywhere.
walking into the future at Cornell
Coming to Cornell was a shock. Meeting eighteen-year-olds who were the children of financiers, talking about their plans to work for Google, their vacations in Ibiza, it was a different world, far removed from the experience most humans have in this life. But this is where I wrote "Kismet". And that album changed everything.
O.k. take us into your mind set that brought forward the inspiration to write again and in a new setting. How did you think of "Kismet"?
K . R ; Before leaving Memphis for New York, I had a whirlwind romance, with a woman I feel deeply for. It was like something out of the movies - Sinatra playing in the background, glasses of wine, the whole nine yards. It ended disastrously, but it laid the inspiration for "Kismet".
"Kismet" tells the story of King Bandele, an alien regal from a distant world. In searching the cosmos for his missing queen, he comes to Earth, and ends up sacrificing himself to save our species from annihilation.
Click image for "Hush, Hush , Hush" video
Writing a concept album was a new and welcome challenge. You have a pre-established narrative- acts in the story have to be told in a certain order, so there is a rigid table of contents to adhere to. But I found that restriction helpful, honestly- it guaranteed that each song had a place and a purpose. To celebrate and promote "Kismet", I shot two music videos, and held a large performance within an auditorium on Cornell's campus. We received a great deal of press coverage, and I performed with a magnificent nine piece band; sax, two guitars, the works. Many of them had recorded on the album itself as well. We recorded it ("Kismet") guerrilla-style in Cornell's music facility, and I overdubbed and mixed it in my dorm room, much to the dismay of my neighbours (laughs).
So the world was your oyster for this record, so before we get into some of the tracks, did you have any expectation for the record after the disappointment of "Brighthead"?
K . R ; It was an amazing time, to be sure. I wasn't expecting much - to receive recognition at all would have been satisfactory. So the amazing response from the public and the media was incredibly humbling - and vivifying at the same time. It was that response which convinced me that I really did have the knack for this art form - that I should keep going. "Kismet" was the rebirth.
The reinvigorating pre - "Kismet" performance at Cornell before the full performance of the record
Yes what comeback and like you say a rebirth, like in fact the first track on the record "Eternity". This could have been a bleak opener but unlike Bowie's Diamond Dogs future, yours had hope I think. Was it a no brainer to have an instrumental piece to start the record, to say, start the new era clean and wipe away the past and only look to the future?
Click image for "Eternity" video
K . R ; Thank you for saying so. "Eternity" was written one evening when I was feeling particularly lonely and romantic. I wrote it as the theme to my future wedding, whenever (and with whoever) that might be. As it turned out, it was a perfect way to tell the first chapter of "Kismet" without lyrics.
"Eternity" starts by introducing us to King Bandele. He is celebrating his nuptials to Heaven Snow, his bride and queen-to-be. In the king's world, poverty, war and bigotry have been transcended; the denizens hold life as their highest virtue, specifically the discovery of new worlds and civilizations with whom they may become allies.
Regularly, a lottery is drawn which choses one citizen of the planet to make a one-way journey to a distant world, in hopes of establishing contact and becoming friends with another species. On the wedding day of King Bandele and Heaven Snow, the incumbent queen has her number drawn. It is a staggeringly heartbreaking development. They had their whole lives ahead of them, and now she must leave for this strange world they've discovered, to honour their civilization's custom. But as they spend their first night together as King and Queen, she promises him that they will meet again. And the next day, her craft leaves their world. That's the story "Eternity" tells, in not so many words (laughs).
And with that people welcome to the world of Kurt Riley haha! Yes killer concept, in a world where many just tenaciously link a load of songs together and call it a concept record, this one is a true concept and as such is a breath of fresh air. Ok that's the concept (story) now let's chat about some of the tracks. An early fave is "Engine's Are Go!", this reminds me of "Suffragette City" crossed with "If There Is Something" by Roxy, in fact talking of the latter the whole record has a "For Your Pleasure" era vibe to it, so tell us more
K . R ; "For Your Pleasure" (and all of Roxy's oeuvre) sit high in my pantheon, so thank you for such a kind comparison. Keith Richards taught me about the power of the immaculately- crafted riff - those unforgettable, Jimmy Reed- simple ones. "Engines Are Go" was a mix of an instariff, rockabilly slapback; it tells the story of the King's interstellar journey to find Heaven Snow. (And that damn sax solo *made* the thing. Brilliant player, that man. A fellow by the name of John Mason.)
Yes nice track. Next "Theft Of Fire" contains another great line from you, "god gave you eyes but you still can not see what for", says a lot that. How about this song
K . R ; The Promethean myth is one of the most timeless ones. Each new generation brings forth a technology which has the power to save or destroy- be it Oppenheimer's weapon or Boston Dynamics autonomous robots. A creation is usually benign, what is done and said with the creation determines whether it causes pain or joy.
"Theft Of Fire" is King Bandele's fury at the human race, having landed on Earth to find Heaven Snow died millennia before in Ancient Egypt (time dilation again). Parts of her craft were cannibalized by that civilization, and spurned forth the explosion in technology seen at that time. The King is incensed to see that human history's bloody trail was blazed, in part, because his beloved was marooned there.
The militaristic, tribal beat was perfect for the subject matter. A furious alien king- a god, to humanity- with righteous bloodlust in his eyes. From a song writing perpesctive, I pulled of and old R&B trick I'd been keen to master - writing two separate vocal melodies over the same chord progression. Much of the best R&B of yore did that - few chord changes, but lots of melodic changes in the vocal delivery.
That's that one covered and then some hahaha. Next one I'd like to discuss is "Domino", love this one. It has a Blondie / Bowie vibe to it and almost an Adam And The Ants break down, almost carnival part. Was this about anyone in particular or was it just an amalgamation of various characters you have met along the way?
The only full performance of "Kismet" in its entirety at Cornell to much praise
K . R ; Ah yes- sorry for the missive, Darren! I can go on a bit if left unrestrained. "Domino" is about the titular character- a prostitute whom King Bandele encounters on Earth. Her story is featured directly within three songs on "Kismet" - "Domino", "Whore" and "God's Back In Action"- and in the final number, she inspires the King, showing him that humanity is worth saving after all.
No need to apologise Kurt, less can be more but when it comes to speaking about one's art there is no need at all to hold back, more is more! Yes those songs do tie well together. Speaking of "God's Back In Action", this could be an AM radio hit, it still has the glam vibe but also with a truly great pop sensibility to it. It's a positive number that could be taken from the album and still make a lot of sense, what was the idea here?
Click image for "God's Back In Action" video
K . R ; To be sure. My aim was to compose something patently humanist - being raised in a Christian home, but becoming an atheist later in life, I straddle those two worlds. I realize that our fate is truly a matter of self-determination; no being is coming to save us. But on the same token, I have great hope in our species; we are capable of anything we set our mind to.
Yes indeed, it's just if people want it, but do they really need it? Ok that's "Kismet" discussed next up is "Tabula Rasa" and this record kinda feeds off the same vibe as "God's Back In Action", that is in "don't give up hope yet because I haven't". The wait for this record wasn't as long as the one between "Brighthead" and "Kismet", so as such, for this record was it new band members for the whole project or did some remain?
K . R ;"Tabula Rasa" was an immediate follow-up to "Kismet". The recording was done lickety-split funded in part by an artist's grant from the State of New York. Two bandmates from "Kismet" remained, but we had a new bassist and keyboardist with us for this effort. The overall concept was to wipe the slate clean after "Kismet"- thus, the Latin title. To get back to writing a set of strong, individual songs. (And the costume for this era was quite striking too. Haha).
Yes before we get into the tracks on "Tabula Rasa", you have always had a glam striking image but this was a step up from before, tell us about where the idea came from and how it manifested itself with you.
K . R ; Well the good lord saw fit to give me a large canvas to work with (laughs). So I was always curious about experimenting with it. Make-up was old hat- I'd been using it for years- but to work with one's entire head...now that was great fun. It made me look like a grey alien.
Were the sunglasses to shade you from the uselessness of the world around you, so you could focus on the positive?
K . R ; Great question. The sunglasses were a bit of a thought experiment. They were mirrored on the outside - people speaking with me wouldn't make contact with my eyes, but would see a reflection of themselves. In the age of the selfie, I wanted to see what people's reactions would be. Most folks fell into two camps; they either shied away from their own reflection, or were transfixed by it.
Yes the perfect image, love or hate and nothing in-between, as an aside what was the first make up look you had and what was the thought behind it?
K . R ; The very first make up look I adopted was for "Brighthead". I used a modified Eye of Horus on both eyes, with dark, thick kohl eyeliner. Lots of heavy foundation- a mainstay since then, perfect for onstage lighting.
The shrinking violet that is, Kurt Riley
Yes a very striking look indeed! Ok back to "Tabula Rasa", you wiped the slate clean and onto the new era. "Good News" is that track you just striving for a better world with better people in it?
K . R ; Absolutely. That song wasn't executed perfectly (like much of "Tabula Rasa"), but the message is a good one.
Yes a great message. Do I get the vibe that there were issues with the recording of the record? If so is that thought with hindsight or did you think so at the time?
K . R ; You're possessed of a keen insight, Darren (Laughs). Yes - it was a bit rushed. In my arrogance, I thought we could knock it out in a few days in the studio, "With The Beatles"- style. However, I lost my voice a bit during the sessions - winters in New York are brutal - and the performances weren't always as tight as necessary. The band, bless them, soldiered on. That being said, the record contains a diverse set of mature compositions, it's akin to an adult "Brighthead". One day, when I have the time and the inclination (laughs), I'm going to re-record the sub-par parts, remix it, and put out the "Tabula Rasa" I heard in my mind.
Yes I hear ya, but if one doesn't push one's self you never know what might be, so more power to you and like you said you can always go back, but it is still a solid record for sure. Next up "Screwing Up The World", love this glam rock riff and balls to the wall vocal delivery and a striking video to go with it to boot. Tell us about the track and take us through the storyboard for the video and the video shoot itself.
A bright idea?
K . R ; The video shoot was great fun! The concept included a mannequin (lovingly creatively named "Manny") who was festooned with trite corporate slogans, and a projection screen flashing currency symbols and bits of the lyrics. The actress who worked with us was wonderful, as well. Great fun and quite enthusiastic.
Yes great video. Do you have a very set idea for your videos or does it just happen?
Click image for "Screwing Up The World" video
Also do you take onboard contributions from the other people involved along with your own vision?
Kurt documenting the present (at the time) to show us his past in the future
K . R ; Most often, I do extensive scripting and storyboarding beforehand - a concept is always ready to go. There have rarely been any instances where I wing it with videos; the time and resources are too precious to do so. That being said, videographers, lighting techs and the performers themselves have made endless contributions which elevated the level of each video I've done. It's a very collaborative process, and so long as they get the right profile (laughs), I welcome all suggestions.
I hear ya, killer video. Ok next up is "Do It Again". I kinda get this vibe is an observation of all the rich kids you encountered in college in New York State. I also love the Sparks inspired guitar riff on this one .
K . R ; Thank you! "Do It Again" is a meditation on the commodification of human beings in the twenty first century dating scene. The elements have always been present, but with Tinder and the like, you're essentially reading resumes of potential suitors. The humanity, the romance has been taken out of it. Dating today is about as romantic as picking out a gallon of milk at the supermarket (mind the best buy date). It was also wonderful to create a piece with such distinct sections. Another experiment in flexing my song writing muscle.
Next up possibly my fave from the record "Shadow", sounds like something from the "Velvet Goldmine" soundtrack with a little dusting of Queen in there too. You manage to draw the listener into finding the right one and then the pain of losing them, what's the deal here?
Click image to view the "Shadow" video
K . R ; That is one of a trilogy I wrote for a woman whom was one of the great loves of my life. Nashville gal, who I had known for years, and with whom I shared a very special bond. It was as bright as it was brief. Suffice to say that the life of a musician affords little room for the proverbial white picket fence. But we loved one another dearly, and for a short time it was perfect. Her being from Nashville, and myself having lived in Memphis frequently, I wanted a bit of a country feel. Stripped down, with acoustics to the fore. The execution here didn't touch the poignancy I had in mind- too fast. But that will be remedied when I remix the whole record. (laughs)
And the other two songs that make up the trilogy?
K. R ; One was on "Kismet" - "Hush Hush Hush". The last one - and the first one I wrote for her - is coming out February 2020. It's called "Say You Love Me".
Oh not from this record, a new track to look forward to. Back to "Tabula Rasa", "All Night Long" sees you getting a little sleazy...
K . R ; (laughs) Yes - not my purest moment. That was inspired by Josephine Baker. When I demoed the track, I took a low-budget cello and played it like an upright bass, and over dubbed acoustic guitar; I was really seeking a John Lee Hooker feel on this one. The studio version got a bit to electrified-came out a bit too "suburban Dad blues-lite". Another thing to rectify in the remix.
I hear you but I do dig the whole vibe to it, kinda like a Memphis Blues sister track maybe? Before we move on a few more tracks I would like to discuss from "Tabula Rasa". "Human 101" is a glam anthem, which also has a killer breakdown part, where did this track come from?
K . R ; Thank you! "Human 101" was a title I got a kick out of as a college student. Felt that was a course which, if offered, I'd have really benefited from. (laughs). But the song itself is a celebration of the vivifying power of love in the face of the anarchic nature of existence. A celebration of how special each one of us are, when you really think about it. Life is a miracle. The middle eight in the song was great fun to compose and perform. A bit of opera. About as close as you'll get to "Kurt Riley at The Met" (laughs).
Haha yes. Very cool sentiment to the track, love it. Next up "Putting It Together", this has an almost swing time vibe to it, catchy as hell but is there a dark story behind it?
K . R ; That's one of the first songs I ever wrote, back when I was living as a rockabilly punk in Memphis. (Haha- what kind of sentence is that?)
The Beatles were one of my biggest song writing inspirations when I first getting started. Adored how Lennon and McCartney could craft such indelible harmonies - instant earworms. This was a crack at that sort of thing. The subject was entirely fictional, but I did know a great many young ladies at the time who were treated horribly by their families and lovers alike. A lot of amazing young women who were just scorned, hurt, abandoned by those they trusted the most. And yet they were still defiant, stiff upper lip and all that. Dash of lipstick, middle finger and heels out the door. I always admired that strength.
Yes strength comes from within when you need it most, I think we all have that capability and sometimes you need a "Fuck You" attitude to get things done. Last on the record is "Bound For Glory", again a positive vibe here, in fact I think a lot of your output is "positive melancholy" if that's a term, story please
K . R ;"Positive melancholy". I like that! Very clever encapsulation. "Bound For Glory" was written as an encouraging theme song for fellow students I saw struggling at university. I wanted to make something which would vivify them, boost their spirts. And it quickly became one of my most popular live songs with fans - people love singing along to the chorus, especially. It's great fun.
Glad you dig the term. I was driving to work with your tunes on and it hit me, "positive melancholy Glam Rocker Kurt Riley". So that's the full length records done, (for now) did you have different deals for each record?
K . R ; "Brighthead" and "Tabula Rasa" were released independently; the latter received much more press coverage, and was accompanied by a long set of live dates and two music videos . "Kismet" was released by a small, student-run label at Cornell.
So onto your latest releases ("Love is In My Heart", "Be Cool" and "Failure Of Imagination" ,more of these later). These have all been single releases, were these pre your new label New Vine Records?
K . R ; That's correct. In 2008, I decided to stop releasing albums for the foreseeable future; the majority of the marketplace doesn't consume music that way any longer. Additionally, it puts us back in a very Motown sort of mindset- makes one razor-sharp. Each song has to be tops, because it stands on its own- no filler allowed. I quite like that degree of precision. It was also a kiss goodbye to the first chapter of my career. These three singles were the epitaph to the run which began with "Brighthead", the first panel of my triptych.
Yes how people, where people and when people listen to music now is so all over the place and it is also consumed so quickly, so the single format fits perfectly for these times. Also all killer no filler, hit after hit, as it should be I think. One single I adore is "Failure Of Imagination", killer video, that and the song itself see you channeling Mr Bolan with ease, also with lines like "voice like honey makes the ladies blush" and "I will not be denied by the likes of you" set out a clear statement, enlighten us to this track and in turn the video.
Click image to view the "Failure Of Imagination" video
K . R ; Thank you kindly, Darren. "Failure Of Imagination" was written as a riposte to those who decry the idiosyncratic. It's quite common, really; the strange are vilified until they become successful, at which point much criticism transforms suspiciously into praise (laughs).
Kurt in a Green Lantern haze
The video was great fun to shoot; the band and I lined the studio with black plastic bags (a time-honoured tradition- see Iggy Pop's "Isolation") and used green laser light to create this emerald glam. A tribute to the Green Lantern, my boyhood hero. Really loved the outfit during that era, too; when I met Debbie Harry, she wanted to know where I picked up the pants (laughs).
Nice props from Debbie Harry, so where did you get the pants? In fact were do you get your inspirations for an outfit or look? Do you buy off the peg or are they made?
K . R ; Prior to the start of each thematic phase, I sit down and craft an aesthetic based upon the subject matter and visual components of each chapter. Every new look represents an ethos. (And each one has a nickname). For the "Failure of Imagination" suit, I found a Napoleonic coat, complete with tails and a high collar, and reinforced shoulders. The combination of militarism and glamour is a proven one, albeit unsettling. Our species seems to have an unhealthy attraction to draconian authority figures(laughs).
Yes they do don't they haha, whatever they did aside they did look sharp though, true.
K . R ; "Failure Of Imagination" was preceded by "Love Is In My Heart", which has proven to be a bit of a evergreen. What did you think of that one, Darren?
Yes, another killer track, "Love Is In My Heart" sounds like something by Roxy from Avalon but with a more Beatles melody to it. This track sees you in a positive mood for love, is that right?
K . R ; Absolutely. And Avalon is one of my desert-island discs, so thank you for the kind comparison.
As a boy, the music of Sinatra and Nat King Cole would flow through my grand parents' home when I visited for the holidays. I loathed it then, but in my dotage I've gained great appreciation for it; "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning" and "Unforgettable" are just as important to me now as "20th Century Boy" and "Under My Thumb".
Click image for "Love Is In My Heart" video
Our modern age is so banal, so pornographic, that I wanted to write something very romantic - both in the cultural and the literary sense.
Very, what's wrong with writing a song that says what it should and mean what it says along with a beautiful vibe and melody. " What's wrong with peace, love and understanding?" that phrase is somehow lost today in today's "I want it now" culture. Plus I always loved the first three Roxy albums but like you say as you grow older the rest of their stuff makes total sense too.
Click image to vide "Be Cool" video
O.K. so you released the singles to end that period of your career, much like when Andy Warhol let loose those silver pillows to the world to signify him not painting anymore. So what things and happenings made you want to end that period and move onto a new phase of "Kurt Riley"? Had you had the newer material on a back burner for a while or did it come from a eureka moment from "Out Of The Blue" (sorry couldn't resist a Roxy song pun)?
K . R ; Haha . Well done! Execution was flawless, and that's the main thing. The new phase was on the horizon for a decade. And as we drew nearer to the second decade of the twenty first century, I saw the time was right to begin. Our society has transformed so rapidly - and in such a jarring fashion - that I've long harboured a deep desire to address these brand new topics with my art. The growth of megacities; environmental collapse; the rise of automation and AI, hikikomori and the manner which more people are becoming isolated from one another...… the future is upon us.
Yes, it's funny this thing called the internet was created to bring people together has now seemed to do the opposite, people living lives in isolation, but that isolation is there for the world to see through social media and the like, strange days. So tell us about the first release in your new phase, this track sees an almost industrial tinge to the song, but still with killer riffing guitars, also a harder Bolanesque vocal.
Click image to vide "FTR SHK" video
Draw us in if you will to the world of "FTR SHK"
"FTR SHK" era Kurt Riley
K . R ; "FTR SHK" lays the narrative framework for the "Chrome Empire" chapter of my career. It wipes the slate clean, and simultaneously lays out a new world for the listener. Essentially, I'm painting with lyrics during that song. Each verse is crafted to cut from scene to scene as if you were watching a film.
So this next venture with New Vine Records, are you doing a full concept piece like "Kismet" or are you thinking totally out of the box and making your new tracks "other worldly"?
K . R ; "Chrome Empire" is set apart from "Kismet" by both subject matter and the songs themselves. They use a fictional world to address what is transpiring in reality. And the songs - nine more after "FTR SHK"- incorporate elements of music that I've never utilized before. Nineties R&B, Punk Funk and Asian instrumentation amongst them.
So nothing left out here and you are going for broke yes? Tease us with an odd title or two before we get into your other plans.
K . R ; Haha. Going for broke indeed. I've been playing the new "Chrome Empire" material extensively at live dates in 2019 and fans have already named a few as their favourites; "Evergreen", "Orange & Cinnamon" and "Free" so far.
O.k. so a little teaser for more songs to come, we can't wait to hear more, but everyone needs to catch up on the past to be hip to the future. So how did the deal with New Vine Records come about and what is the deal and what is the next track to be released?
K . R ; The next single is called "Say You Love Me". It will be released in February 2020, and the music video will explore romantic relationships between humans and machines. For the majority of my career I've operated as an independent artist. I'd never found a label that had the vision (or wherewithal) to bring my music to life - until now. As for New Vine Records, they aren't a traditional label at all. They see the future of music, and are working to make it a place where art can survive. A noble mission in the age of the Big Machine.
So this next phase for "Kurt Riley" could be called "Robotic Glam". New Vine sound very on point and a lone voice in the world of music, I am sure the partnership between you both will net the results you deserve in the future. So what's next before the next single hits us?
K . R ; Well December 7th we'll be performing in Buffalo, NY, with a legendary songwriter from out hometown, Mr. Johnny Dowd. My label is working on concert booking for 2020. We're eager to find our audience; metrics and social media responses show us that I'd do well away from the North American continent - Europe, Brazil and Australia would be amazing. This interview is actually the most in-depth I've been a part of to date. I've quite enjoyed it, and your interest and time mean a lot to me, especially given our shared musical affinities.
Hope the NY show goes killer and sees out the old 2019 and welcomes in the new era 2020 and the "Chrome Empire". I am sure a snowball effect will occur and here's to a bright(head) future for Kurt Riley. Thanks for your time Kurt, for me too a totally trip to chat, so let's get people hip to the past so we can welcome them into the "FTR SHK".
K . R ; Thank you so much, Darren it's been and absolute pleasure!
Interview conducted November 2019