Black Kids - the young guns who grew up
From Christian ska group to 'bling indie pop' and dance music, Florida's Black Kids have flirted with many formats. Chris Mugan talks to the band about lust, love triangles and Lynyrd Skynyrd
Friday 27 June 2008
Whatever happened to the seedy rock hotel? Led Zeppelin helped give LA's Continental Hyatt House its reputation as the Riot House, while in London, the Columbia has been immortalised in an Oasis song.
Today, that tatty hotel has been overshadowed by the smarter K West in Shepherd's Bush, home from home for many touring acts. Its leather banquettes and minimal chic show exactly how prosperous our live scene has become and reflects the fortunes of Black Kids as they learn coolly to ride the acclaim and approbation that comes with such a tag.
Hyped last year on blogs, they toured the UK last December and returned to record their debut album, Partie Traumatic. It has been a dizzying rush for a group that formed in 2006 and first made a splash last August at Popfest in Athens, Georgia. By the end of the year they'd been tipped by Rolling Stone and released their four-track demo as the Wizard of Ahhhs EP. By then, however, the inevitable online backlash began on whether bands were being given enough time to mature.
This failed to derail the Kids' juggernaut here, as punchy first single "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You" nudged the top 10. Partie Traumatic reveals a band fizzing with ideas and propelled by singer Reggie Youngblood's conviction. This afternoon, as we meet him and drummer Kevin Snow, the former does all the talking, shrugging off the attention they received so early on in the band's existence.
"Our ambitions are modest, but unreasonable: we wanted to make an album that had 10 singles on it. That might seem conceited, but actually isn't that difficult if you insist on some editing and making sure everything is up to your standards."
Black Kids took a chance to work on their album with Bernard Butler, former lead guitar of Suede, a band Youngblood and Snow share devotion for. As the band's guitarist, Youngblood had the most to gain from this experience. "I would defer most of the time to Bernard. Tracking guitars was one of the highlights to me, though in the end he stripped out a lot. It was wonderful watching his childlike ambition as he went in there adjusting the amps, trying different guitars."
Youngblood met Snow at Sunday school in their home town, Jacksonville, Florida, and they formed a band in 2000. They made an immediate impact as part of an eight-piece ska group that benefited from the US's Christian rock scene, in which bassist Owen Holmes also made his mark. This gave the core trio a confidence that kept them going through their next two bands after they left the church. "It was really vibrant in Jacksonville, so we took it for granted we'd sell out venues," Youngblood admits. "When we severed ourselves from that scene, we were taken aback that no one cared about our new groups. So we had years of playing in obscurity.
"Each group would last two or three years before it would disintegrate, but I could always tell when a band was about to fall apart, so I would be thinking about the next thing."
Coming from a city known for Confederate flag wavers Lynyrd Skynyrd and rap rockers Limp Bizkit, you would imagine the Kids would be out on a limb – and you would be right, though enforced absence has made the heart grow fonder. They have only spent a week there this year, Snow admits. "It's a big small town, large with a Southern small town feel. It's more like Georgia than Florida," he goes on, before Youngblood elucidates. "I love it much more than I did before.
"It's a huge place, so the vibe does vary. We live in the artsy, historic part of town, where the air, the people and culture are preferable. We feel like we're under siege the whole time." "Our friends call it a black hole, because it's cosy enough to be hard to leave," the drummer adds. "It sucks you in, but there isn't much to do there."
"If I was a novelist," says Youngblood, "it would be the perfect place. It's certainly given me a relaxed environment to write pop songs. It's very inexpensive to live there, so I went for long periods of time being unemployed, just strumming my guitar and waiting for Kevin to get off work."
Although Jacksonville has a history of heavier bands, Youngblood and co found themselves facing a coterie of groups that aped the tasteful, emotionally literate indie rock that has found favour with TV dramas like The OC and Dawson's Creek, which have promoted the likes of Modest Mouse, The Shins and Death Cab For Cutie. "There was a prevalent hardcore scene and a lot of friends were into that Nineties indie-rock sound. We love those groups, but the idea of playing that music – Oh God, I just know our next record is going to be all guitars – but we just wanted to be different, so chose to be bling indie pop."
Instead, it is dance music and Jacksonville's club scene that has had most impact on Youngblood's songwriting. He admits to being a recent convert to clubbing; the singer and drummer both DJed regularly back in Jacksonville. "I always chuckle when I think about that period in our lives, because it was such a stark change. We used to listen to Nirvana, we'd always be morose and wanting to jump off a bridge, but then it quickly got old. We started going to dance nights and that heavily influenced all the projects we did after that. Plus there were the opportunities for sex."
The duo shared an apartment next to their favourite club and you can imagine the whole album being set there. As well as the exhortations to party of the album's title track, you have Youngblood chatting up women, lusting after the unavailable and getting off with the wrong ones, either because they already have boyfriends or fail to match his exacting standards – the story, apparently, of life in Jacksonville. "There are often a lot of love triangles, because we live in the part of town where – Christ, I hate to use this word – hipsters congregate. Everything is so incestuous. We all go to the same clubs, so there are specific nights you go out, interact, get into trouble, then have time on your own to reflect and turn it into a three-minute ditty."
Having time to reflect suggests Youngblood did not always get the girl. "Well, no one likes a winner," he begins uneasily. What? You are balancing out success and failure so as not to sound conceited? Turns out there is more thought here, after all. "I am interested in – and appalled by – how certain people can be very smug and confident one moment and cowardly and insecure the next. It's frightening how they can act the entire time."
He dismisses his stance as a reaction to his Christian phase. "I was oversexed even before that period in my life. I've got a demon in me. The quickest road to teen pregnancy is enforced celibacy. There is so much sexual repression that you're doomed to failure."
Comparing the Kids with the three long-term collaborators' previous incarnations, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the key change is the recruitment of Youngblood's sister, Ali, and Dawn Watley as keyboard players. More importantly, they provide backing vocals that entwine themselves through the album in different guises. Sometimes they support the lead singer's words; sometimes they undermine his chat-up lines on "Listen to Your Body Tonight", before finally stomping all over "Look At Me (When I Rock Wichoo)".
Youngblood concedes this point as he looks back at previous group Mata Hari, four anonymous blokes heavily reliant on pre-programmed sounds. "I felt a little cheesy up there and felt people needed to see what was going on. We're not the type of siblings who hang out, but I always recognised Ali's talent – she's self-taught on piano and can sing. To be honest, I already had two collaborators in Kevin and Owen and thought I could manipulate and bully her. Thankfully, she has a mind of her own."
Despite their avowed confidence, Youngblood describes Black Kids as a last throw of the dice. "There were moments I thought maybe I was living inside my head and the songs weren't as great as I perceived them. If the demo didn't get us anywhere, I was going to hang it up and become an English teacher, though after a year of severe depression I'd have probably tried something again." The result, though, quickly paid dividends. This year is Black Kids' party, and we are all invited.
'Partie Traumatic' is out on 7 July on Mercury; Black Kids play Glastonbury (www.glastonburyfestivals.co.uk) tomorrow, and Wakestock (www.wakestock.co.uk) on Sunday
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