Kings of Spade with Dave Edery & The Scandaliers at Dirty Dog
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When a band finds success, people usually speculate over whether they’ve earned it–if they truly paid their dues. This conversation never comes up while discussing the gritty blues-rock band Kings of Spade. That’s because they actually bled for their art.
It was 2006, and the band from Honolulu moved to Los Angeles to chase their dreams. But the jungle, as we’ve learned, isn’t always so welcoming. Singer KC and drummer Matt Kato were barely scraping by. So they decided to sell their blood for money. “Everyone at the clinic looked down-on-their-luck,” KC remembers, laughing. “I was hooked up to a plasma machine reading the self-help books there. This was the lowest point of my life.”
A majority of the feisty anthems on the group’s new full-length, Kings of Spade (Oct 19th, 2018, Soundly Music), comes from simply not letting tough times kick them down. Produced by Grammy-winner Dave Cobb (Rival Sons, Judah and the Lion, Chris Stapleton), their output (guitarist Jesse Savio and bassist Tim Corker rounds out the band) is at turns soulful and rollicking–never complacent, never dull, always sincere.
Kings of Spade’s first single is “Way She Goes.” Though buoyant, falsetto’d, and highly danceable, it’s about the pitfalls of queer romance. “I’ve never had a lesbian girlfriend,” KC says. “It’s always a straight girl wondering why they’re attracted to me. This song is about that chase.” The sleight of hand underlying Kings of Spade’s work is that their songs manage to feel like punch-the-sky singalongs, despite being effortlessly personal, often bordering on cathartic. The banshee wail and grimy riffs of “San Antone” and the Joplin-esque, slinky blues of “Mess of Me,” for instance, are a more lovesick “Way She Goes”.
“I was this somber, closeted queer kid who felt soul and blues music,” says KC, who grew up on everything from Aretha Franklin to Creedence Clearwater Revival. She had no designs on being a singer until, one day, while bartending at Anna Bananas in Honolulu, the house band pulled her up on stage to sing. “They started playing Sweet Child O’ mine,” she says. “I started singing and was like, ‘Hey, I sound pretty good.'”
Around the same time, Jesse, a prodigious guitarist, frequently sat in with that band. “He wasn’t old enough to drink,” KC recalls. “But he would get on stage and rip these Johnny Cash tunes.” They were mesmerized by each others’ gifts. “You feel this energy when she sings,” he says. “My first thought was, ‘Damn, she’s going to be famous.”
She finally approached him and suggested they start a band, recruiting local punk-rocker Matt as their drummer and a revolving door of bassists, until they found Tim. The city wasn’t exactly a hotbed for riff-tastic blues acts, so KC took it upon herself to book club shows that featured Kings of Space alongside local DJs, artists, and other bands. After amassing a decent following, they left for California.
After three years of let downs in L.A., the resilient KC, Matt, and Jesse quit their jobs and gave up their shared apartment to embark on a tour booked by their new manager. Only, he went missing once they figured out there was no actual tour. They returned home to Hawaii, which is when, ironically, good fortune finally befell them.
They returned to L.A. years later after former MTV VJ Riki Rachtman caught them at SXSW–“Your singer’s fucking incredible,” he told Jesse–and booked them an enviable slot in a show commemorating the 30th anniversary of his old metal club, the Cathouse. (It once gave rise to, yes, Guns N’ Roses.) Kings of Spade also found a kindred spirit in Sue Damon, ex-wife of The Beach Boys’ Mike Love. “She was a huge supporter of ours, bought us a new drum set. She was a total free spirit who could party all of us under the table,” KC says. “She ended up passing away. But all of us have her initials tattooed on us.” Sue is also the inspiration driving the boozy thumper, “Bottoms Up.” Fittingly, “everyone wrote on that one,” says Jesse. “It was the only song written in the studio.”
They recorded Kings of Spade over two weeks in Nashville with Dave Cobb. “He produced a band I like, The Rival Sons, which had this old-school sound with modern energy–like, analog-tape soul built into it,” Jesse says, admiringly. Not one to disappoint, Dave used a vintage Mellotron keyboard to give the crunchy “Take Me” its intriguingly simmering comedown. Marvels KC, “We’d never seen that stuff before….”
Typically, as with “Way She Goes,” Jesse brings ideas to the band, and they collectively decide if it’s a good fit. “He has to pitch a whole bunch of stuff, because we don’t have similar taste,” KC says, laughing. Explains Jesse, “Every so often, like a lunar eclipse, I’ll write something that I know is perfect. There are certain elements that have to be represented: upbeat, bluesy, and some kind of unique element you can’t put a finger on. Like, for ‘Way She Goes,’ I wrote a minor blues over a dance drumbeat.”
After reaching a consensus, the band lays down an instrumental. “I play that on a loop for days on end in my truck,” KC explains. “Eventually the vibe of the song will spark a memory. Then I write the lyrics.” Those soulful memories she conjures are the deceiving gut-punches that make Kings of Spade so dimensionally potent.
There’s no better example of this than “Strange Bird”–all Zeppelin riffs and stellar vocal gymnastics–which, in reality, chronicles KC’s heart-breaking coming-out story. “I was in second grade and told a girl in school that I liked her,” she says. By the time she walked home from school, her furious mother, who was very religious, cut-off her tomboyish rattail and told her daughter that she’d be wearing dresses from now on. “I had to go to school like that the next day,” says KC, who notes that her mom has since come around. “It was super-traumatic, but I learned to hide it. Inside, I felt like I was dying. I had suicidal thoughts.”
Kings of Spade’s music sounds so alive, because rock and roll actually saved KC. “I slowly turned into somebody who had the confidence to be myself,” she says, “rock my colors.” Turns out, those colors are electric. Says Jesse: “There’s this amazing energy that comes off her when she’s singing. It hits you in your sternum.”