Photo by Jack Gould It ain't easy being the Killingtons. For proof—or at least a pretty funny, fictionalized account—try tracking down a copy of a video they made a couple of years ago for their song "Belly Dancer." In it, the band is onstage, about to play to a smallish gathering of blank-eyed, slack-jawed statues (also known as "The Audience"). An oafish, cowboy-hatted MC cheesily introduces the band to the crowd:
"Here's the cause for your applause, the Killington!"
Guitarist James Killington Thompson (JK, if you would) starts a jingly-jangly riff and then achingly moans the first line: "Slow down, sloooow down." Michl Bravine, the drummer, starts a quiet roll that quickly slams into Chris Muench's tumbling bass lines. The whole band erupts. The music is driving, pulsating, fierce to you and me, but not to these indifferent, assembled-for-the-cameras folks—all they do is stand there, grim-faced and unmoved. A few leave, then a few more, until by the end of the three-minute tune, only one guy is left watching —and then he cuts out, too. Meanwhile, the MC has fallen asleep, and the soundman has passed out atop his mixing board. JK steps back to the mic and says, "Thanks, we're the Killingtons," his voice oozing with contempt and defeat, the hum of the room's air conditioners their only applause.
It's a joke, of course, an exaggerated depiction of how some audiences over the years have reacted to the Killingtons. When they formed in 1995, the OC music scene was more polarized than it is now—a glut of punk and ska bills reigned, and the Killingtons' brand of evocative, melody-saturated, non-bar-band rock & roll was not happening. They wound up taking slots on those same punk/ska bills anyway, just so they could play somewhere. Neither tribe really "got" the band, though, nor what they were trying to do —hence the thousand-yard stares depicted in the "Belly Dancer" video, crowd expressions that scream, "If we all just stand here and look bored and jaded, maybe they'll go away."
Fastforward five years, a time that finds the Killingtons in a better, clearer headspace. They have respectable turnouts at their shows (gigs in which, unlike those in their earlier years, they're paired with bands whose music is a bit more complementary). They have supportive, protective management (Vince Pileggi, who watches over Reel Big Fish, among others). They've sold 2,000 copies of a five-song cassette and 1,500 copies of American Made, a three-song EP. They've had tracks on nationally distributed compilations like The Buddy List, and they've played the Warped Tour and This Ain't No Picnic. They've added a new guitarist, Mitchell Townsend (of now-defunct Red 5). They've had interest from several major labels (but are smart and savvy enough not to have signed with any of them—yet).
They've also had frustrations, disappointments, even deaths. But all that matters right now, as the four Killingtons spread out across the cigarette-singed floor of their Orange rehearsal space, is the shiny little plastic disc JK is currently twirling with his fingers. It's a copy of their full-length, self-titled debut CD—probably not a huge deal to most in this age of DIY-at-home CD burners, but it has taken a long time for the band to get to this moment.
They're all happy with the way The Killingtons has turned out, yet not exactly doing back flips, probably out of a sense of general exhaustion. Maybe also because they know this isn't really the end of this particular project. Now comes the hard part: getting their music out there. By being cautious and going the indie route for this first album instead of carelessly signing to the first offer made to them (and there have been several, they say), the Killingtons have been able to create a piece of art entirely their way, without any meddling from ever-watchful corporate A&R departments looking to market the next faceless two-hit-wonder pop band (the CD is being released on MEG, a new indie formed by Pileggi and Vegas Records founder Jon Halperin; both have pretty much sat back and let the band do what they do).
They're careful, in other words. They know too much too well and have heard firsthand horror stories from too many friends of theirs, about what can happen when you turn your work over to people whose job it is not to promote creativity but to mass market "product."
"We did whatever the hell we wanted," JK forcefully pronounces. "If we were on Interscope, they'd do to us what they did to No Doubt, tell us that it's not 'radio friendly' enough, then have us make a whole other album."
"A lot of labels don't want to take an artist and develop them," Muench says, "especially with all the consolidation in the music industry that's been going on for the past couple of years. Everybody wants their quick hit. That's why this CD took so long. We knew it would be better for us to go and develop our own selves."
Townsend chimes in: "If we ever get to the point where we want to go to a big label, we'll tell them that we have to be a priority when it comes to promotion and creativity because we can say we already sold this many copies alone without them. Like Green Day did: the only reason A&R people went to go see Green Day was because they were selling out the Palladium without a label. The majors were asking, 'What's going on here?'"
Former Red 5-er Townsend had to learn about the business end of the music biz the hard way. Red 5 were a hot local buzz band a few years ago after they got signed to Interscope, but the process of dealing with the suits and ties wound up killing the band—a case of buzz-band-today, has-been-tomorrow. "Our first record came out, and everybody in LA was saying, 'This is it! This record's gonna be huge!' So we toured our asses off, we did the first two Warped Tours, and we went on the road with everybody. But touring was the only thing that kept us alive, not record sales. Interscope wasn't doing shit with promotion. By our second album, they were promising it was going to be a top priority, but it wound up getting shelved for a year while all their attention was going to Snoop Dogg. With the Killingtons, I really don't want that happening again. We just want to get as much going ourselves as we can, so that if further down the road the idea of going to a major label becomes something we want to do, there's something to stand on, something we can show that we already did."
"It's an industry I would suggest no one go into," Muench advises.
JK is quick with an even blunter summation: "It sucks."
With the new album will inevitably come new appointments with friendly label people. Meetings and lunches will be penciled in. Still, the band is in no hurry to get signed—the priority now is to get the music in the right hands, and even that is a very grassroots operation. If you had stopped by the MEG offices in Orange any time this month, you would have seen 2,500 promotional copies of The Killingtons strewn about, ready to be stuffed inside 2,500 envelopes, which need to be sealed and sent out to 2,500 media types, concert promoters, radio stations, venues and publicists. Those, naturally, will be followed up with at least 2,500 phone calls, and at least 2,500 recitations of the standard question, "Did you get the package we sent you?"
Pileggi and his staff are working the Killingtons, the kind of grunt duty they hope will pay off later for the band, in the form of print reviews, gig offerings, in-studio appearances, whatever. It's all part of getting the name out, he says. "Getting noticed is always hard, though. Every week there are more than 5,000 new CD releases. That's 20,000 per month—you just get lost in the shuffle so easily. But it's like fishing. You have to wait for a long time."
When those 2,500 people get their Killingtons CDs in the mail, they'll find a gem of an album—a smart, great, passionate rock & roll record, something rare in this Unholy Age of the New Cock Rock. Guitars echo and ring. Power chords feel —well, powerful. A tune like "Staring at Concrete" opens up into these huge, fiery, dramatic riffs, the kind of sonic craftwork you hear differently with each spin. There are bits of honest, ethereal beauty, too, like "Balladovie," something gentle enough to rock a newborn to sleep by.
It's as if the Killingtons give their music a texture you could almost physically rub your palm across. You could probably call their music "emo," and people have, but that sticks the band with tons of baggage they're not terribly comfy with.
"Emo is a term that was created by hardcore kids to insult guys who were into emotional, melodic rock," explains Muench.
JK agrees: "The word just doesn't make sense. It's like saying 'alternative rock' when all that's passing for alternative rock now is mainstream. Boyz II Men put out more emotion than we do—does that make them an emo band?"
And then there's "In Memory," a song that's clearly about loss and only cuts you deeper when you find out the full story behind it. Muench lost both of his parents in the past two years—his father, Michael, to a stroke, and his mother, Wendy, to breast cancer. They were both big supporters of the band, often turning up at shows. The music in the track is fittingly mournful, yet somehow triumphant as well, a celebration of lives lived more than a dirge about loss. JK's lyrics are especially poignant, lines that Muench still hasn't brought himself to read or listen to (they haven't performed it live yet): "In the end, we all grow old/The time we spend laced in gold . . . Does tragedy appeal to God? Does God exist at all? . . . Your wide eyes closed before your time is up/Run to me before the last show."
"We were all pretty close to Chris' mom," says Bravine. "We talked a lot, and she reminded me of my mother in a lot of ways. She had a real kind heart."
Just before she died, Muench's mother had a favor to ask. "Her last wish was to watch us play, and I'll never forget that," says Townsend, for whom the command performance was his first gig with the band. "It was a small room, but it was filled with family and friends. More than anything, having an event like that happen, it's a reminder that there are always going to be more important things than music and guitars. We might be in a band together, and we might have our bad weeks, but something like that pulls you up and tells you that we're friends above all and to not let stupid things that may happen down the road cause us to forget that."
The Killingtons played a date on this year's Warped Tour, underneath a baking sun in the Pond parking lot. To find the band, though, you had to ask around—they weren't on one of the four (better-organized) main stages, but instead on the unheralded Ernie Ball stage, part of some Battle of the Bands-type thing.
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In some ways, it was like old times. Warped is basically an annual holiday for the Backward Ballcap/Wifebeater Tank Nation—not the Killingtons audience. It looks good on a rsum, though it's overload, and there's scarcely time to really explore anything new. One kid approaches the stage while the Killingtons are on, asks who they are, and, after about 10 seconds, sniffs and walks away—tough crowd.
JK, Muench, Townsend and Bravine smoke through a slew of songs off the new disc, from "Belly Dancer" to "Best I Know" to "Magnum." After a while, Muench mentions the band's CD/shirt swag, as well as the pink ribbons they sell at every show with their merch, proceeds from which go to breast cancer research.
It's an okay-sized crowd—not as huge as NOFX maybe, but respectable. A few people on their way to the main stage stop to check out the band, looking somewhat surprised to stumble upon a band that's not playing punk rock. Then a few more come by, and a few more, till the numbers are almost double what they were at the beginning of the set—ahhh, new converts! They even manage to sell some CDs, and some people stop by an autograph booth after the show to get them signed by the band.
That's how the Killingtons will make it, you figure—through handfuls at a time.