Alchemy and Fertility
Interview by Luis Boullosa
Kevin DeBroux, soul of Pink Reason, is one of a kind, and his second LP Shit in the Garden (Slitbreeze, 2011) is more than enough to prove that. A weird (but powerful and catchy) collage of cold emotional drones cut down to the size of songs, featuring the devastating "Sixteen Years," it situates him at the crossroads where Michael Gira & his Angels of Light, the sharpest Lou Reed and the magnetic resonance of Ian Curtis meet. But without a trace of nostalgia. DeBroux's carried over his shoulders the stigma of lo-fi culture and one of that legends rock & roll world is hopelessly devoted to: the rootless one, the lost child, the vagabond, the rejected, unknown genius living on the margin of society, in an eternal conflict from which pure talent flows freely. Real or not, the landscape has changed. Now it's Superior, Wisconsin, a wife, a son, a more stable life, a steady job and a full time band (joined by members of brilliant underground acts such as Psychedelic Horseshit, TV Ghost and Eat Skull). The prodigal son seems to be back, but to a home of his own. It's for him to find out and show us if stability can be any good for creation, if Highway 61 can be composed from a quiet living room or we are condemned to another placid New Morning (with you). It is, as such, the perfect moment and position to contemplate the classic step between Alchemy and Fertility, brought to us by a true artist, one that is able to connect and melt fractured punk and pop shiver into a two-minute fist of noise. We know it when we see it.
PSF: I read in an interview with you that once you were obsessed with turning all the shit of your life into gold, and music was like the magic ritual for that. Sounds like alchemy, vital alchemy... Can music heal and transform things? How? Did it actually work?
Kevin Failure: Music has certainly played a transformative role in my own life. I was a social outcast immediately upon entering school. Every school has a kid like me, at least in the States, and I was my school's. You know the type, the one that is universally loathed by students and teachers alike. That one kid that everyone, even the bullied, get to pick on. I spent a lot of time in trouble at school for "instigating" problems. This is how they justify punishing someone for being the victim of abuse. I was put in "special needs" classes with children who were mentally, or emotionally, disabled. I was considered an "at risk" student. What exactly I was "at risk" of was never explained. So I left school by the age of fifteen, and by the time the kids who would have been my classmates were graduating from High School, I already had a drug conviction that prevented me from getting student loans to go to college. My family struggled in poverty. There wasn't a great chance for a "happy ending" for someone like me, and there hasn't been for many people I have known in this life, unfortunately.
Growing up with music was my escape from the hostility and violence I met with in the world. During puberty, I became a musician myself and I started using music to channel my emotions and experiences into something tangible that I could use as a currency. It was a hustle. It was a pass that allowed me access to the older people in the punk scene and their community. Eventually, I used the fact that I was a musician to at times help me find food or shelter. It was a struggle, but there was some sense of pride in what I was doing, and that was something.
Eventually, I guess when the time was right, it allowed me even greater access to worlds outside the one I already knew. It allowed me to travel and meet people. I met my wife through music. It has gotten me most of the jobs I've had. It's taken me around the world.
These days I have a place in this world. Life is not without problems, but my position now is very different from the one I was born into. It's been music that set me apart from my peers growing up. I've used it to essentially build the life I wanted. I am often busy, sometimes stressed and there will always be struggles, but music provided me with freedom, independence and something resembling contentment.
PSF: Is it still your goal or have you yet changed all the shit into gold? Has it something to do with the album title Shit in The Garden?
KF: Shit In The Garden was about alchemy, but it was also about fertility. There is no end, as far as I can see, to what I do. Times and circumstances change, but as someone who has travelled all his life, I have learned to adapt to these things.
PSF: In some of the texts I've read about your band there was plenty of fuss about your time living in Russia and you were pictured as a "vagabond", going from city to city... Is your life style still like that? What did that kind of life bring you and how did it influence your music & lyrics & your composing method?
KF: That kind of lifestyle brought me the music I make. Today, I have a wife and a child. But these too are new to me. I can't predict what the future will bring, but I'm sure there will be movement. My wife also has a restless heart and she has been around a few places herself.
I think it should be obvious how in the past that kind of lifestyle led to lo-fi home recordings, and I think people who hear what we're doing as a band now will hear the fact that I now live a more stable life. I have a full time band. We record in a studio. I can afford this since I stay in one place long enough to save up money from work.
Pink Reason gets it any way it can. By any means necessary, but also by whatever means are available.
PSF: The DIY style use to be pictured as a political choice, but lately it seems more like an inevitable working method. Would you like to have better equipment and more money to record freely?
KF: Of course, especially now that I am relatively stable and somewhat fixed for the time being at least. It is easier to have nice equipment when you don't have to worry about how you are going to fit it in your backpack. I don't care much for lo-fi fetishism. We come from poverty- that's why we have recorded lo-fi in the past. There will always be assholes slumming it. They're culture vultures. Fuck 'em.
PSF: Can your music can be considered ‘collage technique'? How do you construct your songs and what's the importance of accidents in the process?
KF: It's always different. Sometimes they are like collages, sure. Sometimes it's just your typical "rock" construction. I try not to get stuck in any one particular way of doing anything. There are elements of improvisation involved in what the band does, and "accidents" are sometimes welcome, but I'm pretty critical of my work and of the musicians I play with. I try not to give too much direction to the people I work with, but if I'm not happy with how they perform, I won't work with them.
PSF: Do you consider your music to be "urban", with "the" city having an importance over it?
KF: Sometimes. I lived in Brooklyn for four years while playing with Pink Reason. While I was there, I think the sound of the band was certainly influenced by the city itself. The experiences and emotions I sing about are not limited to the "city" though and the band was formed in the fairly rural community of Superior, Wisconsin at the northernmost tip of that state. A lot of the band's early work was done on a farm far from anything resembling a city in Northern Wisconsin. Truth be told, I'd much rather be living out in the country, although there is certainly many advantages to living in a city as well.
PSF: What's the importance repetition has in your music?
KF: It sometimes plays a large role- especially earlier in the band's career, I was intentionally making music that was hypnotic. At the moment, I'd say it's less important, although most music utilizes a great deal of repetition. Beats, riffs, and choruses are repeated throughout rock based music. There is a thin line between something sucking you in through hypnotic repetition and something just being boring. I guess where that line is for you may depend on whether you like drugs or not.
PSF: Though your music and theirs is different, the level of chaos reminded me of Royal Trux, a band I love. With bands like theirs or yours I always ask myself, ‘what part of that chaos is under control?'
KF: I guess it depends on when you're asking. I try to work with people who understand what's tasteful and what's not, so I don't have to outline boundaries for them, whether they're sonic or behavioral. I'd like to think that we've gained more control as time goes on. The first time Pink Reason played in the form that it's now known featured me bleeding myself unconscious while screaming a prayer at the audience. At that point, I had little control over the chaos.
PSF: What kind of people attends your shows? It's not easy music.
KF: Everything from beautiful young women to fat old men. We got students, junkies, record collectors. Some lawyers. Some criminals. Some cops. Yes, there are at least a couple of cops who are fans and come out to all of our shows when we come through town. One of my fans in the town I now live in recently stabbed someone. I met my wife at a show when she was dragged along to a show by dude who is into witchcraft. It's different from city to city as well. Sometimes, it's crust punks, other times it's indie rockers. I guess different people may like different things about the band, but I don't think you have to be one type of person to appreciate the songs.
PSF: What's the line-up nowadays if any?
KF: I'm playing guitar and singing. Matt plays lead guitar, he's also the main guy in Psychedelic Horseshit. Our bass player Shawn was formerly in TV Ghost and our drummer Rich has drummed for Horseshit, Eat Skull and is also a comedian.
PSF: The first time I listened to "Sixteen Years," it just blew me away. For me, that song is like a raging, modern, perfect middle point of a triangle made by the most experimental Lou Reed, Michael Gira solo work (The Angels of Light) and maybe some Joy Division stuff (maybe my impression can be influenced mainly by your vocal style). Are you interested in those artists?
KF: All of those artists were influential for me in my late teens. I still like them all quite a bit, although I don't listen to any of that stuff regularly, except for maybe the Velvets, especially the live stuff.
PSF: Is there any conscious influence you can admit?
KF: There is no one big influence that can define the Pink Reason sound or anything. I take influence (from) everywhere. It's always changing. Lately, I've been feeling influenced by bands like Hanoi Rocks, early Skrewdriver, the Pagans/Dead Boys and other raw rock 'n roll bands.
PSF: You toured Chile, what seems a non-habitual place for independent American bands. Could you tell me about the experience and the "scene" there?
KF: It was a beautiful experience. The scene down there is totally psychedelic! Great people working together trying to build something cool. The shows were all at bars or spaces that were run by people in the scene. Dudes from different bands got together and rented out an apartment which was used as a studio/practice space, with bedrooms people crashed in sometimes and a living room to party in. It was great, but I'm sure there are difficulties as well. One thing that really impressed me was that the scene spanned generations and disciplines. There were artists, football hooligans, skateboarders, and at parties and shows you could find someone like Hugo, who I would estimate was in his 60's and was the main source of psychedelic rock in Chile, and had opened the countries first skateboard shop and was an absolute hedonist and wild man carrying on conversations with Nico from Vapourboat, one of the most interesting bands in Santiago, who was only fifteen years old. I believe that the youth there, at least the ones I met, greatly value everything they have, because as the older members of the scene can remind them, and do in their art and music, it hasn't always been this way. Check out Especial 35 to investigate deeper and look for records on Pasta Base Records.
PSF: Can you live off of what you earn with your music?
KF: No, I have a family now and the band does not make enough money to even fix our own equipment without saving everything we earn off the band for more than a year. It's vaguely self-sufficient.
PSF: What does the word "punk" means to you nowadays?
KF: There is a famous quote from a Supreme Court judge about "obscenity" where he said "I know it when I see it" and I feel the same way about punk. It's more than a style of music- it's an attitude, and a lifestyle. I can tell you a few things that are not punk. Selling your music to a car company is not very punk. I know punks who have done this, and they definitely are punks, without a doubt, as well as excellent people, but doing that is not ‘punk' at all. Working for an insurance company is another thing that is not ‘punk.' I don't care if your only other option is homelessness. I've tried it, it's not that bad. Certainly, it's better than working for an insurance company.
PSF: What comes after death?
KF: Only one way to find out.
See more about Pink Reason at their Facebook site
and see our 2007 article on Pink Reason
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