Perfect Sound Forever

Kuma and the Art of (Sometimes) Violent Devotion

by Kurt Wildermuth
(September 2005)

If you're not already a Kuma fan and you're reading this, thank you! You're probably wondering at least two things: who is Kuma, and why is Kuma worth reading about? I'll answer these and other questions below, and I'll keep this tributary flowing swiftly, because I want to win you over. I want to do the hard sell, to make the strongest possible case for your going to, checking out the samples there, opening your wallet, and opening your heart. I'm that dangerous type, a convert, and I'm here to preach the word.

Between the first and second songs on Up to Now You've Had It Easy, this New York City band's brand new debut CD, you'll hear a snippet from a concert, in which Shana Gregory Williams, an audience member (and a friend of the band), tells people she is starting "a religion... called Kuma... Join the cult while it's still young!" The band inspires that kind of devotion in lovers of hook-laden pop songs, in fans of high-intensity rock, in listeners adventurous enough to follow stylistic shifts that draw on not just pop and metal but also hard rock, soft rock, "alternative" rock, country rock, soul, even hardcore punk.

At one of several Kuma shows I've been to, a mysterious, exotic woman (and a stranger to the band) did a frenzied dance during the band's speed-metal masterpiece, "The Art of Taxidermy." The CD version of "Taxidermy" captures the live impact so perfectly that I can throw it on at home, play air guitar, and do my own frenzied dance. Via email, I asked Kevin Olsen, Kuma's singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer, about the genesis of this little monster with the spiraling riff. "It's about a friend of mine who committed suicide and some nasty business that occurred before that event," Olsen explains, delivering much more serious and complicated news than I'd expected. "The song is about my questioning the level of comfort I have in taking an experience that was devastating for several people, myself included, and turning it into a three-minute song that functions as ‘entertainment.' Taxidermy appeared as a clumsy metaphor in my mind for the process of writing this song about my friend."

Violence--emotional, physical, often sudden, often brutal--is a running theme in Kuma's songs. "Some of it is autobiographical, and some of it is complete fiction," Olsen says. "But it's not glorifying violence--it's more being bewildered by it."

Making furious music is one way of confronting violence, as on "Charlie," where Manson inspires his followers to "decorate the walls with blood." But the CD's very next song, "While You're Down There," combines a beautiful melody and velvety music with lyrics such as "Let's kick him once more while he's down" and "Let's just say her Dad was none too pleased / He smacked her mouth, I watched her bleed."

In another of Up to Now's many challenging transitions, the delicate, surreal "Zero King" leads to the angry, blunt "Milk Crate." How did Olsen and his bandmates, bassist Artie Rodriguez and drummer Neil Levine, work out the sequencing? I'd pictured them listening to countless versions of the CD; instead, Olsen "sat down at a table, head in hands, over a piece of paper listing all the songs we were going to record, and said 'Oy vey' to myself several times. I aimed for a balance that might be stimulating for someone willing to take the trip. I hoped the subtle segues would make it all more digestible, more of a singular fifty-three-minute musical experience, rather than fourteen completely separate ideas. Still, [the gentle, swinging, largely acoustic] 'Helmet Stain' coming right after [the ferocious, crunching, very much electric] 'Napkin' still makes me laugh every time."

Before forming Kuma, Olsen had been playing in New York for about two years, both solo and with friends. "Neil and I worked at the same company back in 2000. I saw him play at a venue downtown and was immediately taken by his sublime drum fills. He saw me smashing my guitar around at the same venue a couple nights later and was similarly enthralled. We played our first show in July of 2000, but we didn't have a permanent bassist. Neil started a new job at another company, and I followed soon after. It just so happened that the guy who was on the same smoke-break schedule as us turned out to be the finest bass player in the land. Our first show with Artie was in March of 2001."

How did the band get its name? "Friends of mine had a dog named Kuma. I needed to book the band under some moniker, and I felt the days of Kevin Olsen and the (insert preposterous backing-band name here) should come to an end. Kuma means 'bear' in Japanese. The first place I ever played in the city was The Orange Bear, and 'bear' was also a nickname an old girlfriend had for me (don't ask), so it felt appropriate. I also felt"--he's being funny here, he tells me later--"that KUMA would look excellent as a large-lettered, blinking backdrop behind the drum riser, like KISS circa 1977."

How collaborative does the song-making become once Olsen brings a song to Rodriguez and Levine? "I usually bring them completely arranged songs, which they put their individual stamps on. They're both very quick to the take, so we don't talk about the process much, unless it's not working. I donate the body, and they provide the legs.: strong, handsome legs."

On the CD, the fluid rhythm section recalls Paul and Ringo's best work, the rhythm guitars have especially satisfying textures, and the guitar leads soar and sear. At what point did Olsen know an arrangement was finished or a recording was multitracked enough? "When the engineer, Grace Falconer, said, 'Kevin, we're out of tracks!' The songs that are pretty busy rhythmically and/or riff-oriented didn't call for much. The songs that are driven by a simpler chord progression had more space to add complementary melodic lines. Some of the guitar and vocal overdubs had been completely preplanned, so it was just a matter of putting them on tape once the basic tracks had been recorded. Other ideas came up on the spot, or on the way to the studio, as I listened to the rough mixes. I derived some sort of sadistic pleasure out of showing up and telling Grace, 'Wait, I have another idea!' "The basic arrangements were all set before we started. Time is money, and when you have little of either, you can't screw around. We banged out fifteen songs in two days. We'd been playing many of those songs live for a couple of years, so we were very tight."

My favorite bit of recorded music in 2005 so far--no lie--is the last section of Kuma's "Just Moments Before the Accident." Olsen plays a simple, heavy chord progression; as he repeats it, Rodriguez and Levine join him; his friend Beth Hoff--sounding like Bonnie Raitt at her sexiest--comes in, singing "I don't believe" several times; then Olsen joins her, singing "I don't believe what you told me." Did that moment evolve over time? "It was in my head when I wrote the song," he answers, then he takes me on a little mental trip. "I envisioned the narrator driving down the highway with his wife, both silent. He's having this heavy conversation with her in his head. He wonders if she's having a similar conversation with herself, hence the female voice. Then, due to the mental distraction this is all causing him, he loses control of the car, which smashes into a telephone pole, killing them both instantly. So the conversation happens just moments before the accident."

Does Olsen similarly envision the musical style of a particular song? "I never, ever think about the musical style while writing a song. The style of a song is determined by which side of the bed I woke up on. Apparently I don't wake up on the acid-jazz side of the bed very often, though I wouldn't be averse to that. I never sit down and say, 'Hey, I'm going to write a song in the style of Gang of Four's Entertainment!' I feel a certain way and a song comes out based upon that feeling."

So what led to the "bonus track," the slow, contemplative version of "The Karaoke Kid," which is not just faster but downright bouncy in the "official" version? "We had some tape left on the reel at the end of the day, so we asked Grace to push 'record' and we just went for it. I added that little piano line afterwards. I liked how the fast one was pretty goofy in tone and the slow one was rather sad and--if I may be so bold--poignant, though the lyrics are identical."

Toward the end of Up to Now, in the final minutes of the bittersweet "His Best Regards," overdubbed guitar lines rise out of nowhere and intertwine, do their jobs, and depart. OK, you think you've heard what this song, this band, has to offer? Well, check this out. Isn't it cool, the sheer sonic somethingness of it? Just where did Kuma find the wherewithal, get the guts, to make music so self-assured? The CD just doesn't sound like anyone's first time out. Olsen admits to blushing, then guesses that "after seventeen years of playing guitar and writing songs, and listening to records since the dawn of my existence, I know what I want, and I learned how to get it."

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