INTERVIEW: Kalen & The Sky Thieves' Kalen Lister on Debut Album 'Bluebird', Making Music in Brooklyn & Band Drinking Games
Some bands bring in everything but the kitchen sink, and somehow it works. Enter in Kalen and the Sky Thieves, one of Brooklyn's big rising rock acts. Led by singer-songwriter Kalen Lister, the band is a wonderfully loud combination of classic rock, funk and hip-hop, making a wholly unique blend that could only really happen in New York.
Music Times recently spoke to Kalen and the Sky Thieves' Kalen Lister following the release of the band's debut album Bluebird, touching on everything from being an up-and-coming band in Brooklyn and rock 'n' roll drinking games.
Check out the full interview below:
Music Times: For people who are just finding out about Kalen and the Sky Thieves, can you give me a background on you and your music?
Kalen Lister: I've been writing and playing music in New York for almost a decade, a lot of different iterations and different bands. After my old band broke up I was doing solo stuff for a while, then I met up with Wayan Zoey, who's the drummer for the Sky Thieves, and he and I were playing in a project that was sort of like the predecessor of Kalen and the Sky Thieves.
Then we ended up folding into the mix, Will [Hanza] and Jay [Giacomazzo], the guitar player and the bass player, who had begun playing with Wayan. And the three of them were sort of playing just improvising, jamming free, whatever jazz, rock, everything, no boundaries. What Wayan and I were doing was mostly playing my songs. It was sort of rock, trip-hop, alternative, again genre bending, not trying to be -- just doing whatever. Then, folding Jay and Will into the mix really started to cohere as a band in an exciting way and sort of what I had always wanted and envisioned as a band even when I first moved to New York. I never really wanted to do the solo thing and a whole bunch of the bands I did on the way to this, I feel like were all stepping stones to what this is now becoming.
MT: What were the names of some of your old projects?
KL: Before Kalen and the Sky Thieves, it was Kalen and the A-Listers and that was one that Wayan was also involved in. And my other main project before had been Lady Bug Stingray, which was more of a punk performance art duo and trio.
MT: What are the differences between writing and working as a solo artist and a band?
KL: There are many differences and it's still changing. The process is still changing. I basically, I kind of wanted a band to be around my first solo EP which is Fallen From the Sun, so for the most part it was me teaching them parts I had already written in the beginning, but then making it their own. Then, as we began to jam more, our whole language came to being. And now, we're at the beginning phases of writing more collectively as a group. Often, I'll still bring in a riff, a bassline or a seed of an idea, but I'm not bringing in completed songs anymore. We're really crafting those together.
MT: Did you mostly write Bluebird? Can you talk about the songwriting process?
KL: I was the main writer, but we arranged together and different parts and different things people came up with.
MT: You recorded Bluebird in the studio live, all at once?
KL: We did. We wanted to capture as much of a live feel as possible knowing we were still doing a studio album, so we kind of married both techniques in a sense. We went through and got as many live takes as possible, Wayan and Jay, they were the perfectionists, it only took them a couple of takes to get what they were doing. Then, for Will and myself, there were some takes that we're just like, that was it, that's the key track, that's the guitar track, that's the vocal track, but as we needed we would overdub.
There's a lot of overdubs on the album. There's a lot going on that we can't just create the four of us on stage where we tracked things, but all starting from that place of the four of us simultaneously playing the song like we did live, those arrangements, that feel to get that energy, not crafting something that was too manicured or perfect.
MT: I've noticed that a lot of bands have been focusing on recording live in the studio. Can you speak to that?
KL: I think it is something more that bands do, people who feel like they're a group. When I recorded Fallen From the Sun, even though I had a lot of different players on the album, because I was leading that sort of solo person, it constructs the whole thing really differently. When we went into the studio as a band, and be present all together as much as possible, there's the desire for everybody to have ownership over it and we're very much a live band so we felt like that was a strength we wanted to capture instead of something to cover up. I can't speak to other bands, but it's just fun to do it that way.
If you like each other and you like each others playing, you get magic from one another, especially if you don't have the audience there to play off of that. In the studio, even really great studios can feel sterile or odd or different and if you're playing off of each others energy you can bring it to a much more organic, real moment.
MT: It feels less constructed in a way?
MT: It seems like it would feel weird, you perform it live every night then you have to tear it back apart.
KL: Exactly, deconstruct it.
MT: You moved to Brooklyn 10 years ago. Where did you come from?
KL: I came from school in Philadelphia.
MT: Brooklyn's changed a lot. How do you think the city has changed your perspective as a songwriter, if at all?
KL: I, like so many, I came here because of the dream. You're going to be meeting the best people who are as hungry as you are, from diverse backgrounds, and I think that's still very real. I've met and played with some unbelievable people who I never could have predicted at all and that's because the city has so much to offer, but I think that it's a really hard place for artists now. I've seen every venue I've ever loved close down and those were places that were built communities and families, and the city basically tears apart communities and families and it's still possible to build them. I've seen really great underground scenes come up in different places where artists are super supportive of each other, but I think a lot is changing because it's so impossible -- it's so difficult to live here as an artist.
You have to have a million other jobs just to pay rent. So your times really divided and you have less space to focus on the art and I think that is detrimental to it. I think we're working with, everybody's working with really limited resources and with a really stressed sense of self and I don't know how helpful that is for creativity.
MT: What's been the biggest success here in Brooklyn?
KL: That's easy. In so many ways this was always what I wanted to build, and it took me going off on my own and doing solo stuff, then really leading to make this happen. Now sitting back to let us all do it together more, and that's the joy. These guys are like my musical family and to be able to go into each challenge together is fun and writing the music together has been so much fun, and sharing the stages and doing these shows that seem to move people and excite people, it's been awesome. It's been really rewarding. And we have Brooklyn to thank because we each live in different areas of Brooklyn, do a lot of shows in Brooklyn, rehearsal places, the coffee shops and bars we go to after -- none of it would have happened if we hadn't all been here and I feel super blessed to have them because now, we're all a band.
MT: I felt sad after the first Brooklyn question so I thought let's make it positive.
KL: There's such an amazing collection of people.
MT: Last year you got signed to Rope a Dope Records. What was the process like of trying to get a record deal?
KL: We knew our music was a little different, and this really just came through a, it came through Wayan who played on another artist's record on Rope a Dope and thought that they might be open-minded enough as a label to let us join in this early part of our career. We've only been together as a band for two years. And they were excited about it, but we're really different than most of the other bands on the label, which are a little bit more in the jazz and world music and hip-hop scene, but they're wonderful. It's a community of people, they don't have money, they get their power and notoriety from that fact that their artists are real musicians and they're trying to encourage a sense of community and family throughout the U.S. and now beyond.
MT: I can see how your music is a lot more sonically cool. I can hear you have jazzy and worldly influences which is different for them, but work nicely.
KL: Exactly, that's the hope. That there's something good in being different and hopefully we can make something good happen for them and for us.
MT: Open them up more to alternative rock acts, too.
KL: Exactly, a little more within the pop realm, but still really rooted in the history.
MT: Your sound is very different, almost everything but the kitchen sink in a way. Where did you draw your influence from, what do you listen to?
KL: I think it's a combination that I've never wanted to just say I'm going to do this one thing. I listened to a lot of my mom's vinyl growing up, I love classic rock, but then I love a lot of trip-hop. I never saw myself as a singer-songwriter even though I was one, so I always really tried to incorporate other elements of soul and groove and funk by making my songs really bassline heavy even just on the piano. I think that's part of why the sound is multi-faceted, because each person in the band also comes from, has a really diverse music taste individually, but also come from really kind of different schools of music. Will comes straight from '70s psychedelic music and Wayan comes from jazz and jam band world. Jay came from more of the rock and punk scene, and then I came from the New Hampshire writing funky basslines.
MT: Are you actively working on new music? Is it different from Bluebird? Can you detail the new stuff you're working on?
KL: I would say it's more like the track "Bluebird" than some of the other songs on the album. So really, definitely like groove basslines with a lot of heavy rock -- so hard to explain. Really dynamic stuff. It goes from quiet and pretty to pretty ferocious.
MT: Do you have plans for a second record anytime soon?
KL: We already have a follow up EP that we recorded simultaneous to Bluebird. The only difference is the songs are maybe slightly dancier. That should come out sometime in the spring. With the stuff that we're writing now, we'll follow that.
MT: No timeline for that?
KL: No, not yet, it's a new process what we're doing, writing this way. So we're trying to give it space to be that, to breathe. That's one of the great things about having a band, giving ourselves the space to say what's working, what's not working, what happens if we go over here. You have to have that space to play. Without the time to really see, what do we really want to do with this, what makes it good, how can we all agree that this is the best direction for it to go, that wouldn't do the next phase a disservice. I'll let that have the time it needs to grow it's legs.
MT: What's next for Kalen and the Sky Thieves? Are you going on tour?
KL: We go up and down the east coast as often as we can so we'll continue to do that through the spring. Then we'll be releasing a music video for Bluebird hopefully this next month. It's been an elongated process, so that should come out soon and then the EP. We have some people working on remixes of some songs, so that should be interesting to see if people take it to a danceyer realm, and then we're just going to keep writing and performing. I definitely want to get these new songs out, but we want to test them all out live first before we get back in the studio and see how everything works in the real world.
MT: Is there anything else we didn't touch on that you want to talk about?
KL: We have a drinking game in the band. Will, the guitar player is sort of our creepy camp counselor, band dad hippie. And he really likes saying words like "moment" and "flow" and even "floment," which is gross. So every time he talks about this really good show, he'll say, "I feel like we were really in the moment with each other, we were really playing off each other," and we all have to drink. Doesn't matter what we're drinking, coffee or tea or water or booze, you have to drink every time he says "moment" or "flow" or "floment," then we'll double drink.
If anything, I think he tries to say them less now because it's become such a thing, but it makes it more poignant because it's really powerful when he actually means to say it. No other synonym will do, no other word will do. So some gigs, we've shared, not trying to, but have shared this with the audience because he'll say it on stage or I'll say it so then we teach the audience and we all end up playing it. That can be fun.
MT: I feel like you should announce that at a gig, but then also write a song called the "Flow of the Moment." Then perform that next and get everyone totally squashed.
KL: And more people go up to the bar, double-sip, you're welcome bartenders. That's good, but it shouldn't be the refrain, the words should be hidden throughout the verses.
MT: Yes, see if they catch it.
KL: I love it. We'll have to credit you for that. Wayan's a know a lot. He's our resident idea turner-downer. What about this idea? No. Then, Jay is he's a dolphin, he's actually a dolphin he's not a person, but it makes for a nice variety of what happens to the sound.
MT: Then what are you if you have a dolphin and a camp counselor and a know-it-all?
KL: They call me TK, for The Kalen. And then when I'm really f*cking up my synth patches they call me Patches, which I hate. So if they want to bug me they call me TK Patches to push my buttons.
MT: That's better than being a creepy camp counselor.
KL: But he wears it well.