King of France, a New York rock trio, is the polar opposite of a shoe-gazing trance band – their music is so engaged and emotional that at first you may feel yourself pulling back, the way you would from a drunken uncle at a family reunion. But all it takes is a few listens and King of France’s intelligent magic takes over. You capitulate to the band’s playful/majestic melodies, the finely detailed performances of each player and the music’s tightly controlled explosiveness. Unlike your uncle, this three-piece knows exactly what it’s doing at all times.
The band’s unique sound, by turns playful and dramatic, compresses torch- song intensity inside tight pop structures. Singer Steve Salad’s warm, melodic bawl evokes an amalgam of idiosyncratic frontmen from David Bowie to Morrissey to Dylan. He plays guitar, but Salad is a quintessential singer, staring out into the crowd with huge, sad-clown eyes and emoting – in a voice that jumps easily from bass to falsetto – about loneliness, estrangement and wry resignation. (One song, off the band’s first release, Salad Days, begins: “I’m a weight hanging from my hair.”) While he’s the emotional anchor of the band, the other two are just as fun to watch: keyboardist Tom Siler has a needle-sharp exactitude and a wild riffing style that matches his face-obscuring cloud of blond hair, while drummer Michael Azerrad (yup, the rock writer and journalist) drums with riveting precision and intensity.
Formed in 2002, the band has two discs out but the first one, Salad Days, was released on the small label Egret Records and the eponymous King of France hasn’t been released at all. (“We only record for our own pleasure,” Azerrad jokes; actually, they’re discussing a deal with several unnamed labels.) One thing is certain: this band’s sound is different in the ear of each listener. I’ve had people yelling comparisons to Madness and Blur in my ear during a King of France show; I’ve had a friend swear to me their sound is a cross between The Cure and Ben Folds Five; I’ve had the band themselves namecheck Harry Nilsson, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, while my own comparison point, the Velvet Underground, has met with disagreement from all, including the band.
“It’s in the ear of the beholder,” Azerrad says in a characteristically sensible observation when I interviewed him and Steve Salad in Brooklyn a few weeks ago. “The Velvet Underground is an inspiration but not necessarily an influence. I mean, I don’t think I play like Mo Tucker.”
Well, I mean more Lou Reed of “Coney Island High” era – King of France’s songs seem to have a similar wistfulness, without the bloody-minded endlessness. They don’t indulge in long, VU-style jams. Is it because of their roots in the postpunk, new wave, short-song tradition?
“That sounds like an excellent answer,” Steve says genially.
“I don’t think [my bandmates] have roots in postpunk at all,” Michael argues.”I think they just listened to the Beatles, like everybody else. I think our sound is more Beatles than anything.”
“But how many Beatles records do I have?” Steve counters.
“Well, it’s all part of the collective un – ” Michael begins.
“I mean, I love the Beatles but I’m not writing to them,” Steve says.
“Oh, totally not. I don’t mean that.”
“My friend says you sound like Robert Smith but I sometimes hear Morrissey,” I offer to Steve.
“No. Just Bob Dylan. It’s not Morrissey, it’s ‘Lay Lady Lay.'”
“Steve has probably never heard a Cure song in his life,” Michael adds.
So what is their sound, exactly? They’ve been tagged as indie rock and compared to Pavement and the Pixies, but the piano adds a goosed up, good-time 70s feel that can suggest flashes of Billy Joel or Elton John. The band does not flinch. “I would add Neil Diamond,” Steve says, adding, “You can’t pin Tom down. It could be 20s, it could be 90s. Tom’s our secret weapon.” “There’s Brecht and Chopin and Reginald Dwight [in his playing],” Michael says. Does he create the horns and strings effects on the eponymous ep? I ask. “Yes,” Michael says. Tom also adds an electric bass. “All on his Casio?” “It’s a Yamaha,” Michael says. “Yamaha V80. And he’s looking for an endorsement deal.”
The guys in King of France, apart from cracking jokes, are really only concerned with making good music. “Our songs are like jigsaw puzzles – everything fits together in a premeditated, meticulous way,” Michael says. Asked if they ever feel dismayed at the bewildering array of bands the press compares them to (which also includes Neutral Milk Hotel and Interpol) Michael shakes his head. “Any band worth their salt is just going to play something that they think sounds really good,” Michael says. “I think the more associations we kick off in people’s minds, the better. That’s the whole idea, to do something with a richness and evocativeness to it.”
“Keith Richards has this great line,” Michael adds. “He says the thing about rock and roll is when you hear it coming out of a car speeding past you, you can hear just a second of it, and you know what band it is. That’s the ideal to me. If someone heard us coming out of a car speeding by, and they’d go: ‘King of France.'”
He sounds as excited as a teenager about the band. There’s good reason to. The press has been favorable, they’re acquiring a devoted following and the hot New York music scene is fueling their work. “New York is the new Seattle,” Steve cracks, and he and Michael name a handful of exciting local bands: the Liars, TV on the Radio, the Rapture, the Rogers Sisters, the Walkmen. As for influences, Michael says that Dumbo, the Brooklyn neighborhood where we’re talking, is probably the biggest influence on them at the moment. “There’s so much art and creativity here that inspires you.”
Does the tension in the city, especially since 9/11, inform their music? “I wonder about that,” Steve answers. “It certainly informs our lives, and our lives inform our music. I don’t think we’re writing directly to specific issues, but I’m sure it’s there.”
“I think it is a lot harder to play in New York,” Steve, who’s originally from the midwest, goes on. “People do have less time. And it’s funny how that comes out in the music. There’s so many serious bands in New York, and maybe that’s why. They come to practice and they’re ready to do business.”
“That’s why our songs are so short, ’cause we don’t really have much time,” Michael suggests.
I ask how so many bands can thrive in a city as expensive and logistically challenging as New York, and Michael mentions the abundance of decent day jobs and apartment shares. It’s a tough gig, though. Steve mentions the contrast with somewhere like Chicago. “I feel like in Chicago, indie rockers are what they should be in New York. In New York, you’re kind of a misfit – you should be doing other stuff. But in Chicago, you’re like a god.”
I ask Steve, who writes so much about loneliness and sadness, if personal happiness could threaten his ability to write songs.
“I can never be happy.”
“Oh, phew. Then the band can go on forever.”
“Plus, if I want a sad song, I just write about Michael.” (laughter)
In Michael Azerrad’s book, Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana (1993), he writes that people responded to Nirvana and other “alternative” music in response to the “bland, condescending rock the corporations were foisting on the public.” With the dominance of entities like Clear Channel, I wonder if the corporations have even more of a chokehold, making it harder for small bands to break through at all.
“Harder to break through to places we’re not interested in going,” Michael says. “It’s really easy to break through to places we are interested in going. We have the Internet, we have a website – there’s all kinds of ways to promote your band on the Internet, so we’re going to fully exploit that.”
Steve says, “Not to sound too much like a capitalist, but – it’s the story of the small business. It’s these people who are willing to work for free, and work really hard, and do everything themselves, to try and create a product. They’re trying to create art, but [also] a space for themselves. And as many corporations there are that are trying to take over everything, they will never break down the people who just want to do it.”
“In a way, it’s better if the corporations get really big,” Michael says. “Because that means they’ll only be interested in really, really huge music and the stuff that’s in the middle, that you can still make a really nice, tidy living doing, will be fair game for everyone else. And that’s the neighborhood where we’d like to be.”
King of France is playing at the Fez in New York City on April 24, 2004. MP3s are availble on the band’s site.