What happens when you can’t break into the LA scene? Well, you know what they say; Can’t beat ’em? Fuck ’em… Glorious Noise interviewed Matt Southwell of the band Bang Sugar Bang, who started their own club when they found booking by traditional means to be a hassle. Instead of try and try again, Southwell and Co. took matters into their own hands and ended up with a fanbase that’s small but dedicated—something most bands would kill for.
GLONO: What is Kiss or Kill?
MS: Kiss or Kill is the name given to a Tuesday nightclub in LA that has since grown into a full-blown DIY movement; a community of musicians side-stepping the typical lone gunner band approach in hopes of founding something greater. Basically, exploiting the fact that 10 or 20 bands are much stronger than one. Exponents are groovy, man!
GLONO: How did it start?
MS: It began as a reaction to not originally fitting in anywhere in the current Hollywood scene. When our band first started gigging, it didn’t seem like gigs were as productive and as fun as they should have been. So, I approached longtime LA music veteran, John Arrakaki of Silver Needle about doing something more akin to what I experienced in Madison WI.
Back then, bands used to piggyback on each other to build their fanbases, steal each other’s beer, etc. He wasn’t sure it would work in the “land of me, me, me” but still thought it sounded like a good idea. Over the next few months, our bands gigged together constantly and then John and my bassist Cooper took over this idea and expanded it into adding more bands as packages to clubs. After some stumbling in the beginning, Cooper and John found Kiss or Kill a home at the famed “Garage.” It built up from a monthly event into a weekly club.
GLONO: Are those two still in charge of Kiss or Kill?
MS: It’s really tremendous that it’s grown into a full-blown community now. Many of Cooper’s duties have been assumed by other bands in the scene. Ilsa from Ze Auto Parts works on the web site and emails, Matt from the OAOTs handles press and radio, Andre from Silver Needle does the flyers and works on the site. Danny Poulis runs the street team, and Robin Holden of King Cheetah runs sound. The Dollyrots were incredible as far as planning and executing the tour. Members of Midway and Bobot Adreniline have offered help. All these duties where once on Cooper’s shoulders. Now it really is a movement.
GLONO: You’ve been in bands around the country, what’s different about LA?
MS: LA is a really tough market in comparison to most of the Midwest. It most likely has to do with the sheer volume of entertainment available. I once read that on any given night, something like 300 to 400 bands are playing different gigs in the greater LA area. Not to mention the comedy shows, plays, nude interpretive dance karaoke, etc, ad nauseum. This can make it extremely difficult to gain any name recognition for a band. So the best way around this is to A: keep your damn band TOGETHER; B: promote like crazy ; and C: team up with some like-minded bands and start a club/movement. This way you become press worthy.
GLONO: When the Kiss or Kill scene was developing, what were the common threads that brought the bands together?
MS: I think what really helped it take off and continue to stay strong chiefly, was the fact that the bands were all big fans of one another. We all displayed something unique and resistant to what was common, marginal, and being beaten to death on the radio and TV. And frankly, we deserved an audience. All the bands were sort of looking to become part of something bigger. Y’know, something we could own. What’s really my favorite element of Kiss or Kill is the bands’ willingness to strongly support each other. I remember one particular evening, while standing in the foyer of the Garage (the club’s original home), I observed Tony from Billion Stars sitting with member’s of the Randies, while being taunted by a drunken Eddie (of the OAOT’s), as Cooper sat drinking with the Dollyrots and the girls from Ze Auto Parts. I just sort of thought. “Yeah. This is how it’s supposed to be. Rock and Roll is fun with your friends.” It was the first time it really felt like a scene.
Another major element is the songs. All the KOK bands possess the common characteristic of great songwriting. I think the Kiss or Kill compilation CD (review) illustrates that quite vividly. Hooky, unique, important songs. Ugh. That sounded so Rolling Stone. Forgive me, I gotta go barf on myself.
GLONO: You recently brought Kiss or Kill on the road, how were you received in different parts of the country? The Chicago show went well, but I know you had some stinker shows too. What seemed to be the difference?
MS: Honestly, the tour was a scream. I’d say 90% of the gigs were great. The shows that really sort of tanked had more to do with whether the clubs were about music or just sort of had music to have it. I mean, some of the alternative venues were awesome. The skatepark in Omaha was one of my favorite shows ever. The kids there were one of the greatest, most enthusiastic audiences I’ve seen. Yet, at one of the NY shows we encountered the complete opposite. This Lit Lounge in New York just sort of got the bands done really early so the DJ could start. And then of course the club filled right up. They had a 5-dollar cover during the bands and then the show became free when the DJ started. Live music just really didn’t seem a priority there.
GLONO: Two bands crammed in one van for two weeks can get “uncomfortable.” Any funny stories?
MS: One of the funnier moments occurred in Omaha, NE. As I mentioned, we played this great skatepark. An Omaha local band called Flurry set up the show. (Excellent band, by the way.) Flurry’s bassist Matt, very nicely offered his home as a place to crash. So, after this really cool show, we all headed back to his place with his band. We arrive at his home, armed with boatloads of beer and Taco Bell, only to find his pregnant girlfriend at the door. She sweetly greeted us all and then announced to Matt that she was in labor and had to go to the hospital… NOW! She was in labor! Everybody’s jaw just dropped. It was like 20 people instantly became expectant fathers! “Boil some water… find clean towels… get the keys!” Matt shot off to the hospital and the rest of us drank beer and awaited the arrival of his new baby girl, Isabella. Two hours later the police came to the door with news that a gas station down the street was just robbed by a man with red hair. Josh, the Dollyrots drummer, sporting a fine red Mohawk dove beneath a sleeping bag! The other members of Flurry finally got rid of the police and Josh was able to pass out knowing he wasn’t going to experience the Omaha dungeons. But other than that, nobody got arrested, nobody got VD, and we proved that four men could simultaneously fart and still get the two girls to return to the van the next day.
GLONO: Five of the eleven bands on the Kiss or Kill Comp have female members. Is this some sort of girl power statement? Or are we finally growing up and realizing that chicks can rock just as hard as the guys?
MS: Wow. I didn’t realize the numbers looked like that. I would definitely say the latter. We just try to find really good bands. Los Angeles is actually a pretty good place to be a female rocker, I think. I mean, unfortunately, girl bands are given kind of a novelty tag here at first, but if they are truly good, they also seem to advance much faster than their male counterparts. I can’t speak for this trend nationally, but at least locally that’s what I’ve observed. Kiss or Kill dedicates one Tuesday a month as “Girls Rock Riot” which is comprised of all female or female-fronted bands and it has proven to be our best night of the month. I can say, at least in respect to L.A., that whole stigma of ‘resistance’ to the girl rocker has really faded. I mean, hey! Most guys dig chicks. Guys dig chicks who rock even more. At least I do. They always bring so much more style along with the substance.
GLONO: You moved to LA for acting. How did you end up getting back into music? How did Bang Sugar bang start?
MS: Well, yeah. I came out here to go to grad school for acting and spent a couple of years kicking around neurotically trying to weasel onto the lots. Actually, it wasn’t that bad, I got to wait on Marlon Brando and met John Doe of X while filming an episode of Roswell. Cooper and I actually met as actors. She wanted to learn to play the bass and start a band. So, I taught her some stuff and off she went. I’ve never seen anyone work so hard. Next we started writing and I really dug what was coming out. I still thought of myself as an actor though. One night she peeled off the bass line to Bowie’s “John, I’m only Dancing” and I figured it was probably time to get a band going. I still only planned on playing with her as a hobby, however. But after [Bang Sugar Bang’s drummer] Pawley came bouncing up the doorway and we had our first rehearsal, everything changed. It was so damn fun. Like back in jr. high, when I played in punk bands at friends’ basement keggers. That kind of fun. That coupled with Cooper’s almost obsessive drive and the great songs that were emerging, well, my priorities changed overnight.
GLONO: How did Pawley come into the picture?
MS: I’d known Pawley from college at Western Michigan University and he was a really good fit. Pawley and Cooper were both kinda green, but the chemistry was really positive, open and unrestrictive. I think that had a lot to do with how much fun it was. I got to relive my own early days, via their enthusiasm. Kind of strange really; I came out here to teach intro to acting at grad school and ended up teaching old school punk to a couple of actors. I always joke that Cooper dragged me back into music kickin’ and screamin’, but that’s really untrue. Rock and roll was always my greatest love. I made a lot of excuses for leaving music and all of them were total horseshit! I don’t think anyone should ever turn their back on their passion, regardless of anyone else’s opinion. It’s your fucking life. Live it your way and be happy. There are a lot of miserable people out there, just looking for company. Leave them to the misery and get on with your sound.
GLONO: Where does the name Bang Sugar Bang come from?
MS: We were originally called, “Leather David and the Angry Housewives” for reasons that are far too stupid to expound upon. It didn’t take long for anyone to realize we needed a name that wasn’t… y’know… stupid. Besides, I think there’s a band called, “The Angry Housewives.” One night Cooper was sitting at her computer, quite intoxicated, and was just spitting out her favorite band names. Stuff like Cop shoot Cop, Love spit Love… stuff like that and I guess Bang Sugar Bang just popped into her head. I tend to favor things that leave themselves open to individual interpretation. Besides, it was way better than my suggestion of “Retardo, the Magician.”
GLONO: The BSB fanbase seems pretty tight-knit and that’s something you seem to really foster (with the monthly Best Bang, crowd participation moments in the live show, etc). It’s almost a throwback to the Fugazi mentality or a rejection of the cult of personality we have in big rock today. Besides being a riot at shows, how else does this approach help you as a band?
MS: Well, we call them “the Punters,” after the Brit slang term for the pogoing masses of ’78. And they all have nicknames like Gorby Bang, Bang-a-Long, Puntacious Pilate, Paul-o-matic, Sandblaster, Bang, Bang Crayons… it just makes it more like a really twisted clubhouse. But what all that has really done is to let people know that they are the scene. It’s them and the music. It’s that they totally belong somewhere; in a city that often tries to make you feel excluded. So it’s helped us by gaining many wild, loyal, and real honest-to-goodness friends. We always wanted the club’s vibe to be like; if your best pal in high school threw a huge bash with all your friends’ bands and everybody was there, and the cops never came, and that girl named Pam, who was one grade ahead, dragged you into the bathroom and made out with you for an hour. Basically, the first really cool party you ever went to EVERY Tuesday night. So I guess what I’m saying is, we wouldn’t have an act without the punters. We’re their band and they’re our gang. I honestly love every one of those bastards and bastardesses. That whole detached, cooler-than-thou thing is the most boring, stale and overused schtick in music. And it does absolutely nothing for anybody.
GLONO: How is BSB perceived in LA? Gaining any ground?
MS: Oh man… Depends on who you talk to. Some probably say that we work really hard; play our asses off live; and that we really care about this scene and all the bands and people involved. Others would probably say we’re mouthy as hell; think we’re too good to play the Viper Room; and sound way too much like X. Who knows? I really don’t pay too much attention to our perception beyond occasionally reading something about us that pisses me off. Then I put it down and get back to the mission, y’know? Sometimes, a few beers will cause that ire to resurface. But hey, I started out a punk, and will probably always approach life that way. Sometimes it’s fun to be drunk and surly.
All that aside, I think we will keep gaining ground, whether it’s in L.A. or via strategically touring elsewhere. Local radio has been very cool to the whole Kiss or Kill movement. The comp release as well as many of the bands own CDs are being featured every week on Indie 103’s Check, One, Two program and KXLU’s Noise Pollution, which was our hope all along.
You see, I want all these bands to hit it as bad as they do… really! Cooper and I won’t have it any other way. My motto is: I’m not leaving this town without a big fat check.
GLONO: I know you’ve had some issues with certain members of the press in LA. Is that intentional at all? Maybe a way to stay out of the LA scene and develop your own scene?
MS: Oh, I don’t know. I’m not at war with anybody. I just think it’s silly that certain writers never seem to leave the same club. They’d rather revel in their scenester status. Happy to be a supposed tastemaker than really, honestly exploring what is out there, or truly write critically about local music. It’s just my hammerhead, knee-jerk reaction to absolute, bought-and-sold pretense in some of the local press. I don’t know. Shit. They just make me want to fight. I just really hate the whole hipster mentality. It’s difficult to bitch too loud, because the perception is of sour grapes about your band being ignored. But I care so much about all these bands and the songs they write, that I’m compelled to shoot my extremely big mouth off sometimes. If I’m guilty of passion about this music. Passion to a fault. I say, full speed ahead. Put the money down and let it ride. It’s probably not a good quality for a starship captain, but for a punker trying to change music’s views, I’ll take it. It’s the ex-hockey player in me, Derek. I like a few beers and a good fight.