Continuing the Work: A Conversation with Steve Kimock
Steve Kimock is an enigma. A late-1970’s East coast transplant to the self-described incestuous music scene of the San Francisco Bay Area, he quickly settled into the fold and established himself as one of the prominent guitar-playing fixtures of the time. Over the years Kimock has developed a tonality to his playing that has defined his sound for nearly three decades, a style that has focused on long jazzy phrases that balance somewhere between sublime melancholy and vengeful Hendrix-esqe rage. As a founding member of the popular Bay Area band Zero, Kimock created a buzz in the music world that drew the attention of many. He has remained a part of and apart from the local musical family in an oddly balanced way, participating in many of the most notable ensembles to come out of San Francisco while at the same time pursuing his own musical vision with unbridled and uncompromising tenacity.
His current musical vehicle the Steve Kimock Band is a unit of visionary cosmonauts who spontaneously create complex layers of tone and harmony, which strive to take the listener to a higher melodic plane. Backed by Santana veteran and Grammy winner Rodney Holmes on drums, Mitch Stein on guitar, and most recently Alphonso Johnson on bass, Kimock has set out on a new path in his career. The fall of 2001 saw SKB roam the country from coast to coast including a short jaunt overseas to Japan before eventually closing the year with a four-night run at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. During this time the band has introduced a new version of itself, an edgier more explosive unit, which incorporates as much gentle jazz melodies as it does straight-ahead power rock. Led by Holmes on a small laptop computer next to his drum kit, SKB has also ventured into the land of electronica creating a driving palate of rhythm over which Kimock paints his mad tapestry in music.
The coming months will offer many new avenues of opportunity and exploration for Steve Kimock and his cohorts. A long series of dates has been booked along the East Coast, including stops in Vermont, New York, Georgia and Florida, as well as two shows opening for Government Mule. I caught up with Steve Kimock just before the New Year and we chatted about his musical development, Zero, and the present state of the Steve Kimock Band.
Updated tour information and the like can be found at www.kimock.com. In addition the guitarist is an author himself, with a real interesting article on his gear in the new issue of Relix.
When did you first play guitar and what attracted you to the instrument?
I think it was the musicians in my family. My cousin Kenny was a really good guitar player, and a good singer too. My aunt Dotti is a folk singer. My mom taught in the public schools so she would play the piano for the kids in kindergarten and first grade so there was always music around.
I thought first maybe I’d play the violin. What happened was I went to this guy’s house for a violin lesson, and I distinctly remember he had just gotten a brand new Fender amp and an electric violin. And he would have the violin and the cords were stretching out in all directions, and I’m like 10 and I walk in the door and he just let go with the electric violin and his little fender amp. And it just hit me in the head so hard I was like get me out of here.’ And I decided that the violin was too loud, so I decided I wanted to play the electric guitar instead [laugh].
What were you listening to those days? What inspired you to play?
The Beatles definitely, the Beatles were so cool. Well the early listening stuff was really fragmented for me obviously cause I had no idea what everything was altogether. I seemed to enjoy whatever I could get my hands on. There was some stuff that I just thought was neatthere was pop music on the radio that I could tell then wasn’t really anything special, I didn’t want to play that kind of music at all. I liked the Beatles, I liked MC5, I liked Ravi Shankar. His stuff had just come out. I liked Black Sabbath and I liked Captain Beefheart. I was all over the place. I just didn’t know.
It wasn’t very long after that that someone played “A Love Supreme” for me and I started listening to Coltrane when I was like 16. And that was it. Of course I was a big Neal Young fan too, so I got just as much enjoyment out of “Down By the River” as I did “A Love Supreme.” [Laugh] Even though the stuff that I do is not folk music really, there was still that influence that really played into it a lot.
So your first band that took you to San Francisco was the Goodman Brothers. How would you describe the Goodman Brothers’ sound?
The Goodman Brothers were Billy and Frank Goodman. And they both sang and they sang beautifully together. They had that kind of nice genetic blending of voices like the Everly Brothers kind of thing. They had beautifully, beautifully sounding vocals and were both great writers and players. They played bottleneck slide guitar a lot and I got into playing slide.
How has your playing changed since then? What’s the major difference?
I don’t know. I don’t know how much of a difference there is or how to even tell. My approach to the thing has never been that much different.
Would you say it’s a matter of experience?
Well you know experience changes it, study changes it. I probably make better decisions about what to play now and I have an easier time playing just anything. You know it’s a fairly physical activity and if you do it long enough it develops.
So you went from the Goodman Brothers to the Heart of Gold Band?
It’s kind of hard to remember, but I think it was the Goodmans and then the Underdogs. Of course I was always playing with a bunch of different people but in terms of having some steady thing where we could go out play gigs in the event that everybody remained alive for more than six months we’d continue to play. But the Underdogs was a salsa band and that’s when I started playing with Martin [Fierro, saxophone player in Zero]. So the Underdogs was first and then I was in this R&B band with like four singers and horns and the whole bit and I did that for a while and then eventually bumped into the Heart of Gold Band by way of Keith and Donna [Godchaux].
How was that when they called and asked you to play?
What did I know? I just figured it was a crank call, it was like Who?!? Nah..’ So I did that for a while and unfortunately Keith was killed in an automobile accident and that was really sad.
So that was the end of that, but the drummer at that point was Greg Anton and Greg and I said well lets keep trying to do something. So we looked for a bass player for about four years.
You met Greg in the Heart of Gold bandand that just developed?
Yeah we looked for players for a long, long time and that was not easy to get together. I think people forget how much personnel shifting went on with that Zero thing and trying to get it together. We went through like 20 bass players and 30 piano players and 150,000 soloists. We eventually came together thankfully.
Given that you spent most of your time with Zero, is that where your songs, your staples really began to come into their own?
Well I played in the band so long I developed some concepts, but I certainly didn’t develop a disproportionately large amount of material or good habits or bad habits or anything like that. You know you do things a certain way and people say that practice makes perfect. It’s kind of like practice makes playing and you have to be careful about what you’re repeating.
How has your approach to say, “Its Up to You,” a staple of the Kimock repertoire and a fan favorite, how has it changed over the years in Zero, KVHW and SKB?
That’s a tough question. I don’t think my approach to it has changed, I mean other than having to deal with it because you’re playing with different players, but I think it’s easier to listen. And these different combinations of guys will allow you the space to try different approaches, because everybody pictures it differently. And I have my own picture of what it should be too
Is it based more on the setting and who’s involved?
Yeah, that’s more of it than my having a different concept of it. But again you know I’m so close to the stuff that it’s kind of hard to gain new perspective. You know? I just don’t want anyone reading this stuff to get the impression that its set in stone you know? Listen to itdo you like it? Do you not like it? You tell me.
Well I’ve just got to ask because a lot of people are wondering, is there any chance of Zero getting back together anytime at least for sporadic shows?
Well I don’t see why not. It’s just a matter of getting everybody’s schedules coordinated and getting everybody’s interest in the band into it. Greg’s doing his thing and that’s good, I’m not sure what Chip’s doing. I don’t know what Martin is doing and Judge is in Hawaii, and I don’t know what Bobby’s doing. Everybody’s doing their own thing. And I sure dug the Zero thing when I was doing it, but I spent a long time doing it and we all had a great time but if we were really getting that much out of it everyone would still want to do it. If it was worth doing the players would be playing.
Did it dissipate because it just wasn’t worth it? You just weren’t getting enough out of it?
Well in defense of the whole Zero thing, it was simply ahead of its time in a way. Ten years after we made our really big creative push on the thing and came up with what we were doing, after ten years of starving, the audience finally caught up to us and said wow this is really cool.’ Which at that point it had kind of degenerated into a bunch of guys around a campfire saying Here, you do your song, I’ll do my song.’
Of course I’d be happy to get it together, but be careful what you wish for [laugh]. A bunch of people who haven’t played together for a really long time, probably half of which haven’t been playing at all, you know?
So KVHW, how did that come about?
We were going to do a party for a friend of ours to raise money to send him to meet his internet pen pal girlfriend from Russia in Europe. It was this crazy thing that we were going to try to send him to Europe to meet this gal right? And so we were going to have a party and were like Well who can we get?’ So we got this guy and we got that guy and we had the party and it was so much fun. It was just a lot of fun. So we said Okay, let’s keep doing this,’ and we kept doing it until we realized it was impossible to get everyone to show up to the gigs or show up for sessions.
So when KVHW disbanded, what was your original goal with SKB?
There were no specific artistic ideas about how we were going to do anything. It was more like I was asking is there a way that we can do this and keep working and not have it snatched out from under us by whatever or whomever. I’ve been playing everyday since I was a teenager, and I’m 46 years old. And here I am still trying to have a band where I really try to take care of everybody, so that everybody gets paid equally and everybody has creative input, you know? And then to do really well and then some guys would just simply not show up
So the whole idea of doing the whole SKB thing was just some intent to continue the work, you know? And from the outside, from the audience perspective and people who read about it, only see it from a distance. I don’t think people understand just how close to the grind from month to month this shit is. This shit is really hard, it’s fucking hard, hard work. Everybody’s up your butt and down your butt constantly, and giant crazy personality and ego insanity kind of issues, and personal self interests and what the music is going to be, and its just hard to keep it going. And I’ve got responsibilities that I’ve got to take care of and a lot of people who I make sure get some money. So I’ve got to keep working and what I was doing before was I was just giving my money away to people who just kept fucking me you know? So why SKB? Just to continue the work.
How did you meet Rodney and Mitch?
That was really just an incredible streak of good luck. Rodney was just getting off the Santana gig and it came to our attention that that was the case. And we hooked up with him in New York and played and had a great time, so we kept doing it. Rodney is a great guy. He’s a great, great player. He’s as good a player as I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some good fucking musicians [laugh].
What do you think he brings to the sound of SKB, specifically some of the songs that you’ve always played, “Tangled Hangers” or “Its Up To You,” those types of songs, what do you think is the biggest thing that he brings to the way the songs have changed and how they sound now?
I think you can just watch him play you know? And if you just had a minute of the visual of it, that’s kind of what he brings, poise and balance and intensity. He’s just such a great player
Did Rodney come up with idea for the loop [electronica]?
Oh, absolutely. That’s something that he’s got a keen interest in that he’s turned me on to. I’ve listened to some drum and bass stuff, Chemical Brothers and stuff like that, and I dig it. It’s just more stuff on the palate you know? As soon as I pick up a Ukulele there’s going to be just as much Ukulele music as there is computer music [laugh]. It does not conflict with me in the tiniest bit to be pushing the envelope out at the edges in any way that we can, and this is a really good crew in that regard. It’s a totally different vocabulary.
What do you like about the loop stuff? What does that do for you as a player on stage when introducing the drum and bass stuff? Does that free you up more?
The approach that I’m taking to the thing is that I’m just literally trying to create a new vocabulary. So I have listen really hard to what I’m doing and to what everyone else is doing and make decisions about what sounds appropriate without referring to any decisions that I’ve EVER made about what sounds appropriate to me in the past. So that is really a wonderful challenge and it makes it really fresh for me and makes really fresh music.
And what about Mitch?
Well Mitch and Rodney have played together in a band in New York called the Hermanators. They had a trio that I don’t think was ever something that they were pushing on that hard that would be something that they would take out on the road. They played around town and made a record. And at one point we were trying to decide do we want a keyboard player or another guitar player, what are we going to do for a fourth? I just kind of thought that it’s guitar music so why don’t we get a guitar player. So we listened to some guitar players and Rodney gave me their tape. I just like Mitch’s playing, and when we got together and played he’s just a great guy, a wonderful guy and a great player. And he’s a good friend and I’m real happy that he’s here.
Well when I compare what I heard last night [12/21/01] compared to say what I heard last December down at the Hollywood Taxi in Springfield [Oregon] with Tom Coster on keys, it seems to me that the sound of SKB then was more of a quiet and soft jazz approach whereas the sound now is a lot heavier and more rock oriented
Well you know there’s enough range in the material that depending on the room and the set list and things like that it can be pretty introspective or it can be pretty bombastic [laugh]. It could be pretty jazzy, it could be pretty funky, or it could be pretty bluesy. I think the difference is that this band has two guitars and that right there is more rock oriented.
You know everybody in this band with the exception of myself are really accomplished jazz players, everyone of those guys. They played “Weather Report” and shit you know [laugh]? Its not like they know a couple of tunes or something like that, they’re pretty heavy guys. So the jazz thing is part of everybody’s background but I don’t want that to be the focus of this thing. I want to play past that you know? Its like Why don’t you be a jazz band?’ and its like Because I play guitar.’ Of course we’re not a jazz band other than we’re an improvisational band
Is that your bottom-line goal all the time to just walk on stage with whomever and try and create something new right then? To live in the moment if you will?
Yeah. It’d just be nice if the music could be about what all the guys felt right then, if it could be an honest collaboration with all this great collaborative input. Not like. “Do this because you know these chords” and not, “Do this because this is what I told you to do,” but come in, listen hard and play hard, and wherever you’re at that’s where we’ll start. And we try not to lean too much on our own clichsquo;s or anything else. To use the expression, just try to authentically be a part of the moment and get everybody to improvise.
So you guys have also seemed to expand your touring schedule, doing a lot more Midwest dates and a big East Coast run this past fall. But what I’m really interested in is the Japan run. How did that come about and what did you think?
Well for a couple of years now people have been coming from Japan to see shows. And they follow the scene over there, the whole jam bands scene, which is a whole different issue, but that’s for another time. It just seems that they really know what’s going on in the States over there. And so a promoter from Japan used to come over and see us all the time from Relix in Japan and he put it together. He was like come on, come on and he took us over there and it was fabulous.
It was really humbling. It was a wonderful country with such incredible people who were so enthusiastic and so laid back and so into it. It was really great because the Japanese gigs were just the best gigs: the best received, the most fun and really, really interesting. I just loved it.
What was the crowd’s reaction?
They went ape shit. They loved it. It was just wonderful they were so into it. Really the best part was that they’d just shut up, and they’d be shut up during the quiet parts.
Yeah I’ve read so many people and other bands comment about going over there and how the crowds there are so quiet and clapping a lot. There isn’t as much hootin’ and hollerin’ going on.
Oh they freak out when it’s time to freak out, but you know it was neat because somehow they understood that if they played along with us and gave us the dynamic range we’d use it you know? I’ve played plenty of gigs in the States, I won’t mention any places, but it’s just so loud that there’s no way to play anything, the dynamic range just isn’t there.
So any creative touring ideas coming up? I know that you’ve released some upcoming east coast stuff..any plans for Europe or anything big in the states?
Oh yeah, yeah. Europe we’ll go maybe this summer, and maybe head back to Japan after this summer in September or October or something like that. I don’t know exactly.
To Japan for a longer tour? Did you just do three this time?
Yeah we’ll do more gigs, as we just did three this time. In Tokyo, Nagoya and Yokohama. And every one of those gigs just kicked all kinds of ass! It was great.
And what about Europe?
Honestly I don’t pay that much attention to getting it all together. People are trying to figure it out, keener minds than my own [laugh]. And when they come up with something they’ll come to me and I’ll go oh that looks like fun’ or oh that looks like a horrible mess’ [laugh]. And then we’ll figure out how to fix it or how to do it and if not then we won’t. I’m just trying to keep this thing together and keep it going, so I can’t pay too much attention to that.
Are Mitch and Rodney still based in New York?
Yeah, and Alphonso is in LA.
I was really impressed with how well he fit in with you guys last night. I’d heard his work in Jazz is Dead and The Other One’s but never SKB and I though he just fell right into it.
Yeah he’s just great. He just so professional, and he’s truly, truly a great player. He has a real beneficial presence too.
Is he going to be with you into the New Year?
Yeah I’m sure he is. We’re going to do our best to keep this together and make something happen with it. We all really enjoy playing together and we all really like the band a lot, and we’re just trying to keep the band together.
Have you done any work in the studio?
No not yet. Again, the logistics of the thing are tough. We’ve had some offers and we’ll see what comes up to make a studio record. I don’t know that if I did make a studio record I don’t know how much it would be like the live experience. I mean I have no idea
When was the last time you were in the studio?
Well I was working on Bruce Hornsby’s record on a few tunes.
I scored a copy of when you sat in with him in August in Saratoga [8/24/01] and it sounded great.
Oh yeah? I heard some of his stuff from Yoshi’s that I had never heard before and it was really, really good.
Bruce is really amazing.
Yeah, he’s one of those guys that I always think and am totally convinced that everything I do just sucks [laugh].
When you’re standing up on stage next to him?
No, just in general [laughs]. Sometimes I’m surprised when I listen back to something I did and someone’s like Wow did you hear this? Its great!’ and I’m just like Really?’ [laughs].