Detroit rockabilly revivalists the Koffin Kats have survived a decade of relentless road-warrior touring and rumbling high-octane performances, and now they’re burning up the highways of America in support of the group’s new disc Born of the Motor.
“Our band and everything we’ve built the name for has been because of our touring,” says Koffin Kats singerbassist Vic Victor. “It works out conveniently that we’re from Detroit, but the idea of naming it Born of the Motor was that we’ve always been a working band.”
For the Koffin Kats, starting off in the shadow of the White Stripes’ post-millennial success sucked. Bad. Wannabes suddenly decamped to Detroit after Jack and Meg broke big, but they were too dumb to realize there were very real reasons why the Motor City wasn’t on the verge of becoming the next Seattle. Victor and his buddies would call the posers “white belts” in honor of their fascination with Stripes-style fashions. And unlike the gaggle of Jack White devotees, Victor and his Koffin Kats bandmates knew that staying in Detroit would be the death of them.
“We would be playing a show, but we were only playing for our friends. We could only do that for so long. So the biggest inspiration that Detroit had on us was to get the hell out of Detroit,” Victor says. These days, the singer still calls the Motor City home, but he’s only there for, what he calls, a few two-week “vacations” at a time.
Apparently, getting the hell out of Detroit paid off. Seven albums in, these rockabilly road dogs are self-sustaining, i.e. day-job free, thanks to their sturdy hard-earned fanbase here and in Europe. They’ve crossed the pond eight times, including a 78-shows-in-90-days jaunt this spring.
But it wasn’t always this way. Five years ago, the band was still humping for the man, that is, when they were employed. Victor and former guitarist Tommy Koffin worked at a carpet cleaning company, which laid them off during the winter slowdown. “We would cash our checks at the corner market and load up on PBR,” Victor lovingly recalls. “We didn’t have cable, but we had a DVR player and we’d just get hammered watching the Family Guy box set and Motley Crüe’s Carnival of Sin DVD. And that was our inspiration. We’d get a healthy buzz going and hammer out ideas.”
Koffin left three years ago. He was burnt out and hungry for a family and a simpler life. (He still works at the carpet cleaning business.) When he left, Koffin encouraged Victor to hire their friend Ian Jarrell. It was a good suggestion. Jarrell’s not only picked up the baton, but he’s helped the band kick it into a higher gear, first with 2012’s Our Way & the Highway and now with their latest.
“The album felt like it wrote itself both times,” Victor says. “Ian was able to emulate what Tommy did on the early recordings, but he also brought his own style into the band. The last few recordings we’ve done with Ian have been among my favorite recordings yet.”
Born of the Motor was further aided by the fact the Kats were able to hit the studio during a respite before that big European tour. They laid down the basic tracks, allowing Victor to sit with them while he built the lyrics and vocal melodies. When they returned from Europe, they took two weeks to record.
“We knew we were in a time crunch, and it’s one thing I definitely love about playing with these guys. We know each other so well it’s almost like a psychic connection once we get into the studio,” Victor says.
Victor sings as well as ever, with a dramatic delivery reminiscent of The Damned’s David Vanian. His songs are dark but a little shy of being gothic, and they’re driven by Jarrell’s crisp riffage, the band’s punky shout-along refrains, and the trio’s restless leather-jacketed rhythms. It’s without a doubt their most professional-sounding effort to date.
The writing’s also more polished. Case in point: “The Collector,” a chunky rocker that recalls Thin Lizzy and tells the story of a blue-collar fellow paid to dispose of dead bodies and the messes they leave behind. It’s inspired by Victor’s own experiences carpet-cleaning in “the Murder City.”
“I would be working in the areas that you just don’t go to. The type of areas police don’t go. And there would be times we did clean up messes of people that passed away, so I could visualize the song really well,” Victor says.
The guys in Koffin Kats also widen their palette on tracks like the jazzy cocktail-swing ode to lone wolfdom, “This Heart (Stays On Ice)” and the doo-wop flavored love ballad, “The Team.”
“We’re associated with one genre and we respect that genre, but we also know that if we only associate with that genre we’re only going to get to a certain level,” Victor says. “I didn’t want to invest 10 years in a band and only be playing in front of the same crowd.”
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