Interview: Vic of the Koffin Kats talks roots, touring, and the meaning behind the Graveyard Tree songs

The Koffin Kats, Detroit’s psychobilly badasses, tour pretty prolifically, and they found themselves in Boston last week for Upstart Fest, a 9-city punk festival that showcases the best up-and-coming bands in New England and New York.  I got to sit down with their frontman, vocalist, and upright bass player Vic before the show last Saturday.  Read on to find out what he thinks about the tour, his native city, and his songwriting style.

Dying Scene (Gina Venz):  Can you tell us a little about how the band formed?

Koffin Kats (Vic):  We got started in June of 2003.  Eric [Walls, drummer] and I were in a band together in high school.  We started with another guitarist, but he left in 2010, he wanted a “normal life.”  [Guitarist] Ian was a mutual friend, he joined in 2010.

How did you get into music?

Growing up, I listened to my parents’ music:  Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, The Beach Boys, some Motown stuff.  It was the “oldies” station on the radio, but of course it wasn’t the oldies then.  When I was 11, I heard “Infected” and “21st Century Digital Boy” by Bad Religion, and that got me into punk.

When did you start playing?

I started playing guitar at age 12.  I saw the Revered Horton Heat on Beavis and Butthead, and loved the sound and the vibe of  the upright bass.  I knew I wanted to do that.  I got my first upright bass when I was 17; the internet connections were shitty then so I couldn’t get any help from the internet.  I had to learn from watching others.

How big is the learning curve?

Our ’04 tour was the first time I felt like I understood everything about the bass.  It’s a learning process.

You guys tour pretty incessantly.  What’s that like?

I decided early on that to do it right, you have to get on the road, you’ve gotta go to the people and go out and make it happen.  A record label isn’t going to find you playing in a bar–that shit don’t happen, except in movies.  But since our first tour, we’ve seen progress.  Of course, bigger tours also means bigger expenses.

Do you guys get along on the road?

There’s a trick to touring that I tell other bands about:  you have to eliminate “problem” guys.  We’ve dumped roadies for this.  If you get homesick, you make yourself physically sick.  Everyone misses their bed and their girlfriend and their dog, but you signed up for this, don’t bitch.

This is the second-to-last night of Upstart Fest.  How was it?

It’s such an honor to play with the Turbo ACs and Hudson Falcons.  It’s been great, there aren’t any big egos on this tour, and it’s a great mix of bands.

Of the up-and-coming acts on the tour, who has stood out to you?

New Red Scare brings it every night.  Two Fisted Law is a hell of a band to watch.  But it’s cool to see the energy of these young bands.  The bands playing the early sets have kicked ass.

A Dying Scene reader asked if you could explain the story behind the Graveyard Tree Songs, and why they are stretched out over 4 of your albums.

With a band name like the Koffin Kats, everyone expects us to be all about ghouls and graveyards.  We didn’t want to do it over and over, so we split it out so we didn’t regurgitate 4 songs with the same theme at once.  It’s easy to write lyrics when there’s a clear story line.

And what is the story?

It’s about a guy pining over the loss of someone he loves.  Without it sounding like banging a dead corpse.

Another reader wants to know what gear you use, since you always sound fantastic.

I can rattle it right off.  Ian uses Krank cabs and amps, and a Gretsch Powerjet.  Eric uses Pearl Masters drums.  I use a Shen 3/4 upright, GK1001RB head amp and two Neo Cabs.  I also make my own pick-ups.

Can you describe your songwriting process?

I only write when it’s time to write, but I’m always noting melodies and storing them away.  I do voice memos, which can be pretty funny sometimes because I’m like, “What am I trying to say here?!”  We know what eachother is thinking, we’ve been together for so long.   It can take us about a week to come up with a full album once we sit down to do it.

Does everyone collaborate in writing?

I write all the lyrics.  I asked Ian for some riffs and melodies for “Our Way or the Highway.”   I wanted a collective sound, and we always strive for originality.

Where do you come up with the lyrical themes for your songs?

The sci-fi and horror themes were easy early on.  But we didn’t want to be “that band” that only writes that stuff.  No offense to other bands, but we didn’t want that to be our thing.  We focus more on the scarier things in life:  drug abuse, relationships gone sour.  That stuff has much juicier lyrical content.  The majority of the lyrics are based on the experiences of me and people around me.  You see a lot of highs and lows, being around bar culture as much as we are.

Who are your major stylistic influences?

Top three:  Bad Religion, Waylon Jennings, and the Quakes.

What are you listening to right now?

We do lots of driving, and I like old country, so I’m listening to Willie Nelson, George Jones, stuff like that. I love to read about travelling bands, too–Waylon Jennings’ autobiography is really good.  And when I’ve been drinking and need to throw down, I listen to Sheer Terror.

What are you guys working on now?

We were in the studio in August, and we’re releasing “Born of the Motor” on October 22nd on Sailors Grave Records.

So you went from “Our Way or the Highway” to “Born of the Motor.”  Are your album titles related to life on the road?

“Our Way” was definitely cultivated on tour.  We wrote the new album in Europe over the summer.  We came up with “Born of the Motor” as a nod to our hometown, Detroit, being the Motor City, and because we get to tour in shitty vehicles.

What is Detroit like nowadays?

Everyone always asks us that.  There’s some stuff you hear that’s misinformation, and some of it is not.  The album is definitely a nod to being from there, but we’re not riding the wave of the city; I think it’s cheesy as shit to do that.  We want to relate to everyone around the world, and Detroit as a city has no musical impact on me.

How’s the punk scene there?

It’s small but heartfelt.  We always meet new kids and see the guys who’ve been in it for 40 years.  There are a lot of super shitty awesome bars, but a lot of it is getting gentrified.  It’s like CBGB’s [closing down], every city has those stories.

Is there anything else you want Dying Scene readers to know?

Just to support live music, it’s not as prevalent as it used to be.  I sound like an old man, but there’s a difference between watching a show on YouTube or listening on an iPod and seeing it live.  We can’t survive as a touring band without people coming out to shows.

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