It's Always the Nice Ones
By Christopher Hess
MARCH 8, 1999: At first glance, the five members of Austin's Kiss Offs look like nice, responsible young adults who always know when to say when. You don't normally think in terms like "nice" and "responsible" when you think of rock bands, but a laconic Sunday afternoon of Tex-Mex brunching al fresco with the quintet initially reinforces these clean-cut notions. The banter is familiar DIY shop talk: college pals start a band, put out 7-inch records recorded on the cheap, blow a few tires on tour, and drink some beers. Such time-tested rites of passage sound almost as quintessentially American as listening to a young serviceman describe his tour of duty. Then drummer Dwayne Barnes starts talking about building explosives with tuna cans and two-by-fours.
Funny how it's always the nice ones, isn't it? The Kiss Offs' ever-growing fetish for homemade stage pyrotechnics is the most visible evidence of the slightly sinister force that winks and taunts just beneath the band's goof-pop veneer. You can also hear it on their newly released debut album, Goodbye Private Life (Peek-a-Boo). Mixed extra loud and crunchy by John Croslin, Goodbye Private Life goes knee-deep into the decadent wellspring of mind-muck that fueled the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat and X's Los Angeles.
Nevertheless, the Kiss Offs refuse to lose touch with more wholesome virtues like
everyday boy/girl harmonies and sugarcoated pop songcraft. Behind all the fuzz, "Mock
The band originated as a trio in the summer of 1996 with Barnes on drums and former Teen Titans frontman Phillip Niemeyer and Gavin Scott on dueling guitars. When Scott moved to Memphis, Niemeyer brought in his old middle school bud Travis Higdon on guitar. Keyboardist Katey Jones, formerly Higdon's boss at a local coffee concern, joined the Kiss Offs shortly thereafter. The lineup was completed when Scott came back to Austin and rejoined on bass in April, 1997.
"I think the Kiss Offs really came to fruition once we had all five of us together," says Higdon.
"It sounded good before, but I don't think it was as accessible," adds Barnes. "I think it was kind of arty and edgy, know what I mean?"
"It was kind of moronic," concludes Niemeyer.
Putting the fine line between clever and stupid aside, there's an undeniable congruence between the five bandmates that goes beyond just knowing not to play all over each other. For one thing, everyone in the Kiss Offs takes a stab at vocals. This helps keep the emphasis on the whole group instead of a frontperson. It also allows for keen, faux-dramatic vocal interplay between Jones and whichever boy is up to bat. Musically, the Kiss Offs thrive on punk-hewn competence and an ear for catchy melodies and smart wording. Virtuosity is not spoken here.
"Phillip and I aren't good enough guitarists to really go crazy, so I think it helps fill everything out," notes Higdon.
"Gavin brews beer and Dwayne built the recording studio where we recorded our album," says Higdon. "Katey can sew and she makes our fabulous costumes. Phillip is our lawyer and I guess I'm the label dude."
As "President and CEO" of Peek-a-Boo Records, Higdon is indeed a swell guy to have in your band. With the recent demise of Trance Syndicate, Peek-a-Boo has emerged as Austin's premier indie label for underground rock music. While that may sound like small potatoes to anyone living north of 51st Street, it did help the label secure a rather prominent showcase at this year's South by Southwest Music Festival. The Kiss Offs will share that bill with Texas-bred labelmates Silver Scooter, Junior Varsity, and the Wontons.
"When your guitar player runs the label, you know your release is going to be a priority," quips Barnes.
The band used to "undertake" short regional tours in Barnes' 1960 hearse with no air conditioning or windshield wipers. The white hearse made a perfect fashion statement, but one too many strandings in the desert convinced the Kiss Offs that a conventional band van might be a better option. With their transportation woes solved, the band embarked on a self-booked five-week tour earlier this year. Although it took them four months to book all the shows, the Kiss Offs are firmly committed to maintaining this kind of autonomy wherever possible.
"Every step of the way, we've done everything ourselves," explains Higdon. "Sometimes, it's been really frustrating, because it takes longer and it's harder to get your foot in the door. But once it's in there and people start noticing you, it really feels good to not owe anybody anything."
Of course, the band's proclivity for explosions may or may not earn them an invitation back.
"It's always kind of a weird point on tour to show up at clubs every night of the week and not know how they're going to respond to blowing things up in their club," says Niemeyer. "We generally take the position that it's easier to beg for forgiveness later than ask for permission now."
For those of us who like to play with fire, Barnes' pyrotechnic zeal has a familiar ring to it. Just one flash pot was all it took to get him hooked.
"That actually started at Gavin's last show before he moved to Memphis," recalls Barnes. "It was the first and only time Phillip smashed a guitar and I brought a flash pot. We had black powder for that one and it completely filled the Blue Flamingo with this thick, black smoke."
"Gosh, that stuff is horrible," adds Scott.
Positive peer reaction quickly led Barnes to up the flaming ante at subsequent shows. After figuring out how store-bought flash pots work, he began building his own out of tuna cans and two-by-fours. Barnes also built a crude foot-switch system for the pyrotechnics with parts from Radio Shack, but his next project made even his fellow band members shudder.
"He built a home-built confetti cannon with a sawed-off fence post and we were like, 'No!'" says Niemeyer. "It looked like a howitzer."
One night in Norfolk, Virginia, the inevitable mishap finally occurred.
"Basically, Dwayne wanted to start burning his cymbals," remembers Higdon. "Two shows before that, he'd poured lighter fluid all over his cymbals and set them on fire and it was really fun. The next night, he set his cymbals and his drum kit on fire. The third night, he set his cymbals and drum kit on fire, then he douses his hand in lighter fluid to light his hand on fire. You can do it and not burn yourself if it goes out really quick. But there was nothing to light it with. By the time he lit his hand, the lighter fluid had had a chance to soak into his skin and he couldn't get it out right away, so he got second-degree burns and he had to go to the hospital."
Although emergency room doctors advised Barnes to see a plastic surgeon and a hand specialist, the Kiss Offs didn't want to miss their next gig. In lieu of further doctor visits, a particularly cool nurse set Barnes up with a "full-on burn kit" for the road and the band drove 10 hours to play the next night in Knoxville. Barnes played the rest of the tour with a huge paw of gauze on one hand, and the Kiss Offs made lemonade out of lemons by selling the excess hospital supplies at their merchandise table.
"We learned a lot in Norfolk," Barnes deadpans.
As if to prove their invincibility once and for all, the Kiss Offs decided to pack an old amplifier with gunpowder and blow it up on the final night of the Bates Motel's existence. The Bates was already destined for a serious gutting to make way for the martini and cigar crowd, and the amp explosion was just part of the band's better-us-than-the-wrecking-ball plan of action. One thing they definitely didn't plan was the amp blowing up right in Higdon's face.
"He turned to me with a frightened look, kind of like a fawn, and asked if he still had his eyebrows," remembers Jones.
"The only thing running through my mind was, 'I have to look cool!'" says Higdon.
The Kiss Offs concluded their three- or four-song set when Higdon, now bleeding profusely from a nasty Plexiglass cut, smashed a mirror with the burned-out amp. What was left of the evening then degenerated into a well-publicized melee of unbridled destruction. More mirrors were smashed, a toilet was overturned, and the drop ceilings in the restrooms were ripped down. Finally, the police were called in to quell the disturbance.
"It was something that I'm really glad we have as an experience behind us," says Barnes emphatically. "Everybody was just so charged with this destructive energy that wasn't from us or of us, but because we were onstage, they were looking to us for direction. We kind of had this really weird Jim Morrison feeling like, 'Whoa, we could start a riot.'"
With that, Barnes innocuously takes another bite of chorizo con huevos and washes it down with a refreshing swig of Dos Equis.
It's always the nice ones, isn't it?
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