Oh, this is going to be a treat, friends. Tomorrow night (that’s Friday for those keeping score) Kai Orion is heading to Frederick Coffee Co. to perform and goodness, gracious you should care. Why? Because if you remember, he released one of the most brilliant albums we’ve ever heard a couple years ago. So, when he reached out to alert us that he’d be coming to town, we absolutely had to ask him a few questions. And among the issues discussed in those questions were how the hell “Pots & Pans” came together, how big of an influence Peter Gabriel had on him, and how on earth he can even think of playing some of those songs live. If you do one thing (besides go to the Frederick Music Showcase tonight, of course) this weekend, this should be that one thing. Honestly. Truly. Madly. Deeply.
“Pots & Pans” was brilliant, so we’ll start with this simple question: How did it all even come together?
My first attempt was a video that ended up winning The National’s “I Need My Girl” cover contest in 2014, where I used things like bottles and wine glasses that could be physically tuned to different pitches. It’s kind of a fun craft project that pops up every once in a while in either a viral video or a beer commercial. But I actually thought that, aside from being a novelty concept, the resulting sound could be incredibly atmospheric and enchanting. I wanted to explore how I could use it as a serious device in my own music. I was especially interested in creating different “settings” in my songs, so I picked out sounds from different familiar locations. I used sampling to manipulate the pitch of certain sounds that couldn’t be controlled physically, but otherwise I tried to preserve as much of the original quality of the sounds as possible.
I created a few basic arrangements – suburbs, office, traffic, etc. Then I listened and wrote lyrics based on each location. For example, “No Conversation” takes place in an office and is about social anxiety and pressure. In “Quiet Love,” which features household sounds, I was sort of imagining an elderly couple who are so deep set in their daily routines that the routine itself becomes of a kind of communication.
Above all, “Pots & Pans” was a bit of a “proof of concept.” There’s a lot of ideas there that I intend to come back to, particularly regarding the narrative potential for found sound atmospheres.
Playing live now, how do you re-create what you did on that record? It seems like such a daunting task. Do you even attempt the songs? Are they re-imagined?
Performing the songs live in their original format is actually an ongoing video project. We did a kitchen-themed performance of “Quiet Love” for last year’s Tiny Desk Contest, and this year we did a sort of junkyard/tool shed rendition of “Beautiful Darkness” that I’m pretty excited about. For those performances, I chose one sound that could be sampled and played live through a keyboard, and filled the rest in with objects that could actually be played like bottles, wine glasses, doorbells, rubber band guitar, etc.
That being said, I see live performance as a completely different medium than studio recordings, and I always like to re-imagine my material to be performed. In my current solo show, I don’t use any found objects, but I try to create the same kind of atmosphere – that contrast between familiar and foreign – by using familiar instruments in unfamiliar contexts. For example, I’ll create a rhythm track by beatboxing through a flute or looping a percussive piano riff.
What’s up with Bare Left/Bluebeard? Is that project still on the table for you, or do you think you’ll prefer keeping it solo in the foreseeable future?
My songwriting partner in Bare Left is also fellow solo artist Alexander Gallows, who is working on a pretty cool album of his own. We’ve sort of been helping each other out with recording and live projects – you can catch him playing a hopelessly out of tune rubber band guitar in my forthcoming Tiny Desk contest video. Working solo is definitely appealing to me, because I have a very spontaneous approach to songwriting that’s difficult to replicate in a band setting. So I think I’ll always keep doing solo projects, but I also love collaborating with other musicians and Bare Left is definitely still on the table.
I’ve also been working with a live band to develop my own material and bring in some new perspectives. I’m hoping to do some shows later on in the year performing my solo material with a full band.
What’s your perception of the local music scene currently?
I’m continually astonished by how much local talent is out there. It’s easy to see the Internet as a destructive force for music but I think we’re really seeing a shift from industry to community, which tends to be a good thing, in my opinion. All these barriers to entry are being stripped away and you no longer need enormous financial backing to express yourself artistically. Right now, local music communities still seem pretty niche – consisting mostly of musicians and ardent music fans. But my hope is that this era of free expression that we appear to be headed towards will eventually lead to a bigger spotlight on local performers. A lot of people I know complain that there’s too much “noise” with the Internet – that so many people are putting themselves out there that it’s impossible to find music that appeals to you. That’s certainly true, so my answer would be that if you’re confused about what new music to listen to, your hometown is a great place to start!
Who are some of your major influences and why?
The Peter Gabriel comparison was pretty spot on. The album that turned me onto music as a kid was Genesis’s “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.” You are what you eat, and from ages maybe 8 to 13 I lived on an exclusive diet of early progressive rock (with the occasional lemon). I prefer lighter fare these days, but you can’t escape your early influences. I learned to sing by singing along to early Genesis and Gabriel albums in those formative years, and it’s eternally embedded in my voice. Normally I consciously try not to sound exactly like Peter Gabriel, but when I was making “Pots & Pans,” I recognized that it felt like an especially Gabriel-y thing to do, so I decided to embrace it and have some fun. There was one song in particular – “No Conversation” – which I see as pretty much a direct Gabriel tribute.
Tom Waits is another big influence – it turns out that if you bang pots and pans together long enough, you actually end up conjuring Waits’ avatar. He’ll give you a nickel and a pack of smokes and then disappear in a puddle of bourbon, leaving you with a desperate plethora of questions that will never be answered.
In terms of singing style, I try to use my voice as dynamically as possible – going from harsh to tender to melodramatic, etc. – that’s definitely something that singers like Gabriel and Waits taught me.
Can you give us names of some bands we need to check out that we maybe haven’t seen yet? Who are you listening to the most these days?
Otis Infrastructure is a really cool solo artist, who consistently hits the nail on the head regarding everything I love about post-rock and experimental pop. He’s working on a new release that I’m definitely watching out for.
The Radiographers from D.C. – they do a great job of blending a super accessible pop sound with experimental tendencies, which is pretty much my M.O. They just put out a new release and will be playing shows all year.
Cartoon Weapons – an indie-prog trio comprised of three of the most talented musicians I’ve ever seen. They’re a bit jammy, so best bring along some toast.
What does 2017 look like for you? Is new music maybe in the near future?
New music is definitely in the near future. I have a little mini set of new songs that I’ve been testing out at gigs, and I’m rehearsing new music with my live band to record soon. “Pots & Pans” felt very much like a studio recording, and I want the next thing I do to have a bit more of a live feel, while still incorporating some of the same elements and ideas.
Outside of music, I just finished production on a short film called “The Final Word” that I wrote and directed, which I’m very excited to finally see come to fruition. I’d describe it as “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy” crossed with “The Phantom Toll-Booth.” I’m hoping to also use the film to showcase local music, and some of my favorite Frederick bands – Silent Old Mts., Heavy Lights are lined up to be part of the soundtrack!
I’m also working on an episodic mini-series of short surreal sketches – kind of like a sillier version of “The Twilight Zone.”
So, 2017 is shaping up to be a pretty exciting year. Unless, of course, my country were to happen to be overrun by an authoritarian demagogue who pits the working class against the elites and plunges the world into a dark age era of isolationism and mistrust – but we’d never let that happen, right?
What do you think is the most perfect song ever written and why?
I think my answer to this will be different on any given day, but since you’ve got me thinking about Peter Gabriel, I’ll go with “Mercy Street.” It’s one of my favorite lyrics of all time, and the atmosphere is so carefully woven and nuanced. It’s just an all around gorgeous song.
And, of course, what can we expect from your show at Coffee Co.?
I’ll be doing a solo set, in which I’ll use a loop pedal to combine flute, guitar, keyboards, and vocals. It’s a pretty unique sound, in my own biased opinion, that I think most people haven’t heard before. Part of the set will be a sort of mini-suite of brand new material that I’ve been working on. The rest will consist of dramatically re-imagined versions of songs from “Pots & Pans” and some of my favorite covers by other artists. I’ve been taking a lot of inspiration from electronic music in terms of how different loops are arranged into a cohesive piece, so I would describe my live set as electronic music played with acoustic instruments.