Interview

Kill County's Psalms of Dust

When I heard Kill County’s new record, Broken Glass in the Sun, earlier this year — the space of it, the beauty of it — I was gutted. 

I was grieving the sudden and horrible death of a too-young family member when I discovered it. I reckoned that my obsession with the record was a manifestation of that time.  So I waited to try and clear my head. But I couldn't stop listening to it.  I still can't.

Amid the excellent crop of Americana recordings released in 2015, Broken Glass in the Sun was the most transfixing, most affecting record I heard this year.  Its singularity of purpose is astonishing. Who ends a chorus with “I suppose we all must pay/For these good old days”?  Anybody who’s been through heartache knows that music can be your savior or your sword. There is music that can give you everything you need and be the worst thing for you all at once. On Broken Glass, the starkness of the songs gives you time with yourself, that you both yearn for and run from.  It’s the rare combination of a record that is life-affirming and devastating to listen to, all at once.

In a feat of restraint, the record often features a single acoustic guitar. When the listener is gifted a bass drone or a slow banjo roll, it feels like a drink of cool water. Most powerful is the voice of guitarist Josh James, one of Kill County’s two vocalists and songwriters. James’ voice is somewhere between an Eddie Vedder rumble and the roil of a slightly displeased Jehovah. It’s a voice that is as arresting, as disparate, as the first time I heard Jay Farrar’s voice 20 years ago. You hear it and think: who the hell is that?  My curiosity began to get the better of me.

The band wasn’t easy to find. These days, you hear a band’s record, and suddenly your iPhone is getting push notifications to come see them at a local venue, your Twitter feed wants to tell you what the bass player had for breakfast.  Anachronistically, with Kill County, I was craving information.  My research into them made me wonder if their anti-marketing stance is an aesthetic choice. (It isn’t.) 

Luckily, I had a trip down to Austin — where I knew at least Josh James lived — to cover the giant, wonderful Austin City Limits Festival. For two weekends in August, Austin thrums even more than usual, with tens of thousands of music lovers dancing, sweating, wandering about its eight stages, trying to find that band that they can tell their friends about. It’s an invigorating experience, and sometimes a little exhausting. 

Trying to track down Kill County gave me a chance to escape the 75,000 fans and the real dust of Zilker Park for a few hours to hear about the figurative dust that spawned Broken Glass in the Sun.

Luckily, Josh James’ founding partner, Ringo (yep, just Ringo) kindly invited us to James' cool, half-finished 1910 Craftsman bungalow the guys are renovating in East Austin. Having founded Kill County with James in 2007, Ringo shares songwriter and singing duties, and plays a minimalist, haunting banjo.   

There were only two things I knew about Kill County: 

1. They had to have cut their teeth in punk or hardcore bands.  (Confirmed) 
2. They’d lived it.  (Confirmed)

In a long, rambling conversation among chop-saws, half-drunk Lone Stars, and a couple of music-loving dogs, I talked to James, Ringo, and bass player Jon Augustine, to try and make sense of the achievement of Broken Glass in the Sun.

So what’s the deal with there being virtually nothing about you guys out there on the Internet?  Are you anti-marketing?

Ringo: [Laughs] We’re just bad at it! 

Josh James: It’s been an ongoing talk, a little bit.  I definitely don’t do my share as far as publicity goes. These guys [Ringo and Augustine] do most of it, but it’s something we’ve talked about focusing on more. We’ve never really had an agent or manager; we just kind of do it ourselves.

So you guys are all living in Austin together, now?  Haven’t you usually lived in different cities?

Ringo: Yeah, we’re from Nebraska, but Josh has lived down here in Austin for a while, and I was living up in Michigan for a few years. We just moved down. So three of us, Jon included, are now based in Austin. We play as a five-piece, but it’s really the first time most of us have all been together. Usually the writing is kind of done on the spot, when we record.

That’s got to create some urgency.

Ringo: Yeah, I mean a lot of the records we don’t figure out until we are in the studio.  Even like Jon’s bass part with the eBow on [opening track] "Beat Up Iron" was just done spontaneously in the studio.

We kind of know our aesthetic, our experience, and we just throw stuff out and build it.

Huh. Wow, okay.  So, Jon, now that I know that about you, I’ve got to think you must love film.  I mean your sound is so cinematic.

Jon Augustine: No, not really actually, but I do love the Warren Ellis and Nick Cave soundtracks, and those films, like the Jesse James thing, and The Proposition.

Oh, so you saw Lawless then. Great work those two did on that one.

Augustine:  Oh man, yes! Whew, that movie.

Josh, some of the pent-up anger of those films reminds me of the title track:

Turn fingers to fists and put some holes through the door ...
Whisky wet me through
I’ll be stone drunk by two ...
But I’ll be face down by four, tears drying on the floor

There’s some heartbreaking, visual stuff on the song “Broken Glass in the Sun.”

James: I was down on the Pedernales River, about an hour from here. Just my normal thing -- wake up, drink a cup of coffee, write a song.  It just came out.  It’s not super-auto-biographical, you know, it’s kind of just heartbreak, not about any specific person. I guess it’s not a very good answer. [laughs]

No that makes me feel a little better for you, actually.  Because, what's it like to write songs like these? Does it make you feel better or worse?

James: Oh, it makes me feel way better. I don’t feel like I’m a depressive; I’m pretty realistic. I’m a pretty happy person. I mean I’ve had my share of struggles.  I grew up in punk and metal bands, where there was always this angry place. I feel like I’ve gotten past that. But I do write from that place ... just hardship, you know.

If I’m really upset, I’m not going to be writing. But even if I’m in a great mood, it always comes out like a total bummer [laughs].

Is the sparsity of the record, the starkness, intentional? What’s the inspiration behind that?

James: When we started it was just Ringo and me. Just banjo and guitar. We played that way for a couple of years. So it was always a lot of a slow songs. We really didn’t have a lead player, or a bass player or drums. When we played there was a vastness behind it.  It just was just kind of how we wrote. There is that breath in between parts. When we added Jon and the other members of the band, we wanted to try to keep that. Because that sound is what we want, for sure.

But even in the recording, how do you hold yourself back?

Augustine: It’s good, because none of us really solo that much [laughs].

Ringo: I don’t know if we can verbalize what we are going for as an aesthetic, but we have an intuitive idea for what we are going for. So when we are in the studio, we might not be able sit with a specific objective, but when we hear it, we’re like “yeah, that’s what we want.”

James: Or, “that’s enough.”  We could add six more layers of stuff . . .

Ringo: But just be simple, be simple, be simple. 

The guy in the studio in Detroit we worked with in the recording really helped with that.  He had some great equipment, which was all analog. The equipment itself had its own particular voice, and we were able to use that voice in itself to expand the sound of us.  So when the guitar tone on a song like “Elijah” comes out sounding like that, that’s really all you need.  Don’t mess with it.

[To Josh James] So speaking of voice, is that voice genetic?

James: No, nobody really plays music in my family, so I don’t know where I got interested in . . .

Augustine: No, he’s talking about your actual voice. 

James: [laughs] Yeah, I guess so. I remember my grandpa’s voice, my mom’s dad, he died when I was really young, but his voice had that super resonant timbre to it.

Ringo: Josh gets the “country Eddie Vedder” thing a lot.

This being together is going to be unusual for you all. Now that you are in the same town, what’s going to be the writing process going forward?

James: I don’t know, it’s interesting.  We’ve been pretty productive since we got here.  We’ve got a whole other record worth of songs already.  Now, our plan is to demo things a lot, work on stuff, and figure out how to arrange it before we go into the studio.

Ringo: I feel like we’re starting over.  I mean we have three records under our belt . . .

James: Four.

Ringo: [laughs] Yeah, four.  But now we get to do shows, write together.  It’s not like we’re just going to have three weeks where we have to do everything. Who knows what’s going to happen, but we get a chance to see where it’s going to go.

Augustine: And who knows, we might find that we just revert back to our old way. The spontaneity of it works for us. Maybe we don’t want to lose the chaotic element of it.

Speaking of chaotic, was there a moment when you decided to follow this life?  

James: I’ve never been a full-time musician.  I’ve work for myself as a carpenter, and am always really super-busy with that.  We’ve never really made money of it. I just wanted playing in a band to be the first thing I did and the last thing I do.  I want to do this shit when I’m old, you know, bad knees hobbling onto stage, the whole thing.

Ringo: My mom gave me a banjo, out of fucking left field.  But when I got it, it was like a whole new world for me.  It became the muse — that I didn’t know was out there, that I didn’t know I needed.  It was like I was on one trajectory, and when I got it, it shot me a different way.  I don’t know if there’s a way to talk about it, but it was just this thing that absolutely made sense to me.

Your mom, huh?

Ringo: Yes, it’s like she gave me a second life.

James: As soon as you got the banjo, you just started purging songs.  We were in a band together playing old stuff, like Union songs, Freakwater songs, and then I moved up to Alaska for about a year. I remember you were playing in another band called Triggertown at the time. 

But when I came back, we had this night where we started playing music, and you were playing songs you had written on banjo, and I was floored.  You played that “Carolina” song, and “County Line.” I’d never heard anything like it.  And it had just been about a year since you started playing banjo.

Augustine: And then you guys were doing an open mic night in Lincoln and I had just moved there.  And the way Ringo was just talking about his banjo was kind of what you guys were for me.  I saw you, and it put me on a different trajectory.  I was just going to open mics with a friend to have a laugh because ...

Because it’s an open mic ...

Augustine: Yeah, and these guys went up there looking like they fell off a box car [laughs].  But they were playing this music that I felt like I’d been looking for for a long time and didn’t know it was there.  I knew I had to find my way into that.