Kiwi Jr: Escape From Recent History

Kiwi Jr’s music is briming with clever and well-defined narrative structures; vivid imaginings of fictional people; places and events fleshed with such detail that they seem real. Their songs are playful and puzzling in equal measure, but to describe their approach as jovial or light-hearted – rather than honest or authentic – would be doing a disservice to one of the most creative bands around.

It is a time of congratulations when I call the band, having that day put out their sophomore album, Cooler Returns. It is an album on which inspiration is drawn from a soundscape firmly cemented in 70’s rock and roll. It is a fitting follow-up to Football Money, and is notable for the chemistry between the members Jeremy, Brian, Mike and Brohan. Each individual piece of instrumentation carries conviction and intensity and is played to emphasise Jeremy’s intriguing lyrics, almost as if building to the next punch line or satisfying quip. Each chorus is punctuated with sharp drum hits and guitar strums which lend dynamics and momentum that the band adapt to and play with at will.

In this respect the album darts around, zagging and zigging with each song’s unique narrative personality. At one end, we are sat awkwardly in the midst of a friends break up in front of Lara Croft’s Tomb Raider in the song ‘Only Here For a Haircut’, before being transported to a ‘Nashville Wedding’, where our protagonist channels his resentment at the union by fighting with the minster.

Whilst these scenarios are fanciful and dreamt up, it is hard not to locate firmly within the current time. The title track starts, “Super Bowl Sunday, two-thousand and twenty”, rooting us in a time of COVID anxiety, whilst the song ‘Undecided Voters’ neatly collided with the US election. It is most rewarding not to take such statements at face value and see Cooler Returns as an alternative telling of what could have happened over the past 12 months if we weren’t locked down and if the imagination was allowed to run wild. It is perfect escapism and, by their own admission, an investigative exposé of recent history. However, when interviewing the band, it is apparent that with this statement the tongue is firmly affixed within the cheek.

Your music comes across as very autobiographical with instances and stories that are very specific, such as ‘Nashville Wedding’, ‘Dodgers’ and ‘Only Here For A Haircut.’ Is there a value in being honest in your music?

Jeremy: Well, most of it is just made up. There are some bits of truth and real things that have happened to us and people we know in the lyrics. But a song like ‘Nashville Wedding’, where someone is actively trying to ruin a wedding and everyone is chasing them around – I’m not doing that, that’s just made up. There’s a lot of detail in the stories, maybe to trick people like you!

You just get ideas for songs and sometimes you can take things from your own experience. I would disagree in saying this is a very autobiographical record. There are a lot of first-person stories in it but I wouldn’t say they are all ‘me’ as I sing it.

Do you think you can relate to imagined and dreamt up narratives in the same way as first-person accounts?

Mike: There are a lot of small details and those textures are often drawn from things that are, shall we say, autobiographical; but those stories are getting twisted or embellished or turned into a different direction.

Jeremy: Like there is a song that references the pub that we like to go to, but there is no real story of like ‘oh one night we went and this happened’. It’s just a cosy reference to a place we like to go to.

I was interested that you talk about writing music as a selfish pursuit. Do you think you have found that experience to be the same during what you describe as the ‘dog days of quarantine’?

Brian: Yeah, I think so. We could have easily volunteered and helped a charity but we decided to make music. It’s definitely a bit of a selfish career choice, it’s a bit like being an actor. What would be more selfish? Neither are helping.

Jeremy: Sometimes you are standing on stage being like, ‘hey everyone, pay money and watch me sing!’ Somebody asked if we are going to take on more social issues in our songs and write things that are relevant to whatever political and eco turmoil we are facing, and I said no. You don’t want that from us. You might think you do, but you don’t. Our approach to what we are writing about and our style of music is selfish. We are very happy to have a Rolling Stones backbeat in four out of every five songs we write and are pretty unapologetic about that.

On Football Money, you lamented the monotonies of daily life in lyrics like, “I wanna go home, let me go home”. Similar themes appear on tracks like ‘Waiting in Line’ and ‘Undecided Voters’. Has it been easy to tap into that same world-weariness when crafting Cooler Returns during a lockdown?

Brian: It’s interesting that you mention the “I wanna go home” lyric because when we first started recording this record none of us had left our homes in 4 months so we were super pumped to get together and play music and not be at home. Well at least I was.

In each of your individual performances in the album, what influences were you channelling?

Brian: We are influenced by the older Stones records that you can hear in the saloon piano we recorded. That was kind of the goal with the piano sounds and the harmonica for example. Early Stones records for sure. There’s a lot of Charlie Watts in there.

Jeremy: I played mostly acoustic guitar on the record. I think we started on electric and ended up stripping that away. I think that I was again thinking of a lot of 70s rock and bands like the La’s, the Violent Femmes. Those bands where you don’t really notice that they are playing acoustic instruments until you think about it.

Mike: I think Jeremy had been the one to introduce me to Orange Juice just before we went in to start recording this. I was totally unaware. ‘You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever’ was pretty big and on constant rotation. To that frenetic, up tempo musicality but with a lyrical presence that’s living more in the pocket and has a sardonic tone.

Cooler Returns is a brilliant title – what does it mean to the band?

Brian: It means a few different things.

Jeremy: We kicked around a lot of titles for almost a whole year. Some we liked but we always came back to Cooler Returns as the default LP2 title. I didn’t want to name it after a song on the record but we ended up doing that again!

We’ve spun it a few different ways but I like to think of Cooler Returns as like a goodbye or a signoff. So instead of people saying ‘best wishes’, people are going to start saying: ‘cooler returns’. Send you down the road with a ‘cooler returns’!

Your music is full of humour and playful turns of phrase, the sort of humour that is rewarded if you sit with the lyrics for a moment, providing another layer on which to engage with the album. What is the value of being comical within music to you?

Jeremy: I think we would be boring otherwise.

Brian: It’s also just not who we are. When we get together and play music, we are constantly ribbing each other and cracking jokes rather than talking about economic prosperity.

There are a lot of references to what I assume are people and places that seem to resonate with you guys. Is there an artistic endeavour in trying to cram as many in for your benefit?

Jeremy: I listen to a lot of music like that and I like whenever there are little details and you can constantly be discovering things in the lyrics. If we did have a song that was really straight and unremarkable in its lyrics and delivery, I think it would highlight that I’m better off doing my own quirky thing rather than sing a ‘nice’ song.

Mike: I can remember Jeremy signing one of the songs where we hadn’t heard all of the lyrics before and just laughing – because when you are playing in a rehearsal space you don’t catch every little nuance.

Brian: I had to leave the studio because I kept laughing at “the kid going nuclear because he didn’t get into film school”. I don’t know why but I had to go into the other room while Jeremy was doing vocal takes!

Mike: Occasionally we are in the studio and Jeremy has one or two lines that aren’t completely fleshed out. Then you have all four of us standing around throwing every possible idea we have, trying to get a lyric into the record.

Brian: I remember having a big band huddle for the first lyric in ‘Waiting In Line’. It was originally “sleep in your grey t-shirt” or “old t-shirt” and we were like what’s it going to be?

Jeremy: Our drummer is a big Strokes fan so he has really pushing for the lyric, “sleep in your Strokes t shirt”.

I first saw you guys at the Bristol institution Old England in Bristol. It was a really intimate gig and one of the first of your UK tour. What did you want people to come away from that gig thinking of the band?

Jeremy: It was fun! I remember going up to what we thought was the backstage area so I could put on the shirt I was going to wear and it was basically just someone’s room. Then a girl comes in and she’s like, ‘I just need to come and pick up my makeup bag’.

Brian: Someone was doing laundry whilst we were trying to write our setlists.

Mike: Oscar, were you the one who was telling me about someone in their family many years before skiing down the road to get to the pub? That was a story that someone told me about.

Jeremy: I’ve never really thought about it but I remember that specific show in Bristol making too many smart-arse jokes from the stage and no one laughing. I was thinking ‘everyone thinks I’m a jerk they aren’t going to like our band!’ So I don’t want people to think I’m a jerk and I want them to like the band.

Brian: I think ideally if they hadn’t heard us before they would go away with a lyric or a melody stuck in their head. Just any kind of snippet from a song that sticks with them.

Jeremy: We want people to leave and directly go to: kiwijr.bandcamp.com.

Brian: We have their credit card details.

Mike: Also to leave looking forward to us coming back.

Words: Oscar Edmondson // Photos: Warren Calbeck

Kiwi Jr’s second album ‘Cooler Returns’ is out now via Sub Pop. Stream and purchase the album via Bandcamp.

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