New Slanged: Kenny Uptain of Foxtrot Uniform
by: Thomas D. Mooney
“The blues came to Texas loping like a mule.”
-Blind Lemon Jefferson
Charlie Kilo‘s (look up what the means, kids!) mule must be trotting along to with its own drummer. They’re certainly rooted in the blues, but there’s some strangeness to the whole thing.
In an area known for blues-rock staples over the years–Dallas/Fort Worth’s Foxtrot Uniform is off doing their own thing–yet still within the boundaries of “rock and roll” and more specifically, Texas blues. You can hear nods to those before them–The 13th Floor Elevators, ZZ Top for example–but there’s a moment in which Kelly Test and Kenny Uptain started veering off into their own lane barreling down the open road towards the likes of Desert rock staples Queens of the Stone Age and psychedelia of the ’60s and ’70s.
Since recording their debut full-length record Huj! Huj! Hajrah! in Test’s living room–just himself and Uptain–the band has grown into being a five-piece. The record itself though, is much like how a kaleidoscope would sound like. The guitars are chopped up thick and often build and collapse on one another before repeating.
Uptain often comes across with a grizzled growl that seem as though they’ve seen the smoke-filled bars of the South for quite some time. It’s the undeniable adversary of any band doing their own version of swampy boogie blues. Uptain’s vocals were meant to do this. And even when he says he wasn’t as confident in his chops, there’s some swagger and bravado on tracks such as “Getting to You,” “Lil Annie,” and “Crackhead.”
Foxtrot Uniform also takes you in areas of town and introduces you to folks you’d probably steer clear from when walking down the sidewalk and essentially shoves them in your path. It’s grungy. A little dirty. OK a lot dirty. But hell, quit being so pretentious and hollow. If you’re singing the blues, you’re not hanging out with many hedge fund managers and city planners.
Take the song “Getting to You.” It’s armed with one of the best lines on the record. “I’ve seen you at the drug store. Your prescription ain’t filled. I’ve seen you in the parking lot giving hand jobs out for pills.” You ain’t getting that from The Black Keys.
We caught up with Kenny Uptain of Foxtrot Uniform last week. Foxtrot Uniform is playing The Blue Light tonight (Wednesday, August, 14).
New Slang: Your debut record (Huj! Huj! Hajrah!) when recorded, was done all by you and Kelly [Test]. Since then, you’ve added members to the band. How has those songs changed–and to a bigger point, how have they changed the band?
Kenny Uptain: A ton really. As far as what they added to the last record, they added a lot, but at the same time, we recorded it adding a whole bunch of additional parts anyways. On a lot of those songs, they’re pretty much like the record. Sometimes they’ll change up. Robb [Saunders], our guitarist/utility guy, he plays steel guitar on a lot of songs. I can’t play any of that, so none of that was on the record. He plays mandolin and a bunch of other stuff, so he adds a lot with his versatility. Zack [Busby] our bass player, he’s just been a monster. He’s a big effects whiz and stuff that I could never do. And Katie [Robertson], our keys player–Kelly and I can only play a couple of notes on keys–so really, everyone just brings more talent to their instruments that we could never do.
NS: Has that sparked some new creativity and inspiration when writing material? Just knowing you have this band who can play all these different instruments.
KU: Oh absolutely. Sometimes now when I’m writing a song, I can hear female vocals on it–a duet type thing–and we can do it now. I can write a song like that. And sometimes I can hear the steel and Rob can throw it down. Or, we can get together and write stuff–that’s something we never really did before.
NS: Yeah. Not many bands have that added bonus of having both female and male vocals. Often it’s just harmony or backup vocals.
KU: Definitely. And something I like doing that I think is really cool is writing a song from a male’s perspective and then have Katie sing it. She’s such a great singer and like to utilize her voice any way I can.
NS: There’s a lot of Texas boogie in the Foxtrot Uniform sound. Over there in Dallas and Ft. Worth, there’s really this build up a nice blues-rock sound. A modern Texas blues scene. You’ve got so many bands that’re playing a style of music that’s related in ways–different obviously–but still related. Guys like Jonathan Tyler, Quaker City Night Hawks, Rise & Shine to name a few. What’s it like to be amongst those bands and helping build that scene?
KU: It’s really big for us because we’ve never really done this stuff. Kelly and I both were from country band backgrounds. We’d played in country bands forever. That’s were the money was–it’s how you made money in Texas. It was real nice for us when we branched out. I’d never heard of Quaker City and then finally did hear them after we had put out our EP (Hey! Mighty! Mighty!). This was before the record. And when I heard those guys, I was like “There we go!” Of course I’d heard of Jonathan Tyler, but he was much more on the national scene by this point. Then there are bands like The Hanna Barbarians who have been doing really well around the area. So many bluesy rock bands doing their own thing, it was really like a kick in the butt for us and like “Hey, we can really do this. You don’t have to be scared to put what you have out there.” There’s something about the blues that just really grabs a hold of us. From bands in the ’60s and so on, it’s grabbed them and morphs into this rock and roll band. And in Texas, there’s really something different as well. Like you said, Texas boogie. Swamp rock. To see this scene grow, it’s just a huge inspiration.
NS: Yeah. I’m a real big blues guy. Like you said, there’s something in it that grabs you. Of course you know Texas at one time, years ago, had this really booming blues scene going across the state. There’s always been great blues guys here. But there for a while–I wouldn’t exactly say it died–but it went a little dormant. It wasn’t popular with the masses, etc. I feel though, we’re in the beginning of a Texas blues revival of sorts. I love it.
KU: Yeah. Honestly, it’s been just a bunch of kids who were tired of the same old shit and wanting to hear good music. They’ve really gotten behind it. That’s how everything starts off. It takes people getting behind it. And like you said, it didn’t die, but definitely went dormant. There was definitely a bunch of dudes around who kept doing it. They’ve been influential as well. But you know, they were broke as a joke and things like that. In music, it’s always important to get the art out in the right way and to play what you’re wanting to. That’s a huge part of it, but there is that part were you have to make some money. It was tough for us to see it go dormant. But guys like Ray Wylie Hubbard–those roots country dudes, they always kept it going. This Texas Country stuff took off and you know the story. But lucky for us younger guys, it’s starting to fade out some. The cool kids are starting to go the blues. The ones who want to hear real music at least.
NS: Yeah. I guess I have two points I want to say. One, I’m a firm believer in the fact that the definition of what “Texas Country” is to the masses is changing gradually. Years from now, what people say “Texas Country” is, will be more roots-rock, more blues, more blues-rock, more songwriter based than what’s going on right now. I consider that a great thing, because I feel that’s more genuine and because that’s who I like listening to here in Texas. And two, Ray Wylie Hubbard is one of the few guys who can play with anyone in Texas and not feel out of place. Anyone and everyone.
KU: Oh yeah. A country dude and a rock dude. Plays them super well and gets respect from both backgrounds. Willie Nelson is definitely more country, but he’s able to do the same thing. Texas music–I don’t think it’s anything we’re doing as artists–it’s just coming back full circle. It’s all coming back to Moving Sidewalks, The 13th Floor Elevators, ZZ Top. It’s just coming back to what they were doing. We’re all trying to do what they did. It’s the pre-Stevie Ray Vaughan takeover of blues. You know what I mean? It’s psychedelic. Crazy effects on the vocals and stuff like that. It’s rock and roll, but it’s Texas rock and roll for sure. Thank God it’s coming back around.
NS: That’s something I was going to bring up with your sound. There’s some psychedelic stuff in Foxtrot Uniform. How’d that element creep into the sound?
KU: Honestly, it came about from being kind of uncomfortable with my straight up chops. Not being as confident with my guitar skills and my vocals as I should have. It was like, “Well, let’s put some effects on shit and really weird it out.” And two, I’m a humongous Pink Floyd fan. They’re one of my tops for sure. I love the movement and journey of a record. I know iPods and .mp3 players have kind of fucked that up for a lot of young people. Even now, young kids in this scene will put out something with two songs it or something. Which, that’s cool and all and maybe it sells better and what not. Maybe it’s better overhead for you. But for me, it steals away that journey I always have loved so much when listening to an entire album. If you listen to that album (Foxtrot Uniform’s Haj! Haj! Hajrah!) all the way through, it never really stops. It’s really quick. It moves on into the next thing and way far away from being on par with Pink Floyd or anything, but that’s where the idea really came from. The 13th Floor Elevators, Moving Sidewalks. They’d take a simple blues song and put a bunch of echo and effects and weird solos and take it somewhere crazy. And two, we were a two piece who played blues so immediately you’re getting compared to The Black Keys. Not so much The White Stripes, but we heard Black Keys quite a few times. That’s another reason we really wanted to extend the band. But I wanted to do a little more psychedelic stuff than that kind of blues.
NS: Listening to this record as one piece. One of the interesting things I found on the record was the mixture of how songs were. There were many that feel like the lyrics were just experiments in being stream of consciousness or poems written. Then there are songs that are more in the traditional song structure style. I think it doesn’t go unnoticed and is different from most.
KU: Yeah. Absolutely. A lot of that, Kelly and I were in a band before with a bass player and he took off and nothing really ever came of it. We were doing something that was similar, but it was much more of a smooth soul bluesy thing. We brought in those songs and some of them we had to really beef up and weird out and extend them. And then some were real short little rock and roll pieces. More than anything else, it’s more of a segue into the next song.
NS: Yeah. Like the song “Truth.”
KU: Oh yeah. Definitely a transition song…and this new record we’re almost done with–hopefully it’ll be out by October–all the songs on it are way longer. Songs are like six minutes long instead of two minutes. I guess that’s what happens when you bring in a bunch of good players on.