By: Ryan Heape
Rising Austin songwriter K Phillips cites director Wes Anderson as a source of his smartassed, shady sense of humor. “I like how his movies are all their own little worlds, or part of his own little world, where you don’t know if it’s past or present. You can’t place it. I love the childishness of it all.” If I talked about Phillips’s 2012 debut album “American Girls” in similar fashion, I wouldn’t be wrong: It’s a whimsical record, a rich experience that visits vaguely antiquated places rendered with sharp, funny details. This is you listening to “American Girls”:
“You could defang the devil with a clawhammer banjo” is a lyric from the LP and also something you couldn’t not see Bill Murray saying while wearing a red beanie. The light-heartedness and generosity is important, a shout out to when country music maybe didn’t take itself so seriously and wasn’t afraid to draw from other sects of the culture.
Phillips wears his many influences proudly, in a way we don’t usually see. He’ll go full Motown soul-pop on “Does It Hold Water” (and execute it really well!) and then tackle something as classically Tennessee as “Lincoln City.” The gratuitous amounts of piano and organ are nothing Phillips’s confident and soulful voice can’t stand out from, and they end up helping “American Girls” feel so well-articulated. And in a record that sounds as infatuated with “Exile On Main St.” as I am, it has none other than Slaton native—and actual “Exile” saxophonist—Bobby Keys laying down brass.
It’s K Phillips’s personality, the wry charm that you take away from listening to his songs or seeing him live. A 29 year-old with virtually 40 years of being-in-a-band experience, he hasn’t let the struggle take the joy out of the songs. I talked to him over the phone the other night while he and his girlfriend were loading gear into a van, and he told me he’s back in the studio recording another album with his band, the Concho Pearls. It should be out this summer, and I’m expecting a record as focused and charismatic as he sounds.
New Slang: I missed you at Steamboat Festival last month, but I heard it was a great time.
K Phillips: It was incredible, the best part was just playing acoustic and seeing all those artists out in the crowd watching me. That was kind of unbelievable. There were only to fit about only a hundred people in the conference room where they had the acoustic shows and there were always about 20 out of that crowd that were other artists in between their own gigs.
NS: And you got a chance to play at the Bowery in New York not too long ago.
KP: It was cool, actually Adam Duritz was there. Wait, is this the interview time? I wouldn’t normally name drop but…
NS: Oh you can name drop, feel free.
KP: OK. I didn’t want to come off like a douche or anything, but yeah [laughs].
NS: You’re going to be opening for the Old 97’s on Saturday, are you a fan.
KP: I am a fan. Probably since college. I actually met them at [Austin City Limits Festival] and they all seemed like the nicest guys.
NS: I wanted to talk to you about this A.V. Club article you retweeted a link to about a week ago, basically it was about how country music wasn’t dominated by like, just conservative white dudes.
KP: Right. I think country music, it comes from a place geographically, but it’s also something that’s been passed down—storytelling, roots-rhythms. It’s personal songs, it’s the certain scales we use, the old rhythms. What, say, the Old 97’s do, that’s country music. I think now, though…with any creative movement there’s a building up and then a breaking down. At one time, I think people thought country music embodied this thing that had to do with being genuine, just looking around and telling your own story. I think Bruce Springsteen does that—to me he is country music. Wether people see it that way now or not, time will tell. I think, and I hope there’s a shift happening and people want something genuine again. But yeah, that article was interesting because, yes, country music hasn’t always been this thing where people were proud to be “small town” or “red neck,” it was real people being honest.
NS: I’ve been listening to some older songs of yours like “Cruel As Caligula”…
KP: Oh wow, damn where did you find that?
NS: I couldn’t really find it, but I read the lyrics on your website and it was a trip just to even read the lyrics to that song.
KP: My girlfriend was an artist just like I am and before I met her I was kind of doing whatever I wanted to. I was just…not a good person back then for girls to date [laughs]. I basically cheated on everybody and did whatever the fuck I felt like. Then I met her and I was like OK, this is the one, I’m gonna be good now. But being monogamous is not even half the battle when it comes to being good to somebody, you know. That song is basically my girlfriend saying, “Well you need to be a better boyfriend,” and me saying, “You should’ve seen me before I met you [laughs].”
I used to have this old Firebird and I worked on it a lot. It had a radio in it but when I never messed in it when I finally took the car out for a drive. When I’m out I like to just listen to the sound of the engine, and to me the character in the song…. First of all, it isn’t exactly always me in the songs, it’s a character. And in the song is about being fed up with someone and just craving silence again. I try not to explain songs to people once they come out, I like them to find out for themselves. Especially when I’m talking to somebody like New Slang…
NS: [laughs] Hey, we have SXSW PRESS CREDENTIALS NOW MAN; we’re legit. Honestly, though, I’ve been listening to your debut “American Girls” a lot lately and the thing that resonates with me is its dark sense of humor. Where does that come from?
KP: Yeah, I don’t know. I think that’s right.
NS: Does that show in the kind of movies you like or…?
KP: I think it comes from a lot of places. I’m a big Wes Anderson fan, and I like how all his movies are their own worlds or just in a Wes Anderson world. Where you don’t know if it’s the past or present, you can’t really place it. I love the childishness of it all. I don’t know why everyone writes but I write because it’s fun for me, you know, and I like to make myself laugh. Sometimes I’m a pretty shitty person to be around but the writing always helps me. It’s kind of my therapy. Like I couldn’t actually kill somebody, I wouldn’t want to but…I could do it in a song.
NS: Are you writing now?
KP: Well we’re working on an album. Writing it right now and I’m excited because I get to bring in my band this time. With “American Girls” and the way we recorded it, it was great, we had Pat Manske producing who brought in an all-star band with Bobby Keys and everybody. But it was essentially just me writing songs and then me and them arranging them. This time I’m writing with the Concho Pearls and it’s going to be a collaboration. It’s weird but the first one was so personal, this time we’re writing, recording, and then touring together and on this scale that doesn’t happen that much anymore. You don’t see the band that you hear on the record because of politics and when somebody puts their money into something they want to get the best possible musicians. People that have accolades, that sort of thing. And I’m here thinking like, I’ll put my band up against anybody, you know. I’ve been playing with them for pretty much six years now—everybody loves that band and I wanted to show them off. “Perfect” isn’t something that I necessarily want to hear when I put on a record, I want to hear people interacting. I think we interact in a way that I like.
NS: The production was very elaborate on “American Girls,” there was the clear homage to “Exile On Main St.”, etc. What will this record sound like?
KP: Yeah, but I think sounds come with limitations. For a long time that was all I listened to, those certain things like the Rolling Stones. But there’s also other things I’ve been listening to that I’m excited about. Like Howlin’ Wolf and Gram Parsons, which I guess was stuff that the Stones probably listened to.
The first record was about being a young man, about like, courtship and this one’s about being with somebody and everything else that’s not just meeting girls and getting your heart-broken. It’s about starting a new life, you know. I’ve had to quit a lot of things lately, been trying to grow up. Like I quit drinking. I’ll still have a couple of beers but binge drinking, you know.
NS: That impresses me. When I saw Lucero play up here a couple of weeks ago, I saw a gray-haired Ben Nichols walking around the bar carrying around a bottle of Jameson.
KP: I love Lucero. What he’s doing is crazy, like, that’s an old man. Had a hard life. Like I did that for a while, but man. I turned 29 a few days ago. My dad just got out of rehab too man, it runs in my family. I want to be able to do this forever, though, be in music for the long haul. I can’t expect to always able to tour, party, and sing. I spent a couple of nights in jail a couple of months ago which was kind of a wake-up call. Like, Axl Rose can’t even sing anymore man. It’s tough. You gotta choose which life you can have, it’s gotta be one or the other.