By: Ryan Heape
“Don’t be so cynical,” Jesse Kivel pleads on a track titled “At The Pool” from Kisses’ sophomore LP, Kids In LA. It’s hard to imagine that he’s addressing us. Even in their more melancholic moments, it’s actually difficult to listen to Kisses and feel something like cynicism. Much of Kids, like Twin Shadow’s hairsprayed epic Confess from last year, draws from the same dark 80s new wave burnout aesthetic that haunted “People Can Do The Most Amazing Things” from their gorgeous and underrated debut The Heart Of The Nightlife. By simply naming the song, I’ve almost given away that it reaches life-affirming catharsis in spite of its brooding sound.
Kids In LA is absolutely a descriptive title. If you believe records, like films, have settings, Los Angeles would turn up more frequently than any other, but this one avoids the sleaze or turmoil of LA explored in recent records such as “Midnight City” or good kid, m.A.A.d city. On this album, Kivel and Zinzi Edmundson, both 27 years old, explore the Los Angeles of their adolescent memory. You get a sense that those memories aren’t ever entirely painful when tracks have titles like “Air Conditioning,” “Having Friends Over,” and “Bruins.” The nostalgic imagery (“Sleeping by the scene/In my father’s suit”) is still intensely personal: Though the two are as close as bandmembers can conceivably be, it’s Kivel’s voice that dominates the narratives of the songs. When Edmundson gets her first turn to shine on the 90s hip hop-influenced closing track “Adjust Glasses,” we’re treated to a tonally similar yet altogether independent story. Edmunson, who learned keyboards within a year of touring Heart Of The Nightlife and received some vocal coaching from Superhumanoids’ Sarah Chernoff, is undeniably dazzling on that track. LP3 is sure to feature a duet.
The organically-wrought dance infection that characterized Nightlife only allowed room for subtle progression on Kids, the band’s first LP on new label Cascine. Kivel, who has his hands in the more guitar-based Princeton and in Classixx’ debut Hanging Gardens, is an unheralded master behind the boards. Texturally, he makes the most out of every rhythm and pluck of bass. 2013’s most visible music thing is certainly Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, a record that delivers on its promise of viscerally-affecting, lived-in dance pop culling from the sexiest parts of the 70s and 80s. For those who have followed Kisses and Classixx (along with other outfits who materialized out of the fog of chillwave to cut the bullshit and make people dance), Daft Punk’s recent urges seem familiar if not slightly indebted to those who’ve been keeping honest disco on life support.
It’s not a slight: For Kisses, their ambitions don’t protrude too far outside their own circle of love. But according to Kivel, the stakes are still plenty high: “We want to be a career band. Kisses is an extension of our lives. We’re gonna be married soon [!] and this band is a part of our life so it’s not something where we’re trying to ‘make it.’” You’re assured the profound sentiment is true just based on the uniqueness of their relationship. Further, they went to lengths to make an emotionally poignant high school record made by people not in high school. Kisses insist they’re not entirely comfortable in their own skin, but when I met them at SXSW in March, it was hard not to envy these two talented lovers.
Observing Zinzi Edmundson and Jesse Kivel together is, indeed, observing happiness, or at least some special instance of human contentment. The two can’t hide the fact they’re nuts for each other. In my moment of giddiness over the news that they’re getting married this summer, I ask them the important question: Who is going to DJ the reception? (It’s Daniel Terndrup of Cosmic Kids fame, because of course it is.)
They’re earnest, articulate, and generally chill, appearing enviably detached from the SXSW mayhem occuring on the streets outside. I meet them at Old School on Sixth on Friday night before their only show of the festival. At this point I’m near the end of day 5 of my SXSW trip; I’m probably in a fugue state and probably my bodily fluid is 26% Lone Star Beer.
Kisses’ Kids In LA is out today on their new label, Cascine. Their answers to my questions were long-winded and sometimes—huh—cynical. At least at first. We mostly talked about the pros and cons of SXSW from the artists’ perspective, the new record, and why Zinzi’s hero is Tina from Talking Heads.
When I first approach Kivel at the bar, he’s midly flustered at the fact the only alcohol they’re comp-ing for artists is cans of Miller Lite. He hands the Miller Lite to me instead, which I gratefully accept because I am, at this point, broke and thirsty. When Kivel rejoins Edmundson, he produces a fifth of Tanqueray from his jacket and pours it over a cup of ice. I could swear he then shoots me a look as if to say, This is what doing it right looks like.
New Slang: This Old School show is the only show for you guys at SXSW this year. Frankly, I would suspect you guys aren’t entirely enthusiastic about this.
Jesse Kivel: That’s not true. I think what was ideal was us not doing SXSW, but we got a chance to do it on favorable terms. To me, SXSW is something that you lose a lot of money unless you’re already doing well. It isn’t a place where typically bands from nowhere become something. To artists, SXSW is at its best when it just puts an exclamation point on whatever you’re doing. And for me and Zinzi, I think we want to be a career band. Kisses is an extension of our lives. We’re gonna be married soon and this band is a part of all of that so it’s not something where we’re trying to ‘make it.’ We’re here to be career artists. We’re not coming to SXSW for our big break. So with that in mind, we didn’t want to spend 2 grand and rent a place just to do it. But we’re excited to tour and we really like our new label. Jeff from Cascine is a great guy and we love what he and Cascine are doing and we want to do well for him.
Zinzi Edmundson: It’s hard as an artist coming to these things because we don’t know if it’s actually helping or if it means much else besides losing money and sleep and making you feel kind of bummed out. The common perception is that you’re supposed to do it.
JK: I’ve done it with my other band Princeton, we did 8 shows at last year’s SXSW. We went through all of that and I never felt we were getting much out of it.
ZE: We just had a brutal first CMJ experience which kind of soured the rest of that leg of our tour.
JK: Yeah, I was pretty much having a nervous breakdown about it.
ZE: More than one nervous breakdown. I think we played 9 shows in 3 or 4 days?
JK: We said, “This is not how a band continues, this is how a band ends.” Doing things like that or playing 8 shows in 4 days will break your spirit and your will—you’re not going to want to keep making music. We were very much trying to enjoy this project. So everything we do, we look at and determine whether or not it’s going to be a good or productive experience. We’re not gonna do it just for the blind hope that it’ll create a promotional opportunity. We do it because it is, in itself, a good thing. So for this, to be honest—this show is a good line up. And we’re getting paid—it made coming out here financially viable. We’re not making money on this show, but we’re not losing it.
ZE: Yeah, we could justify it.
JK: When you’re 18 you don’t think like this. But I mean, we’re 27 now.
Brooklyn band Midnight Magic enters the small green room. Pleasantries are exchanged.
ZE: I also think with our personalities the way they are, I think we get easily freaked out by this type of shit. [laughs] Even though we play dance music or party music, sometimes we get really overwhelmed. So this kind of shit is stressful.
JK: Even a casually put-together show for us is stressful. We have to plan and prepare constantly to try have a successful show. There’s a certain amount of work that goes into each one, so the reason why we did one show was because, unless it was the opportunity of a lifetime. We got other offers to do shows here, but they weren’t paid, and more importantly, there was no guarantee it wasn’t gonna be like one of the rat race shows we’ve done in the past where it’s like you show up, it’s pure chaos, you hope that you can get on for 20 minutes. You’ve spent all this time and money getting a taxi and a van getting there and you’re freaking out.
ZE: There’s this high-stakes mentality where you’re worried about who’s in the audience, are they paying attention, are they here, are they not here. It’s very emotional to come here as a band so we try to limit. Long answer to a short question [laughs].
NS: Earlier this week, DIIV blew up on Twitter about similar frustrations. All the blogs are on it.
JK: And I like DIIV but whether they intended it or not, that ends up being a publicity thing. They’ll get retweeted and people will write about it. That’s a savvy thing that certain artists can do. If you’re like DIIV or like, Wavves, you can be like, “Fuck people! Fuck life!” and that can be your M.O., that can be your style. [laughs] For us, obviously we’re a much more sedute band.
NS: As an artist, you kind of have to stay in your lane.
ZE: People don’t want to hear Kisses being like, “Fuck the world” [laughs].
JK: We’re not like an anarchist band, you know, we’re pretty mellow.
ZE: We’re all about ‘good vibes’ [laughs].
JK: Four years ago, I was working with Dent May. My first job out of college was with Forcefield PR and we were doing press for Dent May, and I remember with Princeton we had done like 8 shows at CMJ while Dent May had done one show. He did the showcase for Paw Tracks, his label. But he got a write-up in The New York Times and they were applauding his less-is-more approach. It made me realize that it’s absolutely true. If you tell people that you’re gonna play six shows, the odds are they’ll come to none. It’s “Oh, I can just see them tomorrow” over and over again. So that’s also the logic behind playing one show. It’s important, you can put value on what you’re doing there. Everyone else goes, “I’m going to whore myself out as many times as I can and hopefully someone will stick.”
ZE: It’s a good point, Your performances themselves can become less valuable.
Kivel starts talking to Midnight Magic about Cosmic Kids. They compare the attractiveness of various booking agents they’ve worked with. Apparently ‘Alberto’ is a handsome booking god.
Kivel at some point ends up telling them, “I legitimately think you guys’s stuff is seriously sweet,” and this is a low-key cool moment.
Edmundson and I decide to go on with the interview without Kivel, who is lost to us on a far away tangent.
NS: Who is more responsible for the nuts-and-bolts in Kisses? Not only production on your music but with the awesome remixes you guys are known for putting out?
ZE: [smiles and points to Kivel] Actually, I don’t have much of a musical background. I learned keyboards to be in this band. Originally we wanted to have this huge, 20-person, overblown disco project and my role was going to be playing the triangle. So I had to learn how to play keyboard. Once all the other 18 members dropped out, I had to pick up their slack. [laughs] So Jesse’s been the driving force and I contribute, that’s kind of what I do. I do have opinions though, which is valuable.
NS: We finally get to hear your voice on “Adjust Glasses.” Was you singing always going to happen or were you freaked out about it?
ZE: I haven’t really talked about this yet. I’ve only sung kind of recreationally—I wasn’t on the first record except for backup on one song. Have you heard of Superhumanoids? They’re really good, and they have a fantastic female singer, Sarah Chernoff. I went to her like, “I need singing lessons, I’m going to be singing more, I need to get my shit together.” We had one short lesson where she told me, “You know what, you got this, you can sing,” and after that it’s been so much better. It’s some kind of cool confidence thing that she helped me out with. So much of it is confidence, I’ve found. Scary? Definitely, but I’m just trying to be confident about it and hopefully it’ll help me through this sort of freaky thing. I didn’t know anything about pianos or keyboards when we started Kisses, and that was scary too. So I guess every record, my personal journey will be overcoming a new musical challenge. [laughs] Jesse’s always tossing me curveballs. I’ve always wanted to play bass, so maybe that’ll come up next.
NS: Taste is a factor. Talented bassists might play their whole lives without doing anything like Kisses.
ZE: Well when I learned that Tina Weymouth didn’t learn how to play bass until Talking Heads. Like she had to learn it to be in the band. So I was all, “Fuck yeah, that’s what I’m gonna do!” and you know it’s not so bad. When we first did interviews, we didn’t talk about that because we didn’t know how people would receive us, but yeah, Tina Weymouth did it, and she’s a total badass. No shame.
NS: At this point I haven’t heard the new record. But from the single, “The Hardest Part,” it seems to be more “People Can Do The Most Amazing Things” than “Bermuda.”
ZE: It’s definitely going for more of the “People Can Do…” sound. Those 80s strums and some that harsher, edgier 80s stuff instead of the sort of melodic, sweeping disco 70s things on the other Heart Of The Nightlife tracks. So yeah—absolutely more 80s. It’s weird because we thought with “Bermuda” and “Kisses,” those were gonna be the songs that people would go nuts for overall, but “People Can Do” and “Midnight Lover” have become the live favorites from that first record. And those are the ones whose styles are more represented on Kids In LA.