It’s early morning and I’m sitting at my dining room table, the sun is climbing over the cascades shooting yellow-gold blades that gouge the violet sky. I am editing my interview with Kithkin’s Kelton Sears and Ian McCutcheon while my two and a half year old daughter sits across from me with a Hello Kitty coloring book. For the last five minutes she very intently colors the same planter box of flowers, over and over again with various colors, and by this point it’s pretty much black – and I have an epiphany. I’ve been struggling for weeks on exactly how to approach Kithkin; this Cascadian Youth Tribe, these self-described “tree punks”, these brilliant, enthusiastic, and at times messy musicians, these beautiful songwriters. My epiphany was an image of the Lost Boys.
The island of Neverland is home to Peter Pan’s tribe of Lost Boys; literal lost children who were sent to Neverland and are never allowed to grow up. They dress themselves in the pelts of the animals they slay, they have nicknames like Tootles, Nibs, and Slightly, and they sing, dance, and play pretend – they’re a wild bunch. Kithkin is not dissimilar. A band of avid Dungeons and Dragons players, whose name is pulled from a race of creatures in the card game Magic the Gathering. They too have nicknames: Shredder, Spirit Treader, Tin Woodsman, and Bigfoot Wallace. Their live show is a hedonistic ritual wherein they dance around like wild animals, they sing with a primal emotion and a veracity you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. I’ve always seen the Lost Boys of Peter Pan as a metaphor for innocence; the children who never face, or are afraid to face, the dark and harsh realities of living in the real world. Kithkin, while not afraid to face the darkness or the devil inside, also seemed to live in that innocence.
Neverland isn’t a real place, it exists only to serve Peter Pan. Once he leaves the island’s inhabitants enter into a continuous loop where the Lost Boys search for Pan, the Pirates hunt the Lost Boys, and the Natives hunt the Pirates. As J.M. Barrie describes it, they are all moving at the same pace and thus they never catch each other. Where Kithkin’s native Cascadia, is a very real place with the mountain range to the East mirroring the Olympics to the West framing Seattle in the middle. Kithkin exists within a landscape of jagged mountains, moss covered trees, and the beasts who inhabit this beautiful swath of land.
Kelton Sears, Ian McCutcheon, and Bob Martin began by playing in the band Painted Horses and it was toward the end of 2010, while they were attending Seattle University, that Painted Horses ended and guitarist Alex Barr joined and Chinook Jargon was formed. They sounded much like what Kithkin sounds like today but at the time they were still learning how to fill their roles in the band. Kelton had moved to the bass and because no other drummer could muster the thunderous tribal feel the band was aiming for, Ian tackled the drums. Bob handled the keyboard, while Alex made the guitar howl. “I perform playing drums standing up, which I do because it’s more fun more than because it makes me a better drummer,” Ian says referencing his style of playing drums wherein he literally attacks them from all angles. “That’s part of the whole punk part of tree punk to me, I’m a bad musician, people are always like,’You play drums and bass at the same time,’ yeah but it’s like one note on the bass and I’m just going… thwack,” Kelton explained to me. For Kithkin there is a separation between playing Stairway to Heaven beautifully or playing it “like you mean it,” and Kithkin means it. My theater school training comes to life while watching the band on stage inhabiting every inch of their body, leaving nothing but a puddle of sweat on the floor. For Kelton “Kithkin is as much this physical act as it is this musical or artistic act.”
The band has a sincere love of the Pacific Northwest and while Chinook Jargon established a Northwest connection and a relationship with the regions history, their painted faces and tribal feel began to give off the wrong impressions – people raised issue and thought that the band might be co-opting and misusing local native culture. “The more we thought about it and considered it we were like-” Kelton is quickly cut off by Ian “this is racist.” It was a sincere mistake, one they regret today, and so on the stage at the EMP for Soundoff 2011 they announced their name change to Kithkin; a race of creatures from the card game Magic the Gathering. It’s no coincidence that Magic is published by Wizards of the Coast, based in Renton Washington. Kithkin has taken their surroundings and explored just what it means and feels like to live in this area, maybe more so than any other band that’s ever made music here before. They take their surroundings and mix in their own mythology, and create a fictional Cascadia, one that has helped give them an identity and fuel for songs. “It’s always fun when people think we’re a mountain cult,” Kelton says happy to create this fictional illusion on stage.
Your ears need a moment to adjust to the sounds that Kithkin is making, it sounds like a mess, like four different songs on four different instruments being played at once. But once you acclimate to the sounds it all clicks and you hear something unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. The drums are the heartbeat of the band and they rumble underneath to pull the spotlight at every moment. The bass crunches so hard and blasts so strong you can almost feel the instrument splitting apart into a thousand pieces. The keyboard is the tone setter, driving the mood of a song to be somber or upbeat. The guitar is a ghostly element in Kithkin’s music, rarely played with traditional vigor, it follows the no-wave noise trajectory embellishing each song like an errant firework spitting sparks and gushing smoke. “People either really hate our band and are like ‘it’s just noise’ or they’re like ‘I love it,’ which is cool.” Kelton tells me. In my experience I didn’t quite get the music, it wasn’t until I saw it performed live and physically saw all the pieces came together that it clicked.
When they take the stage you might be tempted to see the whole thing as schtick, they’ve been known to set the stage with trees, tents, goat hooves, and drape their Cascadian flag from the back of the stage. They aren’t Ian, Kelton, Bob, and Alex, they are someone else, something else entirely. Inspired by performances from artists like Man Man each song bleeds into the other punctuated often, as they are on the album, with the instrumental percussion heavy Dins. This is no schtick. It’s not truth but the members of Kithkin believe in the fiction they’re creating and it’s this world that inspires their performances. “Someone described us once as a bunch of kids having a tantrum on stage, and I was like, yeah pretty much.” Kelton tells me smiling at this weird half compliment. “From show one we’ve always put on a show, we’ve just gotten more intentional about the way it is theatrical and better at performing while being theatrical. I think in the beginning we maybe were better at being theatrical than we were at being musicians,” Ian says. Early on the band noticed that it wasn’t necessarily their 2012 EP Takers and Leavers that was bringing people out to their shows, it was their performances, their commitment to every moment they spend on the stage.
Takers and Leavers was the bands first attempt at containing their sound within a recording. The EP has a more pop sound and it still acts as an important framework for what the band would do on their debut full-length Rituals, Trances, and Ecstasies for Humans in the Face of the Collapse. This album was produced by Shawn Simmons notable for producing both of the Head and the Heart albums as well as Lemolo’s debut. “I want to make the drums really fucking loud and I want to record it live mostly,” Kelton says Simmons told the band in their early meetings. He’d seen the band live many times and knew how powerful they could be on stage and in order to make the album work they’d have to get the enthusiasm of the live performance into the confines of a recording. The band performed largely the way they do on stage, in a circle, with Ian standing at the drum kit. This didn’t make the process go faster but it made the album one of the best examples of a fully captured live experience on a studio recording.
With the release of Rituals… I noticed that there was an unexpected emotional quality that weighs heavy on the lyrics and instrumentation. During the writing process Kelton learned that his parents were getting a divorce and Ian discovered that his sister had been diagnosed with cancer. While recording over christmas break Ian went to visit his sister and on returning to finish recording the album learned that she’d passed away. The innocence of the lost boys had evaporated and the real world and their fictional world collided in a violent wreck as they dealt with these emotional realities. “Being in the studio at that time was very anxious, and a little bit dark, but still very celebratory because we were completing this huge project. I think that feeling has crept into the record, at least I hear it,” Ian tells me. Things subtly began to change within Kithkin, they’d confronted reality with their fiction and released an album full of talent and intention. They stopped going by their nicknames and started finding meaning in stillness on stage. When I asked whether this world would continue on into the next album Kelton was very honest in saying “[we wrote] a lot of the songs when we were sophomores in college, and we’re adults now, we have graduated and we all have jobs. We’re starting to write for the next album and those themes and ideas [from Rituals..] carry over but it is definitely from a much different perspective, and there’s less swords and shields in the songs. Even though I don’t think we’re going to wave around Cascadian flags on this next album, that theme of trying to figure out what it means to be from here and the spirit of this place and what that means for me is really important.”
The way Disney chose to continue the story of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys is that they never leave, they never grow up, and continue to march around and around Neverland in that same continuous loop. They never lose that innocence and in turn remain in some kind of paradise-like hell. J.M. Barrie’s Lost Boys do leave Neverland and grow up and find themselves working out of office buildings, crunching numbers and shoveling paperwork, another kind of hell. Kithkin is somewhere in between. As they have grown so has the band and every footstep they take through the Cascadian wilderness is another step toward finding a balance between this fiction that has inspired them and the reality of life in all of its beauty, ugliness, and tragedy. But then again there’s my daugher, who stands next to the stereo and demands “to dance” as she pleads for me to put on music, and she knows what she wants, Kithkin. I press play and the ground shaking drums of Rituals… begin and her face beams, with a giggle she begins to run around the room flailing her arms and twirling. That spirit still pumps through Kithkin’s veins, it still commands their performance.
You can find Kithkin at kithkin.bandcamp.com, where you can purchase Rituals… on Pesanta Urfolk records or download their EP Takers and Leavers. The above quotes were taken from my podcast interview with Ian McCutcheon and Kelton Sears, which you can listen to and download in itunes or at depthsounder.org, check it out, it think you’ll find it an even more in depth experience.