Kill the Vultures: Meet the pleasure seekers

Stephen Lewis and Alexei Casselle of Kill the Vultures

There are few things I dislike more than lyrics quoted out of context in music articles, but I’m prepared to make exceptions, especially when the words are so richly evocative of a moment that they deserve to be stripped from their uneasy musical backdrop of spindly gypsy guitar and placed naked on a page. The lines below come from “Days Slip Into Nights” from Kill the Vultures’ latest disc, The Careless Flame, which drops next week. But don’t expect it to sink—it’s got far too much fight for that.

“Snakeskin kiss, slithering hiss
Twist of the hips, smeared cherry-red lips.
Jeans ‘round her ankles, ceiling fan spins
Mascara rivers dripping off of her chin.
Adrenaline, hormones; alcohol, torn clothes.
Tell me who’s upstairs and why is the door closed?
Handfuls of meek blood rise and settle
Tell me how she looked in the eyes of the devil.”

It won’t be the first thing that hits you about the album, but down a couple levels you’ll find a hardened thread of a tale told by dead men. The pervasive story of the album is one of disillusionment and a desire to strike back against whatever’s within reach, the protagonists inevitably dead, dirty, drunk or some combination of all three. Beneath the dull red scars and gunmetal resolve, though, Kill the Vultures have a pulpy, bloody heart to share, and getting under the skin shows where both the armor and the Achilles heel come from.

“The whole time we were doing these Oddjobs songs, after a while, they started to lose their meaning,” says rapper Crescent Moon, aka Alexei Casselle, discussing the final tour of the backpack-friendly hip-hop group that birthed Kill the Vultures. “We were just out there entertaining people. We had some of our best shows that we’d ever done, and at the same time, there were a number of shows that weren’t any good at all. We could hardly say our lines with a straight face, because when you’re trying to get a party jumping and people are looking at you like, ‘Who the hell are you? I don’t want to put my hands up,’ you just feel like a clown. It made us rethink our whole approach and what we were trying to do musically.”

We’ll get the details later, but following a realignment and retooling, the members of Oddjobs (minus producer/DJ Deetalx (aka Devon Callahan)) returned as Kill the Vultures and, officially, the group still consists of four people: producer/DJ Anatomy (aka Stephen Lewis), rapper Advizer (aka Adam Waytz), rapper Nomi (aka Mario Noel Demira) and the aforementioned Crescent Moon. For The Careless Flame, however, the principals are Lewis and Casselle; they’re the only two living in the Twin Cities currently, with Waytz and Demira living in Chicago and San Francisco, respectively.

This iteration of KTV is brutally straightforward and you won’t find any doubled vocals, R&B choruses, pseudo-rock guitars or any of the other current earmarks of the hip-hop genre as currently constituted on The Careless Flame. In their place, you’ll find the palpable disaffection that comes with seeing something you care deeply about fall apart right in front of you.

After that final tour opening for Atmosphere on the Seven’s Travels tour in 2003, Oddjobs spent a couple weeks back here in Minnesota before heading west to Berkeley. They had already spent a couple years together out in Brooklyn, but the cracks were showing.

“I think Oddjobs was always very producer-based,” says Casselle, “so Steve and Devon had a very large role in the directions of the songs we were making. I think when it came down to it, it was really the two of them having different creative opinions. It’s just how it is. I’m not talking trash, but in a lot of regards, Devon was trying to continue on with the path that Oddjobs had been on. [The songs] were much less risky, more in the Oddjobs template. It was one direction to take—it might have been the more obvious direction to take.”

The inevitable denouement to the Oddjobs story is probably all too familiar to anyone who’s been involved in a band for a significant amount of time. “We definitely tried to make it work,” Casselle continues. “We packed up, went to Berkeley and were out there for several months, but it was very obvious that it just wasn’t going to work as one entity. We were together as a group since high school and we lived together and when you start mixing business and friendships over that amount of time, there’s so much personal stuff—lines get blurred. I feel like we’re all pretty non-confrontational people and we all wanted to be as gentle as possible about the whole breaking-up process, but it wasn’t that pretty.”

That’s probably an understatement— being a band is a serious grind. It’s not all tater tots and vodka shots out there, and I’d say that for a lot of musicians who are really invested in being creative and leading a band, they’ve got approximately one band in them. When and if that initial high school dream grinds to a halt somewhere in your mid-20s, many pack it in. That’s where the bitterness and disillusionment comes from. Lewis and Co. threw their hands up, done with caring about getting people to throw their hands in the air like they just didn’t care.

“On the first show we billed it as Kill the Vultures, featuring members of Oddjobs,” says Lewis, recalling the early KTV days, “and really tried to market it that way so we could get as many people who knew what to expect as possible. The first show was one of the darkest shows, too; we wanted to pretend there was this glass wall between us [and the audience] and keep low red lights so they could barely see what was happening. At that show, people were like ... [here Lewis makes a sound of bewildered confusion I can’t even attempt to transcribe]. All we heard was, ‘That was interesting.’ No one would even say if it was good. After that we never had those people at a show again.”

Fittingly, KTV’s self-titled debut was a dark, mechanically reanimated isolation drill, with Lewis provided metallic tracks built around upright bass, horns and thundering drums. The disc is shot through with an urgency and intensity that runs against the detachment of the tracks, almost as if the band’s trying to pound the past into oblivion, being as willfully unfriendly as possible. When it’s not busy punching you in the face, it’s leaving you stranded, as on the drumless “Good Intentions” or the haunting and spare intro to “Beast of Burden.” All in all, it’s fascinating, but ultimately poor preparation for the direction they take on The Careless Flame.

That open-ended, unmoored feeling returns on “Days Slip Into Nights,” and it was the first track I got to hear, appearing as it did on Twin Town High Vol. 8. Removed from the album, it sounds detached and tentative. It seems uneasy and restless, but restored to the running order of the disc, we can see it for what it is, a glimpse at that beating, bleeding heart of The Careless Flame.

I’ve been struggling to come up with that knockout punch of a line to describe the album’s sound in one handy, soundbite of a sentence. This has been doubly frustrating because, in an odd way, it’s a resolutely monolithic album. The beats consist of a few choice pieces, rarely more than a handful of samples, and Casselle’s simple monotone. There are no polyrhythmic gymnastics, no double-tracked vocals. It’s like two guys tried to recreate pop music after a nuclear war using only a book of beat poetry and a Duke Ellington 78 played at 33 rpms. Pieces of the sound are in place on their first album, but the real root of the sound comes from, well, roots music.

“I first picked up the guitar when I was still in New York,” Casselle says. In addition to Kill the Vultures, he plays in the acoustic blues/folk duo Roma di Luna with his wife, Channy Moon (see sidebar). “One of my neighbors had a guitar and I just picked it up. I wasn’t trying to master the guitar—I really wanted to just learn enough chords to put songs together. Around that same time is when I became more interested in roots music, but when we started working on The Careless Flame it wasn’t a conscious decision to say, ‘let’s make this one the roots record.’ It just came out that way. About half of the songs on there, and some that didn’t make it on there, were originally written on the guitar. I was definitely focusing most of my songwriting energy towards guitar-based songs and so when I’d go over to Steve’s, and I was trying to channel something else, it just seemed more comfortable not to jump into a completely different vibe and so I just started experimenting. Steve would have a loop playing and I would just rap whatever lyrics I had and a lot of them were not meant to be raps originally.”

You can see it clearly on album opener “Moonshine,” whose refrain of “I got moonshine / Drink it all the time / Goes down rough / but it’s good for your dime” is repeated twice for every verse in much the style of traditional blues songs. Then there’s the content: Aside from being built around bootleg liquor (recalling Tommy Johnson’s “Canned Heat Blues”), the song’s a bitter fight, wrapped in the same kind of haunted resilience displayed by blues artists like Son House: “When I’m laying on the bottom of my bathtub / wondering if I should come up for air / the one thing that’ll always bring me back up / is remembering that my moonshine is there.”

It’s almost off-puttingly simple, and the beat responds in kind. After opening with the clanging of chains, a woozy kick drum/bass combo comes in alongside a drunken horn to knock the track off kilter before Casselle even gets to open his mouth. But then the fever dream pounding lifts to allow space for the vocals, which are backed by a simple beat and three-note bass groove. This push-pull action between the spare and simple vocal sections and the steamrolling instrumental intro continues until the vocal chorus lays itself over the insistent first section to finish the song. That’s when the rope-a-dope musical strategy pays divdends, Casselle’s methodical and desperate ode lining up perfectly with Lewis’ relentless tattoo.

It’s all accomplished with an absolute minimum of fuss, which is just the way they like it. “With the Oddjobs stuff, it was more of an intellectual process,” explains Lewis. “We were trying to use the old school art idea of having arrangements of things that meant something on their own, and I think what we’ve been doing with this stuff is keeping everything so simple that you can’t even try and look more deeply into the arrangements.

Everything has a little trick to it where you think it’s going to be one arrangement but then it’s slightly different, but we made sure to never let it get very complex. As far as building up the layers, [Alexei] will be writing lyrics as I’m listening to different records, and then we grab a ton of sounds and just start collaging ‘em, cutting certain parts down to achieve a certain effect, to try and get the context straight. Subtle twists: That’s a big part—make it very, very simple and then just have a key twist. If it doesn’t fuck with our heads a little bit, then it’s not done. If it sounds good/is fucking with our heads, that’s when we’re ready to go with it.”

The twists don’t always seem like musical twists in the traditional sense because, as Lewis points out, they’re often so integral to the track as to basically be the song. “Dirty Hands” is constructed around a percussion track that sounds like it was pulled from the most frenzied moment of a parade performance by a Brazilian samba band during carneval. All the components of the beat sound like they’re being played by a separate set of hands; they rub against each other in strange ways, and the cascading, tumbling sound is married to an insistent tale about a fall from grace.

Casselle’s lyrics rush by, borne along by the cacophony, but when you stop and pay attention, the imagery is nothing short of stunning:

All you angels, wear the same clothes
You eat the same trash, you walk the same road
When you were days old, went chasing rainbows
You saw the plane crash, and lost your halo
You looked at your hands, eyes wide as
dinner plates
You shook your thunderstorms, you felt a
thinner face
You fell on bended knee, you cried your metal eyes
Your hands rose to the trees, you begged those yellow skies to
Please don’t ever wash the dirt from my hands (x3)
I ain’t ready for your kind of clean, I hope
you understand

Words and themes come creeping back again and again on the album, stitching together a kind of ragged blanket made of angels, devils, dirt, alcohol and the departed. Many producers I’ve talked to couldn’t really care less about what the rappers are on about over their tracks, so it was heartening to find out from Lewis that his approach to making the music to support these dense and direct narratives was very responsive.

“On the first one we were going for an overall aesthetic of a gritty black-and-white terror type of thing,” Lewis elaborates, after explaining how they developed an aesthetic approach for their debut that could be used on the second one. But instead of having to respond to three different emcees, he could craft this one around just Crescent Moon. “The second one is going for more of an urban exotic kind of colorful—like dirty colors, but colorful nonetheless.”

“Urban exotic” is a term Lewis circles back to several times, and it’s as fitting a title as I can come up with. The sum of all these pieces—the poetic approach, the Turkish guitars, the dulcimers, horns and the grinding drums—manages to evoke a time in the early 20th century when the urban was still exotic. It’s more visceral than Ellington, for sure, but it recalls his expansive taste in texture and the “jungle” aspect of his big band sound. In the end, it’s supremely American, but not in the puke-worthy and corporate way a Chevy truck with a couple of magnetic ribbons is.

“As far as the Americana sound,” says Lewis, “it wasn’t the type of stuff we were listening to exactly, but it is the sound that was appealing to get the vibe we were going for. I guess the focus was to find a gritty, bubble-gummy decadent type of thing, where it stayed really gritty and lowdown but had a hint of some pleasure. There was a song called ‘The Pleasure Seekers’ [intended for The Careless Flame, but as yet unreleased] that inspired a lot of this stuff, where it’s the pleasure of the lowdown shit. The blues vocals and some of the jazz and blues sounds were the best way to get that vibe across.

“I had it narrowed down to a couple types of records,” explains Lewis when talking about how he went about getting those sounds. “I had a handful of folk records from Syria, blending those and some old cool jazz stuff and then putting all that with punk records I had. I was looking for a punk record with drums that sounded jazzy and a jazz record that had riffs that sounded like punk riffs so that it would give a bit of a crossover in each direction.”

That right there is certainly going to be the only time you’re going to hear the word “crossover” in reference to Kill the Vultures. The likelihood of music this honest/adventurous finding a mainstream audience is almost zero, but that very fact is what invests it with such freedom and resonance.

Writing on the Kill the Vultures blog about the formation of the group, Casselle says, “Suddenly, we were free to do anything and everything we wanted to, if we felt it. It was a whole new litter box to shit in. I’d felt creatively retarded for months, and here we are working on something weird, exciting and raw. It felt like we were sewing a dead body together and adding on wings and antlers, or whatever the monster needed at the time. Whatever it was, it wasn’t pretty.”

And yet. I want to end this story where I started it, taking a look at the living breathing heart of KTV, which, in all its messy, bloody glory, is pretty, goddamnit. Lewis is spot on when he says, “The emotional effect of it, even if it’s not intentional, is like the backbone of it.” The backbone, the heart of the album, shows itself again on the penultimate song, “Vermillion.” Lewis builds a starkly beatiful track around three simple elements: a tentative, delicate drum beat, a bittersweet classical guitar and a stumbling upright bass. Against this, Casselle casts a diffuse light of heartbreak, abandonment and resilience, throwing shadows that hint at the dark core of a group just beginning to explore its creative possibilities.

I look to the west, I see nothing but fire
Black smoke in the sky, burnt parts of desire.
Drops of black blood that lead to the junkyard
Covered by one guard, he’s drunken
and unarmed.
Hard to believe we’re both under the same moon
Singing the same song, cleaning the
same wounds.
Watching the crows eat, hearing the phones ring
Running on no sleep and doing our own thing.
Rolling from my mouth and into the thick air
Whispering your name and watching
it stick there.
Passing the old house, living in what was
Watching the sun crawl, just like my blood does.
Moving through hard snow, hearing
the plants die
Carving a new mask, knowing I can’t hide.
Walking the cliff’s edge, looking down the side
Dropping all I know, knowing all my life that

When it falls, let it fall right there
Over the North Shore, under the night air.
And when it drops, let it drop right there
Somewhere between vermillion and nightmare. ||

Kill the Vultures play the release show for The Careless Flame on Thu., Nov. 16 at the 7th St. Entry with Sims of Doomtree and DJ Nikoless on the ones and twos. 8 p.m. $6. 18+. For more information on Kill the Vultures, check out their official website at killthevultures.com and their MySpace page at myspace.com/killthevultures.

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Damn.Truly impressive

Damn. Truly impressive article. Kill the Vultures seemed beyond words before your article. Their music is stunning in both the beautiful and arresting sense of the word.