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Friday, Dec. 5, 2008

Indie's new black


Special to The Japan Times

A little over a year ago, no one knew Black Kids, a dance-pop quintet from Jacksonville, Florida, who many people mistake for being British. Now anyone with a passing interest in popular music has at least heard of them. They are the latest indie band to have become famous even before they released a record.

News photo
No phonies: The church-raised Black Kids take their sermon-filled iPods wherever they go.

"Actually, we've been wondering that ourselves," says the group's drummer, Kevin Snow, over the phone from his apartment in Jacksonville, when asked how the group secured a deal so quickly with Quest Management, which also handles The Arcade Fire and Bjork. "Our first year as a band, we only played in Jacksonville and nobody heard about us. Then we played a music festival called the Athens Popfest in Georgia. It was the first time we gave away our demo, and the people who saw us there started blogging about it. Within a few days, Vice magazine in the U.K. called for an interview, and then NME. Not long after that we were contacted by a management company."

Snow sounds exhausted just recalling these events. The band is finally home after traveling almost nonstop for a year, and he says he's savoring the time by himself.

"After seeing the world, I thought I'd dislike Jacksonville more, but actually I've come to appreciate it," he says. "It's cozy, and I've got friends and family here. When we're out on the road we don't get much privacy, so here I have my own little space on a quiet street where the weather is warm."

Jacksonville, though one of the largest cities in one of the most populous states in America, doesn't sound like the kind of place where major rock bands are born.

"It's very laid back," Snow says. "But there is a small scene of what you might call indie clubs that make an effort to book cooler artists, which isn't easy, because when these bands tour, none of them wants to stop off in Jacksonville."

The two most famous rock acts to emerge from northern Florida are the Allman Brothers Band and Tom Petty, and Snow says that when he first became "passionate about music" as a teenager he listened to classic rock, "which is the only thing you get exposed to in Jacksonville."

"It wasn't until I was 19 or 20 that I started listening to other music," he continues. At that time, he was sharing an apartment with his friend Reggie Youngblood in the "more artsy" neighborhood of Jacksonville called Riverside. "We used to go to indie-dance nights at a place around the corner from where we lived. That's when we were exposed to Pulp and New Order and The Smiths. You never hear music like that in the southern U.S. It changed our lives."

Snow and singer-guitarist Youngblood were already playing music. They had met years before in Sunday school and as teens formed a ska-punk band, which Snow admits was "pretty terrible." However, the adolescent impulse for creative expression took on a different meaning in their case.

"We grew up in the church," he says, "which is common in the South — Jacksonville is in the Bible Belt — and when we decided to start a band we were still in the church."

In order to make their music acceptable to their peers and parents, they sang about Jesus. The pitfalls for their souls were obvious, but there was one advantage to the arrangement: They were guaranteed gigs at church functions. "There was a built-in audience," Snow recalls with a laugh.

They outgrew their "Christian ska music" and along with bassist Owen Holmes formed other bands. Perhaps as a reaction to their faith-based upbringing, they sought a more existential path. "But I think we took ourselves too seriously," Snow says. "In one band we were trying way too hard to be New Order. We decided to just have fun, and Reggie started writing songs with a sense of humor that was absent in our music before."

Black Kids was born when the trio of males was joined by Youngblood's sister Ali and Ali's friend Dawn Watley, both on keyboards and backing vocals. This bubblier feminine component, combined with Youngblood's exuberant whine, lent the group's sound a dance vibe that offset the melodrama in the lyrics. Black Kids sing about normal teenage sexual anxiety, but there's something more desperate and honest, not to mention liberating, in Youngblood's sticky tales of romantic triumph and longing. Snow agrees that a lot of this nervous energy probably came from his experience in the church, "where it's considered very wrong to have sex."

There's something distinctly American about this dynamic, but in any case Quest decided to break the group in the U.K. first — a strategy that succeeded. Black Kids' first single, "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You," went Top 10. Quest also decided to have Bernard Butler, the British guitarist and producer who has already had two hit albums this year with Cajun Dance Party and Duffy, oversee their debut, "Partie Traumatic."

Snow and Youngblood couldn't have been happier. "We were big fans of his because of his work with Suede," Snow says. "We liked the idea that he was capable of juggling multiple genres — pop, soul, guitar rock — which was where we were coming from."

Black Kids' aims were simple: to make music that people want to dance to. "Fortunately for us — and Bernard — the songs were structurally complete before we entered the studio," Snow says. "He told us about bands he had worked with who had these 20-minute jams and he had to whittle them down to workable songs. There's no worry about that with us. We don't know how to jam."

Black Kids play Dec. 16 at Shangri-La, Osaka (7 p.m.; [06] 6535-5569); and Dec. 18 at Shibuya Club Quattro, Tokyo (7 p.m.; [03] 3444-6751). Tickets are ¥5,000 in advance.

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