60 WATT KID: AN ALIEN PLAYING CHESS WITH A CAVEMAN
60 Watt Kid is a three-piece that has no laptops, 80-odd effects pedals, no bass, and a helluva lot of creative energy. Dan Collins interviews them after a grueling practice, on a hot night in his yard, around a smoky chiminea. A lhasa poo stands guard.
So you’re wearing shorts! Is your practice space hot?
Dylan Wood ( drums and tazers): It does get pretty hot in the practice space.
And you guys are working on an album?
Derek Thomas (guitars, analog synth, samples and electronic soundscaping devices): Yeah, we just finished recording, so we got to get it turned in, in probably like four months.
Dylan: And we’re playing Murufest on Friday! It’s the biggest Long Beach house party! Every year. It’s like free beer, free barbeque, like everything.
Long Beach has a pretty happening little scene nowadays. Did you ever play on the boat?
Derek: The Queen Mary?
Kevin Litrow (guitars, analog synth, vocals, harmonica, samples): No, they had a boat where they did punk shows. We were still in San Francisco at that time.
And now you’re based here. Dylan, you weren’t part of the San Francisco chapter of 60 Watt Kid?
Dylan: No, I just joined the band six months ago or something. This guy I know told me about them back when I was still in high school, so I went and saw them at this house party, and it was like the best thing. I was so stoked on them! And they told me they didn’t have a drummer anymore, because they were moving down here, and I was like, ‘Dude, here’s a CD I made you guys.’
Derek: He drew this really nice drawing on the CD—on paper that he’d folded—and after all the effort he put into making it, I felt like I should check it out. I put it in, and I was like ‘Oh, this is a 60 Watt Kid CD.’ Cuz he like did a five minute loop of ambient shit right before he came to the show. I thought it might have been some of our shit, and then I was like, ‘Oh, this is Dylan’s shit!’
Kevin: We love Dylan. He’s so great.
Right now Dylan’s petting my dog, Ozzy, so I have no complaints.
Dylan: He just sat at my foot and was ready to receive!
I’ve found he likes certain types of music, like Joni Mitchell, and The Point soundtrack too. Nilsson. Have you guys been down to the Silent Movie Theater to see bands score live soundtracks? Would you consider performing something like that?
Kevin: Totally. I already did a couple shows at Echo Curio that were just soundtracks to some films, a film I did by myself and did a live soundtrack to it.
I interviewed ADULT. a few months back, and they made their own Suspiria-esque film and toured doing that as a live score.
Kevin: The Books, too! They blew me away. Because they made all their own film and edited it. They had the headphones, and were in sync with the cellos and everything. It made me cry.
Let’s talk about phones for a second. I saw you at Fuck Yeah Fest last year, and you had all kinds of phones on stage. You don’t do the phone thing anymore?
Kevin: We are going to get the phone thing back.
Derek: The phone thing is ‘on hold,’ ha ha!
When I saw you that one time, you literally called somebody, for reals, during the song, right?
Kevin: I called somebody. And Derek projected a call to the audience. The song is called ‘Every Day There’s Something Special,’ and in parentheses, ‘Hold on, I gotta take this call.’ It’s kind of like, we can recognize all the special things in the world, but everybody’s always on their cell phone and they’re not recognizing that because they’re taking time out to get on the phone. There could be a shooting star and they’re missing it, or some guy driving off a cliff!
Was there ever a time when people thought the show was over because you were all on the phone?
Derek: Our old drummer once got up and went and ordered nachos at the food stand while we were in the middle of that section. It started going into a comedy thing, where it was going away from music.
Kevin: It was starting to get corny.
It seemed like you have all kinds of instrumentation: lots of keyboards, guitar, effect boxes. It looked like you had 80 different little things up there.
Derek: I got an old vocal robot pedal, that was used in the original Star Wars, and Brian Eno used it a lot, and I used to play my guitars out of that sometimes. And it makes it sound like rhino-sauruses and elephants having wars in the jungle and screaming and screeching. I tend to trade out and buy a bunch of stuff. We try to take our equipment and use it in one way for a couple months, and then we’ll switch it around and trade pedals, and put them in different orders, and have totally different sounds. Because you can do so much with only a few pedals. I’ll trade If it’s really expensive, and I don’t use it, then I’ll just sell it back.
What’s something where you thought ‘This is going to be the most amazing thing! It’s going to make our band turn a corner and do this new thing,’ and then it sucked!
Derek: I got the new analog Prophet that was like $2000, and I never plugged it in, and it was too much, I think.
[At this point, the old wooden folding chair I had left in the rain collapsed and nearly snapped Kevin’s finger off when he tried to save himself from the ground. A lawsuit against Ikea is pending.]
Oh shit, did your finger get cut?
Kevin: It got crushed… and cut. Actually, do you have some ice? It’s like burning from… being smashed. I’m sorry, it’s just that I play guitar with this finger.
Oh, no problem! I’m frequently injured by friends and neighbors, so I’m prepared. One sec. [Our interviewer runs to get an ice pack, then returns.] Sorry about that. Is this the worst injury you’ve received with this line-up?
Dylan: Last time we toured, first stop, I slammed Kevin’s hand in the door, and he yelled out a belting scream!
And now I hurt his hand, too! Do you think in a past life, you stole something in a bazaar in Marrakesh and had your hands cut off or something?
Kevin: You know, what’s really weird is that my friend had a dream that I put my hand in the blender and cut off all my fingers!
Oh my God! It’s almost like the reality is worse, because it’s slowly but surely happening instead of all at once!
Kevin: She looked it up, and supposedly the blender means you’re blending a mix of stuff into your fingers, so it doesn’t mean all bad.
Dylan: I got totally owned in Oakland because I didn’t pay for this bag of chips in this grocery store, and when we got back my favorite sweater was missing! It’s like, karma was owning me!
You guys are telling me about committing crimes, on the record even! Have you ever been involved with Scientology?
Kevin: I’ve walked over there once, but I didn’t go in. You can get detoxes, ha ha!
Dylan: My best friend Sean went over there, and the lady was like ‘Now you can know the truth about Scientology, and it doesn’t involve aliens!’ And he just walked in there, and the first thing he saw was a huge statue of an alien playing chess with a caveman.
Kevin: That should be the cover of our album! Actually, we have a cover. A painting that my mom did of these three little flowers with a blue sky behind it.
What’s the meaning behind the title ‘We Come From the Bright Side?’
Kevin: You know, the good side of the force. Luke Skywalker.
Kevin: Yeah, Mark Hamill. Not the new shit.
Do you think there’ll come a point in your career where you have a trilogy of albums that suck, and then a trilogy of albums that are awesome?
Kevin: I hope that doesn’t happen.
Dylan: That has to happen!
Do you think there’s safeguards you can put in place to prevent a slide into mediocrity?
Kevin: It’s weird. There’s bands like Radiohead, that slowly progress in their own sound. And there’re bands like the Pixies that just wouldn’t do that. They keep their sound like forever.
I’ve got to crack more into the alchemy of your sound! There’s a really solid way that you guys do songs. But from an outsider perspective, looking at all the gear that’s lying on the floor, I don’t know how to describe it! How do you guys start writing songs? Do you start with a riff on the keyboard, or do you build songs around the drums, or what?
Dylan: We’ll just start something, one of us, and it just progresses.
Kevin: …or Derek writes a guitar part at home, or I write a keyboard progression, and show them. Every song is different. We’re open-minded and free to do what we want.
Has anyone ever brought in a song where the other two are like ‘That’s not a 60 Watt Kid song?’
Derek: There are songs sometimes. We tried to work with Ableton Live, a program that bands try to use to do live looping. It was not our sound. It was obvious. We’re kind of glad we don’t have computers. We don’t have anything pre-looped except a few things. It’s just better that we use real instruments.
Kevin: It’s organic. We try to bring music into it so it’s not electronic music. It’s not robotic. That’s fine for that type of music, but for us, we want to bring an essence of some energy and feeling into it, where it goes out to the crowd, bounces around the walls.
It sounds like if I were to take a list of what 60-Watt Kid is not, one thing would be ‘robotic,’ another would be ‘preset…’
Derek: Being robotic is okay…
Kevin: We haven’t found a laptop program that we’re gonna use live, is what we’re trying to say.
Derek: A lot of bands that we like are moving in the direction of that. And the definition and quality is really good. But at the same time, you want to watch people perform. They sync up the loops, but… we use pedals, but none of them sync up, so matter how in time they are, they go out of time. So we like to do ambient loops against stuff.
Dylan: I’m really glad we don’t use the laptop. It’s just fun to loop live.
But you guys use samples, though.
Derek: I have some vocal samples from an old record, a child’s story book record.
Kevin: It’s called ‘The Story of Growing Up.’
Dylan: I sample my bells live, before every show, and then during the show manipulate them.
Have you ever thought a three-piece wasn’t big enough?
Dylan: Kevin will only let us be a three-piece.
Derek: We were thinking about bass and low end, but some songs Kevin’s the bass, some songs I’m the bass. I don’t think you miss the bass. For the album, we didn’t have anybody play bass.
Kevin: I’ll loop a keyboard drone, and it’ll be bassy, and we’ll play two guitars through it, or whatever. I think it makes our sound, actually.
Do you have a mental shortlist of bands who don’t have bassists, who you feel a kinship with?
Kevin: I think the Doors—Ray Manzarek is classically amazing. There’s so many bands that don’t have bass, which are like guitar and drums, like the White Stripes, more like noise rock or garage rock. I don’t relate us to that, because there’s more orchestration going on.
Dylan: We try to make it sound really pretty.
But have you ever done a song where you’re trying to sound like demons?
Kevin: We have a song, ‘Pressure,’ that’s kind of demonic. Sounds like complete hell.
I feel like all your songs are about the grander things. Do you have any songs about girls?
Kevin: I like to write about stuff that’s more about catching the time and the moment, what I see around me. I don’t like to write songs about breakups, unless I’m going through a breakup. The reason half those songs are about my mom is that she just passed away, and she was dying for the last two years.
Dylan: I really like the way Kevin writes lyrics, because he’s really good at capturing, and in performing too, the state of things when they were happening.
Is there a certain type of girl that’s like the 60 Watt Kid groupie?
Derek: We haven’t met her!
Good! A herpes outbreak could really curtail your tour plans, and we wouldn’t want that!
Kevin: We could write some songs about it.
It seems really sucky for artists right now! It’s because everything has to be given to the public for free! It’s liberating, but at the same time, it’s scary. In 1979, you could be in a punk band and still sell 700,000 albums. What do you think are the pitfalls of the times we are in?
Dylan: It’s a bummer to not be able to create all the time, if you’re going to give it all out.
Derek: That’s the downside—that you’re not going to make money, which is bad! But you can get your music out there, and be noticed.
Dylan: Also, with music, and technology, and the media, the sound doesn’t come out of one place. Now a more mainstream band is… killing the genre before it gets born in a way.
Do you think as musicians, you’re like, ‘Fuck, we need to get a more level playing field as far as radio is concerned,’ or are you like, ‘Fuck it, radio is dead’?
Derek: I think everybody’s dead right now. But I think it’s a cleansing time right now, with the economy, and the swine flu…
Kevin: We all have to shit out the toxins, and then we all start out fresh and new. We’ve all got morals again, and there’s love in the air, you know what I mean? People start realizing, ‘Oh shit, we ARE starting to lose money,’ and family starts getting more important. Working together and helping people out. People start to get a heart a little more… or not!
I can’t wait for that to come true. Is there anything else I didn’t ask that you wanted to answer that I didn’t ask?
Kevin: You could ask us if aliens do exist.
Do aliens really exist?
Dylan: They play fucking chess with cavemen!
60-WATT KID WITH AVI BUFFALO AND TIME OF WOLVES ON TUE., MAY 5, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8:30 PM / FREE FOR 21+ / $7 FOR UNDER 21 / ALL AGES. VISIT 60-WATT KID AT MYSPACE.COM/60WATTKID.