Chris McKay and the Critical Darlings
("An Uncertain Flight" video shot in Camden, SC in the spring of 2009 by Roybone)
Interview by Taxi.com:
Where did you grow up?
I grew up on the mean streets of Camden, South Carolina. Well, I wasn't literally in the streets and they weren't that mean. And a lot of time I was across the river in Lugoff. And heck, many would say that I didn't actually grow up. But I was there anyway. Now I just visit.
What made you realize that music was your path?
Well, it was a path that I would occasionally enjoy on a hike. Then I began noticing that whichever path I took (for variation, for sustenance, for real) led me back to the same ol' musical path. Eventually I accepted my fate. I still don't consider myself a musician per se. I am a music fan who happens to create and perform it too.
How would you describe the music that you typically create?
Power-pop is my default. I've never really understood why. It's what people respond to most so maybe that's why I keep that as my base. With The Critical Darlings, we veer into singer-songwriter / arena rock / pop / progressive / folk and even jazz-classical hybrids of late but it all washes out in my ears as a consistent sound when filtered through our limitations. To me, we're a classic rock band trying to make classic rock albums for tomorrow. Of course, some of my solo stuff is extraordinarily “out there” and would scare off most Darlings fans but I have fun making it anyway.
Who are your biggest musical influences?
The usual culprits. By that, I mean the legends such as The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Prince, David Bowie and Pink Floyd. These are the templates. I also love '70s AM style pop radio. Really there are too many to list from 1920's country music to modern bands like Muse but I guess this is a good enough start.
(Click on the song titles to hear them. I'd recommend opening them in a new window.)
What makes your music unique?
I believe our limitations make our music unique. I might be trying to write a Led Zeppelin song but when you filter it through the four of us, it comes out as the Critical Darlings. For proof, listen to “Down” or “Phony”. Those were both Zeppelin influenced and I’m pretty sure that the ascending guitar pattern in “Down” is literally the descending guitar part in “Kashmir”. We just did it in standard tuning and in reverse! We also pretty heavily nicked the ending of “Purple Rain” by Prince & The Revolution for the end of “Taking Its Toll”. And don’t get me started on “Sadder Day”. Your ears should be able to pick up the foundation stones. That's a great thing to me. My heroes poached and built on it and I’m happy to do the same. I believe my biggest breakthrough as a songwriter and performer came when I was able to accept and run with my limitations. Now those limitations are, in fact, strengths. I will never be able to write songs like my heroes any more than Lennon / McCartney would’ve been able to write a song like “Something Unseen” as it’s not “them”. My songs are “me” and what the rest of the band adds makes it “us”.
Has there been one particular moment in your musical career that you're most proud of?
That's hard but I've got to say that co-writing a song for Satisfactionista with my all-time favorite piano player is right up there. Mike Garson has been playing with David Bowie on and off since about 1973 and is responsible for the amazing sounds on the classic albums Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans and Bowie's more recent work as well. To have him take the time to help us craft and develop this nearly 9 minute epic song that will wrap up the Satisfactionista album has been a bit mind-blowing. The first time I heard his part, it nearly brought tears to my eyes.
|(Hear "Something Unseen" with this player).|
From Playgrounds Interview With Alice Barkwell:
Well, as I said, I’m from South Carolina and I was playing in clubs way before it was legal for me to be there. If there had been a scene to support music at home, I don’t know if I ever would’ve left. However, South Carolina is not exactly the most supportive place to do original music. It’s a shame, too, because there were and are a lot of great bands and artists there that you’re never going to hear about because they decided to stay.
When I left South Carolina, I briefly wound up in Auburn, Alabama and quickly found out that if any place was less supportive to original music than where I’d just come from, it was Auburn. Then when I was at a concert in Atlanta, I saw someone wearing a t-shirt that said “Athens, Georgia. Because it’s everything that Auburn isn’t.” And that, along with its history and having visited there and loved it, made me give Athens a try as my new home as soon as I could. The vibe and feel of the town was perfect for me. I loved it then and I still do now.
I don’t know about that. Maybe it’s the best place to join a band that’s already established or has its own identity but not really to start one if you have specific ideas about what you want. Of course, I had very, very specific ideas in mind. It took a long time to find the situation that I needed and that was, of course, after I had even stopped trying. I’d had enough of “musicians”. I couldn’t deal with them anymore. I know I am one but there were just too many points on which I differed from what I call “musicians”. I always wanted a professional, responsible band and that didn’t seem like an option. So I quit completely. I became a “rock photographer” so that I could still be in the environment that I was comfortable. And I’m fortunate that people seemed to like my work enough that I was successful with that (more or less) from the start. But playing and creating music is where I’ll always choose to be if I have that as an option!
When the Critical Darlings started it was more or less on a whim and thanks to a friend at the time who heard some demos that I had been working on for myself. He made a joke something to the effect of, “All you need is a good drummer” while pointing at himself. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that he was a drummer. So we started getting together for fun and within a couple of months had enlisted my friend Frank DeFreese to play bass. After a while, Frank had moved to Athens and it was still just playing among friends. We didn’t seek out shows. People would come to us and ask and we would show up and play. Then we decided to record the first album and Frank and I decided to continue even after the band became too much for the original drummer to handle.
What or who inspired you to play music, and at what age did you begin?
I have no idea what age I was when I began playing. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting around in my Grandmother’s living room with members of the family playing music. I remember them all playing old Southern Gospel and country songs. I would try to fit my arms around the guitar and could barely even hold it, much less play it. Since there were guitars all over the place, a bass, and a piano that were my Grandmother’s, when the rest of the family weren’t there, I’d be trying to play them. My Grandmother didn’t keep them from me. She always encouraged me to experiment and play with the instruments. When I was big enough to actually hold the guitar, she taught me the proper chordings and I more or less took it from there. She also taught me how to sing, as much as one can, and devise harmony vocals by singing along with Gospel music. It made all the difference. My Dad taught me a few rock ‘n’ roll type barre chords and from there, I made it up as I went along and still do. You can ask the guys in the band, I often do “wrong” things because I love the sound of breaking the musical rules on occasion.
Well, being in South Carolina, there wasn’t all that much from which to choose. My Mom and stepfather took me to the first real concert I saw and that was Journey. I remember how unbelievably loud it was for a small kid. You literally could not hear yourself screaming. My eyes burned from all the cigarette and marijuana smoke. I kept my thumbs plugging each ear and fingers plugging my nose. It wasn’t the most comfortable experience but I was hooked on the live music experience instantly. It doesn’t sound that great when I mention the smoke and unbearable volume I know, but the show, the excitement and the whole atmosphere sold me completely.
Well, the first ones I played were my Grandmother’s. She gave me some cheap electric guitar for Christmas one year. It would hardly even stay in tune but she wanted me to have one. I don’t even remember the model. My first real guitar was an Aria Pro II that my Dad bought for me. He also gave me a 60-watt amp which I used to contribute to the tinnitus that I’ve had since I was 14.
I tried. I transferred schools at an odd time that one particular year, however. The band class at the new school started a semester earlier than the one I was leaving. So I kind of got shafted despite the fact that I’d scored so highly on the entrance test. I was a small kid and they actually stuck me with the tuba. Thanks to that, my interest waned in band quickly, especially since I had my guitar at home. So I think I stayed in it half of one year before giving up.
What were you like in school?
Well, that depends
on when you’re asking about. For the first half of my school days, I was a
“brain”, I guess. I was in the gifted programs and pretty much always got
straight A’s. I actually liked school even though I would occasionally get into
trouble for doing things “too fast”. On two different occasions, they wanted to
bump me up a grade. My family didn’t want me to because I was so small and they
thought I could learn more and do even better if I spent more time. I still say
that was a mistake. By middle school, things were changing as I got a handful of
teachers that were terrible to me and I got them all at once! Many people that
I’ve told don’t even believe the stories about how awful those three particular
teachers were to me. The bottom line is that on a whim, they decided to fail me
for the year despite the fact that I’d always had great grades prior to them
doing things like throwing away my tests without even grading them. I still
can’t believe that stuff actually happened.
I went to summer school that year and had the all-time highest average in the history of those summer sessions. I went back into the “gifted” side of things when I went back the next year. Timing again intervened and because of what those teachers had done, I wasn’t allowed to get into the college prep courses that I should’ve been able to start. That made school painfully dull for me. I already knew what they were trying to teach and, of course, the boredom turned to mischief and just not caring anymore. So in high school, the principals, guidance counselors and everyone else knew me by name. Of that, I’m sure. I became acquainted with suspensions and all kind of other things I would’ve never known had I not come across those teachers or had been “moved up” when they suggested it originally. I did have some rather surreal and over the top stories from high school thanks to not caring about the educational side of it anymore but I have a feeling that at least some of my band mates might think that this isn’t the right forum to tell those stories.
How many bands have you been in before Critical Darlings?
I wasn’t in that many actually. I guess five or so and most of those never performed. My first real performance was at a high school talent show, which we won. Having 800 people on their feet clapping, stopping and screaming for an original called “Scream For No Reason” was enough to solidify whatever it was that got into me in the first place. From that talent show, I guess the rest was more or less inevitable. While in high school I joined a mostly cover band that lasted a bit longer than the rest of high school. Let’s see, then there was a band called Q-Sign that was named one of the “best unsigned bands in America” by Musician Magazine and a “joke” group called Star Zero that kind of did what The Darkness did later. Star Zero was a really over the top hard rock group with a full light show and even pyro wherever we went. After that I quit for as long as I could before the vacuum pulled me back into playing.
Is your band name wishful thinking or did you actually have a lot of positive press when you started it?
Hmmm…well, I didn’t choose it. The original drummer wanted to call the band “Critic’s Darlings” since we were both music critics for Flagpole Magazine in Athens. I said, “Whatever, but I don’t want an apostrophe in the name.” So it became the Critical Darlings, which worked well enough. I’m still not a big fan of the band name but from what I’ve learned, most people in bands don’t actually like what they’re called. It is appropriate enough I guess since we’re all hyper-critical and, in my opinion, fairly Darling.
As for positive press and wishful thinking, the truth is that to date, I don’t know if we’ve gotten a bad review yet. They’re not all glowing by any means but I’m surprised at how kind everyone has been, especially given our name. I’ve been waiting for a big beat-up but it hasn’t happened yet. Even Jeff Clark from Stomp And Stammer and Bob Lefsetz (the notoriously prickly author of the music industry’s Lefsetz Letter) have given us the thumbs up. Of course, now I’ve jinxed it and we’re going to really get beaten down because of me saying that. Maybe your job is to be the one that really tears us apart, I don’t know. But we can take it. And we know we’re extraordinarily proud of our brand new album Satisfactionista so it’s okay. That’s the most important thing to us. Our fans seem to truly love it, too. So if others don’t like it, that’s alright. There’s plenty out there for them and we’ll continue to cater to ourselves and those who listen to us.
When did you begin to do rock photography?
I used to borrow my Grandmother’s camera to take to concerts in Columbia, South Carolina when I was a kid. I’d sneak them in and take pictures even then so really, I was doing it long before I ever got paid for it. I guess I started getting paid enough to call it “working” in about 2002 and got about 5 good years of it before the performing and playing started dominating my life again.
I guess playing but as I said, I really was always doing both to some degree. On a professional level, playing.
If they are, it’s mostly in the sense that I can see what’s coming from having done it. There are times when I can tell something’s about to happen and get over to the area for the perfect shot before some of the other photographers who don’t have the experience from the other side. Granted, that may just be wishful thinking but I think there’s some validity to that.
I think so, but it’s just my opinion. Some of the best photographers I know don’t play music at all. Being a musician may give you more of an edge on an even playing field but a great photographer’s still going to beat out a musician taking pictures even if the picture is of a musician.
You and Amanda have a cool deal where she writes about the shows you photograph. How did that start?
That hasn’t happened in a while since we’ve stopped working on shooting and reviewing but that basically came about when 24 hours weren’t enough in the day to do all of the picture editing and the reviews. Amanda stepped up and helped me out. Plus, she was there for the whole show usually and caught the parts that I missed while photographing or being escorted from one area to the other.
Amanda is so gorgeous. Do people ever wonder how you got her to go with you? (lol)
I certainly wonder. And to answer your question, yes I wonder what the heck I possibly could’ve done to deserve her. I wonder even more what terrible, terrible thing she could’ve done to deserve me! (Laughs)
As a band member and also a photographer do you try harder to wear colorful clothes, have a nice back drop and have some decent lighting than the average band does?
I certainly enjoy the “image” and visual components. I want something cohesive. Again, luckily, I’ve found the right band mates to fit right in with that. We complement each other without being the same and we each have our own onstage “personas” as it were. At least I think we do. We are certainly not interested in standing around in the dark staring at our feet during a performance. You can call it “posing” or being fake but you’d be wrong. It’s absolutely real to me. I do what I feel like doing and I will turn it loose at a live show. The other guys do the same.
As a rock photographer, which was your most thrilling shoot (or 2 or 3) and why?
You ought to know that’s almost impossible to answer. If I had to choose a few, I’d go with the tip-top of the classic rock field. Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones and The Who were probably the ones that I still can’t believe I was able to photograph and am still so thankful that I did. I can’t even put into words for someone who doesn’t feel such a close connection to the music. Unless you’ve stood onstage while Robert Plant sang “Black Dog” or “No Quarter” or hung around backstage chatting with legends like you’ve known them your whole life, it’s hard to explain it. It’s strange. It’s like the people on your TV have come to life and the walls of reality versus fantasy and stardom are broken. These are people…well, not just like you and me, but they actually exist as humans in our world in a way that one wouldn’t otherwise even think about.
Who have you met that really thrilled you?
One of my shortest meetings probably would fit that bill. At literally the last minute, I was asked to go backstage and photograph Ringo Starr. I met him, we chatted some small talk, he made a couple of pointed and very Beatley jokes and before my heart even finished racing, he was onstage singing “It Don’t Come Easy.” I didn’t even get an autograph or my picture taken with him but it’s Ringo-Friggin’-Starr, y’know? I met him!
Which of the songs that you have written are you proudest of and why?
Right now, probably a song on the new album called “Sadder Day”. It’s a very personal song for me that I wrote following the death of my father. Between the time of writing it and recording it, I lost several more friends and the song simply grew more meaningful for me. One week prior to doing this interview, my Grandmother died. I’ll be dealing with that for a good, long while too. Every time I sing that song, I sing it for those that I’ve lost over the last few years. Add to that the fact that it’s such a “band song”. Frank wrote the main guitar part, and the guitar solo is one I'm very proud of and is a high point for me every single time I hear it. "Sadder Day" was also the first complete song that our drummer Josh Harrison recorded with us. My favorites will change from time to time but for obvious reasons, right now, that’s the one that would get my vote.
(Hear "Sadder Day" here.)
How do the 2 Critical Darlings albums compare and contrast?
By comparison, the first album was done on a shoestring. We were a power trio for the first album and we were just doing it to do it. We went into a studio with a friend who ran the joint and worked on it when we could. The first go around, we refused to have any “guest musicians” or anything. We wanted everything on the record to be easily pulled off live by the trio. For the most part, we did that. Many of the songs on the second record were written prior to the first being recorded. We knew, however, that some of them would have to wait as the shoestring wouldn’t support the weight of some of what we had in mind for the second album. For Satisfactionista, we managed to get a GRAMMY nominated producer of albums that I personally love. I was a fan of his production and was thrilled that David Barbe would work with us. We also got who I consider the world’s greatest piano player, Mike Garson from David Bowie’s band, to collaborate on the album closing “epic” track “Something Unseen”. Heck, we even managed to procure R.E.M.’s mellotron for some really, truly vintage and rare sounds where nothing else would’ve approximated the feeling that we needed. We spent 11 months on Satisfactionista. We worked ourselves into the ground on it and we got what we set out to get. C’mon, Accept Your Joy was a strong introduction. Satisfactionista is more of a statement that goes “below the surface” of who we are as a band and as individuals, hence the corresponding motif of the cover art with the girl looking under the water.
If you could design your dream tour for the Critical Darlings, what bands living or dead, would you have on the bill with you?
That should be obvious if you know me. I’d want to open for The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Prince, Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. Yep, those would do just fine.
You have performed solo and also in bands. Which is more fun (or which do you prefer) and why?
I’ve always preferred the band environment. There’s nothing like the feeling when it’s all firing just right. Of course, if one person is off, the whole machine comes across as rusty by comparison but if one person is off, there are times when the others can save the whole show. I’m also a ham. I love being able to put down my guitar and act like an idiot front man on occasion. That’s a little harder to do solo. Performing alone is an introspective, intimate thing. The band is there to make you feel it all over and hopefully wring you out.
What did they say about your band on The Daily Show? (I didn’t see it and don’t quite get it when I read about it.)
That was just weird. It was something to do with Robert Bork and Harriet Myers. Yep, it was that obscurely political. Apparently some commentator used the phrase, “This is an inside out Bork experience”. To which Jon Stewart replied, “Which is coincidentally the name of my high school band” or something like that. Then a picture of The Critical Darlings appeared behind Jon Stewart with Jon’s face pasted over mine and “Inside Out Bork Experience” added to our shirts and the kick drum. I have no idea how they wound up using us. I guess they just Googled for “goofy band pictures” or something. We wouldn’t even have noticed it except that Frank was watching and noticed his bass, which he custom built for himself. Then we looked it up online and sure enough, it was us. I have a still of the frame somewhere on my computer. I can’t believe how much press we got from such a little blurb but it was very strange and very cool.
(See the Daily Show clip where Jon Stewart's face is pasted over Chris' as "The Inside Out Bork Experience". Just hit play. It happens at about one minute and ten seconds.)
How did you get Mike Garson, David Bowie’s pianist, involved in your new album and what did he add to the proceedings?
It was remarkably easy, really. I had this epic piano song that I’ve been not using for years. I always loved it but didn’t have the skill to pull off what I had in mind. When we considered putting it on the new record I thought to myself, “If you could have any piano player in the world to play on this song, who would it be?” The honest answer was either Freddy Mercury or Mike Garson who played on Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and still tours with him. Obviously, Freddy was hard to reach. I found Mike online and emailed out of the blue. His assistant got back and said he’d be interested in hearing the rough recording after I pitched the idea to him. Then lo and behold, I had an email back from Mike directly saying that he loved the song and would be happy to do it. I couldn’t believe it. When I finally heard the track, I was flabbergasted at his creativity and completely blown away. I went back to the drawing board and rewrote all the lyrics, the bass parts and even a lot of the guitar. I still don’t think I did his piano playing justice but I did my best. It certainly raised our game considerably. Do you know how cool it is to be able to truthfully say that you have some of the best piano playing ever recorded for a rock record on your record? Well, it’s cool and I do believe it whole heartedly. You really have to hear what he did yourself or you won’t believe it. It’s truly insane.
|(Wanna hear? Just hit play.)|
Did you make up the word “satisfactionista”? If so, or even if not, what does it mean?
Hmmm…I’m not really sure if we coined it but we’ll take the credit anyway. The phrase came about when we were working on the first album and a mutual friend asked the engineer that we were working with what it was like to work with us. Word got back to us that he called me a perfectionist. I took a bit of an exception to that and said, “Actually, I’m a satisfactionist. I just want to be satisfied. It doesn’t have to be perfect.” Then Frank modified it by saying that we were all, in fact, Satisfactionistas. That’s where the phrase came from and that immediately became the working title for the second album even before the first one was finished. It suits the album because we adopted the idea as our code. We would settle for nothing on the new album. We had to be satisfied and I’m proud to say that we somehow pulled it off.
You’ve opened for a lot of impressive bands. Who was really the coolest to you and was any one an asshole? Any good stories?
Everyone was really cool. A Flock Of Seagulls hardly seemed to exist offstage. We saw them at sound check, they disappeared and reappeared just in time to do their set. But we had no problems with them. The only person that I can think of who was overtly a jerk to us was the singer for Five Star Iris. The stupid thing is that he misunderstood and started taking it out on Joe. He’s lucky Joe was feeling pleasant that night. It could’ve been very ugly. The other guys in Five Star Iris were extraordinarily nice and eventually Mr. Singer Man apologized. Still, it was funny with someone from Five Star Iris saying “You’ll never open for us again” like it was a really big loss. I wouldn’t mind doing it but it’s certainly not going to make or break us. I couldn’t resist laughing and saying, “Really? Well, you can open for us next time.” We all laughed about it later. I think he was just having a bad day…I hope.
You’ve had serious illnesses yourself and now with your dear grandmother ill too. Is it hard to keep a band going under such circumstances?
Well, I just lost my Grandmother last week and it has been hard. It’s been darn near impossible a few times. I had pneumonia in 2007 and that’s the only time we’ve lost a lot of shows and it sucked. We’d just been a featured tour on Pollstar and we had all of this press coverage and I had to wait and let the doctors misdiagnose me for a month before we tracked it down and got it straightened out. We did take most of October, November and December off these past few months so I could be with my Grandmother whenever I could. I was glad I was able to be there when I was and only wish I could’ve been with her even more. It’s going to be some time before I even know who I am without her in my life. The good thing is that I have lots of great friends, family and the outlet of this band to help me through it. It’s going to be rough to go out there and “play rock star” for a while but I’m trying to use even the hard nights in a way that makes me stronger.
Absolutely and I did quit prior to the Darlings. I was done. This band and this particular line-up of people is well-worth pulling me back in to do it and I’ll do it as long as I can have the confidence and belief in the project that I have now. I’m not a hostage to it. If I’m not enjoying it, I will quit but I can’t see that coming any time soon knowing that we have to get the word out about this new album and having had a sneak preview of some of the songs we’re working on for the next release, whenever in the distant future that may be!
Some clever writer called you “Power Pop Potentate.” Great alliteration! Do you feel that powerful?
That was Lee Valentine Smith from the Creative Loafing. Obviously, I loved that and will wear that badge proudly whether or not I actually deserve it. I guess we’ll see. It’s certainly something to live up to in the grand scheme of things. As for feeling powerful, well, no I don’t usually feel that way but if you catch me onstage on a good night, I absolutely do.
Where do you see yourself (and your band) in the future? How will you know when you have “Made It” in music?
My simple hope is that we can just keep building on what we’re doing. Everything we’ve worked for and focused on has happened. Now I guess it’s time to raise the stakes and see if we can stay on that roll. We’ve taken more time than we probably wanted to in order to really make sure the quality of everything is top notch but now that we know we’re there, it’s time to move on to the next step, whatever that may be.
Bet you didn't know...
By Mary Gadd & Emily Kimball
If you could travel to any era or event in history, what or when would it be?
Wow, let’s see…how much time have you got? The first things that come to my mind are not the grand historic events as much as going back and seeing my Mom and Dad when they were dating and all of my Grandparents were still around. The second is a similar thing to go back and track Amanda down and spend some extra time together, though that might be way creepy if I was today-age and she was yesterday-age. Talk about robbing the cradle!
Of course, a smarter thing might be to go back to about 1973 and force record executives to listen to Satisfactionista until it got its due.
I’ll take any of those options if they become available. Hopefully I’ll get to squeeze in some Led Zeppelin, Who, or Elvis Presley concerts while I’m back there in the parents’ time.
Have you ever been so bored that you assigned yourself homework? What was your hardest assignment?
You’re kidding me, right? Was I too subtle? Did I not get across my loathing for the public school system in my previous answers? The only homework I would’ve ever assigned myself is to figure out how not to have to go to school the next day.
(Hmm... Guess our sources were wrong on that one!)
What's your favorite Jack Handey quote?
Wow, there are way too many. Here are a few of the first favorites to come to mind. I’ll leave you with these Deep Thoughts courtesy of Mr. Handey.
“As I bit into the nectarine, it had a crisp juiciness about it that was very pleasurable----until I realized it wasn’t a nectarine at all, but a HUMAN HEAD!!”
“So this was what the natives called the “terror bird”. It turned out to be nothing more than a gigantic forty-foot eagle that shot fire out of its mouth.”
“Laurie got offended that I used the word “puke”. But to me, that’s what her dinner tasted like.”
“Like jewels in a crown, the precious stones glittered in the queen's round metal hat.”
“Whenever I hear the sparrow chirping, watch the woodpecker chirp, catch a chirping trout, or listen to the sad howl of the chirp rat, I think: Oh boy! I'm going insane again.”
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("Worms On The Pavement" video shot in Chris' kitchen by Chris and Amanda.)