Enigma Magazine

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Thomas Martin

May 2007






Chris McKay has become a familiar face to me. As someone who has covered hundreds of concerts over the years in and around the Southeast, you get to recognize some of your contemporaries. I had seen Chris numerous times in ďthe pitĒ while covering festivals and other concerts in Atlanta. A stroke of bad weather and a borrowed camera brought the two of us together a few years back at Music Midtown. Since that time Chris and I became fast friends and also discovered he had his own band, The Critical Darlings. Having met many a journalist-artist over the years I was impressed by what I heard. Apparently so are others. After being in slow motion for the last year trying to shore up his lineup, McKay has now come out firing with a national distribution deal, gigs galore, and people writing about him instead of the other way around. The Critical Darlings are composed of McKay on vocals, guitar and keyboard, Frank DeFreese on bass, Joe Orr on vocals and guitar, and Chattanooga native Josh Couillard on drums.


How long has the band been together?

The band originally formed in í04 over rock trivia. It was kind of a challenge to see if we could do something as a band. It was never meant to be taken seriously. We put together a set list and people started inviting us to play. So for a year, thatís all it was Ė people inviting us and weíd come out if we could. After about a year, we thought weíd try something and see if we could really do it. So we went in and recorded that first album.


Were you guys basically friends to begin with?

Yeah, that was how it began. It was the drummer (Tom Bavis) and I who were in rock trivia together. I was doing some demos just for myself but he wanted to hear them. I didnít know he drummed. After I gave him a CD, he came to trivia the next week. He said, ďGreat recordings, man, but the only problem is you need a drummer.Ē And he kept pointing at himself. ďWhat? You play? Letís do something.Ē I didnít look for a bass player. I looked up an old friend of mine from South Carolina to see if he wanted to play bass. He actually moved to Athens to play with us. And heís still with us now. It was really that simple and off the cuff Ė just fun. And we recorded the album in í05. That was when we came to Chattanooga for the first time. Our drummer left right after our CD release party. We had offers to put the record out and I wouldnít take them because I wanted to be able to support it and do it right. We still played shows throughout 2006, but it was with a fill-in drummer. If it was a show we felt like we couldnít turn down, weíd take it. Other than that, it was nothing. We got Josh (Couillard) to join the band in February of this year, and then bam, the floodgates opened. Everything went crazy. I was so happy that not only were we not forgotten, but people seemed interested. Within a month we were signed to this indie record label and had people working for us and a national distributor and dates along with offers coming in from everywhere. Itís awesome. I canít believe it.

You wear two hats Ė one as a musician and one as a music journalist/photographer. How do you balance the two?

I donít. Itís one and the same to be honest with you. I know that sounds kind of weird. To me Iím doing the same thing when Iím at a show. You probably understand. When youíre there, itís the same just from a different side of the stage. Itís all the same environment whether youíre in the picture or taking a picture. Music is all I do. Thatís all Iíve ever done. I worked as a deejay very briefly. Iím a photographer, Iím a writer, and Iím a musician. Thatís all I do 24 hours a day. Either Iím listening to it or Iím trying to take what Iíve heard from other people and put it into my own thing.

Seeing that youíre both the press and the artist, do you think there are times when thereís animosity from bands towards the press. If so, can you empathize with those feelings?

Animosity from others? Because thereís none with me. When a photographer comes to our show I generally tell them flat out Ė and some press are a little bit hesitant or they think Iím kidding around Ė I say ďYou do what you need to do to get the shot. I donít care.Ē I was recently late for an interview. There was actually a misunderstanding that I was supposed to be there earlier. I felt bad and he just hung out. I invited him to the rehearsal and he shot the entire rehearsal. It was an extended interview with everybody and we had him out to the next couple of shows. Iím all for that. As a photographer and as a writer, the best results Iíve gotten are when people made me feel comfortable and gave me the access. We want people to write and feel comfortable around us and to believe in the project too Ė be a part of it. Iím not out here to make enemies. I want people to enjoy it. Thatís one of the reasons why Iím doing it.

A lot of times the bands believe the press are the enemy.

Yeah, I donít know why they would think that. I understand if somebody says something bad about you. Everybodyís had something bad about them written. So what? Thatís one personís opinion. Thatís fair. Itís their business. So what? Iíve written plenty of bad things. I feel thatís the one good thing about being a person thatís been a writer and a musician is that if somebody has a criticism, I understand it as a criticism. And if itís a personal attack, Iíll take them up on it. I heard B.B. King one time say ďIf you love what Iím doing, tell somebody. Spread the word. If you donít like what Iím doing, come tell me.Ē That struck a chord with me. Thatís the way I feel about it. If somebody doesnít like it, I want to know why. Iím not necessarily trying to change their mind, but yeah, I want people to be happy. Otherwise go find something youíre happy doing.

Coming from Athens, GA which has a long musical lineage, how have you fared in such a celebrated music town?

Remarkably well. I thought weíd be considered way too cheesy and over-the-top rock and roll. After all, we do have guitar solos (laughs). When we started the band, it was something you really didnít do in Athens unless you were either being ironic or an indie-type person who played your heart out on the guitar but purposely didnít tune the guitar so it would sound indie. You know what I mean? Weíre not doing that. We want to put on a show. We want to sound good. We want to have a good time and be the best band we can be and blow away any band on stage with us. We donít always succeed but weíre going to try every night and we do have a pretty good success rate.

Seeing that you are on both sides as the artist and the press, have you been able to take whatever knowledge youíve gained to help assist the band?

Absolutely. Completely. A lot of it is about who you know, but the thing is if they donít like you theyíre not going to do anything with you anyway. There are plenty of people that I know that have friends, and they know these people that they could give tons of coverage but they wonít, because they donít like the bands their friends are in enough to take a chance on their reputation. Knowing the promoters has helped. But I never went out looking for it. I didnít even tell people I was in a band that I worked with as a photographer until they found out on their own. It usually just comes up in conversation at some point and itís like, ďOh, youíre in a band?Ē I always call it my secret identity when Iím a photographer. When Iím playing, I can say the otherís my secret identity. Itís kind of mixing up now that people are really getting to know who the band is and what I do on both sides. Itís kind of more common knowledge. But there really was a time when nobody knew either. It was like you knew either one or the other. But now that itís coming together, Iím friends with some of the promoters of these shows, and Iím going to use it (laughs) and Iím not thinking twice about it.

Your 2005 CD, Come Accept Your Joy was well-received. Were you able to get any momentum to help broaden your fan base?

Thatís a hard question to answer to be completely honest with you. The album was released two days ago (Spring 2007). I put it in some local stores here in Athens when it was finished, but it never got an official release. I think, if I recall correctly, our CD release party was October 8 of 2005. We did a show the following weekend at the 40 Watt opening for Cowboy Mouth. Our drummer quit two days later. And again, I just sat on the record. I didnít want to do it wrong. Why just half way do it? If Iím going to do it, Iím going to do it right. I pulled everything back and literally the record got national release May 8, 2007. And suddenly, thereís so much stuff going on. We ended up on the Daily Show for one little thing. It was a fluke. I co-wrote a couple of songs with Pete Townshend of The Who via a lottery online.

How did that come about?

I donít know if you know, but heís got this thing called the Lifehouse Method. Itís basically software based around the sounds used for algorithms he made for ďWonít Get Fooled AgainĒ, ďBaba OíReillyĒ. ďEminence FrontĒ, ďYou Better You BetĒ and all of those songs with the weird keyboard segments. Back then, he used a method of taking specific facts. For ďBaba OíReillyĒ, his guru was Meher Baba so he took his birth date, facts, dates and put different numbers in a machine and it made music out of it. So he wanted to expand that and bring other people in. I heard about this thing called Lifehouse Method they were going to be introducing in May of this year. I went to the website and it wasnít up yet. But I put in my information and it said ďyou may win the chance if you want to participate in three audio portraits. Put in the reason why you should do itĒ and I put in some answer. An hour or two later I got a message back with, ďCongratulations, youíve won the Lifehouse Lottery. You can sit for these three audio portraits.Ē I thought everybody got it, so I told all my friends, ďDo this man, itís awesomeĒ. And nobody else got in. Huh, maybe it was kind of a lottery. It is a program where you take five different settings. Thereís a voice setting. I used some voice tracks from one of our songs. Thereís a rhythm setting so I used some raw tracks. Then I put in some facts. I even put in a photograph. And what it does, the computer program turns all of this information into ones and zeroes. It turns it all into binary and then it spits it back out as music. And the way it works is that the copyrights are shared between me, Pete Townsend and the creators of the software. So I have these three pieces of music, and one of them, our guitarist Joe found a way to work it into one of our songs and it fits perfect chord-wise and structure-wise. The changes work fine with one of our songs. So yeah, hopefully weíll have a co-write with Pete Townshend on the next record, which is rather surreal since I never met the guy.

How are the new songs youíre writing different from what was on the first album?

A lot more layered. Weíre doing a lot more harmonies now. Not to sound like a jam band Ė you know we donít sound like that, but thereís a lot more groove and swing involved which we hadnít done much of before. We were a little bit more strict rock with the first record for some reason. Weíre kind of delving more at the moment. And while weíre not trying to be Stonesy per se, we are trying to get some of that swing from ďBeast of BurdenĒ and ďWaiting On A FriendĒ, to try and get that mood. Weíre trying to mix that in with what we do and add it to the rock and big guitar solos. Once we got Joe in the band, it all changed. While Iím a pretty competent guitar player, Joe can dust me. So when youíve got the two of us together, itís pretty wild. When we played on stage together for the first time, it blew my mind on some of the new material Ė just the way it came to life. Everybody played everything just like it was written in fairytales. It was like you hear in the fantasy movies and the things where everybody is sugarcoating the story but it was real. It felt like there was a different kind of entity than just the four guys on stage. There was something else that none of us can do alone. We keep trying to capture that. Right now weíre hitting it pretty regularly. I donít know how long itís going to last. It canít last forever with something that good. Right now weíre firing on it and Iím taking advantage of it.

What aspect of music do you enjoy the best?

On a good night, itís just performing at 100 per cent. I was trying to think of it the other day for some reason. I was trying to think what makes me happy in my life. One is playing music and the other is making people happy. And thatís in every aspect of my life. It doesnít mean Iím going to go out of my way. You can ask anybody. Iím definitely not a ďyesĒ man. The ďCriticalĒ in the name is a description of us personally, too. We can all be pretty tough. But yeah, I want people to be happy. I want them to feel at home whether itís with the live environment or anything else. So to me, we did six shows in the first two weeks that the band started playing and have had a couple of weeks off since then and for the first time in my life, I had a ball at every single show.

What have you learned from the journalism side of the business that has helped you with the band?

A lot of it is from being able to hang out with your heroes and talk to them as people. First of all, you see that theyíre more or less normal, which sounds fine in words, but until you see it in practice, I donít think it necessarily is communicated to most people. But a lot of it to me was seeing that theyíre really into music. I would see a guy Ė and Iím not trying to name drop, but Iíd see a guy do a sold-out show and come backstage where they were recording the show. I was invited on the bus and we were hanging out. All he was concerned about was, ďOh man, I missed this note on that one song. I canít believe I did that. It sucks!Ē And it was a perfect show to everyone there. It wasnít that he was that down. He was like, ďIíve got to do it better next time.Ē And he was trying to figure out ways to improve himself. I remember hanging out backstage one time and getting into a conversation about, ďWho do you want to see reunite?Ē So then everybody starts going through their dream list. Theyíre just excited about music. One time I was out with one artist during sound check. The singer was next to me listening to the bass player and the drummer going, ďCan you believe I get to play with those guys? Iím the luckiest guy in the world.Ē That enthusiasm is contagious. Thatís a kind of thing that puts it in a different light for me because I really donít want to do it if Iím not enjoying it. And I wonít. A lot of people say that and donít mean it. I took this time off the last year because it wasnít worthwhile overall. If you hear of us performing and thereís a date coming up itís because we believe in the project. Thereís something there worthwhile. And itís not just one person dragging the others along. Everybodyís working their butts off to the same goal to capture that moment. Itís the only way that it really works and thatís what Iím trying to keep as long as we can. And again, I donít necessarily expect it to last that way forever, but during this little golden Camelot time while weíve got it, Iím going to run with it.