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The first rule is: there are no rules

I want to rock — to feel that I’m about to be thrown by blasts of sound into the back wall of a club, eardrums throbbing. Fortunately, when I’ve heard one electro-twee song too many, I can turn to Kinski. By Mary Mulholland
/ Source: contributor

Sometimes I get sick of trendy indie rock bands: the hand claps, the nasal warbles, the poppy, post-rock song structures. I long for music that defies popular, polite boundaries and challenges me as a listener. And I want to rock — to feel that I’m about to be thrown by blasts of sound into the back wall of a club, eardrums throbbing. Fortunately, when I’ve heard one electro-twee song too many, I can turn to Kinski.

Kinski plays experimental, often instrumental avant rock that disregards radio-friendly clichés. They are fearless sonic explorers who are at times impossibly heavy; at others, soothingly ambient. Listening to a Kinski song is a long, strange trip — whether as a physical or intellectual journey or the drug-induced variety, the metaphor is apt. A song may begin with quiet squeals of guitar or a soft, repetitive melody, only to be interrupted by the screeches of Lucy Atkinson playing bass with a violin bow or by a skull-rattling guitar explosion. Kinski’s sound is made approachable by guitarist Chris Martin’s masterly wielding of rock’s favorite weapon: the perfect riff. But with Kinski, the riff goes beyond its use as a clever hook.

Citing Minimalist ’60s composer Terry Riley as an inspiration, Kinski repeats riffs and other musical patterns until they transcend our expectations of how a rock song should sound. This compositional style, coupled with a love of Sabbath-style heaviness, makes for a massive sound. One has the impression that Kinski’s music may actually weigh something.

Prior to forming Kinski with Atkinson — the band now also includes guitarist/keyboardist/flautist Matthew Reid-Schwartz and drummer Barrett Wilke — Martin had grown weary of rock conventions. “I had been in more traditional indie rock bands in the past and had gotten really bored with that whole scene … I just wanted to play music for music’s sake,” he explains. Kinski both ignores the trends of popular indie rock and aims to never repeat their own sound — a goal evident on 2005’s “Alpine Static,” an album that ranges from the unapologetic rock of “The Wives of Artie Shaw” to the contemplative, dreamy melody of “Waka Nusa.” “We throw out a lot of songs or ideas that seem too familiar,” Martin explains. The band frequently plays with Martin’s original songwriting: collaborating on arrangements, taking the songs apart and constructing them anew.

The prolific Kinski has released four full-length albums along with myriad EPs and compilations, initially on Atkinson’s Intellectual Drunks label before signing with Sub Pop Records in 2003. One of the beauties of an independent label like Sub Pop is its willingness to support bands, like Kinski, that focus more on music making than commercial success. With their constantly unfolding, unpredictable creativity, Kinski attracts a relatively small but loyal audience. In nearly nine years as a band, Kinski has continued to grow artistically, putting out distinctly flavored records and drawing an eclectic crowd of art students, metal heads and aging hippies on shows from their hometown Seattle to Japan, in addition to recruiting new fans while opening for luminaries like Mission of Burma. “Our fans are pretty loyal and take what we do pretty seriously,” says Martin.

Kinski’s live shows dismiss the boisterous, flamboyant showmanship currently in favor. Watching them perform is more like being privy to the inner sanctum of a practice space: the four members of Kinski are so focused, so completely absorbed in their music that it’s as if the audience were not there at all. Martin hunches over his guitar, face screwed up in concentration, occasionally executing punk-rock style jumps. Atkinson hides behind long, swinging hair, at times with her back towards the crowd. And yet Kinski puts on one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen: they are so deeply involved in the music that they bring us along on the journey with them.

“I think the inward thing just comes from wanting to play as well and as intensely as possible,” Martin explains. “We really just play for ourselves and hope that connects with people watching. If you worry about how the crowd is responding, you start thinking about that rather than thinking about playing the song. Or when to jump in the air.”

Although outside obligations have limited the band’s ability to tour recently, they’ll begin recording a new album with Sup Pop in February 2007 and hope to tour more in the coming year. They’ll continue to redefine themselves as a band, perhaps even more so than in the past, always defying easy categorization. “We’re sort of at a crossroads, I think. We’re in the process of reinventing the band. The next record seems like it’s going to be a bit of a collage of directions and ideas,” says Martin, alluding to a juxtaposition of deeper exploration and 3-minute songs with vocals.

Kinski remains refreshingly focused on making the kind of music that its members like to listen to, combining musical integrity with a relaxed, adventurous spirit. They’re a band with nothing to lose.

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