Kiss Me Deadly, Part One
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.
Cleveland is a hotbed of activity for local bands. But how many actually succeed? And what is the definition of that success? Is it selling a few hundred CDs and filling a downtown pub? Or is it receiving national recognition by going on tour and having a hit record on the Billboard Top 100?
For each musician earning a living here, that goal may look different. And whether the artists are competing for crowds against other local bands or branching out to a national platform, the only thing that will ensure any level of commitment is practice. And a lot of it. Per Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Outliers, it takes 10,000 hours to get from novice to recognized pro.
I first met Evan Lieberman back in 2006, when we were both neighbors at The Statler. He even played bass on a song I co-wrote with Vanessa Daffron called “Cleveland Rising.” Then on Valentine’s Day, 2009, at one of the small theaters on Detroit Avenue in Lakewood, Evan played in a show with a new band and introduced me to Jen Poland. Since then, and over the past five years, the two have been playing music together. All kinds of music. And playing it with the consistency of a steady metronome.
The band names and members have shifted, the norm for the music industry, and now the trio — Evan, Jen and Madelyn Hayes — go by Kiss Me Deadly. The sound has also evolved. I know this because I was there in 2009 and I’m still there in 2014, coming to their shows, taking photos, shooting raw video, supporting them as a good friend — and now fan — should.
This past May, upon my return to the 216, the couple, both Cleveland educators, generously let me be their flatmate for eight long weeks, so I witnessed them in action. Going to rehearsals, to the recording studio, to Becky’s, to a suburban gig. Discussing song tracks, coordinating outfits and rushing out the door with music equipment just moments after returning home with cameras and lighting from an all-day film shoot.
This tireless dedication has paid off. During my stay with Jen and Evan they announced the fantastic news that Todd Kwait offered Kiss Me Deadly a deal with Kingswood Records. Evan, who grew up in Atlanta and spent time with R.E.M., explained, “I’ve been doing this for over thirty-five years. It finally happened.”
It finally happened because Jen and Evan don’t stop. As in ever. Luckily, one Sunday afternoon, when surprisingly they weren’t expected to be anywhere, they sat down with me, with their beloved green-eyed black cat Professor at their side and shared their path to Kingswood.
You just signed with Cleveland-based Kingswood Records. Congratulations! Why is this record company a good fit for your sound?
Jen: Todd Kwait does live here in Cleveland but everyone on his label label is national, from San Fransisco (to) Brooklyn. We’re the only Cleveland band. We’re a good fit because he is a filmmaker and loves folk. His label has a bunch of folk musicians on it. There is some root of folk (in our music). I come from a family of musicians where we kinda came from the folk area and so he could kinda hear that. But where he wants to go is into the rock (genre) and so he thinks we’re a good fit to bridge his own personal journey and bringing the label into a more rock element. We’re happy to do so.
Evan: Kingswood Records is an ideal home for Kiss Me Deadly primarily because of Todd Kwait, who has a pretty strong dedication to music in general, to support his artists and maintain a kind of lineage. And while we’re certainly an indie rock band, we have elements of jazz and blues and R&B and even folk music in what we do because of our very backgrounds. Kingswood I think values these things. And also values that Jen and I are filmmakers. Todd himself is a very accomplished filmmaker. As a result, there could be no better home for Kiss Me Deadly than Kingswood Records.
Tell me about your musical backgrounds. Please include info on Madelyn.
Jen: I come from a musical family. My great-grandfather was a trombonist in the speakeasies. My great-uncle Bill (Workman) on my mother’s side was a folk musician who claims to have started the Kent State Folk Festival. He played in many bands. I inherited my uncle’s Martin guitar and that’s where I write a lot of my songs. I’ve been playing for a while. I play mandolin and guitar. Wrote songs mostly about people who make me upset.
I developed my own style from playing. I listen to all sorts of stuff, from hip-hop to bluegrass and you’ll hear elements of all that in songs I write. And then Madelyn, she has a soul and blues background and you can hear it in her singing. But by the time you wrap it up together it’s not like you will say, “This is blues” or “This is soul.” It’s like this melting pot or amalgamation that makes us unique and that’s what Todd likes about it.
Evan: I’ve been playing bass since I was 13 and guitar since I was 14. Initially my influences were The Beatles, The Rolling Stones,The Who and all those great bands. In the ’70s I got very interested in jazz music. I played jazz and became influenced by bass players like Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius.
And then punk rock happened. Even though I was a little late to appreciate it, really, I totally embraced Elvis Costello, The Clash, Talking Heads, British bands like XTC, Wire and the Buzz Cocks. And then American independent bands like Husker Du, The Replacements. All of those indie rock bands of that period were a really, really big influence. On a personal level I was influenced by spending some time playing with a blues singer named Blind Joe Hill, who ironically enough was originally from Cleveland, but this was in Los Angeles. Joe was really adamant about me finding the groove, listening very hard to what everyone else was playing, not overplaying but waiting for my time.
How did Kiss Me Deadly come together?
Jen: It was a trial. It was a big trial process. We started as The Poland Invasion and I found Evan. In the beginning, I was out on my own, writing my own songs and I was trying to form a band. Unfortunately I was meeting all these men and they thought I was dating them. They’d like pull their wiener out at me. I’d be like, this is a serious practice session. So those guys didn’t make the cut.
Finally, after a three-year process, Evan was still with me on bass and I met Madelyn at Parade the Circle. She was taking pictures. For some reason I thought, “Oh, look, she takes pictures with a nice camera. I take pictures with a nice camera. I bet you she plays music.” I asked if she played drums, she said yes and I was like, oh my, god, ok. And then I got her number and then she emailed me later on Facebook, “And, oh yeah, I sing.” And that’s what you have now. You have a drummer singer, me — a singer/songwriter and you have Evan on bass.
Evan: I was playing in band that dissolved and I was looking for another band. I mentioned it to some people on a movie set that included several of my students. One of my students was Jen’s roommate at the time and said her roommate was looking for a bass player. I auditioned, I suppose. I joined the band. I’ve always been in bands and I was impressed by Jen’s songwriting. I thought it would be fun. Though the other two members of the band at the time, particularly the guitar player, were not really musically up to professional standard. That was five years ago. (Jen) and I have been together ever since.
How would you describe your sound? Who are your influences?
Jen: Blues, rock, folk, jazz, all the stuff. Really comes from listening to anything from hip hop to folk music to punk rock to rock, classic rock. But also I really like Amy Mann. Some of that song writing comes through even though she’s a little slower. We’re more rocky.
Evan: British Invasion stuff of the 1960s. I often think of The Zombies, a band I love, who have the same mysterious, minor key thing to what we do. (The name) Kiss Me Deadly derives from a film noir and a pulp detective novel before that and not the Lita Ford song nor even the Generation X song or album.
The reason we took that name is because we do have this dark, mysterious sound a little bit that is fairly unique but people who have heard us will come with connections like The Pretenders, sometimes, Talking Heads, Fleetwood Mac. If Fleetwood Mac was a punk rock band, with a soul singer, that’s kind of where we’re coming from.
You’re both also filmmakers and educators. How does that support the music? And how do you juggle it all?
Jen: The cool thing is we’re filmmakers and educators of film. So that helps there. We’re bringing up our skill level of film by also teaching it. As far as the band goes, we practice twice a week and have our shows on the weekends. Since we don’t have shows every weekend, other weekends we do (our) film productions. So that’s how we juggle it all. We don’t stop. (And), the fact that we can make music videos to support our music absolutely helps promote and was one of the selling points that helped sell us to Todd.
Evan: I think that there’s a creative link between music, film and education. Designing a course or even a daily lesson plan is like writing a script or writing a song. They’re all really similar. They have to have structure, they have to have a point, they have to have a certain amount of repetition, a certain amount of variance. It takes the same level of creativity to teach, to make films and to play music. I don’t see there being a great sense of difference. They all kinda merge together.
On some level, we take a scholarly approach to music. We have a gigantic music collection. We’re always listening to new stuff of whatever is coming out. New artists, new types of music. We’re always plugged into what’s going on television, particularly, which to me now is much more important than feature film. Feature films matter to me almost not at all. Television matters to me. We’re scholars of that.
We’re both giving scholarly talks, in August, at the University Film and Video Association Conference on contemporary trends in television. I’m also doing one on cinematography and Jen is doing another one on cinematography as well. We’re interested in trends. We’re interested in technology. We’re interested in storytelling. And all of this fits together.
Part 2 of this interview will be featured in the next Career ToolBox.
Reprinted with permission and gratitude from CoolCleveland.com.