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Feature Story: The Kickback

| December 2, 2014 | 0 Comments

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The Kickback have been generating some good buzz locally for some years now, and IE finally at down with three members of the band– frontman/chief songwriter/guitarist Billy Yost, lead guitarist/keysman Jonny Ifergan and bassist Eamonn Donnelly – in the NYC office of their publicist in the midst of its showcase gigs at the annual multi-day CMJ indie music extravaganza. The band’s roots stretch much deeper into the heartland – to Vermillion, South Dakota, to be exact, where Billy and older brother (and former drummer) Danny were raised and cut their teeth in various bands in their teens and into their college years. Packing The Kickback name along with all their other personal belongings in the first of four vans to come, Billy and Danny moved to Chicago in 2009 where, through the magic of Craigslist, they found Jonny and Eamonn to re-form The Kickback. So it’s only natural to start at the beginning with a question to Billy.

IE: Why did you choose to move to Chicago as opposed to a closer big city like Minneapolis? or break for the West Coast? Or, heaven forbid, the musical hipster heaven of Brooklyn?
Billy: Two reasons, and probably the most pressing was my girlfriend and now my wife had accepted a job here a year prior and we were trying desperately to make the long distance thing work. In conjunction with that I was graduating with my teaching degree and I knew I was going to devote my life to substitute teaching to make it easier [as a musician] to work. And frankly, Portland, Brooklyn didn’t…I’m a Midwest kid. I’m from a town of about 2,000 people. There’s something about Chicago that still feels very Midwestern. There’s a great music scene here. It’s sort of a boot strap kind of town still, which I like and can relate to. I still kind of like keeping my feet on the ground and the coasts seemed just a little too, um, intimidating. I think I made the right choice – I wouldn’t have found these guys otherwise.

IE: But you moved with your brother, who helped start the band with you and was its drummer until just earlier this year. What brought on his departure?
Billy: He’s about six years older than I am and he’d been touring, oh I guess, for about five years before I even started a band and really didn’t care for life on the road. You can’t ask most decent people to undertake this kind of a life. (Yost looks at Eamonn and Jonny who smile and laugh as well, and then continues). He did it for a really long time and so when he quit he helped [replacement drummer] Ryan learn a lot of the songs. It wasn’t some kind of…I sort of wish it had been an Oasis-style throwdown where we would have punched each other on stage and had at least a better story out of it. But he still swings by and we still make music together. Just doing something this hard and this intense wasn’t really for him any more.”

IE How has this changed the dynamic of the band?
Billy: I really hadn’t played music with another drummer that wasn’t my brother. I could lie to you and say it wasn’t a pretty huge change to me, but it really was. I think we’re about six months into probably about a year transition where I’m going to start to really feel it. Ryan’s got some more blues chops. My brother Danny was really on top of it, always right there, slightly ahead of the beat. And Ryan just lays back ever so slightly. And it doesn’t seem like much, but it’s the difference between Chicago and LA to me. He’s an awesome drummer. Ryan’s great. You know, we’re a pretty tightly wound group. We practice a lot. We’re all a little uptight. And, Ryan has been kind of a pleasant, um… He’s pulled things back a little bit, which I think we are realizing now we might have really needed (Yost says with laugh and again looks at the rest of the band who smile).

IE: On your Facebook page you state as your musical genre “Muppets.” And as one of your two musical influences you include The Muppets TV show house band Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem. Translate or otherwise describe, if you will, your band’s music to someone who’s totally unaware of the Muppets?
Billy: “I totally forgot about that one (he laughs and pauses in thought). I am trying as hard as I possibly can to convey some emotions that people really might not be comfortable with in hopefully the most upbeat and, uh, dance friendly way possible? He laughs again. And, I think I said the Muppets because, um, the Muppets are so amazing at conveying the entire spectrum of human emotion. When they want to make you hurt, when Jim Henson wanted to put the hurt on, he could do it like nobody I’ve ever seen via, you know, this felt on his arm. And, um, I spent my youth both enamored with and sort of terrified by certain Muppets productions. There are things my family still gives me – they still make fun of me because I would run screaming out of the room. And, I wanted music to be the same thing. I want it to cover every end of the spectrum and to come at you in ways that you really weren’t prepared for; and also in a way that sort of leaves you walking away singing it, not sure you want to sing it or not… if that makes sense.

IE: A favorite song from the live shows we’ve caught is “White Lodge,” which you cite as being inspired by the ’90s critical and cult TV sensation Twin Peaks and, indeed, you’ve been touring and encouraging audiences across the county for some time now to check out the old episodes. Just recently comes word that the series will be returning. Coincidence?
Billy: Yeah, that was a big day at my apartment. But I don’t think that [series creator] David Lynch is going to give us any royalties or even special thank-yous, he laughs again. But that series, honestly, in sort of the same way that the Muppets do, confronts some god-awfully, terrifying things and match it with small town ‘aw shucks’ mentality that I am absolutely in love with. And, I hope our music can sort of be a reflection of that. And being able to be so inspired by that show, I think one song is barely back payment for as much as it’s given me. Also – it’s sort of when I knew Ryan was going to be a perfect fit – it’s been one of his favorite shows. And we got Jonny on board. We’re still – I’m dragging Eamonn by his heels to get into it….

IE: What’s up with your long-promised full-length recording Sorry All Over the Place?
Billy: “It is – I think it’s ready and I mean I can dance around this a lot, but there’s a lot of irons in the fire right now and it should be out in 2015. Let’s just say it’s been a learning experience for us.”

IE: Well, we noted you enlisted Spoon’s Jim Eno as producer. How’d that come about?
Billy: Ahhh, like a lot of the things that we’ve been fortunate enough to encounter, you sort of just get the gall up to up and email these people with no intention of ever hearing from them again. And either you catch them on a day when they’re really bored or maybe looking for something interesting to delve into, but Jim asked to hear some tracks and uh….’ he trails off, then returns, “We worked really, really hard to make these demos seem like we had just sort of cobbled them together, you know? When in fact we spent I think about a month to just sort of make them sound passable? Whereas we really poured a lot of blood, sweat and tears into them. But, um, Jim liked what he heard and he flew to Chicago and we spent a couple days going through songs, and it just felt like it was going to be a really good fit. “Spoon is – their recorded sounds are by and large my favorite sounds in music. I know that’s a pretty daunting statement but, um, Jim and the band just have a way of making things sound in my head the way music is supposed to sound. So to be able to sit, when Jim was in Chicago, and talk about drum sounds and things that were inspiring to me–this guy is sitting in my apartment and we’re playing stuff on Spotify off each other–and meanwhile you’re trying not to just start yelling ‘THIS IS HAPPENING!! IS THIS REALLY HAPPENING??!!'” All in the room join in laughing along, as Billy aptly concludes, “The whole experience was, honestly, amazing.”

IE: We note the long-promised recording’s title is taken from an obscure footnote to writer David Foster Wallace’s modern heavyweight novel “Infinite Jest.” And you, as founder of the band, are also a high school literature teacher. So surely there must be some deeper meaning behind your choice of The Kickback for the band’s name?
Billy: (Band laughing) I’m not bailing on this promise, I promise you! It will come out! I wish there were a better story, but I was [in college] studying for a criminal justice exam. And there was a blip in the book about the Enron case, which at the time had just wrapped up. And I was so surprised that it came up. Because I don’t know about how textbooks were when you were going through school, but we had like the 1976 editions of everything. Jimmy Carter was still President in most of our books. The Russians were [still] a threat and here we were long after the Cold War. So I was so shocked to see these books we had for college were actually, sort of relevant? There were things in them that were only just a few years prior? So I started getting into this little thing on Enron and it just mentioned how a lot of them had been receiving kickbacks. It just sort of clicked immediately, and I called my roommate at the time – I had put up flyers all over campus looking for a band to put together and I didn’t have a name for it yet–and I said ‘It’s going to be The Kickbacks! We’re going to be The Kickbacks! It’s going to be great! I got this!’ And he goes, ‘You know, that’s a pretty terrible name.’ I think it’ll be a little less terrible if you make it singular.’ I think we argued about it for a while, but I do owe my former roommate Randall for the band name.

IE: Well, The Kickback is awfully close to the pretty well known Internet-based crowd-sourced project funding site Kickstarter. Ever wake up to find someone’s confused you two and, they’ve pledged hundred of dollars to your Web page by mistake?
Billy : We wish (they all laugh, before continuing), but we did fund our long-promised album on Kickstarter.”

IE: Final question: To date, what’s been your best or most memorable show?
Jonny: There’s one I won’t forget. It was at Subterranean in Chicago. It’s an institution– you walk, like, a mile up the stairs. We were opening for A.M. Taxi and were kind of mid-last song “Rob My House,” which tends to get the best of us emotionally. And I’m going crazy with the guitar and looking at Eamonn and all of a sudden I see Billy, I think, take the strap off his guitar and swing it as far and as high as he could. And we’re all just in marvel of this, you know, like what is going to happen and well you know the rest…” he motions to Billy.

Billy: Yeah, I kind of launched it as high as I could get it and as it was coming down I realized it wasn’t actually coming down where I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to hit somebody in the crowd. So I lunged out to grab it to make sure it didn’t catch anybody. And so the guitar hit me in the face the same time the microphone that I didn’t see hit me at the same time. I started bleeding all over. I had to leave the gig as soon as we were done. And my wife sheepishly carted me all over Chicago looking for an open ER. But, people thought it was great, enjoyed the stage show,” the band laughs “but I still have a scare here from the stitches,” he says pointing to his chin.

Jonny: Which looked like a Batman symbol.
Billy: Yeah, it came out looking like the Batman insignia for a while. I have pictures and you really don’t have to impose your will on it very much to see… It’s one of those things you’re pretty embarrassed about, but that also happened. And I broke my guitar… (the band laughs) I break my guitars a lot. I’m a child.

-David Eldredge

The Kickback appear at Metro Chicago,
December 6th: with Mutts, and Archie Powell & The Exports

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