It’s fitting that Kingsley Flood will kick off things on Fort Stage this Friday. Well built and secure enough to endure the stomp and surge of the DC/Boston based band’s unbridled energy, it was clearly the best choice. Nice job, Folk Fest planners. All kidding aside, this band of players proves that folk isn’t all nylon string strums and brushed drums. As front man Naseem Khuri explains to The Donkey, a Newport Folk band can just as easily be inspired by Strummer as they are Springsteen.
Donkey Jaw: Battles is dedicated to a dear friend and fan, Matt Vidulich, who passed last year and you guys just played a show in his memory. Tell me a little about that.
Naseem Khuri: Matt was our biggest supporter and my really great friend – he was the guy who valued every day of his life and made the most of his time on this earth. So the most appropriate thing we could do was play a fundraiser in his name, in his hometown of Madison, and leave it all on stage. We thought about playing slower, somber songs, then thought of how mad Matt would’ve been if we did. So, rowdy and raucous it was.
This album appears to be full of characters at crossroads in their lives. Would you say that’s fairly accurate? If so, what draws you to crafting those kinds of songs?
This album is about the guy who does everything right and still falls behind, only because I’ve known too many of those guys. And they’re often left with a really hard choice. On one hand, they can sell out, like the guy in Sigh a While. On the other hand, they can throw elbows, like the delusional leader grasping onto power in Strongman. I’ve faced that choice a few times in my life through different jobs and situations, and I always resented it.
Blood, ghosts, kings and Jerusalem all make an appearance across these tracks as well which lends itself to a more spiritual discussion. Is there a particular inspiration there or simply literary devices at play?
I’m really interested in the idea of change (and find myself writing about it a lot these days). The walls of Jerusalem haven’t changed in millennium, ghosts are always with us, kings are often delusional in their hold on power. I don’t know about the blood part – maybe I was going for shock value? Maybe our next release will be a horror movie?
You all funded the album via Pledge Music. Crowd-sourcing gets both praise and criticism, with some opponents being fans and musicians alike. Why do you suspect there’s such a divide?
I think the criticism comes when people assume the person asking for support can already afford it; a type of “they don’t even need it” type of response. I never really understood that reaction because it assumes there’s just one pot. But Pledge and Kickstarter are amazing ways to go directly to supporters; it respects and empowers them to support what they want, and that’s an amazing thing. And, maybe it’s good if celebrities have to work for it a bit – maybe it’ll be a reminder of what it was like to duke it out.
The band gets labeled as Americana most of the time, but your live show is infused with all the sweat and guts of a good punk show. Describe your lesser discussed raucous roots and influences.
Joe Strummer is a huge influence. I could (and do, often) stay up til the wee hours watching YouTube clips of Clash live shows from 1979, prancing around the apartment waking people up. We’re still trying to get our audiences to throw elbows like those crowds did.
The video for Sun Gonna Let Me Shine got a lot of attention, especially after Naseem’s eloquent article in Huffington Post. When you were creating it, did you have any idea it would hit home with so many folks?
We thought of it really simply: hey here’s a boy who gets made fun of for wearing a dress, and wouldn’t it be cool if it turned out all the people making fun of him were also wearing dresses? And maybe they were all hanging out in this underground club type of place where they wouldn’t be seen?
It was that simple idea, coupled with the fact that it’d be cool to create something to make this young family member of mine who wears dresses feel alright about it, as it’s become a serious part of his identity. When we made the video, we got a lot of amazing responses from parents saying they were going through the same thing with their kids, and really resonating with it. And sure enough, we also got some good backlash, which basically told us we were doing something right.
Activists, politicians, etc. can pull together compelling testimonies, but in the end it seems like artists lead the charge making social change resonate. What are your thoughts on that?
I’m no statistician, but I bet if you walked around the block with a picture of Beyonce and a picture of Joe Biden, more people would know who she was. And that’s an amazing platform. I still abide by the gospel of Springsteen: “we learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school.”
Can you recall a time when a particular song made you aware of a social issue for the first time?
Back to Bruce. I remember a long time ago singing Born in the USA at a Sox game after a walk-off home run. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time, and I remember being blown away years later when I actually read the lyrics about our treatment of Vietnam vets on their return. And I loved that idea: here were so many people singing along to a song and had no idea what it was about. In the spirit of This Land Is Your Land, the song does a complete reversal when you sit down and soak in the lyrics.
Who are you most excited to see this year at Newport Folk Fest?
I’m really excited about the day we’re playing, particularly Feist and Amanda Palmer. Both amazing live shows in their own way, and challenge the boundaries of ‘folk’ for sure.
What band or artist is your favorite musical discovery of 2013?
The band that has pretty much knocked me off my feet is Lucius. They’ve only put out one EP, but every one of those songs is lodged in my head and not going anywhere. I need them to release something else…this is getting overwhelming.
Kingsley Flood plays the Fort stage at Newport Folk Festival on Friday, July 26 at 2:30 p.m.