Kaki King Interview

Kaki King is an exceptional and noteworthy solo instrumental guitarist playing her own tunes. She's touring in support of her first album Everybody Loves You. We caught up with her in San Francisco, on one of those awesome warm sunny February days that are more springtime that winter. She'd played the historic Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco as an opening act the night before, and had a day off for some sightseeing before her show the next day across the Bay in Berkeley. Kaki had seen Coit Tower, Fisherman's Wharf, had a chance to marvel at the Gay Marriages going on at City Hall, and was planning on checking out China Town and North Beach before day's end. We sat down at a Brazilian Cafe for lunch, which included Kaki whistling along to the melody from Jobim's standard "Girl From Ipanema," which wheezed out of the restaurant's dusty speakers during the meal. Her mood was cheery and bright, like the warm sunny day outside.

Better Propaganda Editor Terbo Ted talks to Kaki King

Better Propaganda: So how would you describe Kaki King to somebody? If they didn't know anything about you.

Kaki King: The music?

Better Propaganda: Or you.

KK: Or me? (pause) Well, I'm very small and I play very large guitars. (laughter)

Better Propaganda: You make a lot of big sound though. What's it like for you, you have an album out, you're on tour, you have a big publicity firm in New York, you know, calling everybody for you, what's that like?

KK: It's fun! I never started playing acoustic guitar solo because I wanted to get to this kind of point. I think because of that, I've been pleasantly surprised at, you know, all the things that have happened, and an album coming out, and the success it's been booked. The fact that a lot of people have taken notice of something that's off the beaten track has been great.

Better Propaganda: I have to tell you. We got your CD in our office, you know, we hear tons of music in our office all the time, not much of it even sticks, you know. And I just heard it across the office, and I was listening to it- and I listen to a lot of different kinds of music- and I'm thinking "COOL SAMPLES! Who's got that metal thing? They're sampling some kind of metal thing." And then it occurred to me that it was GUITAR. I mean, You're doing some really out there stuff. I mean, your technique is out there, your sound is out there, what's that feel like?

KK: I mean, it sounds... Like for me, I've been doing it for so long, it doesn't really feel so out there, I'm not like intentionally trying to show off, or to do something that's just COOL looking or a difficult technique, it actually all has a practical purpose. So, when I do some of the extended technique fingering, or use the guitar as a drum,'s like a culmination of many years of just playing music, and applying it to one instrument. I think too, doing what I do sort of enables me to have, you know, to put together a show with just one instrument, rather than having... using different techniques on multiple instruments and having a band.

Better Propaganda: There aren't many people that can hold a stage with just one instrument.

KK: Oh, there actually are.

Better Propaganda: Who would you look to, if you were to see one person on stage with one instrument?

KK: Well, there's so many great singers, and...

Better Propaganda: But they need a band, you know?

KK: Nah, like Richard Thompson I've seen play. And Shawn Colvin, that's all she does I think, I don't think she ever tours with a band much.

Better Propaganda: But she's still singing.

KK: Yeah, and she's a great guitar player. I feel like there's a lot of people who could easily just get up and... people like Elliot Smith, you know God bless his soul. Mark Kozelek from the Red House Painters, and, you know... I've seen some, I feel like I've seen some people who front bands, and then they go back and they just take their guitar and go on tour. It's so beautiful what they do, because it's all so stripped down and naked. So I think it's not, you know, it's not that uncommon,'s not THAT scary. At the same time, most people do have a band. Most people I play with have a band. So, for me to be playing with other people in their context, and not have a band myself, it does set me apart.

Better Propaganda: You played with the Blue Man Group for awhile.

KK: Yeah!

Better Propaganda: What was that like?

KK: That was great!

Better Propaganda: You didn't shave your head?

KK: No, I was in the band, so I didn't have to do any of that. (laughter) But I did have to wear- you know- this crazy glow in the dark costume and paint my face in these weird colors every night, so that was a trip.

Better Propaganda: Would you ever build your Kaki King thing into a bigger performance thing like that was?

KK: Well, I've been doing this side project with this drummer, and it's not- by any means- like the Blue Man thing, but it's still instrumental. But ...the scope of it's a little bigger, it's a little louder. It's interesting, being a person that's never been particularly interested in live theater, and sort of got the audition for the job and they gave it to me, and I was just psyched to have a job really (laughter). But having spent a year and a half like learning about theater and understanding certain things just from being around it, kind of has helped me understand what performing is about, on a different level.

Better Propaganda: There's a respect for an audience you get when you're on the stage.

KK: It's not just that, I mean- because I've been performing for a long time before Blue Man even was- playing solo guitar. But in terms of the sort of theatrics of it, you know, there is the fourth wall. You know, and it's all about being this performer, it's all about breaking that down. But it's still there, and that like there is this separation between the artist and the audience, and you have to sort of respect that, but also be able to break through it.

Better Propaganda: You're quoted somewhere as saying that you like to seduce your audience. How does that work?

KK: Well I think, you know, I mean, it's getting a little easier as the name gets out there, a few more people know about it. But, for a long time, I was just opening for pretty big crowds, and no one had any idea who I was. And, to be a girl, and to get up there with a guitar, everyone makes an assumption about you, before you even start playing. So it's kind of about convincing people to listen to you for that first initial ten minutes. Either they're going to get pulled in or they're not, you know. So you pull the people in that you can. But there's sort of like that crucial moment, where you're in front of all these strangers, who have no idea who you are, or what you're going to do, and you have to sort of say, "okay, here's what I do, I play instrumental guitar music, and it's going to be this way for the next 45 minutes, and, you know, at the same time, you're going to love me, you know (laughter) I think it's fine."

Better Propaganda: You talked about being a woman. It's funny, I was trying to go over in my mind, instrumental solo acoustic guitar players, and pretty much the only names I could even come up with are either long gone, or classical, you know, playing someone else's compositions. So, not only are there- as far as I can tell- hardly anyone in 2004, you know, playing solo acoustic guitar music, but let alone women, I mean, thats...

KK: Well, I mean, yeah, there actually are, but it's a genre that had it's heyday, and now it's, you know, faded into something else. There's a lot of men, older men out there, who are playing in this style. And I think honestly, I don't feel the gender gap as nearly much as I do the generation gap. People who are real musicians, they don't ever give a shit, you know. Once all the bullshit is cleared, and once you're past the point where you have to look cool or you have to you know, be in whatever scene, either you can play or you can't, and that's how you're judged. So, for me, it's really not about being a girl, it's about having all of my inspiration, at least for this, what I do, be old enough to be my DAD and older. And when I meet them, and I talk to these guys, that's more of a barrier than, "oh, I'm female, you're a male." When I meet players my own age, I don't ever really feel that, because obviously people recognize, okay, either you can play or you can't, and so I don't seem to have a problem there. (laughter)

Better Propaganda: You're talking about a generational gap. I mean, most of the people your age would be picking up a turntable or a sampler, or they have a little maze of effects on the floor, you know a bunch of cables and stuff. And you're not doing anything like that, it would probably be harder for one of your peers to relate to older people with their music than what you're doing.

KK: Yeah, probably. Like a lot of older people do come and see my show, because they remember when Michael Hedges was huge, they remember when like Windham Hill was like a huge record label and putting out tons of great records. And that was, you know, fifteen, twenty years ago now. But at the same time, there are a lot of young people who are like really turned on by what I do, and kind of excited to, you know, just to see something that for them that they've never seen before. For me, it's not as ground breaking, because I am listening to a lot of older players, and being influenced by them. And obviously, I'm trying to- out of that somewhere- find my own voice.

I don't know though, I don't think that young people in music are given enough credit, because I know tons of people who just are like straight up jazz players, and they just went to college and they studied jazz, they studied, they got really intense on something that is sort of an older art form. Me myself, I played bass and drums in loud pop bands forever, and you know, still love that and still do that, but I think that you can play with your samplers and your turntables, and you can still have a great appreciation for anything.

Better Propaganda: So it's again interesting how you're talking about how you're connecting with an older generation with your sound. And a point I wanted to make was that at the recent Grammys, one of the themes was how music has the ability to unify people...

KK: Yeah.

Better Propaganda: ... [it] brings people together when it works right. In your music, you've got a lot of accolades from like country people, and jazz people, and rock musicians, urban scenesters, improvisational people, experimental musicians. There's a lot of crossover there you don't normally see...

KK: Yeah.

Better Propaganda: So you are unifying people with music, what does that feel like?

KK: It feels really good. The way I feel about what I do, I really was not intent on (pause)

Better Propaganda: We're talking about unifying people...

KK: Yeah yeah, well no, I really wasn't like intent on doing this as a career when I started, because that's just something that you don't really... Being a musician, you're a player no matter what, you know. You play for yourself, and for whomever you would like, you don't need a record deal or anything else to be a musician. It is nice to... I don't know, I'd like to go further with it. I'd like to not just be like "oh, you know, she's this prodigy that's sort of ripping off all of these older people." Because for a lot of people, like if you don't know about these older generation, everyone's like "wow, it's amazing, that's like the newest thing ever." And I know it's not. I mean, I know where I got it from, and I know where I learned from, and I think that you know, like hopefully, like every guitarist and every... you don't think you're in this "sounds like category" until you really mature, and I'm trying to do that.

Better Propaganda: Somewhere I read that you used to do some street busking.

KK: Yeah!

Better Propaganda: What was that like?

KK: Oh, it was tough, man.

Better Propaganda: You made some money doing it?

KK: Yeah. It was after 9/11, and I'd just gotten my degree, and I had like no idea what to do, like NO IDEA, and New York was INSANE. Anyway, there wasn't really much hope of like going out and finding a job, the city's been like going through all of this crazy stuff, so... But I'd been there for three years, and I didn't want to just like move back home, just because some scary stuff had happened. So, to make money, I played in the subway.

Better Propaganda: Right on. So what are you going to do after the tour?

KK: Make an album.

Better Propaganda: How will that be different from the one you just did?

KK: I don't know. Remains to be seen.

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