Band of Steel

Don't tug on Superman's cape: Deita Quantrill (left), Gemma Cullingford, Nikki Colk and Dave Lake.

Let's get this out of the way right off: Norwich, England's KaitO is not named after Inspector Clouseau's butler from the Pink Panther series. Nor is it named after the Green Hornet's sidekick/valet from the mid-'60s television series, or any other American pop-culture icon, for that matter. That said, the KaitO in question, while ostensibly named after a character from a Japanese comic book, seems to have a lot more in common with a certain caped crusader.

The comic-book connection makes sense. The band -- singer/guitarist Nikki Colk and bassist Gemma Cullingford (the fairer half of the foursome), guitarist Dave Lake and drummer Dieta Quantrill -- is on a trajectory that paralells that of most comic-book superheroes. A hapless underdog protagonist lets curiosity get the best of his experimentation, something goes awry, madly haywire, and the genteel, unsuspected day-jobber morphs into a headline-grabbing, force-to-be-reckoned-with nightcrawler.

After 2002's South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, Time Out New York named KaitO "the band to watch in 2003." Rolling Stone was impressed enough to include the act in a "Four Bands That Took Austin's SXSW by Storm" feature alongside Pretty Girls Make Graves and Kinski.

Yet by day, the band is still under the gainful employ, if not the watchful eye, of The Man. Its members are a photographic assistant, a waitress, a structural engineer and a farmer. Yeah, no shit -- a farmer: When not slinging an ax on stage, guitarist Lake can be found flinging mud in a sty as he "looks over pigs," Colk says.

According to Cullingford, their employers are flexible and forgiving when it comes time for the group to hit the road for weeks at a time. Nevertheless, some co-workers and hometown folks just don't understand what it means to be in a band.

"They still don't [get it]. People in Norwich, you know -- apart from the really small underground things -- a lot of people, even other bands and stuff, haven't heard us," says Cullingford. "No one at my work has heard of us. Unless you've been on the local radio station -- you could be on Radio One, the big one in England -- but if you're not on the little local one, then they don't believe you. They think that if I'm in a band, doing all of these things that bands do, then why am I still a waitress?"

Why was Clark Kent still a reporter? He was fucking Superman, after all.

When asked if the players think about quitting their day jobs, Colk doesn't hesitate to respond: "Gosh yes! That's what we've got to be able to do. That's the part where we talked about getting successful. We want to be able to get to the level where we can just write really good records and tour. And now, suddenly, we've got all this attention, and it's really exciting."

Then again, she adds, "It's quite a lot of pressure. It's really good, because you think, we can go on to something better. We can be in a band full-time and keep touring. Because we really love touring."

KaitO first donned its cape in late 1996, when Colk and Lake met and discovered a mutual love for dissonant noisy pop music à la Sonic Youth. Colk met Cullingford when they were both working in a bar and, after trying out a bass player and drummer who didn't quite fit, asked her to join the band on the four-string. Cullingford brought along Quantrill, and the band was born.

The quartet built a name for itself in the underground by releasing a series of seven-inch singles and touring relentlessly, both at home and in the United States. By 2001, it had recorded and released its debut full-length, You've Seen Us...You Must Have Seen Us, on Devil in the Woods in the U.S. and Fierce Panda in the U.K. Because of the time the group has spent here (the North American tour kicked off this month is its fourth) and the bands it has previously gigged with -- Clinic, the Datsuns, Polyphonic Spree, Imperial Teen and, just last October, the Apples in Stereo - KaitO has developed quite a Stateside buzz.

In fact, it was the opening slot on the Apples in Stereo tour that brought the band to the attention of spinART Records. Specifically, the foursome caught the attention of the Apples' Robert Schneider, who thought it would be a good fit for the label, which the Denver expatriates currently call home.

"The singer from the Apples said, 'You've got to see these guys!" says Colk. "It's great, because people are able to buy our records now. People can find them." This clears the first major hurdle for an underground band trying to make it. Still, it's probably not a stretch to posit that KaitO won't remain in full underground mode much longer.

This time out, the act is touring in support of its newest collection of experimental noise pop, Band Red. Released by spinART this past May, the long-player blends melodic guitar dissonance, found sounds and Colk's warm but affected vocals into a concoction of post-punk that recalls Blonde Redhead and Deerhoof while traveling down the road paved by Sonic Youth over two decades ago.

Before the year is out, it's safe to expect that more than one mainstream music publication will attempt to include KaitO on a girl-boy garage-rock revival platter that includes the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Kills. But any such hasty spreads should be avoided like a day-old seafood buffet, because KaitO's combination of energetic and aggressive noise is more apt to come from the art studio than the garage.

And if the American press stands up and takes notice, fishwraps across the pond are sure to be all over KaitO's jack, right? Wrong. Like the superhero who goes completely unrecognized by cloaking himself in a pair of glasses, the quartet's talent has not generated any praise at home. Then again, it's doubtful that Superman returned to Krypton to great fanfare or that Aquaman played grand marshal in any mermaid parades.

Colk notes that the arbiter of hipster music taste in the U.K., the New Musical Express, has been as reluctant to veer away from the usual subjects -- Radiohead, Blur, Coldplay - as it is to feature female or co-ed bands such as hers. As such, the magazine's current infatuation with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs has her optimistic.

If nothing else, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs may help the outfit make a name for itself in its homeland and step to a shackle-free future existence. "It's pretty cool, because there's not a heck of a lot of English bands that have as much energy as they've got," says Colk, who points out that the New York band's success has been "very inspiring. It's a real breath of fresh air."

When forced to hang a label on its sound, KaitO chooses "post-punk pop." It's an aesthetic of "happy accidents" and sonic freedom, according to Colk, a self-taught musician. "Somebody probably showed me how to play a barre chord at one time," she says, but beyond that limited tutelage, she simply picked up tunes by ear and started playing what sounded good to her. She doesn't have a "set way of doing things," such as a classically trained musician might have, which allows her and her mates the freedom to create outside of any conventions or boundaries.

It's that willingness to try anything that leads to KaitO's melodic collage through layers of found sound. It lets the musicians look at the tools of their trade in new ways. "Whatever objects are lying around, we'll experiment with," explains Colk. As a vocalist who points to the Kinks' Ray Davies as a big influence, she's not afraid to consider her voice an instrument; to her, it's just another sound in the mix and not necessarily a focal point for the music. (That notion is backed up by a perusal of Band Red's lyric sheet: Most of the songs rely on stream-of-consciousness nonsense, and Colk affirms that the words are generally made up without an intentional message.)

But that doesn't mean that the parts don't come together as a greater whole: For eleven tracks, they most certainly do. And for KaitO, it all comes together quite naturally.

According to Colk, she and her bandmates relish the songwriting process. "That's just the thing: If we had the time, we could probably write tons of records, because these things just fly out. They create themselves."

Just as a pair of bifocals can be shed in a phone booth and superpowers instantly gained, the members of KaitO are looking to ditch the trappings of a workaday life and unleash their muse onto the world, to do only good and fight every evil.

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