Humor is a fairly rare commodity in pop music, in part because artists who display even a modicum of it are often dismissed as wannabe comedians. Such is the lot of the Kiss Offs, a group that dares to spice its spritely sound with, of all things, entertainment value.
"We definitely don't want to be written off as a novelty," says Travis Higdon, the band's guitarist. "We want to make songs that are meaningful in some respect, without them seeming pretentious. But even though we write songs about really basic rock-and-roll topics, like sex and drinking and having fun, there is a lot of wordplay. So I guess you could say we've been damaged by our liberal-arts educations."
Hardly. Higdon, guitarist Phillip Niemeyer and bassist Gavin Scott may have picked up plenty of useless information while attending the University of Texas, but neither they nor their cohorts, drummer Dwayne Barnes and keyboardist Katey Jones, feel compelled to rub their listeners' noses in it. On Goodbye Private Life, their ultra-likable debut CD for Peek-a-Boo Records (which Higdon founded), the players serve up over a dozen danceable, good-timey slabs of indie-rock thrills slathered with a layer of white-hot irony. During "Never Been Kissed," the boys warn Jones that they want to be "in your underwear" before declaring, "I'm your marionette," like lost members of ABBA. Later, on "Hey Cowboy," Jones propositions a handsome Tex with the deadpan challenge "Aren't you still a man?" while "Rock St. Augustine" finds her asking an even more amusing question--"Are you down with O.P.P.?"--against a backdrop of fuzzy guitars and whining faux Farfisa.
Musically, the band specializes in retro-cool, with "Looking Through" suggesting garagey Stereolab and "The Kiss That Kills," a number highlighted by the inspirational sentiment "Oh, shit! Now I'm in love!" juxtaposing a wall-o'-feedback intro with a chugging spy-rock beat. This approach has led to plenty of comparisons with the B-52s and other new-wave acts, and that's okay by Higdon. "That seems pretty accurate to me," he says. "We listen to a whole lot of Sixties, Seventies and Eighties records. New Order is constantly in rotation on our tape deck, and Phillip is a huge fan of the Fall, Dwayne is really into goth, and I've been listening to a lot of glam rock lately, like David Bowie and T. Rex. Basically, we're all huge record fans, and the songs we write change depending on what we're into at the time."
Like Jimmy LaFave (page 79), the Kiss Offs are based in Austin, but whereas LaFave is part of the roots movement associated with performers such as Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Higdon and company are more closely aligned with the scene on Sixth Street, where college-agers congregate in dank, homey clubs to hear post-punk combos. Higdon and Scott first made a reputation in this environment with the 1-4-5s, which Higdon describes as "kind of a joke band. It was really goofy." Niemeyer, for his part, was in the Teen Titans, another group whose personnel saw no reason not to turn their frowns upside down--and when it faltered around the same time that the 1-4-5s went down for the count, the three joined forces with fellow undergrounders Jones and Barnes to form the Kiss Offs. After a handful of practice sessions, the quintet developed a style in which silliness was an important ingredient but not the dominant flavor.
"Before, we never really thought we could do anything serious," Higdon confirms. "It was more making fun of the music that we love. But once we saw that people were paying attention and we could actually make music and make records for real, we were able to get a little more serious--but not totally serious. I'd say we got just serious enough."
Higdon tries to strike the same balance with Peek-a-Boo, which he created in 1995 as an outlet for the 1-4-5s. Today he has nearly twenty singles in his catalogue, including releases by Spoon, an outfit that was previously signed to both Elektra and Matador, and the Prima Donnas, who are more commonly associated with Kill Rock Stars, the home of Sleater-Kinney ("The Hype Report," October 15, 1998). Peek-a-Boo has also issued four full-lengths by the likes of Houston's Junior Varsity and Austin's Silver Scooter, a previous Westword profile subject ("Let It Ride," April 9, 1998). Along the way, Higdon has learned that there's no quicker way to piss away cash than by running a label. "This is a labor of love first, and secondly an unprofitable business," he says. "That's why you really have to examine your reasons for getting involved in something like it. If you want to make money, do something else. But I've made a real point of trying to approach it as a business. My main job is doing Web design, but I take one day off a week to devote to Peek-a-Boo, and I think that's really paid off. I'm not in the black yet, but I'm getting closer, and every year, I learn from my mistakes. And because I do things cooperatively, it turns out to be a good deal for everyone.
"I see this as a really good outlet for Texas bands," he adds. "It's possible that we might put out something by a band that's not from here someday, but right now it's hard enough to put out all the music from Texas that I like. If it comes down to picking between a good Texas band and a good band from somewhere else, I'll always put out the records from the bands close to home."
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Peek-a-Boo, assisted by the Boulder-based firm Fanatic Promotion, has had good luck getting its products airplay on college radio stations nationwide. But according to Higdon, "College radio doesn't really sell records. It certainly helps, because the right people are hearing them. But since there's just not enough of them, the best way to sell records is by going on tour." Hence, the Kiss Offs have tried to spend as much time on the road as possible, despite a series of catastrophes that go well beyond the typical we-ran-out-of-gas-in-the-middle-of-nowhere tales. En route to Albuquerque, Niemeyer sucked down so many exhaust fumes while riding in the back of the combo's 1960 Cadillac hearse that he subsequently passed out in a restaurant--"and the locals didn't seem to care," Higdon says. "They were stepping over his body to get to the salsa bar. He had to spend the night in the hospital." Barnes had to do likewise after setting his hand on fire in a misguided attempt to add some pizzazz to a show. And then there was Higdon's near-electrocution in Boise, Idaho.
"The place we were playing was more of a punk house than a club," he remembers, "and little did we know that the p.a. was ungrounded. So when I grabbed hold of the mike to introduce the band, I completed the circuit. I fell to the floor, and all my muscles contracted--and I couldn't let go of either the microphone or the guitar. I just laid there thinking, 'I'm going to die in front of all my friends,' for what felt like five minutes before they finally realized what was going on and sprang to my help. Everyone who touched me got shocked, and when Gavin finally managed to wrench the guitar from me, that transferred the surge to him, and we all had to kick the guitar away from him. Afterward, we were all so freaked out that we didn't play the show--and we'd just spent fourteen hours driving to get there."
Such experiences would convince most performers to stick close to home, but not the Kiss Offs, who are looking forward to roaming more of America this spring and summer. If Higdon is feeling fatalistic about these journeys, he doesn't let on. "We keep figuring that there's got to be a karma flip sometime soon," he says. "When bad things happen, you can either give up or you can laugh. And we prefer to laugh."
The Kiss Offs, with Dressy Bessy and the Down-N-Outs. 9 p.m. Saturday, June 12, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $6, 303-572-0822.