Meet Kaji: The Secret R&B Project of Former Metalhead Kevin Gentry

For a year and a half, Kaji was mostly a secret band that singer Kevin Gentry was developing. Kaji’s debut show, on January 30, 2015, at Syntax Physic Opera, unveiled a fully formed project, with guest musicians and backup singers. Without any official promotion, just word of mouth among friends, the band drew a capacity audience. “One of the things about this project is that I want to keep it really secretive and mysterious, because it’s more fun that way,” says Gentry. “I didn’t tell anyone I was working on this, not even close friends. I think everything that Kaji is going to put out and do is going to be exciting and worth talking about.”

On February 10, Kaji released its debut album, Pedal Rose. Gentry has described the music as “alternative funk,” but the band’s efforts are worthy of much more than just a short genre designation. Musically, the sound is closer to old R&B with the energy of funk — but the music itself is part of a larger aesthetic concept, one that makes use of Gentry’s extensive experience in video and visual art.

Kaji’s multi-disciplinary approach extends to its collaborative elements. Gentry believes that inspiration sparks further inspiration, and that when talents combine, greater things come out of the mix. Still, the band’s roots and primary inspirations come from Gentry’s own experiences.

For several years, Gentry played in metal bands of various stripes. The most recent was Anchorage, but Gentry’s ideas about what he wanted to do with music were increasingly at odds with what the band was doing. He wanted to express something meaningful, and he felt like that goal got lost in Anchorage’s emphasis on technical prowess.

“Where I wanted to get challenged was in getting my message across,” says Gentry. “I guess I wasn’t feeling that people were excited for the right reasons listening to the music. I didn’t like the culture around it as much. I didn’t like the fights and the angriness.”

After leaving Anchorage, Gentry became a prolific songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, writing and recording thirty or forty songs before bringing in other musicians to help develop his ideas and turn a solo project into a band. Furthermore, his ideas about what music should be were evolving.
“What music is to me is a relationship between the music and the listener, and if that’s disconnected in some way, it’s like making love: You’re making love with a partner instead of with yourself,” explains Gentry. “I wasn’t taking the listener into consideration before. With technical metal, the technicality is crazy, and with the listener that is interested in that stuff, it translates, but that’s not how I wanted to relate my message. The music I was making at that time was closed-minded music. I think it’s cocky to think you’re making the best music you can make without taking feedback into consideration. To me, that’s really selfish.”

An early intended audience for Kaji’s music was Gentry’s future fiancée. He’d started writing the music for Pedal Rose with the intention of proposing to her with it. That might seem like a quaint romantic notion in this cynical era, but there’s nothing saccharine about the final product. It is touching and highly imaginative. There was just one terrible stumbling block to the plan.

“I was in the middle of writing the album, and my fiancée got really sick,” Gentry says. “She had transverse myelitis. It’s an inflammation in your spinal cord, and a large portion of your body goes numb because it damages your nerves. She had to go to the hospital, and we were in there for three or four days trying to figure out what it was and making sure it didn’t get worse. One of the things about transverse myelitis is that you can develop multiple sclerosis. Unfortunately, it’s not a curable disease. She has to take medicine and has to have MRIs every six months, and it’s very labor-intensive for her. She’s a painter.

“Being in the hospital pushed me, and I wrote a couple of songs [there],” continues Gentry. “I asked her to marry me after she got better so she could enjoy the experience. It was on the roof of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.”

At last check, Gentry’s fiancée had recovered 90 percent of her pre-illness capacity. Current medical science says it’s doubtful that she will ever regain her full strength, but this fact has, in some ways, put the wind behind Gentry and his creative pursuits.

Almost as if on a mission to finish the album he’d written for her, he gathered together some of his favorite musicians to play on the record, including keyboard and guitar playerDan Ha, who was in Honor the Fallen; drummer Taylor Hamill; and former Anchorage guitarist JJ Powell (who plays bass in Kaji). The diversity of musical interests among all of the musicians could be part of the reason its sound is difficult to pigeonhole. To be fair, though, genre is not the project’s focus.

“One of the cool things about Kaji is that it’s a story and a persona,” explains Gentry. “I wanted to create a character around it and a backstory.”

One of his inspirations is director Christopher Nolan and his method of bringing in talented artists to help create a stronger product.

“One thing around everything I’ve tried to do is [informed in part by hearing] bands say, ‘Come to our shows’ or ‘Buy the ticket,’” says Gentry. “If they’re not buying the ticket, they don’t like it; your vision’s not there. Work on that; don’t work on trying to sell the tickets. A lot of movies are like that, and they’re shit. With Nolan people anticipate it, and they’re excited about it. They put in the time to go. I want to create something like that.”

For their part, Gentry and his collaborators in Kaji — which include visual artists such as Daniel Evan Garza, who designed the band’s logo, and photographer Enrique Parrilla, who has helped to establish the band’s visual representation — want the project to be unique. Gentry also wants every Kaji show to be a special experience; to that end, the act won’t always play in dive bars, because that doesn’t work with the concept of keeping things secretive and building anticipation. The iterations of the band can also vary, from Gentry playing solo to a four-piece to an extended lineup with guest musicians, and with each performance, Gentry hopes to create a memorable experience for everyone involved. This means that even when he’s playing solo, the show will be a collaborative process, on and off stage, because collaboration and engagement are a part of his mindset.

“If you don’t think you can learn from someone, you’re not growing,” he says. “And you can always learn from someone. Collaborating with someone, you can learn from what they have to offer and apply it to what you’re doing.”

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.