To say that Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin are a band might seem like a simple, straightforward statement. Far from it. It's nearly written into the collective consciousness that individually successful artists group themselves into bands loosely, with an air of impermanence. Needless to say, these three—accomplished in their own rights as artists, songwriters and musicians, wholeheartedly casting their fortunes together since 2003—don't fit the profile.
Then there's the fact that Kieran, Kevin and Fats fool freely with the organic properties of band-dom. Where simple musical math dictates that adding a band member will increase how loud and busy you sound, they add a fourth (Kieran's son Lucas) and simplify. Add to that refreshingly unorthodox, unscripted instrumentation (i.e. no bass or piano and Fat's tendency to play whatever's lying around) and two distinct songwriting flavors (Kieran's and Kevin's) united by a fluid, rhythmic pulse that give way to an intoxicating oil-and-vinegar-like effect.
In a loud-and-clear reassertion of band cohesion, the third Kane Welch Kaplin album is self-titled. "Pretty clever huh?" says Kevin. "We want people to finally understand that we're a band, not just three solo artists playing for the hell of it."
If 2004's You Can't Save Everybody trafficked in loose-jointed, fiddle-bowing simplicity, and 2006's Lost John Dean (which topped the Americana chart and earned an Americana Music Association nomination for duo/group of the year) showed a primal groove-centeredness, then Kane Welch Kaplin—self-produced and painted with the group's trademark folk-country-blues palette—spans the visceral to the ethereal, wringing richness out of both extremes. (And—speaking of painting—the surrealistic images on all three album covers are the work of Kieran's paintbrush. "I'll do anything to get out of a photo shoot," he laughs.)
Throughout the 12 tracks, Kieran's and Kevin's songwriting voices are held in sharp relief. On songs like "Ain't Gonna Do It" and "Callin' You" Kieran molds words into rawboned blues incantations—a rhythmic hypnosis sometimes accomplished by only two chords. "It seems to me that Kieran is really working on minimizing and paring it down," Kevin observes. "I've been watching him do this for years. I love seeing him do it. It's very purposeful." Kevin's "I Wish I Had That Mandolin" and "Last Lost Highway" are the epitome of evocative, finely crafted story-songs. "I think it gives relief to people in some way, in that there are two different voices happening and two different approaches to songs," remarks Kieran. "I think it makes the shows sort of interesting, because it all comes together somehow."
Intuition and groove hold everything together, both on stage and in the studio with the group's invigorating, live, seat-of-the-pants approach to recording, not unlike the vibrant, freewheeling precision of jazz improvisation. "There's kind of a simpatico, almost telepathic way that we can play together that's unlike anything else," Fats says.
Moving between electric, steel and acoustic guitar, fiddle and electric sitar, Fats adds perfectly placed kinetic color and melodic counterpoint. "Fats is the other us," remarks Kevin. "We throw out musical suggestions as we're playing, kind of like clearing your throat or raising an eyebrow. There are little nuance-y conversations going on. Fats is probably the only guy that we could have added to that mix without it interrupting that."
Lucas Kane eased effortlessly into the role of the group's unobtrusive yet unfailing heartbeat, using only a minimal setup (floor tom, hi-hat and cymbal). "A typical drumkit seems like overkill when you can get so much out of so little," he says. "What Lucas does is so subtle and yet so incredibly musical and rhythmic," Kieran comments. "He gets a phenomenal amount of energy out of one note. The fact, oddly enough, is that we added another person but there's actually less going on. He's the drummer I've been looking for all my life, really."
The primitive throbbing of "Dark Boogie #7"—a riff on a mentally ill murderer born out of a jam session of sorts—makes the contrast with the album's quieter moments all the more captivating. A lonely wind blows through Kieran's spare banjo-and-steel ballad, "Red Light Blinking," and life and art merge within the intense hush of Kevin's "Last Lost Highway"— written about a dear friend who took his own life—and a cover of Washington Phillips' "What Are They Doin' In Heaven Today?" "That was kind of an exercise in keeping my throat open, you know how you can get if you get emotional and your throat starts locking up on you?," Kevin says of the gospel tune that he sang at Kieran's suggestion. "I lost my mom in October. That's the thing about being really good friends, because I was with both those guys at gigs when they lost their moms. The same thing happened for me."
As Kane Welch Kaplin shows, this is a band with a strong enough foundation to support a wide range of feeling in one batch of songs. "I think the record sounds more austere and a little darker, maybe kind of reflective, looking back on things, life," suggests Fats. "I mean, we're all getting older."
"I think that albums should be true, by-God snapshots of who you are at the time, without
trying to pretend like you're somewhere else or somebody else," says Kevin. "You know,
it's the word ‘record'—it's a record of what was going on at the time. Maybe we'll make a
surf record next time we go in because we'll all be into that."
Kane Welch Kaplin
Lost John Dean
You Can't Save Everybody