Drivin’ n’ Cryin’, Part 1

Ain’t Waitin’ on Tomorrow:
Kevn Kinney Shares His Thoughts on a Rejuvenated Drivin’ n’ Cryin’

During the second half of the 1980s, I’d go see nearly every local show they played. Scarred But Smarter remains one of my favorite albums by an Atlanta band. Even through the mid ’90s, after they’d evolved into a more standard-issue rock band amid some major label ups and downs, they retained my respect.

But after that, I just kinda lost interest. By the turn of the century, it seemed to me that Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ were just treading water, going through the motions, shifting lineups, recording no new music, resigned to playing chili cook-offs and street fairs for inattentive crowds that only really cared about pumping their fists to “Fly Me Courageous” and “Straight to Hell” one more time. It seemed to me that they were trudging down the same path as, say, the latter-day Atlanta Rhythm Section or Georgia Satellites, once strong Atlanta bands now stripped of key members and inspiration, simply carrying on because it pays the bills and they don’t know what else to do.

Then I’d listen to the solo albums Kevn Kinney – who by then had moved to New York City – was releasing during that period, reminding me what a truly gifted songwriter he continues to be, and I’d be baffled as to why he was even keeping the Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ warhorse running, other than income – around the south, at least, the group could still draw throngs of the old faithful.

In 2009 Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ released The Great American Bubble Factory, their first full album in 12 years. A somewhat thematic, Springsteenesque song cycle about blue-collar struggles in the withering economy, it never really gelled for me but it was reassuring to see the band trying again.

Today, three years later, against all expectations, I find myself more psyched about Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ than I’ve been in probably two decades. They’re on a roll right now, recording and releasing a series of stylistically coherent EPs in rapid succession that are some of the best things they’ve ever done. The first, Songs From the Laundromat, mixes bluesy rock with a heartfelt R.E.M. tribute and a cover of a terrific song by emerging Dutch songwriter Tim Knol. The second, Songs About Cars, Space and the Ramones, is even better, six compact jolts of spirited power-pop and reckless punk, including songs originally by Kinney’s pre-DNC Milwaukee band, The Prosecutors. Due in January, Songs From the Psychedelic Time Clock is informed by the folk-rock and garage bands of the ’60s. At least one more EP is in the pipeline a few months after that.

Kinney himself seems genuinely re-energized about the band, too. While in Atlanta recently recording Psychedelic Time Clock amid regional gigs, he stopped by my place for a lengthy Sunday afternoon back porch conversation about all sorts of stuff…

Listening to you talk about your schedule lately, it’s dizzying. Is it always like this – flying back and forth from New York for shows all the time?

“Yeah, it is always like this. Now they have AirTran flying straight to LaGuardia. So it’s not that bad. LaGuardia’s only 15 minutes from my house, so… I just resigned myself to the fact that I have to do it. You know, I gotta take everything that comes. I rarely say no to anything.”

I’ve noticed!

“(laughs) Now I’m just trying to move everything in a better direction. We’ve got a new booking agent – we’re with William Morris now, we got away from the other people we were with for years and years. We’re finally getting better gigs and things like that. And then, working on the Anton [Fier] record [Kinney’s recent album with Fier’s group the Golden Palominos, A Good Country Mile], that was a lot of work – rehearsing every Tuesday, doing a show every Monday, recording on the weekends or whenever we could sneak in, whenever we could get into a studio. It took two years to make it. And that parlayed into the Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ thing [Bubble Factory], and Anton came and produced that, and so, um, you know, I just feel like I’m runnin’ out of time. You know what I mean? I have to get some shit going before I have a stroke, you know! (laughs) It’s definitely comin’, man!”

He says as he smokes a cigarette. So, what does Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ mean to you at this point in your life? I’m sure it doesn’t mean the same as it meant in the early years…

“Well, it’s a lot closer to what it was in the early years, these last couple years. ’Cause with the EP idea, it’s a lot more… um… I’m having more fun with controlling the content of what’s happening. And just having fun as a band. When you start a band, you know, you want it to be fun. You wanna make posters, and just seeing the poster – like, ‘I saw your poster!’ And that’s cool, right? And then you see your name in the Loafing, and all your friends save it for you. ‘I was reading the Loafing and they loved you!’ Whatever, it’s all the little things that got you excited. And pretty much, it kinda wears off a little bit. And then your ego takes over, and then you got tons of people chiming in your ear and all that.”

It looks like you’ve lost some weight.

“I have. Six months ago I decided to push myself as far as getting fit, getting healthier. Like, I was up to 270 pounds. Last Fat Tuesday, me and my friend Scott, I was like, ‘Dude, this is fucking ridiculous! I can’t do this!’ I’m on this diet, and I have a trainer, this guy in Atlanta. When I was in high school I was 300 pounds. And then I became a Prosecutor, the punk rock era, did a lot of speed, and went down to 140, 130, something like that. Lost a hundred and some pounds.”

You don’t necessarily want to go on an amphetamine diet now!

“No, this is 100 percent organic natural diet, outside of the cigarettes and the coffee. I’m also working out, I’m doing a lot more walking, and loading. I’m gonna wait ‘til next Fat Tuesday and then I’m gonna weigh myself again and see what happens. I can’t quite fit into a large Converse shirt yet, but I can actually get into the extra large, so that was an accomplishment for me. I mean, I was just in the XXL racks at Walmart, and I was like, ‘This is ridiculous!’ And it was part of the showbiz thing, you know. I was looking at photos of the band, and there’s me, and I’m like, this has got to be a little bit disappointing for anyone who hasn’t seen Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ in a while. I mean, it’s showbiz. As much as we’re trying to pretend that this is art and shit, part of it’s people remembering who you were, and being excited about who you are, and if you look like you’ve given up, they have to filter that while they’re watching you, and I see a lot of sadness and confusion sometimes when I walk out there. It’s not all as honest as it is in Holland where, like, I’ll get off stage in Holland and they go, ‘Kevn, I must tell you very much that your show tonight was fantastic. Perhaps though maybe you should do some sit-ups.’ (laughs) This guy said that to me after a show! ‘Perhaps maybe you should do some sit-ups.’(laughs) Right on, brother. I totally get you, man.”

You obviously seem significantly reinvigorated now.

“Well, we got this new guitar player, and when we got him… I mean, this has really all been happening in the last seven or eight months. You know, I was overweight, and the band was just…loud. I wanted to go back to the trio formula. But what happened was, the first day we did it as a three-piece, Tim [Nielsen, DNC bass guitarist] brought his friend Sadler [Vaden], he drove him up from Charleston, ’cause Tim moved to Charleston. So [Sadler] sat in with us at the end of the night, and then in the morning we were all having breakfast, and after the breakfast I was like, ‘Hey, we’re on our way to New York…you wanna join the band?’ (laughs) ‘Cause his band had just broken up, ’cause he was moving to Nashville. His band used to open for us – they’re called Leslie. And he was like, ‘Man, I don’t have any clothes.’ I said, ‘We’ll go to Walmart and get you some underwear, and my wife works at G Star, she’ll get you a shirt when we get to New York…’ So he was like, ‘Alright! Let’s go!’ And that’s when I started feeling like…I mean, this kid is really nice, he’s really energetic, and he’s excited about doing it, he’s excited about music, and I’m just in love with him. I just think he’s fantastic. And between him and [drummer] Dave Johnson, you know, they always have a great attitude. They don’t struggle with the demons that me and Tim have. Me and Tim, you know, we’ve been sitting next to each other for 27 years. It’s nice to have some sort of distraction!”

There was quite a break from recording, for Drivin’ n’ Cryin’, prior to The Great American Bubble Factory. You focused more on solo albums, and your Sun Tangled Angel Revival project.

“I didn’t know what else to do with Drivin’ n’ Cryin’. We were still doing some shows, but I lost my voice for two or three years. I had a cyst on my larynx. So it prevented me from speaking. So I couldn’t do interviews, and I kinda dropped out of the circuit. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t do radio, couldn’t make a record. In between Sun Tangled Angel Revival, I think, and Bubble Factory. I like Bubble Factory – I liked it. I don’t listen to it, but I like it. It was great to finally get [former guitarist] Mac [Carter] on a record, because Mac had spent so many years with us, and worked really hard with us, and did a great job. And Dave’s been with us forever. It was a good, you know, mini rock opera of American… because that’s where I grew up. I mean, it’s true to form. I grew up in the land of things that used to be. I spent my entire childhood growing up having my father point to things that used to exist. The factory that used to exist, and the cool deli, and the cool shoe shop, and all that shit. It was all about the past in Milwaukee in the ‘70s. ‘Cause it was just like Newark. It was horrible – cold and closed. It was just closed. Empty shops everywhere. Downtown was totally empty. I used to roam around downtown Milwaukee and you could walk through what was the first shopping mall in America or something like that, this indoor thing. Now it’s pristine, but it used to be bums. So that record kinda got that out of my system, like ‘Here’s the factory record.’ Anton really liked a lot of those [songs]. It was fun to have Anton working with us again. I figured I needed closure with him, as far as the Whisper Tames the Lion record [Drivin’ n’ Cryin’s second album, from 1988], ’cause he felt bad that that was kinda hijacked from us. The band is barely on it – it’s basically me and the Golden Palominos. Which is cool, but it was stressful.”

And it was the band’s first big major label album. What an introduction to the music industry, huh?

“Everything about it was wrong. Kim Buie [then an Island Records A&R rep] wanted us to use Anton, and we liked the Golden Palominos, but Peter Case…it was about that week that we figured out we were getting it, and he was like, ‘My wife just worked with [Fier] – you do not wanna work with him.’ And I was like, ‘Aw, I can handle anything.’ And then it was like, ‘Holy fuck!!’ I’d just had a baby, and I’m up in New York, living in this apartment with the band. I’d worked at enough record stores and newspapers and stuff to know [there are] lots of bands that made one record. Luckily we got to do another one! Because that really should’ve been it, as much of an asshole as we were to Island Records. And we were grandfathered in. We didn’t really even get signed by Island. We got signed by Kim Buie, who was working with Capitol. And then she got fired by Capitol, or quit, but she said, ‘The next record company I get with, I’m gonna bring you with me.’ So she kinda made that part of her condition. So we weren’t really that welcome there. Until we made them some money eventually, you know. So we’d go to Island’s [office] in New York, it happened almost every time – ‘We’re here to see Lou Maglia’ or whoever. ‘Oh, we’re not signing bands right now.’ It’s like, ‘OK, but we’re [on the label].’ ‘Alright, well, have a seat.’ (laughs) You know, they weren’t like, ‘Drivin’ n’ Cryin’s in the house!’ It was like, ‘And you are…?’ Just like that Saturday Night Live skit. (laughs) So it was always a humbling experience. The best thing about going to Island Records was so you could see Keith Richards’ wife walking the dog, ‘cause he lived in the same building there, 4th and Broadway or whatever.”

Now you’ve started your own label for these EPs, New! Records, putting them out yourself.

“Seven months, eight months ago, I just wanted to start my own little label, I wanna make these EPs. I wanna sell ‘em for five dollars at shows. I started with Songs From the Laundromat, ‘cause that’s the name of the fold-out in Scarred But Smarter. If you get the lyric sheet from the original Scarred But Smarter, it’s called ‘Songs from the Laundromat,’ and then all the lyrics are in there. So I was like, let’s go back and, you know, go in and do a session, and keep it simple. But I’m gonna plan all these out so… I have a list of songs on my door, of song titles that I either wanted to work on, or songs I forgot about, and every day, leaving my house in Brooklyn, it’s like, ‘OK,’ and I check off the ones that I did. I’m tryin’ to group ‘em together where they make a little sense. So I’m getting down there. I’m gonna start cleaning out the closet, I’m gonna start writing a lot, and keep it going, and do this EP thing where I’m constantly working. I hate to throw the word Beatles out there, because it’s become irrelevant to ever use the Beatles as a reference point. But those Beatles records, they didn’t spend six months on ‘Paperback Writer.’ If you look at those track sheets, it’s probably Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, mixed it on Friday, and then they would release it. They’d have the record out.”

Sure, and two to three albums a year in the early years. A lot of acts did that then, it was more the norm.

“It was also all part of their panic mode that they’d be forgotten, you know. If you don’t make a record in two years, they’re gonna totally forget you. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I decided that I wasn’t the kind of person that needed eight months to make a record. I don’t have anything that orchestrated in my head to do. I’m just really off the cuff. I like it raw and fast and fresh and done.”

Did you feel like Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ were in a sort of rut?

“I mean, we don’t ever do the same show twice, ‘cause we don’t do setlists, you know, but it’s got a formula, kinda, to it, where it’s gonna crescendo with this, [and] it has to end with ‘Straight to Hell’ or the bar owner gets mad. ‘Cause if we do it first, then people will leave. Now we’re trying to do different types of shows where we don’t have to do it. We’re evolving our way into where we can open with it, or it isn’t our chain… What I’d like to do next year is do more residency things. Like maybe do the EARL once a month for three months or something, where I kind of deconstruct us a little bit. You don’t get ‘Straight to Hell’ or ‘Fly Me Courageous’ in those bars. I’m never gonna play it in there. There’s no reason to. I think I did it on my birthday for Peter [Buck], but Peter loves it.”

If I were Peter, having to play ‘Losing My Religion’ at every show for God knows how many shows, I think I’d understand wanting a break from it.

“Well, I think when you have like a working class kind of background, and you have paid money to see bands…like if I go see Aerosmith tonight, and they don’t play anything but their new record, is that cool, or is that not cool? Well, I think it’s cool if they play the EARL and it’s seven dollars and they just do Booboo, or whatever that record was, Kissin’ Booboo? [Ed. noteHonkin’ on Bobo]. But if my girl wants to see ‘em and I’m payin’ $60, then I better hear some ‘Sweet Emotion,’ I ain’t lyin’ to ya. So I’m always torn between what’s cool and what’s not cool, and how much did they pay to get in. So, this is what I’ve been talking about, is to redo us – don’t do the show where we charge $20 to get in. The Tabernacle show we’re doing in December was booked before, and it’s gonna be great.”

Continue to Part 2