by Sam Robinson
Only a few weeks ago, Seattle band Kings Kaleidoscope released their second live EP, Live in Focus. Containing a suite of tracks from their wonderful album of last year, Becoming Who We Are, Live in Focus features the band at their live best. I caught up with lead singer Chad Gardner a few days ago to find out more about Live in Focus, how the project was recorded, and what the band has in the pipelines for 2015.
SAM: Chad, we haven’t talked since Becoming Who We Are came out. It’s done big things – five-star reviews, it was the Reel Gospel Album of the Year for 2014. How have you felt the album has been received across the last six months?
CHAD: I’m definitely very encouraged. It’s a hard question to answer simply. On the one hand, I’m really encouraged that everybody is so excited about it. But I balance that with the fact that I love the record, so I expect that others would too! [Laughs] There’s some in my band that say that we can’t wear our own merch – but I would never release a shirt that’s not cool enough to wear! And it’s the same thing with music. I love listening to our record, and that’s why we released it. So it’s incredibly encouraging to hear that everybody else loves it too, but I would be satisfied with it regardless. Not in a proud way. It feels like a gift from God… It continues to inspire me. I worked really hard to make it, but it still surprises me. It’s mysterious – I don’t know where it comes from! I think the most encouraging thing is that people are connecting on a spiritual level with all different songs, across the board. We get feedback on some songs, people go back to the scripture reference and it helped them through a tough thing. Once again, I can’t take credit for any of that stuff. I can’t make that happen, and that wasn’t even my goal in making the record. My goal was that I needed to just do this for myself, and it’s beautiful how God was doing it for a much larger purpose than just helping me process.
Does making such a successful album – to critical acclaim – put pressure on what and how the next album will be?
I think there’s temptation there, for sure. But at the same time it doesn’t feel like it’s wildly successful yet. I still feel like the record is a completely underground, niche thing. When you look at numbers, it’s not like we’re a massive band still. We’re going to North Carolina tomorrow to play a concert that will probably sell 400-500 tickets. That to me is mind-boggling, but it’s not enough to put us on the radar of people all over America and the world yet. And that’s not my goal necessarily. I would feel more pressure if we had a song on the radio, or if we were winning a Dove Award or something like that. But that’s not gonna happen because this is a niche project record. We’ve been really true to market ourselves as who we are. We do what we like, we were inspired by this stuff, this is the way we make music. I think we’ve set that up with the language that it’s always going to be changing and different. So I feel like we’re incredibly blessed to have an audience that’s ready for that.
Often a band will put out a first record and it’s branded as say, pop punk. Everyone loves it. Then their next album is a little left of that and everybody is upset and makes comparisons. But I feel like we’ve put out a mixtape with infinite different feels, and then we do live versions and there’s even more feels! And all of our other records have different feels, and it’s like – this is what we do! By and large, people are buying more to us as artists than a certain one product. And I’m so thankful for that. I know that whatever we do next – we could do a rap EP and I bet people would love it. Or I could do an acoustic album and people will love it because they bought into our process more than just ‘this is what Kings Kaleidoscope sounds like’.
Now, I just realised it’s a year since Live in Color came out!
Yeah, it’s wild. We just put an album of instrumentals out. So technically, in a year, we’ve put out four releases. It’s bonkers.
Watching the videos of this new EP Live in Focus, it’s so different to Live in Color. You raced into a school for that, but this seems very more professional… if that’s the right word! Was that intentional?
One of my strengths is maximising opportunities. I love to make the most of what’s on the table, and then working out how to piece it together to make it something that’s unique and good. So we had this opportunity to go to a college closeby, which has a great studio there, and we got to work with all these recording students. They got to meet our team and see how we recorded live. I had another buddy who can do video, so we figured we should film it all. So with the pieces on the table, we then had to work out how to make it different to Live in Color. That was a branding piece for us – it really helped establish us. We had to make it completely different. Live in Color was about wild, shaky shots and tonnes of movement and colour correction, lots of adrenaline. Then we looked at the batch of songs we wanted to do for this and we thought these are more mid-tempo songs, so what have we not captured? We’ve captured high-energy. We haven’t captured the weird glances and smirks among the band. Quirks and personalities. So we decided no moving shots, cameras are locked off, colour palette is dry, we’re just in a room and it’s going to be super simple. So we kept dialling that in. Live in Focus really highlights individual members of the band better than Live in Color. Also, in a weird way, it actually highlights the performances a little better too. I’m not saying it’s a better project – they’re different – but because the camera isn’t moving around all the time you can actually see how we play things. ‘He’s switching instruments right here!’ Little things like that where the camera isn’t a participant, it’s an observer. I like both styles. We’ll probably do something even different next time.
What was the intention about making Live in Focus? Is it to promote yourself, or to give the songs more longevity?
I think when it comes to marketing our band, I hate thinking about spending money on anything other than making product. So, people who know our band – it’s great – but how do you reach people that have never heard of us that might like us? Some of them won’t like us, but some will. For me, I don’t think we shouldn’t spend money on Facebook ads or on placements. Let’s make something! So for us, we like to play live, so it’s an easy thing to make videos, because that’s great marketing. People love to share them, people love to watch them, so we made these videos and posted them at six different outlets. We knew there’s probably a lot of Desiring God’s audience that would get into our music, so we went through them. We went through Andy Mineo, Humble Beast, New Release Tuesday… being able to work with six outlets was a great idea. Live in Color was getting everybody that had ever heard about us, and tapping them on the shoulder and saying, ‘Hey, we’re still here, and this is what we’re about to do.’ Live in Focus is going to a bunch of people that have never heard about us and saying, ‘Hey, you should check this record out, you might really love it.’ Both are pointing to Becoming Who We Are.
Did you find it successful, releasing across six outlets?
Yeah. It was awesome. We got a lot of different people talking about us that hadn’t been before. And then when we went to give away the live EP, that was to hook up the fans that already really like us. People who haven’t heard about us before are probably more likely to go and buy the album, because they see a video and they enjoy the performance. But people who already have the album, this is cool because it’s alternate versions of some songs. We get bored easily and like to change things up all the time. So that comes naturally. But it’s exciting for everyone who already has the record.
Seriously – if you ever consider spending money on Facebook ads, please don’t do that. Just keep the music coming!
[Laughs] It’s content marketing. I never want to tell somebody, ‘Go do this for me’. ‘Go buy my record, just because I’m telling you to do it.’ I want to always be making something that gives value to somebody’s life.
Can you tell me about the recording process – where you recorded it and the time it took?
It was at Creatio Studios at Northwest University. We just did it in one afternoon. We showed up on Saturday, set everything up, line-checked. And we have a go-to engineer and guy that mixes with us named Brett Baird who did this one. Basically, I got connections with the school and this guy Steve who is this incredible professor there loved the idea of us coming on campus. He teaches audio production and all of his students came in, helped us set up, watched how we do things – so we brought in Brett and the band and the students were so cool. They helped us set up, then on Sunday more students showed up and hung out in the control room with Brett while we was recording us. He would just be answering their questions, with classroom seating behind him! [Laughs] We always end up at schools! It probably took us five hours. We did the songs, some we did three takes, some two, I think the only one we did in one take was All Creatures. We didn’t know if it was going to make the cut actually. We threw it in there.
Oh, at the very last minute I brought my turntables from home and on the way that morning I decided we needed to do Ache. I’m really stoked on how that one turned out. At the end of recording the other songs, I helped teach the parts to the band and we did it last minute. But that song is so interesting because it was played in Starbucks for a whole month in the US! I thought of that as a turn-around transition on the record, but I think a lot of people like it. Being able to do it live was a cool thing, and we’ll probably start performing that song which is something I never thought we would do.
That’s really cool. Now Dreams was released at andymineo.com. Watching it, I was sitting there waiting for Andy to come out as a special surprise. Would you like to collab with him one day?
Yeah, totally. I love what he’s doing, I love what all of Reach Records are doing. I think they’re occupying a special space right now in art and culture. I think Humble Beast is doing the same thing. I don’t think there’s bands that are doing that yet. Kings is trying to do that a little. In the faith gospel topics that people are tackling in songs, it’s either – in the reformed world – ‘I’m just gonna transcribe Scripture’, or it’s worship songs for church, whether it’s charismatic or reformed. Or it’s really bad CCM music. If you’re a good Christian musician, you usually just join a regular band because you don’t want to play crappy music. Or maybe you’d be a worship director at a legit church, but you don’t want to be in Nashville making boring music. What’s interesting about Reach and Humble Beast is that those guys are good artists making good art. But it’s not for church. But it’s also not for CCM. They’ve carved a whole new lane. I see Kings as being part of that lane, but a band. I don’t know of many bands like that – maybe Gungor or John Mark McMillan, but I even see them more as singer/songwriters. They both have some gospel themes definitely, so there’s probably on the outer fringes of that.
Do you have any favourites of any of the live tracks, how they turned out on this EP?
I think Zion is by far the best. I think that one turned out phenomenal. The whole band sings the background parts… That one had the biggest reach too. The author Frederick Buechner whose quote we named the album after – he reposted it to his million followers on Facebook. [Laughs] That was really cool. Then, I think Dreams and 139/Redemption in Motion turned out really well. I love that we had everybody sing and play horns on the end of Dreams. And I Know – it was so last minute. We were in the studio sound-checking and I said, ‘What if we start it like this, and I write another verse?’ So I wrote the verse that night and we did it with a new verse the next day! [Laughs]
That’s special, having a new verse!
Yeah, it is. It’s cool. We’re going to perform it that way from now on. I like the mystery and hesitancy on the maybes on the first chorus. And I like the certainty throughout the rest of the song. I’m thinking about it, and then by the second verse I’m like – no, it’s true.
The tweaks that come on the songs on these live songs – are they things that since the album came out you wished you had done originally?
I think mostly it’s just trying something different. We’ve even evolved Dreams a little bit from that session. We took forever trying to work out how to play the drums. There’s all these crazy drums. We’ve had Andrew playing them on a digital drum pad and even now we’ve got triggers so he can play those samples on real drums. We just want to spruce it up. Even John is in his pyjamas on that song. Andrew is in his pyjamas too! But – we had him play guitar because we needed to get that high echoey thing that comes off the drums in that sample. He learned how to play it on guitar! Mostly that stuff just comes from adapting the recordings live and then a lot of it is I’m really A.D.D. There’s a lot that we try on the go.
Just briefly, you’ve released the instrumental version of Becoming Who We Are. What’s your hope for that?
I always like instrumentals. I think it’s because I’m a DJ. Even now, I’m so into hearing all the intricacies of music. But specifically, music that has a lot going on. Kings is a band with so much of that going on. I think it’s a cool backdrop for people who are working. Our lyrical content is pretty demanding. I feel it’s pretty aggressive – not that I think it’s better than anything else – I just feel like it’s hard to listen to Felix Culpa while you’re doing homework. [Laughs] But you can listen to the instrumental and it might power you through. I feel like we’ll do that going forward. It’s cool when bands do that.
What does the rest of 2015 hold for Kings Kaleidoscope?
For Kings, we’re trying to play lots of shows. On the personal side of things, there’s four babies being born in the band in the next few months. One of them was just born, actually. And my wife and I are having another baby in July. So that will be cool. And after the wild year that I had personally last year – leaving Mars Hill, Zion, my father-in-law passing away – I know we talked about that before. But after all that, I’ve been trying to get really healthy. Healthy with my anxiety disorder that I’ve always struggled with. Healthy physically, emotionally, spiritually. Personally for 2015 it’s my goal to continue to operate out of a place of being God’s son, being loved, abiding in him, knowing that I’m safe. Knowing that I’m not here to leave a crazy legacy, or conquer the world, I’m just trying to live a modest life and take care of my wife. God will do whatever he wants to do with the art that I make, so I think personally that’s what it’s about for me. Kings will be down in my basement making a bunch more jams! It’ll be fun. I can’t wait to make more music. I’ve got demos for days already. I love creating, I always want to do it.
Live in Focus by Kings Kaleidoscope is available now.