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Saturday, November 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Demystifying Kicksville
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Credit:Conrad St. Clair

Kicksville is many things, including a Madison band and self-described "multimedia freak show." One thing it's not is a crack marketing team. If anything, details make this project even more mysterious -- and, strangely, more interesting.

For starters, Kicksville claims to have 73 members, including founders Conrad St. Clair and Mike Stehr. Nine of these members are said to perform live. The group boasts many local music veterans, including Andy Ewen of Honor Among Thieves and Biff Blumfumgagnge of the Gomers and Reptile Palace Orchestra. The tunes on Kicksville's Bandcamp page range from squishy electro-funk workouts to a cover of The Police's "Walking In Your Footsteps." Despite this abstruse packaging, Kicksville offers its members a collaborative process that's both unwieldy and liberating.

Things get more muddled when Kicksville tries to promote itself. To plug this Saturday's show at the Barrymore Theatre, the group blasted out an email laden with links to its various "seasons" of singles. This message also included a photo of Blumfumgagnge performing with a large snake draped around his neck. One flyer for this show simply proclaims, "Holy fuck, it's fucking Kicksville."

I decided Kicksville's members should try to escape this informational muddle the way they entered it: through a very crowded and collaborative process. Armed with email addresses for 15 of the group's members, I started a reply-all conversation, asking, "Just what is Kicksville?" and "What's the vision that ties it all together?"

Looking over the spiritual splatter-poetry that flooded into my inbox, I can't complain. I suppose I didn't stipulate that the answers had to make sense.

Ewen's reply arrived in the form of blank verse: "Kicksville is a kind of reverse ventriloquist, its voice always throws me / Kicksville contains an awareness of teeth. / A turtle was its mother," and so forth.

St. Clair sent two responses to choose from. One explained that "Kicksville is something that has to be seen as a whole to [be understood]." Another sounded like an academic abstract: "Kicksville is a prime example of a complex self-organizing adaptive system, exhibiting emergent properties that include the production of music-like structures and visual stimuli."

Blumfumgagnge assured me that Kicksville would "clean your ears out like a Q-tip from hell, and will make you dance like a freaky, freaked-out dancing freak-person."

The most jarring responses came from Tone Deaf, one of several members who contributes visual art to Kicksville's album covers. He also creates mixed-media works onstage during Kicksville sets and performs monologues between songs.

To the conversation he added a spoken-word piece that begins, "Our brains was bein' rotted out by screechy English pussies wearin' their mothers' clothin' and playin' a parody of American blues."

As fun as this Dada-esque exchange was, St. Clair felt the need to send "translations" of Tone Deaf's statements. In one follow-up message, he noted that "sometimes if you read [Tone Deaf's poetry] out loud with a British accent, it will all make sense."

"Then again, sometimes even I can't figure out what the hell he's trying to say," he said.

He later added that Tone Deaf's contribution is "really key to giving Kicksville its character."

St. Clair's translation of another Tone Deaf fragment read thusly: "We were panhandling, and some twit dumped a sprawling endeavor in our laps. And we've been living it down ever since."

This conversation was quickly becoming the email equivalent of an exquisite corpse, a Surrealist experiment in which several artists build a complete figure from wildly mismatched, separately created parts.

That said, a less absurd skeleton for this beast soon emerged.

Guitarist and vocalist Chris Huntington called Kicksville "a mental vacation for a working musician." This statement begins to explain why the group seems so willfully off the wall, so incapable of projecting one unified vision. Huntington plays hundreds of shows a year with outfits such as the Baltimore-based Cajun band The Crawdaddies, yet finds Kicksville is the only place he can "let [his] inner monkey out." He also shared the neatest summation one could hope for, which is that "Kicksville combines art, music, poetry, video and onstage antics into one crazy live show."

Another member, Georg McKee, suggested how such a big, diverse group of artists comes up with material in the first place: "For instance, one of us will get a drum beat stuck in our head, lay it down and pass it to the collective. Upon listening to it, someone else might hear a melody emerge and lay that down before sending it back to the collective. Step by step our pieces emerge, gathering things and dropping them along the way," she explains. "We have visual art that both inspires our music [and] draws inspiration from it."

We are talking about a band that released an album called Enter The Flavor Hut. Even after pinning down how Kicksville operates, it's hard to make sense of the confusion and unapologetic messiness. The only thing that might help is taking in Kicksville's live collision of music, visual art, video and spoken word. Even then, it would be wise to remember these words on the group's Bandcamp: "There's really no explaining Kicksville, but fear not!"

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