The Kissers built a following playing Monday nights at O'Cayz Corral, defying the generally held belief that the front-end of the work week is poison for live bands.
With rain threatening on a cool Tuesday evening in September, the Hometown Sweethearts really shouldn't be packing in a crowd at the Crystal Corner Bar with covers of Neil Diamond's 'Forever in Blue Jeans,' Duran Duran's 'Rio' and Motorhead's 'Ace of Spades.' Theweekend's over, the downtown streets are deserted, and both working folk and college students should be conserving their vital juices for real-world obligations.
But that doesn't matter to the Hometown Sweethearts' dedicated fans, many of whom knock off from jobs in the restaurant and hospitality industry just in time for the band's second set. They come every Tuesday night to sing along with Kissers guitarist and banjo player Waylan Nate Palan as he runs through the hits of the last five decades with support from Cashbox Kings bass player Chris Boeger and busy session drummer Scott Beardsley.
It's like summer camp with beer and mixed drinks, and the shaggy-haired, mutton-chopped Palan is the coolest guitar-strumming counselor ever. Little wonder that by 11 p.m. the chattering crowd at the Crystal still fills every seat in the bar and spills out on the impromptu dance floor.
But despite the Hometown Sweethearts' proven drawing power, they will never be Palan's main gig. That spot is reserved for punk-friendly Irish rockers the Kissers, who headline the Madison Music Project on Oct. 13 at the High Noon Saloon. The four-year-old Sweethearts are a side project for Palan. Sois Waylan St. Palan & the Magic Elves, a naughty lounge act devoted to Christmas tunes that he only rolls out for the holidays. And so is his newly resurrected pop band Electric Automatic, the Violent Femmes cover band Gimme the Car (Palan sings Gordon Gano's parts) and the hard-rocking Stooges- and Kinks-inspired proto-punk outfit the God Damns.
Palan also spends time in the Paddy Knockers, an Irish pub band that, depending on the night, features anywhere from three to all five Kissers. In other words, most weeks he plays until his fingers are bloody stumps.
And so do his Kissers bandmates.
Take Ken Fitzsimmons, the group's lone original member. He's in Gimme the Car and the Magic Elves. He also has the Wrongdoers, a band that features songs about outlaws.Kissers drummer Joe Bernstein is in Gimme the Car, too. He's also started an experimental indie-rock act called Eli Valiente.
Meanwhile, keyboard/accordion player Peter Colclasure has what Palan describes as an 'instrumental Radiohead jazz trio' called Fake Plastic Trees.
Violinist Kari Bethke (who's Palan's fiancÃe) is busy, too. Recently, she's played with an alt-country band, and Palan says she's currently working on a dance-rock band that sounds a little like an acoustic version of the Bloc Party.
Perhaps it's not surprising that beginning on Monday, Oct. 16, the Crystal Corner will begin hosting 'The Kissers' Sideshow,' a regular residency featuring the band's multifarious side projects.
'There's also going to be new projects yet to be determined,' laughs Fitzsimmons.
Having all these musical irons in the fire is smart business. The Kissers are all full-time musicians, which means the band's bookings and CD account for the lion's share of their income. But they don't bank every dollar earned. 'The Kissers are run identically to any other business,' Palan explains. 'The money comes in, but all of it doesn't go into our pockets. There's lots of bills: our practice space, our van, promotion. All of that.'
A side project like the Hometown Sweethearts pays the rest of the rent. 'There isn't any overhead,' says Palan. 'We show up, we play, and we split the door right down the middle. We don't really do any promotion. I'll go down to State Street and hang up some fliers, but that's about the extent of it. We play locally, so we don't have to worry about having a vehicle. It's basically our side moneymaking band.'
The money's been pretty good, too. Earnings generated by his work with both the Kissers and the Hometown Sweethearts helped Palan buy a condo in Fitchburg this year. He shares it with Bethke and Kyle Motor, a musical friend and collaborator in the God Damns.
More than money is at stake, though. Palan points out that in a band with three regular songwriters, not everyone's material gets played in the Kissers. And while Irish rock and Celtic folk still light a creative fire under all five Kissers, the tight musical focus doesn't allow for a lot of experimentation.
'We have a genre or two or three that we're really good at doing, and we try to stretch the boundaries as much as possible,' says Palan. 'But the variety of songs that people bring in is sometimes too much to handle.'
Fitzsimmons concurs that it's important to have other outlets. A trained jazz bassist, he's game for most any kind of musical experience. The Kissers themselves were a side project back in 1998, when Fitzsimmons and other members of the college-oriented ska/hip-hop act Little Blue Crunchy Things went Celtic and began covering the Pogues. Much like the Hometown Sweethearts today, the original Kissers cut their teeth playing a gig every Monday night at O'Cayz Corral. That went on for more than two years, until O'Cayz burned on Jan. 1, 2001.
The band built a strong following, defying the generally held belief that the front-end of the work week is poison for live bands. By 2001 what had been a side gig had morphed into Fitzsimmons' main act.
Unsurprisingly, he'd also set a new covers project in motion called the Whiskey Lash All Stars. It, too, played an early-week residency at the Crystal Corner.
These days, you can find Fitzsimmons subbing on a regular basis for Boeger in the Cashbox Kings or reading big band charts with the Madison Jazz Orchestra. 'I'll play Irish music, country,' he says philosophically. 'I've even subbed for the Madison Symphony. It's kind of the freelance world.'
The Kissers' varied history has taught him that switching things up musically is often the best tonic for depleted creative juices. 'When you play in the same band all the time, it's nice to do other projects just to keep musically fresh,' Fitzsimmons says. 'I often tell my bass students to play in a style that's completely different from what they're used to. It's a way to get new inspiration.'
You can tell Nate Palan's inspired down at the Crystal when he gallops into another cover tune with the Hometown Sweethearts. Barely pausing to take a breath, he'll go from a Franz Ferdinand request to a rapid fire take on Billy Idol's 'DancingWith Myself' to a popular sing-along of Gnarls Barkley's irresistible soul update 'Crazy' that pits his own on-pitch falsetto against the audience's less reliable keening. Everything is danceable, and half the crowd tries to sing and dance at the same time.
The Sweethearts' covers aren't the plastic, by-the-note run-throughs you get from a venal hotel lounge act. The threesome try to stick to the songs' original arrangements, but with just two formal practices under their belts in four years, some songs are basically the recognizable hook between more amorphous dance grooves.
Which is fine. The three Sweethearts love these old and new hits enough not to deaden their re-creations with mechanical musicianship. To put it another way, they have fun with the soundtrack of your life. As Palan flails away at his big, black acoustic, a wry smile often plays over his lips. Yes, he wants to put over an engaging, likable performance. On the other hand, some of the cheese factor he celebrates at holiday time with the thoroughly sardonic Magic Elves seeps over into the 100-plus songs that the Hometown Sweethearts cover.
Of course, that brings up an obvious question: Exactly when do the Kissers' side projects become something more than a relaxing escape from things Celtic and morph into serious, fully committed bands?
For Palan, being in the position to finance a recording has something to do with it. Just like the Kissers, the first incarnation of Electric Automatic released a couple of studio-produced CDs that served as high-quality showcases of original material. At one time it was his most serious musical outlet, and he focused most of his attention on it. Today, however, Palan downplays the chances of getting the reconfigured Electric Automatic into the studio in the near future. The time and money just aren't there. 'I'm not against any of these other bands recording again,' he explains. 'But it's hard to pull the funds together to do a recording outside of what the Kissers are already doing.'
The Hometown Sweethearts have talked about going into the studio for a day and 'just banging out a bunch of songs.' But that approach would be far different from the care Palan, Fitzsimmons and the other Kissers would lavish on a new recording of their bread-and-butter band.
Serious or otherwise, the Kissers' extracurricular activities help define them in Madison's club world, and the new 'Kissers' Sideshow' Monday nights at the Crystal Corner will only make that association closer. Fans and other music mavens who thought they knew what the Irish rockers were all about may be surprised to hear various Kissers putting jazz chords to Radiohead or pumping a dirty-ass hard-rock tune through a couple Marshall stacks.
But that's the glory of a side project. It's all about defying expectations. And leaving the tried and true back in the van.