The Detroit trio Koffin Kats - headlining an all-ages show at the River Music Experience on May 5 - performs in the musical subgenre known as psychobilly, and the fusion of punk and rockabilly isn't particularly well-known or popular in the States.
So it's a bit strange that bassist and singer Vic Victor, in a phone interview last week, called psychobilly a "music genre for everybody." The style's biggest name is probably the Reverend Horton Heat, whose top-selling albums have managed to reach only the lower quarter of Billboard's top 200.
Yet Victor said that when the uninitiated but curious - those who don't realize that the upright bass has a place in rock music - show up to a Koffin Kats gig, they're usually converted. "Everyone's invited," he said. "That's kind of the idea with this new record. We didn't write it for the psychobilly crowd. We wrote it for anybody who likes rock and roll and driving music."
That album is Our Way & the Highway, and while Victor probably overstates its appeal as universal, there's no denying that the Kats' brand of psychobilly deserves a wider audience; the band's music is relentless but also loaded with hooks, strong melodies, and alluring harmonies on top of the aggressive rockabilly groove. If Green Day deserves some of its superstar status, then the Koffin Kats are worthy of at least a piece of that pie.
To be clear, Victor would never claim that his band is owed anything. He understands that psychobilly remains underground, although he thinks that's just "because it's always been underground."
More than that, though, the band - over nine years and six full-length albums - has always believed in earning everything it gets. "I think the moment that you sit back and that you think all your debts have been paid is the moment you stop putting so much drive into your music," he said. "You get a little relaxed, and I don't ever want to feel that relaxed. ... That's when you start writing shitty music, and you'll get forgotten about. ... As far as I'm concerned, you're always paying dues; you always will be when you're a musician."
But Victor thinks Our Way & the Highway might represent a turning point for the band and its commercial prospects.
"It's definitely the best-sounding one that we've done so far," he said. "It's a mix that I've always wanted to hear on our records but have never been able to obtain. ... We always recorded in Michigan, the Detroit area, where the psychobilly genre is not so known, so you have recording engineers that don't grow up with that sound in their head or don't quite understand how to obtain the proper mix for that - having the upright bass, and having the right amount of click, and making the vocals rather apparent." The new album - released in January - was produced and mixed by Rene De La Muerte of the psychobilly band The Brains, and Victor said it's a giant leap forward: "It's the record with the least moments of me going, 'I would have changed that.'"
It also shows the refinement of the road, he said, proof "that we've been playing every day ... . It's a much tighter record than anything we've done in the past."
The band has most of the psychobilly staples, from the upright bass to the trademark rhythmic click to the promise of lurid content ("The Devil Asked," "Locket of Sin"), but the band draws heavily from pop. Aside from its genre's natural brevity - Our Way & the Highway clocks in at less than 35 minutes with 14 tracks - the album has a surfeit of catchy anthems covering a lot of territory, from the infectious chorus of the lovesick "Severing Ties" to the snotty "Choke." The secret weapon is Victor's voice, adept at everything from bratty dismissiveness to quavering, not-quite-authentic drama to earnest emotion.
Guitarist EZ Ian - on his first Koffin Kats full-length - and drummer Eric Walls are crisply fluent complements, and the band is never pick-a-riff-and-run-with-it lazy. "Locket of Sin" casually devolves from an echoing chorus into compelling, nonsensical vocal chaos over twin guitars.
The emphasis on melody and harmony, Victor said, is "just something that's always been a part of our sound ... . I've always been a huge fan of melodic punk rock and melodic music in general." If those components stand out more on Our Way & the Highway, he said, it's a function of a better mix.
Although Koffin Kats certainly haven't broken through yet, Victor said there's been steady growth. "Numbers don't lie," he said. "All the numbers constantly go up - every six months looking back at it."
And if the band does make a commercial splash, will it find it difficult to keep its always-paying-dues attitude? "I don't know," Victor said. "I'll let you know when we get there."
The Koffin Kats will play on Saturday, May 5, in the performance hall at the River Music Experience (129 Main Street in Davenport). The all-ages show starts at 7 p.m. and also features T.B.O.P.R.R.I.O.F., Captains Vessels, and We Shall Be Bandits. Admission is $10.
For more information on the Koffin Kats, visit KoffinKatsRock.com.