On the Road with the Devil Herself
by Mark Rossmore
Megan Jean and the KFB's Music Will Move You... and Make You Move
September
21
2012
ARTIST PROFILE

Megan Jean and the KFB
Official Site: Click Here

FEATURED ALBUM


Dead Woman Walking




 
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Megan Jean and her husband Byrne Klay wander the USA, engaging audiences with a fearless, relentless approach to their music. Their unique sound and impassioned live performances have won them praise in state after state. Residing somewhere in a mysterious realm between smoky jazz and bluegrass and soul and zydeco and Middle Eastern music and American folk, their sound does its damnedest to defy any sort of classification, but their love for their music and for each other is clear. 

I was fortunate to catch them at Dragon*Con. Their show at the Mechanical Masquerade--the steampunk community's massive party--nearly set the room afire with energy and dancing. Now they have a new Kickstarter underway for their next album, The Devil Herself.

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SP-M: You guys are one hard working band, playing over 200 shows a year around the country. Where are you right this minute, and what's your destination?

MJ: Right now I am sitting in Projexx Gallery in Johnson City, TN after hanging Byrne's first print show, which we are opening this Friday. We are playing in Greensboro, NC tomorrow, and back in Johnson City on Saturday, then onto Greenville, SC, and then Atlanta, GA. After that, north up to Maine and back mid-October...

SP-M: You're married, driving together, writing together, living together, 24/7, crammed into a Honda Element with all of your gear, sometimes not knowing where you'll be sleeping that night. Some couples may have a hard time spending a weekend together in the comfort of their own home. What's your secret to, well, not killing each other?

MJ: The truth is that Byrne is the best friend I've ever had in my life. It's hard to get tired of someone you can't live without. We've been together for 8 years, he's the first boyfriend I ever had. I rely on him completely. You really have no other choice in our situation. We've gotten into some big messes on the road, including almost ending up homeless in New Orleans with 3 months of shows on the books. We had to busk to get out of there. We just banded together and figured it out.  

We get into our spats here and there, but we really genuinely have a great time together. We joke around a lot, we have silly inside jokes and voices that we do in the car. Neither one of us is more ambitious than the other. We are really lucky that this life is exactly what both of us wanted. It wouldn't work if one of us was dragging the other along. We are both fully committed to the music we're making and the lifestyle it takes to get it out there. Plus, he's my soulmate. So there's that too haha!

Byrne: Every aspect of our life is interconnected. Our marriage, our lifestyle, and our job are all one thing. Neither one of us is less committed than the other one to any of those things. Megan is my best friend and I love her. Really loving someone else is hard to describe if you haven't experienced it, but it really does make the world go round.

SP-M: Your instrumentation is a stripped down mix of banjo, upright bass, guitar, washboard, and a single kick drum. How do you describe your sound to the uninitiated?

MJ: We call ourselves a metal band if it was 1927. Folks really don't know what to expect from us, so we like to make up silly genres and descriptions. Their minds start working on what that might mean, and keeps them from getting a fixed idea in their heads. That way they are open-minded to the sounds that actually come out.

Megan Jean and the KFB at Dragon*Con 2012

Byrne: Our music was developed in bars around the country, playing for people who did not know who we were. We learned how to grab the attention and get across to total strangers with limited resources. It took us a good three years to come up with the sound we have now, and that's been going on for another three since. We mix different styles. We are as indebted to Hank Williams as we are to Nirvana as we are to Cachao as we are to Kraftwerk as we are to whatever is catching our ear at the time.

Our music is everything we love disassembled and pieced back together, sometimes a little mismatched. I like to think about music developing over time as people attempt to copy something else only to screw it up and end up playing something fresh and new. When Megan and I write a song it usually starts with an idea. We piece things together over time. Before most songs are done we test out what we have at sound checks and let it go from there. A song isn't really done until we've played it in front of people a lot and we've learned what works and what doesn't.

SP-M: You're working on the follow up to your 2010 album Dead Woman Walking. Tell us about your plans for the CD, and how crowdfunding has helped you.

MJ: Well we just launched our kickstarter today haha! (if you want to link to it, we are ever so grateful: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1984071695/megan-jean-and-the-klay-family-album) The follow-up to Dead Woman Walkin' will be called "The Devil Herself," and will have 12-14 songs that have been written over the past two years on the road. It will feature "These Bones", "Little Miss Fortune," "Hometown Hero," "All my friends are Skeletons," "Voodoo Doll," and a whole mess of songs we wrote, rehearsed, and perfected over the course of 500 shows. It's really the best material of our career honestly, and we've put 150 hours into demo-ing, arranging, and fleshing out these songs.

We relied on Kickstarter for the printing costs of our first album, and for this second, we are asking for $8,000 which will cover recording, mixing, mastering, and printing the album in various mediums. I honestly think this next release will mark a turning point for us as a band. I'd like people to hear the labor in it. I'd like them to hear 500 shows worth of refinement, practice, and swagger. I'm a gal with a lot of swagger, the vocals on this will be unrelenting, as will the performances. The name says it all. I'd like to drive a few people mad with me.

SP-M: There's a dark soul to your music. Songs like "Red Red" and "Cementary Man" paint florid images of broken people and desperate situations, yet live, are instantly danceable. They're so moving and--literally--move people. How do you find that balance?

MJ: I like creepy little macabre things. I like waltzes, and decrepit mansions and fallen women. I'm a little obsessed with ill humors and poetry. I'm also a very silly person at heart, and I like to make people smile. Some of the songs are biographical, most are mostly make-believe. I have never been good at writing love songs, so I just had to write about the things that inspire me. Namely, the absolute beauty and joy that can exist in darkness. The fact that it makes people dance was unexpected, and wonderful. People dancing for your music, it's the highest compliment a musician can achieve. Its just electrifying to look out on a sea of bodies, writhing because you made them want to. I'm addicted to it. At the core of our music is a strong desire to make people want to feel something. Anything. We lived in New York for so long, and people are so damned unaffected. They're so afraid of appearing eager that they don't FEEL anything. They don't writhe and shake and holler and become ALIVE. I don't care if people love us or hate us. All I ask is that you listen and decide for yourselves. I never want people to be entirely unmoved. That's when I know I haven't done my job.

Byrne: The trick to making people dance is good rhythm. Good rhythm is not playing to a metronome. Good rhythm is learning how your own body works in relation to your instrument and developing that relationship. Once you've achieved a good relationship with your instrument people will dance. Watching people dance to your music, especially people who've never heard it before, is the best feeling one can have with all their clothes on.

SP-M: Bars. Cons. Festivals. So many types of venues. Which is your favorite kind to play?

MJ: They are all really different. If you can pack out a bar, it's awesome. Everybody is friendly, the staff loves you, the owners treat you like gold. If there's nobody there it kinda feels like a weird party that nobody came to. Sometimes though, a small crowd is mighty and those are great. Everybody gets this "we're all the stars of the show," and we make jokes with the audience all night. I love it when that happens.

Festivals are awesome. Period. People are there for music. If they like your band, they will walk right up and tell you. Floydfest is an amazing Festival. We did the Under-The-Radar Competition for a chance at a main stage spot in 2013. Everything about it was magical. We played under a tent and it started raining, and people just crammed in. It was our biggest audience ever. The love radiating from several thousand people discovering and loving our music all at once was overwhelming. We had never had applause that loud for our band. We both cried onstage...

Cons are amazing too. People aren't necessarily there for the music, but they are so open to new things, people, sounds... I love it. When we played Dragon*Con I saw so many people literally walking around with their heart on their sleeves. They are dressed up as their favorite things, to honor those things, and show their love for it. As a person who does that every day with my music, I found it incredibly heartwarming to see. They didn't have that "over-it-all" hipster apathy. They are making a statement about what they love, and who they are, and I have more respect for that than anything.

Byrne: A good audience is an audience that is listening to your music. No matter what the size. Every festival, convention, bar, club, etc has its own unique set of "local rules" Anytime we're playing for people who are actively looking for a new aesthetic experience we tend to thrive whether it's a crowd of 10 or 1000. On the other hand, just playing for 1000 people is not enough on it's own. Without playing for people who want to listen, even the biggest crowd is no fun or inspiring.

SP-M: You've played gigs in places where you were--how do I put it?--met with "aggressive skepticism" by the crowd before you'd even had a chance to play a note, yet by the end of your set you'd won them over. What's the trick to earning new fans?

MJ: Play as well as we do. That's the god's honest truth. Joke around with the hecklers until they realize that this damn sure ain't your first rodeo. People can say they don't care for our music, but they can't say that we're not good at it. Not after thousands of hours of training, rehearsal, and performance time. We've played well over a thousand shows in 6 years. We're not gonna take it lying down. If you're gonna heckle me you better make damn sure you can get on that stage and show me up. I'm cocky, but I've given my craft my absolute focus for the past 7 years of my life. Most people can appreciate how much work we put into our show within the first few minutes. To hell with the rest of them, honestly.

Megan Jean and the KFB at Dragon*Con 2012

I used to get caught up on people not liking us. Then I realized that most people at our shows think we're pretty good. I feel bad for the hecklers though. They think I'm just gonna roll over and take it, but I don't. I joke around with them to start, try to win them over. But if they're just desperate for attention (this is why they do this, after all), then I give it to them. But it's not nice, and they generally leave before I'm finished.

Byrne: A few years ago we played a show at a metal club in Bluefield WV. During the middle of our set we did a calypso cover of an old punk song. Three different people came up to us after the show and said, "When I saw you setting up I thought it was going to suck. But then you played that one song.…" In and of itself music is purely abstract. It's just sound. Major chords are happy and minor chords are sad because we've been culturally trained to hear them that way. We hear music and we try to make sense of it. When you play music that reflects a particular aesthetic you're sending out a coded message that says "I like what you like." It's an awesome olive branch. As Megan likes to say, "It's how souls communicate."

SP-M: At your Dragon*Con panel, you said one day you would like to have a child. What would you say to him or her if they tell you that they want to pursue music or another art as a career?

MJ: I'd tell them to go for it. But I would not mince any words about how difficult this industry is. I would tell them that natural talent is a dime a dozen. Natural talent plus technique is less common. But natural talent plus technique, plus the ambition and drive one needs to make something of themselves in a creative medium is rare. My parents always encouraged me to make music. They both played and performed, wrote songs... they never discouraged me to do that as a career. They also told me how hard it would be, as did all my professors at Tisch. I will always be grateful for the support I received, but also the knowledge that it would be most difficult. I just hope my children have something they are passionate about and good at. I like to encourage all children to find out what they're good at. I got bullied a lot growing up, and music was what always picked me up, and kept me going. I don't know if I would have ever had any self-esteem to speak of without being good at something, and then in turn being encouraged to do it.

Byrne: If you start don't ever stop.

SP-M: Byrne, you've mentioned you learned to play banjo from the Internet. What resources, beyond YouTube, would you recommend to musicians looking to expand their repertoire?

Byrne: It depends on what your interests are. When I started playing banjo there were lots of great free resources on the internet for learning and since then it's probably multiplied tenfold. I initially found a video called "Rocket Science Banjo". I emailed the fellow who did it. He sent me some free tabs to help me learn the instrument. Recently I found a great website called Banjo Meets World, which is run by a woman who arranges unusual traditional songs (Eastern European, Turkish, Scandenavian, etc.) for clawhammer banjo. The Library of Congress website (www.loc.gov) has a great section called American Memory which touches on a lot of music ranging from Civil War era marching band charts to pop songs of the late 1800s to Appalachian music.  

The internet is great for learning different or obscure ideas and concepts, but nothing compares to being around great musicians playing a certain kind of music a certain way. Like I said earlier, music is about the musicians body in relation to the instrument. Even electronic music mimics those principals. Being around people who know the right moves is not the same as checking out something online. The cerebral aspect of music is great, but at the end of the day it's that crude visceral part that hits it home. That's the feeling that people crave from music.

SP-M: You perform some very eclectic covers, everything from Michael Jackon's "Thriller" to a thumping version of Salt-n- Pepa's "Shoop". How do you choose your covers and tailor them to your sound?

MJ: I listen to a lot of different stuff. Our covers really are our favorite songs, but done with the ridiculous limitation of just two people. It's pretty funny actually, trying to encompass "Thriller" with a guitar, bass, voice, and drum. You boil the song down to its essential parts, and then have fun. There's no point in covering something to make it sound just like the original. It's no fun either. The tailoring comes from playing it every night for months while it's developing. you tweak it here and there, try new things, and then finally you find what makes people go the most wild. We have a few weirdo covers that get the skeptics on your side, they just want to know we aren't as weird as they think we are, that we have some musical common ground. We never have the heart to tell them we are MUCH weirder than they could possibly be ok with.

Byrne: Whatever feels good. We don't think too hard about it. We might try a song out for fun and if it feels good we let it develop without too much of a vision. If it doesn't feel right we move on. We do that for fun. It's not something we're serious about.

SP-M: Thanks for sharing your adventures and your music! Good luck with the new album and Kickstarter! 

Below are the links for their Kickstarter and other web sites.

  
Author Bio: Mark Rossmore
Mark Rossmore has released three atmospheric albums of steampunk-inspired music as Escape the Clouds. A multimedia artist who enjoys telling dramatic stories, he has self-produced three acclaimed music videos and is a published author of steampunk short fiction, aviation articles, and music-related non-fiction. Learn more about his music, videos, and writing at: http://www.EscapeTheClouds.com .
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