What happens when you throw a heaping helping of punk rock, some psychobilly spices, and equal parts blood, guts, and PBR into a blender while blasting down the highway on a motorcycle? You get Koffin Kats. The hard-partying and harder playing Detroit rockers have just released their sixth studio album, ‘Our Way & the Highway,’ a furious fourteen-song set that’s their most catchy and well-produced effort yet. Throughout the album, EZ Ian’s guitar riffs cut through the mix with a metallic edge that’s a strangely perfect fit for frontman Vic Victor’s frenzied upright bass slaps. And don’t forget the vocals — Victor’s melancholic vibrato spins surprisingly varied yarns about life on the road, breakups, murder, pure evil, and, yes, drinking. Supported by a new partnership with Sailor’s Grave Records, Koffin Kats aim to win over hordes of new fans with their twisted take on rock ‘n’ roll.
As the band was making their way to their first of four album release shows last week, Vic Victor was kind enough to talk with Rock Edition over the phone about ‘Our Way & the Highway,’ Koffin Kats’ notorious tour antics, and playing upright bass. Check out the conversation below.
How’s it going?
It’s going pretty good. We’re just on the road to Chicago now. We’re doing a CD release this weekend, a little mini-tour thing here.
Are you guys pumped for that?
Yeah, man. It’s the first time we’ve ever done an official-type CD release show for any of our releases, so it should be interesting. It’s nice that we get to do it around Michigan, because we’re hardly ever here.
Yeah, that’s awesome. Do you have any surprises in store for fans who come out to those shows?
Well, we have a new setlist we’re doing, and we have the new CD with us. I guess that’s the most surprising thing. [laughs][laughs] Definitely. So are you going to mostly be playing songs off of that album?
No. We’re going to be doing a couple but not saturating the set with it. That’s kind of annoying, when you go to see a band and you don’t know any of their music yet, any of the new stuff. It’s something for later in the year when the CD’s been soaked in by people. That’s when we’ll saturate the setlist with a little bit more of that stuff. We’ve always been a band that plays our older material and a little bit off of the later releases. That’s what people want to hear.
You can feel really disconnected from a band if they just play all of their new stuff.
Yeah, we like to pay attention to what people tell us they want to hear. That keeps us a little more valid with the crowds. [laughs]
Yeah. So how’s the new year been treating you guys in general?
It’s been good. We got home from the last tour just before Christmas, and we got to see friends and family and hang out, just relax with them at our houses, which is something we haven’t been able to do too much in the last couple of years. We were just soaking it in, and now it’s game time again. We’re doing this weekend here, then we’re home for a week, and then we head off to Europe.
So what do you guys like to do with your time off?
Well, generally we spend a lot of the time that we have off doing behind-the-scenes work with the band, as far as booking the next tour — we’re always doing something that has to do with the band. We don’t ever really have — just because we’re not doing shows doesn’t mean we have time off. [laughs] But we just do normal stuff, just like everybody else. We’ll hang out, watch TV, hang out with our friends that we don’t get to see, catch up with people, go to the bar. [laughs]
Sounds like a good time. You mentioned that European tour — what are you guys looking forward to most about that?
It’s always a good time heading over to Europe. Every time we go back to Europe, it seems to get a little bit better and better for us. We would only hope so; there’s no point in going back over if your crowd gets less and less. [laughs] We’re looking forward to it because this will be the first tour with the new album, and not only is it on sale with Sailor’s Grave Records here in the States, it’s also being distributed through I Hate People Records in Germany — they’re a pretty well-known German label. It’s cool that this is the first record that we’ve ever had any type of European support for. It’s going to be cool to see what that does for us as well.
Definitely. Have you ever noticed any significant differences between your European fanbase and your American one?
When it comes to a psychobilly crowd — psychobilly is a better-known genre in Europe than it is here in the States.
Yeah. It’s been around longer and been more popular longer in Europe than it has been in the States. I guess they’ve been around the same time, but as far as popularity, it’s much stronger in Europe. Other than that, the crowds that we see in Europe, the sizes and how into it people are, pretty much mirror what we see in the States. One night, one city can be a fantastic crowd, and then the next night, you’ll have a really off-night, nobody’s out. And then we can play a small village in Europe or a small town in the States and have just a crazy party night. It really kind of matches. The only differences are it’s a different language and a little bit of a different culture. When it comes down to music, it’s pretty universal.
That’s good to hear. Any places in particular that are favorites of yours in Europe?
In Europe? We definitely like going to Spain, and we’re going to be spending over a week in Spain on this upcoming tour. But we’re also going to be going through Germany, and Germany is always good to us. Just being over in Europe in general is really good. It feels validating to be an independent, do-it-yourself band being able to pay the bills by playing over in Europe. We’re always pretty happy about that.
It’s pretty cool that you can go over there on your own.
Yeah. This will be our sixth time heading over.
Nice. That’s impressive. Let’s talk a little bit about the album itself. You said recently that the writing was pretty collaborative on it. Could you take us through the process of constructing one of your songs?
The majority of this record we wrote while on the road. What we did was we bought little mini guitar amps, and Ian and I would sit there when we had some downtime, and we’d come up with a riff and record the audio to our phone. Here and there I’d come up with some lyrical ideas and jot it down. And then when it came time to put everything together, when we got home and were down in the practice space, we had the bare bones structures of most of the songs. Once we started jamming them — it’s just how well we play together, being on tour and everything — they just kind of wrote themselves. It was almost automatic. We know what our songs should sound like and what they absolutely should not sound like. Every time we were going anywhere near “Oh, this sounds too generic” or “We’re thinking way too hard about this,” we would throw the song out and start from scratch. There’s not one single song we do, regardless of if I come up with a verse and a chorus and all the lyrics, there’s not one song that we do that I can totally say that any one member writes completely themselves because it does take every member’s opinion and how they feel about it and what little touches they can add to it. Everything that we do is a collaborative effort, regardless of if I write all the lyrics or come up with a melody line. It’s how we like to look at it.
Do you guys ever have disagreements about the way one riff should sound or the way you should play one thing that get you kind of hung up?
Oh yeah. I wouldn’t necessarily call them disagreements. We’ll just give each other shit. We’ll say, “Oh, we can do better than that,” or “Oh, that’s too boring.” We have a good time in the writing process because if you’re not having a good time, it means you’re working way too hard. But definitely. There’s always those little disagreements, and it’s usually just over funny, trivial shit that probably no one else would ever notice. But we would. [laughs][laughs] So what are some of the common lyrical themes on the new album?
I would have to say there’s — Ian pointed out that there’s definitely a lot of songs about drinking. Songs related around alcohol-related situations. These songs on this record have definitely been inspired by our travels and things that we’ve personally gone through over the last couple years of being on the road. I’d have to say that it’s got a definite party theme to it. There are a few songs that branch out there, that have a little bit of a science fiction edge to them or a little murder mystery edge to them — get that in there. And then there’s the ones about the old lady breaking your heart and all that shit — got a couple of those in there.
As far as the science fiction/horror ones go, were you inspired by any specific movies or books or anything like that?
Not necessarily for any of these songs on this record. It’s just scenarios that pop into my head. One of the songs is written from the perspective of the devil. Another song is written about if you were the overseer of a certain situation, of a murder-suicide.
Is that one — oh man, I’m blanking on the song title. What was the name of that one again?
There’s one song called “The Devil Asked.” That was the one where it’s written from the point of view of the devil. And then the other one’s called “A Terrible Way.”
That’s the one. That’s definitely one of my favorites on the album. It’s really catchy.
Are those stories that you tell — obviously, some of them are made up — are they ever grounded in your own life?
I would hope not! [laughs] Everything that I write is just things I soak in from wherever. Scenarios that you hear from other people’s situations, trials, and tribulations. You just put it to paper.
Another thing I noticed listening to the album is that you guys have a balance between having these dark stories and at the same time, there’s a humorous side to the music.
Oh yeah. A band like us, for anybody that knows us, knows that we don’t take ourselves seriously. There’s one thing we do take seriously: making sure that we play our shows to the best of our ability and we have a good time and everyone else has a good time. That’s one thing we take seriously. We’re basically show monkeys that get paid to go up there and entertain people. How serious do you really want people to take ourselves? That’s why we don’t ever try to get too freaky about anything or too political about anything. We’re really just there to have a good time and for people to have a good time. It seems like we have some really, really dark stuff, but we also like to have a lot of fun.
So you’re serious about having fun.
That’s a good attitude to have. [laughs] Speaking about the live show, you guys have a pretty crazy live show. How do you keep up the energy for the duration of your touring schedules?
How our show came about is when you’re doing two hundred-plus shows a year, do you really want to stand still every night? [laughs] That’s how we look at it. Our way of breaking up the monotony of playing every night is by running around and having a good time. It gives people something more to look at than just three guys standing still on stage. Maybe some of our live shows would probably sound a whole lot tighter if we just stayed still and focused on ever little note, but it’s more about when you go to see a lot of bands play, you wanna go get entertained, and that’s what we like to do, entertain to our fullest extent. And it may look like it’s really trying, but when you do it every night, it’s just like punching a time clock. For the guy who has to go work construction every day and haul drywall up and down the stairs, that’s hard too, but he can do it every day. So why can’t we go run around for an hour on stage? [laughs]
Has anything particularly crazy happened lately?
Nothing more out of the usual. We have those wild nights here and there. The last tour was actually pretty smooth. There were no crazy accidents or anything like that, which I was thankful and grateful for. We try to keep everything so down to a science and keep the chaos under control so that we can continue to tour. When it’s party time, it’s party time, and we go all out if we’re with some good friends. We’ll have a good time. I think the most recent chaotic event that happened was when we were at the Hotel Congress in Tucson, AZ and ended up getting kicked out of there due to a damaged room and a blown-off fire extinguisher and four cop cars and a police truck coming up at five o’clock in the morning. That might’ve been a little out of hand. Yeah, but we’ve been good boys for a little while.[laughs] I was watching that tasing video you had up a little while ago on YouTube.
Yeah. That was a while ago, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen again.[laughs] Uh oh. Is Ian still worried about that?
[laughs] He’s always worried.
Nice. You guys also just recently released your first music video ever, right?
Yeah, our first official video that we’ve ever done. There have been some cool fans that have put up some compilations of stuff on YouTube that we’ve seen, but this is the first time that we’ve ever actually gone down and lip synced words to a song and guitars. [laughs]
How was your overall experience making the video?
It was pretty relaxed. We did it with some friends, so it was pretty laid-back. All we did was just jump around and play the song 30 times over, and then they took all the footage from it and edited it together and made it look cool. [laughs]
30 times over?
Roughly, but it seemed about 30 times, yeah. It was just, “Okay, go. Okay, go. Okay, go.” I mean, the song itself is only about two minutes long. [laughs]
I never thought about the fact that you probably have to film that so many times to make a music video.
Right. There’s many, many different takes put together to make one long-looking thing.
That must get kind of annoying after a while.
Truth be told, I was so hungover and so out of it that I don’t really remember too much of it. I just remember sweating out my hangover. I was feeling okay from that. [laughs]
Nice. You guys also signed with a new label recently. How do you like working with Sailor’s Grave Records?
They’re fantastic. We were very wary of working with a label. We were almost to the point of not signing and instead getting our music out by ourselves. But after we recorded the album and really soaking it in, we really didn’t want it to slip under the radar if some ears could pick up on it. I had known the guys from Sailor’s Grave for some time and knew that they were interested in working with us, so I approached them and it worked out. They wanted this new record, and I’m glad because for as wary as I was about working with a label, they quickly made those worries subside with how professional they were. Just that they actually listened to us and listened to things that we had to say about what we had problems with with prior labels. It’s been a great relationship so far, and we look forward to hopefully a bright future with them.
So you’re thinking you might release some more albums with them in the future?
Yeah. If everything stays as cool as it’s been with this one so far, I don’t see why we wouldn’t. Honestly, it’s been the best label experience we’ve had yet. Really, all it comes down to is we’re not really hard people to please; it’s just that when we have things to say because we do know what we’re talking about, we wish that people that we’re working with would listen to them. That’s one of those situations that they listen to us and do realize what we have to say and that we have been a band for eight years and brought our own selves up. We know how things work for us, what works for us, and what doesn’t work for us.
Let’s talk a bit about your bass playing. Both in terms of your playing style and the gear that you use, how have you optimized the use of upright bass for your blend of aggressive punk rock and psychobilly?
Well, I don’t necessarily play the upright bass the same way as maybe the majority of upright players do. I use lower tension strings and a lower action so that I can play with the speed that we need to play with but also so that I don’t expend energy trying to make notes out of the strings because I do have to sing at the same time. I try to make the playability of the instrument as easy as possible. But meanwhile, because of the type of show that we do and how active it is, I also have to reinforce the bass so that when it does get beaten around and slammed into the crowd or slammed into monitors or dropped, it doesn’t self-destruct on me. It’s strung very easy and set up very easy to play for me, but it’s also extremely heavy. [laughs]
It’s just something you get used to if you play it every night.
I’ve seen these videos of you lifting it around and spinning it around like crazy. It must be quite the workout.
It’s funny because Eric [“E Ball” Walls], the drummer, and I have this saying we call “tour muscles” because when you’re off for a month, you definitely realize what muscles you use when you’re playing shows when you don’t use them when you’re sitting around at home. [laughs] It definitely takes a couple of weeks to not get winded and get back into the action.
When you say that you have to reinforce your bass, how do you go about doing that?
It’s just a matter of making sure all the joints have extra glue and screwing extra pieces of wood on the inside so that it doesn’t fall apart. Making sure that the neck doesn’t fall off the thing. Just gluing and screwing and putting metal plates so that you don’t blow holes in the sides. It quickly adds weight to the instrument. Normally, as big as it looks, it’s a really light instrument. Not mine. [laughs]
So did figure out how to do that all yourself, or do you have someone doing these modifications for you?
Yeah, it’s all trial and error. I’ve been playing upright since I was 17, and it’s all trial and error. I didn’t really come into my own, being able to stand out on my own as an upright player, until probably about five years ago. I was still learning as I went. It took a lot of our early tours for me to really grasp and understand how to properly amplify an upright. Growing up in the Midwest, especially around Detroit, there really weren’t too many other upright players for me to learn from. The only other one I had to look up to was “Pistol” Pete from The Twistin’ Tarantulas, who is one of the most amazing upright players I’ve ever seen. You don’t learn everything from watching one person. By meeting different people, talking about their experiences with a particular instrument, I gathered a lot through my travels and discovered a lot on my own.
So do you use an external pickup going to a bass amp when you play with that?
Yeah, I use two pickups, one that goes underneath the neck for the slap and one that goes from the bridge to get the actual bass note. And then I run them into a two-channel preamp that goes to a wireless system that goes to the bass head. I recently started using a Gallien-Krueger bass rig. I used Ampeg for the whole existence of Koffin Kats, and once I plugged into a Gallien, I realized how much tone I was really missing out on that the Ampeg wasn’t offering. Ampeg’s a great brand, but they’re just not necessarily geared for an upright bass.
Yeah, Gallien-Kruegers are nice amps. One more bass-related question. Why did you initially decide to go for upright instead of the standard electric bass?
There’s two reasons. One reason was that everybody that I knew played guitar, including myself, and I was never that great at guitar. I didn’t plan on working at being good at something that everybody else played. And the other being that I always, ever since I first heard Stray Cats and Reverend Horton Heat and later got into psychobilly stuff, I’ve always loved the sound of an upright bass. I’ve always thought that it adds a great percussive element to rock ‘n’ roll. That was really the deciding factor in wanting to play the instrument. Plus, it’s something that not only [works when] playing rock ‘n’ roll — I’ve also gotten opportunities playing in jazz bands for a bit. It’s a good instrument if you want to be a working musician; it’s good to have an instrument that not everybody on the block has.
So have you played in a number of jazz side projects?
Just one. I played in a hot club jazz band around Detroit. That was going really well, and the only reason I don’t do it any more is just because we’re gone so much doing the Koffin Kats thing. It’s something that I would possibly do again in the future. It’s not out of the question. I enjoy all forms of music, especially music I perform with the upright bass.
Who would you say are some of your favorite bass players out there?
My favorite bass players? Definitely Mark Carew from the Long Tall Texans. He is an incredibly intense upright player. We got to tour with them throughout Europe last February, and just watching him every night was absolutely amazing, and the fact that I tried playing his bass and I can’t even get anywhere near keeping up with half of what he does. I like innovative bass players, such as Kim Nekroman [from Nekromantix], who kind of invented his own slap style. Not only does he build his own bass, but he has his own type of tone. It’s really musicians like that, that play with an intensity but also play with an originality to the instrument, who really open up your mind to the basics of an upright a lot more.
I have one more question for you. You’ve said before that your dream collaboration would either be with Iggy Pop or Alice Cooper. What kind of project could you see yourself creating with them?
[laughs] It would be absolutely fantastic to collaborate with either of them! Pretty much the project would be whatever the hell they wanted.[laughs]
[laughs] Out of all respect. But it’s one of those things where — Iggy Pop, he over the years has involved himself with every form of rock ‘n’ roll and then some. To be able to be in a hard-hitting backup band behind something that he wants to do would just be phenomenal. And the same goes for Alice Cooper. It’s just two rock ‘n’ roll legends that have such strong roots with our hometown, Detroit. With Alice Cooper, he is the original king of creepy. He is the reason that there were shock rock acts, like Marilyn Manson. And though looking at what he does today, it might look like child’s play, if you put it back into perspective, back when he was first coming out with the stage shows and severing heads on stage, that was some wild shit. I appreciate artists who, in their day, brought danger to rock ‘n’ roll and artists that still bring danger to rock ‘n’ roll.
Have you ever had a chance to meet either of them?
No, I haven’t. I’ve had the chance to see both of them perform, which was excellent, but not me, no.
Well, hopefully one day!
Pick up Koffin Kats’ new album, Our Way & the Highway.
For the band’s upcoming tour dates, check out their official website.