Innovation in Adversity: Kaki King Prevails in Modern Yesterdays

Photo by Ebru Yildiz
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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 14 – New York-inspired – December 2020

Kaki King is one of the most exciting and innovative guitarists working today. Hailed by Rolling Stone as “a genre unto herself,” King is as prolific as she is unique, having released ten albums, created two groundbreaking multimedia live shows, and received a Golden Globe nomination for her work scoring the 2008 feature film Into the Wild. King’s latest album, Modern Yesterdays, is a companion piece to her latest live show, Data Not Found. I had a chance to speak with King about the project. I learned quite a bit about her ingenuity and craft, as well as the difficulties of creating an album during a pandemic.

With the Data Not Found show, were you building on some of the concepts from your previous multimedia project, The Neck is a Bridge to the Body?
One of the things that I brought in from The Neck was the projection of video images onto the guitar, except that it was more of a feature than the main event this time.

Let’s talk about the latest album, Modern Yesterdays. The title itself is an interesting irony, and the cover photo is a really excellently visceral, angry image of you. I like it a lot. Is it safe to say you’re expressing some feeling about the notable events of 2020 here?
No. In fact, I don’t think I look angry. I think I look hot. (Laughter) I look like a total babe that just got shoved into the sand. This was all pre-pandemic.

The album features a large group of songs that were in Data Not Found. So it’s not exactly the soundtrack, but it is a companion piece. Data Not Found also happens to feature a lot of sand and beachy, desert-y imagery. That was going to be my big project.

I went into the studio to make Modern Yesterdays on March 2nd and finished before lockdown, except for the last mix. I had ideas and demos worked out. It was going to be fairly cut-and-dry. I was making the album with my sound designer from Data Not Found, Chloe Thompson. Then coronavirus happened.

So what seemed to be kind of an average, “spend a couple of weeks in the studio, bang a record out, have a little fun,” became really intense. I won’t say the album itself was difficult because it poured right out, but the time period was insane, and we all ended up getting COVID, anyway.

Right off the bat, the album takes off like a rollercoaster with the opener, “Default Shell.” Are you speaking of the human body?
I’ll just Google-search whatever—I like little strange word combinations. It’s some term for a particular kind of coding. But I thought, “Oh, the default shell. That’s the human body.” That’s sort of the place where we have to start from. And slowly over time, we roboticize ourselves in one way or another.

When you say you roboticize yourself, is that what you’re expressing in that hard-opening rhythm of the song?
Yeah. I think that song requires a level of competency in my concentration that I normally don’t possess. The precision and accuracy of playing that song is incredibly difficult. So it’s mechanical, and it sounds like that. I don’t even know if the song is very pleasing. It’s not the top of the Data not Found show, but it’s the “welcome to everything you’re going to see here,” where everything is popping off, and it looks and sounds crazy.

If I had just written an album like I normally do, I probably wouldn’t have included that song. But I’m glad you think that it does push you out of the gate. For me, it was something to use on stage to grab an audience’s attention and hold them, so the physical playing had to be incredibly precise, strict, mechanical, and somehow expressive.

Tell us about the second track, “Can’t Touch This or That or You or My Face.”
That was named after it was written by a great Scottish Flamenco player named Ali Tod. I’m on a group chat with some amazing guitarists. They’re really fun, and she’s one of them. I told them: “Guys, I hate naming instrumental songs,” knowing that they were in the same boat. And a lot of them sent me fun song titles.

You start with this simple rhythmic riff and slowly build on it, almost with a Philip Glass sort of minimalism. You’ve got moments of peaceful release and then go back to the main rhythm. I thought maybe that had something to do with life in quarantine?
Not really. It was just a title that made sense in my brain because it’s a dark song. There’s not a hell of a lot going on from a guitar perspective that is brilliant. What’s brilliant is Chloe’s sound design and the weird thing she was pulling out and remixing. It’s very cool what she and Arjan Miranda—her boyfriend who was engineering and mixing—could do with those sounds, and it’s because of them that the record sounds the way it does.

Were they responsible for a lot of the ambient sounds?
All of them. I did what I do best: showed up, played guitar, wrote some things, played a few pieces of percussion, and then I just left it in their hands. I was there, and I would raise my head and comment. I had been working with Chloe for almost a year at that point, so we were already very much on the same page. I can put my song into her hands and trust completely that she would do the right thing with it. I was just there to say, “I like A a little bit more than B.”

Of course, I was the one reading the news to them while they were mixing: “Oh, my god, guys. No one in Italy has been outside their house for a month.”

For the third track, “Teek,” you did a really cool video, where you have a camera roaming continuously around the room as you play, showing various objects. Did you film it during lockdown?
Definitely. It’s funny because I look at it and think: “I could’ve done a much, much better job with this.” But in a way, it’s kind of perfect because I put a GoPro camera on my son’s train track; he’s three and obsessed with trains. The objects are things in my house or studio that I look at every day: same poster, same postcards, picture frames, plant. We’re all used to it now, but at the time, it was really novel to not leave your house. I thought: “Let me set up all the junk that I have and let the little train look at it.”

“Godchild” is a beautiful piece, very spacious in its phrasing with a lot of ambient sounds. You play out of time in the opening before finding a rhythm; then you go out of time here and there for these beautiful riffs. What are you expressing? Is it like a musical growth cycle?
Yes. That’s not a song that has an official, formal structure. It’s improvised every time. It was part of a moment in Data Not Found where, visually and from a storyline perspective, you are at this point of great release and death. It’s definitely meant to take you someplace. When I play it, I’m sitting in this giant pile of sand inside a tent that had previously been a projection screen. I’ve got a huge ocean washing over me and everything around you that you see. I mean, it brought a lot of people to tears.

In “Rhythmic Tiny Sand Ball Patterns,” there’s a discordant sound and rhythm that repeats throughout the song. It sounds like an Asian instrument, like a shamisen. How did you create it?
That is amazing programming done by Chloe and also Bobby McElver, who was the original sound designer when we were first building the show. It’s played on one of the crappiest, tiniest little instruments I’ve ever had: a tourist-grade cavaquinho, which is like an itty-bitty, steel-string ukulele. People play them in Samba music—they’re really fun. The grandeur of that song really belies its origin. And, again, all of that is fascinating filtering and signal-processing from the sound design world. I would just call it a motif in the show.

“Sanitized, Alone” is another very beautiful piece. It sounds at points like you’re playing ambient sounds from your acoustic. Is that sound design, or are you using an EBow?
I’m basically using a giant, permanently installed, crazy EBow-type thing. It’s called a Vo-96. You’re not hearing anything but the guitar. The Vo-96 is able to change the pattern of how the strings vibrate as I play. It’s amazing, and Paul Vo is the maker. He’s an inventor in Asheville who worked for Moog for a long time. That thing is really special and probably underused in my world.

But that song was written and titled for the album. It has nothing to do with Data Not Found. I wrote it late in tracking: I think they were mixing, and I was writing in the other room—very much in the moment. You can see how “Default Shell” and “Godchild” were done the first week—we were just getting these pretty guitar tunes recorded. The second week was, like, “Oh, dear” (laughs). On March 9-14, things had changed. March 9 was not like March 2; I can tell you that. Everyone had lost all their gigs and money. I lost money, and I also lost money for Chloe because she was going to come on these gigs. It was terrifying. The live arts, the big gatherings, all of that fell first. It was really, really sad. We did not even know how bad it was going to be.

On the final track, “Forms of Light and Death,” you credit Ulfur Hansson with the arrangement. Tell me about the collaboration, and what were you hoping to leave us with at the end of Modern Yesterdays?
Woo! That second one is too much for me to deal with. I’ll tackle the first. Ulfur was a partner of Chloe and Arjan in their studio called Circular Ruin. Again, it was just crazy timing. He used to live right around the corner from me, which I didn’t know. He has a daughter a little bit older than my daughter, so we thought: “Now we can be friends, and our families can hang out,” and it was really fun.

He had done an arrangement which I loved. And the idea was that we were going to have live string players come in and play the f**king arrangement that he had written. He put everything together beautifully, sent some temporary tracks and MIDI tracks, and said, “Then we’ll have the score.” So none of that happened.

Ulfur is from Iceland, and he had to go back. He said, “I cannot have my family here without universal healthcare.” He and his family are good, and all of that worked out, but at the time, it was panic. With it being the last track on the album, it also happened to be the last track we were mixing, which we did in lockdown. I think it took a couple of days because it was hard. Nowadays, we’re used to working remotely and doing our Zoom calls, but it was hard to mix this song because we weren’t sitting in the room together. They were emailing me a mix, and I would give them my feedback and send it back. It was not a fun process, but I’m glad that we stuck it out.

I’m glad the record was finished, even facing the unknown. I’m proud of us all for not giving up and grateful for everyone willing to see it through.

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