Words by Sean Moeller / Illustration by Johnnie Cluney
To the naked eye, French Kicks lead singer Nick Stumpf stands close to 10-feet tall, barefoot. To the keen eye, we're easily talking 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8, again, barefoot. All the same, that's a drink of water that could irrigate Augusta National Golf Club for a week and a half - greens and fairways, all of it. His curly mop brushes against low-hanging ceiling fans and chandeliers as he waltzes through dining parlors and supper clubs, to be sure. He's got saplings for legs and he's got to be all ribs without a shirt. For such a massive, skyscraperly man, he sure knows how to keep his songwriting on an eye-to-eye basis.
He keeps his words at the street so that you could imagine them bleeding out the light of a fluorescent street lamp or a neon Schlitz sign, spilling out a flickering and hissing potion that comes out naturally after midnights. He doesn't float his lyrics on the highwires - up at the levels of where he thinks them. He brings them into being with a demulcent swish to them, borrowing from the air of a near-dead pub at closing time, when the smoke's numb and the cool air beyond the door will whip the comfortable trance right the hell out of you, should you want it to.
He writes of how it is when a New York minute turns into a bender, then turns into a recovery, then turns into an hour, which leads to a sinking feeling for which the only remedy is mushing it between your hands and analyzing its decree - be it good or be it harmful. The songs on the band's latest record, "Two Thousand," -- out this week on Vagrant Records - attempts to bring all of the pettiness of relationship and inner-thinking into a roundtable discussion of its true intensions, but as always happens, the conversation stays murky and unresolved. We're (he's) to go on having these thoughts, these situations, where everything's over our (his) head and in some instances, it at least makes us chippy. Sometimes confusion is a toxin and sometimes it's the most desirable stimulant. The French Kicks (singer/keyboardist Nick Stumpf, brother bassist Lawrence Stumpf, drummer Aaron Thurston, guitarist Josh Wise and multi-instrumentalist Kush El Amin) have dutifully gone about the process of writing and recording pop music that has its own scripture.
It expertly acknowledges its past and then expounds further with tiny tangents that sometimes wear the same eyeliner, but are stiff with new scent and new glitter that gets into your eyes and ears when you've gotten close enough to lose a finger. But you always keeps them, pulling back 10 intact. I think what that means - keep in mind, this is a late hour - is that each one of this group's three full-lengths is a further adventure into this cape of New York groove, U2 mini-arena guitars and autobiographical lyrics that are representational of an entire room of 20 and 30-somethings lost on the sidewalk somewhere thinking about that real fucked up thing that happened last night. It's a foray into the power of questioning the head, the heart and then the question.
You know what never gets old? You're probably saying, "Those Wacky Wall Crawlers that you slam against the wallpaper and watch them tumble like sticky spiders to the ground just to collect hair and lint and quickly lose their stickiness." But no, I'm thinking of something else. Thinking a band that's truly its own sound is overdue - that's what never gets old. It can be written about who knows how many great, underprivileged bands - the Supergrasses, Superdrags and Super Deluxes, for starters. Fig Dish, Jude, The Long Winters, Herman Dune, Slowreader - and these are just from the top of the head. It's endless and every day another band which isn't convenient enough for a slap approval gets slightly more unnoticed. This cannot continue with the French Kicks. A stop must be put to the fickleness. Especially for a band that appropriately gave us - what I believe to be - the finest discrete album cover cleavage since Ween's "Chocolate and Cheese" with 2004's "The Trial of the Century (same boob?). Especially for a band that cannot be found guilty of one offensive tendency or irregularity. If there's ever a beef with a sameness that could be harped upon, it makes more sense to focus on the haves, not halving what's essential to the charm. A life never changes so drastically that it takes on a different sound altogether. With Stumpf's writing and the knock-down way his bras come to fill the picture around him, it's a reflection of reality from ground zero.
*The Daytrotter Interview*
*Did any of you Kicks contribute to the record-breaking box office take of Pirates of the Caribbean on opening weekend? Care to give an opinion of its worth, if you did?*
Nick Stumpf: I'm afraid none of us have seen it. I imagine we all will at some point. Wondering whether it's depressing or not that Keith Richards is in it.
*I believe I mentioned this to Lawrence when you were in town, but it seems like for the last two albums (including this new one) I've felt that this was the album that was going to send you skyrocketing into the mainstream of minds. The work just keeps getting better and better. Have you felt that each record's going to finally be the one to put you over the top?*
NS: We happily gave up thinking about that long ago. We're gratified when people respond to this music and the number of those people seems to be growing and that's great. Basically we're trying to be good at writing songs and playing them. We work very hard on it and believe in it as a worthwhile thing to do whether anyone is listening or not, and then if people dig it it's a great bonus and also helps it be doable as a living.
*Is there any disappointment that one hasn't done that yet?*
NS: The other thing about 'over the top' is that it's extremely hard to do that and do something subtle at the same time. It's not impossible but it's very hard. And if we had to choose one we would always choose doing what makes sense to us musically, which a lot of the time is some understated or maybe less obvious stuff. We're a pop band but we're trying to do something different with it. So, in a way, it can more gratifying to think that the people who do get it and do dig it, really dig it in a lasting way, and also that people who like it are maybe in on something that not absolutely everybody knows about or whatever. I think that sort of thing is rare these days and it's cool.
*To whom do you owe your lankiness and why isn't your brother any taller than he is?*
NS: I'm the tallest person in the history of both sides of my family, so God knows what happened to me. Lawrence turned out much more as the genetics might have predicted and I'm sure is very comfortable on airplanes etc.
*Also, during the "One Time Bells" years (was it this way for "Trial of the Century too?" -- I didn't see you live on that tour) you were playing drums and singing, correct? Why have you strayed from that arrangement?*
NS: I wanted to be able to sing better than I could while I was playing drums, and we wanted to be able to play faster songs, which was almost impossible before, and also to allow me to play some piano and stuff. Basically to open up more possibilities for ourselves live.
*What has bringing Kush into the fold done for you and the dynamic you're able to accomplish as a live band?*
NS: This is the first time really that I feel like we are completely unlimited in what we can do. It will be very exciting to expand into it, which will happen over time, but basically I think this band can play anything. You should hear us on sailing by Christopher Cross, for example.
*Why the name "Two Thousand?" What's its significance?*
NS: It has to do with thinking something really major is going to happen and then the aftermath where you realize that it didn't really happen and you have to live without the distraction that that kind of anticipation gives you, the grey, sober aftermath where you have to see everything for the mundane stuff it actually is, when just recently you thought you might be in for something spectacular. I bet people can't wait to hear what that sounds like.
*Jaff from The Futureheads (whom French Kicks toured with during the extent of the tournament) didn't feel that you guys appreciated the importance of the World Cup. Would you say that was true?*
NS: No American can possibly appreciate the importance of the World Cup the same way everyone else in the world does, which is why we're so shitty at it. Soccer is not played on a street level here and isn't in the culture, which is really too bad because even more than the Olympics it's an occasion where virtually all humans are together around a single activity. Especially nowadays it would be great if this country could go to that party like everyone else. But I can say that we certainly appreciated the importance of the World Cup to The Futureheads.
*When you find yourselves sitting down to write lyrics, what's been coming to you lately? Have you felt like you're exploring some new territories with this record? For me, I've seen every album as another installment lyrically. There are similar intentions as far as what you're writing about, but each record has brought an enhanced depth to the subjects. Do you see any of that or am I nuts?*
NS: Basically, I try to describe things as honestly and truthfully as possible in a way that I can stand to listen to. Each record is a reflection of the time when the songs got written. The best things are always the ones about something happening right now because it's all over the place in your brain, so I try to do that as much as I can. Sometimes one verse is about one thing and another is about another but they're related by the theme or whatever, sometimes there's a story. I guess I'm trying to find the happy ground where I like it and also people can listen to it and get the feeling from it.
*What are the bad interview experiences like?*
NS: "What's up with the name? How do you feel about being lumped in with the New York rock scene? What's the craziest thing that's ever happened to you guys on tour? Let's see if I have anything else here to ask you, nope, I think that's about it. Is there anything you want to say that we haven't covered here? Oh wait, there was one thing we ask all the bands, Who's your favorite Simpsons character?"
*Is Lawrence still on a ribs kick since that Rib Fest performance in Chicago?*
NS: He's on a Clif bar and hot chocolate kick. Extra chocolate, extra hot.
*How did the Vagrant Records deal come about? It looks like you haven't cut all ties with Startime though?*
NS: Startime got absorbed by Vagrant -- non-violently -- and we decided to stay on. And we're very happy we did. Isaac, who runs Startime, has good taste and only signs good bands, which, who else can you say that about? And the Vagrant people have been fantastic so far, so we're happy. To finish answering with the simplest expl anation -- Isaac is basically our A&R guy at Vagrant.
*If you go out back home, are there any celebrities in your posse?*
*What are your intentions with the music you make? What's your motivation?*
NS: I think more or less what I was saying earlier. For us, the idea is that pop songs are as viable an art form as anything else and as limitless, and we're just trying to do it as well as we can.
*What would success be for you?*
NS: Just being able to do this and nothing else for a living
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