Kelley Stoltz was born in Michigan, moved to New York (where he worked as an intern for Jeff Buckley’s management company) and then relocated to San Francisco in the late 1990s. There he started releasing records, beginning with The Past Was Faster in 1999. He’s released eight albums in total; recent records have been on SubPop and now on Jack White’s Third Man Records and 2006’s Below The Branches has the distinction of being the first “green” album, able to claim that all the electricity used was offset by renewable energy.
He’s opened for the Raconteurs and his heroes Echo and the Bunnymen and produced various San Francisco groups, including albums by Thee Oh Sees, Bart Davenport, The Mantles and Tim Cohen, while he’s appeared on Sonny and the Sunset’s album Tomorrow Is Alright. The only dark cloud was joining and being dismissed from Rodriguez’s backing band, which he describes in the interview as “an extreme high and an extreme low”.
Latest album Double Exposure (released September 2013) sounds like Kelley Stoltz but also includes enough of his influences, from the Kinks to post-punk, to make you aware that he understands how popular music works. A slave to melody, these new songs of his are good enough to stand next to their inspirations without wilting in the glare. And if you ever see his recent single on Stroll On Records, grab it instantly, because not only does it have a brilliant Stoltz original, ‘Cross Your Mind’, but the b-side ‘The Anarchist In Me’, co-written with the Fresh And Only’s Tim Cohen, is beyond brilliant.
An avid vinyl record collector, splendid mimic and entertaining frontman, Kelley Stoltz is too good to be left in the pigeonhole marked cult favourite. We spoke to Kelley at the end of March 2014 before his Lexington show.
SXP: You looked really comfortable when you played at the Windmill. Have you played lots of gigs together?
Kelley Stoltz: The bass player has played with me now for 12 years. The drummer and I have played together for several years and we’re roommates - when you see each other in your underwear at the kitchen table on a bad day, then it’s pretty easy to play music together. Everybody on stage I’ve played with many, many times, with the exception of the guitarist [Gordon Goudie], who has done a tour with me before but he’s a Scottish guy, plays with Echo and the Bunnymen, so I chased him as an obsessed fan! So yeah, we’re comfortable.
SXP: I noticed that the songs on Double Exposure sound different when played live. Is this intentional?
Kelley Stoltz: I guess it gets a little bigger and tougher than I’m capable of doing [solo]. I play all the instruments on the record. At home, I play guitar first, then add the drums and the bass. You can only be so much Keith Moon when you’re playing to yourself but when there are the chemicals in the air with other people, it adds to that. I try to get it to sound like the record but then again you don’t want to force everybody. They’re already playing parts I’ve written so, beyond that, you want to give them a little bit of wriggle room to be a live human musician, otherwise they start to feel like “this is no fun for me!”. You want to let them have some latitude but do the songs well. I think it definitely gets a little more muscular - if you have 5 men with guitars, that’s what happens!
SXP: It must give you a bit more freedom when you can put down the guitar and become a proper frontman…
Kelley Stoltz: Yeah, love it!
SXP: …like on the amazing Compulsive Gamblers cover, ‘Stop And Think It Over’. And it’s great the way it segues into... was it ‘Substitute’?
Kelley Stoltz: ‘The Kids Are Alright’ - it’s the same chords! One day we were just rehearsing the song and we were doing the outro and I started to sing it. We were all like: “that’s kinda fun, let’s do that tonight”! Our rehearsals are pretty hilarious because that’s when our best stuff happens! You have a good idea there and you bring it along on stage.
SXP: Do you have a big repertoire of songs?
Kelley Stoltz: I could play a lot of my songs but these guys can’t. I try to do requests for songs each night. Luckily there are a few we know, so you look like you’re really together! I tried to sing a song for that girl for her birthday at the Windmill and I couldn’t remember the words, you know, it’s been eight years now. I remember my PIN number and my phone number but there’s so much crap in your brain nowadays I’m struggling to remember the new songs.
SXP: You played and recorded all the songs on the new album yourself. Is that hard labour or a labour of love?
Kelley Stoltz: It’s a labour of love, for sure. Originally I started it out of fear. I didn’t want to play my terrible songs for somebody and I thought if I do it myself I can get better on my own. I was an only child so I was used to having my own space and time. I think that it’s a labour of love because you get to play the drums! You get to play the bass! All these are fun!
There’s definitely a desire in me to share the musical experience with others at some point. Every time I make an album I say: I’m gonna get in a room with living human beings and interact and exchange, and live with the results. But then I go home and I start making up songs and all of a sudden I’ve got 15 of them done! I don’t write the way I can present things to be learned. I just get up, go in there and try to make something up and hopefully a melody pops in. I wanna take a quick Polaroid while it’s there.
SXP: I’ve read you’re a record collector, a bit obsessive even?
Kelley Stoltz: A little bit of a nerd…I work at a second hand shop that’s only vinyl, and I’ve always bought records since I was young. I got rid of a bunch of them when CDs came along and regretted that, and got back going 20-some years ago and I haven’t looked back.
SXP: Do you put things into your songs that appeal to the record nerd as well? I was listening to songs on Double Exposure and there were odd things that made me think: is that line meant for people like me?
Kelley Stoltz: Thinking about “Peter Green”?
SXP: Or “Stevie” and “Christine”! [the lines to 'Down To The Sea' run: “She was the girl from a young man’s dream/ a little bit Stevie, a little bit Christine/ she never cared about Peter Green”]
Kelley Stoltz: Oh, that was just a good rhyme! I’m sure there are some winks to people who have similar sensibilities to me. Musically, I do it as well. I’ve gotten better at being myself but I’m a very good mimic so it’s dangerous for me to listen to too many records because I can make a song that sounds just like a[nother] song, quickly and easily. And I’ve been guilty of that on some things but I’m able to sound more like myself, moulding the thing together rather than going: OK, that’s your Beach Boys song, that’s your John Lennon song, that’s your whatever. But I have fun with it too. Part of it is the challenge of can you write a song as good as something on a Kinks record? Usually you can’t but it’s fun to try!
SXP: One of the joys of listening to albums like Circular Sounds and Double Exposure is hearing little phrases where you can play spot the influence. But that also makes it easier for people to compare you – do you find those comparisons irksome?
Kelley Stoltz: I’m not trying to emulate; I’m just trying to write the songs that I would like to listen to. There are definitely things that I grab from here or there. There’s this song I wrote that had an XTC/ Dukes of Stratosphere lyric, and I put that in there because I thought this is the vibe of the song I want. And then I never changed the lyric, just thought I’d leave it, because I thought [the song] is done. It just gets people analysing and they get so mad at you. I understand if you hear something that’s blatantly a John Lennon vocal, and the song sucks, then it’s a double insult! But I heard this Ezra Furman guy and he’s got a lot of Gordon Gano/ Violent Femmes and some John Lennon-isms in his voice but his songs are great. So it’s fine by me! I’m just not the guy who’s going to reinvent music, I’m not the person who’s going to make the dirtiest, weirdest sound that the world’s never heard before. I’m just not that person. Because I love melody, and the instruments and sounds that I like are tried and true, and I’m not really interested in hacking things to bits in a computer or singing through a vocoder or whatever. There are plenty of people doing cool stuff, there are people making records that don’t sound like anything ever, and that’s their goal. But for me, I’m like a comfortable sweater!
SXP: Is there a kinship with other San Francisco bands?
Kelley Stoltz: Yeah, there definitely is. The bass player in the Fresh And Onlys used to play with me, we were roommates, I’ve played drums with Sonny Smith of Sonny and the Sunsets, I’ve recorded an Oh Sees record. We’re all friends. Like in any creative scene, there’s a group of about 50-100 people and a lot of them know each other, and we were all lucky to be about the same age, and have a similar interest in [the same] kind of music, so there is a kinship there. I think everybody has a slight competitive spirit, but I think it’s a healthy competitiveness. It’s been a special 10-12 years there, when we all still lived there. It’s come down now because the rents have gotten so high, so a lot of people have been forced to move but we had a good run.
SXP: You backed Rodriguez; what kind of experience was that?
Kelley Stoltz: It was an extreme high and an extreme low. The Fresh And Onlys were his original backing band in San Francisco and they did about three tours with Rodriguez. Tim Cohen had a baby and was just not able to play keyboards so I was asked and I did 7 or 8 shows with Rodriguez on the West Coast. Loved it, we got along great, we laughed, he was a pure, wonderful spirit, good guy, curious about our lives. “Hey, you Fresh And Onlys” (*spoken in a wickedly accurate impersonation*) – he called us the Fresh And Onlys, even though I wasn’t…but, whatever, I’d be in the Fresh And Onlys in Rodriguez’s mind. “Hey, you youngbloods” – that’s what he called us, “youngbloods”. He was great. And so I was booked along with the other guys to play a 6 week US tour. Long story short: flew from San Francisco, met him at the airport, went to the hotel; the next day, a knock on the door, he said “Kelley, your service won’t be required on the tour”. I was stunned. So the rest of the band quit and he ended up getting some other guys and the tour went on, and he’s gone onto greater and greater things. So it started off wonderful, I was a big fan, and it ended being fired for no reason in a hotel room. I haven’t listened to his music since but there are a lot of great songs there. I just feel that he’s working really hard, and maybe working too hard, but what do I know?
SXP: Are you going to collaborate with the Fresh And Onlys again?
Kelley Stoltz: Well, Tim has moved away but I read somewhere that he’s moved back. Wymond is busy with his solo stuff, Shayde, the bass player, is doing things. I know they have a new record, but I don’t know what their plan is. Would I ever work with them again? They don’t need my help anymore. Those guys are as good at or better than me at home recording at this point. I helped put out their first single just ‘cause I had the money at the time, and they were great. And Shayde is one of my best friends, so any way to help them.
SXP: I noticed on the new album one of the credits is to all the places that you like.
Kelley Stoltz: Those were the cities that supported me at the beginning, before anyone else. Melbourne, Australia was the first, Liverpool, because of the Bunnymen and the Beatles and the Las and everybody else that I love, and Detroit and San Francisco, and Madrid was the first town in Europe where people started coming.
SXP: If I gave you the key to my musical time machine, where would you go?
Kelley Stoltz: Where would I go? God, who knows? I’d love to see the Bunnymen play Erics in 1980, if they were playing there in 1980, I’d love to have seen an old Fall gig, I’d love to have been at the filming of the Beatles video where they’re pouring paint on the piano [Strawberry Fields Forever]. I would have liked to have seen some John Coltrane concerts. I’d say maybe Howlin’ Wolf… yeah, if you can get me to a Howlin’ Wolf gig in a small bar in the South, on a hot Friday night, that’d probably be it.