With a new album release, new local label The Record Machine, and a standing ovation from actor Bill Murray at last year’s South by Southwest, the psychedelic band The Philistines are on a roll.
The Philistines at MidCoast Takeover during SXSW
A quick Web search defines a Philistine as an “ignorant, ill-behaved person lacking in culture or artistic appreciation and only concerned with materialistic values.” Nothing could be further from the truth when describing the six-person Kansas City band that has been playing under that moniker since 2013. The irony is fitting.
Equally fitting is their choice to record their forthcoming album, The Backbone of Night, at a studio in Shawnee, Kansas, called Massive Sound. The band has spent nearly a year honing an expansive, sonic landscape into a rock album with a big, big sound. Cody Wyoming, who conceived the band with his creative partner Kimmie Queen, has described their music as “interstellar rock ‘n’ roll,” “cosmic existentialism” and (somewhat cautiously) “psychedelic.”
“We aren’t a re-enactment of ‘60s psychedelia, but we make rock music that is good for headphones. Rock music you can close your eyes to,” says Wyoming.
After crashing a recording session, I instantly understood what he meant. The process embraced by studio owner and producer Paul Malinowski is both unconventional and meticulous. The aim was to never repeat the same guitar tones on more than one song, to create an album that functions as a “start-to-finish” experience and to capture the interpersonal chemistry of the band’s live performances. Hence, the band members played together in the control room with their amps isolated in individual recording rooms to ensure spontaneity.
“The minute we hit the studio, Cody started pulling out stuff he had in mind from the songs we’d been playing together for almost two years: strategies for backup vocals, multi-tracking concepts, things nearly impossible to communicate outside of the studio,” confesses guitarist Rod Peal. “Other bands with similar combined experience might have jumped right into recording, but we collectively decided to let this material simmer and ferment, and I think the album benefits from that patience.”
The “combined experience” Peal describes is one of the keys to the band’s powerful yet polished sound. Their ages span the 20s through the 40s and bring a wide array of musical influences to the party. All the musicians have played with multiple bands and continue working on side projects. Michelle Bacon comes from a background in classical piano that evolved into guitar playing, then drums and now bass with the band. Drummer Steve Gardels began as a string player and started percussion only after moving to Kansas City in 2005. Wyoming’s work for the past two decades was largely as a bass and rhythm guitar player, and now he’s switched to lead. Guitarist Peal and keyboardist Josh Mobley add what Wyoming calls “the ethereal levels and tones” to the mix, moving the band into innovative sonic territory. And Kimmie Queen, a stage actress and artist, brings a dynamic performance flair to her role as lead vocalist.
“I’ve played with many amazing musicians,” says Bacon, “but the Philistines have the strongest and most natural musical chemistry of any project I’ve been part of.”
Which brings us to The Backbone of Night — a reference to an African tribe’s description of the Milky Way as seen in the night sky.
Wyoming confesses to being a “hardcore NASA geek,” and the cosmos clearly plays a part in the concepts and lyrics on the record. They are poetic, impressionistic and consciously left open to interpretation. He describes “The Accretion Disco,” the magnum opus of the record, as “a song about dancing with your partner along the accretion disk of a black hole and being drawn into it.”
The lyrics may be enigmatic, but the song structures are clear, melodic and in some cases evocative of a rich musical tradition. “Heart Like Candy” echoes doo-wop, and “Stygia” is a hard-driving piece with shades of The Cure and maybe even a little Black Sabbath. “It’s hard to talk about influences because there are so many of them,” says Wyoming with a shake of his head, ”but one thing is safe to say: I’m as inspired by cinema as by music. I know it’s true for Kimmie, too. She is so responsible for keeping me pointed in the right sonic directions. And we have a lot of similar tastes (Italian horror, ‘60s exploitation and art cinema) so watching films together is an indispensable part of the process.”
Particularly exciting to the band is their deal with Kansas City’s The Record Machine label and the production of a vinyl album in addition to the CD. “I grew up in the time of the album,” says Wyoming, “with the songs designed to be played in a particular order. I remember holding an album in my hand, looking at the cover and lyric sheets, taking the record out of its sleeve, lowering the tone arm, getting up and turning it over. It’s a particularly interactive experience with the music. So we constructed this record with real thought behind the rises and falls, the transitions and crescendos, like a complete experience, but in a non-narrative way.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about last year’s experience at South by Southwest where The Philistines suddenly found themselves playing for Bill Murray, who led the audience in a standing ovation and then introduced himself to the band. Wyoming smiles: “I’ve never met anybody so comfortable in his own skin.... As far as celebrities go, he is probably the coolest guy there is. Having him dig the band, as somebody I admire, is a nice validation.“
The band is already at work on songs for their second album and preparing for an array of live gigs in the spring. Vocalist Kimmie Queen likens The Backbone of Night to the band itself: “This thing really feels like pieces of a whole, greater than the sum of its parts….We’ve created something together that none of us could have done on our own.”
The Philistines album, The Backbone of Night, will be released by The Record Machine this spring. They play with The Grisly Hand at The Tank Room on March 26. Visit philistineskc.com for record release details and upcoming performances.