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Kenickie: Pop Stars in Their Eyes

by Jo-ann Greene


"When I'm 50, I reckon I'll be really huge," Kenickie's Marie Du Santiago laughs. "I'll have no hair, because I'll have bleached it all off, instead I'll have a really tall, bouffant wig, and I'll wear so much make-up that it'll be disgusting. And, I'll be going up to all the 20 year old boys in their lovely t-shirts going, 'You know pet, I used to be on Top Of The Pops, I used to be in one of them bands.' I'll just be scaring people, and me liver will be the size of a small European country. It'll be disgusting, terrible, isn't it?"

But, that's all something to look forward to far away in the future, for at the moment, Du Santiago is a 19 year old pop star. And an enthusiastic one, at that. In fact, the teenaged guitarist/vocalist just exudes exuberance. It doesn't matter what the topic of conversation is, she gleefully tears into the subject regardless. From tomatoes- "I hate a food that can't make up its mind. Is it a fruit or a vegetable?"- to cookies- "Did you know there was a court case to decide if Jaffa Cakes (an orange flavoured cookie) were a biscuit or a cake? They needed an answer in order to determine it's tax status"- Du Santiago eagerly sallies forth. Even a rather bland statement about Seattle's weather getting sunnier, set her off on an intriguing tangent. "Did you know you can change the climate of a place by planting different trees and things? There's one stately home in (England), and they changed the whole climate of this segment of the Northwest, just by planting plants that made it hotter by some oxygen giving reason! We should do that I reckon, plant them everywhere." She pauses briefly, probably to imagine a joyful world of warmth, all created simply by planting the right trees. And at the moment, Du Santiago's world is joyful indeed. She has reason enough to be this happy.

Kenickie's debut major label single, "Punka", went straight into the British Top 40. That was last year, when the band already had made one very influential fan. Radio One DJ John Peel. He'd voted "Come out 2nite", off kenicke's previous The Skillex EP, the tope song in his annual "Festive 50" chart.

Two more hit singles followed, "Millionaire Sweeper" and "In Your Car", and all four are included on the group's debut album, At The Club . In contrast to the British album, the American release also features two bonus tracks, the b-sides "Cowboy" and "Private Bukowski".

"Those b-sides turned out real good, when we recorded them we went, 'Oh, they're album tracks.' Especially 'Cowboy' that's one of my favourite songs, I really like me axework on that one. We were going to put them on the British album as well but then we decided that we weren't, because it was taking a piss."

Indeed, you can't really put out an album with four a-sides plus two b-sides without pissing off fans. And the fact that kenickie already has four singles and an EP to their credit, is impressive in itself, especially when one considers the quartet formed in 1994. But when one takes into account that the band only began learning to play after they formed, well, obviously there must have been considerable drive here.

"It never occured to us to be a band or do any of these things, we only did it because we'd seen all these other local bands, and they were really rubbish. We just thought, "You're not trying, we could be so much better than you it's not even funny.'"

Du Santiago, fellow guitarist/vocalist Lauren Laverne and bassist Emmy-Kate Montrose all attened the same very strict Catholic school. Once out, they found themselves with more free time on their hands than they knew what to do with. So they thought to themselves, "'Go on then, start a band. Why not do that and enjoy ourselves?' So we did."

The band line-up was completed by Laverne's older brother Johnny X, who'd played in "a load of bands at once." He was the only member with any musical experiance; besides drums, he also plays guitar and bass. But X can't take any credit for the rest of the band's expertise, as they all taught themselves how to play.

"You knoww hen someone teaches you, it really gets on your nerves, if you know them. If your Dad tells you things, it really annoys you, even if you really want to know them. I hate learning things from people, it makes you feel stupid.

"There's a program called Later With Jools Holland[yes, the former Squeeze keyboardist], it's a live music show, and I used to pause it on my video and copy the chords they were playing. I learned three chords like that, because it's really quite hard to figure out just by lookinhg. I just really taught myself basically.

"Then, we decided to form a band, because we could be good at it, and I go, 'I know three chords.' 'There you go then, she knows three chords, he can play the drums, and we can learn.'"

Well, they've seemed to have taught themselves pretty well.

"Yeah, we're not so bad!"

Their debut track, "Rebel Assault", was recorded two months after kenickie formed, and was included on the Elastic Jet Mission compilation, on Slampt/Castle Records.

"We recorded that in the attic of Lauren's and X's house," Du Santiago says. "It's the worst recorded thing you've ever heard, it's really bad sound quality. But, there's no point just hanging about it, if you want to be in a band and be a pop star, if you want to be famous, you have to release records."

Kenickie's freshman single, "Cat Suit," appeared in April 1995, also on Slampt. By then, the band were already being lumped into the riot grrl/lo-fi movement, merely because of their label, who also distribute the KK and Kill Rock Stars labels in Britain. It was hugely inappropriate for the band, as all of kenickie unabashedly desired pop stardom. "I didn't know anything about riot grrls particularly, especially the American proper riot grrls. It's all about being a girl and how being a boy is bad, and we're not about that at all. One of us is a boy, it makes it hard, we'd be walking hypocrites."

Thus it all ended in tears, of course. Kenickie were seen as traitors to the punk scene, and as the arguements with their label increased, eventually lawyers were called in.

"When we really went to be popstars, they went mad, because they were an underground organisation," Du Santiago says. "They think mainstream is evil. That's why we fell out really. They thought we were being kitsch and ironic. We really, really weren't, but they didn't think that...we just had a huge...we just didn't understand each other at all, we now realise. We were all just talking at cross purposes."

By that time, the band had already received an offer from a major label. Amazingly, kenickie turned it down, as the girls had all started their A levels, and felt that they couldn't combine school work with the expectations a major label would have of them. So, their EP was released by the indie Fierce Panda label. It wasn't until later in 1996, that kenickie signed to Emidisc, the EMI imprint run by St. Etienne's Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs. Their first single for the label, the exuberant "Punka" was a deliberate dis aimed at the lo-fi punk scene in general, and Slampt in particular.

"The people that ran the label were called Pete and Rachel, and they had the words 'Viva La Punka' tattoed into their arms. We thought if we take 'Punka' and make it a kenickie word, like a mainstream word, these underground people who've got it tattoed on their arms will feel really bad. It's beautiful," Du Santiago giggles maliciously. "And if your friends all bitch, you're a Punka...lo-fi songs are great- Punka! We never learned to play- cos we're Punka! I want to be a Punka too, when I grow up if Punkas ever do, I want to be like you. And if your hits all miss, you're a Punka...P-U-N-K-A Punka! Underground cliche- Punka!"

There's no better way to sum up the "new school" attitude. But the song's most telling line is "Hey Punka, I've got ambition," and the members of kenickie certainly do. The lo-fi for lo-fi's sake has nothing to do with their reality, and the desire to stay underground forever is anathema to the band's philosophy. However, the old school punks had no qualms about playing Top of the Pops or buying better equipment once they could afford it. So is kenickie just returning to true old school punk?

"I don't think we sound particularly punk, but the Clash don't sound particularly lo-fi either. And we recorded in the studio where Never Mind the Bollocks was recorded, and it's really a flash studio. I think that what we have got in common with punk is that they really wanted to make an impression, and they really didn't care what they did or how other people felt about what they did, except they wanted to be noticed. I think we've got that in common with them."

From day one, kenickie have deliberately set out to be noticed. For their live debut, the band constructed a huge glitter sign with their name emblazoned in glitter and nail polish, which they rather arrogantly posted above the headliner's much smaller sign.

"It was very presumptuous, but it makes an effect. And that's what you've got to do, make an impression. The gig was fairly full, considering nobody knew who we were...and considering we were really rubbish as well. If you take four people who can't really play, and are playing on instruments they've borrowed from their dads, it's not going to sound to crash on. But we got better, now we're brilliant."

Certainly their album, At The Clur justifies such arrogance. A superb cross of punk enthusiasm crossed with upbeat pop melodies and rock power, kenickie aims to please. But what's perhaps most intriguing is the album's considerable nod to 60's girl groups. From the opening line of their current single, "In Your Car," "Tell us exactly," with it's shades of "Leader of the Pack"("Is she really going out with him? etc."), to the claps with that start of "Come out 2nite," and on the Ronettes riff ripped for "Millionaire Sweeper," girl groups are an obvious influence.

"Emmy knows everything about 60's girl groups. You'll hear a song and go, 'Ooh, I like that one,' and she'll go, 'Ah, the Crystals.' Me and Lauren write the songs, and we're not particularly mad about it, but we do like that sort of thing, we do like the sound of that and the idea as well. But, really the main things we like are Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music, the Stooges, Iggy Pop, and Shirley Bassey."

Shirley Bassey?!?

"I think with Shirley it's for the dresses."

Now that makes sense. And certainly the girl group influences don't strech to the lyrics, for kenickie don't write death songs. What they do write is upbeat pop songs with a twist of intelligent lyrics. Their songs, not surprisingly, focus on teen issues, but there's not teen angst.

"I personally think it's easier to write a sad song, than it is to write a happy pop song, because everybody gets miserable, and it's easy to write a melancholy tune. But if you can write good pop songs, that's much more difficult. If you can make people think in the context of a happy song, then you've done much more than everyone getting together and going, 'I'm so sad.' Who needs that? We've had miserablism I think.

"I just think it's harder to write agood happy song, because it can come out sounding really cheesy, like a jingle for a radio station or something. That's why I think being in a pop band is the best thing you can be. And even better if you can make it a little bit something more then just a facile thing."

But is kenickie happy to be labelled a pop band?

"Yeah, I do see us as a pop band, and I don't think there's anything bad about being a pop band. If you look back, all the records that you like and remember are basically pop records. Like 'the Stooges', I think they're pop records. They've got loud guitars and screaming but popular is what pop means, and I can't see any person worth their salt who doesn't like the Stooges. We are a pop band; we have tunes, and proper songs with choruses, and if that makes us a pop band then we are, but we're proud of that. And we're the best pop band in the world!"

Hmm, that's a title Oasis' frontman, Liam Gallagher, also claims. But it certainly seems as inapropriate to lump kenickie in with the such Britpop bands as Oasis, Blur, anmd Suede, as it once was an attempt to shut them into the lo-fi/punk box.

"We deserve to be lumped in with Aerosmith, it's that simple, I think," Du Santiago says. "People ask us if we're the underground Spice Girls, but basically we're just a mainstream kenickie. It's that simple."

Mainstream pop perhaps. But the problem with pop is it's such a disposable medium, the fashion changes so fast.

"It does but that's what makes it the best medium. It makes it so competitive, makes it so difficult to be noticed, and it's so hard to make an impression. So, if you do, it means you've achieved lots."

But six months on top and it's all over.

"Exactly. Well, we're in a funny position actually, because we're in a pop band, but really at the same time we're being marketed as alternative, and alternative bands have quite long shelf life, and good pop bands do as well. Really, if you'tr good, there's no reason why you should fail in anything.

"But I don't really know if I want to be in a band in six months. I might want to work on telly, be a presente or a newsreader."

In fact, television work may happen even sooner than that for the members of kenickie. The band has had a show written for them, although Du Santiago hasn't even seen the script yet. If it's good enough, she promies the band will do it. Now that they're a week away from all moving to London, we muse on whether it might be a Monkees like premise. Well, the quartet will all be sharing an apartment together, just like the TV band. And speaking of screens, small or big, this inevitably brings the conversation to Grease.

Was kenickie named after the character in the movie?

"Absolutely. We were really big Grease fans, we just loved it, we still do. There's just that bit in 'Greased Lightening,' where Kenickie strikes his lighter, and the flames about a foot tall. If only for that moment, we are called kenickie."

There's the perfect logo for the band, a cigarette lighter with a massive sequined flame. Du Santiago enthusuastically agrees, "We'll all get kiys with sequins on them and a big flaming logo!"

Which brings us back to where we started, a 50 year old Du Santiago, over-weight, underdressed and overly made up. And what will she be doing, other than chatting at the pretty, young boys? A picture of her working a fish stall pops to mind.

"Of course we will! That's absolutely true, I saw a fish stall the other day, it was about two-feet square and had "fish" written on the side, and I just said, 'There's my stall when I'm old.'"

And will the sign on the side be made out of glitter and nail polish or luminous fish scales?

"You know actually, in the mines of the northeast a hundred years ago, they had exploding gas in them so they couldn't use oil lamps. Instead they worked by the light of rotting fish. So, I reckon I'll have a rotting fish on me sign, it'll have a pale green glow, that'll be lovely."

But, before that happens catch Du Santiago and the group while they're still fresh. Kenickie the mainstream alternative pop band with a punk edge and a girl group sound. But as that's a bit of a mouthful, will kenickie settle for the tag of "the thinking man and woman's pop band?"

"Yeah, I think so, and I know my bandmates would go with that. Brilliant."

note: these pictures are taken kindly without permission from the ATN article on kenickie, however these are the same pictures that were used in the article which is why I used them and they appear in the article the order I have placed them in only they are larger and in black and white

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