NYC Lower East Side Indie Veteran Kenn Rowell Finds That Solo Life Begins After 40. Time is a fickle mistress. One minute you’re the new guy in town, anxious to get “up to speed” with whichever ‘scene’ you’ve opted to become a part of – the next, you’re remembering the “good old days” and wondering where the time went.
Back in the early 1990’s, New York City’s The Baghdaddios were the new kids on the block………or more apropos, the new punkers on The Bowery. Playing their third-ever show at hallowed punk birthplace C.B.G.B., they carved out a slight but meaningful niche in the Big Apple’s indie community, playing nearly anywhere at anytime for anything, be it a paying gig, the door, pass the hat, free drinks or even just for “the hell of it”, as front man and founding member Kenn Rowell recalled the other day during a break from shooting his latest music video. The group released a couple of CDs, a “whole mess”of videos and internet singles, played – in Rowell’s estimate – “thousands” of shows, did hundreds of interviews and trekking to countless cities in various locales across the U.S., Canada and the UK. Every now and then they’d get word that their music was airing either here or overseas and on a few occasions their songs would end up finding exposure on a national TV network in any one of those aforementioned places. They’ve frequently received fan mail from random corners of the globe. And, yes, along the way, they started their own Benefit to help NYC’s homeless – a Benefit which has spread to several metropolitan areas in America and abroad over the last two decades – called Blank-Fest.
“Yeah, it’s been a fun journey”, Rowell smiled as the videographer downloaded the latest files from the shoot to his laptop. “I can’t believe the band is coming up on it’s 25th Anniversary, in November! I mean, I don’t feel old………”
True, he doesn’t impress one as an “old man”, although he does come across as someone who’s ‘been there and done that’. Still, after a quarter century he appears to have that boundless enthusiasm that earmarks most of the YouTube videos in circulation from past Baghdaddios performances over the years. Early in 2017 the group released a grainy-but-still-must-see performance from that storied third-show-ever at CB’s, where they eviscerated the time-honored Beatles classic “Hey Jude” to conclude the evening’s proceedings. If anything, a boyish Kenn actually comes across a little tentative, almost apologetic – certainly not the whirlwind we would see in later performances at the same venue within a couple of years. When asked about the ongoing evolution of the group’s sound and image, Rowell just sighs and then admits “I was a bit out of my mind at the time – might even still be”. Refusing to give his age (other than saying “over 40” or “buzz off, man”) he appears naturally younger (we’re guessing mid-to-late 40s) and only addresses the subject once, when asked if the new album’s style change had anything to do with him getting older.
“I never thought I’d be doing this, at this age. Actually I never really thought I’d make it past my 40th birthday. You know, when I was younger, I thought of 40 as being so old – but now that I’m well past it, it’s not that bad. I mean, I still feel the same as I’ve always felt. The same things still piss me off. The same things still float my boat. If anything, the shift in style isn’t a reflection of my getting older as much as it’s just that I wanted to do something different for a change. I’ve been angry and full of attitude since I was in high school – but how many times can you yell F-bombs into a live mic? So THAT part of me hasn’t changed a bit, that yearning to do something different. Besides, I always said that I like to keep ’em guessing.”
As the years peeled off the calendar and various members of the group quit – some coming back and then leaving again – he’s been the one constant in the band’s timeline. So when word reached us of the imminent release of his first solo album (ironically titled “Instant Solo Album” because, as Kenn puts it, it took almost a full decade to put out) we had to ask one question.
If anything, he seemed to bristle when we brought up the subject. “Yeah, yeah, I know the whole rep”, Kenn explains: “I’m the guy writing the songs and doing the singing and talking to the crowd all through the history of The Baghdaddios – so what makes this new album a ‘solo’? I guess it’s two-fold, the reason I slapped my name and mug on the front of this one. First, the whole style of the material has a completely different feel from anything The Baghdaddios usually do. Oh, sure we have slower tunes like “Let It Shine” (which gets the acoustic treatment on this release) and “Abbie Hoffman”, which to me always sounded like a 60s-era anthem. But we’ve always described The Baghdaddios style as “three chords and punt” – we just couldn’t help ourselves from playing everything bigger, and faster and louder”.
True, past reviews on AllMusic.com compared the band to one of their biggest influences, The Ramones; while a quick listen of Instant Solo Album belies a decided acoustic folk and classic rock feel. Just hearing the opening guitar strums on the collection’s first number, “Good To Be Back”, one can’t help but picture a group of college students sitting around a dorm room, singing along between sips of grain alcohol punch on a Friday night. Furthering the feel for this mood is the harmonica solo – done flawlessly by Rowell – augmented by a strong cello underpinning, before both cello and harmonica take the listener with them as the song fades out (no Baghdaddios song – to date – has ever faded out). The follow-up to this sounds almost like an outtake from a 1970’s Neil Young session in the form of another Rowell original, “I Guess I’ll Never Fall In Love”. Mind you, this is the same “I Guess I’ll Never Fall In Love” that consistently pushed the V.U. meters into the red from the band’s 2006 release, Autopsy-Turvy – but all the grunge vitriol and punk swagger has been stripped away. If anything, Rowell’s solo version chugs along almost joyously. In fact, it’s so airy that the listener doesn’t even notice that it clocks in a little shy of 5 minutes in length!
There are 18 songs on the album and yet it’s like a visit from a long, lost friend who leaves before you get the chance to fully catch up. I found myself going back and playing several of the tunes multiple times; for me it was over way too soon and it felt like I didn’t want to let go. Part of the appeal of this offering is the eclectic mix, not only of song styles and instrumentation but even in production particulars. Numbers veer from slick, crystal-clear digitally recorded tracks to performances that sound like glorified demos – a celebration of the lo-fi aesthetic that KR confesses to having a soft spot for. (It should then come as no surprise that one of the many respected industry pros consulted for the production end of this effort was none other than Guided By Voices producer Todd Tobias – credited as a pioneering architect of the Lo-Fi sound, championed by “Voices” front man Robert Pollard – and was thus rewarded with a co-producer credit as a result.) When queried about the changes in recording ambience for the album, Rowell further confesses that said changes weren’t necessarily by choice – and exist for obvious reasons.
“When I started on this I had a few studio recordings which explored my more acoustic side. I had some of these songs in my head since I was 17 years old but I never got them out because they didn’t have that Baghdaddios-like feel to them. To me they sounded like I was doing Dylan or Johnny Cash or even The Beatles. It certainly wasn’t punk. And I had only recorded them because I got a good deal on studio time and thought it would be fun to actually sing the tunes, rather than scream ’em. Along the same time I met a filmmaker who wanted to do a music video for my band – but this was right before we were leaving for England. Between preparing for the trip and playing last-minute shows we just didn’t have the time to do a vid. I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to work with this guy so I handed him a cassette copy of a 6-year-old acoustic demo that I had recorded in my apartment. We just decided to do a quick production for that as a sort of solo number – the video came out so well that I started to think about cleaning up the sound on the recording and maybe putting out a 6 or 7-song EP of original acoustic tunes. Then I found another old cassette of a song I had written and recorded when I was in high school and then another one from my college days and it sort of took off from there. I found it liberating because I had all these old songs that I would occasionally play for friends but since they were never formally released I didn’t feel right springing them on some poor unsuspecting paying crowd. Well, when you have songs recorded on various systems, spread out over a 20 or 25-year period there are going to be a LOT of differences. Now try getting all that to sound like it all belongs on the same album. THAT’S why it took so damned long to finish it all off!
Over the last 10 years Rowell estimates he stopped and restarted work on this project, in earnest, about a half-dozen times. “Each time we’d get close to releasing it I’d go back and listen to the whole thing on headphones and I’d go ‘I can’t release this uneven pile of crap’ – I mean, some of the songs had all this “hiss” on them – others sounded muddy. There was one song that I absolutely loved – I’ve actually broken it out at some shows even though no one’s ever heard it before. It was something I wrote when I was in college and it always reminded me of The Beatles Rubber Soul album.”
The only problem was that it was recorded on an old 4-track reel-to-reel machine, the original tape long since lost. The only existing copy of that recording was discovered on an old “normal bias” cassette in a pile of stuff in the corner of Rowell’s parents’ basement about 8 years ago. “The first studio guy I brought it to said that it was impossible to restore. He got me to re-record it on Pro-Tools and even though I played along with the tape through headphones and tried to make it sound as close to the original as possible, I hated it. The ‘magic’ or whatever it was, was missing. It took several years and several engineers working on it and it still wasn’t exactly where I wanted it to be.”
Enter Michael Jung of Alice Donut fame. Kenn met Michael at a Baghdaddios show on the Lower East Side a few years ago and had stayed in touch via social media. It was he who suggested Kenn bring the track to him. There by the grace of Alice and the EQ gods goeth “When Will I Learn”, the ninth song on the album. “No, it’ll never be a testament to modern recording techniques but the hiss is gone, you can hear the vocals clearly and all the emotion of a 19-year-old in agony over being in love comes through loud and clear. I would have put the song on the album even if Michael hadn’t cleaned it up so well – but now I don’t feel like I have to apologize for it being there. It belongs with all the rest of them and I’m forever grateful for that!”
The rest of the album runs the gamut from the pop-hooked “All About Me” with it’s catchy ‘me-me-me’ refrain to “Henry”, which strikes one as an homage to White Album-era Beatles. “Antonio”, which laments the passing of an infant rides a lush four-stringed quartet to an emotional finish and “This Old Soul” is showcased in two different incarnations: one complete with banjo and fiddle accompaniment and sounding as upbeat as the second performance of the same song sounds melancholy, where Rowell adopts a lower register to purr the plaintive lyrics in a rendering very reminiscent of those famously Rick Rubin-produced Johnny Cash outings, toward the end of The Man In Black’s life. It’s only fitting that this second version was dubbed parenthetically as “Confessional”. “Dreams” could easily pass as an Irish folk hymn and, yes kids, there’s even the ol’ proverbial hidden track which serves to remind us that Mr. Rowell – when all is said and done – is still, first and foremost, an unrepentant punk-rocker at heart.
Having been released on April 27 – a date Rowell chose on purpose because it was his parents’ wedding anniversary (“I’m a sentimental Dude, what can I say?”) – the release is already garnering a good buzz amongst friends and fellow industry professionals. Many of the songs already have music videos done for them with more on the way. Sales have gone surprisingly well. With all this good will in evidence, the question was raised regarding any plans to tour. I was alittle surprised when Rowell didn’t even miss a beat before flatly saying “No”.
“Nah, man – I mean, look, I’d love to but there’s just so much on my plate right now – to be honest, I didn’t even think of it. It had taken so long to get this done that my feeling today is ‘get it out and move on’. In fact, at the end of last year I made a list of outstanding projects that I wanted to finish up and get ‘out there’; this album was at the top of the list. I think I counted something like 23 of these individual projects. Besides finishing off a bunch of music videos for myself and The Baghdaddios I have enough full electric material already recorded for a Baghdaddios double album. I’m in the middle of recording 15 new band songs for release at the end of the year. There’s a short film that I shot in 2014 which I seriously need to find the time to edit and get released. I have a collection of demos that I did for the band – all done on nylon string acoustic guitar – that I thought would make a great follow-up solo album (working title: “Nylon Raw”) and we’re celebrating Blank-Fest’s 20th Anniversary show in December. In fact, I haven’t even set a date for that yet and it’s only 8 months away! I really need to promote this album but going out on the road is not really an option at present. Oh and then there’s all the Yvonne stuff.”
The Yvonne that he is referring to is his “Mrs”: celebrated Lower East Side bilingual poet Yvonne Sotomayor. Kenn has been playing music behind her spoken word pieces, recording and producing them – along with producing all her “poetry videos” (“Think: music video for spoken word, man!”) since right after they got together in 2012. Having performed in 8 states, two countries and all throughout their native NYC, Ms. Sotomayor scored her biggest coup last summer when she appeared – with Kenn in tow – at the Iowa State Fair (on the same stage, later graced that night by Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famers Cheap Trick!). “Performing with Yvonne is yet another side of me that I love. We do everything together as it is – I’ve gotten her up to do ‘her thang’ at Baghdaddios shows all the time – so for us it’s effortless. She has a six-piece EP coming out later this year and I keep telling her to get the book she’s in the middle of putting together issued at the same time. We just bought a hand-held 16mm movie camera and we’re dying to shoot her next video on film. Believe me, between recording with The Baghdaddios, Blank-Fest and the poetry shows, I barely have time to sleep, let alone do a solo tour!”
For someone who’s been in the business for as long as Rowell, he seems pretty unfazed by all the recent news. When asked about it, he seemed fairly resolved to maintain an even keel.
“What would you say was a highlight of your career?”
“When I got the email, informing me of my solo album’s first sale.”
“What was the first thing you did when you found out?”
“I kissed my wife and went to work.”
At this point we both noticed the video director pacing in the background. “Well, break time’s over – we want to get this shoot done while we still have daylight”, Rowell blurts out, signaling an end to Q & A time. Of course it was at that moment that it occurred to me that he had only given one reason for doing a solo album, as opposed to integrating these newly-released tunes as part of some future band compilation. When I reminded him of this, he smiled and left me with this parting bit of insight: “A few years back I was handing out blankets to the homeless on Christmas Eve. These were the same blankets that we collected at our annual Blank-Fest show………a friend had picked them up at the venue and had brought them to a club in the Village where we would later meet up. When I stopped in the club’s lobby to grab some blankets to take out in my rental car one of the bouncers grabbed me, like I was ripping the place off and said ‘HEY, those blankets are from The Baghdaddios, for the homeless!’. It suddenly dawned on me that after almost 20 years of being in the middle of the whole Baghdaddios thing that I had done a piss-poor job of letting people know who I am. Look, it’s insulting to the rest of the group to say that I’m the whole band. The Baghdaddios were and always will be a collective effort. I couldn’t imagine doing those songs in the studio without either Neil (Richter) or Paul (Zlotucha) on the drums, or John (Sidoti) or Phil (McAughk) on bass. Their contributions were more covert but they shaped our sound just as surely as my songwriting and onstage histrionics did. So a solo album was a chance for me to step out and say ‘No, THIS is all me’. Most of the songs are just myself on a guitar, doing a vocal. With many of them I overdubbed the harmonies and backing vocals. If I used a full band on any of them it was guys I grew up with or had known most of my life like my best friend from college, Paul on lead guitar or my cousin, Rye on drums. So, besides the styles being different than a straight-up, old-school punk band, it was more of a chance to say ‘you know that guy you see screaming on stage? Well, he’s got a few more surprises for you.” And then he smiled one last time, made a quick jazz-hands gesture and howled “SURPRISE”!
It was a good moment to leave. Just like a good, old-fashioned Baghdaddios show: once the music stops, it’s pretty much been all said. For now.
Music Video – “(It’s) Good To Be Back” by Kenn Rowell: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pn5Xfux1lnE