MusicMusic Features

Flickering on a Screen

Photo Credit: Mike White

Kenosha Kid

Since 2001, Dan Nettles, the leader and only stable member of Athens’ Kenosha Kid, has engaged in a series of fruitful collaborations with dead people. Nettles is not a channeler of spirits, and he doesn’t sample old recordings; he and his rotating cast of bandmates perform compositions and improvise to silent films. Kenosha Kid creates movie scores in real-time.

Last February, Nettles and friends debuted his most engaging and nuanced “score” to date, a musical accompaniment to Buster Keaton’s 1928 film Steamboat Bill, Jr. Like the music on 2005’s Projector, Kenosha Kid’s only album, Nettles’ newest score both is jazz and isn’t jazz. Fusion, psychedelic rock, be-bop, blues, march and heavy doses of funk all find their way into the work. And the results are far from the trite one-world jam-rock or postmodern schtick that such a mishmash of genres suggests. Piercing melodies – the show-stoppingly pretty, music-major intricate kind that Wayne Shorter and Kenny Wheeler wrote in the ’70s – guide this project, and the execution is as devastatingly funky as that of The Meters or Miles Davis’ electric bands. Kenosha Kid plays jazz as if Kenny G and Wynton Marsalis never came along to ruin the genre’s mainstream and leave its great minds to squawk away in an underground vacuum.

This month, Nettles and seven other musicians from across North America will convene in Athens to record a studio version of his challenging-yet-accessible Steamboat score, and this weekend, they’ll perform the music live as the film screens at Ciné. This meeting is important not only because Athenians will get to hear some great music, but because it could mark the end of an era for Kenosha Kid. “The CD is meant to be a follow-up to Projector in terms of sound and general aesthetic,” Nettles says, “and at the same time, I hope it will be a definitive marker of our whole ‘silent movie score’ aspect, because I feel it is coming to an end for me.”

Projects as ambitious as Kenosha Kid – a vision that spans artistic media, geographical regions, musical genres and time periods, and high and low cultural registers – aren’t the type that any ol’ dude with a guitar dreams up while he’s on his pizza delivery route. Nettles talks about his musical upbringing, and his evolution into Kenosha Kid: “I began playing guitar in kindergarten with my father,” he says. “[We played] lots of country music. I played a baritone ukulele, because I couldn’t get my arm around a full-sized guitar! In seventh grade, I began lessons with Chris Hampton, who I am still friends with. At the same time, I began to get into the music program in school. I pretty much took my musical education to the limit for Watkinsville, then decided to go to music school after 12th grade. Four years later, I left Berklee College of Music with a big stack of notes, a huge list of scales and crap that I didn’t know, and very little playing experience. Later, back in Athens, I began to cut my teeth for a few years. And then I went to the Banff International Jazz Workshop [located in Alberta, Canada], and everything changed. Hey, there were people out there just like me, who’d-a-thought! I gave up the pursuit of reproducing jazz, and went down a path of my own. The people and teachers I met at the workshop inspired me to quit editing myself and begin to play more of myself, and let other people worry about the labels.”

Nettles mentions two musicians whose work inspired him to think differently about jazz: Bill Frisell, a genre-roving guitarist known for blending jazz with American folk and country music, and Dave Douglas, a trumpeter and composer who has received praise from both mainstream and avant-garde circles. “Yeah he’s a big hero,” Nettles explains when asked about Frisell, “and I was lucky to meet him and become friends. I told him, ‘You were the guy that made it okay for me to play the way I do.’ And it’s true – when I heard him embracing the guitar, and the sounds available on the guitar, and mixing in rock stuff, and country stuff, and stuff that just sounds good on the guitar, it really clicked. I thought, ‘Why am I playing ‘Naima’ in A-flat? I’m a guitar player… I’ve got this great A string, let’s take it up a half step and use it!’ Things like that… [another] main concept I gleaned from him was to be okay with simplicity.”

Nettles on Douglas: “Dave opened other doors for me, mostly along the lines of how to generate even more material out of a small theme.” At Banff, Nettles collaborated with Douglas on a silent film score. (Frisell, too, has launched cinematic projects, such as Go West: Music for the Films of Buster Keaton.)

Literature, too, has played a pivotal role in shaping Nettles’ aesthetic. “I read lots of fiction,” he acknowledges. “About the same time I began playing music seriously, I was also writing a great deal. Eventually, the music won out, and I went into a career of music instead of writing, but great authors have always had a hold over me. When I write music and perform, it’s like entering a whole private realm, and in that way it is a similar experience to reading some of my favorite books. Gravity’s Rainbow was a big one for me for a few years, along with Grass’ Tin Drum, García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy.

“I picked the band name from Gravity’s Rainbow,” says Nettles. “I wanted a name that was very playful and at the same time hit upon lots of dark and light levels of experience, which is what the book does for me. For quite a while, it was fun for me to make use of all the symbols in the book, of which there are many.” These images – a horse, a knight chess piece, a projector, a light bulb – have appeared in Kenosha Kid’s album artwork and concert fliers.

Although Nettles has absorbed and meditated upon plenty of inspiring musical compositions, films and novels, he spends even more time actively creating music and connecting with other musicians. He supports himself by teaching music lessons, working shifts at Nuçi’s Space, and playing shows. He’s also received backing from the University of Georgia’s Music Department, where he has served as a visiting artist. When he’s not eking out a living, he travels throughout North America and Europe. He estimates that he spends about a fifth of his time on the road. “All in all, it’s not easy,” he admits. “I’m grateful my girlfriend and my dog put up with it all!”

As much a strain as traveling can be for Nettles, his journeys have been fruitful, allowing him to meet kindred spirits. But these long-distance friendships can create even more stress for him – especially when he needs to pull together musicians from multiple states or countries for a tour or performance. However, Kenosha Kid has a system in place to make its constituents’ lives easier: “Before a tour, we try to have a few days of rehearsal. I also have all my music written out and scanned in a .pdf file, so for the new stuff, [my bandmates] can take a look ahead of time. Plus, my bandmates are really, really, really shamelessly good at what they do… Logistically, it’s always a huge burden, but we often divide up the phone calls and emails. One day, a booking agent will realize how well we do what we do, and that they can make money off of it, and then we can all relax and focus all the time on writing music!”

Nettles has considered leaving the Deep South for a city with a larger pool of like-minded artists (not to mention a bigger audience for jazz-based creative music). But, he says, “I lived a few years in Boston and New York City. At the time, the bigger cities were great fun, but I wasn’t ready to do what my friends were doing in order to stay. Work in a temp job 40 hours a week, trying to scrape a few hours together to practice, and perform a tip jar gig when you managed to get one? No thanks. Of course, now they have moved on to the next career step and are really making the scene happen in NYC, but I get to benefit from that also – when I travel, my friends help me find better work… I guess I am addicted to the freedom I get from a smaller town. I can live cheaply, I have more time to write and perform, and as long as I tour a few parts of the year, or my bandmates ‘tour Georgia,’ I’m quite happy. We have quite a gig exchange going between Athens, NYC, Montreal and the guys in Europe.”

So, it looks like Nettles is sticking around the Classic City. “Somebody has to! I really hope that jazz can one day return to the South, but the music has to change, and the listeners have to change what they expect. In less-progressive cities, musical traditions can become more of a burden than source of inspiration. How many people really get excited about jazz standards? I mean really excited, like, ‘I’m getting a babysitter Friday night, and we are going out to really party and listen to those guys play tunes from The Real Book!’ Jazz becomes background music, or music that should be behind glass at a museum, with a little sign next to it saying, ‘This was how Miles did it.'”

WHAT: Kenosha Kid’s live score for Steamboat Bill, Jr.
WHEN: Thursday, October 4; 8 p.m. & 10 p.m.