Q&A with Reggie Youngblood of Black Kids
In an interview for a Westword profile in advance of an April 15 Oriental Theater gig with Mates of State and Judgement Day, Reggie Youngblood, lead singer and songwriter for Black Kids, talked at length about his buzzy band and plenty more. Get into his head after the jump.
Topics up for discussion? Youngblood's formative years as a Navy brat and musical eclectic, whose faves ranged from Prince to Metallica -- not to mention Sparks, a duo he discovered later, and to which he strongly relates; the media's odd fascination with his Christian upbringing; his nascent songwriting efforts, which were meant to woo girls, and usually failed miserably; various bands with future Black Kids members, and the decision to add his sister, Ali, to the mix; how a tour and physical CDs had as much to do with the group's discovery as did MySpace, which usually gets all the credit; his reasons for wanting to turn the act's debut full-length, Partie Traumatic, into a "teenagers record;" and his dedication to creating a collection that can be listened to from beginning to end, even though he seldom sits down with albums these days.
Of course, he's kinda busy right now...
Westword (Michael Roberts): Where did you grow up?
Reggie Youngblood: I'm a Navy brat -- my sister Ali and I are Navy brats. So we traveled around quite a bit. But for the most part, we grew up in Jacksonville.
WW: What were some of your other stops?
RY: Sicily and the Philippines, where I was born. We were in D.C. as well.
WW: Were you old enough in any of those places to have any memories of them?
RY: I was. I'm not sure Ali has very acute memories of all those places. I remember quite a bit, though.
WW: What do you remember about Sicily?
RY: We had an apartment. It was like this wraparound balcony, and we could see Mount Etna from there. It was pretty cool. And there was a small earthquake once. I'd never been in one before. It was small, and I thought it was funny, but my mom wasn't laughing. I thought it was awesome. We lived there for a little over a year.
WW: Is it just you and your sister, or are there other siblings as well?
RY: It's just Ali and me.
WW: Were your folks into music? And did either of them play an instrument?
RY: My father comes from a somewhat musical family, even though the man can't carry a tune himself (laughs). It seems like half of his siblings are fairly proficient, self-taught musicians, and the same thing on my mother's side. There are musicians here and there. My dad is a music enthusiast, though. Ali and I did grow up hearing a lot of vinyl being played. It would range from Lionel Richie, Parliament-Funkadelic, that sort of thing. A lot of Michael Jackson and Prince.
WW: At what point did you begin to develop your own musical tastes? What was the first music that felt like it belonged to you, and represented your tastes as opposed to his tastes?
RY: The first thing I kind of glommed onto would have been Prince's Purple Rain, but that was introduced by him. I think where I probably diverged from what he would approve of would probably be mid-'80s glam-rock: Poison, Slaughter, Def Leppard, that sort of thing.
WW: That doesn't sound like the sort of stuff that would appeal to a Navy man.
RY: No, not at all (laughs). Basically, it was just rock music. And then I got into Metallica. That's when I was coming into my own, I suppose.
WW: It's great that you were into such a variety of things. Some people seem to think of music almost like it's a membership to a club: If I want to be a member of this club, I can only like this kind of music. But it doesn't seem to have been part of your thought process at all.
RY: No, it wasn't. I did use to think I was odd in that way, but I do run into more and more people around my age who had a similar experience. One criticism people in my age group have is that we took everything in and just sort of cherry-picked what we liked. I guess it rubs the old school the wrong way, because it is sort of like a club: I'm a rocker, I'm this, I'm that. I'm into this sort of perverse genre-mixing...
WW: Overall, though, I think that's a huge positive. Instead of getting locked into something, you're open to all sorts of new experiences.
WW: One group I've heard you name-check that hardly any other performer mentions is Sparks. You even mention them in the lyrics of "I've Underestimated My Charm Again." What was it about that group that you liked so much?
RY: I was introduced to them via my friends in my mid-twenties. I think it was No. 1 in Heaven. I just thought the music was exciting and fun, and the lyrics were just kind of camp and silly, and they match with a great melody. Which is funny, because in the song, he very consciously says so. He says the lyrics aren't important, the music's the thing. And just the idea of a very small, cute concept behind a song - it being the number one song in heaven. They sat around and thought, this is the number one song in heaven. And I just thought it was amazing (laughs).
WW: Sparks is often dismissed as a novelty group because their lyrics are generally satirical. But they did write a lot of really catchy songs that you could dance to.
RY: Absolutely. They're wonderful. In a lot of ways, we look to Sparks. They're a great American group that's beloved in the U.K. but virtually no recognition in the States.
WW: Do you feel a kinship with them for that reason?
RY: Yeah. We thought, that's where we want to go (laughs).
WW: So you want to avoid stardom in the United States and only focus on the U.K.?
RY: No, no (laughs). Hardly. But I doubt they wanted to, either. It's just the way it worked out. I don't know: We always thought it would be wonderful for it to happen in that backwards sort of way. We saw it happen to the Killers and that, oh, that's nice (laughs).
WW: Another subject that comes up in a lot of your interviews is your Christian upbringing - and you're probably in the only profession where that would seem weird, since the vast majority of people in the United States are raised in that faith. Does it seem bizarre to you that stands out to people as an oddity, rather than something that's common?
RY: Especially in the South, it's the norm, the status quo. And it does seem odd to me that it's brought up quite a bit, because there's been a longstanding tradition of Christianity mixing with pop music, often on the folk side. Like a folk, country thing, with constant Biblical references, and these iconic musicians putting out gospel records, like Elvis or Johnny Cash. So yeah, to answer your questions, it does seem odd to me (laughs).
WW: How old were you when you first started making music?
RY: I was probably seventeen or so. I started a group with my friends: Kevin [Snow], our drummer, and his twin brother, Keith. We weren't like a proper group, going out and playing gigs. We basically would just record covers onto their stereo; they had a two-deck stereo, so you could continuously overdub. And in order to impress girls that we liked, we would record them silly birthday songs. So we did that for a while, and then a year later, we decided to start a proper group.
WW: Those silly birthday songs: Were they some of your first originals?
RY: Yeah, I think that would be safe to say. Basically, they were just songs trying to impress girls (laughs).
WW: How did they work? Did your score improve after you started doing that?
RY: They didn't work so well, actually. But it was something we continued to do for years and years. If I recorded a little song for you, I definitely was trying to tell you something - but as far as I can recall, that method has never worked for me (laughs).
WW: So what kept you going back to the well?
RY: I don't know. It wasn't something I could really help...
WW: So at least you got to experience the joy of making music, even if you didn't get to experience any extra joy afterward?
RY: Yeah, exactly. It seems like whenever I get the idea for a song, I'm very anxious and uncomfortable until it's laid onto tape and done.
WW: You mentioned that Kevin was in that early group. At what point did Owen [Holmes, the Black Kids' bassist] become part of the story?
RY: Owen's band and Kevin and I's first band played together quite a bit down in Jacksonville. We were sister bands, I suppose. So we knew them, and he actually attended the same church that Kevin and I went to. He was just always around. I didn't think to make music with Owen until he moved away to study abroad in Scotland, in Edinboro. I think around that time, Kevin had his fill of me. He went off to become a DJ, and I corresponded with Owen about starting a group when he got home. We talked about it quite a bit, and when he came home, we got a place together and tried to assemble a band, which we eventually did. Kevin wasn't a part of it, and he was just seething with jealousy (laughs). So when that group disintegrated, we welcomed Kevin back into the fold.
WW: When Kevin came back, did he admit to the error of his ways?
RY: You know what? He has no recollection of that at all. He asked to be in the group, but he has no memory of it whatsoever (laughs).
WW: That sounds like a case of selective memory.
RY: That's what I'm thinking (laughs).
WW: Ali joined later on -- and most people probably can't imagine working side by side with a sister on an everyday basis. Do you guys always get along? Or do you have little moments that you have to work through?
RY: Probably the latter, I suppose. But I don't think that's just because she's my sister. We're not really the type of siblings that hang out, though. I'm not going to call her up to see if she wants to see Watchmen, I suppose. But we have a sort of language and vocabulary where we make each other laugh. On the flip side, there's no one who can irritate or provoke us more than family (laughs).
WW: How do things manifest themselves during those provoking moments? Is it cold shoulders? Or fiery fights?
RY: It just depends on what sort of mood you're in that day (laughs).
WW: Black Kids are usually characterized as an overnight success, like most bands. But you plugged away as a musician for ten years or so before you started to get some attention, right?
RY: Yeah. It is sort of frustrating. You kind of get the feeling that people assume you picked up the guitar last week and then won the lottery - that it's only by chance. But we've definitely paid some dues. We did the half-assed tour across the continent where you're not really getting paid and you're not really playing to anybody. It's just you and your friends in a van.
WW: Were there ever times during those periods where you thought about giving it all up? Or was there always a drive to keep going?
RY: I suppose it was a combination of stubbornness and laziness. Playing music has just been my only option (laughs). I don't know. Owen and Kevin had proper jobs, which they liked. They could probably still be doing that today. But I've always been compelled by discontent -- by not being happy with my situation. That always motivated me.
WW: You got a lot of attention for releasing your EP on MySpace, and a lot of bands still seem to think that's a recipe for success. But MySpace is so crowded now that it's harder than ever to rise to the top no matter how good you are. Do you feel things happened for you guys at the right time, before that site became completely overwhelmed?
RY: Actually, I kind of thought it was already like that. We had those songs up on MySpace for quite a while and no one paid them any mind. But through the actual, physical act of traveling to Athens, Georgia and performing in front of people is what actually brought attention to the songs online. And we passed out free, homemade demos to people who were there. I guess what I'm trying to say is what sparked all the attention online was actually leaving Jacksonville as a band and performing.
WW: And physical product was just as important as the virtual kind?
RY: I think so. That was one of our qualms about touring regionally. We didn't want to do it without leaving some sort of physical token with people. So we just hastily made some burnt CDs and picked out a Peter Saville font from his website to make it look like it was a New Order release (laughs). And we just printed those out. And it was funny because, at that show, what excited people was our performance. They didn't really care for the demo. But people who heard the demos first preferred the demo and thought our live performance was... lacking (laughs). Thankfully, we've got both situations under control now.
WW: I read an interview with you talking about the album, and you said you wanted to make a "teenager record," even though, when you made it, you were considerably past that age. Why was it important to get that feel right, even though you weren't technically a teenager anymore?
RY: It's something I wanted to do for a long time. Kevin and I, in particular, were infatuated with Weezer's first album. It's funny now, but it was something that really spoke to us about perpetually having your heart broken. Being as it was something we'd never experienced, we definitely wanted that (laughs).
WW: You wanted to feel what it was like to have a broken heart?
RY: Yeah (laughs). I don't know: We just loved that record so much, and we always had it in our heads to make something similar, which I think we did.
WW: Of course, living the music life does tend to extend adolescence. Not having the 9-to-5 job where you have to wear a suit to work. Were you still able to get into that teenager mindset all those years afterward?
RY: Unfortunately, no. I think the lifestyle is completely wasted on me (laughs). I think people do have a perception that we're getting fucked up every night, but that's not the case. I have to ration out the nights when I can do that. Though we do have some members who represent in that arena.
WW: Care to name any names?
RY: No, I'm just going to let them keep doing their thing (laughs).
WW: During a lot of songs, there's a real focus on hedonism, and in another interview I read, you talked about the "penis and vagina" themes. And you portray these ideas in a fun and exciting way, as opposed to the tragic emo approach. Do you think that connects as much, if not more, with audiences, than portraying all relationships as a bummer?
RY: Songs about being bummed out used to be a staple of my musical intake. But I think I reached a saturation point, where I didn't want it to be so debilitating. It's hardly original, but it's just a different perspective on relationships, where instead of crying about having your heart broken, just being very cold and being a heartbreaker instead. Or looking at sex from more of a Prince view. It's just something else to play with. So yeah, that album is nothing but penis and vagina, I'm afraid (laughs). But we're writing all the time, and I think I've reached a saturation point with that topic, too.
WW: How far along are you with the next project? Do you have a lot of new material?
RY: It depends on how you look at it. We have a lot of material that would be new to most people. But I just feel that we have all these songs scattered around, just lying on the floor. I think any LP in the future would probably consist of a lot of rescued songs from the past, mixed up with some newer ones.
WW: Is it tricky to get all those to fit together into a cohesive whole?
RY: That's the idea. There's a danger of everything seeming really random if you like to mix your genres. Even with Partie Traumatic, I don't know if it's noticeable, but we went to great pains to make the running order just right. We're very conscious about those kinds of things.
WW: That's a very old-fashioned way of doing things in this download-one-song-at-a-time era. But it sounds like the album still matters to you.
RY: Mine does -- but I'm just like everybody else. I skip around (laughs). It does give me a lot of pleasure, though, when I find an album that I can just sit and listen to all the way through. That's special, but I don't think it's the norm anymore. In that way, I hope we're not normal (laughs).