Today, A Big Yes and a small no have released their third studio album, Mise En Abyme, on Royal Potato Family. The band, fronted by singer, producer, and vibraphonist Kevin Kendrick, includes drummer Joe Russo, keyboardist Erik Deutsch, guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, and bassist Jonti Siman. Mise en Abyme expands upon this band’s unique meeting of smart, indie songwriting and jazz master level musicianship.
This past Wednesday, A Big Yes and a small no brought a short run of dates to Bridgeport, CT’s The Acoustic Cafe, where they opened for the legendary Chris Hartford and his Band of Changes. A Big Yes’ set was full of groovy and sometimes powerful versions of songs from the new album, including “Kool and the Gang,” ‘Stranger Things,” and the title track, “Mise En Abyme.” Kendrick shone at the front, especially by adding some beautiful vibraphone playing to the tops of the improvisational sections of songs. Band of Changes likewise tore down the walls with the soulful, passionate intensity of their headlining set, featuring at the center a lot of epic guitar trade-offs between frontman Chris Hartford and guitarist Scott Metzger.
Before that night’s show, The Poke Around got the chance to interview Kevin Kendrick, where he divulged on the meaning behind the new album, as well as some interesting history on meeting fellow bandmates like Scott Metzger and Joe Russo. Check out our conversation with Kendrick below, along with a gallery of photos of both A Big Yes and a small no and Chris Hartford’s Band of Changes’ performances from this past Wednesday at The Acoustic Cafe.
The Poke Around: The new album is coming out Friday, how do you feel about the release?
I’m excited. You know, this record, I’ve been working on it for like four years. I’m excited for people to finally hear it, after just hearing about it for four years.
Now you’re been bringing the album to a performance setting. What do you like or not like about that?
It’s fun because…those guys (in my band) hadn’t heard or played some things for like a couple of years. Like, the last song that we were running, “Don’t Pull it Out,” it’s like, we’ve never played it live before. They recorded that song in a studio four years ago and have not heard anything about it since (laughs). So when the album was mixed, they got it and heard it, but it was not until we were like, “let’s play that for the show,” that we started to try and re-learn and rehearse it. And that was pretty wild, because they’re playing it and they’re like, “Wait, I kind of remember this, it goes like that, right…?’ So it’s been fun to play these songs with these guys after, like, years.
So, getting together with guys like these from way back, from your Fat Mama days. But are you in a more director kind of role with this project?
It’s funny, I basically write all the tunes, and the stuff that I demo out solo I end up arranging. But maybe half of the tunes I don’t, and those Joe and Erik end doing a lot of arranging on, John Goldberger also. But it’s funny, in the live thing, often Joe ends up being the guy. He often knows the tunes better than everyone else, sometimes even including me. And so he’ll be the one to say, “Wait, that’s not right,” or ‘let’s fix that.’ Or he’ll say, “Let’s take it from a bit earlier, let’s give it context.” So he actually steps up in some ways…Erik, too. But Joe mostly. I do a little leading, but a lot less so than in terms of the fact that I write all the songs.
Has the album changed your own playing at all?
You know, there was a couple of years where…I wasn’t bringing the vibraphone at all, and I decided for these shows that I was going to bring it, because there are some parts where it’s kind of important. And so it kind of brought the vibraphone back into the mix. For better or for worse (laughs), at least in terms of my back, because its heavy and so much to deal with….And some of the new stuff is a little more rocking, or some of it’s more atmospheric. So it’s a little less indie pop, jazzy, tongue-in-cheek lyrics—some of the new stuff is a little darker, angrier. So that’s changed the way we play live in general, I think, myself included.
Speaking on that…the new album as I understand is very introspective, a chance for you to think on and look at certain things. What has the reception been like, in terms of people getting the messages you’re putting out there?
That’s an interesting question, but I don’t know if I know yet. I get the sense that…Well, like, my friends all know it, my fans that I end up knowing and getting close to, I usually hit them off with it. And, their response has largely been that it’s a little deeper lyrically, which I appreciate. Because the early stuff was all about puns, and…..you know, I always got annoyed when they compared it to They Might Be Giants, but I see why they did that, because it was kind of upbeat, and made little clever turns of phrases and double entendres. The lyrics were more serious than most They Might Be Giants songs, except for “Your Racist Friend,” which I think the lyrics for might be pretty serious. So in the record, I tried to make it…well I needed to be like, ‘Let’s be real for a moment. I was a junkie.’ I like to joke about it, because it’s embarrassing, but really, I need to talk about it. And there’s definitely some of that on the album. Like, “I’m Going To Die One Time,” that’s very much about me speaking seriously about that, instead of making little jokes about it, like I did on the earlier stuff.
Has that process been cathartic?
I think it was, it was for awhile. I started feeling like, at some point, I was dancing around a subject that was going to have to be addressed eventually. People ask about it alot, especially this album, I’ve been getting asked about it a lot more. Like, the first album, I think because the references were so sly, people probably didn’t even catch it.
And there’s other stuff going on in the album too, of course. “Enough is Enough” seems to be relationship-inspired?
Oh yeah, that’s a breakup song. Kind of a breakup song about Brooklyn. About feeling like, Brooklyn’s breaking my heart, and that it’s gotten so expensive, and….like it’s just chasing artists out left and right, they’re all leaving and going to Detroit or Cleveland or wherever. So, that song started as a breakup song. But it’s funny, I said this in an interview the other day, that there’s two songs that are awkward to sing, when you’re in a relationship. And it’s love songs you wrote before you got into the relationship, and break up songs you wrote after you got into the relationship. And I had to be really clear with my girlfriend that it was inspired by something that happened years ago.
Right now, as we talk, Chris Hartford and Band of Changes are soundchecking. Are you excited for that?
Oh my god, let me tell you about Chris Hartford. Chris Hartford is amazing. Chris Hartford wrote one of my top five favorite songs of all time, which is called, Joe Strummer’s Midnight Dream.” It’s amazing. You know how in Latvia there’s a statue of Zappa, and everyone’s like, “Woah, why’s there a Zappa statue…” If there isn’t already, there’s definitely going to be a statue of Chris Hartford, somewhere. Someday someone will run into a statue of Christ Hartford that maybe he won’t even know about. But yeah, he’s written so many good songs, and “Joe Strummer’s Midnight Dream,” literally sometimes it makes me cry, and I just have to sit down, wherever I am, and just cry it out. You have to listen to the very first version, where he’s outside and you can hear the crickets, he’s playing like on his porch. So good. You can find it, it’s on Youtube. It’s the perfect postmodern pop eulogy for the death of the American dream. That’s my tagline about it, whenever it comes up.
When I interviewed Scott Metzger a while back, I enjoyed learning about how all those guys came together, him and Joe and Ween. Where and when did you come into the mix of all that?
So like, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress got their trailer stolen or something, sometime in the late nineties. And they did a benefit, and all I remember about it was Marc Brownstein played bass, and it was his bass rig, and I remember him going, “Ehh, you guys better not blow my bass rig with your fancy technique and your fancy effects pedals,” which was hilarious. And Scott was there, although I didn’t really know the band RANA at the time. But I met him, and there was a bunch of cats. I don’t know who else but a bunch of cats. And Joe was there, Joe and I both played.
So then later, when I first moved to New York, the first people I hung out with were Joe, Dave Dreiwitz, and Scott. It was literally like my first night in New York, I was hanging out with them. And that’s how I met Scott, he had this band called Scott Metzger’s Flying Circus, which at the time I didn’t know that reference. I didn’t know that Red Baron’s squadron was called The Flying Circus. But Scott Metzger and I, we did a show at the hook, in Red Hook in Brooklyn, this big place. That was like the first gig I did in Brooklyn. And then, he and I, and Erik Kalb, who was drumming in Sharon Jones, and Justin Wallace, who was in a band called Ulu back in the day, and also in a great band I really loved called English Department. Scott had this band called Greetings From Scott Metzgerville, and we had a residency at The Knit, back when it was in Hudson or whatever. And we played The Freaks Ball, I remember. That was like the first band I was in, in New York. And I played vibes in that, but in Flying Circus I was on turntables.
So that’s how I met him, we go way back, and he actually plays guitar on a couple tracks on the first Big Yes record, the one called “Faded Away,” that’s like the surf rock tune? I could see the future, in a way (laughs). He turned into the Tele playing guy, I turned him onto that. At the time, he was a Les Paul guy. He came in, and we had him play this thing. It was done at…Roscoe, from Joan Jett and The Blackhearts, the main guitar player, he has a studio called Cowboy Technical Services, and we did the first record there, tracking. And he’s got all these beautiful old Teles that he got painted to match his bikes. So, Scott showed up, and it’s like surf rock. So I’m like, ‘Hey, you should play one of these Teles,’ you know? And he did, and now it’s funny because Scott’s a Tele guy now. I’d like someone to try and find an earlier recording of Scott Metzger playing a Tele.
To check out A Big Yes and a small no’s new album, Mise En Abyme, head to https://www.abigyesandasmallno.com.
Article and Photographs by Miles Hurley