Still Royal to the Loyal: An Interview with Jason "King" Kendall of
The Amazing Crowns
by Julio Diaz
So much has happened to the Amazing Crowns in the nearly two years since I spoke to frontman Jason "King" Kendall for the record (see the August 1998 issue of Ink 19), it's almost amazing that they're still alive, much less thriving. "In the last two years," Jason reviews, "we've been sued, we've had lineup changes, [and] our label went down." It's indicative of the band's fighting spirit that the experiences haven't brought them down - to the contrary, the Providence, RI-based Crowns are quite possibly stronger than ever. "At the same time," Jason continues, "we got a new booking agent, a new label, two new albums [the long-awaited studio release Royal, due June 6th on Time Bomb, and the self-released Payback Live, available at shows and through select indie outlets - check www.amazingcrowns.com for details], and two new album's worth of songs. With that in mind, I guess we got a new lease on life."
That new lease certainly comes across on the new record. Royal finds the Amazing Crowns (including Jack "Swinger" Hanlon on stand-up bass, Judd Williams on drums, and new guitarist J.D. Burgess) exploring some interesting new directions while still staying true to the ferocious blend of rockabilly-fueled punk they've become known for. Helping explore these new directions was producer Joe Gittleman, a longtime friend of the band who's probably best known as the bass player for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Gittleman gets a more polished, full sound out of the band, while not losing one bit of the raw intensity so evident in their barnstorming live show. In my admittedly biased opinion, it's one of the best records of the year so far, and I heartily recommend picking it up.
If I come across as a bit of a relentless cheerleader for the Crowns, it's because I am. The guys in general - and Jason in particular - are probably among my closest friends in the music biz. Aside from being among the nicest and most honest people you'll ever meet, the Crowns have earned my respect by displaying a level of integrity that's beyond reproach -- there's absolutely no bullshit about these guys; they aren't afraid to say what they think, or to stand up for what they feel is right. This integrity comes through in the music. Like the guys themselves, it's honest, straight-ahead, and unafraid of anything. Simply put, the Amazing part of their name is well and truly earned.
I got Jason on the phone for an hour or so recently, and in between catching up and joking around, we even managed to get an interview done.
With all that's happened in the last two years, what's been the biggest change, and how do you think it has either benefited or hurt the band?
I'd say - a lot of people would jump to say, "oh, the label," or "now we don't have money, we don't have a booking agent," or whatever - whereas we do now, we went through a time when we didn't - but I think the biggest change that ever happened to us is when we had a lineup change. And not because one person left, but because of the person that took his place. Our new guitarist, JD, is probably... he's such a pleasure to be with, as a friend, and in the band, and as far as a guitar player, I just think he stands heads and tails above most people. I believe in him so much. He brought such a huge amount of life into the band - I mean, we're writing so many new songs now, and we're going in different directions.
You can tell that on the record, too.
Good, good, because that's what we wanted to do. We still have new songs that are newer than that album, and we're writing new songs, too.
Some of the stuff on the live album is newer than some of the stuff on the studio album too, right?
Exactly, "Baby's Out on Bail" is newer than what's on the album, "Trouble at the Bali Hai," "Luckiest Man Alive."
There's a high school here in Melbourne, Florida called Eau Gallie High, and every time I drive past it, I sing "Trouble at Eau Gallie High!"
[laughs] Bali Hai up here is a Chinese restaurant in Massachusetts where our guitarist, JD, got in a little trouble when he was in high school. He was a delinquent like me, so we've got a lot to talk about usually. Actually, just last week, we compared fake IDs [laughs]. We went to our parents' houses off tour, and we were like, "OK, when we get back on our next tour, we're gonna have our fake IDs! Let's check 'em out!" So we had 'em. But anyway, that song is about JD basically crashing his car into a cop car in the Bali Hai parking lot.
Oh, man! I don't think you can get much worse than that, can you?
No, I don't. When we're in town we should change it to Eau Gallie High [laughs]
Do you think a lot of fans have accepted JD now, or are a lot of people still bitching about [ex-guitarist] Johnny ["the Colonel" Maguire] not being in the band anymore?
No, everybody's accepted him. [We've] gone into two different things, and I think people understand that.
Yeah, I was checking out the message board on your Web site the other day...
Locally, Johnny's got a new thing going right now, and right now the message board is not fiery, not hostile. If you had checked it out three months ago, four months ago, even six months ago, there were always these weird messages. We'd be on tour, we wouldn't know, and we had messages talking about Johnny, and not in a good light, towards us and sometimes towards Johnny. It was just weird. A lot of fighting back and forth. But everything's cool; we're gonna go down and see him at a club here [in Providence], he's got a local thing going. The whole band's gonna go check him out.
You were saying that JD has affected you guys, and that you're going into different directions, and that's something I noticed on the record. Do you feel that you're moving beyond the rockabilly/punk sound you've been known for - though you aren't leaving it totally behind?
Oh, definitely not I want to make that clear, we still do what we do, there's a lot of rockabilly/punk on our album. But at the same time, I think that if you don't grow, you just become stagnant.
There's definitely stuff on the record that's more of a "dirty rock 'n' roll" rather than rockabilly...
You're right, like "Mr. Fix-It" is definitely a pure rock n' roll song...
That's definitely one I was thinking of...
But then you've got that song "Flipping Coins," which is a ballad, a country ballad.
That was the next one I was thinking of; that's a BIG departure from anything you guys have done before.
Yeah, you know, we just want to experiment and grow a bit, but however, you have just regular rockabilly [and] punk rock numbers in there as well, like "Perfect Sin" is kind of a revved up rockabilly tune, "Hat Size" is a traditional rockabilly song - there's a lot of stuff in there.
So you think a lot of this has to do with JD coming in the band and mixing things up?
I think he opened a door for us. We wanted to go in certain areas, we were all growing. Johnny didn't want to, he wanted to do what he wanted to do, which is more traditional [rockabilly] stuff, and we still want to do the traditional stuff, but - and I've always said this, most of us in the band have always said this - the traditional thing is great, it's what we love, it's what we got into when we first got into the band, but it's a low ceiling room. You can only do so much being a "traditional" band. Sooner or later, you're gonna grow bigger than the room you're in, and you're gonna hit your head. Actually, we have so many different influences in us, and we wanted to explore those, and I think we did all right.
I want to say, I think [on] the first album, we were kind of babes in the woods, and we didn't... as far as the lyrics went, I write all the lyrics, and the first album was all fun, fun, fun, and had some cool imagery in it. This album's got a lot of... like "Greasy" is kind of a fun song, and "Still Royal" is a song that basically talks about our fans, kind of... I wanted to evoke the imagery of our fans, but there are songs on this album that are really sad. I kind of... through like giving up relationships for the band, and giving up things, there's songs like "Out The Door" and "Invitation To Alienation," and that song "Flipping Coins" is about my cousin who died a couple of years ago at 22. What I think is that it's a more mature album, but it's also sadder, in some ways. That's all I want to say, not that it matters.
No, it matters! Of course it matters! You're the one that wrote the songs; if anybody's going to know what they're about, it's not going to be somebody doing critical analysis somewhere down the line, it's going to be the person that wrote it.
Not to say that it's some angst-ridden, shoegazer music, because it definitely isn't like that. If anything, we were are reaction to that, back in '94.
So it's not the Crowns' emo record?
[laughs] Well, emo is one thing, but when we got together in '94, it was a reaction to shoegazer indie rock, which I like some of it, but getting up on a stage in front of people and just looking at the floor and moping around is not my idea of a good time.
The studio album's been done for a while. Was it just because of all the label merry-go-round that it took so long to come out?
That's exactly why. We were just shopping around. While we were in the studio Velvel went down in flames, and we found ourselves in this incredible debt, and we had to borrow money. Monolyth Records in Boston helped us out a lot, they've always been friends and supporters, so they loaned us a lot of money, and we just went out there and started playing shows and tried to earn money to do this. Then we had the album in the can, and we went out and did the Warped Tour with no support, no label, no nothing. That was kind of interesting, it was cool. I'd much rather do it with label support, especially the way the Warped Tour is now, because it seems to me that if you're not on a label that's seriously pushing some buttons and trying to get you the good stage slots, you're gonna get screwed. I mean, there was a band called H Block X that, as far as I know, had never toured the States, and they're getting main stage slots every day. It's like "gimmie a fuckin' break, this is a punk rock festival?"
Are people really surprised that you're doing, for example, AC/DC covers ("Sin City") live?
We're getting a lot of smiles about it, actually, because the people that come out to our shows are just like us, and I grew up getting into AC/DC, and then getting into punk rock, and then so on and so forth. I think most people in the audience have been into AC/DC at one time or another, and they come from that background. Everybody knows who AC/DC is, you know.
Is that on the live album?
No, it didn't make it to the live album. The covers on the live album are "Bloodstains" from Agent Orange, "American Nitemare" from the Misfits, and "Rat Patrol" from Naked Raygun.
Cool. Too bad the Specials cover ("Do The Dog") didn't make it on, though...
That's gonna be on an Australian comp, and we might do a series of singles, maybe the AC/DC one, and then the Specials, with an original.
You could have your own singles club.
Yeah, we'd love to! We still have Kingdom Records, which is our thing, so we can put singles out on that.
Speaking of singles clubs, I noticed you have a single out in the Sub Pop Singles Club. How did that come about?
That was a pretty cool thing, actually. A friend of mine, Meg, works for Sub Pop. She used to live in Providence, and she's been working for them for like 7-8 years. We've always stayed in touch, and I guess through that, just talking about it. Every time we came through town in the past five years, through Seattle, she would always come out to the shows, very supportive, very cool, bring us up to the Sub Pop headquarters. I got to see where the Dwarves carved into the floor, "fuck you," and all this other shit [laughs] - the stories of the Sub Pop thing. So it just comes from staying in touch. Actually, we were kinda talking to them about them putting the album out for a while, but the Time Bomb thing came along, and, you know, Sub Pop's got a lot of bands, and they're a great, great label, so they said "Well, how about we do this single?" and we said "Oh, we'd love to." There ya go.
How's Time Bomb working out for you so far?
Pretty good. I think Time Bomb's like a real, realistic label, whereas Velvel was - I was thinking about this the other day - Velvel was a label that had big pockets, real deep pockets, [and they would say,] "yeah, you can do this, we're gonna put promotion in [British music magazine] Mojo." I love Mojo, I read it all the time, but why do we need promotion in Mojo? We're not over there touring. They wasted money, in some ways, because they believed in us, and I love them for that. Time Bomb believes in us as well, but they have the philosophy that "yeah, we're gonna spend money, but we're gonna spend it where it makes sense, because we don't have a lot of money, we don't have a huge amount of money to spend on you guys. So what you're gonna do is you're gonna tour your asses off." Which is what we do anyway. Basically, if you're a band, and you happen to get on Time Bomb, and you don't work your ass off, you're not gonna be on Time Bomb for long. It just makes sense to me, and in a way, it keeps us honest. It keeps us not lazy, keeps us going, because really, we have no choice but to do this now. We never had a choice, but now, in concrete terms, we don't have a choice.
Last time we talked for the record was when the whole name change thing was coming down. What's developed since then? I understand that the Royal Crown Revue has since apologized to you guys for the whole thing...
Yeah, they've been pretty cool about it. Well, they've since been put off, they got kicked off Warner Brothers, or they got... I don't know how they got off Warner Brothers...
I've heard two different stories about that.
Yeah, same thing. Either way, they're since not on the huge Mickey Mouse Warner Brothers, they're now on an indie called Side 1/Dummy, so they're a bit more... how should I say... they're not as fierce to us, they're a bit more...
Yeah, they're a bit more humble, and I think they're trying to be nice to us. They actually asked us to go out on tour with them, but we can't do that.
That would just be weird.
It would confuse our fans, too.
You should only do it if you can play "Still Royal" last every night.
Yeah, there ya go [laughs]. Really bum them out. But no, they've since been... they're making overtures of niceness and friendliness.
That's cool, but I wish it had never happened in the first place.
Same here, but you know, things happen, and we keep rolling. At the time when they weren't being nice to us, we had bigger fish to fry, because of the label thing, and all these other things.
I guess the good side of it is that you got a lot of press out of it, and you got a good song out of it.
Yeah, we got a good song out of it, we got a lot of press, we got an album title out of it...
I think you benefited a lot more from it than they did. I think it hurt their credibility a lot.
I do, too, and that's a shame, because it's hard enough in this business. I also think we're tagged as the perpetual underdogs [because of this].
We mentioned briefly that you've got a new live album out too, recorded at your annual Providence Payback series of shows. How many shows did you record?
We do three nights [for Payback], and we recorded all three nights. We mostly took from the Saturday night [for the record], because usually the Saturday night is the craziest. That's how it's been for the last four years. It was good. It's literally just a warts-and-all, no bullshit, no overdubs, no nothing; just taken straight from the live show. It was great, we had a lot of mics set up in the audience, too, so you get to hear the audience, and stuff. It's really dynamite, I'm really happy with it as a live thing, and it's serving its purpose, whereas we sell it at shows and small indie stores here [in Providence]. It's actually got very small distribution, too - Redeye Distribution picked it up. It 's served its purpose whereas it has kept people's interest while we're waiting for the studio album to come out.
It's funny, because now they're coming out within a few months of each other.
I know. But the thing is, we didn't do any press on the live album, it's strictly a word of mouth thing.
What else is coming up?
We're pretty much gonna tour our asses off the whole summer and the fall. Hopefully, I think we'll be down to Florida at least once this summer, and then once in the fall at least. I'm sure we will be. We're gonna tour our butts off.