Interview: Naseem Khuri of Kingsley Flood

naseem-khuri-kingsley-floodFrom obscurity to the opening slot for the east coast’s only important three day event, the Newport Folk Festival, Boston’s Kingsley Flood has had a hell of a year. Due largely to the critical and commercial success of their latest album Battles, Raymond Lee sat down with frontman songwriter Naseem Khuri to talk about success, life sucking day jobs, clawing your way to the top in an unforgiving industry, horrible Adele covers, childhood fantasies, and finally accepting things for what they are.

Despite the critical success of Battles earlier in the year, some of our readership may not yet be familiar with Kingsley Flood. Could you start off by introducing yourself?

I’m the lead singer, song-writer and rhythm guitarist for Kingsley Flood. We’re a band from Boston that believes the old fashioned way of doing things just might still work in this day in age. We try to put on a good show. That’s basically it.

Succinct, but highly appropriate for this festival.
We tend to write albums, not singles. One of the main reasons we got into this was the idea of [audience] connections. I was pretty disillusioned by a series of office jobs I had where I just wasn’t connecting with people on a basic human level N y’know? I might have been doing good work but I just didn’t get that satisfaction of interacting with people. When we started Kingsley Flood we were focused almost solely on putting on great live shows.

Take us back to the beginning.
This bar in Gloucester, MA – the Rhumb Line – is basically our home. We started playing there to about two people and grew a following. It’s a very small bar. We had to move the coffee machines out of the way to make room for the mixer. We started playing more and more, until we were playing two and half, three hour shows. We had a lot of fun, but we experimented a lot too. It’s where we fleshed out material but it was also a good opportunity to do covers or dance versions of our songs.

How do two people dance to slaughtered covers of Adele?
(Laughs.)

From Gloucester to Newport this has been a pretty important year for Kingsley Flood. No doubt the positive reception to Battleshas had a lot to do with it. Tell us a little bit about the making of the album.
This was the first album where we felt we really had a clear vision of what we wanted to do. It was the first time we knew the kind of sound we wanted. We wanted to take our time with this, and it was the first time we found a sound man who could amplify the things we wanted amplified. That producer was Sam Kassirer. He just did a great job of bringing all these instruments to life. majority of the album I’m playing an acoustic guitar, and he made it sound, well, alive., even. We had heard the records he had done with Josh Ritter and David Wax Museum and just loved how he’d changed them. And luckily we got him on the controls for Battles.

What was the reaction to it?
Personally we’re just glad we got to make the album we wanted to make, which is exceedingly rare these days. And it’s had a surprising resonance with people. There’s no one clear cut single…

I would disagree. There’s a lot of singles material on Battles. It begins with finger picking and so the audience automatically assumes, “I know where this is going,” but then you’re hit with elements of franco-pop, straight rock, narratives, and the interpersonal ballad. It’s very dynamic and goes in so many directions that it wouldn’t be a stretch to hear any number of the songs on pop radio. It’s marketable without attempting to be so. I’d argue it’s an album replete with singles.
Ugh.. (Slightly embarrassed and off-put.) Yeah I think [in a song] when I hear a story being told and follow it from point A to point Z, I want to fixate on the ups and downs. We’re trying to do that. We want to tell a story from one point to the next. Hopefully it all resolves in the end. Sometimes it doesn’t. I want to challenge the audience, even if it makes me uncomfortable sometimes, even if I don’t like it. I think that unless you challenge the audience they won’t be influenced to follow you.

It’s usually the audience that doesn’t pick up on that part. Cigarette?
No thanks I’m fine.

What does playing the Newport Folk Festival mean to you?
It means a lot. I’ve got a long history with Newport. I grew up looking forward to coming here every year. I used to sit in the audience and scheme…

Howso?
Back then I pictured myself running up to the main stage, jumping the barrier, spiriting past security, getting onstage to interrupt Steve Earle’s set, grabbing the mic and saying something stupid. But before security could catch me, I’d run off through the back to the get-away boat stashed in the harbor and sail off into the sunset, laughing. Unfortunately we don’t have a boat, but we got to play Newport all the same. (Laughs) It means a lot. I could always sense it was an amazing community. And now it feels good to be a [gesticulates with hands] legitimate [end gesticulation] part of that community.

It is a community too. Years ago Deer Tick couldn’t even get into the festival so they played the towny bars after the show shut down. Now John McCauley is on the damned board of advisers. It is and it has historically been a launching pad for a lot of acts that’ve become legends.
You guys played the red eye, the first showcase on the first day, but you got hips shaking. How’d that feel?
It was nice frankly to kick it off. We came into this thinking this is a folk crowd, maybe we should calm it down. But that gave way to a case of the fuck it’s. We started off strong with a fast song and kept it going from there. I’d like to think we set the tone for the weekend. Tried to, at least.

We’ve discussed the past and the present, so what’s going on in the future?
We’ve been doing a lot of touring lately but everyone in the band is really excited for the next album. We’re going to draw on the same influences but we’re going to experiment a lot too. Joe Strummer has been a big influence and I think the word you’ll most likely associate with our next record will be ‘urgency.’Live, e’re going to leave it on stage every single night and we’re going to keep trying to connect. We’re we’re playing a great club – the Paradise – in our hometown of Boston on Oct. 12. We’re . We’re really psyched for that.

Is this an organized tour with a name?
No.

More support for Battles
We’re still weekend warriors. We’re not yet doing this full time. We still have day jobs. It’s a tough business, man. So we’re limited in that regard. But that being said, we’ll drop everything if we can.

As your attorney I’d advise you to keep up the hard work. After the response to BattlesI think you might not have to worry about the day job too much longer.
We’d love to do this all the time. Honestly, I don’t think I could live without it.

One of the benefits of playing early is that you basically get to enjoy the rest of the weekend. Which acts did you enjoy so far?
Oh! Trombone Shorty. No doubt it was my highlight. He blew the crowd away and I’ve always been a sucker for a participatory show, artists that get everybody clapping and singing along.

This one’s a bit tougher and you can turn it down if you’re not comfortable with it…
And the Avett Brothers were fantastic too…

Yeah, they always are. Did you catch the Father John Misty set?
A little bit.

Well, he kind of brought to light a bit of the contradictory aspects of this festival. It’s a folk festival, of course, but it’s held in a military facility in the one percent capital of America. Have you considered the inherent contradiction of Newport?
That’s an interesting point for sure. [several moments expire with Mr. Naseem in silent contemplation] Well, what’s the alternative? No festival at all? I’ll keep Newport, contradictions and all.