A Q&A with Atticus Kelly
Of the McLovins
By Geoff Gehman
Atticus Kelly has a 21-year-old body and a 63-year-old soul. The guitar-playing keyboardist for the McLovins deeply admires Garth Hudson, the Band’s saxophone-playing keyboard wizard. Allen Toussaint’s horn charts for the Band’s live “Rock of Ages” album inspired Kelly’s horn charts for the McLovins’ new EP “Funk No. Uno.” Thanks to him, the McLovins’ version of the Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” is marvelously, deliriously funky. And, thanks to him, the band’s new album “Beautiful Lights” is sequenced like an old-fashioned, story-spreading vinyl LP.
Kelly and his McLovin mates—bassist Jason Ott, guitarist Justin Berger and drummer Jake Huffman–will make their Jim Thorpe debut on July 26 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Expect an invigorating, turn-on-a-diming blend of jazzy rock, quicksilver R&B and tie-dyed soul, all of which can be taped freely.
This smooth, soulful mix has made the group popular at hip venues like the Brooklyn Bowl and hep festivals like the Gathering of the Vibes. Among their marquee fans are Phish lyricist Tom Marshall, who co-wrote “Cohesive,” a McLovins signature tune, and former Spin Doctors guitarist Anthony Krizan, who produced “Beautiful Lights.”
Below, in a recent interview from his first time in Colorado, Kelly discusses his passion for a crazy, charismatic organ built during World War II and his major jones for Steely Dan, another band with members old enough to be his parents.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears and soul?
A: You’re going to laugh at this answer: Smash Mouth’s “All Star.” I’m not deeply moved by the song, but it’s stayed with me for many years [at least 13]. I wasn’t thinking about it analytically when I was listening to it, which is something I can no longer help but do.
I can hardly remember one song in my pre-analytic period. On the other hand, I could probably name a million Beatles songs before I understood music. My parents played a lot of Beatles music when I was growing up; I heard the Beatles before I could talk. I have the most bizarre relationship with that band. It’s probably been two or three years since I’ve voluntarily put on the Beatles, yet their music is so ingrained in my memory, pre-analytically, that I can no longer listen to it objectively. It’s a weird dynamic, but I treasure it.
Q: Who were your first musical mentors, the people who convinced you that playing music could be a calling?
A: Probably my parents. My mother is a vocalist who has sung around the world in different choirs; my dad is a guitarist and a jazz bassist. He gave me my first guitar lessons eight years ago and—zoom!—that was it. My parents gave me a lot of encouragement from the start. They raised me in a climate extraordinarily conducive to progress. With two musicians, and two good role models, in the house, I could think: Wow, this is a little easier to imitate.
Q: Why did you join the McLovins, besides a desire to expand your friendship with Jake Huffman, your colleague at an arts academy in Hartford? What did you think the group could give you, and what did you think you could give the group?
A: I’ve known Jake for years. At the academy, which is a very serious performing-arts school, we played together five days a week two hours at a time for three years. After we graduated, he did his thing and I did mine. I was a jazz snob, which meant that I made fun of this jam-band stuff that Jake played with the McLovins. But then I met [McLovins bassist] Jason [Ott] in my freshman theory class [at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music] and started hanging out with him. And then I caught wind that [McLovins guitarist] Jeff [Howard] was leaving the band and I started jamming with Jason and [fellow Hartt student] Justin Berger [now the McLovins’ lead guitarist]. And I began to think: Wow, this shit is whack.
There’s an old saying that if you learn another language, it will make your own language stronger. Well, I learned a lot about jazz from playing rock. It’s a totally different discipline, and it opened me up to some realizations I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I realized that any recording the Band made is just as complex as anything John Coltrane did, to my ears. It’s apples and oranges, but you can still compare the two and come out with something similar.
Q: How has the band changed since you signed on in 2011? It seems you’ve guided the other guys more toward funk; a prime example is the new EP “Funk No. Uno,” which includes your horn arrangements.
A: I’ll try to answer without sounding self-congratulating. I guess I bring some different ideas to the table, like having horns with real arrangements. Horns give us a sort of presence we could get without horns, but it’s a little harder to get; they bring the presence right away, which is nice. A horn section will make someone think you put time into making it happen; a band concerned with arrangements is a mature band.
Some parts in the charts [on “Funk No. Uno”] I deliberately lifted from the Band’s arrangements on records like “Rock of Ages,” with all those great arrangements from Allen Toussaint. Specifically, I lifted stuff from “Life Is a Carnival.” I remember [Band guitarist] Robbie Robertson saying that Toussaint said: “Just give me some headphones and some manuscript paper” and he just came up with the arrangements, he didn’t need a piano or anything. I feel that if I can enhance these songs I’ve done my job. My job is to make something melodic and natural, to never distract.
Q: What are your major contributions to the new CD “Beautiful Lights”? Jake has said it’s the group’s most approachable, tangible record, with shorter songs and fewer long solos.
A: I contributed to the programming of the album; I tried to make it like two sides of a vinyl record. We start out with the dance stuff of “Flavor of the Week” and “Man in a Blue Coat.” We switch over with the title track, which has four-part a cappella, and then the record becomes more roots influenced. There’s some country and some Little Feat stuff on “Yankee Rose” and “Shivers,” which is a straight-ahead jam sort of thing. On the final track, “Birthday,” there’s this long vamp with organ and flute sounds that’s supposed to be like the buzzy voicings at the end of Steely Dan’s “Aja.”
Never underestimate the significance of Steely Dan. I think I know every one of their tunes, inside and out. “Haitian Divorce”? Me and the bass player [Ott] are such nerds for that song.
Q: You guys are pretty new to crisscrossing the country; the Mauch Chunk gig is part of your first tour of the Mid-Atlantic and South. What wisdom have you received from road warriors about keeping physically and mentally healthy?
A: Don’t party every night, or you will run yourself absolutely ragged. If you argue with someone, that shit has to be resolved right away or that show will be a real stinker. With four to 10 personalities in the car there’s going to be some bickering. There’s always going to be some turmoil in a band, especially in a band like ours with a democratic say. But life doesn’t end with bickering.
Q: Can you remember a magical moment onstage, when something came from nothing and became everything?
A: You mean a moment when we went into a whole different dimension? That hasn’t happened yet on this tour. We’re working out some stuff with the horns; we’re learning each other’s language. In January we played a Webcast in Boca Raton and I think it was our best performance of the whole tour. We didn’t have any issues with the sound; we could hear ourselves well; our playing was very informed. You lose some clarity when you can’t hear yourself; you can lapse into some territory that’s not so tasteful.
I think we’ve nailed it every time we’ve played Nectar’s in Vermont. One time up there we played “Up on Cripple Creek” and it turned into this moody, spooky jam. We really played the shit out of that song; we played with perfect economy. It’s hard to get four minds thinking that way, to have really good economy when you’re improvising.
Q: The band’s Facebook page includes a photo of you giddily embracing a newly acquired organ. How was it acquired and why were you so giddy?
A: It’s a Hammond Model D from 1939-41; it predates the Hammond B3 by maybe 20 years, It’s an ancient instrument; it’s all tubes and transistors. It’s a heavy, geriatric, idiosyncratic monster, and it needs some work. That stuff can be a whole lot of fun to troubleshoot, but for now I’d rather spare myself the trouble of taking it on the road. It also gives me small shocks; I’d like to spare myself the trouble of being electrocuted onstage.
I’ve been wanting to get an organ for a long time. I love harmony and rhe organ is a perfect instrument for harmony. I sold a Telecaster to buy it. I hated that guitar; it had always been a bummer.
I’m a big fan of Garth Hudson from the Band. He’s an absolute genius on the organ. A lady interviewer on this Web site tried to get the members of the Band to talk about the importance of classical music and if it related to rock music. And most of them said: I don’t know—ask Garth. Garth doesn’t usually open up, but this time what he said was fascinating. He said that when the Band was living at Big Pink [the group’s pink-painted rental home/studio in Woodstock, N.Y.], he was practicing Bach. He also said his organ playing was influenced by playing in his uncle’s funeral home. Maybe he was trying to catch the interviewer off guard; Thelonius Monk spoke gibberish to throw interviewers off his trail.
Q: What’s on your Bucket List and what’s on your Fuck It List?
A: Can I start with my Fuck It list? Sometimes I make a mistake and I automatically assume someone else messed up. Then I realize: Oh, it’s me. It’s not intentional; I trust the musicians I play with. But it’s a total bad habit.
Another Fuck It item is I never want to play with another amateur musician in my life. And by amateur I mean someone who isn’t organically inclined to understand what’s occurring musically. I mean someone who is absolutely stumped whenever you play a song that goes 1-4-5. I want to play with people who on a dime can play a simple song in a high-pressure situation. In our band Jason [Ott] is the best one at doing that. He can hear a song one time, get the feel of it, and pretty much from there he has it nailed.
As far as my Bucket List is concerned, I’d like to improve my arranging; right now, I’m totally self-taught. Maybe I’ll bring in another party to nudge me in the right direction. I’d like to write for a big band. And I’d like to have absolute infallible relative pitch. Don’t get me wrong. My pitch is good; I can get by very well because I’ve done so much ear training with jazz and rock. But, obviously, it can improve a fair amount. Although, at this point in my life, perfect pitch is not going to happen.
Q: What’s on the band’s Bucket List? How about persuading McDonald’s to start an ad campaign starring the McLovins?
A: We already eat so much of their food, we do them a favor [laughs]. Actually, they put a hold on our copyright for “McLovins.” We passed the [legal] test and we own the word, so at least someone in the McDonald’s corporation knows who the McLovins are; they probably have a dossier on us. We do have a new song with a motif—“Bah-dah-dah-dah-dah”—close enough to pass [for the McDonald’s theme tag]. It probably lasts all of two seconds.
I’d like us to get some radio play. I received an email from a friend of the band who’s been a radio personality for many years. He told me that our song “Catch the Ball” is great but that it doesn’t really fit the format [for regular rotation on radio], which is leaning more towards alternative these days. I can’t expect to compete with that sort of marketing and corporate promotion, although I would like more spotlight presence.
Q: Speaking of successful spotlight presence, what do you remember about being the house band for a few episodes of the ESPN show “SportsNation”?
A: I remember that we were so out of our element. We can all pretend to know a thing or two about sports but, gee, we are a bunch of dumpy musicians. My brothers played baseball and soccer and I went: Ehhhhh–I don’t want to do any of that.
We did run into a bunch of famous people. I had my picture taken with Ice Cube; my girlfriend put his face on all of our faces on the band’s Facebook page. I met Teddy Bruschi [retired linebacker for the New England Patriots]. I thought he spelled his last name “Brewski”—like a beer. I emailed my brother “Who is Teddy Brewski?” and he said: Are you kidding me?
[Radio host] Colin Cowherd was a really cool guy. He’d say to us: “Do you know any [Lynyrd] Skynyrd?” And we’d play a little Skynyrd. And then he’d say: “Do who know any Nickelback?” And we’d play a little Nickelback. And then he’d joke: “Where do you get weed?”–because, of course, we’re a jam band and, of course, all jam bands do weed.
I have to say that the bread [money] was unbelievable, although I probably shouldn’t say any more about that.
The McLovins: The Scoop
The band’s name was suggested by viewers of a YouTube video of its version of Phish’s “You Enjoy Myself” who swore that two musicians resembled McLovin, the superbad geek in the film “Superbad.”
The group’s 2009 record “Conundrum” features songs shaped by material from “The Phantom Tollbooth,” Norton Juster’s immensely popular 1961 adventure novel for children.
“Who Knows,” the quartet’s 2012 CD, was produced by Tom Marshall, a lyricist for Phish, and former Spin Doctors guitarist Anthony Krizan, a recording engineer and studio owner.
The band’s song “Nightshades” honors Levon Helm, the late singing drummer of the Band.
The 200 copies of the group’s new EP “Funk No. Uno” are covered by suede-lined burlap and bound by an emerald from the collection of singing drummer Jake Huffman.
Huffman co-wrote “Counting the You’s in YouTube” for an episode of “Sesame Street,” a thank-you, sung by the Count, for a billion-plus views of the TV show’s Internet videos.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Atticus Kelly’s major jones for the Band and Steely Dan. He can be reached at email@example.com.