Steve Kimock – Crazy Engine

He’s one of the jamband scene’s most chameleonic characters—and undoubtedly one of its most original. And sure, it’s not always easy to keep tabs on Steve Kimock, but that’s part of the fun: he’s one of those guitarists for whom presence alone in whatever ensemble he wants to be part of automatically raises the game.

Kimock hasn’t toured with a standing lineup of the Steve Kimock Band in some years now; as the wily guitarist himself describes, he’s been "floating" through a range of miscellanous projects. But as he told Glide in a recent interview, Kimock wants to devote his energies to something regular again. Hence, the nascence of Steve Kimock Crazy Engine, which has lined up a series of tour dates on both coasts starting in late March.

Crazy Engine is one of Kimock’s most curious lineups yet: his old pal and legendary Hammond B3 player Melvin Seals, his son, John Morgan Kimock, on drums, the sturdy Janis Wallin from Family Groove Company holding things down on bass, and a vocals section consisting of Cheryl Rucker and Shirley Starks, affectionately dubbed "The Girls."

I wanted to ask first about the components of Crazy Engine–the personnel you’ve put together–and then about the mission. I know you and Melvin Seals go back a bit.

Well, over the last couple of years I’ve kind of been floating in terms of the projects I’ve been doing. I haven’t really latched on to anything that I’d committed to in such a way that I’d be writing or developing ideas—just kind of sampling, going out doing some of this, some of that, and doing very diverse work. There was a quality to all my encounters with Melvin that was different than all the rest because, I don’t know, we always seem to have such a good time cutting up with each other. Whenever we played together, we pushed each other a bit and I had such a good time playing with him. We just sounded good together.

I got close to the idea that I wasn’t feeling particularly rewarded if I’d just kept doing miscellaneous stuff and not developing something or writing something or finding a direction that suited the times I was in. The interpersonal dynamic with Melvin was the one that seemed most attractive to me. It sounded good and felt good.

So it’s safe to say Crazy Engine began with Melvin?

Yeah, I think so. He’s kind of in the same place. He has his gigs and his regular things but he’s also looking for something else to kind of put some energy into that’s a little outside of his regular things. I think it was mutual: we’d put a little attention toward this and grow it.

Tell me about Janis Wallin from Family Groove Company.

Ah yes. Well, when you’re playing out there you’re running into people all the time, and I’ve spent the last how many years playing with some really good bass players. I started out as a bass player, which I think you know—that was my original act. I dig it, and just all my life I’ve been roommates with or been fortunate enough to play with great bass players and learned a lot from them. I can hear them. With Everyone Orchestra, I did a gig at 10,000 Lakes and Janis was playing bass. I’d never played with her, and as you probably know Everyone Orchestra is entirely improvised—well, conducted improvisation. Most of the time, maybe half the time, I get up there and the rhythm section is brand new to me so I don’t know what to expect. I hopped up cold with the band and just started to play and in the first four bars I think I was like WHOA. That’s a bass player. Hooooolllly shit. Just a straight up, responsible, old school, laying-it-down kind of bass player. I was thrilled and said give me a number and I’ll call you. She’s the quintessential take care of business bass player. A great vibe.

Cheryl and Shirley are both from Melvin’s bands and JGB, right?

That they are. When I was trying to get ideas for what I wanted to do, well, 99 percent of what I’ve done on my own has been instrumental, which is fun, but at the same time, I don’t always live there as a listener, and I think sometimes it might give a funny read to people who see a guitar player as an instrumental band and think it must be Joe Satriani or something. From the outside, it looks like it should be some very guitar centric trip, which my stuff kinda isn’t. I’m not really going for that. My normal criteria for successful improvisation is successful group improvisation, not just any kind of virtuoso display. And it’d be nice to have some vocals and maybe a little singing myself, but I might not do that because I’m terrible. But I do enjoy it.

I think it [vocals] would help the people who are new to the thing not make a false read on the mission statement. This is a band thing. So I was looking for singers, looking for singers and looking for singers, and Melvin’s got these singers he works with all the time. He says, I got these gals I work with and they’re great! And I said, OK, let’s try it out. A lot of the working dynamic between them and Melvin is built in.

Last, you have your son John. I guess we can skip the question of whether it’s a weird dynamic at all to play in bands with your son, because you’ve been able to do so so fluidly…

  … right, no it’s not …

  ... so, I guess, how would you describe the musical rapport that you and John have?

 [Long pause] Oh boy. Well, it’s not at all weird. In terms of it being a musical rapport, per se, it’s not so much that as I trust his listening and his interpretation and because I never tried to make him into anything, you know what I mean? A lot of parents who have kids that play want them to play a certain thing or a certain instrument or a certain style. But I really wanted to let him find his own thing. If he asked for something, I’d enable it, and if he had a question, I’d try to answer it. I didn’t want him to grow up with any more the "he’s Steve’s kid" thing than he had to.

The best thing is that I never would have guessed the way he’s gone out into the musical word and grabbed up so much of it. All kinds of opportunities and shit that I never would have dreamed of. He’s the one who’s the voracious consumer! Because I’ve allowed him this space in his life to be what he is, he’s bringing stuff back that I trust I never would have been able to go out and get and show to hikm. He’s very much behind it. It’s very cool and I’m so glad. I’m interested to see how he handles [Crazy Engine] because I know he’s going to handle challenges in a very musical way that I wouldn’t be able to tell him how to handle.

What kind of stuff are we going to hear from Crazy Engine?

I wish I could tell you! I wish I could tell you that it’s going to be specifically in one bag or another.

But then I wouldn’t believe you. None of your stuff ever is.

It tends not to be that way. I dig through some old setlists and go "what do I know" or what can I play, "Steel Guitar Rag?" "Nefertiti?" It could be anything. It could be fiddle tunes for all I know, or fusion tunes, or Beatles tunes, and then if it could all sound like the Shaggs I’d be happy. No, it tends to be kind of a moving target for me. But if there’s a general vibe I’m after with this – it’s let’s have some fun. That’s basically the idea. In this economy, the shoegazing routine is probably not exactly where everyone needs to be.

I wanted to just look back a bit on all that you have been doing in the last two years especially. You spelled Mark Karan in RatDog for several tours and you’ve been in groups with Mickey Hart, too. Was it good to be back in the Dead fold and playing that music again?

Without sounding too much like an unabashed fan boy, I’m a huge Bob Weir fan. I just think he’s such a fantastic and unique player and writer and singer, and I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for the music he has done. What he’s done is really remarkable and in a unique style, and his style of leadership he provides in the band is just a real joy to work with. It was great for me to get to do that and I have nothing but praise for all those guys. Most of all I’m really happy that Mark recovered as fully and as quickly as he did, and I hope that for the reasons that I did it, I never have to do anything like that again. I’d hope it would be under better circumstances obviously.

You seem to turn up playing Grateful Dead music every so often, and you obviously have an association with that scene, from a fan’s perspective. Do you find yourself needing to return to it from time to time?

No, I wouldn’t say that I need to keep returning to it like on an employment level or anything like that. It’s not like I’m sitting here biting my fingernails waiting for someone to call me to play Grateful Dead songs. But yes, I did come up peripherally associated with that scene. I’ve always had friends in the band and on the crew and stuff like that. But I have never felt pushy about wanting to get in there—I never felt like I needed to eat off that table. Jerry had his thing and it was an enormous and beautiful and good thing. I got nothing to fucking add to what that cat did, you know?

You’re also doing work with your old pal Billy Goodman. I know you guys collaborated on new material and he also played in the version of Steve Kimock & Friends last year that included John, Melvin and Hutch Hutchinson. Will there be more from you and Billy?

Oh yeah, definitely more Billy. I don’t know when we’re going to get to it or in what form exactly, but the whole Goodman thing [the Goodman Brothers, Billy and Frank], I mean, that’s as close as I’ll ever get to brothers. I always wanted brothers—those guys are my brothers.  I’m always ready to do more of that. I’m a huge Billy Goodman fan.

And anything more from the Zero camp?

Wow, you know, that comes up occasionally: is there anything there? There’s a lot of great material still there, a lot of recorded stuff and documentary style video and a lot that’s unreleased, not to mention a huge pool of players that have participated in the thing. I literally don’t know how to get back into that or coordinate it in such a way that it makes sense. I love that band, but that was an odd trip in terms of organization. It wasn’t quite my trip either; I mean, I was there for all of it, but it’s not my thing to do something with. But that’s me. If there’s stuff I can do, I will do it.

Chad Berndtson writes for The Patriot Ledger, PopMatters, Relix, Glide, Hidden Track and other publications. He lives in New York City; drop him a line at cberndtson[at]gmail[dot]com.

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