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Reassessing Success

Kenny Tompkins' side hustle hasn't spoiled him yet

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 3/25/2009

The Christmas Lights, Cotton Jones.

The Ottobar, March 30

Walk Like A Human--the Christmas Lights' debut full-length, released last June on Pro-Gravity Records--might have arrived eight or nine months too early. The difficulty of staying optimistic about anything in these economic times increases with every pay reduction, cut in hours, or job loss. And Lights frontman Kenny Tompkins describes Human as a meditation on "the challenges of waking up every day"--something that, for many paycheck-to-paycheck workers, is increasingly tough to do.

In an era when the proverbial side hustle is what's keeping many people afloat, it's interesting to note that the Christmas Lights began as a sideline for Tompkins. The Frostburg resident and producer works at his hometown bar, Dante's, as a self-described jack-of-all-trades--"I bartend once a week, run sound there"--cuts the occasional solo album, and has played in several previous bands, including the Trend and the Royal Army.

Tompkins harbored musical aspirations at an early age; he remembers "asking for an electric guitar that I was way too young to make sounds with," breaking strings on the acoustic axes scattered around his parents' home, and, later, playing Southern rock covers with a house band at a local bar.

"In high school, it was hard to form a band," he says during an early March telephone interview. "No one was into rock. But the first time my brother and I played drums and guitar together," he realized that his vocation was cemented.

The band's name invites various interpretations; it suggests a festive feeling just as easily as it implies a sense of decay, given that dead bulbs in strings of Christmas lights are rarely replaced. "Christmas represents something I used to look forward to and appreciate in a really pure way," he says. "'Christmas Lights' was something I used to write on the CD-Rs that I'd make and listen to in the car or give to friends. People would ask, 'When's the Christmas Lights album coming?' So that's what I called it."

The Christmas Lights as a musical project started in 2006 with a few tracks on the 10 Paces split EP with Baltimore's Emil. "Immediately after that, I made the album," Tompkins says. "There's no involvement from anyone other than myself. I wasn't planning on starting a band--just making tracks by myself."

A contoured, 30-minute blast of breakbeats and hooks, Human follows the conceptual model established by Nirvana's Nevermind: catchy-as-velcro-Vans rock songs about feeling bad with lyricism that's as equally literal and impressionistic. "The Water Is Gone, The Fire Has Come!" hints at some calamity without connecting the narrative dots--"The fire has come/ They said on the screens/ They said on the phones" and "I built an escape, for someone to use/ to hold like a gun, and call it a truth"--while distorted electronic synths ride a pattern in which a held-note is trailed by two shorter ones; what sound like out-of-tune accordion accents ratchet up the tension. Decaying, gray, and gospel-lite, "Atlas" offers surreal commuter blues: "Catching the morning train/ She had a quiet, joking side/ Laughing at all the words, stuck in the corner of her mind/ Mixed with the working stiffs, and all the vampires running home/ Covered in flakes of ash."

A Peter Gunn-esque synth riff is central to "Begging for a Fire," evoking such an obliquely imminent sense of jeopardy that sentiments such as "Painting over all the rust/ Cracks that let a sound escape from me" achieve desperately personal meanings. "Interrogation Song" backmasks "Begging for a Fire" within an inch of its life, smashing static-y beats like a lively game of Bomb Squad bumper cars.

"Sign of Life" slings slap-fighting beats underneath dinky synths, a bass doppleganger of those synths, and ascending-helium electronics that rise twice with the chorus, then vanish. "You grew a tooth for tearing/ The flesh right off the bone/ Underneath the face you wear, there's terrifying alibis," Tompkins sings, channeling On Avery Island Neutral Milk Hotel, a band he admits he was " obsessed with for a while."

"I separate [influences] into musical and harmonic aspects," he says. "Musically, Human is mathy and circular, like Tool. I hope that the electronic texture references weren't too obvious, but I definitely pulled influence from Mum, Radiohead, and Broadcast. As far as harmonics, music from Westerns and '60s pop with super-catchy melodies, like the Zombies and the Beatles."

Shortly before Pro-Gravity issued Walk Like a Human last summer, Tompkins decided to pull together a live band and take to the road: his younger brother, Curt Tompkins, on drums; bassist/keyboard player Derek Shank; and keyboard player/sample triggerer Josh Grapes. Tompkins handles guitar duties and sings, with Shank and Grapes chipping in with vocal harmonies.

At the moment, Christmas Lights has one overriding priority: finding its live legs and gelling as a group. Lately they've been gigging with old pals Cotton Jones; Tompkins "grew up musically" with Michael Nau and Whitney McGraw years before they formed Page France. A re-release of Human is being mulled as the band figures out how to make its way forward in a musical marketplace as depressed as the overall global economy.

"It's gotten trickier, people trying to make a living on the road, rather than relying on record sales," Tompkins says, contemplating the 2009 DIY grind. "I don't feel that I'm cheated. It's just hard to explain to your grandpa that you're happy and successful when you aren't on the cover of Rolling Stone."

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