french kicks

It’s a monumental challenge for a band to just play music because they love it. In an ideal world, they would make the music they want without pressure from record companies and the media, while at the same time benefiting from an organic growth of fans and a constant source of income. But in reality, the “starving musician” archetype pervades the music community, and some bands never emerge from that shadow.

But every now and then, a band manages to escape some of the pains of the business and still maintain a good deal of success. And though they’ve worked for many years and released a few albums in the process, the French Kicks (NY) seem to have struck a balance that is as close to idealistic as it gets. The secret for them appears to be a genuine love of the music they play peppered with a fair amount of coolness toward the business aspects of music. That isn’t to say that they don’t care, but just that the creation and sharing of their music is the foremost priority. And if that’s not ideal, I don’t know what is.

[audio:] French Kicks – “Abandon” from Swimming

I was fortunate enough to chat with lead singer/keyboardist/drummer Nick Stumpf (second from right) over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. And during the course of our conversation, it became clearer that the band sees this career as not only the absolute right path for each of them, but also as a true love and privilege.

Their latest project, Covers, is a prime example of the band’s easy-going style. The EP includes covers by the Zombies’ Colin Blunstone, The Ramones, The Shirelles and Lindsey Buckingham. Selling for just $4 on iTunes, this album is purely a treat for current Kicks fans, and a fun spur-of-the-moment project for the band.

“As I’m sure many bands do when they get to band practice, like 70 percent of the time is spent just screwing around and playing Dark Side of the Moon songs,” Stumpf said. “So we just thought maybe it would be fun to record some of this stuff.”

This micro project comes after the release of their latest full-length, Swimming, released in April of last year. In normal French Kicks fashion, the album was created with very little intent behind what the resulting sound would be:

When we go into making a record, we never have a plan of like, ‘let’s have this be the sound. It comes of completely open-ended experiments. And only when we’re done do we figure out what we just did.

When we did Two Thousand [previous album, released in 2006], we were like ‘what the hell did we just do?’ [laughs] This one is the next step. Hopefully we get better at this as we go. We try different ways of writing songs and different ways of putting instruments together and basically just try to keep ourselves entertained and get better at what we’re doing. But that’s really it.

But one difference that stands out about Swimming is the nature of the recording process. Stumpf revealed that the album was recorded almost entirely with first and second takes, which gives it a certain soul and leaves out any instance of feeling overworked:

What we’ve always hoped to do — and I don’t think we ever really got close until this record — was have something that sounded like the recordings that we make on our own before we get to the studio. And this record is sort of what those sound like. There’s something loose about it, and natural and personal at the same time. It just doesn’t sound like work. It’s just an organic, warm thing — which has always been how we make music, but when you get into a studio and the clock is ticking and money is involved, you can tighten up a little.

With a fairly open-ended songwriting and recording process (Stumpf actually plays drums on most of the songs on the record, and the band alternates instruments both live and during recording), they are able to experiment endlessly. And while they like to create songs that have a lot of sounds but don’t sound overloaded, their guitar parts have always taken a more rhythmic role than the traditional rock or pop guitar.

“It’s always been the case that all the instruments are kind of treated like percussion instruments,” Stumpf said. “So everybody’s just playing what are essentially rhythm parts.”

The evolution of the band’s sound has a lot to do with these elements — how they use their instruments, their partnerships with regard to the songwriting process (the band is comprised of Nick Stumpf’s younger brother Lawrence on bass, Aaron Thurston on drums, and Josh Wise on guitar and vocals — all of whom also play other instruments), their rich vocal harmonies and their ability to write whatever music they want to, without hesitation about how it will be received. But what results is a brand of pop music that is now characteristically French Kicks.

[audio:] French Kicks – “Said So What” from Swimming

For years, the French Kicks have released albums that challenged themselves and their listeners, and ridden the music biz see-saw. Stumpf said they were “helped and hurt” by their initial inclusion in a popular category of New York “scene” bands that still pops up.

“I’m sure people checked out our band because of that in some ways,” Stumpf said. “So if they checked it out and liked it, then that’s great. But we were also graded on a lot of stuff, and were in contests that we never wanted to enter. And the inevitable comparisons and all that stuff, which is boring and distracting.”

A good handful of these New York bands seemed to have embraced the inclusion in such a “scene,” at least on the surface, but Stumpf explained that though it wasn’t an intentional move to distance themselves from it, the Kicks’ desire to change their sound prevented them from doing that to an extent:

To reach a very large audience you kind of have to say, ‘This is my story and I’m sticking to it.’ And for better or for worse, we’ve just never done that. We just decided to not decide, basically. I think hopefully that’s what keeps it an interesting thing and that you can listen to a record and there’s a lot of different stuff happening, or you can listen to three records in a row and there’s a whole lot of stuff going on. So hopefully that’s an advantage [pauses] as well as a marketing disadvantage. [laughs]

For some people when they listen to our records, it can sound like a lack of conviction and a certain direction or something. Like, ‘why don’t these guys figure out what they want to do and do it?’ But for us the fun is the opposite — the fun is just to keep trying whatever we feel like.

At the end of our chat, Stumpf mentioned that they would be shooting a video for the song “Abandon” in March (“Typical French Kicks fashion, we’re doing it exactly backwards — at the very end of the cycle of the record” [laughs]), yet another example of their nonchalance in regard to the business. The band also sort of stumbled into their current record label arrangement, after their previous label, Startime Records, was absorbed by Vagrant.

“They were nice dudes and we got along, and we were like, ‘okay, why not?’,” Stumpf said. “I don’t think any of us have really spent any meaningful amount of time thinking about what label we were on. It was more like, ‘let’s make the record, and if somebody wants to put it out, that’s great.'”

In a time when labels are shutting down and losing money, Stumph said the band hasn’t felt the effects of the dwindling economy, but he feels the effects in the air at home.

“New York is a very weird place to be right now,” he said. “You can really feel the sinking of the ship and it’s palpable. But I find it exciting at the same time. Like, this is sort of a fantasy — all the bankers are leaving. It’s just great. [laughs] And soon it’ll be okay again. But generally I think it’s an interesting time — people being forced to get back to things of essence…. You have anything happening on a national level or a global level, it’s actually pretty cool. It’s good for the soul of the world.”

Don’t miss the French Kicks at Noise Pop this Wed., Feb. 25 at The Independent. They will be supported by Broken West (LA), Here Here and The Dont’s. 8pm, $15.