The A.K.A.s impressed me on sight. It was late spring and I was at a Kings of Nuthin' show, crammed with about 40 other people into the hot backroom of an East Village tiki lounge/bar. Waiting for the opening band - the A.K.A.s - to start, I remember idly wondering how the Kings were going to fit their 8-piece band onto the small floor space that passed as a stage. Then the room exploded.
It was the band's energy that grabbed me at first. Five people and their various instruments packed into this tiny little space. It was like a mini contained fireball. Bob banging away at the drums, Lukas jumping all over, flinging his guitar around, playing behind his head. Mike perched on the monitors, screaming, his veins standing out beneath his neck tattoo. It was chaotic, but it was solid. Catchy. Loud. It hit me in all the right ways that night.
Since then, I've seen them tear it up at staple NYC-area venues like Sin-é, Niagra, and Luxx, and their live show only gets better, their fan-base growing noticeably with each show. If I had to place my bets on a band that had the chops to give the pathetic, fashion-slave, celebrity-courting, ego-hungry rock scene in NY a much-needed beatdown, they would be it.
The A.K.A.s are an interesting mix. For the most part, they play solid, melodic punk rock and roll. Their songs are vaguely revolutionary, yet they're not the type of band to lay down a specific blueprint, à la RATM or International Noise Conspiracy. They just want you to react. They artfully incorporate flavorful elements... a sweetness for hardcore breakdowns, impossibly catchy chant-along backing vocals, cock-rock style manic guitar solos, that set them apart from most run-of-the-mill in your face rock bands. Their backbone is built from a hard-hitting solid wall of drums, bass, and farfisa. Yeah. Farfisa. Nina Aron lays down the keys, weaving in and out of the songs, often carrying the full weight of the melody. It gives the music a neurotic intensity and lends a touch of the surreal to an otherwise uncompromising sound.
White Doves and Smoking Guns, The A.K.A.s excellent debut full-length record, was released September 9th on Florida-based label Fueled By Ramen (www.fueledbyramen.com), accompanied by a vinyl release on Law of Inertia Records (www.lawofinertia.com). They are currently on tour throughout the US for the rest of the year. You can find dates, more info, and watch their brand new video for "Generation Vexed" at www.theakas.com.
This interview was conducted at Odessa Bar, East Village NYC, shortly before the band went into the studio to record White Doves and Smoking Guns. With: Mike Ski (Vocals), Lukas Previn (Guitar), Bob Williams (Drums), Chad Bowser (Bass). Missing: Nina Aron (Farfisa)
Tell me about how you originally got together and what bands you were in previously.
Mike: Bob and I were in a band for several years previously. He moved away, so we'd gone on without him, but it was never the same. It was called Brother's Keeper, from Pennsylvania. I moved to this area 3 1/2 years ago and was still doing the band long distance.
I met Lukas and we became really close friends and always talked about playing music together. We sort of knew that we would end up doing that. Towards the end of the last band, he and I started a band together with some of the people from my old band. We were playing with these other people and it wasn't working out at all.
Around the same time I had this job doing graphic design, and I met Chad there.
Why did Brother's Keeper break up?
Mike: It just kind of ran its course. The distance was a major factor for me because I was trying to do a lot of new things, I was taking vocal lessons, but the band just wasn't there to rehearse enough for it to make a difference.
They were based out of Eerie?
Mike: Yeah, which is 7 hours away. After I moved here we still did a US tour, a European tour, and recorded a full-length record, but it was really hard. Then Lukas and I started playing together with these guys and it wasn't working. It was getting pretty depressing.
Lukas: I actually put an ultimatum on how long I was going to keep playing music with Mike.
Mike: He made a little list of things that if they didn't happen in 3 months, he was going to quit.
Lukas: They weren't outlandish, it was like: 1) Play a show. 2) Have t-shirts.
Mike: Have a band name. Stuff like that. Thankfully we've definitely accomplished those and much more since then. One of the big reasons is because of the people that we ended up involved with. Playing with people where it didn't gel and then playing with people where it did... it was the first time we really felt the difference of clicking and being a special group of people.
Lukas: I think it was the difference between someone who was doing it as a hobby and someone who wanted to make it their life. The difference between when we first met Chad and he was like, I'll drop anything to do the band, I want to do it more than anything. Compared to the other guys who were like "oh, it'll just happen, we don't have to play shows." It was really refreshing.
Lukas and Mike
Mike: One day I was at the Continental and Chad walked by on the street. I hadn't seen him in months, and he had a guitar on his back. We were looking for someone to play either guitar or bass and I saw him and I was like "oh, shit. He plays guitar." So we talked then.
Lukas: We actually started with Chad playing guitar, with the hopes of getting someone on bass. I'd never heard Chad play bass before and one practice we had him play bass. Chad is an extraordinary bass player. A good guitarist, but a better bass player. We were looking for a second guitarist for awhile, but came to the conclusion that we should just stay with one.
Mike: Chad was in a band called the Heartdrops by the way.
Chad: They played NY for a long time, it was kind of a Rock n' Roll band. I joined them and then I moved here from Wisconsin.
Chad: Shut up. (laughing)
How long have you been here for?
Chad: Four years. The Heartdrops, before I moved here, they were touring. Right after I moved, that was it. They didn't want to do it anymore, so I was kind of bummed out. Then I found these guys.
Mike: We had written songs together as a four-piece, before Nina joined. She was our good friend. One day, as a joke I think, I said, it would be awesome to see if Nina would play on a song in the studio. Lukas thought it would be cool, and I brought it up to her, thinking she'd think it was just for shits and giggles. We had a long conversation, and it turns out, as she revealed to us, one of her life dreams was to play music. I never really knew that, but after that we started practicing with her.
I think it gave the band a personality that it wouldn't have had without her. It rounded everything out and gave it a more fun feel.
Bob, you just moved here recently...
Bob: Yeah, in January. I was in a number of bands. Like Mike said, I moved away and I quit Brother's Keeper. A year and 1/2 later I moved back. (laughs) And I was in a number of bands after that. The most recent one was a band called Rockets Red Glare, it was a pop punk/pop rock band. That ended right around when Mike called me. They'd lost their drummer and he called me up and wanted me to come and try out. I wasn't great with the songs at first but it seemed like everything clicked between the five people in the room.
Lukas: I think it should be noted that after three practices Bob played a show in front of over a thousand kids, and it went off pretty swimmingly. We knew right then and there that this was for real.
Lukas, were you in any bands before?
Lukas: Nothing worth noting.
Mike: Come on, that's not true.
Lukas: I played in several bands. I played in one that has a totally different style, that my now-roommate was in, called the Thief. We played a couple shows in NY. Mostly it was just a studio band for fun. Before that, I lived in Massachusetts and played with several bands, probably the most notable was a band called There Were Wires. That ended because they were a straight-edge vegan band and I decided not to be straight-edge, nor vegan anymore. So I kind of couldn't play with them anymore.
So you're the only one in the A.K.A.s who isn't straight-edge?
Mike: Actually, me and Bob are the only ones who are.
Lukas: But let's make it clear that there is a definite stigma attached with straight-edge that neither of them adhere to.
Mike: That's true. We've been involved in it for long enough that we don't really care anymore. I mean we care, but...
Lukas: They come out with us drinking, they don't care if we smoke. They don't drink, but they hang out.
Mike: It's still an important part of my life but I don't think it ever affected the band.
Lukas: Or friendships within the band.
Was the band that you were in before [Brother's Keeper] straight-edge?
Mike: Everyone that was in it was, but we were never a straight-edge band. That was the big thing. Because I've always thought the idea that SXE kids had to hate people who drank or whatever was pretty much complete fucking bullshit, so we never let that have anything to do with that band either. Especially because we were a band with ideas that we thought were pretty universal for people, being a straight edge band is very limiting.
Is it a concern for you? When you tour, that some of the people in the band aren't? Do you feel that everyone's pretty responsible?
Mike: There's never been a time where anyone couldn't perform, and actually I never would admit this, well I am going to admit this, I think that we play better when these guys have a couple in 'em. (laughter)
Lukas: It's nice for us because we always have designated drivers.
That's a good point.
Lukas: It's a mutual respect. I don't care that they don't and they don't care that I do.
Mike: We have a blast together, it's always good times, you know?
Lukas: We were hanging out on my porch the other day 'cause it was such a nice day. I mentioned that I think one of the biggest selling points for me being in this band is that we're all actually friends outside of the band. I've been in bands before where I show up to practice, play music, and leave. And don't really have any interaction with the people in the band. I think it comes across when we play on stage, on the record, and in anything we do, that we actually do all love each other and look out for each other and want to be involved with each other in this marriage of a band.
Mike: We were joking on tour about how things conspired to make us all come together because it seemed so ridiculous. It's like the planets were aligned for everything to happen. Because if every little thing wasn't perfect... if Chad hadn't walked by that one day I would probably never thought of it. And the day I called Bob -- a huge group of our friends from back home were leaving to move away. They'd asked Bob to move and he said no because he was in this band and he was with this girl and she was cool...
Bob: No girls are cool. (laughing)
Oh that's harsh.
Lukas: Stricken from the record! I love women.
Mike: So I called my friends and was asking, do you think I should ask Bob? They're like, I wouldn't really bother, we just tried to get him to move. So I almost didn't call him. Then I was like, fuck it. I'm just gonna give him the option, I'll just let him choose. I called him and it was within days that all this other stuff happened to make it perfect timing and I was like "what're your plans for the next few months?" He said "Get the fuck out of here."
Bob: I think I said "move to New York and be in a band with you", before you even finished asking.
What are your interests outside of music, that relate back to your music and the band?
Lukas: I'm really interested in audio engineering, and recording. One of my best friend's father is a prominent record producer, so I grew up around the whole sort of scene, seeing how things have evolved. I think if I ever got enough free time I'd like to go back to school for it and really learn it. Because music is just so fickle, who knows if I'll be playing guitar in a band next week.
Mike: You better be or we're fucked.
How much do you know about it already?
Lukas: I know a fair amount, I'm not learned.
Bob: I'm referred to as the "man" in the band.
'Cause you can hang shelves.
Bob: Yeah. Because my interests are like, I enjoy working on things with my hands. Building stuff. I can fix cars, I can fix houses. Basically, any kind of engineering mechanically, I'm pretty inclined.
So if the van breaks down...
Mike: And it has...
Bob: I've been known to put my hand in the engine and make it work again.
Lukas: Can we please not talk about personal stuff here?
Chad, how about you?
Mike: Chad's just a music geek.
Chad: That's about it. And I laugh at Lukas' jokes.
That's your role.
Lukas: He makes me feel like I'm funny.
Chad's the ego-booster of the group. So, Mike. You tattoo people for a living.
Mike: I'm a tattooer and I'm just generally a lover of art. I went to school for art and I do graphic design as well.
Where'd you go?
Mike: I went to the Columbus College of Art & Design for a semester... then I dropped out!
Hey, all good punk rockers are art school drop outs.
Mike: Gwar dropped out of CCAD as well.
There you go.
Mike: Then I went to a liberal arts school called Mercyhurst.
What kind of art do you do?
Mike: My major was graphic design, I minored in photography. It was like 10 years after the fact that I realized I just do exactly what I did in high school, but for a job. Make shirts for bands, CD covers, stuff like that. I like that, and it relates back to the band because it helps create an overall aesthetic for the band that we have complete control over, so that's cool.
How'd you get into singing?
You have a really unique voice. (Laughter)
Mike: Uh. If you look at any review of my band for the last ten years...
No, I kinda just got thrown into it. I was never really a musician per se. I played bass in some bands, and for two weeks tried to play guitar. I started a new band with some friends and I was playing bass. The drummer went on vacation so the singer played drums while he was gone and turned out to be way better. So I just started singing as a joke and I just kind of, I don't know, stayed. I was always kind of ridiculed for having a really high screechy voice.
Lukas: That's changed a lot.
Mike: The last couple years I started trying to be more of like a musical dude. I took vocal lessons from a really awesome woman here in NY, who specializes in people with punk backgrounds. She used to be in a punk band twenty years ago and now she teaches people that come from a screamy background. That was really awesome. Now that we're playing so much as a band it's easier to evolve. But I've always been very expressive in all forms -- artwork, music, writing a lot. Being in a shitty hardcore band from the time I was 16 on, and just writing dumb, pissed-off lyrics, over time you realize there's an art to this.
Do you write all the lyrics?
Mike: Yeah. Yes, it's my contribution.
Lukas, this one's all yours. Describe the sound of the band.
Lukas: The most important thing is it's really energetic and fun. The references are the hard part because we don't sound like any of the bands that we can reference ourselves to. I guess as far as sensibility, live show, and writing style, it would be Rocket From the Crypt, Refused, MC5, those types of bands.