Sure, it neatly sums up everything with a beard, a flannel shirt, at least one acoustic instrument, and an allegiance to Johnny Cash. But perhaps when you're done reading this article you can join me in putting the term "Americana" to bed. Are you with me? Kingsley Flood's Naseem Khuri is — or at least I think he is. He's able to let go of the all-encompassing, driven-into-the-dirt tag, but won't — like countless other contemporary musicians — let go of the all-time over-used, uber-vague "rock 'n' roll." Hail, hail to this Boston- and Washington-based band, which despite definitions, creates organically beautiful music that is at home under both used and abused headings. You may not be able to easily categorize its new disc "Battles" (it just dropped in February) but you'll still enjoy the hell out of it.
"I don't know if you can absolutely call it one specific genre," Khuri says. "We're not saying we necessarily want to make an Americana album. We just want to play songs that we like and record songs that we like and whatever they sit in, that's fine. My favorite records are those that are hard to describe. 'Exile On Main Street,' 'London Calling,' 'OK Computer' — these are all the top three on my list. Granted, they're on everybody's list."
On the surface, the six-piece Kingsley Flood's eclectic instrumentation may inspire premature conclusions. But if you dig past the rustic veneer, you get to the real subtlety and bristling joy of a surprisingly contemporary strain swimming in the perceived antiquity.
"Yeah, we have a violin and a trumpet, and people look at that and say, 'That's Americana,'" says Khuri. "And I think that's great. What the difference is, is we don't think Americana means one specific thing; it's an umbrella. Look at old blues records: that's Americana. You can look at anything that Stax Records put out — soul and r&b — that's Americana. We draw from all of those influences. The Kinks were a big influence on this album, The Clash was a big influence on this album. I'm a huge fan of r&b."
If Americana is an umbrella, then it's raining a lot around the band. Raining enough to cause, you might say, a Kingsley Flood. With the bombardment of influences all around it, the band maintains its nuanced identity without effort or compromise. Even in a world where, according to Khuri, there's essentially nothing new.
"I don't know," he says. "I think there's very little original anything out there. And what is out there is derivative of something else. But the fact that someone else is doing it, is going to make it original. The fact that we have this kind of instrumentation. I have a specific kind of voice. George Hall plays a specific type of guitar. Jenee Morgan sounds a certain way on her violin... If we tried to duplicate The Clash, we wouldn't sound like them, we would sound like ourselves. Do I like to think our songs are original sounding? Absolutely. Do I try and make an effort to make them original? Yeah. But I bet if someone sat there and picked them apart they could hear a million different influences."
And of those million points of inspirational light, some seem completely out of left field.
"Someone told me the other day one of the songs reminded them of an old Cars song," Khuri says. "And I had never heard that song before. It just goes to show you everything reminds somebody of something else."
Besides the outside sources that tug at him, Khuri has an inner universe of songs waiting to be born. "I'll come up with something, typically in the middle of the night in my bedroom," he says. "I'll work it and bring it to the band, and chances are it'll take on a totally different form. Sometimes I have a vision of some parts, other times I have no vision at all, just a few basic components."
Kinsgley Flood then composes, performs, and wrenches on the music until it feels right. But sometimes "right" is hard to pinpoint.
"I don't think you ever know when it's done," says Khuri. "I wasn't sure this record was done when it was. I could sit there and tweak things until kingdom come, but we'd also drive ourselves crazy doing it that way."
By the time "Battles" dropped, Kingsley Flood had itself, what with two prior releases to its credit ("Dust Windows" in 2010 and "Colder Still" from 2012) to be compared to, as well as others around them. Yet according to Khuri, there were expectations to live up to with the fans the band had already made. New fans were simply fresh ears, a clean slate.
"We've been plugging away for the last three or four years just trying to build up fan bases in cities like Rochester, Boston, New York, Washington, DC," he says. "So we definitely wanted to make it for fans that way. We do feel like this is the one time where all of the factors sort of came together well."
As the band forges ahead and adds new cities as home to its fans (including a stop at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival), the band is already in love with Rochester. This will be its third stop here.
"Rochester," Khuri says. "The people there are fantastic, they go nuts. We just love the Rochester crowd."