The Kickback immediately enters the front ranks of contemporary rock ‘n’ roll with WEDDINGS & FUNERALS (Jullian Records), a furious, exhilarating, and deeply emotional collection that somehow captures all of the shared experiences that bring us together – joy and sorrow, unity and separation, love and hate, life its own self. Produced by Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Elvis Costello, WAVVES), the album sees singer-songwriter Billy Yost rending his chest to bare his own dark heart while grappling with intense personal trauma. Set against an inventive bed of infinite guitars, grizzled bass, and slippery rhythms, songs like “Latest Obsession” and “False Jeopardy” are personally cathartic but also painfully universal, Yost’s heartbreak as identifiable and real as any of our own.
“I found out I was getting divorced,” Yost says. “It was really unexpected. I got to a pretty bleak place initially. I don’t know what I’d have done without the ability to try and cope with things through music. I wouldn’t care to ever make a record this way again, but I also know it’s the best group of songs this band has been able to make.”
The Kickback was founded in Yost’s hometown of Vermillion, South Dakota, and then rebooted in Chicago to include guitarist Jonny Ifergan and bassist Daniel Leu. The band made their bones with a series of self-released EPs and electrifying live set before recording their 2015 debut album, SORRY ALL OVER THE PLACE, with Spoon’s Jim Eno behind the board. The collection earned pervasive acclaim for its sharp wit and expert use of pop cultural ephemera on songs such as “Sting’s Teacher Years” (in part inspired by Yost’s own extracurricular career as a high school substitute). Like any rock ‘n’ roll band worth its salt, The Kickback toured hard, lighting it up at countless headline shows, festival showcases, and gigs alongside such diverse outfits as Here We Go Magic, Manic Street Preachers, Miracle Legion, Tokyo Police Club, and Bush.
Yost relocated once again when his wife entered graduate school at Penn State but continued to be dead focused on pushing The Kickback forward. Yost admits his perspective on the long relationship was clouded by drive and ambition, leaving him totally blindsided when his wife dropped the axe. “We were in South Dakota,” Yost says. “The band was playing my best friend from college’s wedding. I found out I was getting divorced about an hour before I had to give my best man speech. I pretended like everything was okay and then went numb for about a year.”
Yost moved into a friend’s basement office where he spent a month “staring at the walls” before getting back to work. “I Taste My Own Blood,” a musical open vein marked by its candid chorus “I lost my love in central Pennsylvania/And heard about it in South Dakota,” was followed by a long stream of “really sad rock ‘n’ roll songs,” all demoed on Garageband. “The album is grieving in real-time,” Yost says. “Every song was a hopeless negotiation of trying to talk my way back into her life.”
The Kickback eventually resumed their never-ending tour, a cross-country trek that saw them playing a gig just three blocks from Dennis Herring’s Los Angeles studio. A fan of Modest Mouse and other Herring productions while growing up in rural South Dakota, Yost first met Herring on July 3rd 2012 when the nascent frontman took a Greyhound from his new home of Chicago to the producer’s studio in Oxford, MS.
“I played him my songs and he said, great, we’re going to make a record together,” Yost says. “He was right, only it turned out to be our second record, not the first.” Herring came down to see The Kickback and was simultaneously moved and impressed by the band’s ferocity and Yost’s obvious angst. “Dennis said, you’re playing like you’ve got nothing to live for,” Yost says. “I thought that was a dig but he meant it as a compliment. It took a while, he said, but I think now’s the time for us to make this happen.”
The Kickback set to work at Herring’s dtla recording in December 2016. Herring – “one of the last great diabolical madmen of the studio,” according to Yost – was admittedly not the easiest collaborator. The veteran producer had but one simple goal, to record all of The Kickback’s raw power and affecting energy, and he was determined to get there by any means necessary.
“Dennis knows how to get what he wants,” Yost says, “and that’s more than just his recording aesthetic. We clashed a lot. I was looking for perfect, in a colder, more cerebral kind of way. Dennis doesn’t care if you’re in tune or if you’re technically correct. He just wants to feel it. So I’m grateful for having somebody push back that way.”
Despite – or perhaps due to – their discord, Herring enabled The Kickback to find “a sound we’d been chasing for a very long time.” Tracks like “Reptile Fund” are imaginative, widescreen, and dirty, built around hip-hop inspired rhythms, ugly bass tones, and layers of unprecedented acoustic guitar. “If you had told me two years ago that our next record would be full of acoustic guitars I would’ve punched you in the face and spit on you twice,” Yost says. “It took me a really long time to let go of the things I loved, but when you kill your idols that’s when you find your own voice.”
“A one-sided view of someone trying to work through a divorce,” according to Yost, WEDDINGS & FUNERALS marks a great acceleration in more than simply sonics. Songs like “Dating Around” and “Pale King” are more literal than The Kickback’s earlier work and all the more potent for it, Yost’s existential turmoil forcing him to write from the gut rather than his head, reducing the popcraft and wordplay to find the sweet spot between those two aspects of his persona.
“Our first record had songs about professional wrestling and Twin Peaks,” Yost says. “Our second one is just this totally unharbored grieving process. You write what you’re going through.”
The Kickback is now poised to tour in support of WEDDINGS & FUNERALS, joined on drums by Yost’s brother Danny. The band is somehow more raw and unhinged on stage than ever before, like the album, an ideal vessel for Yost to unleash his still-roiling internal angst. Confrontational, aching, and fraught with palpable pain and apprehension, WEDDINGS & FUNERALS is as powerful and pure as modern rock ‘n’ roll gets, the striking sound of a gifted artist’s primal scream howled into the abyss with no hope on the horizon.
“Being a divorcee before 30 was not something I saw coming,” Billy Yost says. “I'm still a fucking mess. I still have my ex-wife's name tattooed on my chest. I still hate myself for every right decision I made for the band that ruined my marriage… and I would do it again.”