The Bristling Activism Behind Kevin Carnes' Relentless Beat
Kevin Carnes in 2013
This photo by Jeff Spirer/All photos courtesy of Kevin Carnes
For people tuned into late-1980s San Francisco punk, the Beatnigs carried forward the promise of its experimentation and core political ethos with uncanny finesse and artful adventure. Signed to legendary label Alternative Tentacles, the band launched smoldering tunes like 1988's “Television: The Drug of Nation," which became a calling card of their musical prowess and intelligence. It revealed their ability to deconstruct media and attacked the powers that be in the Reagan-Bush era, but formed a trenchant groove at the same time. By utilizing industrialized punk-hip hop and atavistic performance art to sharpen their message, the Beatnigs seemed cutting-edge but also avidly old-school, partly due to singer Michael Franti’s (Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Spearhead) penetrating tone, wry wordplay, and pulsating elocution. That side evoked the socio-political fervor and musical prowess of the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron.
Nimble drummer Kevin Carnes held down the rhythm section of the Beatnigs with elastic aplomb. But prior to joining their efforts, he played with Houston's the Usuals, alongside Adam Sherburne. The unit gigged at clubs like the Omni, and Sherburne later helped shape the sonic smarts of left-wing-savvy Consolidated, whom Carnes also joined briefly. Since those early years, Carnes has continued to pump his vigor, skill and spirit into an array of projects, including Soulstice, Parliament-Funkadelic, Eric McFadden Trio, Electrofunkadelia, Storm Inc. and IZM. His ultimate role, one might argue, is helping to found the long-lived, genre-melding Broun Fellinis, dubbed “the best of San Francisco's thriving acid jazz scene.”
The Press' Davis Ensminger caught Carnes between gigs to honor his past work and highlight his new.
Houston Press: As you mention, San Francisco was not necessarily a “free” and “liberal” heaven. Do you feel it was as troubled, and maybe still, as much as Detroit and Houston?
Kevin Carnes: For me personally, one of the best things about being a musician is having had the opportunity to tour and see a lot of the world. I’ve learned that we all have a lot in common and that cities are very much the same. They’re all very beautiful, yet they all have some really ugly shit going on when you peel back the layers. I also feel like there’s an ebb and flow with cities. They’re prosperous, vibrant and exciting, then they get overrun and gutted like a cool nightclub. It’s all about the awareness and the intentions of the people. We’ve become a very selfish society, and San Francisco epitomizes that.
I believe the first drum part you learned was by Cream (Ginger Baker!). Did it surprise you he would record on a PiL [Public Image Ltd.] album?
“Sunshine of Your Love” was the first song that I learned to play on the drums. I also learned it on guitar a few years later when I took lessons. It did not surprise me that Ginger Baker would turn up on a PiL record, that guy [Baker] worked with Fela Kuti...THAT’S the surprise. Making more people aware of Fela is the most important thing he ever did.
You’ve talked about the importance of learning to read music early on: how does that change one’s abilities to play and immerse in music in ways that seem boundless?
Imagine speaking English but not knowing how to spell and write. Good luck with your short story. Now imagine riding on a city bus and hearing some crazy rhythm that is happening between the bus motor, the squeaky seats and the broken window that rattles every time you go over a bump. I can write that down and then play it on my kit when I get home.
You’ve called the Beatnigs Afro-Punk, Black Militant, etc. Do you think that was ever challenging for white audiences, even punk ones, maybe unfamiliar with the likes of Amiri Baraka, Last Poets, or anything black avant-garde?
It was difficult for many black people as well. The name alone was tough to swallow, add the way we dressed, wore our hair, and behaved in public. I’ve had black elders come to me and tell me how they hated our name, but once they heard and saw us perform it made sense to them and they loved us for what we were doing, and they still didn’t like the name. The name, the music, the words, the performance — it was all meant to challenge whoever was standing in front of us. Being that we were playing at a lot of punk clubs and art bars, most of the people there were white, and I’m sure some people took what we were giving in a negative way and others understood the unconditional love that was ever-present at our shows. I’ll remind you that it was also a play on the Beat Generation — we were exactly that.
At first listening, the Beatnigs seem to meld the world of Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets with industrial rock a la Wax Trax records, plus the politic-mindedness of Fugazi and Dead Kennedys, both of whom you gigged with. But coming from the inside, what were you listening to and discussing?
There was a lot of music shared between the members of the band, everything from Public Enemy to Bad Brains, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra. On the Industrial side of things, there was a group called Test Department from England and another Bay Area crew called Survival Research Laboratories that were the biggest influences on us. West African music, particularly percussion-oriented stuff, seemed to always be playing in the background. I was a DJ during that time. Some of us were really into fashion and visual arts and technology, while others were doing carpentry. Many of us road bicycles as our main mode of transportation. We smoked and drank and talked into the wee hours like the bohemians we were. It’s all there in the music.
While other guys in Beatnigs came from California and Hong Kong, you grew up in Detroit, which has an obvious long tradition of radical rock and roll and counterculture funk, from MC5 to Funkadelic, whose mastermind George Clinton you worked with on projects too. Did you soak up Detroit music and perspectives? Seeing Isaac Hayes there in 1970 seemed to impact you greatly.
Yeah, the “edge,” the industrial Midwest, the Motor City, Motown, the beautiful contrast of Spring and Fall and SLUSH! It’s all here in spirit. Someone recently asked if I still have kinship with that place, and without hesitation I said yes. I love it there and hope for its recovery.
Michael once told Maximumrockandroll that the Beatnigs' live show was partly catalyzed by a desire to be different than the hordes of MTV mediocrity and return to highly ‘got to be there’ vivid live performances. Does this link also to your own sense of improv and avant-gardism, and was it difficult to translate the textures of sound on the album to a live setting, or vice versa to record the saw in studio?
It was much harder to capture the cacophony and girth of the band on tape than to bring the studio ideas to the stage. From the beginning, rehearsals were like being in the studio — sometimes music studio, sometimes dance studio, and other times art studio. That’s just how we started out working: taping jams, making samples, and building songs from them, finding something to do with a gas tank, a string of Christmas lights, and a circular saw. Up until the release of our record, there were never two Beatnigs shows that were the same. The agenda, themes, storylines and gear were constantly changing, evolving, and that’s how we liked it. We didn’t start out as a band, in the conventional sense, though we became one. I have always performed as if it may never happen again and all of my favorite bands, the Usuals, The Beatnigs, and the Broun Fellinis embodied a need to stir the pot of human existence.
Although political in nature, which came to the fore on tunes like “Rootigus Sporaticus” which lashed put against nuclear testing and interventionism, songs like “Burrito” offered some humor even while still making a pithy point about class and race. Was that important?
Global politics can’t exist without personal politics, and I’ve never thought “Burritos” was funny, though it is very clever. Everything we talked about onstage we lived, and however many years later class and race are still two of the biggest social problems in this country. It was very important to us to talk about what was right under foot and what we were experiencing on the daily right here in the Bay, which many folk like to say is so “free” and “liberal,” but the reality for some? Not so much.
Other songs like "Television" deconstruct the role of the government, mass media, and public apathy with certain aplomb. If you were to update the song, would the lyrical content change much, or has mass media just gone from five big stations to endless stations, but the result is the same?
I can’t speak for Michael who wrote the lyrics, but yes. I personally feel like the (mis) “information age” is both wondrous and wretched, and I’m really glad that I’m not a young person trying to get my footing in so much (m)ass media trash.
The Beatnigs played with DOA, one of the longest-running punk bands of its caliber, for a Radio Farabundo Marti [radio station of El Savador] benefit. Do you recall this and other benefit efforts, as well as gigging with DOA?
We played with MDC, Fugazi, Living Colour, the Butthole Surfers, and Schooly D. We jammed with Genesis P. Orridge and Einsturzende Neubauten as well as countless fans that were brought up onstage or had the stage dumped on them. Don’t remember a show with DOA. Don’t be mad, I stayed pretty high back then. We did lots of benefits throughout our career. I feel like it’s the duty of all artists and entertainers. I learned that from Adam Sherburne, and to this day, I continue to share my musical talents to help bring attention and funding to others.
Some of the most curious gigs were the 1988 tour with Beatnigs, Billy Bragg and Michelle Shocked. You played drums for the rousing finale “Great Leap Forward.” Apart from the punk camaraderie, why do you think this lineup worked well?
It was unexpected. Billy Bragg was doing 1,000-2,500 seaters at that time and most of those shows were near-sellouts. We were an unexpected treat for most of the folks that were going to that show. As was Michelle Shocked. She was still very new to the world at that time. So if you’re going out to hear one politico artist, getting three different performances on the same stage? The fact that we sounded nothing alike was a [moot] point from the first note. Then when it got around that the fire marshal was showing up at each venue to make sure we weren’t going to burn the place down, it was over with. Folks had to be there.
Canes with the Usuals
I know you DJ’d in the Mission District in the 1980s, quite a musical mélange of Sylvester to the Sex Pistols. Did being a DJ change the way you thought about making music as well, like sculpting sound?
Sound sculpture was mainly my thing. I had the luxury of spinning on a Sunday night and didn’t have the pressure of maintaining the dance floor. I played speeches over tape loops that I made, mixed Butthole Surfers with Nat King Cole, hosted local filmmakers and dancers right in the middle of beat matching Soul Sonic Force, Kraftwerk and New Order. Those Sunday-night sessions were the genesis of the Beatnigs.
DJing taught me how to read audiences. When I had a weekly session with the Broun Fellinis at another Mission nightclub (The Elbo Room), I noticed that people generally left between songs. So, I suggested to my band mates that we string the songs together so that we never stopped playing and people would come up to me and say, “Man! We were going to leave, but then you went into this whole other thing,” and 30 minutes later they’d still be sitting there. As a player, I use electronics with my drum rig and incorporate a lot of DJ techniques and aesthetics into what I do. I really love the influence DJs and software-generated music has had on musicians, and I’m fortunate to work with many great players who embrace both worlds.
Of all the people you’ve worked with, you’ve set aside special praise for Bernie Worrell, whose roots are deep in both exploratory funk (Parliament-Funkadelic) and post-punk (Talking Heads). If George Clinton helped teach you about dynamic, what has Worell taught you?
First off, I learned a lot more than just dynamics from George Clinton, and I have to mention Blackbird McKnight and Lige Curry as two others from that circle of musicians that helped me grow as [a] musician, drummer, and performer. They are all top-shelf human beings.
Bernie Worrell is another one. A master at his craft, yet fully in the moment with whomever is on the stage. He makes playing music fun, and if you’re paying attention he’ll say some funny shit right in the middle of rockin’ the most ridiculous solo or comping behind someone else’s idea. Classical references followed by cartoon theme songs all sprinkled with gospel, jazz, and the Funk, and all within a single passage of music. I was already a good listener, but being present with yourself and the people you’re playing with and having a sense of humor? He just took me to another level of awareness. He didn’t so much teach me things as much as confirm them for me.
You drummed for Consolidated, which included Adam Sherburne of the Usuals, based in Houston, whom you drummed for as well. Was playing in Consolidated a logical outgrowth of your work with the Beatnigs, both musically and politically?
Playing with Consolidated was more about playing with Adam, who is one of my favorite musicians and still one of my few close friends. We did a tour of Europe following the release of, I can’t recall the name of that record, just the two of us and a mess of gear. We had a blast. I still get together with Adam, and whomever else shows up, once a year in a studio or on a street corner in San Francisco to play and record whatever musical madness ensues. I’m looking forward to doing it again later this summer or fall.
As far as music and politics go, all of the bands and projects that I’m passionate about are an outgrowth of the Beatnigs and the Usuals. U.A.F, Broun Fellinis, and HEADBOLT are all about global, personal, spiritual and sonic exploration, and I feel like music is the one unconditional contribution I can make to society that’s within my control.