I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog talking about the relationship between the mainstream and the underground and how this relationship shapes our wider culture in general and what it means for nerd culture more specifically. What I haven’t talked much about is the third leg in this stool, something that I call The Weird. The Weird is a diverse collection of individual scenes and subcultures that exist outside of the mainstream/underground paradigm to various degrees; either because they’ve actively rejected this paradigm, or, more commonly, they just don’t see a point in caring about it. They’re happy with the world that they’ve carved out and that’s all they need.
My own interaction with The Weird is primarily with a scene that I lovingly refer to as the freakshow. This is a collection of people who are pushing the boundaries of traditional music in an attempt to create new traditions that reflect current times in the same way that the older styles reflected the times when they were created. That can be found in punks unplugging their guitars to write folk tunes or honky tonk numbers, or hippies merging string band music with things like funk and reggea, or with hillbillies dropping acid and writing songs extolling the virtues of the peace, love, and moonshine. It is a scene that is incredibly weird and foreign to outsiders, yet feels completely natural and obvious to those who call it home.
From the moment I first started to get involved in the nerd culture movement I’ve longed for a band that would bridge the gap between these two scenes. This past weekend at the annual Floydfest, outside Floyd, VA, I think I finally found the group that I’ve been longing for in the form of South Carolina’s Megan Jean and the KFB.
Made up of Megan Jean (voice, washboard, kick drum, snare drum, and occasionally acoustic guitar) and Byrne Klay (banjo and upright bass) the group plays a style of music that may seem simple on the surface but is highly evocative. The band’s fascination with things like zombies and voodoo may come off as a schtick in lesser hands, but their ability to evoke an unsettling feeling with just their music or the way Megan Jean drawls certain words past their intended lengths, elevates what they’re doing beyond a simple schtick. The fact that they also seem to have a firm grasp of the the concept of zombies as metaphors for various society ills also pushes their work well beyond the simple realm of “band that sings about zombies and voodoo.”
The Devil Himself is the band’s second album and was released last March.
Musically the songs on the album hint at a variety of different styles of music. The swinging beat of Mr Boneman and These Bones, or the ragtime feel of something like Idle Hands, or even the early 60s Brill Building feel of Last Days. That said, the overall sound is one that is unique to the band. It’s a sound made up of hypnotic, yet perfect, banjo phrases and the constant beat of the kick drum. Over that is the washboard which in some cases is just keeping time while in other places it provides a much greater degree of swing then one would expect from such a simple instrument. And then of course there is Megan Jean’s voice. Rich and full and powerful enough to strip shingles off a roof with out ever faltering in the slightest. It’s that voice that will first make an impression on you.
Lyrically the band’s most common motif is songs that on the surface tell stories about the dead or stories that have a strong voodoo kind of vibe. At the same time though those same songs leave one with a strong sense that there is much more to them. That, like all good ghost stories, they are about something much more mundane, but also much more dangerous. Personally, I find myself torn between wanting to know what the songs are “really” about and not wanting to ever know, so that I can be left to my own devices to derive my own meanings for them.
Beyond the zombie and voodoo songs, the next strongest motif is the cost of non-conformity. Whether it’s No Good Girl warning others not to judge her until they’ve walked in her shoes. Or the middle finger of Home Town Hero. The refreshing thing about these songs though is that they are not the typical ‘fuck you’ non-conformity songs that one might expect. The songs plainly and honestly acknowledge the costs of non-conformity, the judgement and ridicule that comes with refusing to fit in, but are at the same time defiant in their stance. One comes away with a message that there are costs associated with being yourself, but that the alternative, denying yourself to live an easier life, is not a life worth living. It’s a message that all nerds should take to heart, but that the younger of us should pay particular attention to.
Just as the emergence of folks like Random and Dual Core and YT Cracker, who were already well versed in hip hop before aligning themselves with Nerdcore raised the bar with in that scene. I think Megan Jean and the KFB have the potential to shake things up in the geek rock and post-wrock scenes. If nothing else the band might inspire more touring from the existing bands. At Floydfest MJ-KFB proudly declared that they’ve been homeless for the last two and a half years as they continue their never ending tour. Even mentioning at one point that they played over 250 shows over the last year. And a group does not play that many shows a year without learning a thing or two about getting a crowd riled up.
Beyond that though in my opinion it would be interesting to see some of other bands in the scene to start pushing the boundaries when it comes to the style of music they play. There’s nothing really wrong with bands playing well with in existing genres of music, but given the creativity that already exists in this scene, I’d be curious to see what happens if some of the freakshow were to start rubbing off on more groups.
Perhaps I’m just projecting my own desires on the scene and I should just be happy with what we have, but even if I am, I’ll still present MJ-KFB as a great group with a unique sound that will likely leaving you a little sweaty and a little tired and very happy after hearing them, whether you’re seeing them live or just listening to their CD.
If your still not completely sold, below are a few videos that I pulled off YouTube. There are others out there if you look, but I figured these would be a good taste of what you can expect from the band.
First up is the video for These Bones.
Next up is a live version of the track Skeletons that the band did for a YouTube channel called BalconyTV.
The next two videos are from FloydFest where I saw them play.
First, from their 2012 dance tent performance (which sadly I missed), their version of the mashup Something In The Air/Bed Intruder.
Second, from this years main stage performance (I did catch this one), a new song that they haven’t recorded yet called My Rouge Ran Low.