Fourth-Best Wins

Jan Tumlir on KISK

KISK performing at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, 2019. Photo: Joshua White.

“WE ARE FOURTH-BEST note-for-close KISS tribute band from Volga region”: This is how the members of KISK introduce their act as they take to the stage, faces slathered in the original lineup’s familiar white paint with black Kabuki-like touches. “Demon,” “Starchild,” “Spaceman,” and “Catman”—all are present and accounted for. It was back in the early 1970s in New York City that Peter Criss, Ace Frehley, Gene Simmons, and Paul Stanley dreamt up these instantly recognizable, cartoonish avatars as the delivery vehicles for their ultra-catchy stadium rock. In this reprisal by the team of Tony Fernandez, Jonathan Pylypchuk, Antonio Ortiz, and Paul Cherwick, however, something is lost in translation. To begin with, KISS’s high-booted glam outfits have been replaced with Adidas tracksuits and sneakers, the signature accoutrements of the Russian thug, the so-called gopnik. For a performance this past June at the Pit gallery in Glendale, California, a tall, furry hat was thrown into the mix, as if in preparation for the Siberian winter; Simmons’s famous pyrotechnics were dutifully essayed, but with vodka as the fire-starter; and when it came time to spit blood, the task was accomplished with a helping of borscht. Behind the band hung a banner that contorted the last two letters of their name—formerly delivered in the “lightning bolt” font of the Nazi SS—into the Soviet emblem of the hammer and sickle. Onstage palaver was conducted with over-the-top Russian accents: “Are you ready to r-r-r-rock?” This is ridiculous fun, to be sure, though not necessarily any more so—and perhaps even less so—than that promoted by KISS itself. Moreover, when it comes to rocking, KISK is entirely “for real,” which is perhaps what is most surprising about them.

Outwardly a one-note gag, KISK has in fact been a long time coming. The group’s genealogical line stretches back to the formidable Mythter, a quasi-satirical rock band formed at Art Center in the mid-1990s by Ortiz, then pursuing his BFA degree, and Steve Hanson, who worked in the school’s library (and went on to found the China Art Objects gallery). With Mythter, already, heavy-riffing rock-god postures were wryly struck with an adroitness that challenged their inherent clichés. Then came the more demure Mr. Banjo, at first the solo act of Fernandez, a seasoned punk veteran who had traded in his “ax” for the more innocuous eponymous instrument, from which he coaxed a medley of rock covers in the stool-sitting, joke-telling guise of an old-fashioned entertainer. Mr. Banjo was a staple feature at the recently defunct Hop Louie bar, once at the epicenter of the Chinatown art scene, and perfectly encapsulated what might be described as the renegotiation of irony that marked this end-of-the-century period. At the start of the aughts, Ortiz joined the band along with artists Cherwick and Pylypchuk, who had recently moved to LA from Winnipeg. Right around 2012, they rebranded themselves as Dealer’s Choice, a name that aptly cued the nostalgic tenor of their set list, which boasted only the most “classic” hits from the ’70s and ’80s, yet lent these tunes the shoddy cast of a supermarket bargain disc. Somewhere along the line, to really push the limits of taste, they tried their hands at a number by KISS. As they relate it, the mood of mischievous hilarity in the rehearsal studio quickly subsided as they struck the first chords of “Strutter.” The music sounded so right that they agreed to play only KISS from then on.

The Russian angle was added to the proceedings, without much forethought, for a performance at the Hammer Museum in 2015—as an absurdist touch and also a means of gaining some distance from this iconic material, to which the band might well feel too close. The surprise of KISK, however, is two-sided, double-edged. Firstly, the band asks its audiences to contend with a “novelty act” that, unlike Weird Al Yankovic’s parodies, honors its source material “note-for-close.” Secondly, KISK can also be considered an art-rock band, operating in a liminal zone where outright imitation of rock conventions tends to be opposed, on principle, in favor of breaking down and mixing up such tropes. The relation of art-rock to any more established musical model is, at the very least, ambivalent. For instance, the one-album-only Sonic Youth spin-off band Ciccone Youth was ostensibly formed in tribute to Madonna, yet the group drowned her lighthearted dance beats in punishing squalls of No Wave noise, almost completely obscuring the original songs. Somewhat more apropos are the three 1992 solo EPs, each made by a single Melvins band member, which feature their likenesses assuming KISS-like expressions on the covers. Of course, those records sound nothing like KISS; the band is invoked as shorthand for the knuckleheaded enthusiasms of white male adolescence, here persisting in only the most moribund form into middle age. Art rock either falls short of its rock models by showcasing flagrant technical incompetence or else exceeds them with displays of dazzling virtuosity that leave everything that is formulaic about the genre in the dust. Either way, rock is declared easy, which it is but also is not. KISK understands this: the ease of rock comes hard, for in addition to playing those rote power chords one must also believe in them.

To listeners like myself who actually were raised on KISS as children and then unceremoniously dumped all their records as our tastes matured, KISK provides much more than guilty pleasure. Only because these covers are played undercover—behind the thin aesthetic veil of the art world—are we allowed to listen without judgment and once more enjoy what we hear. And isn’t this one of the foremost services of art: to remind us of what we let go, perhaps too early and for all the wrong reasons?