Kansas City Punk: Dispatches from "Flyover Country"
Eleven bands to know from the literal middle of the country.
Photo by Forester Michael
When they ask, here’s what I tell them: Look at a map of the US. Take a guess at where you think the exact middle of the country is, and put your finger on it. Chances are, you’ve dropped your finger within a 100 map-miles of Kansas City. Mainly I used to tell this to Europeans who wanted to know where I’m from but who knew as much about US geography as most Americans do about sub-Saharan Africa. Now, I find myself saying the same thing to New Yorkers. Philadelphians. Washingtonians. People whose mental map of the middle of the country is just “Chicago” surrounded by a deep fog, all the way west to San Francisco.
It’s OK. Kansas Citians are used to the oversight, the borderline-rude but maybe technically accurate “flyover country” moniker—of which KC is the spiritual capital. That goes for the punk scene as well. While KC area bands have broken through nationally here and there—The Get Up Kids and Coalesce in the late 1990s come to mind—the scene by-in-large exists in a regional bubble of sorts, free to grow in its own direction, create its own thing, the way flora and fauna evolve differently on islands. Don’t get me wrong: Kansas City isn’t some far flung wasteland. Far from it. The place is outright vibrant in a lot of ways. What I mean is: Right now, the city’s punk scene has a sound all its own.
It’s probably short-sighted to say that a place has a “sound,” be it Kansas City or Chicago or LA. There’s always a panoply of music out there and nothing sounds exactly the same as anything. So, with that caveat, let me just say: There are a lot of punk bands in Kansas City at the moment that have a specific kind of thing gong on. Let’s call it an “old” sound; not outdated, but throwback in a way that few scenes are at the moment. Many of the city’s best and brightest have tapped deep into punk’s roots, be it Crass Records art-noise or dirty Detroit proto punk—these old styles made new and fresh by a handful of very good bands. Those bands are cultivating and populating a scene that includes an ever-growing assortment of DIY house venues and more established spots, including FOKL and Art Closet Studios, two great all ages spaces, and the disappointingly 21-and-over but still very punk-specific Vandals.
There’s a lot going on. More than we can list here, of course. But here are some highlights from a busy scene:
The Beta Boys
The Beta Boys play loud, snotty, boozy hardcore that lands somewhere in the neighborhood of the Quincy Punx, except you can’t understand half of the assuredly rude shit they’re saying. OK, so that’s the band. But can we just talk about the cover of their demo tape for a second? Here are some items that appear on this thing: no fewer than five male gender symbols, including ones for all of the Os in “Boys”; a cross maybe, and the outline of a thing that looks an awful lot like a Ku Klux Klan hood(??); multiple rows of, I guess, teeth; a squid thing wearing a spiked leather punk bracelet; the words “FORGET THE FOREIGN JUNK IT’S AMERICAN PUNK”, and whatever else. There’s just a lot going on there. Anyway, The Beta Boys are a band from Kansas City, the end.
Perhaps it takes a place like Kansas City, so far from the accepted center of the punk world, to push the genre in new directions. Lazy’s sound is difficult to pin down, because it moves and shifts shapes with every two-minute burst of song. The band’s most recent full-length, Obsession, is a Crass Records throwback that transverses roads paved by X and Zero Boys and whatever goth punk, new wave thing happened in the mid-80s. There are bursts of speed, weird droning feedback, screams, and straight-ahead punk in a time and pace that makes you think: this is a punk song. Only Lazy’s music is all much stranger than that. It is unexpected and odd and disjointing in spastic bursts. Everyone should listen close.
In punk, there is real bravery in making clear sounds, so unencumbered by the mask of distortion or volume. Gatekeeper goes about the business of making music with this kind of clarity, so constrained and precise. Its math-rich guitarlines ring out, devoid of static or noise; the bass and drums equally sparse. But Gatekeeper’s vocals, delivered by both guitarist Blaze Williams and bassist Morgan Mabrey, take the opposite approach, delivering growl and sludge with each breath. Such a juxtaposition is not for the weak of heart, and generally in punk, it rarely delivers. Gatekeeper delivers, like a punch to gut, from a guy you never heard coming.
In a scene increasingly crowded by all manner of punk variants and sub-genres, Kansas City will always have room for a band like Kool 100s—a ripping, screaming jolt of proto-punk, rendered muddy by thick waves of distortion and who knows what else—booze and drugs and, of course, smokes. The band’s debut EP, We Buy Gold, is a blast of wobbly, fun punk intended to be heard at 4 AM, when even a Town Topic burger can’t stave off tomorrow’s hangover.
Sister Mary Rotten Crotch
Over the past couple of years, a few mainstays of the late 1990s/early 2000s Kansas City punk scene have dusted off their guitars and have begun playing gigs again. The Sex Offenders turn up from time to time. The Revolvers played a reunion show on New Year’s Eve. But Sister Mary Rotten Crotch has held up better than any of them. To my ears, the sneering, feminist four-piece sound better now than they ever have, including those nights spent stomping the stage at the El Torreon a decade ago. The bulk of the band’s catalogue sounds just as urgent as it did back in the day, and those years of shows have left the band honed tight and explosive on stage.
Kansas City has always been way more Recess Records than No Idea. But Rats Rest play a damn fine version of Midwestern gruff punk that, as you might expect, lends itself to big choruses and lyrics that generally lament the state of the world, getting older, fighting the same fights over and over. “We were stoned and watching as the world was ending, broken-hearted drunken kids not quite pretending.” Dude, word.
Nature Boys oscillate between a handful of sounds and speeds—sometimes brooding, sometimes crushingly fast, sometimes more garage than punk and draped in echoing, haunting guitar lines. The band’s second LP remains startlingly good, from the paced, patient opener “Babylon” to “Dr. Claw,” a brutal, three-minute blast of sneering punk that includes guitarist Suzanne Hogan’s cutting, growling vocals—a thing Nature Boys should try more often. The songs in the middle of the album can blend together at times. It’s OK; by the time you get to “Rabies,” a big, pop punk sing-a-long, all’s right in Nature Boys’ world once again.
Since the dawn of recorded human history, Kansas City has churned out raucous, swaggering rock and roll bands that fit perfectly into the city’s bar-based punk scene, where shows start at 11 p.m. and end when the bartender turns on those awful lights. Red Kate is the best of the bunch at the moment - all big guitars and hip shakes and, I don’t know, maybe some Glenn Danzig to the vocals? Something like that. Their full length,When The Troubles Come, released in 2013 on Lawrence’s Replay Records, is a big, jagged bar rock burner with plenty of punk chops and even, like, some very post-y tracks slipped in there. Also: The band’s name is Red Kate but there’s just four dudes in the band? So, yeah. Anyway.
If you’re looking for the best punk band in Kansas City at the moment, you’ve probably found it. Radkey is a throwback three-piece straight out of the first wave of true post-punk bands. It’s that Kansas City sound—all driving drums and dirty distortion—played to as near-perfection as a punk band should care to get. Sure, a lot of Kansas City bands over the years have bounced around the scene but rarely beyond. Radkey has already pushed past whatever regional barriers might exist. A tour with Against Me! and a spot on the 2015 Coachella lineup feels a lot like just start for the three brothers from St. Joseph.
Wet Ones are tapped into the bloodline of Kansas City punk at the moment—loud, loose, fast and probably mega drunk. Surely there's some irony that the band shares its name with an antibacterial hand wipe, when Wet Ones the band sound absolutely filthy. The distorted, sometimes squealing vocals, the "one-two-fuck-you" openings and "Your ass is mine!" choruses that sink into demonic darkness. Its the soundtrack to dank basements and dim bar rooms, to a cigarette butt floating in a fifth of bourbon. And there's that sound again—that punk rock nouveau-nostalgia, ripped from 1979, dropped in 2015 and instructed to spit beer in eyeballs one more time, in case all those years of emo and indie rock had turned the scene soft.
It's nice to have some dexterity as a band, so all your songs don't sound exactly the same to the point that people space out when listening to your record, snap out of it five songs later and think: God, why is this dumb song still playing? Nubiles has some dexterity, especially for a band with one five-song demo to its name. Its songs sway from no wave noise and off-kilter drums, to straight-ahead fast punk, to the legitimately hooky "Black Tooth,” which maybe could have been a Foo Fighters song in a different life? One in which the Foo Fighters were, like, more of a punk band, in a basement, recording a demo? I don't know. I imagine that's disparaging to everyone involved. Anyway. Sorry, I'm an idiot.
Ron Knox is a writer based in KC/DC. Follow him on Twitter - @ronmknoxDC