Photo courtesy of Ali Scott
I’m sitting in a café in Lower Manhattan. It’s a quote-on-quote hipster place that specializes in vegan snacks and strong coffee. I’m on my third Americano. The caffeine has me jittery and kind of excited, but I’m not half as excited as the person I’m sitting across from. For the past couple hours, I’ve been drilling Jamie Kilstein with questions about his new music project. Kilstein, best known as a stand-up comedian and one-half of the political podcast Citizen Radio, talks about his new record A Bit Much with childlike enthusiasm.
“So many of the songs are different. I’ve been describing us as political jam punk," says Kilstein. "I have a bass player who would die for Fugazi but is also obsessed with free jazz. My guitar player went to The Manhattan School of Music. Our drummer listens to the most intense hardcore but would sing Paramore with me in the car. There are elements from all that and way more in the music, behind lyrics about fucking shit up. But I think the biggest surprise for people is that I can actually write a hook.” Walking into the interview I was trying to piece together why a working comedian who has made appearances on Conan, toured with Marc Maron, and has a podcast with thousands of daily listeners would put his career on hold to make a punk album. We’re getting close to the end of our conversation, and while at this point I’ve learned a lot about his process and I’m definitely rooting for Kilstein, I’m still not any closer to answering my question. “You’ve had a lot of success in other areas. You’re in your early thirties. Why music? Why now?”
At first, Kilstein starts into a story about his teenage years and how music has helped through depression but he trails off midway through and takes a long sip of his coffee. When he puts his cup down he runs his hand through his hair and starts scratching at his heavily tattooed arms. “I never really sang before last year. It was my biggest fear. I would lip sync, 'Happy Birthday'. It was that bad. But I would be doing stand up and I’d start tapping my foot. I’d get into this flow and there was a rhythm to it and… nothing else makes sense right now. I feel like this is what I’m meant to be doing. I wish I had a better answer.”
Kilstein’s first musical performance was at the Los Angeles Upright Citizens Brigade in 2015. “It was a packed show where I should have just been doing standup. My best stand up. Industry was there. Moby was there. Tony Kanal from No Doubt was there. It wasn’t the place to try something new but I was just so sick of not playing guitar. I felt stuck. I decided to do my rant 'Don’t Ask Don't Tell for Homophobes' over these country chords. I was so fucking nervous but I got up there and it went great. I felt the audience react in an entirely different way. It almost made me cry. Now I think that song seems a bit jokey, but right there I knew I was onto something.”
After that performance, the comedian decided to go all in with music and began writing songs. The career change was a bold move, but Kilstein has been making bold moves for a long time. After dropping out of high school he decided to pursue stand-up and spent months handing out flyers in exchange for a couple of minutes stage time in New York clubs with next to no audience. In 2006, the performer sold all of his worldly possessions and began living out of his car, driving around North America and looking for sets wherever he could get them. Years later when Kilstein hit a break and was asked to perform on Conan O’Brien, he ditched the typical set-up/punch-line routine in favor of a five-minute rant against George Bush and the war on Iraq. These things aren’t the standard paths to show-business, but for Kilstein they’ve seemed to work. His brazen and political approach has landed him guest spots on MSNBC and CNN, and he’s earned praise from other artists. Janeane Garofalo compared the comedian’s long-form style to a young Bill Hicks. Still, even with Kilstein’s history of going big or going home, completely leaving comedy for music seemed to come out of left field, and I wondered if the real answers behind the switch ran a bit deeper than his obvious passion for playing songs.
With no reason given, my mind started wandering. Robin Williams had been a close friend and mentor to Kilstein up until the time of his death. The late comedian had helped Kilstein battle through his struggles with addiction and anxiety, put him in contact with agents and producers, and even backed Kilstein’s podcast financially for a brief period of time. Williams had been a source of encouragement and positivity, and his loss was obviously difficult to deal with. My thought process was that after losing his friend, maybe comedy didn’t seem like an inviting place, and for Kilstein music was another way to continue making art.
Kilstein wouldn’t talk to me about this idea on record, and while I was tempted to push him on the issue, I didn’t think it was fair to pick at another person’s scabs. What Jamie did say about his music was this: “Comedy can be great, but a lot of the times in those clubs you’re only expected to do one thing. You can be bound by the format or having to sell drinks. Ultimately I always turn to music is because a song can make you feel less alone. And I think music is the quickest way to present an idea. A lot of what I end up singing about is political and it’s presented in a kind of comedic fashion or a rant–and I know this sounds kind of sentimental–but those things can be important. Or at the very least they can be helpful. I want the people who hear the songs to know that there are different ways to think about the world and that if maybe they feel like a freak, they’re not alone. Music is the best way I can think of to do that.”
Since our conversation Jamie Kilstein and The Agenda went on their first North American tour. I phoned Kilstein to follow up on some of my earlier questions and to ask about the shows and see if he finally had an answer to the question: why music?
"This whole tour was different sets, different improvised jams, sometimes improvised vocals if some political bullshit went down that day. We’ve invited the openers to jam with us. We had a hip-hop duo The Green seed come up with us in Alabama and it was one of the coolest things I've ever done. When I play songs I feel like for a little while I get to drop my insecurities, and even at the shows we’ve played the audiences–it’s feminist, it’s queer, it’s a bunch of kids–and when I see them laugh or tap their feet or whatever, they get to drop their insecurities, too. That’s what music can do like nothing else. It’s just what I need to be doing right now.” And for now, it’s what Kilstein intends to keep doing.
Graham Isador is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.