Exposing Kowloon Walled City

Led by a "benevolent dictator," San Francisco hardcore sludge band makes a strong impression.

Drummer Jeff Fagundes is crawling on all fours, exposing a good two to three inches of his bare ass — seemingly on purpose. To be fair, he’s just ingested a concoction of cheap wine and an energy drink. It’s unclear whether this is some kind of misguided invitation, a warning sign, or perhaps a spontaneous show of exuberance for the occasion, but it’s certainly an interesting way to start an interview with the members of Kowloon Walled City.

Gathered on a recent evening in their damp, basement-level practice space in the Tenderloin, which they share with the band Triclops! (and, on occasion, a wayward snail or two), the guys reveal that they do not excel at self-censorship. Either that or they don’t give a fuck. Combined with their bromantic rapport, this leads to answers that start off half-heartedly serious but end up devolving into rapid-fire inside jokes, utter randomness, and, after all topic relevance has vanished, the insistence on a new question.

Blame it on their personalities, which are about as diverse and potent as the illicit substances found on the streets outside. There’s the aforementioned drummer, a glassy-eyed teddy bear from Fresno with a bone-dry, self-deprecating sense of humor — like Eeyore, but funnier. Jason Pace is the reserved, congenial guitarist from the Midwest who grew up on Iron Maiden and often points out that metal is not the only genre guilty of being completely ridiculous sometimes. Bassist Ian Miller is the lone member sporting full-sleeve tattoos, finely coiffed hair, and taut pectorals. He’s the ultimate band dude who can toss out obscure references and currently plays in or has played in such bands as Truxton, Lord God Bird, Skankin’ Pickle, Redemption 87, and others too numerous to recount. Then there’s singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter Scott Evans, a self-proclaimed Type-A personality, control-freak, and perpetual stress case who’s always got a plan or is scheming to make his plan better. He likens himself to a “benevolent dictator” when it comes to band decision-making. (Buy-in from the other members is key, he says.) He’s probably the type of dad who triple-checks to make sure his two kids are breathing at night — in between fine-tuning the overdubs of his band’s recordings (he’s also their producer).

Yet whatever impressions of silliness the band gives off quickly dissipates once the tube amps warm up. Launching into songs off their just-released debut album, Gambling on the Richter Scale, the members show how their offstage camaraderie translates musically to cement glue. Bashing drums, massively thick, de-tuned, mid-tempo guitar riffs and bass, and Evans’ hardcore-ish scream successfully sucks all the oxygen from the room. Urban decay is a common theme, and it’s a fitting one. They sound like a rumbling, lumbering wrecking ball capable of mass destruction. It’s sludgy, it’s powerful, and it’s got all the ingredients to make Kowloon Walled City the next heavy thing to climb out of the fog.

Seriously. Despite the fact that the band formed relatively recently, has only toured as far away as Seattle, and has just one five-song EP and a now a full-length (released September 29 by the Perpetual Motion Machine) to its name, it has garnered an enviable amount of attention. Praise has come from Guitar World, Thrasher magazine, SFGate.com, local alt-weeklies (this one included), and a slew of metal blogs and web sites. They were the only heavy local band chosen to play this year’s Noise Pop festival (on a bill with Goblin Cock, featuring Rob Crow of Pinback). At this pace, they’re on target to get upstaged by Kanye West.

Chalk it up to the winning combination of pro-active, on-the-ground marketing (the EP was made free for download and Evans blanket-pitched a bunch of people), a compelling backstory (we won’t rehash the meaning of their name; that’s what Google’s for), and — most importantly — an immediately likable sound to even those who don’t typically like “metal.” (Though Evans challenges the tag; Miller embraces it.)

They met through Craigslist about three years ago. Miller posted an ad, which Evans responded to (involving something about diagrams). Fagundes had also placed an ad, which Evans responded to, for a duo in the vein of Big Business. Miller and Pace wore capes together in the prog band Lord God Bird. Evans, who had recently relocated to the Bay Area from DC, where he had his own studio, recorded Lord God Bird’s posthumous release, then recruited Miller and Pace to join his duo. Their first session was an instant hit.

But the band was not going to be a traditional collaborative effort because Evans already had a well-defined blueprint. “The mission statement was Unsane and Godflesh and Shallow North Dakota, which is a band so obscure that nobody actually knows who they are,” said Miller. “Simple, unadorned, heavy,” he clarified.

“I think anything vaguely bluesy, we throw out,” Evans added. “It’s got more of that angular sound.”

That Evans cares not to openly state who his band emulates says less about his integrity than his conviction and clarity of purpose (not to mention his good taste). And that’s a clarity that few young bands seem to have. On that note, Evans doesn’t care to waver from this template — ever.

“This is all we do,” he said, Tecate in hand. “We’re not trying to branch out, we’re not trying to grow as a band.” The bluntness of that last line earned snickers from his cohorts. “Well, it sounds stupid but I really like that,” he continued. “In a lot of ways, growth is fine for certain bands, but for other bands I think it’s great to just refine your little thing and that’s it.”

This reasoning also explains the bands he likes. Helmet is another one, so is Meshuggah. They stick to what they do, do it well, and fans slobber.

Ironically, Miller notes that their new CD has “totally evolved” from the Turk Street EP. It was an inevitable, organic process — Evans calls it an “accident” — since Evans and Fagundes had already written a majority of the songs on that first release by the time Miller and Pace signed on. This time around, although Evans and Miller brought in a majority of the song ideas, everyone still contributed to the decision-making. “We bring in riffs or songs and then we edit the shit out of them for an eternity — months,” said Pace, sounding a bit taxed.

Gambling still retains the same bone-crushing elements from Turk Street, but with slightly more nuances. A guitar flourish here, a more active bass line there.

Evans attributes part of the songwriting difficulty to his constant obsessing, and the fact that he’s “not really a songwriter.” “There’s no Kowloon Walled City song that’s like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, then out,” said Miller. Chromatic riffs are usually part of the equation. As opposed to a lot of metal, solos are pretty much a no-go. “There’s a couple noodle-y little bits on the new record but they’re texture-y, they’re definitely not shredder-y,” Miller added, who said that was partly out of necessity. “We’re definitely not a chops band. We couldn’t wail if we wanted to — and luckily we don’t want to.” Evans appropriately describes them as “one giant rhythm section.”

With all that editing, Millers says they end up throwing away or radically altering about 80 percent of the material that’s brought in. But it doesn’t all go to waste. In the event that someone comes up with a riff that’s too bluesy or too metal, the band files them away for Snailface, the unabashedly Sabbath-channeling project they formed for this year’s RPM Challenge, in which musicians make a record in 28 days. Theirs was written and recorded in just six days. (The name refers to what their mugs might look like after their marathon recording session with the resident gastropods.) With so much “fat” being trimmed during songwriting for Kowloon Walled City, the band had no shortage of fun material to work with. “With Snailface, it’s just let the fat sizzle,” said Fagundes. (Actually, it’s quite good.)

Granted, Kowloon Walled City doesn’t have room for much subtlety. So if that means more butt crack, well, then, we’ll happily endure it.


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