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CONVERSATIONS: WALKER LUKENS & THE SIDE ARMS

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Walker Lukens, Zac Catanzaro, and Kyle Vonderau
May 5, 2017 @ Thou Mayest, Crossroads KC


Band Members

Walker Lukens – Lead Vocals, Guitar, and Keys
Zac Catanzaro – Drums and Percussion
McKenzie Griffin – Backup Vocals, Keys, and Aux Percussion
Grant Himmler – Bass
Kyle Vonderau – Guitar

Walker Lukens and his band, The Side Arms, pack some of the most swaggering punch of any band I’ve encountered this year. Their innovative, maximalist production and heady sampling techniques brought to life at the hands of Spoon’s Jim Eno conjures jagged, ephemeral sounds that translate to an even more explosive and brazen live experience. I sat down with Zac (drums, percussion, samples), Walker (lead vocals, guitar, keyboard), and Kyle (lead guitar, vocals) of at the shady and well-vegetated Thou Mayest back patio in the Crossroads Art District to get the what’s what with the Austin roots-pop rockers.

Tell us about the band.

Walker – The project sort of started as a solo thing, but it’s become a band thing. I almost never play alone now. It doesn’t really represent the songs well, and I don’t really know what they do…

Kyle – Yeah, and we don’t either. (laughs) I’m Kyle Vonderau, I play lead guitar and do some backup vocals.

Walker – And I’m Walker. I sing and I play guitar and keyboard.

Zac – I’m Zac Catanzaro, I play drums and a lot of sample pad weirdness.

W – We live in austin; I grew up in Houston.

K – I grew up in Houston as well

Zac – Like, New Jersey, San Antonio, somewhere in there.

I’m KC born and raised, and just got back from Austin for SXSW, and I can’t wait to go back.

Z – Everybody wants to when it’s South by! You should come when it’s not South by and see if you still feel that way. Austin’s a great town. When you live there a long time, you’re kind of over the whole I-have-to-move-here-immediately-type vibe, I think, because… it’s a town. We go to a lot of towns. There’s a lot of cool towns. Kansas City’s a cool town.

W – Kansas City is a cool town.

Z – There’s a lot of ‘em out there. I think that people have this glamorous perspective of Austin, but when you get there and you’re there for a while, it’s just another town — that happens to have some cool things.

W – It’s also a very cool town to visit because all there is to do is drink and eat, and the weather’s usually sunny. So, it’s a really great place to visit, and the people are friendly, but it lacks the depth of some other places.

K – It’s a very small city once you get to know it, but that’s what kind of makes it great, especially for music and stuff like that, ‘cause after a while you know everyone. It’s also pretty new. The one unfortunate thing about Austin is that they didn’t really preserve the historic things. A lot of the legendary things that you hear about are gone, that’s kind of a downside. It’s all about tear it down and just start over. But it is a great place — I feel happy and fortunate to live there. It’s become one of the more expensive cities.

Z – That’s for sure, yeah.

W – In like five years, too — like, really, really rapidly getting more expensive.

K – Which makes it hard sometimes for musicians.

What’s it like playing in KC?

W – We’ve been here three times in the last year-ish. We played at the Tank Room in April 2016, and we really loved this part of KC. Kansas City has that energy to me where it’s not a place full of people who think it’s cool, which is really nice. People are really approachable and nice. We like the midwest.

Z – I feel like I still haven’t seen a lot of Kansas City. We definitely tour the midwest a lot.

W – Last time we were here we were walking around and there’s like a stadium we walked by. It’s funny because in Austin there’s no real venue of that size. That’s one thing I noticed about Kansas City ‘cause we’re in the hipster neighborhood right now, but you still have a stadium. Austin has one place that kind of approaches that, but we don’t really get acts of that size.

You just released an EP in April — Ain’t Got a Reason. What changed from your last EP, Never Understood, to this new one?

W – First one was in October, second one was in April, and they were recorded at more or less the same time. We didn’t really think of them as EPs. It just felt like for a band at our level, it was a smarter way to put out new music. We put thought into which songs went on which — I think [Never Understood] was a little more hard hitting and a little more R&B, electronic, whereas [Ain’t Got A Reason] is a little more rootsy, rock and roll. It just felt like a better way to put music out these days. I have some friends in this band New Madrid, and they slaved away on this record. They put it out, and then after nine months, they were like, “Yeah, we can’t even really tour anymore. We gotta do something new.” It’s kind of a bummer to pour your heart and soul into twelve songs, put it out, and the universe sort of stops caring so quickly, you know? It’s not like it was a few years ago, where you could work something for a couple years. So that was kind of thought behind putting it out that way.

Another thing is — we pressed a couple hundred copies of the CD, just to sell at shows, and we’ve sold a lot at shows, but instead of making CDs this time, we made a tote bag with the EP that includes a download code. I’ve sold four times as many of those tote bags online than I ever sold CDs. People don’t really care about CDs anymore, you know? Everyone kind of takes in music [via] streaming and on playlists. It’s good to stop being nostalgic about how we grew up listening to music. We don’t even listen to music that way anymore, you know?

So these two EPs weren’t meant to be separate when they were recorded. How did they actually come to be in terms of what songs were included, etc.?

W – The songs on the Never Understood EP changed a lot more in the studio, particularly the song “Never Understood.” That was like piano ballad, but became this really sparse thing. I think the tracks on the second [EP] are really true to the rock band feeling, but they really came from the same place. I think if you could strip them down to guitar and voice or something, they would all feel very similar, but the ones on Never Understood really went crazy in the studio. Three of the songs on the Ain’t Got a Reason EP we did three days in a row. We did “Love Me Tender,” “Ain’t Got a Reason,” and “Simple Man” like Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, which we never do. Everything we do in the studio takes forever, so those songs were relatively quick.

K – I feel like in the studio you have a choice. You can make any song any genre you want, depending on you want to record it or use instrumentation. We easily could have had all rock songs on this record but we chose to explore different avenues this time with keyboards and stuff like that.

W – The guy we recorded with, Jim, he said this a lot, “Don’t worry how you’re going to do this live. Don’t worry about it.” I think selfishly, as a producer, it’s more interesting, but also you really limit where you can take a song if you tell yourself you have to be able to do it in the version you know is [possible]. When we started playing, he just played drums, but now Zac is a cyborg, like he has a drum pad and triggers. We never would have gotten there if we didn’t get more exploratory in the studio.

Z – That’s kind of where we pushed the bar is in the studio, and then it’s — figure out how to recreate it live, which then pushes the bar for the next round of recordings. It’s kind of an, each one pushes the other kind of thing. Releasing those chains in the studio has been really good for us in general. I think we all come from a little bit more rootsy background, so our instinct is like, there’s five instruments; there should be five perfect parts. It’s like, well, maybe there needs to be six layered synths [to where] you can’t tell what’s happening. (laughs)

W – On the song “Where Is Thunder Road?,” there’s this keyboard thing. There’s probably six keyboards doing that, and when we play live, [Zac] is triggering something that sounds like that. Me and McKenzie are both playing on the keyboard, and the way it sounds live, if we didn’t do it that way in the studio, we never would have approached it this way live.

Z – I think that’s something that we’ve gotten to, maybe one of our strengths is when we do play a show you can’t really tell who is making what sounds sometimes. Sometimes [Kyle’s] guitar parts sound like keyboards, or the keyboards might be vocal parts. There all kinds of weird stuff happening that it seems like there’s more than five people doing stuff. We’re all doing multiple things, and we weren’t doing that before we went into the studio.

W – No, definitely not.

Walker Lukens & The Side Arms at Californos stage, Middle of The Map Fest

Do you get to push that studio sound even farther live? What elements are enhanced from the live translation to the point that it becomes a whole new animal?

W – I think our show is a lot more visceral and in-your-face than the records might feel. We’ve stayed committed to not having a laptop on stage where you can trigger tracks, though I’m not necessarily against that. This band, for example (gesturing toward the ceiling), Sylvan Esso, is basically two people on stage with a laptop, it’s a great live show. So, not to knock that approach, but it’s really forced us to really learn the songs in a new way with all these crazy sounds.

Z – It’s kind of like a puzzle in a lot of ways.

What’s next?

Z – [Middle of the Map] is just a one off, then we have a short run starting next week, we’ve got four dates. Then we start touring for real in June.

Do you have any crazy or magical stories from the road?

W – Last year we happened to be playing at First Avenue the night that Prince died.

Z – It turned into a memorial in the streets.

W – It was so crazy. You know Slipknot?

(nods)

W – The singer does these solo acoustic tours. So, he was playing in the big room, and they had said they were gonna have an all night dance party after he was done. So basically, there were like 1,500 Slipknot fans who had to be funneled out, while 4-5,000 people in the streets were trying to get in. We were playing the little room — it was so crazy, and we had to leave that night because we had to get to Davenport to do Daytrotter at like 3 or 4. It’s just this hazy, murky, what the hell is happening kind of moment.

Yesterday we were driving through Oklahoma, and we were at our 2 hour pee break moment. Someone saw this sign that said, “225 tigers.” We’re like, Oh, let’s go see the tigers. We pull over — it’s the largest big cat sanctuary in America, run by this guy, Joe Maldonado.

Z – A.K.A. Joe Exotic, who ran for president.

W – Dude.

Z – He was like a libertarian candidate.

We need to check it out!

Z – It’s actually a very nice facility. We had an $8 calzone the size of that table that was shockingly good! Because, you know, when you find an $8 calzone, your expectation is not that high.

W – 40-50 acres of roaming land for cats.

Z – It was wild.

No pun intended.

W – The bartender who was helping us was so funny. This guy walked by who was missing a chunk of his forearm, and somebody made a comment like, “Did he lose that from a cat?” And he was like, “You know he did. You know he did!” (laughs) It was kind of one of those where the hell am I moments.

Z – It was one of the most interesting pee stops we’ve ever taken.

What is the last record you’ve ever bought?

Z – I bought the Spoon record, [Hot Thoughts], during South By.

K – I bought the Hyde and Eno vinyl.

Z – Ooooh.

W – Last vinyl? We played with this band in Hot Springs, AR, from Philadelphia called Grubby Little Hands. I bought their vinyl, [Garden Party]; they were a really cool band.

Thanks for talking with us, fellas!

You can listen to the latest EP, Ain’t Got a Reason, and all the band’s other bangers on Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, and pretty much wherever else you stream. Feel free to grab a tote, y’all, they are stylish ‘n’ sexy.

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