Kurt Riley is a solo artist who was previously a punk in an R&B band called The Steel Hearts. In December 2018, owing to the manner in which music is consumed, Kurt decided to stop working on albums and instead started to release singles to try and appeal to consumers. We thought this was a very interesting concept and wanted to find out more about him.
We caught up with him recently where we had a great chat about his music, his band, his first ever gig and hanging around backstage with members of BLONDIE, read on for all this and way more!
Please tell us a bit more about yourself and your band….
My name is Kurt Riley. “Kurt” is German for “wise counsellor,” or so I’ve been told. But you’ll have to determine the quality of my counsel for yourself. (laughs). I’ve been a solo artist for 10 years. (Prior to that, I was in a punk R&B outfit called The Steel Hearts.) My first record, Brighthead, was produced in a garage studio in South Florida by BOOTS, who went on to great acclaim for his work with Beyoncé and Run The Jewels. It’s a very sunny record – Beatlesque power-pop.
My sophomore release, Kismet, was a sci-fi concept album about an alien king who comes to Earth in search of his missing queen – and ends up saving our civilization in the process. This is a favourite amongst listeners.
Tabula Rasa, my third record, was a songwriter’s album, touching upon everything from senescence to the banality of dating in the age of Tinder.
In 2018, I decided to stop releasing albums for the foreseeable future. Given the market forces at work, and the manner in which music is consumed in the early 21st Century, I opted to start releasing singles on a regular basis. This really fit my ethos; everyone from the Motown greats to T.Rex were known primarily for their killer singles. It makes you sharper, releasing this way – no room for padding.
o February 2018: my synth-crooner amalagam “Love Is In My Heart”, one of my most popular songs, with a stellar music video shot by two brilliant cinematographers, Jacob Mroczek and Kristi Gogos.
o September 2018: the glam/hip-hop anthem “Failure of Imagination”, a wry riposte to those who’ve tried to stand in the way of my success. Beautiful thing about music – there’s no catharsis like it. (laughs)
o December 2018: “Be Cool”, dedicated to all of the misfits like myself who never quite fit in amongst society. (Don’t worry. It’s quite a boring club. Being yourself, oddly enough, is one of the hardest things to do – but the most rewarding.)
My band is absolutely fantastic; I’m blessed beyond belief to have an incredible set of brothers who bring my compositions to life.
o On bass is Mr. Rick Kline, the rock-steady heart and soul of our group. He also plays bass synthesizer, which is becoming increasingly handy. (Rick is also possessed of an irrepressible sense of humour; his puns are legendary. And frequent.)
o On synthesizer and keyboard is Mr. Charlie Jones, who is a wonderful friend and a fine young man. (laughs) (He also hosts a lovely podcast, Hoarder Nights, under the pseudonym DJ Tanooki.) BTW: Charlie is single, ladies. The line forms on the left.
o On drums is Mr. Sesu Coleman, a legend from the NYC music scene; in the 1970s, he formed The Magic Tramps, fronted by Warhol superstar Eric Emerson. He also recorded and toured with Suicide’s Alan Vega, and has shared stages with Billy Idol and The New York Dolls. (He also loves Brian Jones’ Rolling Stones as much as I do.)
If I were to use the phrase "for fans of", who would you say you are similar to?
Frequent comparisons are drawn to Bowie, Queen, and similar genre-spanning dandies. (My kind of company. Ha ha!) I categorize my music as metapop – amalgamations of disparate styles and themes, with the aim of creating something new, stylistically. Sometimes, I succeed. (laughs)
How did you get into music in the first place?
As a youth, I relocated frequently. There’s a special kind of loneliness that comes with that – you learn to stop making friends – but it also pushed me to manufacture a rich fantasy life, a penchant for creativity. First obsessions included superheroes and science fiction; you’d have to peel me away from Burton’s Batman films or the Star Trek motion pictures as a boy.
In my early teenage years, I became utterly fascinated with music. Particularly that of the Delta & Chess blues musicians, from the British Invasion, the glam rock era, and post-punk/New Wave. The power and beauty was incredible. Never before had I experienced anything so lush, so dark, so ebullient.
Within a short time, I taught myself how to compose, to sing, and to play multiple instruments. It was really the first thing that came easily to me in life – just like placing my hand in a silk glove. I learned how to do everything so that I could craft my own home demos, complete with drums, backup vocals – the works. I’ve got over a decade’s worth of those in my vault. (Ideal for the post-mortem compilations. Ha ha.)
“When I was a teenager, rock and roll saved my life.
Ever since, I have felt that it is my responsibility to return the favor.”
Are you from a musical family? If so, who plays what?
There’s a strong artistic bent running through my family’s DNA; my father played piano in church, and my mother loved to sing as a teenager. My maternal grandmother was possessed of a mighty voice, and my paternal grandma was a model in the 1940s & 1950s, appearing on the cover of Modern Bride, Seventeen, and Vanity Fair. So making a lot of racket while looking fabulous was already in the cards. (laughs)
What was the first CD or record you ever bought?
Forty Licks by The Rolling Stones is the first I recall. My father was quite upset about purchasing anything with a song about Satan on it – “Sympathy For The Devil” was on Disc 1. Naturally, I had to get it! (laughs) What a primer. Like Kickass 101. Class has been in session ever since.
If you could only play one CD or record until the end of time, which would it be and why?
Avalon, by Roxy Music.
Which was the first ever gig you attended? Do you have many memories about it?
First one of note was Billy Idol, Memphis in May, 2005. It was a sweltering Southern day, and this was back in my rockabilly phase – when I had hair – and I was done up in suede and pomade. A beautiful young lady and I were getting familiar in the crowd while Billy and Steve Stevens stormed through their oeuvre, and I look up to see Idol looking me dead in the eyes; I was caught in the act! (laughs) He gave his trademark sneer and pumped his fist into the air, shouting “yeah” in affirmation of my hopeless carnality. Quite inspiring for a nineteen-year-old. Ha ha.
Tell us about any upcoming shows or festival appearances, where are they?
The band and I will be performing extensively in 2019; the prior year saw a great many performances, as well. We’re based in New York state, and we branch out frequently to cities all over the area. We’ve also just signed to New Vine Records, a stellar label in central NY, and we’ll be working with them on appearances outside of the state, as well as online concerts. Given what took place recently with Fortnite, that sort of thing is certainly going to be the future of concert going for a segment of the population.
Have you ever met any of your musical heroes? if so, what happened? were you glad you met them (they say you should never meet your heroes!)
Met the late, great James Cotton, Muddy Waters’ brilliant harmonicist. The man shook my hand, and his enveloped mine as if it wasn’t there. He was absolutely incredible.
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet Deborah Harry and Clem Burke of Blondie, and spend time backstage with them. They were both cordial and sweet; Ms. Harry cooly smoked a cigarette and asked me about my wardrobe, while Mr. Burke listened to an iPod playing Bukka White, mounted on a shrine to Keith Moon, which he puts together backstage at every show. I really admired that, you know? He hasn’t forgotten why he began in the first place. Who put the magic in his heart.
If you weren't a perfomer / in a band, what would you be doing now? (as in what job would you have?)
I’d be in the ground. This is it for me.
What do you LOVE and HATE about being a performer / in a band?
I absolutely adore my fans. They’re magnificent. And many of them are cut from the same cloth – misfits. There is a bit of truth to the Law of Attraction, it seems. I’m really proud to be providing a bit of catharsis to folks like me – people who want no part of a banal, obvious existence. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me at concerts, saying how much it means to them that I have the bravery to do what I do – to get up on stage and be myself. This world makes that such a frightening thing, to be yourself. It’s heartbreaking.
Hate is something I try to avoid, honestly. It’s unproductive – a waste of energy. But I must admit, there are parts of this business that I loathe – specifically dealing with unpleasant tastemakers and rude booking agents. For every one of them with a kind heart, there are five who are venomous as vipers. But that’s their loss, honestly. I’m only interested in working with people who possess vision; opportunists are obvious and boorish. Never forget that Decca turned down The Beatles in 1962 because “guitar music is on the way out.”
Where can we find out more about you?
www.kurtriley.com is the place to go. There is absolutely everything; photos, music videos, biographical material, press coverage – the works. (Plus choice photos of me with my shirt off. Ha ha.)
Thanks for your time, musomuso folks!
We’d like to thank Kurt for sparing his time to literally give us his life story, what a guy! Please click on the links below to keep up to date with his whereabouts and of course, his fantastic music.