Kevin McWha Steele

Concept albums are rarely the easiest thing to do! We asked Kevin to tell us about “Enivrez-Vous”, his new album released under the name KI & The ARROWTOOTH WALTZ. An interesting groovy kitsch dandy pop project by an original artist influenced by Ziggy Stardust and Serge Gainsbourg among others…

So, is KI & The ARROWTOOTH WALTZ a real band or just an album project?

I guess technically it’s a “concept album”. I first met the French guitarist Aurelien Budynek, singing for Ray Serrano’s (Mark Anthony) band “Life”. My job was lead singer in Ray’s 6 piece latin band, but I had difficulty singing in Spanish with a good accent, so I was cut after four weeks. Aurelien was one of the musicians in the band. After I finished with this session, I approached Aurelien to co-write the concept album. I needed a lead guitarist who was good enough to follow me on all the styles I was going for, which I don’t think was an easy task. Aurelien fit the bill and did some inspired work. After Aurelien was on board, I found drummer Andrew McLean through auditions, and quickly wrote the album. 9 of the 12 songs are co-writes with Aurelien. It was a good, creative time and the album was cut over two weeks in the fall of 2007 with Stefano Zazerra at Moody Mammoth in Brooklyn, NY. The album features an assortment of diverse talent, including Hector del Curto on bandoneon, Adam Matta on Beatbox, Stephanie McKay and Jennifer Zimmerman on backing vox… both incredible vocalists in their own right. Final mixing took place with Godfrey Diamond 3 years later at “Perfect Mixes” studios in Brooklyn, because of financial setbacks.

Tell us a bit about your musical background, the things you did before this album…

Growing up I always had good music around. My father was a classically trained singer and mother, an English/Drama teacher. The music I heard in the house was always very diverse. We had everything from Srgt. Pepper to Streisand, Seals & Crofts, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Variations”, etc. My brother also loved jazz, so there was plenty of Parker, Davis and Monk. My brother and I also both studied classical piano as youths, so in addition to the recorded music, we were playing live. My brother could also wail on the tenor sax, so, it was a music house for sure… and festive! We were always putting on shows for our parents and I was enrolled in classes (piano, dance, voice, etc) or performing in the musicals/plays at school,… and also, dancing in local companies on occasion. Kinetics Dance Theater in Ellicott City was probably my favorite among these as a kid.

After high school I went to music conservatories in Virginia and France to study voice and composition, but dropped out of both, primarily because the imposed structure made me dislike making music. I also had my own ideas about music production that the traditional academic structure didn’t encourage. That said, I did have a wonderful time studying counter-tenor in France at the La Rochelle Conservatory with Herve’ Carasmel, who also taught privately in Paris. I learned to sing Pergolesi and Vivaldi, among others. The vocal exercises he taught me, I still used to this day.

Since moving to NYC in 1996, Ive been involved in many different music projects, ranging from participating in “world music” ensembles to big band, performance art, folk rock, rock-operas, etc. Highlights of this time have been performing with The Thunderbirds Native American Dance company; with Akim Funk Buddha in a show I produced at BRIC called “Up in the Air”; with theater company Empire of Teeth on tour in LA and Tulsa, OK; and with my brother, Kameron, at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center where we created a rock opera called “Death in Vacant Lot”, based on Terayama Shuji’s “Death in the Fields”. Also, most recently, I headlined the Jeff Buckley Tribute with my band, curated by Gary Lucas at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, NY. Living in NYC, you get to play and session with so many talented musicians, there are just too many to mention. It is absolutely one of the reasons why every musician should at some point live in New York.

Also of note, from 1999 – 2001, I operated a music studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called “The Swimming Pool”, located on Berry St. btween N. 10th and 11th. At the time, I worked with a variety of artists and producers from Sony and Virgin UK, among others. I rented out the space to producer Chris Fogg and percussionist Ravish Momin frequently. I wasn’t supposed to live in the space, but I had a naval engineer design the sound booth so that it was big enough for me to sleep on top, with a ladder attached to the side. I was just one of the many artists living in Williamsburg in a commercial space/art studio for cheap rent.

There are many different kinds of music on “Enivrez-Vous”. How come?

As far as concept goes, the original idea for the album was that each song represent a different dance, ie. tango, waltz, disco, 50s back-beat,… and to create original couples dances to accompany all the songs where there weren’t obvious choices. Couples dancing is extremely entertaining to me, and universal.

Regarding the album’s title, there was the idea that “Ki” was the principal character/dancer and that “The Arrowtooth Waltz” was his band,… and that these songs were a part of a larger storyline for a musical, recounting the tales of a young man living in the east village in NYC at the turn of the century. The story is somewhat autobiographical.

I was using “Ziggy Stardust” as a kind of blueprint, but the album is much more kitsch and pop… and intentionally so, … more along the lines of John Water’s “Hairspray”. Similarly, I wanted, and still want, the piece to appear on Broadway or in movie format, and that the new couples dances are incorporated. This album release was an attempt to attract some interest in this idea.

Your stay in France also seems to have influenced your music in many ways, am I right?

I don’t think it’s too far off the mark when people compare my music to Gainsbourg or Bowie. I swing between storyteller and glam-rocker pretty regularly and I’ve definitely been influenced by both… and by French and Berliner Cabaret stylings… and I love French music.

The time I spent in Paris and La Rochelle, France when I was younger (1992-1996) changed and shaped my perspective entirely.

Although I primarily grew up in the Baltimore-Washington DC area, Paris was the first major Metropolitan area I lived in on my own as an adult. When I was in Paris, I listened to a lot of Jacques Prevert, Gainsbourg, Aznavour, Piaf, Ferre (I really liked Ferre’s songs set to Baudelaire’s poems). I would take regular trips to the Centre Pompidou where you could see old clips of live performances from different eras in Paris. Although I was primarily taking classes through Hamilton College at Paris III, Paris VII at the Sorbonne and L’Institut Catholique, the Centre Pompidou is really where I spent most of my time.

In addition, I listened to the soundtracks coming out at the time: Wim Wenders, Kieslowski, Kursturica, among others. When I moved to La Rochelle I added Baroque and counter-tenor recordings to the mix, like those of Alfred Deller, because I was studying counter-tenor with Herve’ Carasmel privately.

I also enjoyed some of the French contemporaries like MC Solar, Les Negresses Vertes, and the duo Native, who reminded me of En Vogue or Prince. I enjoyed their cover of Prince’s “Snows in April”. Native’s music was a good complement to my obsessive listening of Annie Lennox’s “Diva”, at the time.

Why don’t you have a website or MySpace/Facebook page? Or maybe it’s just a bit hard to find?

I’ve got a myspace and soundcloud page.

I don’t have a facebook page or website and have to create both. I’ve been lazy about this, but finally have a PR company, The Press House, on board, that will help me out with the marketing end.

Your music sounds like it would fit quite well as a movie soundtrack. Has it already happened?… What kind of movies do you like?

I haven’t had any songs taken for film, yet, but I’d certainly welcome the opportunity. I love watching film. Back in 1997 when I first got back from France, I was enrolled at School of Visual Arts as a film student for two weeks before I dropped out. I guess the idea of creating visual projections to my music was appealing, but I had an epiphany at that moment and decided just to focus on music and writing poetry. Shortly after I received a fellowship to enroll at Bard College for my MFA in poetry.

The films I like are diverse, but, for the most part, I tend to like foreign directors, like Kursturica,… which I attribute the title “The Arrowtooth Waltz” from,… it is the original title for his movie “Arizona Dream” which I saw for the first time while living in Paris in 1992. The storyline of the movie is almost an exact recounting of my life up to a certain point. It freaks me out a bit, but a lot of life is surprise and coincidence, so maybe I shouldn’t be too surprised. It is not surprisingly one of my fav. films.

I also like watching work from directors Hitchcock, Bergman, Cassavettes, Jarmusch, Wenders, Kieslowski, Peckinpah, John Waters, Bunuel, and, of course, the French: Godard, Truffaut, Renoir, Resnais, Cocteau, Louis Malle, Rivette, etc. I’m just a sucker for intriguing, imaginative, surreal story-lines, and these guys are really good at creating them! For a while I obsessed over Jacques Rivette’s film “La Belle Noiseuse”.

On the less serious side of things, I love American comedy… esp. anything with Gene Wilder in it! Brooks, Allen, Cosby, Pryor, Radner… I just love to laugh, so these are no-brainers for me.

5 albums you love and why?

1. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – Bowie
The sweeping soundscapes and diverse tracks, the storyline, the lyrics, the make-up, a successful concept album.

2. Magical Mystery Tour / Srgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – Beatles
These two albums really count as one for me. The intricate instrumentation The experimentation and musical risks they were taking are still exciting to hear. The songs. The Walrus. The abandon and fun. The costumes.

3. Purple Rain – Prince
Tightest studio album made in the 80s hands down. Great instrumentation and colorful expression. Great artistry.

4. Wild is the Wind – Nina Simone
That voice. That message. “I Love Your Lovin’ Ways”

5. Songs of Leonard Cohen – Leonard Cohen
Great fingerpicking. Even better song lyrics.

6. Trampin’ – Patti Smith

7. Tommy – The Who

etc, etc. (very difficult for me to list just five)

What’s the last book you’ve read?

“Beautiful Losers” by Leonard Cohen. I’m loving it. I also just picked up Sandra Beasley’s “Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl”. It’s a detailed story of growing up in the US with food allergies. Very funny and witty! 9) Do you plan on touring to promote the album? I’d love to, but without label support it would be difficult for me to pay my musicians independently. I’m hoping that my up and coming PR Campaign will help in this respect.

Are you working on new songs yet? Will you work with the same people in the future?

Yes, I’m in studio for a 14 track album entitled “Medawin”, which will accompany a book of the same title that I released in Dec. of 2010. A selection of the song lyrics in the book are the songs being presented on the CD. I’m working with the same engineer that I cut “Lumiere Violette” with, flezaDoza. We are recording at his studio in Brooklyn, “Of a Dazzle”. Andrew Potenza will join on drums from the previous album. The album will also feature Rob Mastrianni on guitar and electric sitar, among others. I’m projecting that this album will be finished by October 2011 at the latest.

I’ve also already written the proceeding studio album, whose working title is “The Nightly Howl”. It’s a heavier rock-n-roll album, where I play electric bass and guitar. Fleza has already recorded the scratch tracks, though we’ll wait to go into full production until “Medawin” is released.

Recently I’ve been gigging with a group of musicians including Ravish Momin ( on drums and dub, Patrick Tully on keys and Lee Marvin on Stand-up Bass. This may be the band that does this album with me. We’re just starting, though the gigs at cultureFix in the Lower East Side and The Manhattan Inn in Brooklyn have been promising.

Why should people check out Ki & The ARROWTOOTH WALTZ?

The strength of the album is that you’ll never hear the same style of song twice and that the musicianship is truly inspired.

I describe the album as a combo of fauvist pop, noir, blues and folk rock. It’s not often that you get to hear beat-boxing and bandoneon in the same song, as in “The Last Waltz in Belgium”. There are some wonderful dance songs as in “Barbara”, “At the Serial Killer Disco”, “She’s Bob”, and “Dirty Rat”. I also personally love listening to “25 Million, 10 Thousand” and “Lovely Madonna”.

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