By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Top: photo by Loni MashkeBottom: photo by Flaco
In smaller towns, rock bands organically congeal into "scenes": Corralled into the same handful of venues, bonded by common histories, they get enough cross-pollination so that their individual strands of artistic ambition can weave into a musical community. But in the vastness of L.A., where individual musicians have often relocated from elsewhere to form bands through ads and networking, this inbuilt social tapestry can’t hang. Factor in our over-mined city’s rock & roll gold rush, and you’re left with competitive acts struggling in isolation.
This was the scenario befuddling the two Silver Lake musicians — Bang Sugar Bang bassist-vocalist Cooper and Silver Needle bassist Johnny 99 — who founded the Kiss or Kill show nights. A couple of years back, each had a band clawing for a crowd. Silver Needle, a power-pop quartet with influences from Bowie to the Ramones, was fighting pigeonhole syndrome. "When we first started, we’d play so many ‘niche nights’ where we weren’t glam enough, weren’t punk enough, weren’t pop enough," remembers Johnny, a Cleveland native.
Bang Sugar Bang, an X-inspired melodo-punk three-piece, were feeling similarly alienated: "We’d play these shows with bands that were totally inappropriate in an aesthetic sense," laments their colorful poster gal, Cooper, a Tacoma transplant. "We’d play after a Christian death-metal band and before, like, the next Arlo Guthrie!"
When Silver Needle and Bang Sugar Bang began playing shows together, they found that each band’s fans appreciated the other and so stuck around for both sets (unlike at most Hollywood shows, where crowds watch only "their" bands). Cooper and Johnny also discovered that they were of like minds and had complementary strengths; they hatched an ambition to create an alternative to Sunset Strip’s nonsensical midweek muddlefests.
"I thought, ‘There’s got to be a way to make it so there’s kinda similar bands, so one band’s fans might like another band and vice versa,’ " says Cooper. "And also we had to cut out the $10 cover charges, which are ridiculous, and make it as cheap as possible, make it about the music."
Combining Johnny’s promotional savvy (he has a background in club booking and a day job in marketing) and Cooper’s creative flair (handy for flier and Web-site design), the pair began organizing multiband bills in late 2002. The pair were inspired in part by the Launch Pad, a club at the Echo in Echo Park, and Mr. T’s Bowl in Highland Park, which revolved around a loose confederation of mutually supportive bands. Originally, Cooper and Johnny’s shows were occasional happenings featuring Silver Needle, Bang Sugar Bang and other compatible acts (including some Launch Pad mainstays); the pair learned by trial and error in Hollywood venues like Goldfingers and the Whisky a GoGo. Eventually, under the Kiss or Kill name (which comes from an X lyric), their club began to establish itself as a biweekly and then a weekly event at the Garage in Silver Lake. When that venue closed down at the end of 2003, Kiss or Kill found a new home down the street, on Tuesday nights at the Red Room in Zen Sushi on Hyperion Avenue, where it became an archincubator in Silver Lake’s lauded band farm. It’s now just moved to the Echo in Echo Park.
"People come every week ’cause they know they’re going to hear good music, good songs," says Johnny. "The bands like it ’cause they know they’re going to have an audience, they know the set times, they know everything’s going to be tight . . . there’s not going to be a rude sound guy or doorman — everyone’s kinda on the same page."
The cover is $3 for a five-band bill; the onstage action is universally melodic, stylishly spirited and not overly serious; the crowd has the wide-eyed enthusiasm and good-natured gossip-buzz of a high school disco.
Ironically, Kiss or Kill is something of a niche night itself: The club’s Web site (www.kissorkillclub.com) defines it as "fairly genre-specific," showcasing bands that are "glam, punk, rock, power-pop, new wave or some weird hybrid of the aforementioned styles."
But the booking criteria transcend the purely musical. "First of all, I have to see you here, supporting, because that’s the whole point — this is supposed to be a community," Cooper stresses. "And you have to have great songs and be good performers. We never really book on demos — most of the time it’s either from a friend we trust or by us going out to see bands."
A rotating core of around 20 acts generally fills at least three of the five slots weekly. These KoK staples, roughly half of which are female-fronted, include coed crews like the impossibly charming new wavers Midway, the plaintive, harmony-heavy Underwater City People, and the pacey Dickies-punkers the Dollyrots. Tuneful testosterone comes courtesy of King Cheetah’s singable Brit grit and the Letter Openers’ ominous, desperate pop.
As the club matures, the regular bands are beginning to absorb elements of each other’s style and presentation, an osmosis that hints at an embryonic Kiss or Kill sound — significant, as not since Sunset Strip’s late-’80s cock-rock convulsion has L.A. produced a clutch of bands with an identifiable, binding sonic signature.