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When I first heard the Tempe-based band perform last winter, I fell in love with their world music vibe disguised within a standard rock formula. Tonight, they are once again, as I expected, sounding good. Really good. Most songs start off with a straight-ahead rock beat and then shift into more ambient compositions (punctuated by Kamp's danceable, energetic beats). The songs are saturated with African textures and island flavors, with some Primus-esque guitar licks thrown in for good measure.
As I sit there listening, wondering if the bass drum will slowly creep all the way to where I'm sitting, I begin thinking about how your family and the place where you grow up shape not only your personality but your listening habits.
I grew up in suburban Tempe during the '80s and was exposed to music emblematic to most kids during those times (Duran Duran, Def Leppard, anything on MTV, other stuff I'm too embarrassed to admit that I liked). Then there were the heavy metal, country and Western, soul, and adult-contemporary sounds that various family members played on the living room stereo, in their cars, or on that rickety, lo-fi garage radio. (To this day — and despite my annoyance with country music — I can't work on my car without listening to our oldest local country station, KNIX 102.5.)
As a kid growing up in the Phoenix area, Julio Mendoza Jr. — the brainchild behind My Feral Kin — led a pretty average lifestyle. However, thanks to his folks, the lucky devil was raised on a potpourri of sounds that are basically absent from American music. Mendoza's father is a Venezuelan native who relocated to the States, and his mother is from Mao, a village located on the outskirts of the Dominican Republic. They shared music such as Venezuelan folk (known as gaitas) as well as perico ripiao (translated as "shredded parrot") from the Dominican Republic that, according to Mendoza, features "an interesting combination of instruments, such as saxophone, tambora, accordion, and lots and lots of singing." This music continues to influence Mendoza and the songs he writes for My Feral Kin.
The group features Mendoza on lead guitar and vocals, guitarist Sam Gerhard, bassist Brett Thomas, and Kamp on drums. During a sit-down hang with the band members — who are all polite, geek-chic shy guys in their late teens/early 20s — I find out that their soon-to-be-released new album, The Blackened Flat Tax, encompasses everything that the band plays live. Kamp, who labels himself the "town whore drummer" because he plays in so many different projects, tells me some interesting things about their songwriting philosophy.
"I feel like the song 'The Flat Tax' structurally embodies our sound because it has that one part where Carly [Henrickson] does the backup vocals, so it has that really awesome hook. In any other band, you would take a refrain like that, repeat it three times, and call it a song," Kamp says. "We only do it once, then we leave it alone. I feel like that's something we really want to do — to take one melody, do it once, don't milk it, and then the music goes in a completely different direction."
I ask Mendoza to share some lyrics from The Blackened Flat Tax by e-mail, mainly because it's sometimes difficult to make out the words during My Feral Kin's shows. I'm glad I did because, otherwise, I wouldn't have a clue as to what some of their songs are about. For example, "The Flat Tax" (the tune Kamp discussed at length) features the lyrics "Kids know the smell of their mother when the spirit's home/A forced conception led to years of competition among beasts/The heart of this child is lost in what he knows as dark." The tune, according to Mendoza, chronicles a fictitious kid witnessing a rape and not being able to stop it.
Then there's "Soft Spell," with the words "You will respect my taste when you wake in your bed of fire/And I will carve you from the ivory in my heart/And make a sexual display that reoccurred in dreams I had thrice." Mendoza says, "'Soft Spell' is about a dark carnal infatuation between two characters who create an entity that is ultimately conflagrated." Man, that's some heavy stuff.
In July, My Feral Kin will hit the road for its first-ever tour, with stops at various venues and house shows throughout the Southwest. "I feel like we really thrive in the really small, drunken house show arena. There's a certain energy we like about close quarters. I think it's because most of our friends aren't too familiar with Latin or African-style rhythms," Kamp says. "My theory is when you're sober, people are more hesitant to jump in and dance to something like that, but when people have been drinking, they are a lot less reluctant to jump in and give it a shot. It's different from throwing on a dance record and instinctually start dancing."
I think their music sounds pretty darn good when I'm sober. I can't even imagine what it's like under the influence.