Ken Fitzsimmons grew up in Whitewater, Wisconsin, the son of a guitar strumming, union shop welder dad and Johnny Cash-loving mom. He played French horn and tuba in band, and bass in jazz band, and obsessed on the Beatles, Ramones, Buddy Holly and Bruce Springsteen records in his dad’s collection. When he first heard the Violent Femmes, something clicked, and from then on he wanted play bass in the style of the Femmes’ Brian Ritchie. His older brother, Jason, was also a bass player and a role model.
In eighth grade, Ken was a member of Spontaneous Combustion, a band that played high school gyms, barn parties and American Legion halls. The set list included Dead Kennedys and the Pixies as well as Chuck Berry and some originals.
Around that time, a girlfriend lent Ken another record that, like the Violent Femmes music, might be termed folk-punk. It was Rum, Sodomy & the Lash by The Pogues.
“By the time the first song was finished playing, I was hooked,” says Ken. “Shane MacGowan was the attraction and the combination of his vulgar lyrics and sweet sensibilities. It was different from anything I’d heard before.”
The plainness of Shane McGowan’s vocal style, the straightforward, declarative lyrics, and the driving energy were all qualities that Ken would later identify as appealing and incorporate into his first attempts at songwriting. The earliest members of The Kissers each remember Ken handing them a now-legendary cassette tape with 25 Pogues songs. You might say The Kissers began when the needle touched down on the vinyl that day.
But first, Ken moved to Madison to study bass performance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison under the tutelage of world-renowned jazz bassist Richard Davis. That led to opportunities to play with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and many jazz groups, both big band and smaller combos.
There was also Ken’s five-year stint in the funk/rock band Little Blue Crunchy Things, which gave him a taste of regional success and the joys of live performance in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd.
Toward the end of the 1990s, the Crunchy Things were keeping Ken busy every weekend, but Ken’s love for the Pogues left him with a hankering to play something with that band’s blunt and direct emotion. On Kevin Youngs’ 23rd birthday, the friends hatched a plan for a side project that would be a Pogues cover band – The Kissers.
Eventually, as Little Blue Crunchy Things was waning, The Kissers were filling bars with fans. Ken’s vision was driving the band’s evolution from an excuse to drink to a more professional, original and energetic amalgam of Pogues, punk, and shit-kicking Americana.
Here, Ken’s biography and that of the band merge. Ken shared a strong desire with the band to take to the road, where they essentially spent 2½ years. Exhausted, The Kissers returned to Madison, and announced their semi-retirement. Ken enrolled in grad school, and two years later, he emerged with a Master’s degree in Arts Administration.
Towards the end of grad school, Ken, Kevin and the others began gathering at the Malt House to play acoustic instruments and have a few laughs.
“Everyone’s lives had changed a bit, but this was a way to play music together and fit it all in, and stay local,” says Ken. “It felt good, so we kept doing it.”
That was the beginning of The Kissers reformation, which led to the current renaissance.
Today, Ken has a young family and works as Education Director at Madison Music Foundry. He brings over 20 years of teaching experience to that role. Among his endeavors there is a wide range of workshops and training courses for musicians of all ages and skill levels.