The Kissers trace their beginnings as a band to a simple idea and, appropriately, a good bottle of whiskey.
In 1997, childhood buddies and sometime jam partners Ken Fitzsimmons and Kevin Youngs celebrated Youngs’ 23rd birthday by drinking too much and singing all the Pogues songs they knew. The story goes that towards the end of the bottle, Ken burst out with an idea that had been gestating for some time: “We should start a Pogues cover band!” Not the first or last time such an alcohol-fueled plan was hatched, but this time, it really was the start of something big – an endeavor that at last count has lasted 18 years, through 20 band members, hundreds of thousands of miles, a thousand songs and countless performances. Little did they know.
At the time, Fitzsimmons was studying music at the University of Wisconsin, and playing bass in Little Blue Crunchy Things, a funk-flavored rock band that had garnered some Midwestern success, with devoted followings in Milwaukee and Madison and a tour in New York under its belt. Youngs, a trumpet prodigy who had laid down his horn in favor of the guitar, had come to Madison to attend culinary school.
Almost on a lark, the duo pulled together a band, played a St. Patrick’s Day basement gig with green beer, and decided they needed an establishment in which to play – “a place where everyone can get in for free and drink their asses off” was the stated goal. That would be O’Cayz Corral, a fondly-recalled dump where local and DIY touring acts regularly rattled the beer-soaked rafters. A cassette tape with 25 Pogues songs was duplicated and sent out to a few musician friends. Soon Monday nights belonged to The Kissers and their devoted fans, who sang along lustily with fight songs and Irish anthems. Sobriety was part of the experience for neither audience nor band. The year was 1998.
Conceived as a side project, The Kissers explained themselves – and still do – as a rock band that learned to play Irish music. Crunchy Things baritone sax player Bryan Elliott picked up Irish melodies on the whistle. The lineup always included a drummer (Crunchy Thing Bill Backes in those early days, followed by Jamie Ryan) and an electric bass player (Ken’s cousin Caitlin Oliver-Gans).
Eventually, Little Blue Crunchy Things’ semi-permanent position on the verge of breaking big grew tiresome, and the burned-out members tapped out, opening up more weekend dates for The Kissers. One weekend, the opportunity to play a weekend show presented itself, and the band was surprised to find the place packed with an enthusiastic, paying crowd. A live CD, Kissers on a Monday Night, was recorded at O’Cayz and released. Larger venues were booked and sold out. The show became tighter and more polished. Booking agents made proposals and took the band further afield, with shows in Chicago and Indiana. And after 2½ years of Mondays, O’Cayz burned down on New Years’ Day 2001.
The Kissers, by now a confident eight-piece band with strong originals and pro performance chops, began to realize they had something special. Their own songs told stories with the sweep of political history, a literary knack for character and spit-in-the-eye black humor. The musicianship in the band, never lacking, had grown beyond local bar-band quality.
The decision was made to undertake a tour, and one result was further evolution of the band’s lineup. Some members were in a position to go on the road, but others had commitments in Madison. By this time, Kevin had switched to mandolin. Nate Palan (guitar and vocals), Kari Bethke (fiddle), Pete Colclasure (keys and accordion) and Joe Bernstein (drums) joined the band during this period. Fire in the Belly, The Kisser’s first studio CD, was recorded in 2002 .
The Kissers toured hard for two years beginning in about 2003, out sometimes ten or eleven weeks at a time. Their route seemingly took them to every Irish pub with a stage from Fargo and Boise to Seattle and San Diego, and from Tampa to Boston, where they actually rented a place to live for a while. It mostly stood empty. In 2005, they played 210 shows and released Good Fight! The van was packed with equipment and sleep-deprived musicians, and running on vegetable grease – when Ken could keep it running. Breakdowns were innumerable. The Kissers remember each time out being fun and romantic for the first few of weeks, but in time touring came to resemble an endless zombie road trip, a slog to be endured. There were blizzards and burning deserts, mountains and oceans and traffic jams, all punctuated by the music. At times it was surreal. In LA, they slept in an autopsy lab. Often there were good crowds, and sometimes they were great, in places like Alpine, Texas and Missoula, Montana. Touring was a dream come true, but it became a tough grind. The Kissers achieved their immediate goal, which was “to be in our 20s, touring the country and playing music full-time.”
Kevin Youngs was the first to come in off the road. He had broken his hand in a fit of frustration, and decided to take a job as a chef in Chicago. Caitlin Oliver-Gans left the band, leaving them a five-piece with Ken on bass. Pete Colclasure moved on to the West Coast, and in 2007, Mike Cammilleri joined along with Sean Michael Dargan, bringing bagpipes, electric guitar and more of a pop sensibility. By then, the band had scaled back on the touring. Nate Palan and Kari Bethke married and moved to New York City. In June 2008, the band released Live Candy Ratz, but the momentum soon ran out, and the band played a “Farewell for Now” show and announced their semi-retirement. No fewer than 17 former members participated in the farewell/reunion show. Photos of the three members who couldn’t attend were taped on mic stands – they were present in spirit. It was the end of an era.
In 2009 and 2010, The Kissers reunited for St. Patrick’s Day gigs. By now, members had growing families, and Ken was in graduate school. Time passed. Around this time, the volatile political situation in Wisconsin, and the response of the state’s community, inspired Ken to write “Scotty, We’re Coming for You.” The song was performed at rallies, protests and Solidarity Singers gatherings at the state Capitol, rejuvenating the Kissers profile. Meanwhile, Ken and Kevin had begun very informal acoustic picking sessions at the Malt House, a Madison haunt. Bryan’s whistle, present at the creation, was welcomed back. The acoustic situation was not dissimilar to trad Irish sessions in Dublin or Cork pubs, and it led to song and instrument choices in tune with that aesthetic. Joe mastered the bodhran and Mike bought a button accordion. Ken went further into the DADGAD guitar tuning and Brendan Franklin joined, playing guitar and learning banjo. Kevin kept bringing in tunes from the trad canon and beyond. The musicians sat in a circle, and the low-key, casual vibe brought the fun back into the music. A few bigger shows were booked – nothing too far away – and for those performances, ringer Jon Vriesacker added some killer fiddle-playing.
Eventually, the new Kissers sound that was evolving at the Malt House coalesced. Part of it was that the more traditional Irish tunes they were picking required a new approach to arrangement. Part of it was the new instruments and playing techniques they were picking up. Part of it is a quality mindset that says “If you’re going to do something, do it well.” But most important was that the musicians were feeling engaged and inspired by the fresh musical dynamic.
“We’re basically working backwards from the normal progression,” says Ken. “We started 16 years ago from The Pogues, and we’re working backwards to the traditional roots of that music. That has required a totally different way of thinking about the arrangements. It’s more stripped-down and exposed, and it has required us to put in a lot more thought. You can still feel our rock band background in the arrangements – I think that will always be there – but it took us out of our comfort zone, and that has been good for us as a band.”
“I like traditional Irish music because of the melodies,” says Mike. “To me, they have a controlled intensity, and that’s what I’m connecting to in the music we’re making for this record. What is emerging is a kind of maturity, in the music and in the band.”
“It’s definitely traditional Irish, but it’s definitely The Kissers, too,” says Kevin. “We’re discovering that The Kisser sound still pervades what we do. But we’ve always been evolving as a band, and the new record continues that evolution. That’s what keeps musicians – and hopefully audiences – engaged and lively. It’s what I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”