Kevin Youngs grew up in a home filled with music, the son of Lowell Youngs, a classically trained musician who served as dean of the school of music at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. The elder Youngs played organ in various churches every Sunday for decades, and began giving Kevin piano lessons at the age of 3, on the family’s Steinway grand.
Kevin developed a deep and abiding appreciation of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. He also heard plenty of Irish folk and ceili music from his mother’s LP collection. He took up the trumpet at a young age and was soon practicing three or four hours a day. In an early hint of what was to come, he played trumpet on a Dead Kennedys song for Spontaneous Combustion, his grade-school friend Ken Fitzsimmons’ band.
His horn took him around the world to perform with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra, and while other kids were washing dishes or mowing lawns, he made good money playing at weddings and the like. By high school he was taking fill-in gigs with the Madison Symphony.
But the trumpet was not Kevin’s destiny. Offered a full scholarship to Whitewater, he passed it up at the last second and dropped all his music courses. “I loved the music,” he recalls. “I didn’t necessarily love the instrument.”
Shortly thereafter, the story goes, he found a guitar in a dumpster and started picking on it. He had eclectic tastes, learning Grateful Dead and Camper Van Beethoven songs, and playing Pogues songs with Ken.
In his early 20s, Kevin moved to Madison to attend culinary school. On his 23rd birthday, the duo made a drunken pact to start a Pogues cover band. The Kissers were on their way.
Around the time that the band found its original home at O’Cayz Corral, Kevin came into possession of a mandolin, and took to it immediately. That brightened the band’s sound, and clicked with Kevin’s ear for melody.
Kevin’s key contributions to The Kissers’ sound and set list grew, and he was with the band when they set out on the road. But after half a year of vans, crashpads and Irish-themed bars, one night he broke his hand in a fit of frustration. The enforced hiatus coincided with a relationship and a choice job offer at a high-end restaurant in Chicago.
The Chicago experience was valuable, but Kevin eventually moved back to Madison to be closer to family. He joined post-touring edition of The Kissers for reunion and St Patty’s Day gigs, and played with Ken in side projects like The Wrongdoers and the Whiskey Lash All-Stars. When the band reformed in a more acoustic iteration around the Malt House sessions, Kevin’s vision for the band was one of the main reasons.
Today, Kevin is chef de cuisine at Sardine, which ranks at the top of Madison’s finest restaurants. Sardine was recently mentioned in a Wall Street Journal spread titled “Where Foodies Live.”
“I’d been thinking for a long time that the band would be well served by a segue into more acoustic music,” he says of the band’s renaissance. “As a band, we have the necessary finesse and group dynamic to make it work. Luckily, the others were inspired by the idea as well, and really responded. While I knew we were capable, I’m amazed by the results. So many of us learned new instruments, and as a group we adapted so beautifully. The finished tracks give me tremendous satisfaction and pride.”