Kicklighter is the musical project of Everett Young, a 45 year-old musician from Tallahassee, FL. Young plays piano and all the guitars on his latest release “The Fascinating Thinking Machine”. Young has played the piano his entire life but only recently took up the guitar; he has since begun teaching lessons on each instrument to students locally and online via Skype. Young’s story is one that speaks volumes to the themes of persistence, dedication, and determination. Before we move on to the interview, I’d love to share what Young wrote to me yesterday: “Hi Tom, thanks for doing this interview with me. I love that you are an active participant in helping independent musicians find their fans, and their fans find them. It’s a vital role in the new international music scene that you’re playing. As you know, I’ve checked out your music and it’s really, really good. Anyone who’s reading this interview and hasn’t checked out Tom’s band, should do so forthwith. They are ultra-high-energy but combine their high-energy loud rocking with a melodic sense that’s well above the sophistication level I’ve come to expect from modern rock bands. This is the kind of work I wish more rock bands were doing, so thank your for your commitment to that too. You’re making the world a better place in more ways than one.” How’s that for encouragement? Enjoy our extensive interview with Young below!
Writing and recording 11 songs is no easy feat; what life events and experiences influenced the writing and recording of your latest release “The Fascinating Thinking Machine”?
“Middle age; this album is about facing the reality of aging, the reality of having children, of having less time left than you wish you did, of saying goodbye to youth, saying goodbye to friends—who at my age are starting to face health issues, including death—and saying goodbye also to the fantasy I had of how life was “supposed” to turn out. I was a dreamer, you know, and still am. I was going to be a big pop star, or producer, or film scorer. I’m still that boy with big dreams, of course. This album is about being that boy, and waking up in a 45 year-old’s body, with a life that I barely recognize, and trying to realize that this life, it’s still good, it’s full of meaning, but I have to let go of things—and that’s not easy for someone addicted to dreaming. Of course, there’s also the fact that I love making records, and as I grow older, I realize I want to make a lot of music. It had been over a decade since I created any music, so there was a feeling of coming home.”
What was it like working with Tim DeLaney on “The Fascinating Thinking Machine”? He brought in a number of session musicians for the project, correct? How did you work between Electron Gardens and The Nudist Colony, being that they’re in two different states?
“Tim is a longtime friend. We played in our high school jazz band together (he played bass; I was the pianist), recorded silly, profane songs together in high school in the mid-1980’s, and I worked on his band’s recordings in the late 1980’s and then again at the turn of the millenium. Tim’s band, The Sight-Seers, is the greatest unsigned, non-famous band I’ve ever heard. They write beautifully melodic, unbelievably catchy, intelligent, poetic pop music that people fall in love with like people fall in love with U2 or Radiohead. They’re deep, serious, and amazing. They no longer exist, but if their work ever gets discovered, well, it’s timeless. Tim got into recording over a decade ago when he asked me to help mix a Sight-Seers EP. I did that in Tallahassee, then moved to Atlanta and Tim and I worked together in a studio for a few years, producing bands. We learned a lot together in those days. Indeed, Tim is one of those lifetime friends you can say anything to, who shares so many of my philosophies, who laughs at the same stuff I do, and is someone you know so well you develop a private language. I knew when I started making “The Fascinating Thinking Machine” that I wanted a producer, someone to answer to. I knew this because, while in graduate school, I’d tried recording a couple of songs by myself, and I found my performances were flat and lifeless. I needed to be pushed. Tim understands me and what I want out of my recordings, and while I was in graduate school, Tim was busy turning himself into one of Atlanta’s top engineers, and he certainly knows what he’s doing now. I needed someone who could keep the album going forward when I wasn’t there. There really wasn’t any question who it would be. These days, you can totally produce an album in two different studios. When we started, I was not writing on guitar, and this album was always going to be my coming-out project as a guitarist. Almost every song came about like this: I’d send Tim MP3s of me strumming a song on my iPhone. Then he’d take that, put it in Pro Tools, devise a tempo, and send me back a proposed drum track that he created on a MIDI track using a drum machine. I’d usually make a couple of alterations to that, and then send back my edited drum part, with me playing a new acoustic guitar part that was a full scratch track. Then Tim brought in Sam Owens, a ridiculously good Atlanta drummer with a real flair for the dramatic. I loved almost everything Sam did, and we built most of our tracks around Sam’s takes. I did drive up to Atlanta to record acoustic guitar basic tracks, but after that I worked (on the album) at home. I’d record guitar, keyboard, and vocal parts, and send them to Tim for his approval. Usually, my first cut wasn’t good enough—he’d ask me to raise the energy level, or to get the guitar sounding a little better. It took forever, but that’s what I need a producer for. After the drum tracks and Tim’s bass tracks were done, Tim turned into a consultant and a coach, and I was the artist and the recording engineer. I ended up mixing the record, again with Tim’s strong input. I think most artists really need a producer in order to do their best work—no matter how talented they are.”
What are some of your favorite venues to see live music or perform at in Tallahassee, Florida?
“I book bands at a really great coffeehouse called Redeye. We do all acoustic stuff, and our clientele is artsy and intellectual. I think Redeye is a great place to discover great music here in town. Aside from that, I love seeing top entertainment at Florida State’s Ruby Diamond Auditorium. There’s a new restaurant in town called The Root Cellar, and they’re angling to become a music center in Tallahassee. A lot of my friends play there, and I’m hoping to get booked there as well. They are a tiny little restaurant with great organic, locally-grown food, and while small, they’re becoming an important place to play here.”
What made you choose the Kicklighter name?
“Tim told me several years ago that he thought I should name my band Kicklighter, if I ever had a band. My high school choral director was named Ray Kickliter (spelled differently) and I totally butted heads with him. He thought I was a big shot egotist who was a lousy team player for his chorus, and I thought he was a petty emperor of his little domain. Probably some truth in both, but also both of us were probably insecure. Over the years, I realized Kicklighter is a great-sounding name. I bounced it off some friends, and could never find a name that sounded cooler—although it has lost some of its luster ever since I learned it’s German for, I think, “chicken farmer”. Not too sexy, huh? Ultimately, I did learn a lot about music from Ray Kickliter, and the band name does represent for me a kind of reconciliation with his memory. It’s like saying “no hard feelings” for me.”
At age 31, you gave up on music and entered the “real world” by studying to receive your PhD in Political Psychology; how did this musical hiatus help you in your path to self-discovery? Does your love of science and politics find its way into your music at all lyrically?
“Well, political psych was a journey of self-discovery. After the 2000 election, I had never felt so alienated from so many of my fellow citizens. Up to that point, I’d always voted Democratic, but I didn’t see myself as a strong liberal. But arguments with conservatives felt like the times I was bullied on the middle-school playground yard. In my altercations with conservatives, I felt I was learning something about myself. I embarked on a quest to learn what makes people liberal or conservative, and why we have so much trouble getting along. I also hoped that a return to the halls of academia might afford me more real-world success than I’d had up to that point. My life was falling apart: my music was going nowhere and my marriage was breaking up. I didn’t achieve academic career success, largely because I just wasn’t committed enough to political science. I didn’t just keep on and on looking for a job. I gave it a couple of tries, had a couple of temporary jobs, then turned back to music. I guess I’d gotten what I needed to get out of political science. I still cherish that knowledge, and as you intuit, I use it in my lyrics. It’s had a deep impact on how I understand the human condition. Without political psychology, I might not have realized the modular nature of the human brain, which is on display in the lyrics to my song ‘Building a Robot’. ‘Says a Tender Mind’ is about the inner tension of being a so-called tender-minded liberal, who embraces the idea that we must recognize the humanity in all people and make no enemies, but having trouble letting go of the drive to fight against conservatives, intoxicated by my own intolerance.”
You’ve been playing the piano and singing for a large part of your life, but only learned how to play guitar within the past five years. What has this musical journey been like?
“Greatest thing that ever happened to me. I always wanted to play guitar, and as recently as my mid-thirties, I had taken it up once more, put it down after a couple of weeks, realizing that my practicing was going nowhere, and concluded that I had missed the boat, and this life was not going to include, for me, being a guitarist. Having kids can focus you in unanticipated ways, though, and at 41, feeling it was “now or never” (which, honestly, it wasn’t—you can learn guitar at any age), I tried again. I wanted to see whether you could pick up an instrument later in life and “go all the way” with it. I was a beginner, but I was willing to risk the possibility that I might practice for hundreds, even thousands, of hours, only to find that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. So, obviously, it turns out that you can. I’m not a dominating player, but I am a realistic professional and I can do a lot of really nice things on a guitar, acoustic or electric. I think I write really creative parts and I play with a nice feel and groove. I do think that, in the next five years, I can continue to develop into a towering, dominating player. Self-transformation turns out to be possible at any age, I think, and I don’t even think it’s slower for us middle-agers. I almost have to pinch myself to believe that I’m really a guitarist now. Sometimes, when I’m rehearsing with my cover band, Clever Girl, I just stop and think, my goodness, I’m the guitarist in this band, not the keyboard player! How did that happen? It’s just the coolest thing in the world. But guitar did more for me than that. It taught me the value of focusing on a daily practice. We grow when we practice daily—and this can involve taking our eyes off the goal. We may have a goal of being a great guitarist, or a master meditator, or a successful business person, or whatever. If we keep our eyes too much on the prize, we lose our sense of movement in life. It’s like watching the hour hand on a clock, or driving to the mountains while keeping your eyes away from the road, instead on the highest peak 60 miles away. There’s no sense that you’re moving anywhere at all, and that’s when we lose faith. I’ve realized that self-transformation comes from taking satisfaction in what you do today, and then taking that same satisfaction again tomorrow. Commitment looks different every day. Some days I practice six hours, yet some days, (I only practice for) five minutes. But I’m committed every day. From guitar I learned the difference between motivation and commitment, and it’s commitment that changes you.”
You also teach students, both in-person and online via Skype, correct?
“I do. I love teaching. When I teach older learners, I’m more of a coach. They can learn the music from anywhere, but my job is to help them stay committed, to remind them that just picking that guitar up every day keeps a beautiful new presence alive in their life. Playing the guitar or piano is a gift you give yourself, and it’s important to realize that every day of your life is great—you don’t have to wait until you’ve mastered it to begin to enjoy it. It’s great the day you start playing, and every day.”
Who are your biggest musical influences? How were you able to create a record that sounds so much like it was recorded in decades past?
“It helps to have grown up in decades past! My favorite artists are Tears for Fears, Peter Gabriel, Wang Chung (have you heard their album cuts and not just their singles?), Scritti Politti, Sting, Crowded House, Michael Jackson, Howard Jones, Thomas Dolby, Prefab Sprout, and U2. As for the 1980’s thing, I just got in a headspace where I wanted to recapture some of the romanticism, the drama, the melancholy and larger-than-life textures and melodies from bands of that era, right down to the drum tones and the use of chorus and delay on the guitars. I wanted to transport myself, and my listeners, to that time. I firmly believe that there is no reason why more great music can’t be made using those textures. They aren’t “used up”. We don’t have to all sound like the “current sound” now, although I respect what many modern bands and producers are doing. I know a lot of people, of all ages, who find the romanticism of the 1980’s irresistible. We used to completely fall in love with records back then. I get the feeling people don’t do that so much anymore in the age of single-song downloads. Those are the kind of records I wish people were still making now, and I tried to make one myself.”