The Kings of Frog Island Interview with Mark Buteux: Fear of an Amphibious Planet

A digitally-released full-length with its individual songs wrangled into two extended vinyl-side tracks, The Kings of Frog Island IV is an anomaly before you even press (or click) play. The Leicester outfit have proved as amorphous as they are amphibious over the course of their prior three self-titled albums, but IV marks a couple big changes for the psychedelic rockers. Primarily, it’s their first outing without the input of guitarist/vocalist Mat Bethancourt, who split following the 2010 release of III (review here), and it’s also their first full-length to arrive without an Elektrohasch Schallplatten logo stamped on back.

But if these real-world changes have had any effect on the molecular creative doings in Amphibia, the Kings‘ ethic shows little shift for it. As they did on their 2005 self-titled and 2008 let-me-almost-go-five-minutes-without-telling-you-how-awesome-this-record-is follow-up, II, The Kings of Frog Island casually, naturally, blend desert rock organics with deep-running space tonality. The tracks on IV — there are 10 of them and it’s fun to suss out which starts when — vary in mood and tempo, but a strong thread courses throughout of inner-peace fuzz, and where III showed a rawer, garage rocking side of the band, IV (review here) reacts to unite this with prior accomplishments, resulting in a new and potent blend.

Much about the band — now comprised of guitarist/vocalist Mark Buteux, drummer Roger “Dodge” Watson, Gavin Searle, Gavin Wright and Tony Heslop, as well as other guests — remains obscure, and by all appearances, that’s on purpose. They don’t like having their picture taken and though Buteux talks about the processes involved in putting IV and the already-in-the-works V together, who’s actually doing what and when is a mysteryThe Kings of Frog Islandseem to enjoy perpetuating. With good reason. Not only is a layer of murk fitting for their swampy thematic, but for an album where they’re asking (telling, really) their listeners to take in on as a whole instead of each track as an individual piece, a bit of meta-vagueness seems only appropriate.

Still, Buteux Watson may have had a hand in here as well — remains forthcoming as regards the making of IV and the intent and concepts at work behind that album, while also giving a hint at what V might bring upon its arrival, which could be as soon as later this year. You’ll find the complete Q&A after the jump. Please enjoy.

When did you start writing for the fourth album and what was the timeline on you getting to work on it and Mat leaving the band?

We started in 2009 during the mixing for KOFI III. Since the beginning of KOFI we have worked the same way, recording the next album while mixing the current, it helps with consistency. Dodge and I (Mark) go into the studio and jam, we record some live, some in layers, and some more experimental loopy stuff, but there are exceptions to this process. We then spend months organizing it, overdubbing guitars, percussion, ahhs and sometimes bass. Usually it takes about four sessions to get enough tracks together to pick the most promising seven. Then we would get Mat in, sometimes he would listen in the studio and do a stream of consciousness vocal and lead guitar, we would then focus on it for a session until it was virtually done. Again, this is generalising, some tracks would be taken home, but as a producer I found it more productive to get it done there and then.

Sometime around KOFI II, Gavin Searle took over the engineering duties, allowing Dodge and I to relax and focus on the music more – this will all make more sense in a moment! During the process for KOFI IV, Mat decided to focus on Cherry Choke, prior to him hearing any of the new tracks. This decision was completely amicable; Gavin and I were having a great time recording A Night in the Arms of Venus with them at our studio, Amphibia II. Left with an unfinished album we decided to continue independently.

How did the songwriting process work this time around?

Generally, Dodge and I jam out ideas, then Dodge, Gavin, Tony and I would write, working on the tracks and developing themes. Tony would tend to do more in overdub sessions, then Gavin S., Dodge and I mix and tinker with things, Tony then gives it a once over and it gets finished. Gavin Wright had a session with me where he played some of the Juno, then that has an impact on the songwriting, so songs are credited to all.

The album has such a laid back, jamming kind of feel. Were you conscious in writing of how the tracks played into each other?

Yes, again this all goes back to KOFI I. We became very aware of running order when mixing it, how to make it a journey. We had a few tracks there that were one into another – “The Longest Hour,” “Beyond the Revolution.” “Leone” was originally the intro to “Psychomania.” This followed through KOFI II; we start at two minutes to midnight and move through the night, a clock striking out midnight, then time slowing down until we get to “The Witching Hour,” The Kings bending space-time… KOFI III had the start with the witches and band being taken to a hanging; it ends with the crack of the noose. KOFI IV is less literal, we took time to blend the tracks, rather than choosing an order later on. We committed very early to the track list and set about making it flow. The extent of this commitment can be heard on “The King is Dead”; originally it was a full song but it didn’t quite work, so we kept the start and end, playing to bridge the new gap. Very challenging, but easier in a digital age.

When you were putting the material together, were you thinking of the individual songs, or of the album as a whole?

The album as a whole. Each album is a reaction to the previous. KOFI I sounded thin so I ditched the Strat and only played Gibson SG on II. KOFI II sounded slow and muddy, so the Strat came back out, the fuzz was put away and the tempo picked up for KOFI III. KOFI IV was an attempt to do what we do best, almost like a compilation, but it quickly became something else. We did want to get back to the variety of KOFI I but with the production values of KOFI III.

Tell me about writing “Long Live the King.” You chose that as the first music released from the album and it takes up a substantial portion of side B. How did the track come about?

It was the last track to be started for KOFI IV; we began on 11/11/11. We wanted it to be heavy and were quite emotionally charged. The guitar sound was immense, it felt like having the power of the sun in my hands, I hadn’t felt that good since the session when we recorded “Save Me.” Valve amps can be like that, I tend to work with what they give me, rather than trying to manipulate them, and that night it gave me fatness and tone. Obviously dropping four steps, using Orange amps and enormous drums happily narrows the options. We recorded just that one track in that session; a live guitar track with drums, and a second twinned overdubbed guitar hard panned the other side. Production-wise, we managed to capture the vibe of the night, very pleasing in that respect. It was a reaction to the rest of the album, doing what we felt was missing, and testing out the new recording gear.

I remember jamming around on the idea of “Gardenia,” it evolved into our own riff and structure. It was always going to be “Long Live the King.” We would have opened the album with it, but unusually the album order was already in place. Tony came up with the lead line, which I twinned, and the bongos were added later.

The video sums up our life in the studio, being a slave to those speakers. Originally, I had set up two 4×12 cabs and two amps via a splitter, but the Orange on its own sounded best.

What is the vibe like in the studio when the band records?

Good fun, we have been playing together since we were kids so we read each other well and know how to get on, but it can be very intense when jamming for hours, quite draining, so we know when to stop and have a break. In addition to the weekly studio time, we do a few all-night sessions each year, where we just play until the sun comes up, recording the good ideas as they happen.

We realised years ago that the first time you come up with and play an idea it’s the best it will ever sound. We don’t bring any riffs or specific ideas, Dodge hits the drums and I play, we grind out a tune and record it. That’s it. I couldn’t tell you how to play any of the Kings tracks, apart from overdubs we have only ever played most of them a few times.

Once we do record an idea we move into the control room, listen, and do a couple of quick overdubs. This gives us some light relief and we all get involved in the creative side. It’s the light after the shade of the volume of playing. The room shakes when we jam, then the calm comes in when we mix. The relaxed approach means others can drop in and out of the sessions as required, but there is a fair amount of time and personality management going on with this. Some of the Kings have never even been in the room at the same time…

How much is done live, and what’s the relationship between a song being composed and then recorded? How long is it generally from one to the other and how much is the material fleshed out in that time?

It all starts off as live guitar and drums. There isn’t any point in having bass, keyboards and vocals — you wouldn’t be able to hear it over the guitar — and it’s never proved to be productive in my sessions. To start we might say, “Have you heard this track / album / sound, etc.?” and then go and improvise on that theme, or we will have a specific agenda, like the album is too slow or too light and needs something else, so we write specific to that need.

Across all four albums, we have usually worked on the version recorded on the night it was conceived. It’s very rare to go back and rework an idea; it does happen, but very rarely. So we may jam on an idea for half an hour, record it, have a listen then either try again or start overdubbing. Usually it’s the first or second take that gets used. It may get heavily edited later on, but ideas that don’t make it past the first session don’t tend to get revisited, we have no babies, nothing is too precious to avoid the cull.

We do like the separation we can achieve by overdubbing, so once we have jammed an idea I may return to the control room while we lay down the drums, invariably this doesn’t quite sound as groovy as drums and guitar played at the same time, so it depends on the track being worked on.

Fleshing out takes longer; on the night I’d expect to end up with a right and left guitar part, all the drums minus some cymbals, a working structure, a rough mix, maybe some effects – ahhs, Juno, and if I’m playing bass then that’s done too. Vocal ideas tend to wait till later, but shakers, handclaps can sometimes get done. If a track gets this far, it’s usually a keeper. We have a simple philosophy; if we want a specific sound then we have to achieve that with what’s available in the studio, if we need a dog barking and there isn’t one with us… Gav does great animal noises.

In the next session we will clean up the tracks, find the heart of it, what its vibe or groove is, work round that, layer another guitar, clean chords, chime, wah, etc., then cymbals, vox guide and backing vox overdubs. We will never sound like Powertrip working like this — mistakes, bum notes, timing issues all get through to the end. We just have to mask them as best we can otherwise we’d never finish a song. It’s ended up being part of our charm! We will always be a garage band.

Each of The Kings of Frog Island’s four records seems to have a different personality within the same overall sphere of heavy psych and fuzz. How would you describe this album as fitting in with the other three, or is it something new for you entirely?

There was no master plan, but it did take a twist when Mat left, leaving big holes to fill, he has a great voice, wonderful lead tone and ideas. It was intended to be a return to the sound of KOFI I, but ultimately with the way we work the best tracks, the most cohesive ones, they are what you hear on the album. If a different mood had taken us then other unfinished tracks would have made it through and you’d have a heavier project. It was written for Mat to finish, and that left us with some strange challenges. “Long Live the King” was written and recorded knowing Mat wouldn’t be part of the Kings any more, and as such was finished quickly, playing to our strengths, knowing what was required and who could do what.

If it hadn’t sounded like KOFI, we would have released it under a new name. But KOFI is a collective and has had enough band members go through its doors to not be too precious about style and content; we are nothing if not varied within the psychedelic fuzz domain.

How did the decision to block the tracks into two sides (à la vinyl) come about and what was the ultimate philosophy behind presenting the record that way? Do you know yet when you’ll do a vinyl release? Would you be interested in any other physical format, like CD or tape?

No to CD and tape (8-track cartridge? Hmmm…). We would like to do vinyl, but we are now focusing on KOFI V. We have always wanted to do a Side A and B. Side B was closer to what we wanted to achieve, really blurring the lines between tracks. We used to listen to bands like The Orb, Orbital, and KLF so the idea of songs fading across each other sticks as an influence. The Kings’ original philosophy was a reaction against the longer tracks, we wanted to be a stoner Beatles, but we never got away from them despite our best attempts. Maybe it’s better to embrace it and enjoy it, when it’s relevant and it works. These specific tracks also leant themselves to this format; they seemed to have a natural flow.

What’s the status of KOFI V? Can you talk a bit about how new songs are feeling at this point?

KOFI V started a few months ago. Our approach has changed; we record a single track and work on it, developing it until its conclusion. We used to do three or four tracks in a session, and then develop them over the next few weeks, but at least two would be abandoned. So it’s more productive to jam, focus on the best idea and develop it quickly. The tracks are longer and heavier, we already have about 20 minutes for Side A and 15 for Side B. At this rate, it will be out by the end of the year.

Any other plans or closing words you want to mention?

We want to do another video, and we may do a few quick sessions to get something new out in between albums — have a bit of fun and let people hear what we’re thinking.

We’ve opened a Soundcloud account and have started putting up demos and early versions of songs from KOFI I. It’s still set to private, but we’ll be making it public and adding more tracks as we go through the archives.

It’s a great club to be part of, and one we enjoy sharing, so we need to develop on that idea. Thank you, stay amphibious, and long live the Kings!

IV on iTunes

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