TK & The Holy Know-Nothings espouse watering hole philosophy and gonzo honky tonk poetry on their sophomore full-length, The Incredible Heat Machine. The follow-up to the Portland, Oregon outfit’s 2019 debut, Arguably OK, keeps the songwriting personal though utterly relatable, ratcheting up the groove at intervals while also plumbing shadows created by neon beer signs and stage lights. If Arguably OK was a step through the batwing doors of frontman and principal songwriter Taylor Kingman’s saloon mind, then Heat Machine is the fete at its apex, populated with bravado, doubt, resolve, and even begrudged regret. Amplified and fuming from a diesel-powered gang of players, TK rakes back layers of road dust and bar sweat to exorcise such notions with barbed hooks that nevertheless tear clean and rattle long past the final note’s fade. Preparing for a series of shows with his partner, singer-songwriter Kassi Valazza, Kingman called from Portland to delve into his writing style, finding homes for songs, and what’s next for the Know-Nothings.
AI- Let’s talk about The Incredible Heat Machine— or the “haunted jukebox on wheels” as y’all refer to it! You wrote these songs while you were out touring for Arguably OK. So writin’ on the road agrees with you? I know some people, it doesn’t.
TK- Yeah! I think it ebbs and flows. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but that was a time it did. Some of the songs, I think the bulk of the songs were written in that process, but then there’s a few of ’em… “Frankenstein”, actually, is a pretty old song that didn’t have a home for a long time. We breathed some new life into it with this band.
I’m glad you talked about findin’ a home for it. I read an interview where you talked about writing and recording an album as a body of work versus just a group of songs. So “Frankenstein” was just waitin’ for the right album to come along?
That’s the way it felt for me. It’s been through multiple projects over the years, and for some reason it just never felt right. But finally with this band, it seems to fit.
Was Heat Machine conceived that way? Did you know, “I’ve got a definitive idea of where this is gonna go,” or did it just happen to be that all of these songs or the rest of the songs came about at the same time and lent themselves to that same feel?
As I’m always writing, I’m also trying to figure out what to do with other songs, that haven’t found their place yet. So I’m always juggling different collections of things and tryin’ to see if they do embody something together. I knew that after making Arguably OK, I was lookin’ at the collection of songs that I wanted to use and it just seemed to fit with that title. This one seems to be like a little bit more boogie-focused and a little bit funner maybe to me. I just really wanted to focus on the band and The Incredible Heat Machine seemed to fit that.
You talk about boogie– and there is some boogie in there– but you really dive to the bottom on some of these songs. Some of these are just heart-wrenching and very powerful. “I Don’t Need Anybody” comes to mind right off the top of my head. “Laid Down & Cried”, I probably could have written myself in my ’20s when college was kickin’ my ass and everything else! Do you find that you have to balance out that kind of pain with some lighter rhythms?
I’ve found that it helps. It’s definitely helped me. I’ve always had a certain darkness in my music and when I was younger, it was less danceable, but I think as I’ve gotten older, I do like to juxtapose. It’s vitally important that I get these songs out and I express myself, but I also am trying to have a good time while I do that too. That’s a big part of this band. The material can go wherever it needs to, but the music we make while doing it seems to make us all happy too.
You’re in Portland, so you’re not as far away as you possibly could be from Macon, Georgia, but you’re pretty far! I don’t really know that area very well, but Bart Budwig is a name that has come up in conversation recently. He appears with you as well. You went and made a record with Bart at the OK Theatre. Tell me when you were there making this album?
We did it the same way that we did Arguably OK ’cause it just worked out great. We were able to do it super cheap, really fast, and all live. We go out to Enterprise, Oregon, which is almost as far east, as you can get in Oregon. It’s right across the border from Idaho. It’s a small kinda cowboy town, and we were able to just go out there and hole up in this theater that really, we just have to pay to keep the heat on. There’s just one bar in town right across the street. We’d just wake up every day and run the songs over and over again in that theatre. It also ruled ’cause we could listen to all the mixes back through the theatre speakers in the theatre seats every night at the end of it. That was always a good time! But Tyler Thompson, our drummer, is also our engineer, so he was the one makin’ the record. Bart Budwig is our very good friend and an amazing engineer himself and he assisted ’cause he knows that space. He lives in the theater. He’s also a fantastic songwriter!
As you say, you made it the same way you did with Arguably OK, but this time around, you may not have been as frantic. You found a way to slow things down and make things a little quieter for the recording process. I had a conversation with Luther Dickinson one time and it was about how all the great old-school rockabilly, rock n’ roll records just felt like this manic wildness. But in Sun Records, you had to play really, really quiet or everything would just bounce out of the microphone and they wouldn’t be able to capture it. So it was that strangeness of this crazy music that was actually quiet music. Is that something that you discovered this time around? That you were able to harness a different kind of energy playing quiet music?
Hmm. I don’t know. What I will say is that the difference is with Arguably OK, we had the entire album already mapped out and the order and all the transitions. We’d been playing it live all the way through. So whereas we didn’t know the space as well, we knew what the album was already. But next time goin’ in, I think we knew the space way better. We were able to get way better tones and knew what we were in for. But we only had a collection of songs. We didn’t know exactly how they all were gonna fit together, but we knew what songs were gonna make up that world.
I think that’s funny ’cause Heat Machine sounds completely designed to be the way that it is. That you didn’t walk in there with a fully formed plan, I find that that part amazing. From the parts to the lyrics, to the songs, to just the way everything comes together as a whole, I think it sounds really well thought out.
Well, right on, I’m glad it works out that way! I think if you pull your focus back far enough, you can let everything inform itself of what needs to be there. But we definitely went through a lot of iterations of how we wanted to piece it together until we finally arrived where we are now.
Are you concrete on what a song is gonna sound like before you get it recorded? Or do you as a performer, once you have that song immortalized on tape or on vinyl and you’ve heard it, then does it sort of become the way you do it?
I think it’s always changing in every single setting. I like to have a certain flexibility there. The essence of the tunes are pretty deliberately defined, but I’ll bring a song to the band with enough flexibility that these are very much arranged by the whole band. I bring the main seed, and I might have an idea of where I wanted it to go, but we always talk to each other and try out whatever we want and figure it out. And then we record that. But I’d say even after that, like when I listen back to recordings and how we play certain songs live now, they’re always changing. I like to let the song still be a live, living thing.
“I’m a train. I was built to fade away.” I love the title track and after listening to the album– and it’s something that I noticed on Arguably OK too when it first came out– you are an excellent hook, line & sinker writer. Maybe one of the best that are out there doing it right now. Is that how the song starts for you? Do you come up with that hook first or does it appear to you’re workin’ through the chord structure?
It’s kinda all the things depending on the day. I think that tune in particular– if I can remember writing it– especially the preprise thing ’cause that was what I wrote first, I didn’t know what to do with that song for so long. I didn’t wanna add anything to it ’cause it seemed to just dilute it or take it away. But once I turned it into more of a rock n’ roll song, which became “The Incredible Heat Machine”, the lyrics seemed to loosen up a little bit for that version. When I wrote that, that seemed to actually be a tune where I was sittin’ on the porch and it all kinda came out at once while I ran through chords on the guitar. That one seemed very natural, but sometimes I’ll be workin’ out just the music and tryin’ to add words, sometimes I’ll just be writin’. So whatever seems to be workin’ at the time!
What was your downtime like in 2020? Did you write during that point in time?
Is that the pandemic year? I’m so confused (laughs)!
Yeah, the spring and majority of the summer. I guess in the fall, folks really started rollin’ things back out to a degree, but I think spring and summer were still pretty sparse as far as events and bein’ out and about.
I definitely stayed busy playing music. I still stayed writin’ songs– probably a little slower than normal at first, but songs were still coming out. I spent a lot of time listenin’. I spent a lot of time listenin’ to Willie Nelson and Michael Hurley. I think I spent the most time just sitting alone with my guitar and [working] on some new techniques and getting a little closer to it. And then the other thing is that me and my partner, Kassi, got to finally work on some duo stuff we’d always been wantin’ to do, like just workin’ on our harmonies and stuff. We were figurin’ out a good amount of covers of Michael Hurley’s stuff ’cause we both love his music. I
I had seen that you perform with her quite a bit. I didn’t actually know there was a relationship between the two of you. So you’ve got that project that you’re working on as well?
What have you got lined up for the rest of the year and what’s coming next in 2022?
Once we get done with these two shows, we’re gonna hole up at the house I grew up in– it’s an old, hundred-year-old schoolhouse– and we’re gonna record some tracks with Kassi. The Know- Nothin’s and Kassi!