One glimpse at frontman Vic Victor's upright bass and arsenal of tattoos might lead you to conclude that the Koffin Kats are rockabilly to the core. And, to a degree, you'd be right. But the Detroit trio has no problem changing up its mix of sounds, as evidenced by the particularly hard-charging punk/metal vibe of its latest album, Our Way & The Highway.
"I got into that hot-rod subculture, but as cool as it is, the older I got, the more I didn't want to be defined by the stereotype of what rockabilly is," says the singer/bassist. "Some people can make a living off it, but that's not me. I don't put a pair of creepers on and go out there on the dance floor. If a hair's out of place — I really don't give a shit."
Victor and his guitarist buddy Tommy Koffin were childhood chums who ended up putting the Koffin Kats together nearly a decade ago. While Victor readily admits they were pretty awful at first, there was no way that was going to stop them. Believing that the best practice is performing lots of shows, they quickly started booking gigs and had completed a West Coast tour within their first year together.
Victor says he discovered the upright bass while watching an episode of the Beavis & Butthead show that featured a clip of Reverend Horton Heat. It was love at first sight. Although he played the instrument in a variety of punk and rockabilly bands, the singing part came later. He didn't care much for his voice until he heard the Damned's 2001 album Grave Disorder, and realized he could sing a lot like their goth/punk frontman Dave Vanian.
"I realized, 'Oh cool, there's a register I can sing in,' and just kind of took it from there," he recalls. "After catching onto that record, I ended up getting the whole discography of the Damned, and I always appreciated his range of everything from lounge singer to punk rocker. That's what I've based my vocals on — being able to span that world."
The Koffin Kats were also prolific in the studio, releasing three albums in their first four years of existence, but didn't hit their stride until 2008's Drunk in the Daylight, where they really broke out their punk rock pedigree and cranked it up to 11. Apparently the album's title was indicative of their circumstances.
"The songs are almost a recollection of that time. We were on unemployment and Tommy lived next to a liquor store. We would get the unemployment check, cash it, get some cases of PBR and sit in the living room under various influences watching Motley Crue and Family Guy DVDs while dicking around with our guitars.
"We were getting bored with just doing rockabilly, and wanted to branch out a little bit," explains the singer. "I've always appreciated bands that take that jump, who start out from one thing and end up sounding like something else, while still paying homage to their roots."
The band definitely accomplishes that on its latest album, which was influenced by all the Motorhead (listen to the thrash pulse of "The Way of the Road") and stoner metal albums they'd been listening to prior to making the record.
In addition to a marked musical evolution, Our Way & the Highway represents a significant personnel change: Tommy Koffin left the band in 2009, not long after recording Forever For Hire, and its successor represents the band's first full-length with Ian Jarrell, the guitarist's handpicked successor. (The group also recorded a split LP with 12 Step Rebels shortly after Jarrell joined.) The resulting album is loaded with songs, like "Boozincrossanation," "It Happens Every Night" and "Keep It Coming," that would make a perfect road mixtape.
"We really wanted to make it a driving, rocking record," says Victor. "We just wanted to get a good groove to it. And we've actually seen a wider fan-base pop up since the release of it. I mean I'm sure it helps out that it's better distributed than any release to date, but it's cool because we're seeing a lot of people that would normally not give two shits about any type of 'billy music."
That's not altogether surprising. Though the Koffin Kats' rhythms still swing like Stray Cats, the overall sonic intensity has more in common with Zach De La Rocha and the Cramps. It's a pretty hard record to deny.
"That's what we wanted to go for," Victor affirms. "Someone can listen to it and not discriminate against it right off the bat. Plus, when we're writing songs, we tend to keep them short so the crowd's attention deficit doesn't kick in."