Since the early 1980s, Clay Harper and Kevn Kinney have left an indelible mark on Atlanta’s musical landscape. Harper first garnered significant attention as the voice behind the Coolies’ twisted and bombastic second album, 1988’s Doug: A Rock Opera And Comic Book. Over the years, he has released various collaborations with the likes of Wreckless Eric, Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground, and Ian Dury. He’s also a co-owner of the Fellini’s Pizza and La Fonda Latina restaurant chains.
Over the years, Harper has rolled out a string of solo recordings leading up to his fifth and latest album, They’ll Never Miss A Five, a meticulously paced and quietly grand meditation on growing up near the Georgia and Alabama border.
Kinney, of course, is the frontman for Southern alternative rock juggernaut Drivin N Cryin. He has also released various solo recordings including his 1990 solo debut, MacDougal Blues, The Flower And The Knife (with the Allman Brothers’ guitarist Warren Haynes), and A Good Country Mile with The Golden Palominos.
Together, Harper and Kinney appeared on Not Dogs … Too Simple (A Tale of Two Kitties) and The Slippery Ballerina — both fall somewhere between children’s albums and rock operas. They also collaborated on the original score for a film that does not exist, titled Main Street.
After pairing up for a two-night stand at Gallery 378 in March, Harper and Kinney sat down to talk about their long history together.
Chad Radford: How did the two of you meet?
Clay Harper: We’ve known each other for at least 35 years — through Fellini’s, I guess.
Kevn Kinney: Fellini’s was the first restaurant I ever went to in Atlanta. I came to town in 1982. I was living on a campground in Marietta, in a trailer in someone’s backyard. We came into Atlanta and we were like “Fellini’s Pizza! That looks cool!” It was the first time I ever had pizza by the slice. Why would you want just a slice? In Wisconsin, where I’m from, everyone gets their own pie.
I’m actually one of the few people who never worked at Fellini’s.
CH: Tim Nielsen, Drivin N Cryin’s bass player worked there in the beginning. He was really good and competent. I always liked working with Tim.
When did you start playing music together?
KK: We haven’t ever played music together. Clay would give me some basic demo tracks and I would sing over them. Then when they came out there were all of these instruments and all of these people on them. I didn’t know Moe Tucker was going to be on Not Dogs. And I didn’t know Ian Dury would be on there.
CH: Ian did his parts in London. He already had cancer. And Slippery Ballerina had Ian and Wreckless Eric.
I remember when we were on the way to Ian’s to record. Eric was late, his car was fucking up and running out of gas, and I had him pull over because I had a full on panic attack. We stopped into a pub and the Stranglers were playing there that night. I really wanted to stay for the show!
You mentioned Main Street, which is a soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist.
CH: When I was a kid, I listened to things like How The West Was Won, and sometimes they had little snippets of dialogue. So I wanted to do a record like that, but there was no movie. I liked the idea of “the original soundtrack” and “motion picture” — I liked using those words. Then I wrote these songs that sort of fit together. You think there must be a story there, but really I was interested in working with Kevn on something that was different for both of us. At that time I wasn’t that far removed from the Coolies, and it was so loud. This was a different story.
KK: We were both getting divorced at the same time, so we were commiserating and we were both staying at the same broken down hotel, the Biltmore Hotel, when it was like a ghost town. They had like eight rooms open.
CH: Kevn got divorced a little before me. So when I had to leave my house and go stay in a hotel, not only did Kevn recommend the Biltmore, he recommended the room with the best water pressure in the shower.
I remember one day seeing Kevin walking down Ponce de Leon, so I picked him up and said “What are you doing?” He said he was getting married the next day, so we went and had a little bachelor party, just me and him!
KK: He took me to the Clermont Lounge at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
That was the bachelor party.
Kevn, I recently found a CD by your late ’70s/early ‘80s Milwaukee punk band, the Prosecutors.
KK: [He looks at the CD.] Look how cute I was!
That cover photo was taken at a little basement club called The Starship. Everybody played there: X played there, we opened for the Ventures there. It was only there for a few years. That stage is actually where Liberace started, back when it used to be a steak joint. One night, maybe on the night of this photo, Frank Zappa walked in and sat at the bar. There were like four people there that night.
I don’t know if the Prosecutors ever played for more than like 12 people. And that was usually other musicians who were also playing that night [laughs].
Let’s talk about the artwork for They’ll Never Miss A Five. My mind starts connecting the dots when I look at it … The ice machine is a nice touch.
CH: I asked Kosmo Vinyl to do the artwork. He asked, “Is it another record about a fucked up America?”
I said, “Yes, it is.”
There’s a line where I sing, “I found myself in Phoenix, Arizona living next to an ice machine.” I was remembering some shit hotels where I’d stayed, and he picked up on that. He also picked up on another song that says, “She looked up at the clock and said, ‘oh boy.’” He loves lyrics, and he picked up on them.
What about the rest of the artwork?
CH: I’m not sure what in the Hell is going on there, but it’s his vision of a fucked up America, and I think it’s fantastic. It blew my mind when I saw it. He’s a serious artist, and he’s never done anything halfway.
You didn’t give him any other direction on the artwork?
No, you don’t give Kosmo direction, you’re just sorta grateful that he’s working with you.
The music feels like a bit of a departure for you? It is spacious, but also up front — I hear a bit of an Ozark Mountain folk music influence in there.
CH: You don’t want to just recreate what you’ve already done, right? Kevin’s got it right, he says it sounds like “crystal meth music” [laughs].
It reminds me of some Ozark music in how it’s spacious, almost folk music, and it feels like a more ethereal approach.
CH: I’m not quite sure what ethereal means.
I mean it has a rich atmosphere; the sounds are bright and up front, but there’s space between the sounds.
I look for as much space as possible, but I still try to find a groove. In some songs it’s there, and in some songs it’s just kind of implied.
KK: My brother Mick Kinney plays Fiddle and banjo on the record. He’s an established musician — playing music from a different era. He’s five years older than me.
CH: He got what I was going for. The space was premeditated, and I didn’t really have to tell him anything.
KK: Our great grandfather, or our grandfather’s uncle or brother, I don’t know … GC Kinny was a tent preacher in the Missouri area. I wonder if some of that Ozark Mountain sound creeped in through that.
I first noticed it with the album Bleak Beauty, which moves like the opening scene from The Godfather. It tells you right up front, this is going to take some time.
CH: I worked my way up to that, and I’ve been going in that direction. Having a studio in your house and being able to take as much time as I want with it is how I found what I was looking for
KK: And if I could interject, Clay will record an entire album. It’s done. Then he’ll scrap it and start over from scratch.
CH: It’s kind of like a puzzle. Kevn has heard an earlier incarnation of almost every song on the album that’s been recorded and re-recorded and changed. Then I’ll go with the lyrics and a melody, and it just doesn’t sit right when I try to mix it. Then I’ll take it out and find what does sit right. Then I’ll start over again.
KK: It’s something you wish you could do, but you can’t do it with a rock band when you have a record deal. You wind up with an albatros — that one record where the drums were done a month ago. It’s not mixed, and it’s not working. It becomes the song that nobody likes, and you’re never gonna play it live. It could have been great, if only you could go back and record it again.
Have you considered that? Cheetah Chrome did that with the Dead Boys’ Young Loud and Snotty. He took “Hey Little Girl” off of the record entirely. He said he hated that song, and it was never supposed to have been on the record.
KK: If I could actually stop writing I would do that. I have wanted to re-record Fly Me Courageous because it has that ‘80s production. It says “play loud” because you have to … The quieter you play it, the worse it sounds. It sounded great on the radio because they compress it and match it with everything else.
I have never seen Fly Me Courageous on vinyl.
It came out on vinyl with a white sleeve only with a sticker. I drew all of the covers. It’s a very limited edition of maybe 200 of them. I had about 50 of them but I think someone found my storage locker. All of a sudden I was like, “Where are all of my CDs?” Then they all showed up for sale online.
CH: I have listened to Kevn’s upcoming album a million times, and it’s great. You shouldn’t do anything but move forward with that record.
KK: It’s called Think About It. It has two versions of “Think About It,” and neither one has anything to do with the other. It’s gonna come out someday. The first side was recorded three Januarys ago, right before the pandemic started in March. I recorded with Kevin Scott, Darren Stanley, and Peter Buck. We cut a lot of it in Athens over four days, then the pandemic hit. I finished it myself using Brad Morgan from the Drive By Truckers.
I’m singing very low, very quiet, and there’s a lot of spoken word on it.
You’ve been doing spoken word for a long time. There’s a spoken word piece on the Prosecutors CD.
KK: I just read that here in the liner notes, and I’m like, “What is that?” My friend Clancy Carroll put that out on Splunge Communications, Inc. He’s one of the only guys who’s trying to preserve Milwaukee music. One of the reasons that I like to put a lot of stuff out is because I’ve run into people who had a punk band in the ’70s/’80s, they made records, and they’ve got the tapes, but they won’t let you listen to them because they think someone will come along and pay them $20,000. But it’s just gonna wind up in a Goodwill someday. Just let us hear it.
There are so many great freaking records underneath people’s beds. Clancy has wrestled some great stuff away for that label.
My new record definitely has a side one and a side two side. Side one is Kevin Scott, me, and Darren Stanley. Side two is me, David Barbe, and Laur Joamets.The string section will make you laugh and it will make me cry. It’s Kevn Kenny, but presented in a different way.
Peter Buck plays his original R.E.M. Rickenbacker on it. He also does some e-bow stuff and puts a lot of atmosphere on the record.
Tommy Dean from Thermos Greenwood plays bass on Clay’s new record.
CH: I really love that guy, and to me, that’s what the record is about, being Southern. He’s a Southern gentleman. Super talented, super gracious, and has a style that’s halfway between upright and electric.
Can we talk about the song called “One More Lie And Cry About Everything?”
CH: That’s one of my favorite songs on the record, and it really means the most to me. And it has a big, heavy hip-hop beat that’s implied.
That’s one of the songs that I scrapped completely at least three times, and then recorded it again with a completely different set of lyrics and a different melody, and decided I didn’t like it and started over and found this version.
It means so much to me because I stuck with it enough to find it. I didn’t give up on it, so it’s like the dog that got away in the campground in Colorado and somehow made its way back home.
I like the song “They’ll Never Miss A Five” as well. When I was 16 years old, I worked at a Magic Market in Newnan, Georgia. The songs is loosely about a woman who worked there with me.
She was a victim of smalltown, Georgia, and she got through it the best she could. We worked in a Magic Market — later called Quickie Food Store. The song starts off: “She was selling head and day-old bread,” and that’s exactly what she was doing.
I was a drunk kid,16 at most, and I worked at several Quickies. They’d just leave you in there alone all day and then threaten you with inventory. It was a vague threat, like inventory is gonna show everything I’ve done, and all of my shoplifting is gonna come to light, and my manager would walk in with the cops.
The song is about that. “I ain’t lived this life to be some nobody’s ex-wife.” That’s her. “I’m gonna take what mama leaves and I’ll be gone.” It’s an endless, fruitless struggle to escape your shit reality in a convenience store in Noonan, Georgia.
So “They’ll Never Miss A Five” is about stealing a $5 dollar bill from the register.
She stole five bucks, and she figured they’ll never miss a $5. She skimmed a bit. I went a little further.
This interview appeared in the April issue of Record Plug Magazine.
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