Fun Comes First For 6X
by Jeff Clark
She might not know it, but quite honestly, in this town of jaded attitudes and shady motivations it's been a damn delight following Lara Kiang's trajectory up Atlanta's rickety rock 'n' roll flagpole. Six years ago she was a cheeky fan girl who wanted to be in a band rather than just tag along after them. In the short-lived Hummer, she strapped on a guitar and started doing just that, if somewhat tentatively. By the time she hooked up with 17 Years she was writing her own songs, co-hosting 88.5's "Georgia Music Show," and experiencing the joys of booking bands during a stint at Atlanta's Cellar Door office. Now in 6X, she's finally fronting her own band -- one that, like 17 Years, has become one of the city's musical bright spots. Through it all, her enthusiasm for playing and writing has ostensibly remained constant, while her confidence has grown.
"I was very self-conscious in 17 Years, that my songs were not 'punk enough,'" she confides. "There was definitely a different atmosphere to the entity of 6X. The chemistry is much more laid back and positive..."
"That's the first time I've ever been associated with that word," proclaims Rob Gal, 6X guitarist, producer, and Atlanta music scene veteran.
But if "positivity" sometimes implies a zombie-like new age spiritualism, with 6X it simply means that having fun comes naturally. "It's really good," stresses Kiang. "Every time we got together to practice, we would end up laughing half the time."That sense of fun invades their music, too, of course. Sassy pop-punk that fans of The Muffs or Joan Jett would find common ground in, it's really not that far removed from what 17 Years were doing, minus the Social D adrenalineage and clashing male-female vocal interplay. "I think there's more variety in what 6X does," maintains Gal. "17 Years was more straightforward, especially guitar. It was just chunka-chunka-chunka."
The origin of the band goes back to what was seemingly the end of 17 Years in late '97, when singer, songwriter and band leader Scooter Collins moved out of town. Kiang and 17 Years drummer Tim Johnston wanted to keep playing together, and Kiang already had a half dozen or so songs sketched out that had been rejected for 17 Years for not being "punk enough." They went to Gal, who had produced them in the past, for advice; he eventually ended up joining the band as their lead guitarist.
"It was just gonna be a practice thing, until they could find somebody they wanted," explains Gal, who has played with Coolies, Anne Richmond Boston, and Ottoman Empire.
"We were ideally looking for another bass player that could write songs and sing," says Kiang, hinting that 6X might have turned out even more akin to 17 Years than it ended up. But after Gal firmed up his role on guitar, and the Mouthbreathers' Kevin Rej was recruited to play bass, they decided to concentrate more on developing and fleshing out Kiang's songs and make that the focus of the group.
"Rob helped me arrange all of these pieces of songs that I had, and made them real songs rather than the standard formula that I learned from 17 Years," says Kiang. "I felt like it was OK for me to come in and say, 'I need help.' Rob did basically all of the arranging, and Tim also, they would both put in parts I thought they were [songs before]," she laughs, "but apparently not. 'Cause they sound really different now!"
"A lot of times Lara'll come in with like a verse or the melody, and we'll figure out how to put the puzzle together. So, she always is the instigator, if nothing else."
Sporadically spotted dancing in the crowd at the band's shows, Amy Ray signed 6X to Daemon after last year's Candler Park Festival, and Kung-Pow!, their debut album, was released this spring. If not as urgent and charged as 17 Years' material, Kung-Pow! is a solid, commendable presentation and surely one of '99's best Atlanta releases. Songs like "Lost Your Chance," "Broken In," "For Your Amusement," "Bowling Baby," "Far Away" and "Rock Out" are incredibly concise, catchy confections that beg for jukebox hit-dom and in a proper world would find it. Even the new-wavey danceteria version of the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" (I thought it was a cover of "Peace Frog" at first!) works, because instead of tossing off the song as a joke it's intended as sincere homage, and as in the rest of the disc Kiang's vocals are a credible combination of heartfelt yearning and youthful frolic. As good as the band works as a whole, it is her personality and Gal's guitar mastery (when he avoids unnecessarily overplay) that are 6X's aces.
Much as the tunes catch your ears, the bold, brightly-colored cover to Kung-Pow! catches your eyes like a Adam West Batman brawl. The work of accomplished graphic artist Rej, the splashy, cartoonish artwork may lead one to believe that 6X is brethren of Guitar Wolf and Shonen Knife, what with its Oriental language characters seemingly spelling out the song titles, among other things. Imagine my disappointment to learn that it's all gobbledygook.
"A lot of good intentions went into the artwork," confesses Kiang, likely the only half-Chinese, half-Jewish American musician the Atlanta scene has produced. "I asked my dad to write down the Chinese characters, the actual translations [of the song titles]. But the Chinese language is very metaphoric and symbolic. It's not like 'A-B-C-D,' and that makes a word. The symbols create meaning, and you know, the meaning translates into the actual word. So, I wanted my dad to write 'em down I had actually asked my dad to write things out for me before, and they ended up being tattooed on my body, so I was surprised that he actually would do this for me!"
Alas, they waited until the last minute to put together the cover art, and as with most last-minute projects, disaster struck. Lara had gone to San Francisco for a vacation and told her dad to fax the translations to Kevin, who was designing the cover. "I waited until really the last minute to get this thing designed," says Rej, a man who used to frequently drop his pants as a member of long-gone Atlanta band Dead Elvis. "I had a deadline, it was due like the next morning, and Lara's dad faxed me the translation at like 10:30 at night. I get to the computer about midnight, pick up this fax, and start working, and I get halfway through it, couldn't read it, and I didn't wanna call him at one a.m., two a.m., saying, 'What's up with this? I can't read it.' And Lara's out of town, so I just did the best I could. So, it's close! And I was all liquored up, too"
And the band's name itself? Kiang goes off on a dubious tangent about wanting to choose an irrational number greater than four, while Gal cuts to the chase: like Kiang herself, "it's short and sassy." And, he adds, "It sounds like 'sex.' Or 'sucks ass'"
Yeah, well it sorta sounds like "success," too, and if they keep up their momentum they just might discover that's the translation that's most appropriate.
6X plays Aug. 21st at the Star Bar, along with the Stimulants.