Bent Left's first show was March 7, 2003, at a paintball shack called Insomnia in Rolla, Missouri. The band celebrates its birthday one decade later on an equally punk stage: Art Closet Studios, a new all-ages venue in the back of a quiet pizza place, Open Fire Pizza, at 3951 Broadway.
Bent Left recently released Fabergé, a gruff, hooky album of politically charged songs that establishes the band as one of Kansas City's best punk acts. But the members also operate Club Mustache, an underground DIY venue; publish a zine; and run a community garden. How do young punks balance so much responsibility? The Pitch recently checked in with singer-songwriter-bassist William Malott.
The Pitch: Does it feel weird having been a band for 10 years? Does it make you re-evaluate things? Or does it feel good and proud, or both, or what?
Malott: For the past seven years or so, we've joked that doing this makes you twice as old in half the time. It's rare for me to take a step back and really evaluate my feelings because 10 years of touring and writing records numbs you to just about everything. I can honestly say, and I'm sure I speak for everyone, that it feels pretty great to still be traveling and making music with my best friends after 10 years.
What would you say are three or four of the most important things you've learned by being a band for a decade?
When we first started touring, I was 17 years old. We played up to the Northwest with a coolerful of clear liquors we'd poured into water bottles. Some Vietnam vet gave us a handful of weed outside the Black Forest Tavern in Eugene, Oregon. We nearly died at several points. We lived off of shoplifted tuna. We were having the time of our lives. Looking back on the early history makes me enormously thankful that I'm not in jail or dead or paralyzed, but it also gives me a great appreciation for everything that happens now. Bent Left has given me the ability to truly appreciate the present.
I guess the most important quality I've developed is humility. Playing music for us is a constant evaluation of our faults, in an effort to achieve some degree of perfection. Studio time has a great way of exposing everything you can't quite execute. Road time is an excellent reminder that, every now and then, no one really cares. Taking yourself too seriously has a way of crushing an effort like this, and maintaining modesty throughout has attributed to our longevity.
That constant evaluation of faults gives way to a drive to achieve at the next level. There are so many great bands around these days that if you aren't constantly pushing yourself to write, tour, record and generally refine your craft, you will be left behind. We've wallowed in obscurity our entire career, and it's always been the internal progression that keeps it fun and interesting. The drive to create and develop, both personally and musically, is one of the best qualities Bent Left has given me.
Fabergé is a pretty political punk record, or at least compared with, like, the Ramones or something. There are lots of academic-sounding lyrics: "Professora Emeritosa," "Byzantine Horlogerie," "Transpecies Dysphoria Appreciation." What are some ideas you're trying to get across?
All of our lyrics are written by our drummer, Josh [Nelson]. He is a very smart guy and is able to translate intelligence into art in ways that have consistently impressed me for 10 years. That said, a huge part of what Bent Left wants you to take away from our music is empowerment. I love the idea of a group of friends each listening to Fabergé and then getting together to discuss its sociopolitical implications. Punk-rock book club for drunks.
After the record was written and recorded, I spent a few months working in the Berkshire Mountains and wrote at least three different interpretations for each song. Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder here, and I feel like there are points made throughout the record that will trigger all kinds of varying neurons in different folks.
For me, the record examines the artist's place in a culture where success is based on the accumulation of power and influence. Scraping by on the fringe of society and performing at the center of it simultaneously allows for a unique examination from the inside out and vice versa. The artist's existence is a fragile one but, like Peter Carl Fabergé's eggs, it's beautiful, priceless and defines how our generation will be viewed by history. The main thing I hope Fabergé accomplishes is to help people go from blaming their problems on systemic forces to focusing their improvement efforts inwardly on themselves, their families and their communities.
I hear echoes of bands like Against Me on Fabergé — punk but with sturdy, memorable hooks. But maybe you hate those guys? Just curious what kind of punk you gravitate toward, and what kind of nonpunk music you gravitate toward.
We are all huge Against Me fans. I've always loved the simplicity of a sturdy fist to the jaw, and their music has that quality. The closing track of Fabergé is actually a sort of response to the response to Tom [Gabel, Against Me singer-guitarist] coming out as transgender.
I will be the first to admit that I do not have the most diverse musical knowledge. I can't name 60 percent of the shit I listen to. I can tell you, I started digging Lagwagon, NOFX, the Vandals and Green Day around third grade; learned to play bass with Miles Davis and Mozart in sixth grade; got to see Pearl Jam in seventh grade; and went to see AFI, Against Me, Anti-Flag, the Code, the Explosion, Bouncing Souls and a ton more in high school.
These days, it's our contemporaries that inspire me. The Rackatees and Smash the State are local bands that recognize the importance of community in a beautiful way. I was at Making Movies' record-release show recently, and the level of professionalism those guys display is amazing. The skill and precision demonstrated by bands like Mr. History and Diverse is always fun to watch. I got to see Propagandhi in Florida last year, and I don't think there are enough hours in my life to practice that much.
I also think that despite its intellectual qualities, Fabergé is more accessible musically than the average punk record. Is that something you aim for, to make the music accessible to audiences outside of the usual punk crowd?
Accessibility is something we definitely discussed while writing and recording Fabergé. It was sort of a make-or-break record for us. This is our eighth release, and we have never quite pulled it off before. None of us are great musicians or singers, and we've just sort of grown up playing together. This is not a formula for instant success, but as we've aged, I think we are slowly starting to master the sound we've always looked for.
Interesting that you say it's accessible despite its intellectual tendencies, because that's one of the underlying problems we are trying to address. Our society has veered so far from celebrating intelligence that smart people are looked down upon as uncool in a culture where the blingiest car bullshit or new dance move is more important than developing one's ability to understand and solve life's basic academic challenges.
How's Club Mustache going? What are your thoughts on the state of punk in KC at the moment?
Club Mustache is running strong in its fifth year, and the spring is filling up as we speak. When we moved into our current place, the basement was just too perfect not to be a show space. It was pretty messy, so we spent two months cleaning and building it and had our first show on July 24, 2008. We'd had the opportunity to tour Japan a little while before that and modeled it off the Japanese venues we had played. We wanted to bring a degree of professionalism to the basement-show culture and make it a consistently great experience for the bands.
When we started doing shows, I think Kansas City was in need of a DIY space with standards that consistently brought in good acts. These days, there are great places, like the Roost, that have stepped up to the plate and are doing amazing things for the house-show community. There are also a few all-ages spaces opening now, like Art Closet Studios and FOKL. We've needed places like this for a while to encourage younger bands to develop. I am hoping these new spaces will help bridge the gap between the younger crowd and the bar crowd to give KC a more well-rounded support structure for local artists.
You also have a community garden and a newsletter-magazine thing. In some ways, it seems like Bent Left is kind of an extension of a large movement that you are working toward. Can you elaborate on that?
Bent Left has always been the part of my life I'm most excited about. We've been together through schools and jobs, always maintaining a drive behind the band, and have taken our extracurricular development seriously throughout. When we got back to KC from a disastrous eight-month tour in 2008, we came home to an amazing group of friends and moved into a nice building with great neighbors. For the first time in our lives, we were out of school, 98-percent broke and had nothing to do but play music. That's when we moved 400 pounds of dirt out of our basement to open Club Mustache, we tilled up a 1,200-square-foot plot of land in our back yard to plant a garden with our friends, and that's when the Insider's Guide to Midtown Mayhem was born. All of our projects are extensions of the band and who we are as people.
The constant traveling we've been lucky enough to do with Bent Left has given me a great appreciation for hospitality. Literally thousands of people have put us up and taken care of us over the years. Complete strangers have brought us into their homes, fed us, drank with us and offered everything they had to keep us going for that one extra day. We are trying to give that sense of belonging back, in as big a way as possible to both Kansas City and the national punk-rock community.